Has an election ever been won or lost based on a vice-presidential candidate’s positions on human rights issues? None that I can think of. But a VP’s views can have enormous human rights impact; just think of Dick Cheney’s attraction to what he called the “dark side” and what others called torture.
Paul Ryan seems to view himself as a champion of human rights. He doesn’t shy away from the expression, to start with, unlike some Republicans who prefer to stick with the terms “freedoms,” and its libertarian implications, and avoid the potentially redistributive connotations of “rights.”
Ryan even has a theory of human rights, albeit a simple one: rights are natural and God-given. Even if they are codified in documents like the U.S. Constitution, they’re not the product of political negotiation or struggle, but rather of divine understanding.
In his first speech as Mitt Romney’s running mate, Ryan emphasized this theme, saying, “Our rights come from nature and God, not government.” He provided more detail about his views in a 2010 essay in which he attacked the U.S. Supreme Court for failing, in his view, to protect the rights of fetuses. “Natural rights,” he proclaimed, “belong, not just to some, but to all human beings.”
So where do Ryan’s views on human rights lead him? Unless one prioritizes fetal rights above the rights of the postpartum, Ryan’s domestic human rights record is deeply worrying. Indeed, he earned a stunning 0 percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the country’s largest LGBT rights organization.
Highlighting Ryan’s anti-gay record, the HRC said that Ryan voted against the Hate Crimes Prevention Act; he supported banning same-sex adoption in Washington, DC; and he voted in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage—twice. He also opposed repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” when the policy came before Congress in 2011.
Ryan’s record on women’s reproductive rights is, of course, equally dismal. He has an unwavering history of supporting bills that would bar or restrict abortion, even when a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, and even in cases in which the life of the pregnant woman is in danger. He is also in favor of defunding Planned Parenthood.
“I’m as pro-life as a person gets,” Ryan told The Weekly Standard in 2010, correctly.
Ryan is not particularly prominent on foreign policy issues, but in a speech last year he outlined his views on human rights and foreign policy, grounding them in an operatic devotion to American exceptionalism.
“America is the greatest force for human freedom the world has ever seen,” he stated unequivocally.
But unlike his domestic policy views, in foreign policy he seems more amenable to compromise, at least in certain cases. He first suggested that his views on “universal human rights” form the basis of his views on foreign policy, causing him “to recoil at the idea of persistent moral indifference toward any nation that stifles and denies liberty, no matter how friendly and accommodating its rulers are to American interests.”
Yet, he continued, “in promoting our principles, American policy should be tempered by a healthy humility about the extent of our power to control events in other regions.” While the US should speak out boldly against “the jackbooted thugs of the tired tyrants of Syria and Iran,” it should take a gentler approach with Saudi Arabia. And rather than protesting abuses against Palestinians, we should “stand in solidarity” with the Israeli government.
Elliot Abrams to the Rescue
As the campaign progresses, Ryan’s views on human rights issues will no doubt be polished to a shine. The burnishing process has already begun: according to theDaily Beast, Ryan is now being coached by well-known human rights “expert” Elliot Abrams.
Abrams first came to prominence in the early 1980s, lying about horrific human rights violations in El Salvador and viciously attacking the credibility of human rights groups that were documenting those abuses. He was later responsible for overseeing human rights policy in the administration of George W. Bush, giving him the right experience and credentials for the present task.
Stay tuned for more on Syria and Iran.
Joanne Mariner is the director of Hunter College’s Human Rights Program. She is an expert on human rights, counterterrorism, and international humanitarian law. She is the author of the Human Rights Watch report, No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons.
This column previously appeared on Justia’s Verdict.