Amy’s Life at the State Department

“Amy was a consummate professional who made an indelible impact on the course of American foreign policy. With her warm personality and open minded outlook she helped forge strong partnerships with allies and emerging powers alike, and as an architect of U.S. engagement with the UN Human Rights Council she played a crucial role in advancing global leadership on human rights. Amy was a treasured colleague who captained a team that consistently delivered on ambitious foreign policy objectives.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, September 2011.

Amy joined government service as a Presidential Management Fellow (PMF) in August 2003, with the International Affairs Office of the U.S. Department of Education, and in January of 2005 concluded her MPF program with the State Department, Office of UNESCO. Amy brought with her a strong moral compass, commitment to human rights work, good collaborative abilities, well-developed communication and analytical capacities, and a love for life and people. The rest of this profile is a summary of her human rights work with the State Department.

In January 2005, Amy began her State Department career with the Office of UNESCO, at a critical time given the Bush Administration’s decision to rejoin UNESCO. Amy played a key role in rebuilding the structures and capacities needed for our government to play a leadership role in UNESCO activities. Her supervisor noted, “We worked together at a very difficult time and none of us except Amy, who had worked with UNESCO in Africa, knew much about the organization. She was a God send in so many ways, and none of us could have survived without her intellect, kindness and care.”

In June 2006, Amy left the Office of UNESCO and joined the Human Rights, Humanitarian & Social Affairs Office (IO/HRS) of the State Department. This office is at the core of the U.S. government’s work to encourage the United Nations to promote human rights and dignity in its member countries. Amy soon became a core member of the office, continuing to hone her teamwork abilities demonstrated at UNESCO. In summer and fall of 2006, the IO/HRS office had the difficult task of supporting our government’s diplomatic negotiations on human rights simultaneously brought before the UN General Assembly in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The work involved particularly contentious issues between Arab states and Israel, defeating retaliatory resolutions against the U.S. by countries with serious human rights abuses, and achieving high priority condemnatory relations on human rights abuses in Belarus, Iran, Burma and North Korea. For sustained outstanding performance in assertively and vigorously representing U. S. human rights interests, the IO/RHS Office received a team award from the State Department.

In 2007, Amy made substantial contribution to the furtherance of U.S. foreign policy goals in human rights, and on a number of occasions became the lead officer for the IO (International Organization) Bureau. One U.S. policy accomplishment was to achieve a composition to the UN Human Rights Council that would support genuine human rights goals. Another was in keeping an American on the UN Committee against Torture. A third was managing U.S. visits by the UN Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights & Terrorism and another on Migrants. As noted by her supervisor, “Applying her usual high level of competence, professionalism and intense commitment, Amy managed situations so well that the U.S. was able to get the best possible outcome from tough and problematic matters.”

Amy’s growth in human rights diplomacy continued in 2008, as she worked with multiple State Department bureaus to mold U.S. policy on detention releases at Guantanamo. Her work became the basis for a new interagency policy that required humane treatment assurances to returned detainees, including follow up visits to ensure that the assurances were being carried out. During 2008, Amy became Senior Human Rights Officer for the IO/HRS Office, and working closely with colleagues in the Departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, and Central Intelligence Agency, coordinated the highly publicized June 2008 visit of the United Nations rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions. Working with colleagues in multiple State Department offices, she also prepared guidance and instructions for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations’ participation in multiple contentious and challenging UNDP (United Nations Development Program) expert-level and advisory Board meetings. For her work in 2008, Amy received a State Department award, “In recognition of exceptional leadership, dedication, and support during a challenging and sustained period of transition in the Office of Human Rights, Humanitarian, and Social Affairs, and crucial contributions to the promotion of human rights and democracy, a policy priority of the United States Government.”

