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.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Human Rights Awards Reception – Spotlight! On Ms. Lori Kaplan

Human Rights Awards Reception – Spotlight! On Ms. Lori Kaplan

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 Community Human Rights honoree, the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC).
LAYC creates safe spaces to work with low-income youth of all backgrounds through a variety of services including bilingual programs and opportunities in academics, arts and recreationjob readiness, safe housing, and health and wellness to help youth make a successful transition to young adulthood. They also advocate for policies and laws that create opportunities for youth and their families in our region.

Ms. Lori Kaplan, the President and Chief Executive Officer of LAYC, will accept the Community Human Rights Award later this week. We took a few minutes to catch up and chat about her background, current pursuits, LAYC’s impact, and human rights.
UNA-NCA: To start out on a lighter note—we know that you completed your master’s degree in education at the George Washington University. With an undergraduate degree in anthropology, how did you enter into the academia forum? We would love to hear about those experiences and the continuing impact on your life. 

L.K.: In 1979 I saw an ad in the newspaper for the LAYC for volunteers. I was an office manager at the time and when I walked into the center I never walked out. When I first started as a volunteer, it was a very small, fledgling, grassroots organization with strong values, fun and wonderful people …that was almost 40 years ago. Along the way, I decided to go back to school for adult education and became very fortunate to become a part of what we do at LAYC. I did not set out to be an executive director, it sort of happened that way.

UNA-NCA: Your passion for education in the National Capital Region has led to a resounding impact within the Maryland and Washington, DC school systems. How do you see your initiatives lending themselves to UNA-NCA’s mission to prepare present and future leaders to work for a better world, both globally and locally?

L.K.: I have seen so many success stories. Three of the four charter schools founded were meant to re-engage students that have dropped out and were not on educational or career pathways. These are second chance schools, grounded in respect for young people with an interest to help some that got off track get back on track. If you don’t catch them when they’re young, then their prospects can become bleak later on, and you cannot take a generation of young people and forget about them. That’s the generation that needs the youth center the most.

UNA-NCA: In your February 26, 2016 blog, “Today’s Dreamers, Tomorrow’s Leaders,” you highlighted the Dream US, an advocacy organization that helps undocumented young people go to college when a shortage of money would otherwise prevent them from doing so.

L.K.: “Dream US is a very competitive scholarship program. We have seen an influx of immigrants who have come here to take advantage of education opportunities and often times their experience has been disrupted. It’s tough, they aren’t where they want to be as their grade and ability to speak English aren’t in the same place. There are certainly challenges along the way that we are here to help to overcome.”

UNA-NCA: You have worked hard to engage and partner with other organizations to champion youth. What have been some of your biggest challenges and greatest successes in that expanding area?

L.K.: We are a comprehensive program and serve as a link to resources outside of the center. Partnerships are important because no one organization has the capacity to manage everything. Our goal is to speak to all aspects of a young person’s life. We want to connect all of the dots for young people so that they can succeed. Many of our alumni return to LAYC to give back. Some challenges we see are barriers facing undocumented or homeless families. While we do house families, there is a waiting list. We also see hunger, food and mental health issues at LAYC. Therefore we work with federal agencies to assist in meeting these needs where we cannot.

UNA-NCA: How do you see the work that you do at the Latin American Youth Center making an impact in these areas? 

L.K.: I do feel confident that the center will be around for years to come. There are seemingly a lot of unknowns, specifically with the incoming administration. We receive a lot of federal funding and hope not to lose funding streams or see deportations or negative impacts to Dreamers. The national conversation has become pretty challenging regarding these young people. We will stay strong in our commitment to our values, diversity and inclusiveness. We will stay the course and continue to support our young people. This recognition for our work in the area of human rights is very important. It represents our commitment to standing for social justice issues, multi ethnic, racial, faith, gender and identity. Social justice work has been so much a part of our fabric since our inception.
UNA-NCA: Thank you so much for your dedication to serving our community and improving the lives of low-income youth. We look forward to learning more about your work later this week.

