Thursday, February 23, 2017

New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants (2016): Can we make the global compact happen?

By Monzima Haque, UNA-NCA Fellow (2017)

         The issue of refugees and migrants has remained a politically charged subject matter for a long time. The sensitivities that surround this topic have played an enormous role in shaping the political discourse and direction of the recent American and European elections. On one side, liberals see the potentials of inclusiveness and cultural progress blended in the expertise that migrants bring along; while the conservatives highlight the risks associated with it citing instances of insecurity and terrorism. In an era of xenophobia, hate speech and negative media regarding refugees and migrants, what can be done to protect the rights of the people who are citizens of the same world we live in? What are our responsibilities as global citizens in this post-truth world?

According to the United Nations refugee agency, at least 3,800 migrants perished in the Mediterranean Sea in 2016 in an attempt to reach Europe. These are not mere statistics but a reflection of how we think and act. As global citizens of the post-truth world, it is our responsibility to confront the negative narrative about migration. The UN may not be able to force member states to abide by their commitments, but citizens have the power to shape policy makers’ opinions and preferences. It is at our end to determine what world we want to live in and employ our intellect and resources to make it better.

On the sidelines of a vibrant Members’ Day at the UN headquarters in New York, the 2017 UNA-NCA Graduate Fellows engaged in an enlightening discussion with Kellie- Shandra OGNIMBA from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The discussion complements the past session with Tom Bradley, member of the Board of Directors of UNA-NCA and Vice President of Development, who shared the traumatic experiences of Syrian refugee children and women. One of the key arguments that came up during the past conversation was the lack of consensus on the issue of migrants’ rights and the understanding that there is more work to be done. In line with that argument, the young professionals learned about the latest landmark New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants (2016) and discussed its potential to address the complications that surround the subject of migration in today’s changing context.

At the UN Summit on September 19, 2016, member states expressed their commitment to the protection of the rights and responsibilities of refugees and migrants. It was certainly a global expression of political will to create a platform of conceptualizing the protection of refugees and migrants as member states’ obligation. As noted by Ms. Kellie, from a human rights perspective, this declaration is a practical tool for a global compact on migration where member states have come together to develop a better approach to deal with the issue of migration. The declaration provides for two compacts: Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM). The New York Declaration is, therefore, a human rights instrument that contains tangible plans and timelines to achieve meaningful global compact to protect the lives of refugees and migrants based on common principles.

While this is certainly a historic step to create consensus surrounding the rights of refugees and migrants and to systematize the process of response, it is also likely to encounter challenges.  It is based on normative commitment rather than a legally binding agreement. The draft resolution and modalities have yet to travel a long way before reaching the final global compact. Undoubtedly, this still needs the expression of determination to be continually displayed. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Combating Global Pollution Needs Clean Energy and Efforts on All Levels

By Yi Ren, UNA-NCA Programme Assistant



On February 9, the UN Environment Programme’s North America Office held a half-day event entitled Towards the UN Environment Assembly: Combating Global Pollution, addressing actions being taken to combat pollution at the national, state and local levels, as well as the impact of pollution on human health and the environment.

Ibrahim Thiaw, Deputy Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme delivered the keynote address and highlighted that more than a quarter of annual global deaths are attributed to environmental degradation. Air pollution is a significant factor and 7 million people die from it each year, and the damage extends beyond individuals’ health to economic development in developing countries. For example, a large number of factories and construction sites in Beijing are forced to shut down temporarily in order to reduce the pollution, and the airport in Dubai has to close for days because of poor visibility. This puts employees out of work and temporarily hinders the local economy. The implications of pollution are widely agreed upon and Thiaw emphasized the importance of clean energy as a solution.

Pollution has other profound implications on our safety and social aspects of life as well. Fortunately, these observations (of impact on health, safety, economic development) are agreed upon broadly and the appropriate actions can be taken. On the topic of energy, clean energy can help us reduce pollution, including solar energy.  He took Africa as an example. Currently, three fourths of Africans do not have access to reliable energy but it is anticipated that this will change at the end of this century. Instead of traditional energy sources like coal, if clean energy like solar can be provided with a lower price with the help of technology development, the air pollution situation in Beijing and Delhi today would not be repeated in Nairobi, Lagos or other African cities in the future.

