Volume 110

Human Rights Originalism

by Katharine G. Young

Are human rights to be found in living instruments and practices that adapt to changing circumstances, or must they be interpreted according to their original meaning? That question, so heavily debated in the context of the rights of the U.S. Constitution, was never seriously on the table until 2020. But when former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for “fresh thinking” about human rights, and its connection with “our nation’s founding principles,” he brokered a return to two landmark instruments of human rightsthe Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. His Commission on Unalienable Rights obliged, presenting the familiar tropes of fixed sources, venerated authorship, and national identity, in order to accomplish a drastically different presentation of the meaning of human rights. The end result is an act of fusionthe powerful political and cultural valence of America’s constitutional originalism, applied to the human rights of American foreign policy. 

This Article identifies this innovation as “human rights originalism.” Although the Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights has, at least for now, been shelved, human rights originalism may be one of the most enduring legacies of the Trump Administration. As an interpretive theory, human rights originalism promises many of the same benefits as its constitutional counterpartsimplicity, popular reach, and control of rights’ unruliness and proliferationthis time wrested from unaccountable United Nations (U.N.) institutions and experts rather than courts. As a substantive departure from contemporary human rights, human rights originalism elevates the importance of religious freedom and property rights, and provides a selective diminishment of women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and racial equality, mirroring and further cementing

current trends in originalist constitutional doctrine. The four standard epistemic communities that supply “meaning” to human rightsin the international, comparative, transnational, and philosophical domainsare all rejected by originalism, just as those domains are themselves inimical to it. 

This homegrown form of human rights argument is significant for human rights law and foreign policy, but so too is it significant for originalism itself. In propelling originalism into the uncompromisingly global domain of human rights, originalism’s proponents expose the nationalism and exceptionalism that are perhaps its most unsettling features. At the same time, originalism’s own malleability is highlighted in its adaptive-ness to the modern administrative state and the promises of the postwar period. 

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Young, Originalism