To find out more about LAYC and their work in our community, please join us at the UNA-NCA Human Rights Awards Reception on Thursday, December 8. You can register here

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Human Rights Awards Reception – Spotlight! on Mr. Eric Richardson

By Christina Morales Hansen, Co-Chair, Human Rights Committee

UNA-NCA is pleased to present this year’s F. Allen "Tex" Harris Diplomacy Human Rights Award to Mr. Eric Richardson. Mr. Richardson is a 20-year veteran of the Foreign Service and an attorney who has spent much of the past 15 years working to improve human rights around the world. He is currently the Political-Economic Counselor at the U.S. Embassy for Libya, based in Tunis, Tunisia. For the previous three years, he served as the deputy to the U.S. Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, for which he was nominated for this award. Mr. Richardson was kind enough to share some of his insights with Christina Hansen, Board Member and Co-Chair of the Human Rights Committee.

C.H.: Can you tell us a little about yourself and what motivated you to enter into a career in diplomacy?

E.R.: I have always wanted to work in foreign affairs -- the only question for me was whether I would do so as a foreign correspondent, an international lawyer or as a diplomat, which are the three aspects of careers I have pursued at various points in my life. My parents taught me the value of public service and, even as a boy, I was interested in working in foreign affairs. My grandmother would tell me stories of her visits to China and Japan, her family's experience growing up in Austria/Poland, and my grandfather's experience leaving Ukraine (then Russia). In high school, I had a great debate coach, Denny Anderson, who motivated us to research international affairs during a season when the national debate topic was U.S. arms sales policy. Despite being from a small high school in Caro, Michigan, we walked away with a State championship. Then, studying international relations at Stanford, my interest was confirmed when I spent the summer of 1987 in Poland studying the role of the press in political dissent. This was Poland before the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the Poles were so open, interested in democracy, and trapped by their geography that it again motivated me to really focus on how dissent can transform a country and, in Poland's case, escape authoritarianism for a democratic future. That particular focus on dissent, democracy and how people help transform their country to escape an authoritarian government really has shaped my career, whether writing my Master's thesis on the role of terror as a tool to suppress dissent in Cambodia and Burma, in the legal pro bono work I did for Guatemalan refugees, or in my work as a diplomat.

C.H.: Wow, so your interest in these issues truly spans your whole life! You’ve been able to work all around the world on these issues throughout your career. How does your experience as a diplomat shape your understanding of human rights?

E.R: I'm probably a bit of a rarity in that it was  my understanding of human rights that has shaped my experience as a diplomat, rather than the other way around. When I was in law school at Michigan, I focused a lot on civil liberties, especially our First Amendment liberties and issues of non-discrimination. I never really bought the political theory that peoples or states were ready for "post-materialist values" like freedom of expression only after they reached a certain stage in their development. So, I always wanted as a diplomat to find a way to explore and advocate for those fundamental freedoms for states in the developing world, especially with respect to rights involving the U.S. First Amendment and non-discrimination. I have been fortunate to receive assignments, whether in Geneva working for the UN Human Rights Council or elsewhere, that allowed me to help implement our diplomacy in a way that was consistent with these very American values.

C.H.: Your approach to diplomacy makes a lot of sense. Not only does that promote consistency with American values, it also aligns with our national interests. Is there an issue or area that you are particularly passionate about?

E.R.: In many ways, my job as U.S. human rights officer in China was my dream job. The possibilities to move a society forward through focus on dissent and the rule of law have always interested me. As with many issues today, those impacting China are among the most fascinating and will help decide the future direction of the world. The human rights activists I met in China were among the smartest, most creative, and most patriotic people I have known. So the future of China and human rights is probably my most specific passion.

