Keith Harper on Indigenous Rights, Redskins and the Israel/Hamas Conflict
Keith Harper, a Cherokee Nation citizen, was nominated by President Barack Obama to serve as the United State ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council and confirmed by the U.S. Senate on June 3, 2014. Harper is the first citizen of a federally recognized tribe to reach the rank of U.S. ambassador. He arrived in Geneva a week after his Senate appointment and has been on the job non-stop since then.
Harper’s ambassadorship caps two decades of legal work on behalf of Native Americans, including a partnership at the law firm of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP, where he was chair of the Native American Practice Group; senior staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund; Supreme Court Justice on the Supreme Court of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians; and appellate justice on the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court.
ICTMN was pleased for the opportunity to conduct this interview. “This will be my first on-the-record interview since assuming my position so I wanted to be sure we did it with [a publication from] Indian country,” he said.
What is your mission as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council?
I represent the United States at the council. The council is a 47 member-state body elected by the member states of the U.N. and its purpose is to promote human rights, plain and simple. It’s one of the three principal institutions of the United Nations so it plays a vital role in promoting human rights and we assert the positions of the United States vis-à-vis human rights. And the mission is that we have interests in assuring the expansion of freedoms – freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, among others. Certainly, the United States has important interests in assuring that countries live up to their obligations regarding human rights internationally, and there are a variety of mechanisms at the council’s disposal in order to shed a light on bad actors and bad situations and to otherwise establish best practices and provide technical assistance where needed.
What’s your typical day like when the council is in session?
Council sessions are very busy. They are chock-full of meetings where we’re negotiating texts on resolutions especially ones the United States cares deeply about. That would include things like freedom of expression, women’s rights, rights of Indigenous Peoples and country-specific resolutions where, for example, in the case of Syria you have mass atrocities going on for extended periods of time the United States took a leadership role in passing a resolution not only condemning the atrocities, but laying the groundwork for ultimate accountability for those committing such atrocities. So the council sessions are a busy time when we’re going through the process of finalizing documentation in order to pass very sound, effective resolutions and at the same time we’re making interventions, meaning we are identifying subject areas in which we have something important to say. … [I]n the June session we thought it was critically important to highlight the scourge of violence against Native women, indigenous women worldwide, that in far too many places, far too often and for far too long indigenous women have been subject to extraordinary violence and too often it goes unabated. So we thought it was important to highlight that situation and press states to find better ways to address those circumstances.
Can you actually affect policy? Do you have real tools to work with—a budget, a means to impose penalties or sanctions on violators?
Absolutely. I think it’s a demonstrable fact that the U.N. Human Rights Council’s actions have made a difference on the ground in a number of countries. … One, there is an ability to document through mandate-holders whether they be a special rapporteur or commissions of inquiry appointed by the council to go out and actually find the facts because what’s critically important here is not to debate the facts [but] to understand what the facts are and then one can understand what to do about the situation. And this leads to the ability to hold accountable not only states but also individuals within those states for violations of human rights. It’s also within the council’s power to provide technical assistance. What we find often is that states have a willingness to do better and bring themselves in line with their human rights obligations but don’t necessarily have the capacity to do so. So this technical assistance is critical to aiding them and enabling them to do better with human rights whether that be expanding freedom of expression, ensuring freedom of the press, making sure that there’s not extra-judicial killings – a whole variety of issues. So I think the council’s role is critical. The other piece that I don’t want to lose here is where the council acts on what we call thematic issues – things like insuring the protection of women, expanding the protection of children, taking steps against human trafficking, addressing concerns regarding Indigenous Peoples, having protections in place for LGBT persons. There’s a whole variety of thematic issues that we work on as well and these are a way to establish best practices, to appoint special rapporteurs to ensure that we are highlighting countries in which the practices are less than what they should be and also finding places where best practices have been established so that other countries can do the same.
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