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Fellow: Katherine Anderson
Fellowship site:
United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, Geneva, Switzerland

Brief History of Organization:

The United Nations Sub-Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (known as the Sub-commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities from 1947 to 1999) is a subsidiary body of the Commission on Human Rights under the Economic and Social Council. Its purpose is to undertake studies on human rights issues, listen to concerns of non-governmental organizations, and make recommendations to the Commission on Human rights on any issues relating to the violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The Commission appoints 26 independent human rights experts, not government representatives, to serve four year terms. The experts come from all regions of the world and seats are distributed according to geographic equity. The Sub-Commission meets annually for three weeks in Geneva, Switzerland. The sessions are open to expert members, governmental representatives, United Nations bodies and specialized agencies, and other intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations that have consultative status with the Economic and Social Council.

Responsibilities of Fellow:

Each morning I would meet with David Weissbrodt, Barbara Frey, and other interns and individuals that we were working with. At this meeting, events from the previous day would be discussed as well as what would need to be done for that day. I would complete many administrative tasks for both Mr. Weissbrodt and Mrs. Frey such as, getting documents, writing and sending thank you letters, making reservations, and making copies and printing documents. I also worked on more substantive projects such as drafting speeches. I worked on a speech to alert present members about the prevalence of torture around the world. I also drafted another speech that focused on the rights of former prisoners after they have served their sentences. I also completed research while in Geneva. For example, I looked into the history of special rapporteurs and independent experts on debt in the United Nation and the rights of the disabled. I also took notes during sessions and helped to draft and edit resolutions.

Your Accomplishments:

My greatest accomplishments included working quickly and efficiently when pressed for time. During the Sub-Commission, there is always a very limited amount of time to complete tasks and complete them well. Hence, I was very pleased how quickly I acclimated to the pace and was able to complete within a timely manner all tasks that were assigned to me. Another accomplishment was the more substantive work that I completed such as the speeches and resolutions. They were challenging tasks to complete and in the end have the most impact as the speeches are heard by expert members, governments, and non-governmental organizations and the resolutions are recorded as United Nations documents and often call for further study or action on a human rights issue. My other accomplishment is how much I learned. Working so intensely for three weeks (as well as meetings prior to arrival in Geneva) with my supervisors, Mr. Weissbrodt and Mrs. Frey, and colleagues, exposed me to vast amounts of information as well as human rights strategies. I learned a great deal from sitting in on sessions of the Sub-Commission and its working groups and from the analysis of those sessions with my colleagues.

Your Challenges:

My biggest challenge was my limited French language skills. It was hard for me to get back into a regular use of the language only being in Geneva for three weeks. Having stronger French skills would have made it easier to accomplish certain tasks such as asking help from librarians and other staff members. It would also have frustrated me less. As I mentioned previously, the quick pace of the session was challenging. In many ways, the challenges changed from day to day. Some days it was more practical issues of being in a foreign country while other days it was more content based challenges such as what to change in a speech.

Other projects/works started or completed:

I attended regular meetings, conducted research, and helped draft speeches prior to arrival in Geneva. Most projects were completed upon the conclusion of the session, but some follow up research may be needed.

Personal Essay Section:

How has this fellowship changed the ideas and expectations you had before leaving?

The most prevalent change in ideas and expectations occurred in my understanding of human rights actors. Previous to my internship experience I often thought of human rights actors as large organizations and groups instead of individuals making up these organizations and groups. I tended to over-simplify the roles of these actors mostly into a binary of non-governmental organizations and certain international institutions and governments. However, my time in Geneva opened up this binary and exposed the very complex nature of all of these actors as well as the individuals involved.

I learned that human rights organizations are made of up of individuals who often have agendas, egos, or personal issues no matter how much they are committed to human rights. In this situation, certain experts had personal motives for taking on certain tasks whether it is to avoid studying certain countries or to receive financial reimbursement. Other experts had personal issues with other and you could see the frustration and nitpicking play out on the floor. There were also some experts (who are supposed to be independent) who are government diplomats or officials and not doing a very good job of disassociating themselves with their role in their government. Governments are represented by diplomats, who as individuals can often be very sympathetic and agree with human rights work. However, governments as a whole, no matter how supportive they may be, often put human rights as a very low priority.

Similar issues arose for those working with non-governmental organizations. I was struck at the lack of coordination among many of them working on the same issues. I could not conclude if it was just personal agendas that caused this or a general unawareness of the usefulness, especially in this setting where there is only a limited amount of time to speak, to collaborate.

Has your motivation for human rights work changed/altered or remained the same? Why?

My motivation for human rights work has increased due to my internship. I found myself recommitted to human rights work through the practical application of my studies. While I find the constant politics involved with United Nations work and often NGO work discouraging and tiresome, to see the accomplishments and the process work makes me want to continue working with it. It also helps to realize that human rights work is slow and tedious. The more I remained focused on what influence my work will have on the future of human rights, the more motivated I remain.

After being in Geneva, I am very excited about all the venues there are to work within the field of human rights. There are positions in academia, law, the United Nations, and NGOs which all play an important role in human rights. It was important for me to see this diversity so that I could be more flexible in what I wanted to work on which in turn increased my motivation because I realized there were multiple ways to get where I wanted to be, not just one.