Two enlightening panel discussions followed, composed of distinguished representatives from government, civil society and the private sector. The first panel, entitled The Impact of Pollution on Human Health and the Environment, consisted of Tommy Wells, Director of D.C. Department of Energy and Environment; Radha Muthiah, CEO of Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves; and Terry Yosie, President and CEO of the World Environment Center. Tommy Wells talked about managing polluted rivers, which is a universal problem. He believes that a strong public–private partnership is an effective way to clean up contaminated water. Radha Muthiah illustrated that indoor pollution, in the form of smoke from burning traditional energy, causes a variety of diseases and is not only a rural problem but also an urban one. She said that indoor pollution is closely correlated to outdoor pollution with as much as 30 percent of outdoor pollution in India coming from indoor pollution such as cooking and heating. Terry Yosie pointed out that combating global pollution should be linked to sustainable development more closely and that the private sector could play an essential role in reducing pollution globally.

The second panel discussion focused on Addressing Pollution at the International, Federal, State and Local Levels. Panelists included John Matuszak, Senior Policy Advisor of U.S. Department of State; Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, Executive Director of the Environmental Council of States; and Elgie Holstein, Senior Director for Strategic Planning of the Environmental Defense Fund. They discussed the truly universal nature of environmental pollution as a global issue.  Tackling this problem and reducing the implications of pollution require global efforts from the local to international levels.

The event ended with the election of the North American Regional Major Groups and Stakeholders Representative, who will share the civil society perspective at the third session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-3). UNEA-3 will convene environmental leaders in Nairobi, Kenya in December 2017 to address the serious global pollution threat.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The U.N. Security Council: Finding Ways of Reform Forward

By Jeanne Choquehuanca, UNA-NCA Fellow



Formed after World War II, the United Nations Security Council gave permanent membership to the Allied Powers of the U.S., Russia (formerly U.S.S.R.), China, the U.K., and France. The permanent membership of these five nation states (P5) has given them several special privileges, such as the ability to possess nuclear weapons, significant influence over other member states, and the power to veto any resolution put forward to the 15-member Security Council. This last privilege is increasingly controversial, because it has often enabled a single P5 member state to effectively disable the majority will to act on issues at hand. For instance, many have pointed to Russia’s blanket use of its veto as debilitating the Security Council from effective intervention in Syria and ultimately enabling greater escalation of the humanitarian crisis there.  

The makeup of the Security Council, and P5 in particular, has also come under scrutiny given its poor global representation and tendency to aggravate the global north-south divide. While the current makeup of the P5 is premised on those countries’ regional prowess and assumed greater capacity and willingness to contribute the maintenance of international peace and security, this capacity and will has nonetheless been undercut by perceived conflicts of national interest and foreign policy. Such conflicts have frequently paralyzed the Security Council and wider U.N.’s ability to act effectively on important issues. Overall U.N. action on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, has been constrained by the U.S.’s historically unwavering defense of Israeli interests. Since 1946, the U.S. has vetoed more than 30 resolutions related to quelling military aggressions, several calling on Israel to halt military operations in Palestinian occupied territories. This, in part, is what made the Security Council’s recent passing of Resolution 2334 condemning Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories as illegal so remarkable. After decades of consistent vetoes blocking similar resolutions, the U.S. abstained from this vote, allowing for its passage.

