By Peter Dickos, HLS 2012 NSJ Staff Writer
The interests of national security and human rights often seem in opposition to each other. If that is the rule, then it is one that Sarah Sewall, former Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, breaks every day. Sewall, also a former Pentagon official who helped craft the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, discussed how human rights and national security must go hand in hand in the panel discussion “Why Human Rights Matter: Human Rights as Public Service” on Wednesday, October 21.
The panel convened to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Carr Center and to reflect on the changing landscape of human rights in the last 10 years. Sewall, who led the Carr Center from 2005-2009 and currently directs the Program on National Security and Human Rights at the Kennedy School, was joined on stage by current Carr Center Director Rory Stewart and founding Executive Director Samantha Power.
Sewall explained that when she first came to the Carr Center in 2000, she “was not a human rights person. . . . I was a national security person. I never conceived of myself as wearing a human rights hat, but in all of the work I had done . . . I was principally concerned with questions with a very concrete human impact.”
In a way, Sewall’s job is to convince national security policymakers and the military to think of human rights in the same way. Stewart noted it was a risky move for her to sit down with the US military and confront it head on regarding its “rules of war,” and, through the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, to urge it to think of its soldiers “as more than just fighting machines.”
Lest her talk seem too theoretical, Sewall gave concrete examples of how human rights and national security meet in everyday operations: in providing ethics training for Special Forces before they are deployed, and in debriefing General McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, that minimizing civilian deaths is a “win-win” because it is both in the military’s practical interests and “the right thing to do.”
Sewall concluded by noting that her work at the Kennedy school has allowed her students to take this more “ecumenical” understanding of human rights and apply it “from the schoolhouse to the field.” She ended optimistically, stating that when national security practitioners are “infused with a different sensibility, the possibilities for change expand enormously.”
Sewall is also a member of both the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee and the Center for Naval Analyses Defense Advisory Committee.