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Episode 166: Ambassador Keith Harper

By Mark Leon Goldberg

When Keith Harper was confirmed as President Obama's Ambassador to the 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.  Keith 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 billion dollar class action lawsuit against the federal government that he successfully litigated.  We spend this first few minutes of this conversation discussing the work of the Human Rights Council, so let me give you a little bit of a background on it. This is a 47 member body in which each member state is elected by the entire UN membership to three year terms. Now, one of its flaws that critics sometimes point to 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. Now, there are more African countries than there are western European countries so it would stand to reason that Africa gets more seats. Now the problem arises 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.    Now, that is one of they key flaws of the council. But despite it, Keith makes a compelling argument for why the United States should nonetheless stay engaged. And whether or not the US will remain a member of the council is very much in question by the Trump administration. Keith also discusses at length some tangible outcomes in the service of human rights that the council achieved while he was the US ambassador there.    Apply for the Humanity in Action fellowship! Become a premium subscriber to unlock bonus episodes, earn other rewards, and support the show!    

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