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America’s Founders defined unalienable rights as including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” They designed the Constitution to protect individual dignity and freedom. A moral foreign policy should be grounded in this conception of human rights.

Yet after the Cold War ended, many human-rights advocates turned their energy to new categories of rights. These rights often sound noble and just. But when politicians and bureaucrats create new rights, they blur the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights granted by governments. Unalienable rights are by nature universal. Not everything good, or everything granted by a government, can be a universal right. Loose talk of “rights” unmoors us from the principles of liberal democracy.

That’s why I’m launching a Commission on Unalienable Rights at the State Department, chaired by Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon and populated with scholars, legal experts and activists. The commission’s mission isn’t to discover new principles but to ground our discussion of human rights in America’s founding principles.

The commission is an advisory body and won’t opine on policy. My hope is that its work will generate a serious debate about human rights that extends across party lines and national borders, similar to the debate sparked by the human-rights panel Eleanor Roosevelt convened in 1947. The Commission on Unalienable Rights will study the document that resulted from that effort, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, along with our founding documents and other important works.

Its members will address basic questions: What are our fundamental freedoms? Why do we have them? Who or what grants these rights? How do we know if a claim of human rights is true? What happens when rights conflict? Should certain categories of rights be inextricably “linked” to other rights?

This may sound abstract, but the work is urgent. The human-rights cause once united people from disparate nations and cultures in the effort to secure fundamental freedoms and fight evils like Nazism, communism and apartheid. We have lost that focus today. Rights claims are often aimed more at rewarding interest groups and dividing humanity into subgroups.

Oppressive regimes like Iran and Cuba have taken advantage of this cacophonous call for “rights,” even pretending to be avatars of freedom. No one believed the Soviet call for collective economic and civil rights was really about freedom. But after the Cold War ended, many human-rights advocates adopted the same approach, appealing to contrived rights for political advantage.

The commission’s work could also help reorient international institutions specifically tasked to protect human rights, like the United Nations, back to their original missions. Many have embraced and even accelerated the proliferation of rights claims—and all but abandoned serious efforts to protect fundamental freedoms.

Human-rights advocacy has lost its bearings and become more of an industry than a moral compass. And “rights talk” has become a constant element of our domestic political discourse, without any serious effort to distinguish what rights mean and where they come from.

Since my teenage years as a West Point cadet, I’ve seen how special the American conception of freedom and human dignity is to the world. I studied the intersection of human rights law and warfare and confronted essential questions about human rights and how best to protect them. These central human questions about unalienable rights have profoundly affected my service as a soldier, lawyer, congressman, Central Intelligence Agency director and secretary of state.

My hope is that the Commission on Unalienable Rights will ground our understanding of human rights in a manner that will both inform and better protect essential freedoms—and underscore how central these ideas are not only to Americans, but to all of humanity.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future