• November 2012

Insights from the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Human Rights

When it comes to defining what it means to be a Truly Amazing Woman, sometimes it’s the work a woman does—from running a multimillion-dollar business, and founding a philanthropic organization, to being a bestselling author or an internationally renowned artist.

Sometimes it’s just who she is, what she has overcome, and the fact that she is willing and able to share those life lessons with the rest of us.

When it comes to Karen Hanrahan, it’s a powerful combination of all of the above.

We met Deputy Assistant Secretary of Human Rights and Democracy Karen Hanrahan in 2008—before she had this top job in the Obama administration at the US Department of State.

At the time, she was a senior advisor to the Iraqi minister of human rights.

And soon after, she became the director and COO of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, where she led a comprehensive project for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to redefine how the US government practices international development and diplomacy.

These positions are but many high-level jobs she has held in her illustrious career, which began after graduating with a Political Science and Journalism degree at Indiana University in 1992. While in college, she took the first steps along her path to work internationally when she spent a year abroad in Morocco, studying at the King Fahd Arabic Language School in Tangier, and the School of International Training in Rabat.

Hanrahan then got her MA in International Politics at American University in 1995; and in 2000 finished her Law degree—with honors and at the top 5 percent of her class—at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle. While there, she was the Law Review editor and a research assistant for Professor Joan Fitzpatrick, a federal public defender who has written habeas corpus petitions for indefinitely detained immigrants, and an assistant mediator at the US Court of Appeals.

If that’s not impressive enough, Hanrahan capped her education with a degree from the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School in 2008.

It is our privilege to interview Hanrahan, who recently added a new title to her resume: Mom! She and her husband, Dean, a truly amazing man in his own right, are the proud parents to Jordan, now almost 2. Scroll down for our Q&A.


Be Inkandescent: Tell us a little bit about your background, the jobs you have held, as well as your education.

Karen Hanrahan: I started out knowing at a relatively young age that I wanted to work on international justice issues. My mother was very socially aware, especially of international events. So I’ve known at least since high school that I wanted to do international human rights and justice work.

I feel extremely fortunate that I have had the opportunities that I have had to get to do that kind of work. I followed that path as soon as I could.

I worked at nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International, Search for Common Ground, and the United Nations doing international human-rights work in places like Afghanistan, the West Bank, and Gaza and other usually very unstable countries. Sometimes in the midst of conflict and sometimes coming out of conflict.

At some point along the way, I think I realized that I was more of an advocate than I was a peacemaker. I know that those are not always mutually exclusive, but I decided to go to law school very much because the experience I had working in the West Bank and Gaza heightened my sense of what I was meant to do in this world, and that was to advocate for the right of people who were being oppressed or abused.

Basically I just followed my instincts—including working for the government, working for USCID, and for the State Department in Iraq, as well as the United Nations in Afghanistan. I have also worked for private companies that integrated human rights in the security sector form efforts in countries in Africa and elsewhere. All of that put me on a path to where I am right now.

Be Inkandescent: Talk a little about your previous work. What were you doing when we met in 2008, and what have you done since you took this top job in the Obama administration?

Karen Hanrahan: I worked with the United Nations in Afghanistan as a protection officer, which meant that I did a lot of human rights monitoring, training, and capacity building for local government officials.

I did a study on women and girls in remote areas of Western Afghanistan where I met very young child brides, usually 8 or 9 years old. I found myself sometimes in very unusual situations, such as having to stand in front of a room of mullahs, Afghan religious leaders, “training” them on human-rights issues.

I put the word “training” in quotes because that was required for them to get any food assistance or any assistance from the UN. Although the intention is right and correct, most of what I was talking about, even though it was tailored to them, wasn’t always useful for their reality.

At the time, a lot of the Afghan families I interacted with were verging on starvation because there was a drought. Some of them would have one meal a day. It was just a very difficult and challenging situation.

On the bright side, a lot of committed people were in Afghanistan working to protect the rights of those around them. There were a lot of displaced people in refugee camps or displaced people camps. So I worked in those camps, and with local staff, helping them learn how they can protect people.

Be Inkandescent: Did those experiences change your worldview, and your personal view of yourself? How does it contrast with what you see here in the United States?

Karen Hanrahan: The work that I have done—in Iraq and Afghanistan and the rest of the Middle East and parts of Africa—has had a huge impact on me. It has shaped me as a person.

You can’t go to those places and engage with the people that I have without being deeply affected. I speak to child soldiers, I speak to displaced people, I work to help build the capacity or entrepreneurial women who want to start their own NGOs to help other women.

The negative side, that people are facing circumstances that are hard, as well as some of the more uplifting scenarios, those all have a direct impact on me.

Working with Palestinians, for example, after years and years of conflict and injustice on both sides of this conflict, I found the amount of hope that still existed at the time, many years ago, inspiring. As was the commitment that people had to continue to function in productive ways and for the average Palestinian to want to make peace.

To look at some of the women and girls who have led incredibly hard lives, some of whom have faced torture and sexual violence. To see them bounce back and see them become entrepreneurs and leaders in their communities, those are all deeply profound experiences that have affected me very much.

Be Inkandescent: It is wonderful what you’re doing. Tell us a little bit about your background. You graduated from Indiana University in 1992 with a degree in Political Science and Journalism, and you went to school and spent time abroad in Morocco and studied Arabic. So you knew back then that this was definitely what you wanted to do? You wanted to work in the Middle East in human rights?

