Keith Harper, Cherokee, was the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council under president Barack Obama—the first Native American to carry the title of ambassador. He spoke with Indian Country Media Network both during and after his tenure. Below are his thoughts on Obama, President Donald Trump, and human rights around the globe.
How would you describe your relationship with President Barack Obama?
I have worked with the President since 2007, advising him and his campaign on Native American affairs in the 2008 presidential campaign, and I base my opinion of him on my personal interactions. I consider him among the greatest statesmen in my lifetime. More than any other leader I have worked with, he wants to do the right thing for the right reason, and he’s prepared to work very hard to get there. People can disagree with decisions he made, but I think it’s ignorance of the man he is to question his motives, because his motives have always been to do what is best for the United States and all of its citizens.
How did he communicate his thoughts and preferences and policies to you?
Most communications with me, as with most ambassadors, were through intermediaries at State (the U.S. Department of State) and the NSA (National Security Agency)—there is an entire well-established process. But I have had a chance to interact with the President directly. He is always thoughtful, compassionate, and wants to reach the right result for the American people.
Oftentimes, you will meet politicians and they want to know the politically correct answer, meaning the answer to get the support of constituents. They don’t necessarily want to understand the issue comprehensively. But President Obama always has an intellectual curiosity to fundamentally understand an issue, and I think that’s one of the bases of his success, because he comes to a conclusion based on the full understanding of the facts, the full understanding of the situation.
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I think he operates with the driving intent of, how do I achieve the best result given the totality of circumstances? Look at his policies regarding Indian country. There is a reason he is, bar none, the most pro-tribal president in United States history. He recognizes that there is a really tough history here, but there is a way to address current challenges, and that is in a true partnership, a nation-to-nation relationship. The policies that emerged regarding Indian Country from this administration are based on that foundation of mutual respect and partnership, addressing challenges together, empowering tribal communities, because they’re best positioned to work on the challenges they face, and he recognizes that.
He also recognizes the need to elevate the issues of tribal communities. That’s one of the reasons he did the Tribal Nations Conference every year—because it sent a strong message that these issues mattered. That’s something we in Indian Country should be very grateful for.
There’s a fairly high level of anxiety in Indian country about the Trump administration’s intentions to erode some of the great legal strides made during Obama’s tenure. Do you share that anxiety?
I do. I think we should hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst. I think the United States under President Trump is facing one of the starkest periods regarding our democratic institutions. We have a President who does not believe anything is sacred, does not believe in things that are the basic fundamentals and reasonable expectations of his office, like transparency in his finances. Nor do I think he has any regard for communities like Indian country.
One thing that could help is to have qualified Native folks work in the administration. My hope is that Republicans from Indian country are prepared to serve. They have an obligation to help the new administration understand Indian country, its needs, federal obligations and how to best address the challenges. But I don’t think we should be Pollyanna-ish here. There are real perils in this administration because of its unwillingness to be bound by facts and its unwillingness to do the tough work of evaluating which policies work rather than to just be guided by purely ideological ways of thinking. To the extent that there is encroachment on those things tribes care dearly about, we have to fight vigorously.
Did you appreciate the Native activism of the past few years, especially at Standing Rock?
I was glad to see that Indians and non-Indians alike were making their voices heard in peaceful protest, and I was alarmed by the overuse of force by security personnel, and it’s something that should be properly investigated by the Department of Justice. I was glad to welcome Chairman Archambault to Geneva, and we encouraged him to let his issues be known and encouraged him to present to the Human Rights Council.
Concerning Standing Rock, what other international approaches can Indian nations take to pursue justice?
We have very strong judicial institutions domestically, and I think they ought to work through those principally, and to the extent that those fail I certainly wouldn’t discourage peaceful protest. Folks have the right to go out there and say what they feel and believe. Now that I’m back in the private sector, I will look to support that in whatever manner I can. It is fine to raise things through international organizations, but those tend to be longer processes.
I live in northwestern Connecticut, which is all small towns and villages, and five hundred people showed up in a town that has a population of two thousand for a rally against the ban on Muslims.
We should be very encouraged by the unwillingness of everyday Americans to accept things that are un-American and things that are drastic departures from our values, and I hope it continues, but I also hope that it gets focused to actual political results. There’s a lot of work to do harnessing the energy in these peaceful protests and making sure that it is brought to bear to drive politics and policies in the right direction.
In your former post, how often did you hear criticism of the U.S. for such high-profile human rights causes such as Black Lives Matter or NoDAPL?