Given the challenges noted above, the UNA-NCA Graduate Fellows had the privilege this past week of engaging in a robust discussion of Security Council reform led by UNA-NCA President Ambassador Donald T Bliss (ret). Foremost on our minds was the ever revolving challenge of getting past politics in order to fulfill the council’s responsibility of maintaining international peace and security. A long running critique of the Security Council is that its membership is unrepresentative of contemporary global demographic and geopolitical realities. There is currently no permanent representation of Africa, Latin America, or the Middle East, and the P5 is made up of four states of the generally developed global north and a single state from generally “developing” global south country. The obvious recommendation is thus to reform the council’s permanent membership to be reflective of the world served. However, while a variety of proposals have been put forward over the past several decades, none have gained real political traction. And given the political and bureaucratic process of such change, many experts venture that such reform will be slow to come.

Nevertheless, member states with less influence have become increasingly creative over the years and have crafted different means for accessing the Security Council and holding it accountable to wider interests. Our readings and discussion led us to examine methods such as the Arria Formula, developed by Former Venezuela U.N. Ambassador Diego Arria, which enabled informal consultations of the Security Council by NGOs and other private parties. Having encouraged that this method not be formalized, Arria emphasized the importance of experimentation on smaller scales that could lead to longer-term traditions and codes. Similarly, Canada’s Robert Fowler elevated the practice of engaging expert panels to a new level when their sanctions review helped expose government exploitation of the diamond mining industry. Another voluntary, non-formalized method for increasing efficiency and accountability in the security council is the enforcement of the Responsibility to Protect framework through a mechanism such as the Responsibility Not To Veto proposed in 2010 by Citizens for Global Solutions. This call to voluntarily suspend veto rights during cases of mass atrocity crimes has been echoed several times since, with nearly 50 speakers calling for it in 2013, and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein again appealing to the P5 to limit their use of vetoes in October of 2016. The increased scrutiny of the use of veto power has also translated to an increased response to and treatment of those member states in other arenas of the U.N. system. Shortly after Zeid’s appeal, Russia was voted off the U.N. Human Rights Council, which may be seen as repercussion for its disabling the Security Council from taking action in Syria and provide warning to the P5 member states in the future. While certainly changes can and should be made in order for the U.N. engine to run more smoothly, given the current imbalance of power and bureaucracy entrenched in the large, diverse global system that is the U.N., these less formal and decentralized strategies may prove more practical and effective in the interim.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Syrian Refugees: Individuals Facing Unique International Challenges


By Stephanie Asher, UNA-NCA Fellow

Though it has roots in many events prior, the current and devastating conflict in Syria is generally dated back to 2011 when the Assad regime ordered a crackdown on government protests. The complete breakdown of Syria and the devastation that has since occurred could not have been anticipated—in the past six years, 5-6 million Syrian refugees have fled abroad while over 6.5 million are internally displaced people, facing much of the same human rights and public health issues as refugees without the protections of international law.

Recently, the UNA-NCA Graduate Fellows discussed counter-terrorism strategies with Eric Rosand, the Director of the Prevention Project and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. It is only appropriate, then, that this past week we met with Tom Bradley, member of the Board of Directors of UNA-NCA and Vice President of Development, who discussed the personal stories of Syrian refugees and why they do not pose a terrorist threat. Mr. Bradley traveled to Jordan in August 2016 as part of a George Mason University study-abroad course focused on service-learning and hearing the stories of these refugees to understand them on a personal level. Mr. Bradley showed us pictures of the young children he worked with in the day centers for women and children staffed and attended by Syrian refugees, with smiling faces painted by the master’s students. The Syrian refugee children, though they have suffered traumatic experiences, are still hopeful and eager to learn. Two of the children, on separate occasions, drew signs on Mr. Bradley in paint to express their love and gratitude for his visit. In Mr. Bradley’s words, “As you can see, these are not Skittles and they’re not terrorists. They’re people who are trying to escape war because it has either destroyed their homes or it’s come too close to home for them to remain.”