Karen Hanrahan: Initially I thought I would pursue a career in journalism and work internationally in journalism. After I got my degree in Journalism and Political Science, it dawned on me that I wanted to be more directly engaged and less of a reporter. I wanted to be on the ground and in the field helping to build local capacity and engaging in the issues and trying to influence them rather than just reporting on them.

Be Inkandescent: Is that when you decided to go to law school?

Karen Hanrahan: The reason I decided to go to law school was my sense of what I wanted to do evolved and really truly focused in on international human rights issues, from the law to policies to practice. I realized that I wanted to have a law degree.

A lot of the people I saw around me doing the kind of work that I was interested in, having the most influence, actually had law degrees. When I went to law school, there weren’t so many paths to do international, public human rights Rule of Law type of work. Now there are more opportunities. I went to law school knowing what I wanted to do and kind of carved that path for myself.

Be Inkandescent: Talk a little bit about the human rights field. What is happening on the world stage right now from your point of view?

Karen Hanrahan: No matter what happens in the election, I think the United Nation’s leadership has done a great job under this administration. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have brought the discussion to a new level. In the past, we used to have this debate over security versus human rights.

That is, very much under previous administrations you often saw those issues juxtaposed and in competition. What we have now is a President and Secretary of State who have prioritized human rights and democracy as equally important as security and as critical to both our national security as well as global security.

What we are seeing around the world, all over the world, is popular movement, sometimes violent and sometimes not, that is driven primarily by a fundamental sense of the need for justice. These are populations that have been oppressed, where fundamental freedoms have been restricted for so long that people couldn’t take it anymore.

Sometimes it is discrimination, sometimes it is oppression—being jailed or detained without justification. All sorts of reason fall under the rubric of human rights. It is driving change in the world and we are seeing the impact of that on the world stage. On a broader level, I see a lot of advances in the legal framework and in multilateral institutions like the UN and other organizations.

Be Inkandescent: So you are seeing positive things happening to improve human rights around the world?

Karen Hanrahan: Yes, but one of the trends we see that is concerning is popular movements of unrest that are emerging. We are seeing a crackdown by government on people, organizations, and media where the governments justify their bad behavior by saying, “We are trying to stabilize our country.”

We are also seeing trends around abusive security forces. Some of the military, police, and other armed groups are not necessarily part of the government, and really have no respect for rights at all. They use arms, but they also use rape and other forms of torture and intimidation. That is still a very serious and significant problem that we are facing in a number of regions.

Be Inkandescent: What could happen to change those trends?

Karen Hanrahan: For me, it is about maintaining a historical perspective and thinking about all of this as a larger movement. I think the situation of human rights in the world has improved in the last century—and that is significant.

And, fortunately, it continues to improve. Yes, there are setbacks, but overall I think the bigger picture is a movement forward for both democracy and human rights. It is important that we not let some of the other trends around terrorism and insurgency undermine these advances in human rights and democracy.

If you crack down too hard on the wrong people and cast the net too wide and use inappropriate, abusive tactics, all you’re doing is laying the groundwork for additional instability.

Be Inkandescent: Now let’s talk a little about the last time we interviewed you, for our October 2012 issue on “Can women have it all?” Your thoughts were incredibly relevant. Will you talk a little more about this topic, and if you think women can have it all?

Karen Hanrahan: I do. At the moment, I admit that I have my hand full with this job that I love—and my baby, who is almost 2. But my plate is perhaps not as full as some other women who are single moms and have more children than I do.

I think there are so many perspectives on this topic, because it’s subjective. It is about individual women’s experiences: how they personally handle it. Where they want to head in their lives and where there priorities are at the time.

For me, I have spent most of my life working very, very hard. A year and a half ago, I did have a baby and it did profoundly affect me in all sorts of ways, as those things do. It has helped widen my perspectives. It has helped me want more of a balance in my life.

I don’t yet know what that balance means for me because I really enjoy my work. I like the issues I work on. I feel passionate about them so I find it naturally appealing to be doing work late into the night after I have put my daughter to bed. At the same time, I am making that choice.

I do not get everything finished in a day that I’d like to—such as the laundry, or making dinner from scratch. I do not see friends and family as much as I want. And I know that I have a ways to go to strike that balance for myself. And I know that my career might be in a little bit of an ebb rather than a flow.

And that’s a challenge in the world I work in. Here, the more you are focused and constantly educated, the more you can be the smartest person at the table—and the more indispensable you become. And traditionally, that is the way to hold more senior positions.

But, honestly, I am starting to reconsider that assumption—and I don’t know yet what the answer is yet for me. I’m sorting it all out.

I do see a lot of moms who are trying to maintain a work life. It’s not about a work-life balance. It’s about trying to rise in their jobs as well as perform well and take care of their families and their children, and I see a lot of struggling going on around that. I see women who know that they are sort of putting their career on hold and have made that choice. For me, I’m not quite sure what the implications are.

Be Inkandescent: Last question. What advice do you have for other women who want to pursue a similar career path?

Karen Hanrahan: Well, I think first and foremost, work very hard at being really good at what you do. Know your issues, try to be the smartest person at the table on your issues. I think another piece is always to remember that your interactions with people are going to follow you wherever you go. Your reputation is a huge part of your success, so you should always treat people with kindness and integrity. I know this is a cliché, but follow your heart, stop to listen to yourself, and if you can hear what you really want to do, if you can figure that out and you’re lucky to have clarity on that in terms of the issues you want to work on, then you can make it work. You can do that; it’s a matter of working very hard to make it happen. Those are a few points.

To read more about Karen Hanrahan’s thoughts on “Can Women Have It All?” click here.

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