December 5, 2022

 By A. Edward Elmendorf, Past President, UNA-NCA

American Diplomat Jason Mack Uses the Tools of Diplomacy for Human Rights 

 The U.S. Foreign Service career of Jason Mack, recipient of the 2022 UNA-NCA ‘Tex’ Harris Award for Human Rights through Diplomacy, shows how promotion and protection of human rights and the requirements of diplomacy can be fully consistent in the world of the 21st Century. This was not always the case: When I had the privilege of joining the Foreign Service in the 1960s, the domestic human rights record of host countries was generally considered a topic not to be raised.

Human rights have been a continuous part of Jason’s work in diplomacy, dating back to his first assignment in Panama, where he worked with colleagues in Washington to seek the declassification of documents revealing human rights violations and abuses committed under Panama’s dictatorship. A major milestone years later in Jason’s human rights diplomacy was reflected in his work on combatting human trafficking during his service at the U.S. Embassy in Argentina.  His actions created awareness of this horrific human rights violation in the annual recertification of 300,000 truck drivers susceptible to participating in that scourge or likely to encounter victims in their extensive travels. It continued in the very important use of voice – his voice – for human rights at the U.S. Mission to the UN in Geneva, under the leadership of then U.S. Representative to the UN Human Rights Council, Ambassador Keith Harper, who subsequently became a member of the Board of UNA-NCA. 


For much of Jason Mack’s career, human rights was not viewed by some to be a foreign policy priority, despite the active concern for human rights by President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s and the establishment of the State Department Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and the Department’s annual publication of human rights reports, country by country. But that has been changing in recent years. 


Mack’s family background did not lead him automatically into global promotion and protection of human rights.  He was the first member of his family to obtain a passport! Yet, a fire for the wider world was kindled by his grandmother, who, as he said, regretted that she had not been able to get to know other countries. 


Jason’s parents counseled him to use his voice for a better world, and his career demonstrates amply that he absorbed that advice. An internship with the Carter Center prompted his interest in human rights. Opportunity helped also: Ambassador Harper stimulated Mack’s commitment to human rights, and his experience working on human rights issues at the U.S. Mission in Geneva inspired him to ask for assignment to the more visible human rights post at the U.S. Mission to the UN in New York City.  In New York he successfully promoted human rights both publicly in bodies such as the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, and behind the scenes with UN Secretariat officials, UN delegations, and NGOs. He became widely recognized by his peers, by his State Department supervisors, and in the NGO community as a human rights leader. But his employment as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer and not as a political appointee meant that he was not widely known for his human rights activity outside of his immediate work environment. 


We talked about why the human rights work of the United Nations is important to Jason Mack. It’s both personal and professional, for Jason. During the Covid-19 lockdown in New York City and in consequence at the UN, the usual in-person meetings which characterize UN diplomacy could not be held. Yet, people wanted to be heard, and Jason found new ways for them to raise their voices for human rights. He organized online round tables, especially with NGOs, and he pushed in his role of diplomat for the reopening of the UN to civil society with officials of the UN Economic and Social Council, or ECOSOC as it is known in UN parlance, and with the Office of the President of the UN General Assembly, or PGA. He and his colleagues also pressed hard for high-level meetings, on issues ranging from the rights of women and girls to countering cyber-crime, to include opportunities for civil society participation.


The work of the UN to promote human rights is important, in Mack’s view, because the UN brings together 193 countries, and it gives people hope. It’s not perfect, of course, he observes, but it does offer the beginnings of accountability. This brings Mack back to his theme of voice: The UN provides a voice for the human rights of people who are often denied it. 


Talking about the importance of the UN’s human rights activities, Mack spoke about a case concerning human rights violations approaching genocide in South Sudan. Adama Dieng – recipient of the UNA-NCA Louis B. Sohn Award in 2018 and former Special Advisor on Genocide in the UN – had issued an alert regarding concerns of ethnic cleansing in the region.  Thanks to Jason’s efforts and those of his colleagues, the UN Commissioner on Human Rights was given an investigative mandate from the Human Rights Council to preserve evidence regarding the critical human rights situation in South Sudan, and Dieng noted the worst path had been avoided.  It started when Ambassador Harper called for a special session of the UN Human Rights Council in response to the multiple human rights violations there.  Months later, and soon after the change in U.S. administrations, Jason maintained U.S. leadership on the issue.  Careful behind the scenes negotiations with African delegations and UN officials led to adoption of a resolution creating what became in fact of not in form a UN Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan. The language and the diplomacy made cooperation by the South Sudanese authorities possible, when many governments would have rejected such a high level of external engagement on a what was widely seen as a domestic human rights matter. The evidence collected by the UN experts can contribute greatly to accountability. 


