Unalienable rights

"American trade imperatives, fundamentalist Christian precepts, and American foreign policy are to be fused more explicitly and, we might expect, more violently."

Leonie Rushforth
18 August 2020, 10.10am
US warships in the South China Sea. RIMPAC 2014 exercise.
Screenshot: REUTERS/U.S.Navy handout.

On July 8, 2019 Pompeo, US Secretary of State, established the Commission on Unalienable Rights, tasking it with providing him with advice on human rights ‘grounded in our founding principles’. The commission’s members are his appointees, trusted neo-liberal philosophers, academics and lawyers with proven track records, for example, in undermining women’s reproductive rights.

The Commission’s first report has just been published. It makes clear that not all rights are equally unalienable:

Foremost 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.

Announcing publication of the report, Pompeo expanded:

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“It’s important for every American, and for every American diplomat, to recognize how our founders understood unalienable rights. Foremost among these rights are property rights and religious liberty. No one can enjoy ‘the pursuit of happiness’ if you can’t own the fruits of your labor! And no society can retain its legitimacy — or a virtuous character — without religious freedom.”

American trade imperatives, fundamentalist Christian precepts, and American foreign policy are to be fused more explicitly and, we might expect, more violently. Pompeo continues:

Never has knowledge of our founding principles been more urgent. As President Trump has recognized, we face many mighty challenges from abroad. Ruled with an iron fist by the Chinese Communist Party, for instance, China seeks to remake the world in its autocratic image and subordinate other nations to its hegemonic ambitions. We can’t confront Beijing or other gross human rights violators throughout the world without understanding the roots of our foreign policy, through the lens of our Founders’ intent.

So we must look through the dark glass of the founding fathers’ vision – invoked everywhere in this document and subtly, wilfully misrepresented – in order to obscure the real interests directing US foreign policy. The strange combination of these two images, roots and lens, lays bare the sleight of hand disguising the assertion of the primacy of contemporary US foreign policy.

The vision of the ‘founding fathers’ as expressed in the Declaration of Independence nowhere mentions property rights or religious liberty. It does memorably declare that the primary rights are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.


In 1840 Matthew Jardine of Jardine Matheson, the primary exporter of Bengali opium into China following the British government’s lifting in 1833 of the East India Company’s monopoly on trade with China, employed the lawyer Samuel Warren to write a propaganda pamphlet on the case for war against the Qing emperor, determined to control the influx of opium into the country. Warren writes over one hundred pages in defence of the British right to trade where and however it pleases and in condemnation of Chinese attempts to limit rampant opium addiction:

‘Our men of war are now, it is to be hoped, far on their way towards China, which shall be “our oyster, which [we] with sword will open.” Then may we extract from the Emperor an acknowledgement of the heinous offence – or series of offences – which he has committed against the law of nature and of nations, and read him a lesson, even from a barbarian book, which will benefit him and all his successors.’

The warships arrived and the first opium war was fought in order to prise open further the oyster of China’s markets and to secure the highly profitable passage of opium into them. One of the Chinese concessions in the treaty of Nanking at the end of the war was Hong Kong, which thereafter became the banking home of the opium trade. A further element was the right granted to Christian missionaries to live and work in five coastal cities, where they became associated with the expansion of the opium trade. In 1860, after the second opium war was fought to defeat China’s efforts to control opium addiction once again and to complete the opening up of Chinese markets, the whole country was opened to the missionaries, and the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (its contemporary subsidiary HSBC) was founded to manage the vast sums of money being made. Warren and Jardine could not have imagined that among the Emperor’s ‘successors’ would be the Chinese Communist Party and that it would be Mao who, after what became known as China’s ‘century of humiliation’, would finally and successfully ban opium production and use in China.


During his visit to the UK in July, Pompeo arranged for this statement – apparently made in private and asserting that the director of the WHO, Ghebreyesus, had been ‘bought by China’ – to be leaked to the press:

I'm saying this on a firm intelligence foundation, a deal was made... There was a deal-making election and when push came to shove, you get dead Britons, because of the deal that was made.

A British aircraft carrier is currently far on its way to the South China Sea to join US warships patrolling the area.

British and French warships anchored off Hong Kong. | Beato, 1860.

This piece was originally published in the August edition of Splinters.

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