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 White House National Security Council 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 master’s 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 “Reflections on Zivotofsky v. Kerry: Presidential Signing Statements and Dialogic Constitutionalism, American Journal of International Law Unbound (2015); Gender Indicators as Global Governance: This is Not Your Father's World Bank, chapter in Big Data, Big Challenges in Evidenced-Based Policy Making (Kumar Jayasuriya ed., 2015) (West Academic Press, Publisher), to be reprinted in seventeen Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law (forthcoming 2016).; “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, Peace, and Security in an Era of Conflict

Women in conflict zones not only disproportionately bear the brunt of war, they are also systematically underrepresented in efforts to resolve conflict and rebuild peace. Yet research demonstrates that women's involvement—through positions in politics, peacemaking, peacekeeping, conflict prevention, 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. With 2015 marking the fifteen year anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325—the first on women, peace, and security—the Project on Women, Peace, and Security in an Era of Conflict looks to identify ways to empower women in peacemaking and peacekeeping efforts. The project builds on my past work on Women and Girls in the Afghanistan Transition, and examines the new challenges to the women, peace, and security through speaking engagements, meetings of the Women and Foreign Policy roundtable series, Women Around the World blog posts,   and other writings.

Gender and Terrorism

Terrorist groups such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State and Boko Haram increasingly target women and girls. As a result, integrating gender into the formulation and implementation of antiterrorism strategies is critical. The Project on Gender and Terrorism examines the effects of terrorism on women, their role in countering it, and how women’s empowerment can stem violent extremism more generally. The project also looks at the potential culpability of women as terrorists, including when forced into terrorist activity (i.e., through threats of violence). The project examines these issues through meetings of the Women and Foreign Policy roundtable series, Women Around the World blog posts, and other CFR publications.

Gender and Technology

Building on the Women and Foreign Policy Program’s past work on the tools of technology (i.e., mobile banking, agricultural technology, and access to technology), the Project on Gender and Technology focuses on broader gender disparities that exist in internet connectivity, digital literacy, and coveted technology sector jobs, particularly in the developing world. Besides examining the implications of the “gig” economy for women, the project will make recommendations on ways to close the gendered digital divide, with a focus on strengthening women’s participation in the economy (such as by starting businesses with online platforms that assist with balancing work and family), political activism, cross-cultural dialogue, online education, and reporting crime (such as gender-based violence). The project examines these matters through meetings of the Women and Foreign Policy roundtable series, Women Around the World blog posts, and other CFR publications.

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

Meeting ⁄ New York

Women, Peace, and Security: Fifteen Years After the Adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325

Presider Catherine Powell

Fellow, Women and Foreign Policy Program, Council on Foreign Relations

Speaker Radhika Coomaraswamy

Lead Author of the United Nations’ Global Study on the Implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325

October 15, 2015 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m.

October 15, 2015

This meeting is on the record.



Equal Participation in Peace and Security: Progress on UNSCR 1325

Speaker Nahla Valji

Policy Advisory and Acting Section Chief for Peace and Security, UN Women

Presider Catherine Powell

Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations

June 9, 2015

This meeting is on the record.


Meeting ⁄ New York

Afghan Women and Girls After 2014

Speakers Barnett Rubin

Director and Senior Fellow, New York University’s Center on International Cooperation

, Rina Amiri

Senior Mediator, United Nations

, Catherine Powell

Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations

December 9, 2014

This meeting is on the record.


Meeting ⁄ New York

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.