The UNA-NCA graduate fellows used this past session to discuss the challenges faced by the Syrian refugees, such as societal integration, access to resources (both materials and services), and mental health. We discussed how the protections and assistance afforded refugees, Syrians refugees in particular, has come to be a topic of massive debate in the United States and the rest of the world. Indeed, the recent Executive Order “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States” signed by President Donald J. Trump on January 27, 2017 has introduced an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees entering the United States in the name of counter-terrorism. The Executive Order also targets anyone arriving from six other majority-Muslim countries (Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen) with a 90-day visa suspension—even though citizens of these countries have not been responsible for the most recent attacks in the US. Backlash has quickly grown against President Trump’s controversial Executive Order both nationally and internationally. Americans rapidly protested the Executive Order in major cities and airports across the nation, and the Executive Order is currently being debated in court.

In early February the newly confirmed Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, joined international critics of the ban by calling for the measure suspending refugee resettlement to be lifted. During his speech, Mr. Guterres stated, “In my opinion, the US policy is not the way […] to best protect the US or any other country, in relation to the serious concerns that exist about the possibility of terrorist infiltration. I don’t think this is the effective way to do so and I think these measures should be removed sooner rather than later.”

By the end of the session, the UNA-NCA graduate fellows worked to answer questions proposed by Mr. Bradley on how to achieve peace in Syria and what advice we would give Secretary-General Guterres regarding refugees. Our group referred back to the elucidating piece by Melissa G. Dalton in chapter 10 of the Global Forecast 2017 published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies titled What Options Do We Have In Syria? as well as discussed communication and funding strategies available to address the Syrian refugee situation. Throughout our discussion, one thing was clear—there’s more work to be done.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Why the UN Matters for the US Fight Against Terrorism

                              by Yulia Krylova, UNA-NCA Fellow

Last Friday, UNA-NCA Fellows discussed the role of the UN in the fight against terrorism and the related presidential orders with Eric Rosand, Director of “The Prevention Project: Organizing Against Violent Extremism.”


We could not have picked a more timely topic. Only a few days prior, President Trump issued an executive order that proposed a 40% decrease in US funding of the UN and its key agencies. This decision severely undermines the value of the UN for the US and will affect its work in the sphere of counter-terrorism. The U.S. has turned to the UN in the aftermath of terrorist attacks going all the way back to the attacks at the Munich Olympics in 1972. In 1999 the U.S. led the charge in the Security Council to impose sanctions against al-Qaida, Usama bin Laden, and the Taliban. In response to the 9/11 attacks, the US drafted Resolution 1373, which imposed a series of legal obligations on all UN member states to take actions to counter terrorism. In 2006, the General Assembly adopted the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, whereby for  the first time, all Member States agreed to a common strategic approach to address terrorism that look at not just security measures, but at addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism and ensuring that all counter-terrorism measures respect human rights. Under US leadership, the fight against terrorism became a truly global effort pursued by countries all across the world.

Eric Rosand, the Director of the Prevention Project and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, identifies several areas where the UN is a critical partner for the US in its effort to build and sustain global counter-terrorism efforts. First of all, the UN provides a universal framework to fight terrorism that has international legitimacy. The UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy pressed many countries to adopt domestic laws aimed at criminalizing terrorism, strengthening national borders, combating terrorist activities, and addressing conditions conducive to the rise of extremism. Second, even skeptics cannot deny the role of the UN in imposing globalized sanctions against terrorist organizations and their affiliates, such as travel bans, asset freezes, and arms embargoes. Third, the UN played a crucial role in building the capacity of countries to prevent and combat terrorism. According to Rosand’s recent article in Foreign Affairs, the UN delivered more than 14,000 counter-terrorism trainings to law enforcement authorities in over 100 countries. Finally, cooperation between the US and other countries allows them to share costs of counter-terrorism operations, increase their scale and scope, and reduce their critical timescales.

