Editor’s note: This is the transcript of the speech given Friday by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as part of K-State’s Landon Lecture Series.
Good morning, everyone. How y’all doing? Good, good. It’s great to be back here in Kansas, and to quote the famous phrase, “There is literally no place like home.”
Before I get started, I noticed that the student body president and vice president are both engineers. You should know that was my undergraduate degree. So you may — who knows, right? Before I get started to — President Myers went through many of the distinguished guests. I want to let you know how much I appreciate the opportunity to be here, to have the high privilege to give a speech as part of the Landon Lecture Series is something that I will always cherish. I appreciate this opportunity. Thank you, President Myers and your team for making this happen today. And I also want to make sure and recognize the Landon Lecture Series supporters. Perhaps most importantly former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum-Baker. You have demonstrated your commitment to public service in ways that are important and noble and continuing. And thank you for that.
I know, too, we have many other distinguished guests. President Myers mentioned a whole group of folks. I think Susan Estes is here. Her husband Ron couldn’t be here — serving the same constituents I did back in south central Kansas. Thank you for being here today. Thanks to all the state elected officials. I understand that the (Manhattan) mayor pro tempore Usha Reddi is here, and that Mike Dodson, the mayor of the city of Manhattan, is here as well, as well as Wynn Butler city of Manhattan commissioner. I can tell you I know how tough it is to lead in those local levels. Bless you all for taking on that important service to America. I have tough days. I know you do, too.
Now I know — because I spent a little bit of time at the United Nations — I know that that other Manhattan thinks it’s the center of America. But I am confident that this place has a much better claim to that than that other city on the East Coast. This is really the true heartland; it’s great to be back here. And this university K-State itself has such a noble history. As the first land grant university you can tie your roots directly back to the statute that Abraham Lincoln put forward, he signed into law back in 1862. This law that created this university even as the Civil War was raging. You know I’ll talk about this a little bit more today but that effort says something about America doesn’t it? That even as our nation’s leaders were trying to figure out how to keep this great nation together they were creating opportunities for citizens to study and to learn. And this is the legacy that you here at K-State carry on today. You know it’s just one of the things that makes America so great, so special, so unique in human history.
I was a few weeks back in Indianapolis speaking to the American Legion in Indianapolis. And I said, “You know America and Americanism is something that we’ve got to be proud of.” I think sometimes some of us take things for granted. Our glorious history shouldn’t be revised it should be revered. And the truest expression of that reverence is to safeguard and live by the principles by which this country was founded and those people who forged this unique place. That’s why I’m here today I want to talk about how proud of the American tradition I am every time I travel around the world. Why we must recover a proper understanding of that history and America’s special place in the world.
That tradition — that American tradition begins with a set of unalienable rights. Our nation’s founding created them. They’re the beating heart of who we are as an American body today. And as Americans. The Declaration of Independence laid it out pretty clearly it said — and you will all know this — I know all of you have studied it multiple times especially you young people sitting way in the back. It says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. In other words these are rights that were endowed upon us by our Creator. They’re part of our nation. And they’re part of who we are as Americans — as human beings. They are independent of anything our government does. And the purpose of government indeed is to protect those unalienable rights.
And I must say as I travel the world there can be no nobler cause. Just as profoundly that declaration says that all men — and it meant all human beings — are created equal. These rights weren’t unique to us as Americans. We were simply the first nation with the vision to organize around them. With a national mission that was to honor those very rights — these fundamental rights. And of course we all know, fight we have. We fought the Revolutionary War against our good friends now, the United Kingdom, who are having a great time. We fought a Civil War to hold our nation together. Indeed in the decade before K-State’s founding in the 1850’s, Bleeding Kansas had just been established as a territory. Fueled by the promise of popular sovereignty, pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers alike were flooding in, often violently clashing. This brewing fight over slavery was in essence a fight over unalienable rights. And the people of Kansas knew this deeply.
In 1858 George Washington Brown, an abolitionist newspaper editor from Lawrence said, “No party of men can be guilty of greater inconsistency or absurdity than those who deny the axiomatic truths asserted in the equality and unalienable rights of all men.” John Speer — a bit later the abolitionist editor the Kansas Pioneer said that, “The American government was originally based upon the principle of the universe reality of freedom. And the Declaration of Independence was an emphatic and succinct declaration that all men are indeed created equal and entitled to certain unalienable rights as a result of their human dignity.” And then in commenting on the Declaration’s affirmation of unalienable rights, Lincoln said that, ”[The Founders] meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all.”
That fight has continued. We are an imperfect nation to be sure. But we’re lucky. We have unalienable rights as our foundation, as our North Star.
So I now serve as America’s 70th secretary of state. I know our tradition and respect for unalienable rights hasn’t just shaped us as a nation. It’s shaped how we think about America’s place in the world as well, and it sets our foreign policy. Unalienable rights are at the core of who we are as Americans. We abhor violations of these rights whenever and wherever they are encountered. That’s why I always speak out on behalf of the people of Iran, of Venezuela, of China, and people of all other nationalities who do not have the benefit that we have. They deserve their God-given freedoms just as much as we do.
American diplomats have always had this as one of their core causes. And the stories are long but I’ll tell just a couple. After World War II the world looked to America to take the tradition of unalienable rights, Which came to be called human rights, beyond our shores. In 1948, thanks to our leadership, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a document inspired by our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. And we need to remember this was the first time ever — it was the first time ever — that America led nations to set a standard for how governments should treat their people. We even fought to protect unalienable rights of the people inhabiting nations we had just defeated. We’ve done this repeatedly. This wasn’t American imperialism but rather it was American mercy and grace. We knew it was right for them as well and right for us.
