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Section Table of Contents

  • Number of Visa Crime Investigations Opened Globally
  • The Idea of the Commission on Unalienable Rights
  • The Work of the Commission on Unalienable Rights
  • The Founders’ Recognition of Unalienable Rights
  • The Paramount Importance of Religious Freedom
  • Unalienable Rights and the Constitution
  • Unalienable Rights and the Evil of Slavery
  • Attempting to Expand Recognition of Unalienable Rights: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • American Moral Leadership: Advancing Unalienable Rights Abroad in Furtherance of U.S. Interests
  • Office of International Religious Freedom: Commitment to Unalienable Rights in Action
  • Religious Freedom Ministerials Bring Spotlight to Safeguarding Unalienable Rights
  • U.S. Secretaries of State Past and Present
  • Websites of Interest

In Focus

Number of Visa Crime Investigations Opened Globally

The Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) is the security and law enforcement arm of the Department. Visa crimes are international offenses that may start overseas, but can threaten public safety inside the United States if offenders are not interdicted with aggressive and coordinated law enforcement action. DS agents and analysts observe, detect, identify, and neutralize networks that exploit international travel vulnerabilities. In 2020, 1,056 new cases were opened. In addition, 1,484 cases were closed and DS made 19 arrests.

Bar chart summarizing the number of Visa crime investigations opened globally for fiscal years 2015 to 2020. Values are as follows: FY 2015: 1,235. FY 2016: 1,265. FY 2017: 933. FY 2018: 1,238. FY 2019: 1,042. FY 2020: 1,056. Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

DS investigated a transnational network of conspirators who engaged in a widespread visa fraud scheme to bring Armenian citizens into the United States by fraudulently claiming them as members of folk dance performance groups qualifying for P-3 “Culturally Unique Artist” visas. Stella Boyadjian, the criminal leader, pled guilty to unlawfully bringing in aliens and visa fraud. Boyadjian’s co-conspirator, Hrachya Atoyan, pled guilty to the same charges in October 2019. More information on the case can be found here. Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

In Focus

The Idea of the Commission on Unalienable Rights

Photo showing Secretary Pompeo holding a town hall meeting on the Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights in Washington, D.C., September 9, 2020. [Department of State]

Secretary Pompeo determined in 2019 that it was time for an informed review of the role of human rights in a foreign policy that serves American interests, reflects American ideals, and meets the international obligations that the United States has assumed. To that end, he established the Commission on Unalienable Rights, an independent, non-partisan advisory body created under the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972.

The Commission’s charge, as stated in its Charter, “is not to discover new principles, but to furnish advice to the Secretary for the promotion of individual liberty, human equality, and democracy through U.S. foreign policy.” The Charter further states that the Commission’s advice is to be “grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Such a mandate is in keeping with both the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The Declaration of Independence affirms that the primary task of government is to secure the rights inherent in all persons – America’s founders called them “unalienable rights” – while the drafters of the UDHR fully expected the diverse nations of the world to look within their own distinctive traditions to find support for the fundamental principles it outlined.

As elaborated by the Secretary, the Commission’s instructions were to focus on principle, not policy formulation. Recognizing that foreign policy must be tailored to changing circumstances and must necessarily consider many other factors along with human rights, the Commission did not seek to enter debates about the application of human rights principles to current controversies. Rather, it has striven to bring those principles into focus and clarify common misunderstandings and perplexities, with the aim of assisting those who bear the heavy responsibility for making principled and prudent policy decisions. It is the Commission’s hope that this Report will be helpful to the people who are engaged, day in and day out, with framing a foreign policy worthy of a nation founded on the proposition that all human beings are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights. The Commission also hopes that this Report will stimulate discussion among fellow citizens and friends of freedom around the world about securing human rights.