Our discussion raised very important questions about the potential impact of recent Trump Administration Executive Orders on the UN’s work, including as it relates to counter-terrorism.  Rosand indicated that the UN is more effective when the policies of all major member states reinforce or complement, rather than seek to undermine or contradict, multilateral polices. Over the last 15 years, the UN has served as a useful channel for the US to promote a more strategic approach to the threat of terrorism and support collective action among a range of member states. In Rosand’s words, “it is the United States that is driving the [UN] train on the issue of counter-terrorism and the Trump administration will quickly realize that there are certain things that the UN is indispensable for in this field.” Instead of undermining the organizational capacity of the UN, it is more beneficial for US leadership to focus on the global organization’s strengths and unique features that make it possible to elevate counter-terrorism as a policy priority on the global agenda. The UN deserves credit for promoting coordination and coherence in the multilateral fight against terrorism. In this regard, the Trump administration should revise its finding decision because the UN represents a potential force leading to synergies that the US would not be able to achieve independently.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Human Rights Awards Reception – Spotlight! On Ms. Felice Gaer

Human Rights Awards Reception – Spotlight! On Ms. Felice Gaer

Our Human Rights Awards Reception takes place this Thursday, December 8, and today we are pleased to introduce you to Ms. Felice Gaer our Lois B. Sohn Human Rights Awardee.
Ms. Felice Gaer is currently the director of AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights and the Vice-Chair of the United Nations Committee Against Torture. If you would like to learn more about Ms. Felice Gaer’s work with the UN Committee Against Torture, her background and influences, please read on!  
UNA-NCA: Can you tell us about yourself and what led you to get involved in human rights work?
F.G.: I was a young Jewish girl growing up in the decade after the Holocaust – the more I learned about what had happened, and how the world ignored the signs of legaldiscrimination, organized incitement to hatred, official deportation policies and the actual practice of genocide in specially designed death camps, the more I felt it was important to be engaged in ensuring that the world in which I was growing up would be different. I was also inspired by Jewish ethics, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and knowledge of abuses in the world around me: The message of Rabbi Hillel, over two millennia ago, sums it up:  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am not for others, who am I?  And if not now, when?”  
UNA-NCA: Has there been an event or experience that has had a continuing impact on your life?
F.G.: Seeing first-hand the repression in the Soviet Union in the early 70s was certainly a key experience for me, as was the exhilaration when helping change someone else’s life for the better through direct human rights advocacy. Those experiences were multiplied again and again throughout the world, in Chile and China, in Sudan and Sri Lanka, in Bangladesh and Bosnia and elsewhere, on my visits related to human rights.
UNA-NCA: I learned that you studied and worked with a focus on the Holocaust, Eastern Europe and Soviet Russia at the beginning of your career. Can you please tell us how this has influenced your career trajectory?
F.G.: After graduate school, I was a program officer at the Ford Foundation, responsible for Eastern Europe and the USSR among other things. My travels to these countries were for fledgling projects to “build bridges,” to try to get communication started in various ways among experts and intellectuals. The intellectuals seeking real freedom stood out in so many ways—and it became clear to me that human rights always had to be a part of the picture in public and private sector activities regarding those countries. I knew the diplomats and business people of the world would tend to “building bridges” – but I also recognized pretty quickly that few people actually focused on the human rights side of the picture. I thought I had the skills and knowledge to make a difference on this – so I left Ford and began to work full time on human rights ---which I haven’t stopped doing.   
UNA-NCA: You have been a part of the UN Committee Against Torture since 1999, can you please tell us about your current role in the Committee and how you have been able to push for progress through the UN mechanism?
