Michael Posner sends notes to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 every few hours, asking her if the United States can take in more Haitian refugees severely injured by last month’s devastating earthquake. As Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, that’s one of the ways Posner tries to effect change from a government position with limited powers, he said at a Pierson College Master’s Tea on Friday.
Speaking to an audience of about 40 students, Posner said his role is difficult because government action is limited by internal and external competing interests. In order to create change, human rights activists need grassroots support, he said, citing women’s rights as an example.
“If there’s one thing my few months in government have taught me it’s that governments are not the answer to this problem alone,” said Posner, who was sworn into his current position in September 2009.
Covering a variety of other topics, Posner also criticized the Goldstone Report, which found evidence of human rights offenses committed by Israel in Gaza last winter; predicted that China will eventually lift some of its restrictions on information flow; and emphasized the importance of corporate responsibility worldwide.
Posner said many government departments, such as the Treasury and Defense departments, have interests and concerns that do not necessarily have to do with human rights — which makes advancing human rights policy more difficult. At the same time, Posner said, the president and the Secretary of State care deeply about these issues, which he said is reassuring.
It is important to broaden the base of support for human rights initiatives worldwide, such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Posner said, suggesting outreach to women’s organizations, church groups and grassroots community groups across the political spectrum.
“Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts ought to take these [issues] up,” he said.
About halfway through the talk, Posner turned the tea into a question-and-answer session, and fielded student inquiries about the Middle East, Asia and sweatshop practices.
Posner said the recent controversial Goldstone Report on human rights offenses in Gaza “had problems.” The report suffered, he said, because the Israeli government refused to comment and because the report only superficially dealt with a complex urban conflict. He also said he finds it difficult to believe that the Israeli government intentionally targeted civilians, as the report claims.
Answering a question about freedom of information in China, Posner said: “They have a rapidly growing, well-educated and technologically savvy population. Those people are going to demand that there be an open system.”
When questions about free trade, outsourcing and sweatshop labor arose, Posner briefly explained that he worked with companies such as Nike, Adidas and H&M on improving their practices around the world before joining the federal government. He said he thinks corporations should be responsible for how the products bearing their names are produced.
Posner also said he gets morning briefings on the situation in Haiti. It rained there Thursday, he said, meaning that the rainy season is about to begin.
“It’s a mud bath there today,” Posner said. “People are living under plastic sheets if they’re lucky.”
After the talk, six students interviewed said they appreciated the breadth of topics discussed, as well as Posner’s candidness about the limits to the government’s abilities to address human rights issues.
“We were especially lucky to get someone involved in the governmental aspects of human rights,” Catherine Osborn ’12 said. “When they come representing the government, often speakers are on the defensive.”
Julia Buzan ’12 said Posner’s passion for his job was refreshing because she thinks people who work in human rights are often worn out by their professions.
Deanna Parrish, a student from Washington University in Saint Louis who attended the talk during a visit to Yale, said she appreciated Posner’s career experience: Posner spent 30 years in the non-governmental organization sector before he entered government.
“He has a hand in the air and a foot on the ground,” Parrish said.