In Focus

The Work of the Commission on Unalienable Rights

Photo showing Secretary Pompeo and Commission Chairman Mary Ann Glendon, professor emerita Harvard Law School and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, participating in a session on “Unalienable Rights and the Securing of Freedom” in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 16, 2020. [Department of State]

The Commission was comprised of a variety of activists – lawyers, philosophers, humanities scholars, and non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders, who were ideologically, religiously, and politically diverse but of one mind when it came to the paramount importance of human rights in U.S. foreign policy. Public meetings began in October 2019 and proceeded once per month until February 2020. (A sixth meeting was planned but canceled on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.) The conversations – which included prepared remarks delivered by invited experts, followed by questions posed by individual commissioners – were wide-ranging. Topics included the nature of rights at America’s founding; the New Deal emergence of social and economic rights; the distinction between rights and freedom, as seen through the experience of African-American slaves; China’s Marxist, nationalist conception of human rights; the operations, priorities, and failures of American human rights NGOs; international treaties and international war crime tribunals; and more. Attendees were given a chance at the close of each meeting to ask questions of the Commission. At various times, the Commission heard the perspectives of members of the clergy; activists from both the right and left; congressional staff members; law professors; and representatives from foreign embassies. (Governments like Brazil’s had indicated an acute interest in the Commission’s work.) Members of think tanks and NGOs were also present.

In addition, commissioners received briefings from State Department personnel. Over the course of the year, they met with the Office of Legal Adviser; the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom; the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration; the U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela; and the Secretary of State himself.

Apart from these briefings, there were a series of administrative sessions, in which commissioners reflected on speakers’ testimony, assigned responsibilities for drafting various portions of the report Secretary Pompeo had tasked them to produce, and considered how to proceed.

Over the course of six months, what eventually emerged was a sketch of the Commission’s final report, the core of which would consist of parallels drawn between two forms of secular rights “scripture,” the American Declaration of Independence, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In particular, commissioners, in crafting the report, were attentive to the ways in which the ideals of the former declaration were reflected and refracted in the latter, a document written close to 200 years after the thirteen colonies’ break with Britain, at a time when America’s role in the world was vastly different, and vastly more consequential. The purpose of the report – the intended audience for which was not only the Secretary of State, but also the State Department, the American public, and international readers of various stripes – was not to discover new principles as much as to restate and clarify confusion regarding older ones that had been lost to what Abraham Lincoln referred to “the silent artillery of time.” In other words, the report would be “a return to basics,” but supplemented with fresh and penetrating insights.

In Focus

The Founders’ Recognition of Unalienable Rights

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson who was the principal drafter of the Declaration of Independence and later served as the first Secretary of State and third President of the United States.

The American experiment in free and democratic self-government stems from several sources. The 17th Century British subjects who settled, and built thriving communities along, the eastern seaboard of what they regarded as a new world brought with them a variety of traditions. These traditions both reinforced one another and pulled in different directions. Eventually, their intertwining gave rise to a distinctive and dynamic national spirit.

The colonists’ momentous decision in July 1776 to break away from England in order to govern themselves marked the first time in human history that an independent nation came into existence by affirming a universal moral principle that stood above, and served as a standard for, all government. That principle – that all human beings are by nature free and equal – has roots in beliefs about human nature, reason, and God and has profound ramifications for politics.

The main purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to announce the dissolution of the political bonds that tied the Americans to Great Britain and to proclaim that the 13 colonies “are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.” The Declaration justified these drastic steps by means of a long list of allegations of tyrannical rule directed against King George III. Americans sought for themselves what they viewed as the prerogative of all peoples: “to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” Owing in part to this conviction of the equality of peoples and their common interest in freedom, the Declaration views American independence also as a matter of foreign affairs, observing that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that” the American people “should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

In Focus

The Paramount Importance of Religious Freedom

Portrait of James Madison, also known as the “Father of the Constitution” who was the fifth Secretary of State and the fourth President of the United States. [Department of State]

Religious liberty enjoys similar primacy in the American political tradition – as an unalienable right, an enduring limit on state power, and a protector of seedbeds of civic virtues. In 1785, James Madison gave classic expression to its centrality in founding-era thinking in his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.” Quoting the Virginia Declaration of Rights’ definition of religion, Madison wrote, “we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, ‘that Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.’” Freedom of conscience in matters of religion is unalienable “because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men.” While government may practice intolerance and enforce orthodoxy, it can never, in Madison’s view, coerce true.

Madison maintains that religious liberty is also unalienable “because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator.” The duty to exercise reason in determining the content and scope of one’s religious obligations is akin to the duty to exercise reason in determining the content and scope of justice and the obligations that it imposes. Governments that respect unalienable rights preserve the ability of those who live under them to determine and pursue, consistent with the like right of others, what is fitting, proper, and good.