I am also excited to continue with some of the research that I begin and to bring a more cross-cultural approach to such work. Being surrounded by people who intrinsically understand your passion as well as the shortcoming of the system really help to remind you how important human rights work is and that there is a community that is willing to support you even if goals and personalities often conflict. In general, I feel more focused, less naïve, and reenergized to continue working on and further understanding human rights issues.

Who has the greatest effect on you during your fellowship experience and why?

Mrs. Frey and Mr. Weissbrodt had the greatest effect on my fellowship experience. They constantly challenged me but also had the confidence that I could complete any task given to me. They also took the time to answer and discuss any of my questions. They made sure that I was not just doing one task after another but that I knew how it fit into the broader scheme of our activities and that helped make my fellowship a true learning experience for me.

How did your perspective on the world change from interning at a local/national/international human rights organization?
My experience gave me a better understanding of human rights issues world-wide. For example, Western organizations and countries are often focused on political rights or the death penalty, while many organizations from more developing areas are primarily focused on issues of development or the right to water. In one instance, an expert member constantly responded to studies and speeches by exclaiming that human rights abuse were because of the Northern states. Not to say that this argument should not be evaluated further because there is some merit to it but it made me think deeper and wonder how to overcome personal resentment as well as simplistic arguments in an area that frequently gains public support through displaying wrongs against individuals as simplistic moral causes. This international perspective called into question many ideas I take for granted and made me realize the complexity and layers of arguments that are the foundation of human rights. It helped me leave my usual legalistic approach to understanding human rights and put it into a worldlier, interdisciplinary context.

The Sub-Commission also exposed me to the delicate position of being an American in world politics. One must be cautious of judgment and saying too much, as it is very easy to criticize an individual solely on their nationality as an American while ignoring the basis for his/her argument. One sees how the rest of the world sees the current American government as well as their stereotypes of Americans. I have traveled before and was aware of such attitudes but was surprised by the extent and prevalence of it that I experienced. While this occurred infrequently on a personal level, it was obvious that because the United States is such a super power, many know a lot about it and can be quick to comment on and oversimplify issues.

What quote would captivate “a moment” that you had during your fellowship?

Mrs. Frey commented to me once how you don’t work on human rights issues to see results today; you do it so that in one hundred years you will see changes. This moment really accentuated the need for patience and how every little step matters. Whenever I start to get discouraged or frustrated, I think of this remark and it helps me to refocus.

How do you anticipate bringing your fellowship experience back home to your local community?

My internship experience challenged my perceptions of the world as well as my own role in the human rights community. Overall, the experience pointed out how much I still have to learn and understand. The more I understand about the issues, the easier it will be for me to bring them to the public. My fellowship was only three weeks long, so there was very limited time to go into issues in depth and they often changed from day to day depending on the agenda item. Hence, I am going to start bringing my experience home by focusing on understanding what it means in my life and educating myself more. I am going to continue reading reports from the session as well as other articles and human rights related texts. I have also starting having discussions with friends and family about my experience so that they as well as I can better understand it and the human rights implications involved.

I will be starting graduate school this fall at the London School of Economics Human Rights Program. I hope to incorporate my fellowship experience in my work and research there. I also plan to bring the experience into discussions with my classmates. While these activities are more geared towards individuals more aware of human rights issues than an average person in the community may be, it is always a productive endeavor to address a complexity of issues with those you will be working with and those who will be influencing the human rights community in the future.

In the meantime, I plan to write letters to the editor on pertinent topics as well as informing people of the existence of the Sub-Commission and what it does. I will continue to make contact with community organizations I am involved with or know of to see if the would like to coordinate on programming that would address human rights issues and incorporate the Sub-Commission and its work. I also plan to seek out volunteer activities that will utilize my human rights knowledge and skills.

In the long-term, I plan to combine my academic skills with my internship and practical experiences to conduct research, develop policy, and perform advocacy work on international human rights issues. In doing so, I hope to work with non-governmental organizations that I can help to make better use of the United Nations system, particularly the Sub-Commission, and work with them to collaborate their efforts better to eventually prove more effective in their work.


Organizational Profile

Full Name of Organization: United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights – Expert Representatives from the United States of America (specifically David Weissbrodt and Barbara Frey)

Abbreviation and initials commonly used: Sub-Commission, S-C

Organizational Address: Palais des Nations, United Nations Office at Geneva

Telephone Number: N/A

Fax number: N/A

Email Address: N/A

Website Information: http://www.un.org and http://www.unhchr.ch/

Names of executive Director and Senior Staff: N/A

Number of Employed Staff (full-time, part-time): N/A

Number of Volunteers: Mr. Weissbrodt and Mrs. Frey are appointed by the United States government. Working with them were three undergraduate interns (myself included) and three lawyers.

Objectives of the Organization: To undertake studies on widespread violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms and to make recommendations to the Commission on Human Rights.

Domestic/International Programs: N/A

Date of Information: 8 September 2003

Information Supplied by: Katherine Anderson


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