I am also very interested in the future of human rights in Africa. Working in Geneva, I was repeatedly impressed by African diplomats who took the unpopular step of breaking from African "solidarity" to defend African people's rights, whether in their own or neighboring countries. Time and again, African diplomats worked together at the UN Human Rights Council to address the most challenging issues in Africa, such as trying to prevent atrocities in South Sudan or Burundi. The diplomats who took these stands were not only those from African democracies, but diplomats of strength and goodwill from places as varied as Algeria, Benin, Cote d'Ivoire and Ethiopia. Two examples that come to my mind are Somali Ambassador Yusuf Ismail Bari-Bari and Ghanaian Deputy Permanent Representative Ebenezzer Appreku. In Ambassador Bari-Bari's case, he was a tireless champion of the rights of women in Africa, including victims of sexual violence in his native Somalia, and he single-handedly focused the United Nations on the mistreatment faced, especially in Africa, by People with Albinism. Ebenezzer Appreku was a passionate voice for the need for Africans to speak up to prevent atrocities on the continent. Having experienced human rights challenges in his home country and knowing how the United Nations came to Ghana's aid through assistance offered by the UN Peacebuilding Commission, Appreku effectively debunked the myth that commentary on human rights situations in other countries was unwarranted "interference in internal affairs." Sadly, both of these friends were taken from us during the years I worked with them in Geneva: Ambassador Bari-Bari fell victim to an al Shabbab bullet, while Mr.Appreku died of a heart attack earlier this year. These two diplomats also illustrate something fantastic about the United Nations: You do not have to come from a large or wealthy country to make a difference in the world.

Finally, I love the art, and the game, of international negotiation. Courtesy of my State Department career, I have had the chance to observe some pretty amazing negotiators. These included UN Undersecretary Jeff Feltman who was one of my bosses in Tel Aviv as we tried to implement the Oslo Accords, and Ambassador Chris Hill, whom I worked for during the Six-Party Talks on the North Korean nuclear issue. I hope to write a book about international negotiations someday building on these experiences and my experiences in the United Nations, so that is definitely another passion of mine.

C.H.: I would love to read your book about your experiences! I hope you can write that soon. I’d like to talk a little more about your work at the UN. As you know, the United States was just reelected to the UN Human Rights Council for three years. As a key member of the US Mission to the UN in Geneva, you must be very pleased. What challenges and opportunities exist in implementing the US’s human rights commitments and pledges?

E.R.: The UN Human Rights Council is so much more active in advancing human rights standards and criticizing human rights violators when the United States is a member of the HRC, I am very pleased that UN member states saw fit to elect the United States to a new three-year term. I hope we continue to serve as a catalyst, working with partners around the globe to speak up for universal values and to shine a spotlight on those who would violate human rights.

C.H.: For the first time, the UN and the US will have new leadership in the same month. How do leadership transitions impact your job and human rights policies at the State Department?

E.R.: Having just come out of a divisive election in the United States, I feel confident that America's leaders will come together to ensure that human rights remains an important bipartisan pillar of our foreign policy. Universal human rights values are American values, so I see advocacy for human rights as a central part of American greatness in the world. I had the privilege of working as a Pearson Fellow for former House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress. Mr. Lantos taught me a lot about giving a voice to those who are voiceless and speaking truth to power. Whether it was his criticism of companies that violated Internet freedom, his support for President Bush's focus on stopping AIDS in Africa, or his determination to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama when other political figures would not do so, Mr. Lantos almost always found common cause with colleagues across the aisle to advocate for policies and legislation that made a real difference on human rights around the world.

I am also very optimistic for the United Nations. I had a few opportunities to meet incoming Secretary General Guterrres while I worked in Geneva and I think he will be an important voice on human rights and humanitarian issues at a time when that voice is sorely needed in the world. As we see from Libya, a beachhead from which literally hundreds of migrants take to the seas every week in an effort to find a better life in Europe, the human toll the migration crisis takes on our world is something that no single state or regional institution can address. We need the United Nations to step up and find a way to address this crisis, as well as to address many other important issues of peace and security in the world today.

C.H.: Speaking of transitions, you just took a new position as the Political Economic Counselor for Libya. Will you have an opportunity to work on human rights issues in your new role? I’ve been to Geneva in springtime and it was freezing, are you looking forward to the warmer weather at your office in Tunisia.