There have been many sources of inspiration for Jason Mack in his human rights activity. His experience as an intern at the Anti-Defamation League contributed. His experiences in Geneva and New York contributed also, for he found inspiration in the work of counterparts in his American colleagues, in foreign delegations, in the Secretariat, and in NGOs. He found inspiration also in making the human rights accomplishments of the UN more widely known, such as contributing to making the abuses faced by the Uighurs in China known around the world, including in prominent media outlets such as the New York Times.  Once again, we return to Mack’s theme of voice – in this case bringing testimony to abuses suffered by Uighurs. Finally, Mack spoke of the courage and commitment of people like Tex Harris, who paved the way by example in making human rights promotion and protection a legitimate activity for an American diplomat.


We talked with Jason about the recommendations that he would offer to young professionals committed to human rights. First, he said, find ways to contribute. There are many, he pointed out, in the public sector, nationally, locally, and globally, in non-governmental organizations of many different types, as well as in professional bodies and increasingly in private business.  Then you can feel proud, and say, “I’ve contributed.” Second, Mack advises young people to recognize that there will be struggles. Accept, for example, that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Council and the other UN human rights institutions are imperfect institutions, and help to make them better, using your voice.


Speaking of how to strengthen the work of the UN in human rights, Mack talked of the importance of improving the democratic composition of the membership of the Human Rights Council. We should work – all of us, he said, each in our own way – to help prevent egregious human rights violators from being elected to the Council. Smaller democratic countries, with less experience in UN human rights bodies, should be encouraged to run for election, and to draw upon the willingness of young people to help them by serving as interns, and to use effectively the resources of NGOs such as the Universal Rights Group and UPRInfo. But strengthening the composition of the Human Rights Council is not enough: As Mack said, its systemic bias against Israel must be addressed.  Human rights violations and abuses by any government can and should be discussed by the Council, but the special agenda item and disproportionate numbers of resolutions focused on Israel should be dropped. 


UN human rights activities, in Mack’s view, can and should be better. But, what ‘better’ means is all about context, and very hard to define abstractly. Look at individual situations, and then it’s possible to say whether they are better.  In South Sudan, the UN-sponsored inquiries have not solved the country’s human rights problems, but they are increasing the chances of accountability.  And this is better. The same applies to the report of the UN High Commissioner on human rights in China: It hasn’t solved the myriad problems, but made them visible, and given voice.  Finally, it applies, too, in the case of the High Commissioner’s report on racism globally, in response to the murder of George Floyd: Awareness and voice have grown.


Not surprisingly, Jason Mack responded to our question about what he’s most proud of in his career as a human rights diplomat by talking about voice – expressed indirectly by sensitizing truck drivers in Argentina to the risks of human trafficking, expressed more directly in facilitating access by NGOs to UN human rights forums, and expressed very directly in the appreciation of his colleagues, his supervisors, and others in the world of human rights activists for his making unheard voices known and listened to. Thanks to his efforts, the human rights situation in China and Venezuela received significant attention at the UN, with personal testimony by victims of government abuses.  Finally, he succeeded behind the scenes in guaranteeing a speaking role for a leader of the Cherokee Nation at a high-profile UN event on the rights of indigenous persons; and led senior core groups of delegations in Geneva on promoting freedom of expression as well as highlighting human rights concerns in Sri Lanka, South Sudan, and Sudan, and gained their support for a resolution on transitional justice.

 Jason Mack’s experience and personal story testify to the importance of human rights in American diplomacy. UNA-NCA should be proud to celebrate his receipt of its ‘Tex’ Harris Award for Human Rights through Diplomacy.




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