COVER STORY: NOVEMBER
Obama appointee Karen Hanrahan believes that human rights are at the core of the human experience and that human rights consist of fundamental rights and freedoms that every person is inherently entitled to—simply by virtue of being a human being.
By Hope Katz Gibbs, Publisher
Be Inkandescent magazine
Photos courtesy of the US Department of State
The doctrine of human rights has been highly influential within international law, and within global and regional institutions.
But what, exactly, are human rights?
And why are these rights too often nonexistent for so many women and girls, and other populations, around the world?
To better understand this issue, we turn to Karen Hanrahan. An appointee in the Obama administration serving as deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Hanrahan began her work for the administration working with the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as the US coordinator for International Assistance to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
From there, Hanrahan went on to design and run the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review for then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She also served as the chief innovation officer for the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in London.
We met Hanrahan back in the spring of 2008—before she had stepped into these top jobs. Looking back at the years since 2008, she explains that the common denominator for all of her work has been her goal to help US government agencies improve the plight of people around the world.
Scroll down for our Q&A. And click here to listen to our podcast interview on the Inkandescent Radio Network.
Be Inkandescent: By definition, human rights are moral principles or norms that describe certain standards of human behavior, and are regularly protected as legal rights in national and international law. How do you define human rights, and how are they defined by the US government?
Karen Hanrahan: Human rights are at the core of the human experience. They are the basic rights and freedoms we are entitled to just because we are human. They protect all people, regardless of nationality, sex, national or ethnic origin, race, religion, language, or other status.
Human rights include civil and political rights, such as the right to life, liberty, and freedom of expression; and social, cultural, and economic rights. These include the right to participate in culture, the right to food, and the right to work and receive an education.
The most basic rights are laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and they are protected and upheld by international and national laws and treaties.
These rights and freedoms provide the foundation for human dignity, and they belong to all of us. Where these rights are not protected or respected, abuses occur, including torture, discrimination, slavery, rape, killings, and other forms of injustice. These things are happening all over the world, despite the strong legal framework and system that defines and promotes human rights.
I would also change at least one part of the definition you cite above. Human rights are not just moral principles, and they are not just about values. They are strategically important to global stability. We in the Obama administration, and particularly under the leadership of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, recognize that human rights are both a value and a critical element of our strategies for international security, stability, and prosperity.
The past decades have shown us that people rise up and fight when they reach their limit of injustice and abuse. Particularly in today’s interconnected world, people are learning about their rights, organizing and taking action to demand better treatment. More governments are challenged today than ever before by popular uprisings rooted in a demand for justice, equality, and a better life.
Be Inkandescent: The plight of women and girls, and the millions of other groups who are persecuted around the world, is a daunting issue to understand, let alone solve. How are you working to help?
Karen Hanrahan: Women and girls do face particular challenges around the world—from sexual and gender-based violence, child marriage, and trafficking to systematic discrimination. The problem is particularly acute during wars and conflicts, and I encourage everyone to learn about the situation of women and girls in the world, including the critical positive role they play in pulling societies out of poverty and out of conflict.
That said, violence and discrimination against women and girls remain a major challenge, even in our own country. A few months ago in Kenya, I spent an afternoon at a clinic for victims of sexual violence.
Half of them were girls, one only 10 years old. Their stories reminded me of all the hurdles we and they have, including cultures where rape is not viewed as a serious crime, nor punished as such; and systems that continue to victimize women and girls when they seek help.
In most places, in addition to women and girls, most minority groups have an uphill battle to avoid abuse and secure their rights. These groups includes ethnic and religious minorities, the disabled, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, to name a few.
How can I make a difference? Every day on the job, I have the opportunity—and the responsibility—to educate, to influence, to support, and to mobilize voices to advance human rights around the world.