A defender of human rights at the State Department

December 11, 2012

In her two-plus years working for the State Department, Attorney-Adviser Neha Sheth has negotiated human rights issues at the United Nations on behalf of the U.S. government and presented oral arguments at The Hague regarding the meaning of provisions in a state-to-state arbitration between Ecuador and the United States.

It’s no wonder Sheth uses words more typical for describing a NASCAR race than a government job when she talks about her work on human rights, calling it “a real thrill” and “energizing and exciting.”

“It is really fascinating and heartening to see that even given different things going on in world, these kinds of things still get negotiated and taken seriously,” said Sheth, 29.

When she’s not arguing legal cases, Sheth advises officials in Washington and at embassies abroad on human rights issues, particularly in areas affecting women, indigenous peoples and the aging. As part of her job, Sheth serves as the main attorney for the Office of Global Women’s Issues, and also provides advice to department employees who are considering and analyzing provisions of human rights resolutions.

Cutting-edge questions come in 24/7 from around the world, said Evelyn Aswad, assistant legal advisor for Human Rights and Refugees, and Sheth’s supervisor.


(Seth Gorenstein/Partnership for Public Service)

“You’re always working in a pretty fast-paced environment here,” said Aswad. “These are things you did not necessarily learn in law school. You’re always trying to figure out a path on new issues when there aren’t easy answers out there.”

At the U.N., Sheth engaged in multi-lateral negotiations as the legal adviser to the U.S. delegation to the 67th U.N. General Assembly’s Social, Humanitarian Cultural Affairs Committee. Dozens of resolutions were negotiated in New York in November, and Sheth was lead negotiator on a few of them, including one on torture.

“Her job was to be there in negotiations, speaking into the microphone for the U.S. government,” Aswad said.

Most people familiar with the U.N. envision the main room of the General Assembly where representatives from different countries sit with headphones on, with placards in front of them, listening to translations. Sheth and others worked in side rooms on resolutions that eventually reached the main chamber for formal adoption. But, Aswad said, the resolutions they craft are pretty much what gets adopted formally at the higher level.

“It’s so exciting to actually be at the U.N. and get to experience and be a part of multilateral negotiations on important topics such as human rights,” said Sheth, who described herself as a “nerdy kid” who grew up participating in Model UN. “It’s interesting to see the dynamics at play.”

Before diving into her current assignment in August, Sheth worked in international arbitration on the case between Ecuador and the United States. Sheth was one of the lawyers who had the opportunity to argue the case in the Peace Palace in The Hague, the seat of international law.

“It made me realize again how the opportunities in federal government in general, and certainly in the legal adviser’s office in the State Department, are unparalleled,” she said. “I took a sip of water and my hand was shaking violently. I was very nervous, but it was a lot of fun. The case itself was very unique and unprecedented.”

During law school, Sheth did field work in Nepal related to providing reparations for victims of Nepal’s civil war, and in Buenos Aires working for a civil rights organization.

She has used her experiences to inform a class she teaches at Georgetown University as an adjunct professor. The class on international transitional justice covers how societies rebuild after mass atrocities or violent conflict and move on in a productive way.

But as much as she enjoys teaching, Sheth said, she likes the “day to day, nitty-gritty” of her job too much to consider heading to the classroom full time.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to www.servicetoamericamedals.org/nominate to nominate a federal employee for a Service to America Medal and http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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