In 2009 the Obama administration announced that it would seek an elected seat on the United Nations’ Human Rights Council (HRC), a subsidiary of the UN General Assembly and the UN’s primary inter-governmental body devoted to addressing human rights issues in UN member countries. As Senior Human Rights Officer, Amy played a key role in revitalizing U.S. participation in HRC, and as noted by her supervisor, helped to advance the Administration’s goals on freedom of expression and defamation of religions; spear-heading efforts on women’s rights; and leading more junior officers as they took on diverse HRC portfolios.” The U.S. election to the Human Rights Council in 2009 began a two-year period of intense diplomacy, resulting in some of the Obama administration’s most significant foreign policy achievements in the human rights arena. Some of these achievements are noted below, including Amy’s role:

  • Amy provided on-the-ground leadership to ensure the continuation of the Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, including the yearlong fight to get human rights issues in Burma added to the permanent agenda of the UN Security Council.
  • Amy was a key player in U.S. efforts to renew the mandate of the Independent Expert tasked with monitoring human rights throughout Sudan including Darfur. This and other international activity helped to highlight abuses of the Sudanese government and eventually contributed to an independent Southern Sudan.
  • In 2010, the Human Rights Council established a working group of five independent experts on the issue of discrimination against women. The United States was a primary supporter of establishing the working group, and Amy provided critical support for the U.S. delegation in achieving this goal. The first mission of the working group was an evaluation of laws aimed at achieving gender equality in the Republic of Moldova.
  • In March, 2011, the Human Rights Council established a UN Special Rapporteur on the Islamic Republic of Iran to monitor human rights abuses in that country. As noted by her supervisor, “Amy played a crucial role in helping to muster the will of the United States government to pursue this mandate, working to overcome the hesitations of offices and officials that feared the U.S. would lose the vote on the resolution.” Authored by the United States and Sweden—with over fifty co-sponsors from around the world—the vote in Geneva—with 22 in favor, 7 against and 14 abstentions--was an important diplomatic victory for the Obama administration.
  • In June, 2011 the UN Human rights Council voted for the first time ever in favor of a resolution endorsing the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people and expressed “grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.” Amy helped lay the groundwork for this historic resolution by shaping U.S. involvement in a consultative group at the UN in support of gay rights, working on a joint statement given at the Council in March 2011 setting the stage for the June resolution, and working with members of the South African diplomatic corps who were influential in that country’s ultimate decision to sponsor the LGBT resolution.

Perhaps Amy’s most significant contribution to human rights diplomacy in the Obama administration regarded two related and difficult issues: Freedom of Expression and Defamation of Religion. Beginning in 1999, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) sponsored UN resolutions to prohibit expression that would result in “defamation of religion”, seeing such expression as a threat to human dignity. The U.S., other Western governments and the global human rights and free speech communities, campaigned against these resolutions, fearing they would undermine free speech and validate the persecution of religious dissidents. In 2008, Amy began playing a critical role in this issue and provided important leadership for the next three years. This story of her contribution--and that of many others--is also a story of how diplomacy works, as it portrays the struggle of countries around the globe in diplomatically dealing with a very deep-seated and adversarial issue so filled with passion and volatility.

