November 17, 2020
By A. Edward Elmendorf, Past President UNA-NCA

In a wide-ranging conversation, UNA-NCA’s 2020 ‘Tex’ Harris Award recipients for human rights progress through diplomacy, Erin Barclay and Scott Busby of the U.S. Department of State, said that their development as human rights advocates began during their high school and college years. Both were trained as lawyers but it was evident that their human rights interests, experiences, and concerns extend well beyond a traditional concern with rights as formulated in law. Our conversation showed that Barclay and Busby represent the best of what people in this country can do in public service under political leaders of widely varying views and administrations.

We spoke about how Barclay and Busby came to be human rights advocates on the global stage. Barclay’s experiences in Nicaragua and Poland, as well as addressing the topic of domestic violence, were important stimuli to her engagement in international human rights. She expressed special appreciation for the mentoring support she received from Dr. Isabel Marcus, Professor Emerita at the University of Buffalo School of Law, and Dr. Ann Snitow, formerly a professor at the New School for Social Research and a distinguished feminist and women’s rights activist. The notorious human rights abuses in Chile, Argentina, and Central America in the 1970s and 1980s helped give rise to Busby’s interest in human rights. Lawyer and founder of Human Rights First Michael Posner was a mentor and then model for him, as was law professor Carolyn “Patty” Blum, who founded the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the UC Berkeley School of Law and worked to bring human rights abusers to justice.

For Busby, the work of ‘Tex’ Harris has also been an inspiration in Harris’ service as a U.S. diplomat in Argentina working to bring abuses to the attention of senior officials, who were working closely with the military-dominated government of the time and paid little attention to human rights problems. He noted that Tex’s work helped to give rise to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, where Busby currently works. Busby also spoke of the inspiration he had received from Bayard Rustin, a 1960s African-American civil rights leader and organizer of the famous 1963 ‘March on Washington’ who later extended his work to international human rights advocacy; and Joe Eldridge, founder of the Washington Office on Latin America and long-time human rights activist on Central America. Eldridge, it should be noted, received the UNA-NCA Sohn Award in 2007.

Both Barclay and Busby encouraged young professionals wishing to develop careers in international human rights to travel and do human rights work in other countries. For them, there’s no substitute for the ‘feel’ that people get through extended exposure to human rights and other issues, concerns, and abuses outside the United States. Barclay strongly encouraged human rights advocates to develop a large ‘toolbox’ of skills and experiences on which to draw, and not to limit themselves to one discipline, such as law or political science, or even one region of the world. Gaining experience in problem-solving could be a great help, she said.

Busby and Barclay underscored the importance of the United States domestic record on human rights as a factor in its promotion of the rights of people around the world. Americans often fail to understand how significant the U.S. posture and problems are for other countries. They both noted the significant impact of the civil rights and women’s rights movements on activists around the world, including in the UN. (Acceptance of this interaction of national, global, and even local developments in the field of human rights was limited during my years of work on human rights at the U.S. Mission to the UN in New York in the 1960s. At that time the United States discouraged examination of the U.S. domestic human rights record at the UN.)

Both Barclay and Busby saw the UN’s humanitarian system and actions, through UNHCR, WFP, and beyond, as outstanding examples of UN success on human rights. Similarly, the work leading to UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, and especially the follow-up on the Council’s action at the country level, were UN success stories, which build on U.S. experience. The examination of countries’ human rights performance through the Universal Periodic Review was a positive development, in the view of both Busby and Barclay. They also cited the actions of UN special rapporteurs on human rights and fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to peaceful assembly, and freedom of religion or belief, and, at the country level, on North Korea and Iran, as UN successes. Last and certainly not least, they mentioned also the work of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Asked what they were most proud of in their work as human rights advocates and leaders, Barclay spoke of the work of the entire team of people who contribute to what the U.S. says and does internationally on human rights. Busby was, he said, particularly proud of his work on cases of asylum seekers, persecuted human rights activists, and political prisoners. Speaking of why the UN’s work on human rights is important to him, Busby highlighted the value of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration, he said, has served to spread shared values throughout the world, and he observed that it probably could not be successfully negotiated today.

Speaking of how the UN’s work on human rights could be strengthened, Busby and Barclay stressed the need for more democratic countries to become active in UN bodies seeking to advance human rights. They noted that countries standing for election to the Human Rights Council should be expected to defend their human rights record publicly, including in response to questions from diplomats and especially civil society representatives. Finally, they underscored the importance of mainstreaming human rights throughout the UN system.

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