E.R.: Since my arrival in August, working on Libya has been great and I am part of a fantastic team at our Libya External Office in Tunis that covers all aspects of Libya's political, security and economic situation, including of course human rights. Early in the Arab Spring, in 2012, I had the chance to visit both Tunisia and Libya. I was so impressed with the sacrifices the Tunisians had made for their revolution and the hospitality they were showing to the Libyans who were fleeing the war with Qaddhafi, even though Tunisia's own economy was overwhelmed. I also was very impressed with those Libyans who were trying to make a difference in their society. I was very used to dealing with governments who denied their human rights violations. Libyans were a refreshing exception. They were candid about the challenges that faced the government and armed groups, acknowledged their failings -- including mistreatment of those in detention -- and genuinely wanted help to learn how to understand and incorporate international standards into their domestic structures of law and human rights. Just last week, I met with a group of Libyan human rights lawyers who were receiving training in these international standards that was sponsored by the American Bar Association. Their persistence and bravery in pressing for human rights despite the very real security and political challenges in Libya really impressed me and makes me optimistic for Libya's future.

And yes, I have enjoyed the Mediterranean weather.

C.H.: It is wonderful that you are so optimistic! We look forward to seeing what you can accomplish in Libya in your new position. I am sure it will be another interesting chapter in your book.  On a personal note, what would surprise your peers to learn about you?

E.R.: I love music and theater. While I was in Geneva working for our delegation to the UN Human Rights Council, I sang the National Anthem at the Mission July 4 party as part of a Barbershop Quartet. I also performed in Cabaret, CATS and Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang with the Geneva Amateur Operatic Society. Fortunately, my kids got the real performing talent ... my oldest Siena is about to graduate with a degree in theater from the Tisch School at NYU, my middle daughter Maya has directed some great high school productions, and my son Zac is a budding guitarist.

C.H.: As a theater buff, I am very impressed and I am glad your musical talents were passed on to your children.

Lastly, what do you think is your greatest accomplishment related to human rights?

E.R.: My friend John Kamm of the Duihua Foundation in San Francisco likes to say that you cannot be interested in human rights without being concerned about individual human beings. Some of my greatest accomplishments have been to help in negotiating the release of political prisoners, like American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were held in North Korea, or the release of the founder of the China Democracy Party Wang Youcai from custody in China. Youcai's release was for me a particularly touching one because we are about the same age and had similar life experiences that led up to the point of our meeting when Chinese authorities brought him from prison and released him to my custody in the Shanghai airport. He had been told that he was being sent to the United States for medical care but he thought he would be coming back to China afterwards. I had the hard job of conveying to him that, if he got on the airplane with me to freedom in the United States, he was likely to be exiled and might never be able to return to see his family in China. Helping someone whose personal story shows such dedication to the cause of human rights is something I was very proud to be a part of. Not only was I put in a place where I could help Youcai make that tough decision, but his story had a happy ending. In time, Youcai adjusted to life in the United States, received a post-doctorate degree, and found a job in finance in New York City. Chinese authorities allowed his wife to leave China for America where they are now living the American dream, together with their son William. Being involved in those kind of situations which make a concrete difference in the lives of human rights activists is definitely my proudest human rights accomplishment.

C.H.: Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us more about yourself. We look forward to learning more at the UNA-NCA Human Rights Awards Reception.


Please join us on December 8th to celebrate Eric Richardson’s achievements and our other human rights champions at the UNA-NCA Human Rights Awards Reception. You can register here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

What's In a Story?

by Heather Hill, Co-Chair, Human Rights Committee

Last week, members and friends of the UNA-NCA celebrated an incredible legacy together at the book launching of UNA-USA: A Little Known History of Advocacy and Action."