No nation in the world is free of human rights issues, and my question is always, Do we have processes that seek to address these challenges? I did hear [complaints about U.S. issues] from time to time. We had a number of instances where NGOs and Indigenous Peoples made comments regarding U.S. human rights issues, and I welcome that dialogue, because we have nothing to hide. I think that the U.S. issues are ones we should be prepared to address in an open and transparent manner, and when we do so, the United States leads [the world] by example. As President Obama said repeatedly, we are in a constant struggle to perfect the union, and tough conversations are part of that.
Multinational corporations often exploit racial, cultural and political divisions to pursue their economic goals. They may play by one set of rules in the Western world and another in less-developed nations. What means does the global community have to put human rights on equal footing with other geopolitical priorities?
Human rights law is by definition obligations of states to individuals, and that isn’t to say that companies can’t be involved in exploitation that has human rights implications, but it is the state that is principally obligated to address those things. Do I believe that there is exploitation by companies around the world, whether multinational or domestic? Absolutely—there are fishing rigs where for months on end individuals are working all day long and not getting paid, or paid very little, for example. It’s basically a modern form of slavery.
You’ve got sweatshops. You’ve got mineral extractions with grave environmental damage. We have to look at these things, but we also have to recognize that it’s always going to be better, wherever possible, to establish domestic mechanisms [to address them] because domestic mechanisms are hard law, right? You can go into court if there’s a strong judicial body, and you can get an order, and you can enforce your order by seizing assets or in some situations holding somebody in contempt and jailing them. In the international arena, there are far fewer enforcement mechanisms.
We ought to engage corporations; many want to do the right thing—while some do not care—and try to figure out how we can work collaboratively with a multi-stakeholder approach so that we can do better on some of these exploitative situations around the world.
Disenfranchised people suffer the most from institutional human rights abuses, whether overt, like police actions, or indirectly, like institutionalized racism. What’s the greatest impediment for governments to address these problems?
Here is the reality—what the empirical data show: Nations that observe human rights to a greater degree, have set the precondition to being more successful in sustainable development. Further, if we have sustainable and successful development, it will create the resources to build stronger institutions that will allow for greater observance of human rights. So human rights and development mutually reinforce one another. Let me give you a more granular example. What we know from study after study is that ensuring women’s rights are protected—education for schoolgirls, equal access to capital, equal pay in the workplace, access to sexual reproductive health care, et cetera—to the extent that states do better on those issues is the extent to which they are going to have more successful, sustainable development. Where states fail to address women’s rights issues, they completely undermine themselves politically, socially and economically. So ensuring women’s rights is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do, because it will enable you to have both a more equitable society and a more prosperous society.
In a case where a government is incorrigible, what means does the U.N. have of correcting that? Is it sanctions? Is it censure? Is it funding?
That depends on the circumstances. For example, the Human Rights Council does have certain tools at its disposal. Where we see a country has political will but maybe doesn’t have the resources to improve its human rights situation, then we can provide it an independent expert, or provide it technical assistance, or have the Office of the High Commissioner work with that country to improve. Where countries, on the other hand, fail to have the political will, then technical assistance and resources don’t work. For North Korea, Syria, Iran and other really bad actors, we have to shine a spotlight, determine the facts, and make sure that there are mechanisms to hold individuals accountable. These things often take much longer than we’d like, but we know that political pressure can work. Again, taking much longer than we’d like in many circumstances, but if you look at Myanmar, for example, there continues to be a severe problem vis-à-vis the [persecuted Muslim minority] Rohingya and Rakhine State [where most Rohingya live].
However, there is no doubt that where Myanmar is today is not where it was six, seven years ago. They’re in a much better state as far as its departure from autocracy and movement toward democracy. They still have much further to go, so we have to figure out what is the best tool in the particular circumstance to improve human rights in each of the countries.
Regarding the conflict in Syria, how much time at the U.N. was spent on triage versus documentation versus long-term solutions like ending the civil war?
The frustration regarding Syria during the Obama administration is that there are no good options. As for the Human Rights Council’s role, the Council simply is not set up to stop a conflict like Syria’s. What the Human Rights Council can do is appoint fact-finders. We appointed a commission of inquiry in order to determine the facts so that people could be held to account ultimately. It was also important to have the set of U.N. resolutions on Syria because it demonstrated that there was a large agreement in the international community that the folks responsible for the crisis were and are the Assad regime, committing some of the most gross and systematic abuses—use of torture and barrel bombs against civilian populations. Now, having said all that, the crisis continues in part because of the failure of the Security Council [to act] due to the Russian veto of any serious action in Syria. The other lesson we should take from Syria is that U.N. institutions are not built and are not intended to address every issue of a human rights violation or peace and security, because the U.N. gives five states veto power [China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States]. That means it’s not for a lack of desire by the United States to address the Syrian crisis. It’s the intransigence of the Russian Federation.
