Catherine Powell

Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy


International law and organizations, human rights and democracy, gender, comparative constitutional law, human rights and law reform


Catherine Powell is a fellow in the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is also on the American Journal of International Law board of editors and is a professor at Fordham Law School, where she teaches international law, human rights, constitutional law, and comparative constitutional law. She took a leave from academia from 2009 to 2012 to serve on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Policy Planning Staff (on gender, human rights, and international organizations) and on the National Security Staff as director for human rights in the Obama administration. After a stint as a full time visiting professor at Georgetown University School of Law from 2012 to 2013, she returned to the Fordham.

She is a graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School, where she was an editor on the Yale Law Journal, and obtained a masters degree in public affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. After her graduate work, she was a post-graduate Ford Fellow in Teaching International Law at Harvard Law School and then clerked for Judge Leonard B. Sand on the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York.

She was founding director of both the Human Rights Institute and the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, where she was a clinical professor from 1998 to 2002, and was a visiting scholar at the Hebrew University Faculty of Law in Jerusalem, Israel from 2002 to 2003. In addition to previously serving on the Human Rights Watch board, she has been a consultant on national security and human rights matters for Center for American Progress and American Constitution Society. Her recent publications include Libya: A Multilateral Constitutional Moment? (American Journal of International Law, 2012) and A Missed Opportunity to Lead by Example (New York Times, "Room for Debate on Have Treaties Gone Out of Style?," 2012). She is currently writing on gender, development, and national security matters.

Women and Girls in the Afghanistan Transition

Although Afghan women and girls have made strides in education, the economy, health care, politics, and broader civil society since the 2001 U.S.-led intervention, these gains remain fragile. As the advancement of Afghan women and girls correlates to more prosperity, stability, and moderation, it is in the United States' interest to cement and extend these gains and prevent reversals in gender equality during the transition underway in Afghanistan. Despite a decreasing military footprint in Afghanistan, the United States has a unique ability to support Afghan efforts to improve women's security and leadership opportunities through ongoing U.S. diplomacy, defense, and development aid. In Women and Girls in the Afghanistan Transition, I suggest policies that would allow the United States to use its remaining leverage to support more sustainable models of gender equality, both by mainstreaming women's issues into the U.S. government's ongoing regional work and by focusing on policies that will empower Afghans to take ownership over the continued advancement of women and girls. Through blog posts on the Development Channel, other media, and speaking engagements, I provide recommendations on how the United States can enhance its efforts in coordination with the Afghan government and other partners.

Women, Peace, and Security in an Era of Conflict

In conflict zones, not only do women disproportionately bear the brunt of war, but they are also systematically underrepresented in efforts to resolve conflict and rebuild peace. Research demonstrates that women's involvement—through positions in politics, peacemaking, peacekeeping, the military, law enforcement, and rule of law institutions—is vital, not only to advancing gender equality, but also to building stronger and more sustainable peace and security in post-conflict states. Today, as extremist Islamist groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram increasingly target women and girls, integrating gender into the formulation and implementation of peace and security policy is critical and could be central to addressing the new challenges posed by the spread of extremism. Through Development Channel blog posts and meetings of the Women and Foreign Policy roundtable series, I aim to examine the future of the women, peace, and security agenda in light of these new challenges.

The Future of Women's Human Rights

The year 2015 marks the twentieth anniversary of the historic 1995 UN Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women. Then-First Lady Hillary Clinton's declaration at that conference, "Women's rights are human rights, and human rights are women's rights," generated widespread interest in international women's human rights, leading to numerous advances in the field, including defining rape as a weapon of war and highlighting the centrality of gender equality to economic development and security. In 2000, the United Nations enshrined gender equality as the third Millennium Development Goal (MDG). Now, as policymakers debate the next set of international development priorities, how will women's rights be incorporated into the agenda? What are the challenges and possibilities for the future of women's human rights more broadly? How and in what ways are the instrumentalist claims that gender equality is "smart economics" and "smart foreign policy" reshaping the conceptual framing of women's rights, the political movement to demand these rights, and the response of policymakers? Through Development Channel blog posts and meetings of the Women and Foreign Policy roundtable series, I seek to explore the prospects for expanding women's rights, equality, and empowerment in international relations and the new development agenda.

All Publications


Libya: A Multilateral Constitutional Moment?

Author: Catherine Powell
Social Science Research Network

The Libya intervention of 2011 marked the first time that the UN Security Council invoked the "responsibility to protect" principle (RtoP) to authorize use of force by UN member states. In this comment the author argues that the Security Council's invocation of RtoP in the midst of the Libyan crisis significantly deepens the broader, ongoing transformation in the international law system's approach to sovereignty and civilian protection.

See more in Libya; International Law

Recent Activity from Women Around the World

CFR Events

Who Decides on War and Peace? Revolutionizing Leadership for Global Security

Speaker: Swanee Hunt, Founder and Chair, Institute for Inclusive Security: Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer in Public Policy and Founder, Women and Public Policy Program, Harvard Kennedy School of Government
Presider: Catherine Powell, Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
May 13, 2015

This meeting is on the record.


Educating Girls, Investing in the Future

Speaker: Tina Tchen, Assistant to the President, Chief of Staff to the First Lady, and Executive Director of the Council on Women and Girls, The White House
Presider: Catherine Powell, Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
March 4, 2015

This meeting is on the record.


Afghan Women and Girls After 2014

Speakers: Rina Amiri, Senior Mediator, United Nations, Catherine Powell, Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations, Barnett Rubin, Director and Senior Fellow, New York University’s Center on International Cooperation
December 9, 2014

This meeting is on the record.


Women and Girls in the Afghanistan Transition

Speakers: Rachel Reid, Director of the Regional Policy Initiative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Open Society Foundations, David Sedney, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia, U.S. Department of Defense
Presider: Catherine Powell, Women and Foreign Policy Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
June 20, 2014

This meeting is on the record.



Radio Interview

After U.S. Withdrawal, Afghanistan Could Be Another Iraq

Just as Iraq was not capable of preventing the ISIS insurgency, Powell warns that Afghanistan is at risk of a reemergence of the Taliban, with grave implications for women's rights. She argues that the John Kerry brokered deal to recount votes in Afghanistan's disputed presidential election underscores that U.S. leadership continues to be critical in ensuring stability, even as the Afghan authorities assume security responsibility.