F.G.: Combatting torture and ill-treatment of our fellow men and women is a beginning, not the end of human rights—and we have such a long way to go. The need to combat it effectively is extraordinarily important. I had spent years using the mechanisms of international human rights bodies to advance the safety, freedom, and rights of men and women from all over the world. The opportunity to serve on one of these bodies has enabled me to raise cases, facts, concerns about this repression directly, eye-to-eye, with the representatives of those countries. Putting a formal spotlight on abusive practices and the need for change often has brought results. As an independent expert and an American, I have never flinched from asking tough questions – and some of the toughest are about torture and cruel treatment which continue to be inflicted despite the international treaty. It may seem surprising, but people from other countries generally don’t speak out as I do. But why else serve on such bodies?
For example, at the current session of the Committee against Torture, we examined the report of Sri Lanka, which has engaged in a lot of torture, sadly. One of the members of the delegation that came to discuss these issues with the Committee was the Director of National Intelligence. I found that during a difficult period in civil war in his country, he had been Deputy inspector general with responsibility for two government sections reliably linked to some of the most egregious reports of ongoing torture. I asked about it –point blank. And when I got no reply, I asked again the next day, more pointedly. I was stunned that no other member of the Committee did so. Why are they there if not to speak out at such a moment?
When I was rapporteur on the review of Saudi Arabia, I asked frank questions about corporal punishment – stoning, whipping, and amputation. About real people and cases like Raif Baddawi, the blogger who is imprisoned and has been lashed terribly.  And I do the same for every other country’s representatives. We had a difficult encounter with the representatives from the Holy See when I asked for statistics and other information on the reports of complicity in ‘priest shifting’ and avoiding investigations and prosecutions in cases alleged to involve sexual abuse of minors, like those detailed in the movie Spotlight. But it is surely essential to examine these issues if the Committee and other  international bodies are to have any real role to play in eradicating and preventing torture and other human rights abuses. I’m honored to have been entrusted with this responsibility.
UNA-NCA: Do you have any human rights heroes or role models you would like to share with us?
F.G.: I have written before about Andrei Sakharov, the brilliant Soviet scientist, dissident and Nobel Peace Laureate as a hero. His wife, Elena Bonner, was indeed another hero. I’m not sure I can do justice to so many other such courageous people I’ve admired, and learned from. But Sakharov stands out – he was a genius and a person at the pinnacle of a very stratified society, but he decided to speak out against repression of his fellow men and women, and never stopped. He bore witness to repression, by learning the facts, attending trials, writing appeals, travelling to see things when he could – and sadly, he was forcibly  ‘disappeared’—and imprisoned in Gorky for so many years because of his criticism of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—and his life was cut short by this, no doubt. As an elected member of the Parliament after his return from exile, he had so many wise proposals for change. If only he had lived longer, perhaps we would have seen a different Russia than we have today.  Sakharov’s life is a model for anyone interested in human rights protection and in moral courage.  
UNA-NCA: What are some ways you can suggest in which people who are interested in human rights can make an impact?
F.G.: Today there are many organizations that work professionally and full time on advancing human rights (this was not always the case). They all need financial support. Few of them are setup to enable volunteers to take action, but creative individuals can nonetheless figure out how to make a difference, either by working with such groups directly or taking action locally. The most important thing is to keep raising issues with people in positions of power, to keep working to strengthen the international and national organizations that are in a position to make a difference and to not to fall silent in the face of repression. I hope I’ve made it clear that it isn’t good enough to leave these issues to others—every person should treat these matters as personal, as the abuses can be applied to each of us if we don’t do enough to protect every one of us.  
UNA-NCA:  Anything else that you would like to add for our audience?

