On Tuesday, September 21, UNA-NCA, through its Human Rights Committee, hosted a virtual conversation on “Human Rights in the Practice of Diplomacy”. The event welcomed current UNA-NCA members for an exclusive off-the-record conversation. The featured speakers were a US Foreign Service Officer employed by the State Department and a Regional Representative working for the UN Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Anna Garbar, Co-Chair of the UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee, welcomed attendees and set ground rules due to the sensitive nature of the conversation. She underscored that our guests spoke personally, for themselves, and that their observations should not be considered statements of US or UN policy. Ms. Garbar dedicated the event to the memory of Tex Harris, an American diplomat who established a distinguished record of diplomacy in the service of human rights in Buenos Aires, during the military dictatorship in Argentina. His work is reported to have saved countless lives.
Because the event was off-the-record, this report avoids giving details on the countries and the speakers, but it nonetheless provides insights into possibilities for human rights engagement through action as an American diplomat working in a US Embassy overseas or as a UN human rights adviser posted to an individual country by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Beyond this summary, additional resources showing how you can stand up for human rights are cited at the end. You can also stand up for human rights by joining the UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee.
A. Edward Elmendorf, Past President of UNA-NCA, served as moderator, drawing upon his more than 50 years in UN-related organizations with focus on human rights. The first speaker, a US Foreign Service Officer, has worked in the State Department for the past eight years. During the conversation, she shared her experience as an Internal Political Officer in an American Embassy overseas. The second speaker talked about her experience as a UN Human Rights Advisor in several countries.
Mr. Elmendorf started off the conversation by asking the speakers how they have worked to promote human rights values.
The US Foreign Service Officer talked about how she covered domestic politics in the country of her overseas assignment. This included human rights, religious freedom, countering human trafficking, child labor, elections, political parties, civil society, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and a protest movement. She also drafted country-specific human rights material about the country where she was posted which was ultimately published in annual State Department human rights reports.
The UN Regional Representative discussed the two pillars of the human rights work she undertook as a Human Rights Advisor at the country level. The first pillar, on human rights promotion, includes providing education and promoting implementation of human rights standards in the country of her posting. She trained a range of stakeholders in human rights principles, advised lawmakers on amending legislation to meet international standards, and provided guidance on and support to marginalized communities. The second pillar, on protection, included working with victims of human rights violations, civil society, and those persecuted or marginalized based on their race, religion, gender, or social and environmental activism.
Asked to give examples of the greatest successes and challenges in carrying out their human rights responsibilities at the country level, the American diplomat observed that Embassy human rights work is very challenging. There are successes, but constant monitoring, communication, and fact-checking are required.
Showcasing two successes, she spoke of a film made in the country that centered around women’s rights and freedom of expression. The local government restricted public viewing of the film, which disappointed many locals, who were eager to see it. With the help of her team in the Embassy, she was able to host the film in the US Embassy and provide a safe space for conversation around human rights. It was a heartwarming event. Another success she mentioned involved connecting a religious activist, who was persecuted for beliefs, to organizations which assisted the individual to safety.
The UN Regional Representative observed that she has seen more challenges than successes in her work at the country level. In her experience, support for democratic principles has declined over the past years, making human rights work increasingly challenging. However, she shared that merely being physically present in countries can provide opportunities for critical technical cooperation and, at times, can be a protective force for victims of human rights violations as well as for human rights defenders. The success she discussed was establishing a human rights monitoring project in camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) affected by a large-scale natural disaster. The main challenge she mentioned was having been required to leave two countries where she had been posted, as a result of the human rights situation and the sensitivities related to the mandate of the High Commissioner’s Office.
The event then moved from informal discussion to Q&A. The first question posed was from Jill Christianson, UNA-NCA Board Chair. Ms. Christianson began by highlighting the value of relationships, and then added, “Are there strategies that you used to build relationships for human rights? If so, how did you do it?”
The UN Regional Representative responded that without strong relationships, human rights work is impossible. She stressed the importance of being consistent in maintaining constructive relationships, due to the sensitive nature of human rights work, and the ability to demonstrate impartiality while working on evaluating the situation objectively during engagements on human rights violations. She reiterated the importance of being sensitive and able to support governments in overcoming challenges while ensuring strong collaboration and support to victims and civil society.
The US Foreign Service Officer responded that she had to think in the framework of bilateral relationships in supporting human rights, assess how any given issue fits into US interests, and build relationships in alternative ways. She also said that she had to take into account the kind of help that was wanted by people coming to the Embassy for assistance. Do they want help by the United States Government? Do they want help from the United Nations? Or other help?
