Staying True to Her Values

April 26, 2012
Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe
HDS alumna Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe. Photo: Eric Bridiers

Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, MTS ’84, is the first United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

When she came to Harvard Divinity School in the early 1980s, she suspected that public policy work might be in her future. First, though, she had some personal inquiry to do.

"I needed to answer certain philosophical and religious personal questions for myself before I was ready to embark on that other work," she said.

At HDS, some of her intellectual interests were deeply theoretical. She recalls a class with Gordon Kaufman on conceptions of God in a postmodern world that was 'incredibly abstract.' For the most part, though, Donahoe found herself thinking at the intersection of the theoretical and the practical.

Her scholarly pursuits were formed by her past experiences and were meant to serve as a resource for her future work. She took a class on peace studies and another course with Harvey Cox on bridging values and practical challenges. During this time, "I was becoming more sophisticated about the way in which philosophical and values-oriented questions interplay with public policy work," she explained.

During Donahoe's time at HDS, she gained comfort working on complex issues for which there was not always a simple resolution.

"I had made a good-faith effort to probe the depths of my questions and realized that maybe I would not get full clarity," she said. "I had delved as deeply as I could, and I had to be able to live with the ambiguity that remains."

Toward the end of her time at HDS, Donahoe took courses at Harvard Kennedy School. After leaving Harvard, she earned a JD and an MA in East Asian Studies from Stanford and a PhD in ethics from the University of California's Graduate Theological Union. Her PhD dissertation, 'Humanitarian Military Intervention: The Moral Imperative versus the Rule of Law,' dealt with conflicting legal and ethical justifications for humanitarian military intervention.

Donahoe put her law degree to use as a teaching fellow at Stanford Law School and as a law clerk to U.S. Federal District Court Judge William H. Orrick. She also worked as a litigation associate at a Silicon Valley firm, serving high-tech clients in intellectual property and commercial cases.

In addition to her private practice, Donahoe lent her legal skills to the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights and Amnesty International's Ginetta Sagan Fund. Eventually, she joined the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University as an affiliated scholar, zeroing in on questions surrounding UN reform, the international rule of law, and the history of norms on the use of force.

In November 2009, the White House announced Donahoe's appointment as U.S. ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. She testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and took up her new duties soon afterward.

What does it feel like for a scholar to move into the rough-and-tumble world of international politics?

"The values exploration that I've done in my academic work was very personal, and I have carried those values into my work. In the real world, what's required to generate results is a different practical assessment of how you accomplish your goals and how you get your work done, but never is it separated from those values."

In academia, she acknowledged, it can be tempting to let practical considerations slide. Her current job affords no such luxury.

"It's about the manifestation of values in the real world. You have to make trade-offs. You're not making trade-offs from the values; you're making trade-offs on how you can faithfully protect those values in the real world and make them manifest, and that requires a pragmatic assessment of what is possible."

In a New York Times op-ed published shortly after taking up her new role as U.S. ambassador, she emphasized the potential for civil engagement and conversation with other council members as a powerful means of finding common ground and solving problems. For Donahoe, the most important tool for protecting those values is dialogue.

"I believe that rational engagement has been very effective for me in the public realm. I've been surprised at how compelling good arguments are. However, you have to be sensitive to the various ways in which your argument might be heard by your other interlocutors," she said. "You have to be alert and sensitive to the aspects of the argument or the tone of the argument that will have a beneficial effect or that will move new support."

Like many UN agencies, the Human Rights Council meets in Geneva. It holds three regular sessions each year—in March, June, and December—as well as urgent 'special sessions' in response to developing crises.

Regular sessions typically include reports from the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, and special rapporteurs provide updates on a variety of human rights topics. The council also conducts panel discussions on substantive matters and hears from a range of experts. Toward the end of each session, there is a period in which members offer and negotiate resolutions. Finally, the sessions end with several days of voting.

During these sessions, Donahoe's work routine is varied and intense. It includes strategy sessions with her staff and conversations, lobbying, and negotiation sessions with other delegations. Some of this diplomacy work is conducted in highly formal settings; at other times, she and her staff host casual meetings in which delegations get a feel for one another in a more relaxed manner and test out themes and language to see what is compelling to others.

For a former academic, these responsibilities represent a serious shift. So, too, does her accountability to her employer.

"The hardest part of my job has been adjusting to working for the U.S. government." This isn't a question of values or priorities, she says. Instead, it's a matter of transitioning from the relative autonomy of the scholarly life to participating in a bureaucratic organization.

Being in Geneva helps, Donahoe says. It means both physical distance from the hubbub of Washington, D.C., and a unique perch from which to understand the council's goings-on. As a result, Donahoe and her team, she says, 'have been given a fair amount of creativity and autonomy to make decisions.'

Still, it’s a stressful period. For a variety of reasons, the United States refrained from joining the Human Rights Council until 2008, and there is continued skepticism about membership in some quarters in the U.S.

Donahoe and her team must maintain a dual focus: working overtime to achieve concrete results on fundamental human rights issues at the council while, at the same time, communicating the importance of U.S. engagement at the HRC to a sometimes critical audience back in the U.S.

One recent test for Donahoe and the council has been the series of revolutions known as the Arab Spring. The uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa helped cement support for core human rights, such as freedom of expression and assembly, and Donahoe says events helped galvanized the council to a level of action it had not previously achieved.

"We held an urgent session on Libya at which we condemned the violations by Gaddafi," she said. "We recommended that the Libyan government be stripped of its membership rights at the Human Rights Council. The following week, the General Assembly stripped them of their membership rights. Then, six months into it, we ended up with a transitional government that was recognized by the international community. They were granted renewal of their membership back in the council, and we just had a cooperative resolution on the human rights situation in Libya, in collaboration with the new Libyan authorities."

On one level, Donahoe remains amazed about participating in these events. "I still can't quite believe that I ended up with this opportunity to pull together so many of my interests and natural tendencies all in one role. It has been deeply, deeply satisfying."

Of course, one can never count on being appointed to high government office. But even if she hadn't been, it seems clear that Donahoe would have found a way to spend time in both the world of ideas and the world of politics.

"I knew then and I know to this day, that both orientations are just part of who I am."

by Matt Bieber