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,” in Big Data, Big Challenges in Evidence-Based Policy Making, forthcoming, ed.Kumar Jayasuriya (West Academic Press, 2015); “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

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. With 2015 marking the fifteen year anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 – the first on women, peace, and security (WPS), this project analyzes and makes policy recommendations on WPS, building on my past work on Women and Girls in the Afghanistan Transition.  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. Through Women Around the World blog posts, speaking engagements, and meetings of the Women and Foreign Policy roundtable series, this project examines the future of the women, peace, and security agenda in light of new challenges.

Women, Peace, and Security in an Era of Conflict

Today, as extremist groups such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State 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. Among other things, this project will examine the impact of terrorism on women as well as the role and culpability of women as terrorists, including when forced into terrorist activity (i.e., through threats of violence).  This project examines these issues through Women Around the World blog posts, meetings of the Women and Foreign Policy roundtable series, and a potential CFR publication.

The Future of Women's Human Rights

Building on Women and Foreign Policy’s past work on the tools of technology (i.e., mobile banking, agricultural technology, and access to technology), this project focuses on broader gender disparities that exists 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, this project will make recommendations on ways to close the gendered digital divide, with an eye to strengthening women’s participation in the economy (including 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). This project examines these matters through Women Around the World blog posts, meetings of the Women and Foreign Policy roundtable series, and a potential CFR publication.

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: 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.


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.