There are certain situations that the U.N. does not have the capacity to effectively address, and we should look at ways to reform it so it can do better. I think one of the problems with this new administration in the White House is they have great suspicion about and a lack of appreciation of all that international organizations do, and that is unfortunate because I think that in the absence of the U.N., the world would be far more unstable.
The Trump administration has shown signs of changing U.S. policy toward Russia. How important are human rights to the Russians?
They’re not important to the Russians. Look, human rights don’t stand alone. Human rights are part of what I would call “the international rule-based order.” Russia finds the international rule-based order antithetical to its goals. They are essentially a lawless state that exports lawlessness. Look at the opposition figures and reporters who have been killed. Look at the invasions in both Georgia and Ukraine. They have essentially invaded two countries, and have illegally attempted to annex Crimea, in essence, despite international commitments to respect territorial integrity. We’re dealing with a nation that has no respect for the international rule-based order, and so we shouldn’t expect it to have any respect for human rights. Russia lost its seat on the Human Rights Council in this most recent election; that’s an indication of the world seeing Russia for what it is, a lawless state.
So I hope the new administration does not fundamentally change course with Russia. Where our interests align, we should try to work with the Russians. But we should also continue to hold them to account and keep in place, for example, sanctions against the regime for undermining our democratic processes and invading Ukraine and attempting to illegally annex Crimea.
The Iran deal—good or bad for human rights?
Neither. I think the Iran deal has to do with nuclear arms and the nuclearization of the Middle East, which we want to avoid. Human rights issues were purposefully excluded from those discussions. Now, having said that, I do think our continuing focus on Iran’s human rights situation, which has not improved, and in some ways has deteriorated, especially vis-a-vis minority religions like Baha’i’s—we have to redouble our efforts to put pressure on Iran to address the situation. Unfortunately there are some states who see Iran’s willingness to agree to the nuclear arrangement as a reason to not focus as much on their human rights. I see it directly opposite: Now is the time to focus to a greater degree on their human rights situation.
The U.S. recently declined to veto the U.N. resolution on Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank. Can you talk about the change that represents?
I’m not going to be particularly helpful in this regard because I wasn’t part of the conversations that led to the decision, but let me say something generally about the conflict. I’m a firm believer that the only solution is a two-state solution, that all other possible solutions are filled with worse possible outcomes, and so I hope there is work in the new administration to get to a fair resolution where we have two states living side-by-side in peace and security.
What were some of the biggest challenges and some of the finest achievements of your tenure?
Representing the United States of America is the honor of a lifetime. It’s a privilege of a lifetime. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime to make real progress on issues I care a lot about. As far as things I’m most proud of during my tenure, there are four, maybe five things I thought were particularly important. One was working very closely with a broad coalition, including our friends in Latin America, to put in place an independent expert to evaluate discrimination and violence against LGBTI persons. Around the world, LGBTI persons are subject to serious violence, sometimes state-sponsored violence and serious discrimination, and this independent expert will help address that situation. Another thing that we worked very hard on is the reform on the expert mechanism on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. That’s a much-strengthened body now, and it will benefit indigenous communities around the world because it can better work with states to achieve the ends of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I think the United States working with key partners like the United Kingdom regarding Sri Lanka has really transformed Sri Lanka, and that’s due to action we took in the Human Rights Council. It’s still two steps forward, one step back, but there is no doubt Sri Lanka is on a much better path because of our efforts. We also changed the conversation regarding North Korea. It used to be that certain states would argue that the nature and scope of their human rights violations was not as grave as we and others charged. But the Council set up a Commission of Inquiry led by Justice Kirby and his colleagues, and they produced an excellent detailed, evidence-based report. Now, the debate has shifted. Countries no longer challenge that North Korea has a disastrous record on human rights. Their argument now is focused on how best to address the situation; that’s a very important shift. The final thing I would add is that, prior to my tenure, there had never been an event that His Holiness the Dalai Lama had participated in during a U.N. proceeding, and we changed that. We hosted him at an event with Nobel Prize Laureates and talking about human rights during the tenth anniversary of the Human Rights Council. Despite great pressure by China not to allow him to participate, we pushed ahead, and that’s an important precedent.
What does the future hold for you?
I have just rejoined [my old law firm] Kilpatrick Townsend, and I will continue to work with tribal communities to try to achieve the things that they define as their objectives. In addition, I intend to continue to do work internationally on human rights, but also development issues, et cetera. I’m excited to be back at Kilpatrick and excited to continue to work with tribes.
Are you interested in an elected position?
What about a nomination to the high court?
[Laughing] I am seriously doubtful I will be under consideration for that over the next four years.