“It is deeply disappointing that human rights are being so blatantly violated by a member of this Council. We note that the U.N. General Assembly has the authority to suspend the membership rights of a Council member who is committing gross and systematic violations of human rights. The continued participation of Libya in this forum undermines the core mission of the Council and its mandate …”

That message was delivered by United States Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe ’89 (MA ’89) at its 15th Special session in Geneva on February 25 of this year. By the following week, the U.N. had voted to suspend Libyan membership in the HRC, while governments around the world pondered how best to respond to Gadhafi’s heavy-handed suppression of opposition to his rule.

The HRC was established by the U.N. General Assembly in 2006 (replacing the Commission on Human Rights) as an intergovernmental body within the U.N. system made up of 47 states responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. But the Bush administration chose not to seek membership in the HRC and went further by withholding a percentage of its dues to the U.N. as a symbolic protest.

“There was a general lack of confidence that the United States could accomplish its goals through multilateral engagement, particularly at the U.N. and even more so at the new human rights Council, which unfortunately had a tarnished reputation because of its predecessor,” says Donahoe.

President Obama changed course soon after taking office and Donahoe was identified as the best candidate for the new ambassadorship. It took months for her nomination to receive congressional approval—but once it did, she hit the ground running, learning the personalities and politics involved in the job quickly. Within a short time, she proposed and led the successful adoption of a new U.N. mandate establishing a Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of association—an achievement few thought possible.

Photo of Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe
Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe ’89 (MA ’89) (Photo by Colin Clark)

“These are key human rights. As we’ve seen in the Middle East and elsewhere, they are essential to democratic values,” she says. “People said we couldn’t get this proposal through, that key countries such as China would oppose it. But in the end, opponents knew they would lose a vote, so they did not call for a vote. And so it was adopted.”

The winter session in Geneva was a busy one for Donahoe—with fires burning on multiple fronts. The HRC took unprecedented action to highlight human rights violations in Iran by establishing a new Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in that country, “the first country-specific mandate created by the council since it came into being,” she says. It then adopted a new resolution combating discrimination and violence on the basis of religion or belief, which marks a sea change in approach to dealing with intolerance on the basis of religion. “The international community has been locked in a stalemate for the past decade over the problematic concept of ‘defamation of religion’—which is a concept championed by the Organisation of The Islamic Conference but contrary to the core U.S. principle of free expression. In this session of the HRC, we finally broke through and found a way to combat hate speech without compromising on free expression,” says Donahoe.

Extending international protection of the right of free assembly to the Internet is one of Donahoe’s next priorities (a pivotal conference on this issue was hosted by Donahoe’s team in Geneva in March), as is tackling violence against women. And much more.

Donahoe’s appointment as ambassador represents the culmination of a career with seemingly disparate experiences, requiring her to tap all of her skills. She had majored in American studies at Dartmouth, but after graduation decided to step outside that experience with a program in China to learn Mandarin. It was 1981-1982, and she describes China then as very different from the country today.

“People still wore Mao suits. I had a party cadre assigned to me who had, as he would remind me on a regular basis, complete control over where I was and was not allowed to go. I remember really not liking that feeling,” says Donahoe. “It was the first time I had the direct experience of having government control over basic things in my life.”

It was foundational, further sharpening her awareness of human rights. It also raised spiritual questions. She enrolled in a theology program at Harvard and received her MA. But China still held her fascination, and she returned to study Chinese law in early 1984. She began to seriously consider a career in law—something that had always been a possibility for Donahoe (her father was a criminal prosecution lawyer, but she didn’t want to follow in his footsteps).

“If I were to go into law, it had to be on my terms, following my own path,” she says.

Donahoe recalls vividly when she first had an inkling of what that path might be.

“I was in my late teens and I read a story about a man who was doing international human rights negotiations. I remember it was a tough negotiation—political opposition figures were in prison and their lives and freedom were at stake. And it struck me as the most important work someone could do,” she says.

At Stanford Law School, Donahoe started to see how that career might look when she began her legal studies, which she combined with a degree in East Asian studies.

“This is really where it came together,” she says. “I started thinking about the rule of law and the development of the rule of law. I had explored the abstract philosophical questions, and I turned my focus to ‘okay, now what are we going to do about it’.”

She and her husband, John (MBA ’86), moved into Escondido Village with their newborn baby in the fall of 1984—he to study at the GSB, she at the law school. Their second child was born the summer before her 2L year, but the prospect of juggling motherhood, marriage, and a full course load didn’t put Donahoe off. “I think it kept me within reasonable bounds. A lot of times law students forget that there are diminishing returns—this kept me very focused and organized. It did not cost me at all,” she says.

After law school, Donahoe clerked for Judge William H. Orrick and was a teaching fellow at Stanford Law School. She then had a successful career at Fenwick & West LLP where she served technology clients in intellectual property and commercial disputes. Still eager to broaden her understanding of human rights, she pursued a PhD in ethics from the University of California’s graduate Theological Union (during this time she once again combined study with family, having her third and fourth children). Her 2006 dissertation, “Humanitarian Military Intervention: The Moral Imperative Versus the Rule of Law,” addresses conflicting legal and ethical justifications for humanitarian military intervention. Immediately preceding her appointment to the HRC, she was an affiliated scholar at the Freeman Spogli Institute’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, where her research focused on norms for the use of force, U.N. reform, and the international rule of law.

Now with a voice at the world’s main organization for addressing human rights violations, Donahoe is in a position to make a profound difference to events on the world stage—where questions of life and death, of democracy and the rule of law, are playing out with very real consequences. Both the measure passed on the right to assemble and the one under consideration on Internet freedom are timely. But Donahoe sees challenges as she navigates the sometimes bureaucratic and highly political world of the United Nations.

“The ideological, regional block mentality is so boring and so dated,” she says. “Some countries still have a mentality that they should come up with a group position rather than addressing an issue on the merits. And if you’re criticizing a country in their region, there’s no way they’re going to support it. Even if you’re criticizing a country somewhere else, they probably won’t support that because you might then turn around and criticize them. It’s almost turning on its head what we’re supposed to be doing, which is paying attention to and scrutinizing human rights records of all countries. We’ve made progress on this but need to continue working on it.”

While members of the HRC are burning the midnight oil—their focus on the explosion of democratic movements in the Middle East, Northern Africa, and elsewhere in the world—Donahoe must keep one eye on the domestic policies back home. In this time of budget cutting and with new leadership on the House foreign Affairs Committee, her most immediate challenge may be reassuring Congress of the importance of U.S. engagement with the HRC. Halfway through her first appointment, she hopes to continue the work she’s begun with a second term.

“There are some critics of the HRC and the administration’s policy of engagement who are now in roles of greater leadership,” she says. “I see it as a key part of my position to convince them that the time we have spent, the money we have spent, the political capital we’ve spent and built have been well worth it.” SL

Read about Peter Bouckaert’s work with Human Rights Watch and his comments on Ambassador Donahoe in the sidebar to this story, “Bearing Witness.”

Americans Abroad: Getting Things Done in Geneva