UNA-USA: A Little Known History of Advocacy and Action documents this outstanding legacy with pieces from previously unpublished letters, documents, images, and interviews. This project was initiated and directed by former UNA-USA President and CEO, Edward Elmendorf. James Wurst, a UN journalist and analyst of much renown, took the lead on writing, in collaboration with Dulcie Leimbach of Pass-Blue, who joined the project as editor and fellow researcher. The Tuesday night event included a reception, book signing, remarks from all the contributors as well as current UNA-USA Executive Director Chris Whatley and UNA-NCA President, former US Ambassador Donald Bliss, and a panel discussion and question time with the audience. 

"It's remarkable, the influence that individuals [in UNA-USA] had with almost no recognition," Wurst commented in his remarks. And indeed, the pages of the book teem with stories of tireless advocacy, wearying travel, and little reward beyond the personal satisfaction that UNA-USA members and leaders over the years found in their mission and their efforts. In fact, it is notable that at the beginning, the UNA-USA executive director had a number of meetings with President Roosevelt, working closely with him towards the creation of what became the United Nations.

One of the most wonderful aspects of the event was the clear understanding that this book will not be the "Complete" history of UNA-USA, but rather, an incredibly inspiring collection of stories leading up to these past few years. Already, there are more stories to be written and more currently unfolding as the chapters of UNA-USA are alive across the States and UNA's in different countries - span across the world. It was inspiring, not only to hear some of the stories from history at this event, which I promptly dived into, but to know that the room was full of people who are continuing this history. A UNA-USA history at Seton Hall University will enrich the history further with UNA-USA documents and transcriptions of interviews undertaken for the book. Further oral history contributions are planned. 

"You know it. You lived it. You made it happen. - This is your history," Wurst stated, and he is right. The book is surprising, fascinating, and deeply inspiring--and the time is still ours. UNA-USA is the story of absolutely ordinary people doing extraordinary things together. That's inspiring in itself, and that is why I am proud to be a member, proud to belong to such an auspicious group of dedicated civilians and public servants, and proud to be part of the legacy--the ongoing history--outlined in the book. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

Why Model U.N. Matters: Words from a U.S. Diplomat

by Luis F. Mendez, Una Chapman Cox Fellow and U.S. Foreign Service Officer

I admit it. I heart Model U.N. Twenty years ago (yikes), it helped change the trajectory of my life, and it may help change yours too. Allow me to explain.

So how does a troublemaker from the Bronx, New York end up a Model U.N. enthusiast? The answer: Mr. Jackson, a teacher who believed the program would do me some good. He was right. I was immediately intrigued. Laos, Namibia, Yugoslavia - I hadn't the slightest clue where these countries were located, but I was now interested in learning everything I could about them. I spent the rest of my high school and collegial years mastering U.N. decorum, conquering my fear of public speaking, and making lifelong friends.
Laos, Namibia, Yugoslavia – I hadn’t the slightest clue where these countries were located...
Luis listening to Malian Refugees share their inspiring stories.
After graduation, I found myself missing the hustle and bustle of Model U.N. I immediately began seeking a career that would allow me to work on the critically important issues we tackled during our simulations. One morning, I stumbled across a job capsule that read, “Join the Department of State and change the world”. Yes, please! The opportunity to experience different cultures and customs while helping to promote peace around the world was a perfect fit. I built up the courage to apply and was surprised at how much my model U.N. experience helped during the grueling Foreign Service entrance exam. Eight years of Model U.N. had prepared to think on my feet, write under pressure, and work in teams - three critically important components to the test. I haven’t looked back since. 

In addition to refining my writing, debating, and problem solving skills, I learned some invaluable life lessons in Model U.N. that I’ve turned to time and time again as an American diplomat. I’d like to share two of those with you today. 

1. Don’t be afraid. The issues I’ve dealt with as a diplomat have been complex, nuanced, and sometimes heartbreaking. There are often no easy answers, but what makes this job amazing is trying to solve the unsolvable problems. As Model U.N. delegates you will be asked to tackle difficult issues – migration, terrorism, and climate change. Model U.N. will teach you not to be afraid to dive in, to be bold and ambitious, to ask the tough questions, and take risks. If you happen to fail (and I have many a time), you’ll learn to re-calibrate and try again. 

