Samantah Power

Samantha Power researches the persistence of genocide and other international humans rights abuses. Power was at Indiana Purdue University Fort Wayne this week to discuss genocide, U.S. foreign policy and the candidacy of Barack Obama.

In 2003, Power wrote the book Problem from Hell: American and the Age of Genocide. Much of her comment was founded in this work, and her on-going research on the relationship between U.S. foreign policy and genocide.

Power admits that the choice of examining the U.S. role is, in part, arbitrary: she is American; she has better access to American resources. However, a central argument in a Problem from Hell is that the U.S., with its power, influence, and self-projected democracy, is the one- or one-of-few- world power that is geo-politically aligned to prevent genocide. Yet, Power laments that the U.S. did little in the past century to prevent and end genocide.

Why We Don’t Fight

There are many prosaic challenges, in spite of the moral/ethic realization that a country like the U.S. should put forth effort to prevent genocide, that have slowed the U.S. from taken even basic action in response to genocide, says Power. There is the interpretative task of categorizing or defining genocide. There is the difficulty of acting unilaterally or against the interests of other world powers. There is the uneasy specter of military conflict, if other prevention methods fail. There is the real and imagined precedence of other international and domestic issue. (This list, of course goes on, and Power has document the U.S’s many hindrances to action.

There also seems to the sense among many people, that stopping genocide requires military action. An assessment Power rejects. She counts thousands of ways that the U.S. could have cheaply, safely, and effectively slow the forces of genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan, the Congo, and Burma. She alludes the these powers as a toolbox-of-sorts- a range of different tools the U.S. could implement, and does, in fact, implement in other foreign policy scenarios. Tragically, though, “The toolbox has not been opened,” says Power. (There are exceptions to this complaint, the U.S did act in Bosnia, as Power noted.)

The Promise of Change

In her lecture, Power offered little redemption for past U.S. negligence to human rights atrocities, but she did offer a bleak and conditional hope that things are changing in the U.S., and elsewhere in the world. This is mostly happening with citizens and activist groups, and Power presents the Dafur situation as a case study of this. Activist have learned from past failure, Power offers; and citizens are lobbying like never before for that the U.S., that the Senate and Congress to do something about Dafur.

Power also lauds Barack Obama, and other progressives, who have not only acknowledge the problem of genocide and other human rights issues, but have made these issues cornerstones of their campaign and policy platforms. (It’s worth noting the Power has worked for the Senate office of Obama and is an advisor to the Obama presidential campaign. Also, Power says that the Clinton campaign is also progressive on this issue. And that, really, ever major presidental contender has, due to pressure from citizens and advocacy groups, has a sophisticated platform on genocide.)

U.S. Illegitimacy: Torture and the War in Iraq.

If the U.S. is a key part of the international solution to genocide, its conversely appropriate that the U.S. is a problem, as well. While Power argues that the U.S. has the money and power to uphold human rights in the world, she says that the country’s moral and legal legitimacy has suffered due to its current foreign policy and international behavior.

In response to an audience question, Power commented on the U.S’s involment in Iraq- on how 15 years ago the most powerful people in the U.S. government (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz) had an opportunity to prevent the mass killing of Kurds in northern Iraq, but instead chose to further invest in Saddam Hussien’s regime. She commented on the irony, or hypocrisy, of using this as a rationale for unilaterally invading Iraq for non-humanitarian outcomes.

Troubling also are black sites, torture, and domestic spying. While selective foreign policy interests are inevitable, according to Power, the U.S. has shown contempt to international human rights laws. In a simple sense, a country that tortures has little leverage to speak or act against other human rights violations. The war on terror, then, has not only damaged the U.S’s national security, it has degraded its moral standing.

Power is currently working on a new book, Chasing the Flame: Viera de Mello and the Fight to Save the World. (I’m not sure when the book will be published.)


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