Keith Harper at the human rights council

PODCAST: Keith Harper was the first American Indian to Become a US Ambassador

When Keith Harper was confirmed as President Obama’s representative to the UN Human Rights Council he became the first American-Indian to achieve the rank of Ambassador. The longtime attorney for native American rights soon put his knowledge of tribal culture to use in Geneva where he represented the United States on the top UN human rights body.

Ambassador Harper is a Cherokee Indian. He was born in San Francisco and from an early age was animated by a civil rights movement known as “Red Power.” After law school he represented a number of Native Americans and Native American causes and this culminated in a multi-billion dollar class action lawsuit against the federal government that he successfully litigated.

We spend this first few minutes of this conversation with a timely discussion the work of the Human Rights Council. The Trump administration is currently deciding whether or not to continue American participation in the council, and Harper makes the case that despite its flaws American interests are better served working with the institution than criticizing it from the outside.

About the Human Rights Council

This is a 47 member body in which each member state is elected by the entire UN membership to three year terms. One of its flaws that critics sometimes identify is that some of the members of the council have pretty lousy human rights records themselves–and this is undoubtedly true. But the reason they get elected to is because the membership of the council is apportioned based on a UN principle known as equitable geographic representation. This means that a certain number of seats are reserved for a certain number of countries in each region. (There are more African countries than there are western European countries so it would stand to reason that Africa gets more seats.) Problem arise when regions negotiate amongst themselves to nominate an equal number of candidates as there are seats so you get uncompetitive elections that result in countries like Burundi getting a seat.

That is one of they key flaws of the council. American officials also consider its undue focus on Israel to be another problematic bug. But despite these flaws, Harper makes a compelling argument for why the United States should nonetheless stay engaged. He also discusses at length some tangible outcomes in the service of human rights that the council achieved while he was the US ambassador there.

If you have 45 minutes and want to learn about how the Human Rights Council work and how a pioneering individual became the first American Indian to become a US Ambassador, have a listen.

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