Since then we’ve achieved great victories. The fall of the Soviet Union, the end of Apartheid, the founding of democracies that also cherish and protect people’s unalienable rights in many parts of the world. I lead an organization of some 70,000 people. Our mission is to promote and foster these unsaleable rights so that they will abound, that they’ll be everywhere. We have an entire bureau devoted to no task other than that one. Every year — I’d ask you to go take a look at this — every year we prepare a compendium. Our diplomats produce an exhaustive report of every human rights violation around the world. It becomes the encyclopedia for all other governments to see and you should know we spare no one. We call them like we see them. No other country does that. And just like we did decades after World War II and then in the Cold War, American diplomats still helped set the standard for unalienable rights all around the world. We demonstrate our leadership. This is an effort where I am enormously proud of the team I am so privileged to lead.
But today I wanted to share with you that we sometimes take things for granted here in America. Don’t become complacent. We can’t. We owe it to all Americans to uphold this noble tradition of American leadership to secure rights here at home and abroad. There are many places where this is an uphill battle. Today frankly our children aren’t taught about the central role of unalienable rights in our schools in the way that they must be. I’ve seen the media trying to rewrite our history as an unrelenting tale of racism and misogyny. Not as a bold but imperfect nation — an experiment in freedom. We need to do that.
Our politicians to from time to time have framed pet causes as rights to bypass the normal process by which political ends are achieved. And we’ve blurred the distinction between fundamental universal rights and mere political preferences or priorities. International institutions have moved away from these core tenants as well. One research group found that between the United Nations and the Council of Europe there are a combined 64 human rights related agreements, and 1,377 provisions.
This is an imperfect analogy but the 13th ice cream cone isn’t as good as the first one was. And with respect to unalienable rights we need to know that more per say is not always better. We have to protect those things that are at the core, at the center, that are foundational. Because when rights proliferate we risk losing focus on those core unalienable rights the ones that we would give everything for. And many of our brothers and sisters have done just that. And frankly there’s far too little agreement anymore on what an unalienable right truly is. Just because a treaty, or a law, or some writings says it’s a right, it doesn’t make it an unalienable right. Remember where these rights came from.
This confusion has opened the door for countless countries that don’t share a respect for human rights to use corrupt understandings of this notion to achieve their evil ends. Let me give you just one example. Over the past two years in Shenzhen, China — it’s a province in the western part of China — China has tried to brainwash coming on 1 million Uyghur Muslims in internment camps. It’s tried to get them to renounce their culture and their faith. The Chinese Communist Party claims that the camps are meant to educate and to save people that have been influenced by religious extremism and thus they make the claim that they’re trying to protect those individuals human rights. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Indeed last year the U.N. Human Rights Council at Beijing’s urging adopted a resolution that called for nations to work together to promote mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights. It emphasized genuine dialogue and cooperation based on mutual respect. This was sadly coded language for repressive regimes to establish a code of silence about their massive human rights violations. Those that rivaled the worst human rights violations from our past century. Only one country — only one country on the Human Rights Council voted against China’s resolution. Proudly that was the United States of America. Clearly we must reclaim this tradition. We must reclaim the tradition of unalienable rights from deliberate misunderstanding and indeed from cynical abuse.
It’s a task that’s complex, and difficult, and time consuming. And I do not claim to have all the answers. But we’ve got to get it right. This past May I empaneled a group that I have and entitled The Commission on Unalienable Rights at the State Department. Its aim is to achieve a couple of ends. The commission includes human rights experts, philosophers, activists, Republicans, Democrats, liberals, independents — people of all varied backgrounds and walks of life, and from varied religious beliefs. The commission’s work will be deeply grounded — deeply grounded in our founding principles. It must always be so. We know this. We know that if we don’t get the understanding of rights as our founders understood them correct — these set of inviolable freedoms rooted in our nature, given by God for people in all times — we will wander away from them. And America — American security and America’s place in the world — will be diminished. So the commission’s mission is to uphold America’s noble tradition of unalienable rights in this world that often violates them.
This is how we encourage too growth in societies. Societies that honor their people and their promise to them. This is how we foster liberty that leads to sustainable prosperities, and opportunities for Americans — individuals, businesses — so that we can level the playing field around the world. This too is how we build ties. It’s how we build ties with countries that cooperate with us on our important national security objectives. These kind of efforts too, they’re the efforts that build on what made America great. They build on Americanism. I hope you will stay tuned as this commission does its important work.
As I conclude today it would be a betrayal of the American founding and our character to declare a government panel our nation’s authoritative voice on human rights. Remember too, the Universal Declaration was spearheaded by an American woman, Eleanor Roosevelt. She once said, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home.” All Americans have a responsibility to make sure that their rights are honored in our places of worship, in our workplaces, and yes on our college campuses too. If we do that we’ll be doing what we’ve done since our founding.
Let me take you back to Bleeding Kansas, July 4th, 1855. The anti-slavery newspaper The New York Tribune noticed the conflict happening here and called for an end to slavery — the systemic denigration of unalienable rights that was spurring violence. They wrote, “We hope and pray that every citizen who hears the Declaration of Independence read this day will resolve that the 4th of July of 1856 shall find the policy of the nation restored to the Immortal principles with which it set out on the Fourth of July back in 1776.” You know today we take a lot for granted here in America. But we are the heirs to an immortal principle. We inherited a tradition of unalienable rights that has made our nation the greatest in recorded history. And has blessed many other nations and many other peoples too. We have a responsibility. We have a responsibility to protect that — a duty — and to promote it to get it right here at home, and to get it right abroad as well. It’s what I’m trying to do as President Trump’s secretary of state. I hope you all will join me in this important and noble cause. Thank you. May God bless you. May God bless Kansas.