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On Human Rights, America Leads, but Not by Example

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“The rhetoric we’re seeing right now … of who belongs, and why they belong, is something that is extraordinarily painful,” said Bhargava, one of the USCIRF commissioners appointed by Pelosi, who served in the Department of Justice under Barack Obama. “If we aren’t able to find ways in which we hold up our pluralism, our diversity … as a strength, and instead use it as a way to divide, I think we’re in great trouble.”

The United States has gone through previous periods of contradiction between its treatment of human rights at home and abroad. During World War II, as Allied forces fought the Nazis, the U.S. government forced Japanese Americans to live in isolated internment camps. The Nazis were inspired by U.S. laws enforcing racial segregation, restrictions on immigration, and anti-miscegenation. Even as the United States was fighting one of the most evil regimes in history, its could not escape its own jaundiced view of liberty.

So often, these conflicts between American messages about human rights at home and abroad have involved immigrants—how the country welcomes, or excludes, people who wish to be part of the nation’s grand experiment in freedom. The Trump’s crackdown on immigration, and especially those seeking asylum, is part of what alarms Bhargava. “When we are seeing the kind of persecution and violence that we’re seeing around the world, the idea that we would close off America, and close off our borders, to people who are really trying to find safety and community here—to my mind, it’s not part of the ways in which this country was born, and how it has found its strength over time,” she said.

Pompeo’s new Commission on Unalienable Rights has a lofty mission: Members have been charged with providing “fresh thinking about human rights … where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights, to which Lincoln called us at Gettysburg and to which King called us while standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C.” In one sense, this aspiration to grand thinking is definitional to the American project—in keeping with Trump’s slogan, it is part of what makes America great.

But in the end, a nation is not judged by its conferences and commissions. As the United States renews its commitment to promoting religious freedom around the world, it remains tortured by conflicts at home. As Bhargava put it: “America, like many places around the world, has work to do.”

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