Some mistakenly suppose that so generous a conception of liberty must rest on skepticism about salvation and justice. Why give people freedom to choose if God’s will and the imperatives of justice are knowable? In fact, a certain skepticism is involved, but it is directed not at faith and justice but at the capacity of government officials to rule authoritatively on the deepest and greatest questions. The Madisonian view of religious liberty – like the view to which Jefferson gave expression in his Virginia Bill for Religious Freedom – proceeds from a theistic premise about the sources of human dignity even as it denies the state the power to dictate final answers about ultimate matters.

Drawing on the modern tradition of freedom and their Biblical heritage, the American founders saw themselves as intellectual and political pioneers of religious liberty. When in 1787, two years after his Memorial and Remonstrance, Madison and his colleagues at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia incorporated into the new charter of government a ban on religious tests for public office, America took a step that no other nation had ever taken. In 1788, at a parade in Philadelphia celebrating the ratification of America’s new system of government, Dr. Benjamin Rush, who signed the Declaration, marveled at the sight of the religious leaders of the city’s diverse faiths walking arm in arm. “There could not have been a more happy emblem contrived” of the Constitution, Rush observed, because it “opens all its power and offices alike, not only to every sect of Christians, but to worthy men of every religion.”

In Focus

Unalienable Rights and the Constitution

Painting showing U.S. President George Washington in consultation with his Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. A painting by Constantino Brumidi, circa 1790. [Getty Images]

The genius of the Constitution, which was drafted in 1787 and came into effect in 1788, was to establish a unique design for a government capable of securing the unalienable rights affirmed by the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution translates the universal promise of fundamental rights belonging to all persons into the distinctive positive law of the American republic.

According to the Preamble, the Constitution’s aims are manifold: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” In seven austere articles, the original Constitution – the drafting and ratification of which were themselves extraordinary acts of self-government sets forth institutional arrangements that enabled the people to rule themselves while respecting freedom and equality.

The primary means by which the Constitution enables the people to secure those blessings is through the structure it gives to, and the limitations it imposes on, government. Limited government is crucial to the protection of unalienable rights because majorities are inclined to impair individual freedom, and public officials are prone to putting their private preferences and partisan ambitions ahead of the public interest. This is not to deny the capacity for public-spirited action on the part of the people or public officials, but to recognize the need for institutional safeguards for rights because of the unreliability of high-minded motives. Nor is it to overlook that, within its limits, government must act energetically and effectively to secure rights.

The Constitution’s complex framework operates to constrain momentary whims and passing fancies of any given majority or officeholder; to cool the passions of public servants as well as of the people and redirect politics toward constitutionally appropriate goals; and to induce compromise among the factions that inevitably arise in free societies. Government so moderated is not therefore passive or sluggish. Indeed, the Constitution’s design aims to channel energy toward the vindication of rights.

In Focus

Unalienable Rights and the Evil of Slavery

Photo showing Frederick Douglass who, though born a slave, through the power of his oratorical gifts became an important influence on his countrymen, including President Abraham Lincoln, in winning recognition of the unalienable rights of black Americans, both before and after the abolition of slavery.

Prominent among the unalienable rights that government is established to secure, from the founders’ point of view, are property rights and religious liberty. A political society that destroys the possibility of either loses its legitimacy.

For the founders, property refers not only to physical goods and the fruit of one’s labor but also encompasses life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They assumed, following philosopher John Locke, that the protection of property rights benefits all by increasing the incentive for producing goods and delivering services desired by others.

The benefits of property rights, though, are not only pecuniary. Protection of property rights is also central to the effective exercise of positive rights and to the pursuit of happiness in family, community, and worship. Without the ability to maintain control over one’s labor, goods, land, home, and other material possessions, neither can one enjoy individual rights, nor can society build a common life. Moreover, the choices we make about what and how to produce, exchange, distribute, and consume can be tightly bound up with the kinds of human beings we wish to become. Not least, the right of private property sustains a sphere generally off limits to government, a sphere in which individuals, their families, and the communities they form can pursue happiness in peace and prosperity.

The importance that the founders attached to private property only compounds the affront to unalienable rights involved at America’s founding in treating fellow human beings as property. It also explains why many abolitionists thought that owning property was a necessary element of emancipation: only by becoming property-owning citizens could former slaves exercise economic independence and so fully enjoy their unalienable rights.

