By A. Edward Elmendorf, UNA-NCA Past President and Nakita Laiteng, UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee Member
Lynn Sicade, 2021 recipient of the UNA-NCA F. Allen "Tex" Harris Human Rights Diplomacy Award, sat with us for a virtual conversation about her experience and values. She explained that the inspiration for a career in human rights diplomacy came early in her experience as a Foreign Service Officer. Her background with a Native American father served her well in UN conferences in Geneva. Her boss, she said, once gave a speech on indigenous rights, to which representatives from U.S. indigenous tribes told her they were offended by the speech. Following this, Lynn went to work with the boss to rephrase the statements in the speech regarding indigenous peoples, especially with respect to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Lynn was too modest about the matter with us, but we learned from her supervisor in the U.S. Department of State that Lynn played an important role in winning acceptance of the Declaration within the US Government, including a willingness during the Obama Administration to apply its provisions within the United States.
Referring to her times in UN conferences, Lynn said that she experienced walking around as part of the U.S. Delegation and having human rights defenders tap her on the shoulder saying things like, “My brother is in jail. We know there is a resolution that the U.S. is supporting. We really appreciate it.” The sheer number of people who took encouragement and strength from resolutions and statements gave Lynn confidence in her role. She put it simply: “That’s when I knew. I got the bug on human rights. I left the Foreign Service and became a Civil Servant and I haven’t looked back.”
Talking about people who had inspired her, Lynn spoke of an early mentor, Prof. Luigi Einaudi, an American career diplomat who ultimately served as acting Secretary-General of the Organization of American States. Prof Einaudi, she said, taught her five fundamentals of diplomacy: Listen, listen, listen, listen, listen. Plus, do your research, and be well informed on the situation you are addressing. A second person who inspired Lynn was Prof. Harold Koh, former Dean of the Yale Law School. Koh served as Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Labor, and Human Rights, and was then her boss. Later, as Legal Adviser, he led the U.S. Delegation to the UN Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review of U.S. human rights performance. The third source of inspiration for Lynn’s work was Mike Kozak. She explained that Kozak is in the top rank of the U.S. civil service, with assignments in legal affairs, Latin American affairs, and democracy, and human rights. He’s a hidden treasure, she said, and an excellent negotiator. “If you need a language fix, and you just can’t get there, he will come up with something or ask you something about it. And before you know it, you have the language fix.” So, she explains again, words matter.
Talking of experiences which she feels proud of, Lynn mentioned two. The first was her work with Prof. Einaudi in shuttle diplomacy between Ecuador and Peru to resolve a long-simmering nationalist border dispute that led to armed conflict and many deaths of innocent young men. The second was her successful work over many years on UN action in support of freedom of association and peaceful assembly. Achieving the establishment by the UN Human Rights Council of a Special Rapporteur on this subject was a long process within the U.S. government and with the UN, taking many years. We started, she said, with UN resolutions on freedom of association and peaceful assembly to address the closing space for civil society. The project was temporarily aborted when the United States decided under President George W. Bush not to join the UN Human Rights Council. Then, when President Obama came in, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed interest in supporting civil society in the UN. Not too long after Clinton became Secretary of State, she made a speech on the matter saying, “We are going to support a Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Association and Assembly.” Lynn feels rightfully proud that the Human Rights Council now has a UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly who will, as she said, long outlive her and will continue to help the human rights community.
We concluded the conversation by talking with Lynn about why the UN and its human rights work is important. She stressed the importance of a very long-term perspective. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she pointed out, was written in 1948. It talked about racial and gender equality, at a time when those things were a dream. "Words matter," she emphasized. "Fighting for those words matters. You can look at human rights in a geo-strategic sense and you understand that there are some countries that care about human rights and want to protect rights and some that obviously don’t." Those countries, she said, destabilize other countries. So, she explained, human rights is a significant issue. That’s why you hear Secretary of State Antony Blinken say, “We are putting human rights back at the center of U.S. foreign policy. We are going to have a summit for democracy. We are going to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council and try to make a difference.”
Leaving us inspired by her words and her achievements which so richly merit the F. Allen "Tex" Harris Human Rights Diplomacy Award, Lynn concluded our conversation by saying, “I know that sounds really naïve, but it’s not. It’s a long-term matter.”