2. All voices matter. Over the past 11 years in the Department of State, I’ve spent hours listening to often-neglected voices around the world. Listening to Nigerian refugees share horrifying tales of persecution by Boko Haram. Listening to Mexican citizens describe the devastating toll of drug trafficking organizations in their communities. Finding common ground and developing consensus begins with listening. Model U.N. will teach you to listen even to those you may not agree with and those marginalized. 

At its core, Model U.N. is about making you more empathic towards others, respectful of diverging opinions, and informed global citizens. That’s why Model U.N. matters to me and that’s why it should matter to you!

This is part of a series by Global Classrooms DC, an education program under the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area that uses Model United Nations as an activity and tool to teach international issues and geopolitics to students grades 6 – 12. Many of the current and former interns and staff have participated in Model U.N., and for many it has been a reason for the field we study and ultimately has a soft place in our hearts. Over the next few weeks, we will share with you our memories of Model U.N., and the reasons we believe it matters. This series was sparked by the publication of “What Model U.N. Is, and Why It Matters,” by Spencer Mariotti in The Huffington Post – Teen Edition

Thursday, August 11, 2016

A Look at the Foreign Policies of the 2016 Presidential Election: Libertarian Ticket

By Ryan Guerra, UNANCA Staff

Two weeks ago I took a look at the Republican Presidential ticket, last week I took a look at the Democratic Presidential ticket, and this week I’m looking at a surprise contender in the political game.

Relatively unknown until recently, the Libertarian Party has made incredible strides this election cycle. The party is polling nationally around 10-13% according to multiple polling groups, which gives them the potential to hit the debate stage this fall. A more unfamiliar party on the national stage, it hasn’t been vetted like the Democratic and Republican Parties. This year the Libertarians have chosen Gary Johnson and Bill Weld as their Presidential and Vice-Presidential nominees, former governors of New Mexico and Massachusetts respectively, who give the Libertarian ticket much needed executive experience.
The official platform of the Libertarian Party “would end the current U.S. government policy of foreign intervention, including military and economic aid”. This includes ending involvement with the United Nations. Libertarians also have the view that the US shouldn’t be in any entangling alliances. They believe that we should have a strong military for defensive purposes but little engagement with the International Community beyond that. The platform also states.

“Political freedom and escape from tyranny demand that individuals not be unreasonably constrained by government in the crossing of political borders…however, we support control over the entry into our country of foreign nationals who pose a credible threat to security, health, or property.”

The Libertarian Party, while unwilling to enter into entangling alliances, is a proponent of offering refuge to more people fleeing political persecution of war—but with the caveat of making sure refugees are vetted before being allowed across our borders. Presidential hopeful Gary Johnson breaks from his party’s traditional platform in an important way, taking a stance more similar to that of the Republican Party’s platform on the United Nations. Johnson supports the United States remaining in the UN, but maintaining a smaller role. He believes that it is important for the US to be involved with the UN in such a globalized world, but thinks that we can avoid being involved in unwanted foreign entanglements by taking a step back from being the “International Police Officer” of the world. He agrees with his own party’s platform when it comes to refugees.

Taking a step back from our role in the United Nations is not beneficial to the International Community or to the United States. By cooperating with the United Nations, the US is able to help create peace and ensure that human rights are held to a high standard globally. Through advocacy and education, the UNA-NCA aims to garner support and understanding for the United Nations in the US and to not only promote the ideals it stands for, but to advocate for those who have no other voice and have become displaced in this world. . The international community can make a powerful difference, and we should be a part of that strategy, action, and impact.

Who becomes our next President will determine much of the future for US – UN relations and the global field; so this election cycle, make sure that you vote. Every vote matters and you can make a difference right there by campaigning for your chosen candidate and promoting issues that you view as important to be included in the election dialogue. Don’t stand by; step in.