By Andrew Jenner
In 2006, the United Nations General Assembly replaced its Commission on Human Rights – the organization’s main body dedicated to protection of human rights – with the reorganized and renamed UN Human Rights Council (HRC). As UN decisions and deliberations tend to be, it was a politically charged affair. Citing the HRC’s perceived anti- Israel bias, the George W. Bush administration announced that the United States would boycott the new organization.
Michael Shank, then in-between earning his MA at CJP and his PhD in conflict analysis, was working with Citizens for Global Solutions, an NGO that promotes a cooperative, engaged U.S. foreign policy. Through a mutual acquaintance, he arranged for a meeting with Jan Eliasson, then the president of the UN General Assembly. After their discussion about American reluctance to participate in the HRC, Shank sent an out-of-the-blue email to Samantha Power, an advisor to then-Senator Barack Obama. Would the Senate Foreign Relations Committee consider inviting Eliasson and his staff to Washington to speak directly to Congress about the new human rights organization?
Power responded quickly, and within days, Eliasson’s staff, including the author of the HRC resolution, appeared before Senate committee staff. They later also spoke with staff from the House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs. While the United States continued its boycott of the HRC for the remainder of the Bush presidency (soon after President Obama took office, the U.S. changed course and joined the council), it was Shank’s first direct experience working to improve communication and cooperation between the United Nations and Capitol Hill.
“That’s exactly what we’re doing now on Syria,” said Shank, when first reached by Peacebuilder magazine in the fall of 2013.
Now the director of foreign policy with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Shank was working to dissuade the United States from launching air strikes, without UN or other international support, as a way of punishing Syria for its use of chemical weapons. (In an ironic twist, Samantha Power – now the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations – and President Obama were prominent advocates for American intervention, regardless of what the international community thought.) Again, Shank played the role of liaison, facilitating communication between members of Congress and various offices and people within the United Nations; he’d periodically done similar work in the intervening years, while working as an advisor to U.S. Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.).
“The more lines of communication we have between Congress and the UN, the better informed the members of Congress will be when they vote on military action,” said Shank in mid-September (2013), at a time when a unilateral American strike was still being debated. “Now is a really interesting time to observe whether or not America can participate in a morally and ethically centered conversation within the international community, and respect it.”
Soon after that conversation, in the face of significant international and domestic pressure, the Obama administration backed off its threats of military action and allowed UN-led inspections, accompanied by pledges for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons in the near future. Calling the outcome a “victory for diplomacy,” Shank nonetheless worries that the episode damaged his country’s reputation and relationships with the UN. But still, in the pragmatic sense, weapons inspectors from the UN, rather than American war planes, headed to Syria.
“There will always be bureaucratic problems, and there will always be need for reform,” continued Shank, responding to the criticism that the UN can be bloated and dysfunctional. “I do think we need to, however, maintain a space within the international community that acts as a moral check and ensures international law and diplomacy first and foremost.”
One of CJP’s strengths, Shank said, is its grasp of restorative processes and theories that help countries and communities recover from violent conflict. These, he added, are increasingly relevant to the work the UN does around the world, and makes CJP graduates “well-positioned to provide critical analysis and prescription when it comes to helping societies heal at the national level or local level.”