Frustrated with the politics around human rights and international justice issues, Karen Mosoti MC/MPA 2019 sought the skills to respond more effectively
Karen Mosoti MC/MPA 2019 was a student at the University of Nairobi during the 1990s, a tumultuous period when Kenya was governed by President Daniel arap Moi. Moi suppressed free speech and political dissent, and was accused of human rights abuses by both the United Nations and Amnesty International. Mosoti’s professors and fellow students were regularly arrested for speaking out.
Encouraged by a growing demand for democracy and human rights in Kenya, she travelled to the United Kingdom to study human rights law at the University of Nottingham. She returned to Kenya as a young lawyer and was hired as a state counsel in the office of the country’s attorney general. Later rising to senior state counsel, she worked on aligning Kenya’s human rights policies with international standards. She then moved to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and took a diplomatic posting at the United Nations in New York, where in 2005, she helped negotiate the framework for the U.N. Human Rights Council (the successor to the U.N. Human Rights Commission). She has worked at the U.N. in New York ever since, first representing the Kenyan government in discussions and negotiations on human rights and international law; and most recently as chief of the Liaison Office of the International Criminal Court (ICC), where she has fought for justice for victims of atrocities—genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
Mosoti hopes to someday return to Kenya and pursue work on governance and rule of law, focusing on anti-corruption and human rights issues. We talked to her about the path that brought her to Harvard Kennedy School and what she plans to do with her degree.
Q: What brought you to HKS?
I had been working for the ICC for about 10 years, and a big part of my work entailed talking with diplomats and U.N. officials, seeking their support to end impunity for atrocity crimes. At some point, I got frustrated. And when I say frustration, I don’t mean frustration with the ICC, but with the politics around the U.N. and the politics surrounding international criminal justice and human rights. As a human rights defender, you think that people working for governments and at the U.N. should recognize the obvious and see that genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity are really horrendous, and that we need to do something about them. But they don’t always see it that way, at least in the diplomatic circles in which I worked. Governments are constantly making tradeoffs—there are national interests, trade interests, security interests, and other interests involved. And human rights and justice often get pushed aside whenever they threaten to stand in the way of these interests. And that bothered me a lot. So I thought, maybe I need to step out and get a new perspective and new tools to deal with these situations.
Q: As a mid-career master’s student, what were you looking for from your experience?
By stepping outside this toxic political environment at the U.N., I was looking for new skills and tools that would enable me to respond more effectively. At the Kennedy School I’ve focused on leadership, management, and communication skills—basically the tools I need to react effectively in that kind of environment. I am a lawyer, and my tendency is to react in a legalistic way. I say: “These are the rules.” And I somehow expect people to just respect the law. But that doesn’t always work. You need other skills. You need persuasion skills, you need to be able to empathize with and to understand the perspectives of the people you are dealing with. These are the soft skills that I have been focusing on over the past year. I took the [King Hussein Bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership] Ronald Heifetz class, “Exercising Authority: Power, Strategy, and Voice.” This class is not about hard leadership skills; it introduces you to a psychological approach to leadership. It is about adaptive leadership—about locating yourself in a complex environment, understanding the various factors and people in play, and slowly gaining the trust and confidence of those people. This skill is really crucial when you’re dealing with and trying to influence people from different backgrounds and with different interests.
Q: What are you hoping to accomplish with your new skills?
The leadership, management, and communication skills that I have learned will be immediately applicable when I return to my work at the U.N. I think I am now better equipped to handle the political and diplomatic maneuvering that happens there. But eventually, I plan to go back to Kenya. I have lived outside Kenya for a long time, but I do keep track of what is going on there—especially in the area of governance and human rights. It is very disappointing for me, knowing that this is my country, my permanent home, and that things are not going the way I think they should go. I feel that I have gained a lot of experience working outside Kenya, and I have an obligation to contribute towards improving governance in my country. When I go back to Kenya, I hope to able to work in the areas that I am passionate about: governance, human rights, justice, and the rule of law. In particular, I would like to work on strengthening institutions in these key areas.
Q: How do you think your skills will translate on the ground?
One of the most useful courses I took was “Getting Things Done: Management in a Development Context,” with [Edward S. Mason Senior Lecturer in International Development] Matt Andrews. Because the focus of this course is on developing countries, you learn how to navigate bureaucratic systems and to get things done. It gives you the tools you need to get your policy on the agenda and to get it implemented. It helps you figure out the people you need to talk with, and what management framework to use in a particular situation or project. The PDIA (Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation) framework that I learned in this course gives you hands-on experience working with governments in real time to solve complex development issues. This tool, I believe, can help the government of Kenya deal with some of the complex challenges it faces, for instance in fighting endemic corruption.
Q: What wisdom would you share with the mid-career master’s students of the future?
There are so many learning opportunities at HKS. Unfortunately, you can only do a limited number of courses in one year. But much of the learning happens outside the classroom—in the daily events and workshops that happen at lunchtime and in the evenings; and at the numerous panel discussions and events with the high-profile guest speakers that pass through the School. You want to be at many of these events, but you can’t because you have a time conflict with a class, or you have an assignment due the following day. Just recently, I had to miss an event with the former President of Liberia [Ellen Johnson Sirleaf MC/MPA 1973]. So, my advice to a new student just coming in would be: Plan your course schedule in such a way that you leave time for learning outside the classroom. There is plenty to learn from the numerous events, as well as from your fellow students, especially in the mid-career cohort, who all come with vast experience from different fields.