  • In early 2008, Amy created a State Department working group to monitor the promotion of religious defamation within the U.N. system and to develop and implement strategies to guide the U.S. in working with like-minded States to educate countries on the implications of the defamation concept relative to freedom of speech and human rights in countries around the world. Bearing fruit, later that year as the Human Rights Council met, the number of “no” votes and abstentions on the defamation resolution--for the first time since 1999--outweighed the number of “yes” votes.
  • In 2009, Amy was part of a four member State Department team to begin negotiations with Egypt who has historically opposed progress on the freedom of expression issue. Traveling to Egypt and engaging government diplomats as well as human rights organizations, the team laid the groundwork for four months of sustained and intense diplomacy that resulted in the U.S. and Egypt co-introducing a resolution to the Human Rights Council on this difficult issue. Returning to Washington, Amy led a team of U.S. experts to launch formal negotiations with the Egyptians on the text of the joint resolution. After obtaining Egyptian approval on the text, Amy led the effort to garner cross-regional support from multiple African countries, most notably Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and a very reluctant South Africa. The work of the U.S. Freedom of Expression team was unprecedented and resulted in the U.S.-Egypt draft securing 47 cosponsors including many countries that had not traditionally stood with the U.S. in defending this core human rights value of freedom of expression. On the final day of the Human Rights Council in September, 2009, the resolution on freedom of expression was adopted by consensus, and was the first time in five years that there was not open hostility between the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the West regarding this issue. As noted by her supervisor, Without Ms. Ostermeier’s efforts, the multi-bureau team could not have engaged in transformative, risky, cutting-edge diplomacy to foment this high-profile paradigm shift on a dispute between the OIC and the west, demonstrate our renewed leadership in the UN on human rights, forge a new area of cooperation in our bilateral relationships with Egypt, and build a strong cross-regional coalition of countries that will work with us now and in the future in the UN, especially among African and Latin American countries.
  • Following her work on Freedom of Expression, Amy was given the difficult task of leading a multi-bureau team to address the issue of Defamation of Religions. This process took several months, involved four executive branch agencies and multiple State Department bureaus, and included travel to Southeast Asia and South Africa to build support for a “defamation alternative”. After a line-by-line review of the Defamation of Religions resolution, Amy’s edits changed the resolution’s ultimate focus from religious defamation to advancing religious tolerance. An noted by her supervisor “Her work bore tremendous fruit, as tireless months of ingenuity and dedication by Amy and her department colleagues led in 2011 to acceptance by foreign countries at the Human Rights Council of their obligation to respect free speech while advancing religious tolerance. Her gifted ability to discourse effectively with oft-repressive governments contributed greatly to their unprecedented recognition of the need to observe both freedom of religion and freedom of expression and in their understanding that respect for religious freedom and tolerance need not and cannot be at the cost of diminishing the precious right of freedom of expression.”
  • In March, 2011 and shortly before Amy’s cancer diagnosis, the UN Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 16/18, which focuses on concrete, positive measures that countries can take to combat religious intolerance—rather than legal measures to restrict speech. In November of 2011 and shortly after Amy’s death, the entire UN membership endorsed this approach in its General Assembly. On month later, the U.S. held an expert-level meeting (called the Istanbul Process) with foreign government agencies and the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to focus on strategies governments can take to first, engage religious minorities and training of government officials on religious and cultural awareness, and second enforce laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion or belief. In attending the December meeting, a U.S. State Department colleague remarked, “It was truly remarkable and the first time I’ve seen experts from around the world focus in this way on a UN human rights resolution and how they can implement it/share best practices. There was a reception at the Canadian Embassy for the experts as well as NGOs and other stakeholders. Folks at the reception were discussing how much this gathering would have meant to Amy and how much she did to plant the seeds of this initiative. Folks inside and outside the Department of State continue to appreciate Amy’s work and her legacy. Her good work is being carried on by folks at all levels. Even the Secretary of State spoke at the Istanbul Process experts meeting.” Secretary Clinton’s opening words underlined the focus of the meeting: “Well, good afternoon, everyone, and I want to thank you all for participating in this conference where we are working together to protect two fundamental freedoms—the right to practice one’s religion freely and the right to express one’s opinion without fear.”

In her eight years serving the people of the United States, and especially in her six years working on human rights with the State Department, Amy lived her passion and followed her moral commitment to human rights and dignity. Amy was blessed in many ways including all those who supported and mentored her, others who grew with her and especially from all who loved her. She so loved her work and those she worked with, and she contributed greatly to the State Department and to the work of our government’s efforts on human rights. The following quote from a fellow State Department colleague is a fitting memoir: Amy continues to inspire us in our human rights work at the Department and in expressing and achieving “the better angels of our nature’ (Abraham Lincoln). We miss her so, though she will always be with us.