Respect for unalienable rights requires forthright acknowledgement of not only where the United States has fallen short of its principles but also special recognition of the sin of slavery – an institution as old as human civilization and our nation’s deepest violation of unalienable rights. The legally protected and institutionally entrenched slavery that disfigured the United States at its birth reduced fellow human beings to property to be bought, sold, and used as a means for their owners’ benefit. Many slave-owning founders, not least Thomas Jefferson, recognized that in the light of unalienable rights, slavery could only be seen as a cruel and indefensible institution. In contemplating slavery in his Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Nevertheless, it would take a grievous civil war, costing more American lives by far than any other conflict in the nation’s history, to enable the federal government to declare slavery unlawful. It would take another century of struggle to incorporate into the laws of the land protections to guarantee African Americans their civil and political rights. Our nation still works to secure, in its laws and culture, the respect for all persons our founding convictions require.

It has been the work of Americans down through the generations to understand that unalienable rights, realized in part in the privileges and protections of citizenship, apply to all persons without qualification. Far from a repudiation of, this progress in understanding represents fidelity to, the nation’s founding principles.

In Focus

Attempting to Expand Recognition of Unalienable Rights: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Photo showing French Thomist Jacques Maritain, one of the most highly regarded philosophers of the 20th Century, who had a role in shaping the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, imbuing it with intellectual depth and rigor not common in modern international affairs pronouncements.

Unalienable rights direct attention to the relation between citizens and the government to which they have consented. Yet as rights inherent in all human beings, they also have implications for the conduct of foreign affairs. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence was inspired in part by “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” which compelled the founders to “declare the causes which impel them” to vindicate their unalienable rights by setting up a new form of government.

The implications for foreign affairs of the nation’s grounding in human rights are more diffuse and indirect than they are for domestic affairs, but the self-evident truths concerning individual freedom and human equality on which the United States was founded nevertheless should inform and elevate America’s conduct in the world.

Perhaps the United States’ most explicit commitment to promoting abroad the rights all human beings share received expression in the undertaking that culminated in December 1948 with the approval in the UN General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By taking that step, the United States affirmed the correspondence between its founding convictions and the UDHR’s universal political standard. In the post–World War II, atomic-age world – rendered smaller and more interconnected by successive revolutions in transportation and communications – Americans embraced the obligation to foster, as the UDHR states, “universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Since then, much of American diplomacy can be seen as a struggle to integrate the obligation to advance human rights around the world with the variety of other obligations that go into the formation of a coherent foreign policy suitable for the world’s most prosperous and powerful liberal democracy.

The idea that certain principles are so fundamental as to apply to all human beings everywhere was, as we have seen, embedded in the American founding, and has an ancient pedigree in the world’s religious and philosophical traditions. Yet the question of what universality might mean in the modern world loomed large in 1945 when the newly founded United Nations embarked on the preparation of what was then called an “International Bill of Rights.” So large, in fact, that UNESCO convened a group of the world’s best known philosophers in 1947 to study whether an agreement on basic principles was “conceivable among men who come from the four corners of the earth and who belong not only to different cultures and civilizations, but to different spiritual families and antagonistic schools of thought.”

After consulting widely with Confucian, Hindu, Muslim, and Western thinkers, the UNESCO philosophers reported that “certain great principles” were widely shared, though “stated in terms of different philosophic principles and on the background of different political and economic systems.” Their survey indicated that some things are so terrible in practice that almost no one will publicly approve them, and that there are certain goods so widely valued that almost no one will publicly oppose them. That was enough, in their view, to make agreement on an international declaration possible. Such a document, they advised, should not aim “to achieve doctrinal consensus but rather to achieve agreement concerning rights, and also concerning action in the realization and defense of rights, which may be justified on highly divergent grounds.”

On December 10, 1948, the philosophers’ assessment was validated when the UN General Assembly approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights without a single dissenting vote.

In Focus

American Moral Leadership: Advancing Unalienable Rights Abroad in Furtherance of U.S. Interests

Photo showing President Reagan speaking in front of the Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate, in Federal Republic of Germany, June 12, 1987. [National Archives]

Following World War II, the United States took the lead in constructing an international order that reflected the commitments to freedom at the core of American constitutional government. With Europe’s infrastructure in ruins, Congress adopted the Marshall Plan in 1948, a massive program of economic aid aimed at restoring “conditions abroad in which free institutions can survive.” Explaining the need for such a program in his 1947 commencement speech at Harvard University, Secretary of State George Marshall said it was only “logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.”