As an up-and-coming young professional interested in working in the refugee space, especially in the UN system, another questioner asked about some key experiences the UN Regional Representative would recommend and strategies to become part of the UN system. In response, the UN official stressed the importance of having professional experience in the area of work that is desired, and emphasized the value of doing field work and, depending on the level of one’s experience, of working for a civil society organization prior to seeking UN employment. She observed that working with other organizations, particularly in the field and in the area of interest, would expand one’s professional and personal development, which could be helpful in seeking future employment with the United Nations, if that is desired.
Another attendee asked the UN Regional Representative whether the work is difficult at the operational level for professional staff in the field. Are there challenges that the UN Human Rights Office struggles to overcome in realizing its mandate? What are strategies you utilize to overcome those impediments, especially with UN Member States whose officials may not wish to work with the United Nations on human rights at the country level? She explained the important balance of public and private engagement and direct dialogue while addressing human rights issues of concern both with governments and the civil society. She also underscored the importance of expanding partnerships and of actors who call on the responsible parties for accountability and to uphold international human rights obligations.
During the UNA-NCA conversation, the US Foreign Service Officer shared her professional experience when the government in the country where she was posted deported migrants to a neighboring country. The government sometimes even deported migrants who have already filed claims with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Such migrants would have to walk many miles to the nearest town to get assistance. When it was possible, her team coordinated with other UN agencies and international organizations in country to assist these migrants in need.
The conversation then turned to expectations of the new Biden Administration on human rights. The UN Regional Representative was asked to comment on the implications of US policies for her work. Emphasizing that she was speaking entirely personally, she responded that she had joined the UN to work for the promotion of an internationally endorsed set of values and principles. She underscored the importance of US human rights performance domestically on the principles outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There is an increasing expectation by Member States, she said, that the United States should be more consistent in demonstrating in its actions, both domestically and abroad, a genuine commitment to the international human rights law and standards it calls upon others to uphold. The United States needs a well-educated population that is constructively engaged and versed in what takes place outside its borders. In such an environment, she hoped that the Biden Administration would be a consistent and active actor promoting and protecting human rights domestically and abroad. The US Foreign Service Officer responded that American diplomats are required to promote the priorities of administrations as they change.
The conversation concluded with questions on the work life of these human rights officers. The UN Regional Representative said that human rights work, like work for a number of other UN agencies, is a 24/7 job. The Office is routinely contacted for assistance and guidance on human rights violations and emerging human rights developments. The regular workload, including travel, is extremely heavy and the hours are long and hectic.
The US Foreign Service Officer pointed out that work life for an American diplomat depends on whether one is a career FSO or a political appointee. In her view, career FSOs have more liberty than political appointees to work on human rights issues like child labor, human trafficking and women’s rights. The scope for political appointees is often narrower. Due to their high-profile office, they are scrutinized more, and this limits their capacity to do substantial human rights work, especially when that work is informal and behind the scenes, as it often can be in diplomatic life. Both overseas and domestically, work life is demanding and hectic for American diplomatic personnel. When working overseas, officials are at work 24/7 and represent the United States at all times. There are no breaks. When stationed in the United States, FSOs often find work fast-paced and even more demanding.
Making summary remarks and offering encouraging words at the end of the event, Jill Christianson, UNA-NCA Board Chair, expressed appreciation for the candid conversation with the US Foreign Service Officer and the UN Regional Representative of the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights. They demonstrated how, at times, they have had to take risks to ensure that human rights are respected. With the audience of UNA-NCA members, they spoke truth to power. She amplified the UN official’s observations on UN Member States’ expectations of the United States and observed that American exceptionalism is no longer an accepted excuse for US actions.
She ended the program by thanking everyone present for being part of this UNA-NCA conversation on human rights in the practice of diplomacy. She noted that the strength of UNA-NCA lies in the strength and diverse voices of its members with focus on the United Nations: “It’s you, and us, together that make it all happen.”
Check Out How You Can Stand Up for Human RightsDuring the discussion, we learned a lot from our speakers about the importance of building relationships with the public and showing empathy and walking the talk in our actions when promoting human rights values.
Listed below is a variety of human rights educational materials and opportunities provided by our speakers and members of the Human Rights Committee for you to delve into:
Learn How to Get More Involved in the UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee
Learn how US Department of State Protects and Supports Human Rights Defenders
Discover the Role that the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Plays in Promoting Human Rights:
Explore the Roots of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, landmark document for Human Rights
Stand up for Human Rights by participating in Human Rights Campaigns: