In testimony before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Benjamin Fogel spoke out against the repression of political freedom, false imprisonment and the absence of an independent judiciary in Belarus. But Fogel isn’t a world leader or foreign-policy expert. He’s a student starting his sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania.
How the 19-year-old from the Philadelphia suburb of Bala Cynwyd came to have a voice on the world stage is a tale of tenacity that began when he challenged himself to engage with the broader world around him before earning a degree.
This summer, Fogel was an intern with the Geneva office of U.N. Watch, a non-governmental organization that has special consultative status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Its mission is to monitor the U.N. to ensure that it lives up to the principles established in its founding charter.
Fogel arrived in Geneva in May and was present for the entire 26th session of the UNHRC, which opened on June 10. He worked as a representative for the organization, closely observing the Council, following debate and tracking the resolutions that the Council ultimately adopted or rejected. Less than two weeks after the beginning of the session, U.N. Watch invited him to speak before the U.N. in testimony that was video-taped.
International relations and foreign policy are subjects that have fascinated Fogel for years.
“I’ve often heard people casually throw around assumptions about the U.N. or international politics and would question their motives and depth of understanding,” he says. “Being at the U.N. in Geneva allowed me to see what was actually going on firsthand and enabled me to study it in unparalleled depth.”
Fogel has participated in Model United Nations, an academic simulation of the U.N., since high school. Working to inform and inspire others about global concerns, he helps plan the Penn Model United Nations Conference.
When he first arrived in Geneva, housing was quite difficult to find. Fogel rented a room for 10 days before settling into University of Geneva housing where he met visitors to the city from around the world who were attending international conferences.
After the initial shock wore off of being in a foreign city where mostly French is spoken, Fogel reveled in the feeling of being in the international metropolis.
“When you come to Geneva, people’s minds are more globally focused. There are so many different conferences. There’s this air that something larger than yourself is going on.”
There was even an association of interns working in Geneva, fellow students of international relations from all over the world.
His time at U.N. Watch was “eye-opening.”
He attended events with speakers from international human rights organizations, spoke to people who had family members imprisoned in Belarus and heard from dissidents in various countries, such as Syria and Sudan. It was his first time living and working independently in another country. When the U.N. session concluded, he traveled in Europe before returning to the United States in July.
In addition to his work with U.N. Watch, Fogel conducted research focusing on the performance of the Council in relation to the work of its predecessor, the U.N.’s Human Rights Commission, and on the tenets espoused in the UNHRC’s charter.
“I wanted to make sure that the Human Rights Council was living up to its mandate,” he says.
The research was advised by James McGann, senior lecturer in international studies at the Lauder Institute of Management and International Studies and funded by Penn’s Hassenfeld Foundation Social Impact Research Grant. It will officially be presented in September at the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Research Expo.
Fogel, who plans to pursue a dual major in both history and psychology, also has a passion for writing. In high school at Friends’ Central in Philadelphia, he became the first high school student ever to work as an intern for PoliticsPA, an online site for “political news junkies.”
Prior to his freshman year at Penn, Fogel maintained a weekly column at Policymic.com, an online media outlet startup. He continued writing the column last summer when he worked as the research and data coordinator at Penn’s Think Tank and Civil Societies Program, where he led a small team researching think tanks in Oceania, a region of the Pacific Ocean.
Fogel is planning to undertake new academic research and spend next summer in the public sector working with the federal government.