Increased emphasis on human rights continued in the Reagan administration. Natan Sharansky wrote movingly of how the Russian translation of Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “evil empire” speech came to him and other jailed Soviet dissidents as a ray of hope in the darkness of their six- foot cells. “[T]he clear moral position of the West,” he said, meant that there could “be no more illusions about the nature of the Soviet Union….” The prisoners, using the secret means they had to communicate, “knocked from one cell to another by Morse [code]”; they “talk[ed] through toilets to say to one another the great day” had arrived.

President Reagan in June 1987 delivered a speech in Berlin during which he directly challenged Soviet dictator Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” These strong words were backed up by years of fortifying American military capabilities and constructively working toward strategic arms reductions with the Soviets. Late in 1989, citizens of Germany tore down the Berlin Wall and for the first time in nearly three decades could move freely from East to West. The reunification of Germany followed the next year, and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

In Focus

Office of International Religious Freedom: Commitment to Unalienable Rights in Action

Photo showing U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel D. Brownback delivering remarks to the media in Washington, D.C., June 10, 2020. [Department of State]

Secretary Pompeo in a speech on September 30, 2020 said, “(O)ur founders regarded religious freedom as an absolutely essential right of mankind and central to our founding.” He earlier this year in connection with the work of the Commission on Unalienable Rights had remarked “… it’s important for every American, for every American diplomat, to recognize how our founders understood unalienable rights.” Some elements of the State Department are engaged directly in making our most lofty ideals a reality for the American people and individuals throughout the world.

Established by law in 1998 and located within the Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, the Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) promotes the freedom of religion, conscience, and belief around the world. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback and Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Elon Carr travel widely and are strong, public advocates for religious freedom. A key responsibility of the Office is annual publication of the International Religious Freedom report, which describes the status of religious freedom around the world and informs the U.S. Government’s designations of countries and entities of particular concern and special watch list countries each year. IRF’s work is coordinated with that of regional bureaus and the Department’s broader efforts, which include more than $20 million in annual foreign assistance funds to advance global respect for religious freedom.

This past year, the Office has worked to serve the Department by developing the online distance learning course Promoting International Religious Freedom to explain why and how the United States promotes religious freedom worldwide, illustrate how religious freedom may be violated, and prepare U.S. personnel to engage with foreign interlocutors and religious actors on issues related to religious freedom.

In Focus

Religious Freedom Ministerials Bring Spotlight to Safeguarding Unalienable Rights

Photo showing participants gathering at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., July 24, 2018. [Department of State]

In November, the government of Poland will host the third Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom virtually. In 2018 and 2019, Secretary Pompeo hosted the landmark Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom events in Washington, D.C. – the largest human rights events ever hosted at the U.S. Department of State. These events convened government leaders and civil society from all over the world to discuss ways to increase the promotion and protection of religious freedom globally.

The 2018 ministerial took place from July 24-26 in Washington, D.C. and was the first ever gathering of its scale focused exclusively on international religious freedom. Outcomes of the meeting included establishment of the International Religious Freedom Fund, funded by the United States and several other nations, to provide emergency assistance to victims of religious discrimination; follow-on regional conferences; and the creation by Germany, Mongolia, the United Kingdom, and Taiwan of ambassadorships focused on religious freedom.

The second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, from July 16 to 18, 2019, was the largest-ever religious freedom event as well as the largest human rights-focused conference ever hosted by the State Department. With more than 1,000 civil society and religious leaders and 105 foreign delegations in attendance, this gathering marked the first time a Secretary of State convened back-to-back ministerials on the same human rights issue. Secretary Pompeo used the occasion to the launch of the International Religious Freedom Alliance, a group of like-minded nations dedicated to working to confront religious persecution around the world. He echoed the call for participation in remarks at the Vatican in October 2019. Building on the second ministerial, President Trump hosted the “Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom” at the U.N. General Assembly on September 23, 2019. The event convened foreign heads of state, prominent religious leaders, and key civil society activists. The President called on all nations to act to end religious persecution and stop crimes against persons of faith. Survivors of religious persecution from China, Iran, and Yemen shared testimonials of how they endured persecution on account of their faith.

U.S. Secretaries of State Past and Present

Photos and dates served of the U.S. Secretaries of State past and present.

More information on former Secretaries can be found at:

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