F.G.: I’ve been a big advocate for women’s rights as human rights—and your question reminds me to point out that human rights must be rights for all persons. You must see the world through different eyes and ensure that rights have meaning for all. As Eleanor Roosevelt, former First Lady of the US, put it, the destiny of human rights is in the hands of all of our citizens in all of our communities.
Thank you so much for your time! We look forward to learning more about the amazing work you have done and continue to do at the UNA-NCA Human Rights Awards Reception.


Human Rights Awards Reception - Spotlight! On Ms. Ritu Sharma

Human Rights Awards Reception – Spotlight! On Ms. Ritu Sharma
Human Rights Awards Reception – Spotlight! On Ms. Ritu Sharma
Our Human Rights Awards Reception is on December 8, and we are so excited to honor individuals and organizations dedicated to furthering human rights across the world and in our own community!
Today, we want to introduce you to our Perdita Huston Human Rights honoree, Ms. Ritu Sharma. Ms. Sharma is the co-founder and former president of Women Thrive Worldwide, an advocacy organization working to strengthen the global movement for gender equality. She now serves as the Director of the Global Center for Gender and Youth at the International Youth Foundation.
Before accepting her award later this week, Ms. Sharma took a few minutes to tell us more about her background, current pursuits, gender equality, and human rights.
UNA-NCA: How did learning of your parents’ experiences living in East India shape your work here in America?
R.S.: I grew up with an understanding of what my parents had left behind; the challenges that they faced. I felt extremely lucky growing up in the U.S. and wanted to always look at things from a global perspective, working to bridge worlds. Eventually, going to an international school in Wales sparked my interest in global social justice. Things just took off from there.
UNA-NCA: When did you first draw the connection between human rights, gender, and peace/conflict issues?
R.S.: I always knew that women had it hard and it wasn’t an equal world—that inequality was a force behind a lot of the world’s problems. But I couldn’t put words to it until I took a college course on women in development. I finally was introduced to a vocabulary to use for it—patriarchy, misogyny—and realized there’s a whole movement surrounding these issues. I realized then that this is it for me, and there was no looking back.
UNA-NCA: Are there significant experiences you’ve had that helped to ignite your passion for gender and human rights?
R.S.: I met an African woman at an international conference in D.C., and asked her, “What can women in the U.S. do to help women in your country?” She blew up at me! She said, “You need to fix your own government and stop them from doing harm overseas,” and this was the lightbulb moment when I realized I had the right to speak out as a U.S. citizen and tell my government what needed to be done. That’s when I got interested in women’s rights and what the U.S. government does globally to influence gender equality.
UNA-NCA: How have you worked to frame gender equality as more than “just a women’s issue?”
R.S.: We’ve succeeded in putting women and girls on the stage, sometimes to the detriment of men and boys. Women were always saying we wanted to be included, but not to the exclusion of men. We don’t want to repeat the same mistake of excluding half the population—to do to others what’s been done to us all these years. We’re trying to promote gender equality, which means liberating all of us from the negative barriers and constraints we have surrounding us.
UNA-NCA: What was your underlying mission in writing your book, Teach a Woman to Fish? What sort of lessons do you hope your readers gained?
R.S.: I wanted to help Americans realize that women who live in poverty around the world are changing their own lives. They’re smart, capable, powerful women, not always starving and struggling. The best way we can help them is to pressure our own government. The book is about America’s global impact, and how to engage our government to make positive changes abroad. It lays out exactly what can be done—for example, not just asking people to write to Congress but showing them exactly how to do that in a way that will get their letter read. It also covers topics like how we can use our purchasing power, by purchasing fair trade products, and how to ask store managers questions like, “Do you have a sweat shop policy?” It shows how can we use our voices to change systems that seem so much bigger than us—to remind us that we have much more power than we think.
UNA-NCA: When thinking about your leadership role at the Global Center for Gender and Youth at IYF, how do you think the organization’s work is impacting gender equality and human rights?
R.S.: If we’re going to live gender equality in our lifetime, we need to start working more with younger people. We conducted a recent poll with 7,600 youth worldwide that showed upwards of 80% of young people believe women should have the same rights as men. That’s really good news, but young people need the skills to live gender equality.
How can you negotiate gender equality in a marriage? What does that actually look like? How do we redistribute the power in relationships and keep them healthy and strong? I’m working on infusing gender equality and its underlying skills into IYF’s phenomenal life skills curriculum, Passport to Success, which is used every year with tens of thousands of youth. Let’s take it to another level where young people have the skills to live out gender equality.
UNA-NCA: What do you hope for when thinking about the progression of gender equality and human rights, locally as well as globally, through the UN?
R.S.: One of the best things the UN has done is to support local indigenous grassroots organizations. That’s one of the most fundamental roles for the UN to play, because often these organizations have nowhere else to go for funding. I’d love to see the UN expand that role, especially as we potentially see U.S. cuts on a global scale. I hope that other UN member states can step up and play bigger roles too. The global women’s movement owes a lot to the UN’s support, and its investment in movement building. I hope that the UN won’t shrink away from this role, but rather lean into it.