Human Rights Awards Reception - Spotlight! on Ambassador Keith Harper
By Tselmegtsetseg Tsetsendelger, UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee member
UNA-NCA will be holding their Annual Human Rights Awards Reception this year on Thursday, December 7th and is pleased to present this year’s F. Allen "Tex" Harris Diplomacy Human Rights Award to Ambassador (ret.) Keith Harper, the former United States Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Ambassador Harper is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and has focused his practice on Native American affairs as well as international clients as a current partner at Kilpatrick, Townsend & Stockton, LLP. UNA-NCA is recognizing the invaluable undertakings Ambassador Harper took relating to human rights domestically and internationally. Here are some insights he shared with us concerning his Ambassadorship, the UN Human Rights Council, and more.
UNA-NCA: How does your experience as a diplomat shape your understanding of human rights?
K.H: I have long believed that the advancement of human rights is not only the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do. It is self-evident that treating individuals fairly and honoring the dignity of each person is morally right. We often overlook though, that greater respect for human rights is also key, along with promoting rule of law, to set the foundation and sustaining greater stability, security and prosperity.
As a diplomat representing the United States promoting human rights, I better appreciated how our collective diplomatic work remains essential to establishing a world more observant of human rights norms. And it also became increasingly clear to me the essential necessity of American leadership. To be sure, the United States relies on our partners, but it is equally clear that we play a critical role as a leader of the free world. If the promotion of human rights is to be successful, America has to continue to do its part.
“I have long believed that the advancement of human rights is not only the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do. It is self-evident that treating individuals fairly and honoring the dignity of each person is morally right.”
UNA-NCA: Can you share a key personal takeaway from your time as an ambassador to the Human rights Council (HRC)?
K.H: The Human Rights Council is an imperfect institution but nevertheless plays an exceptionally critical role in promoting the protection of human rights. Often, we focus on that which the HRC has failed to do – it cannot stop the conflict in Syria nor prevent the humanitarian disaster in Yemen – nor frankly is it equipped to do so. What the Council can do is focus the world’s attention and document human rights violations and abuses.
In some instances, these actions can bring about changes on the ground as it did in Sri Lanka. In other instances, the HRC’s initiatives can lead to a fundamental shift in the international dialogue as occurred after publication of the Kirby Commission of Inquiry report on human rights situation in North Korea. The effectiveness of the Council is not preordained. So among the key takeaways for me is that our collective engagement matters but we also have to constantly ask the question in a world of limited resources – Will this action lead to some measurable change?
UNA-NCA: Your work before becoming ambassador focused more nationally than internationally. How has your experience at the HRC impacted your perspective of both international and domestic human rights efforts, and what do you see at the intersection of that?
K.H: Certainly, there are important distinctions between work to secure legal rights of individuals or communities in domestic settings as contrasted to the international sphere. For one thing, domestically, there is usually more effective enforcement of rights through judicial proceedings. As a litigator representing Indian Tribes, my experience domestically was to advocate—principally in the federal courts—for enforcement of rights on behalf of tribal communities. Domestically, you can bring a court action, make your case and be granted relief. But the courts are also equipped to enforce their rulings with orders and coercive powers including contempt where necessary. This stands in stark contradistinction with enforcing international human rights norms internationally. As with most international norms, the enforcement through political tools. This is the importance of treaty bodies and the High Commissioner and his office as well as bodies such as the Human Rights Council. Promotion of human rights takes concerted attention and effort from nations and nongovernmental entities. It requires the exercise of political coercion—shaming and documentation of abuses—and in rare cases economic coercive measures utilized against states transgressing settled norms.
UNA-NCA: You had quite a transition this year. What are you doing now and what are your plans for the future?
K.H: I have returned to practicing law as a Partner at Kilpatrick, Townsend & Stockton, LLP, the firm I was at prior to my ambassadorial tenure. I am also a Non-Resident Senior Fellow for National Security Policy at George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs. I am doing a mixture of representation of tribal nations in litigation and development projects as well as advising clients on navigating multilateral institutions and guiding various projects internationally.
UNA-NCA: Eleanor Roosevelt once said that unless human rights have a meaning close to home/locally, they have little meaning anywhere, and that "without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world." What are your reflections on that, and on what it means for action and prioritizing action?
K.H: Eleanor Roosevelt’s words resonate today because they capture a timeless truth. Human rights must be real on the ground and close to home. If freedom of the press or freedoms of speech, assembly, and association are under threat “close to home,” it makes it far more challenging—perhaps impossible—to effectively promote these and other rights globally. One of the things that should hearten us over the last year is the engagement of Americans in all levels whenever there has been a threat to our shared values or the undermining of our national norms. This is precisely the reaction we should have.
“One of the things that should hearten us over the last year, is the engagement of Americans in all levels whenever there has been a threat to our shared values or the undermining of our national norms. This is precisely the reaction we should have.”
UNA-NCA: In a similar vein, the US is still involved in the HRC as of now and we hope it will continue to be part of it. What are things we, in the States, and in the Nation's Capital particularly that can be doing to strengthen our involvement and to foster positive and accurate understanding of the UN, the HRC, and the importance of US involvement?
K.H: We have to do two things in my estimation. First, we have to be honest about the HRC’s flaws. It is inarguable, for example, that the Council has a hyper-focus on one country – the State of Israel. It is true that we have chipped away at this bias through active US engagement. But there is far more to do and we have to be steadfast in addressing this and other flaws that undermine the HRC’s credibility. Second, we have to be far better in discussing the many effective initiatives at the Council—many of which have had real world impact. To appreciate an institution, the world needs to know what its usefulness is. It can be uncomfortable to talk about success—but in this case it is vital to aiding the public to understand why it is critical to continue to engage at the HRC.
UNA-NCA: Which of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as they relate to Human Rights is most important to you and why?
K.H: This is a very difficult choice. My heart is attracted to Goal 1, ending poverty, and my mind to Goal 13, recognizing the criticality of collective climate action and Goal 16, which understands the need for peace and strong institutions as foundation for successful development. But if I had to choose one it would be Goal 5 – Gender Equality.
Policies, especially on something so essential as development, should be data driven. And what the data reveals is that countries who address rights of women and girls effectively—the full panoply of rights, including equal access to education, access to capital, addressing violence against women, elimination of nationality law discrimination, etc.—set themselves up for effective and sustainable development. And countries who fail to effectively promote rights of women and girls completely retard their economic development. Donor countries should be clear that they will support development strategies when they include gender equality and empowerment of women and girls—because that is an essential component of what will work.