In June 2022, Desirée Cormier Smith was appointed by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken as the first Special Representative for Racial Equity and Justice (SRREJ) in U.S. history. Since being appointed, Smith has been busy working to advance equity on the frontiers of diplomacy, foreign policy, and international public policy.
In a one-on-one interview with The Hilltop, Special Rep. Smith discussed why young people should be involved in foreign policy, women in the human rights movement, and the newly established United Nations (UN) Permanent Forum for People of African Descent (PFPAD).
Appointed to “lead” the State Department’s “efforts to protect and advance the human rights of people belonging to marginalized racial and ethnic communities and combat systemic racism, discrimination, and xenophobia around the world,” Smith has been deeply involved in UN human rights initiatives focused on racial equity.
Smith co-led the U.S. delegation at the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination meetings at the OHCHR in Geneva in August 2022 and recently supported the inaugural sessions of the PFPAD in December 2022 where over 600 delegates from UN members states and civil society called for the institutional protection of human rights for African descendants worldwide.
The PFPAD will act as an advisory body to the UN Human Rights Council, as “a consultative mechanism for people of African descent and other relevant stakeholders” and as a “platform for improving the safety and quality of life and livelihoods of people of African descent.”
The PFPAD convenings consisted of an intergenerational and international group of human rights advocates. Attendees included people of African descent who spoke multiple languages, and who were representatives of civil society, non-government organizations, and the private sector and public sectors.
Many of the UN Permanent Forum’s attendees and participants with leadership roles were women. Smith shared her thoughts on the new UN mechanism, young people and international affairs, and more.
The Hilltop: “What are your thoughts on the creation of a UN mechanism that can be used to advocate for the human rights of Black people worldwide?”
Smith: “I think the PFPAD convenings had a good balance between celebrating the resilience of people of African descent and highlighting the challenges that lie ahead. Civil society participation is so critical to the success of the Forum because these solutions must be informed by those working with Black communities around the world. The U.S. government was the only member state that made a voluntary contribution towards the PFPAD launch. The $52,000 donation supported travel scholarships for 13 civil society members and the launch’s live stream, which allowed more than 500 people around the world to tune in virtually and made the sessions more accessible.”
The Hilltop: “Do you believe young people would find interest in foreign policy and international affairs?”
Smith: “I hope so. There was an intervention made by a young person at the PFPAD opening sessions demanding a space for young people at the table…and global indicators project that 1 of 3 three young people in the world will be based in Africa by 2051. Young people of African descent must be involved in discussions about global challenges.”
The Hilltop: “What do you think about women being the vanguard for another generation of the international human rights movement?”
Smith: “I’m not surprised. Women are always leading the charge, especially Black women. As Trevor Noah mentioned in his farewell video, ‘we know the dangers of what could be if we don’t stand up for our rights and for our freedoms’. Black women always have everyone’s interests in mind. When you empower a black woman, the whole community wins because she’s not just looking out for herself. She’s looking out for everyone.”
The Hilltop: “Any advice for young people who seek international careers in the public sector?”
Smith: “We need more young people and people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds in foreign affairs. We are trying to do better at recruiting to ensure that the State Department looks like the country that we’re representing. Everyone doesn’t have higher education and we don’t all look the same. We must break down the barriers for people to enter the Foreign Service. It may seem daunting, but people don’t realize that a college degree is not a requirement, only passing a written and oral exam. I think many of the skills that you need to be an effective diplomat come from life itself. Experiencing life, engaging with people from different backgrounds, being resilient and surviving, loving humanity, and ensuring the world is a peaceful and collaborative place. If you have an ‘activist bone’ in, you; if you want to make a change you have to be in places where the decisions are being made. Foreign affairs would be a good calling for anyone who has those innate interests. I don’t think people fully appreciate the fact that we keep peace like the State Department is our frontline of defense. We are the ones preventing conflicts and doing things that people don’t fully see, such as serving American citizens overseas. I think it’s a worthy career if you’re interested in public service and global things.”
Copy edited by Alana Matthew