An Essay by Lynn Sicade
When the UNA-USA DC chapter called to inform me I had been selected for the Tex Harris award, they also asked for a piece of writing to include in the program. It is not an exaggeration to say they were surprised when I asked if they could use a UN resolution rather than a journal or academic piece. I could be mistaken, but I think they were even more surprised to learn that I have not published a piece. So as an alternative they asked that a piece be written about my journey. How does one write about their journey? Where to start?
One could begin by outlining their first inklings of human rights. Mine began in Washington State on a bus riding to school. I, the Native kid, sat with the only other kid who had any connection to a minority community – the African American girl. It seemed odd to me as a kid, but I never put the connection together until much later in life. Or I could start when I saw my first real taste of racism in the early seventies in Louisiana. Or I could start when we moved back home in the mid-seventies during the fishing wars in the Tacoma/Seattle area. In middle school a girl I had been close to in home room decided she could no longer associate with me when she learned I was the daughter of a Puyallup Indian. It was so unfair and so wrong. I think it was at the point that I began to understand that the voiced words while hurtful at times are so much less difficult than the unvoiced hidden words – those that occur between the brackets.
Brackets. Brackets are a device used in international negotiations when a country disagrees with written text and wants it deleted. So much is going on between those brackets. Sometimes it is a negotiator with a particular point of view that may not be supported by her capital. Sometimes it is about national sovereignty. Sometimes it is a simple as a semi-colon. I was once at a negotiation where the British, Australians, Americans (me) and Canadians were arguing about the placement of the semi-colon. In the end, the Indian (from India, not the U.S.) spoke and was right. It caused us all to laugh and joke about the Queen’s English. Small moments like this can make or break a negotiation. Small moments like this quintessentially human moment can cement relationships which can be critical to resolving issues between countries.
Sometimes the reason for a bracket is to avoid international embarrassment. I came to work on multilateral human rights issues when my first boss in the foreign service asked me to read a speech she had given in Geneva on the UN draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the UN DDRIP, after passed the UNDRIP). I read the speech. I had an unusual reaction to it. It was offensive, even to my ear accustomed to UN jargon. You have to come work for me, my former boss said, we (the U.S.) need to get this right. It was not an easy decision. I had been working on the Peru-Ecuador border issue and from that had gotten a taste for international negotiation and problem solving. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go work in the Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Bureau. I called my father. He said to me, “Honey, if you think you can handle ½ of the time your federal colleagues being mad at you and the other ½ of the time tribal members being mad at you, then this is the job for you.” I took the job. To my dismay, Dad was one hundred percent right.
Between the brackets. The things people say and things people don’t say. And sometimes they feel so provoked they say what they didn’t mean to say. One of those times was during an informal meeting at the Palais du Nacions (the place in Geneva where the UN Human Rights Council meets). We had seen some members of the U.S. indigenous peoples delegation and my colleague wanted to talk to them to convey an understanding of their feelings about the land. This colleague described how his great-grandparents had a farm that had been passed down through the generations and so the colleague well understood how important the link to land was. The Indians (American Indians and a note here, we call ourselves Indians or Native Americans; it matters not those labels -- when together we identify ourselves by our tribe and our clan) just looked at me dumbfounded. When we left, my colleague told me how well the conversation had gone. And I said, “you do realize you were talking about land your great-grandparents homesteaded and that at least one of the people we were talking to had grandparents who were removed from that land, right?” Early in my career I had a mentor who taught me two things that are critical to successful diplomacy: “Research and Listen”. In this conversation, my colleague had done neither. But when I looked at the Indians talking to us with a I-get-it-nod, it made a difference. One of them came to me later and explained the problems they were having with U.S. positions. “You (the U.S.) are asking us to say that our rights are not our rights and can be negotiated. We cannot and won’t do that.” I asked if it would be possible to say what they could simply not object to; my friend nodded. It took several months to understand what was being said and how to phrase things. It took several years more and a good deal of work for the U.S. to sign on to the Declaration.
A pause here, because the Declaration while groundbreaking was only a non-binding statement. My boss, who got me into the multilateral human rights sphere asked me what I thought a few months into the job. It is all talk I said. “Re-read the Universal Declaration on Human Rights,” she replied. So, I did. And then it dawned on me. In 1948, the notions of equality for women, ethnic, religious and racial minorities were but a dream. Words have power. Change is brutal. It takes time and there will always be people who think they are losing something. In this sense, human rights are in essence always political. And that is the principal reason promotion of universal human rights are hard for governments. We all know this. But it is a sentiment that is “between the brackets.”
At the Palais, there was an African I discussed human rights issues with, particularly racial discrimination, for many years. This person was unhappy with the way the U.S. had approached the World Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Xenophobia. In front of quite a diverse audience of diplomats, he told me human rights were the “icing on the cake.” I replied, “No. Geopolitics are a layer cake and human rights are the frosting between each layer, holding each layer together and without it the cake falls apart and is dry and not worth eating.” My colleague sat back in his chair and laughed heartily. “You are one of one of kind,” he said. This, too, was an interaction between the brackets. Did it make a difference? I like to think it opened some eyes.
At the beginning of this essay I noted that I had asked the committee to consider a resolution rather than a publication or journal piece. A couple of things about that: I haven’t written any kind of piece that could be considered for publication since I was in law school. I am a practitioner. While I would agree that academic publications make people like me think through the ramifications of policy, I simply haven’t the time to write one myself. This award I receive on behalf of the hundreds of people like me who are working in the trenches; who know that words matter; and who are negotiating between the brackets to defend human rights and in the hope of promoting human rights.
Extremely important note: The ideas and observations in this essay are mine and do not reflect official positions of the government of the United States.
November 1, 2021