Samantha Power: Leading on Atrocity Prevention?

Law and Order


It was barely over a month ago that newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power gave her first public address as Ambassador. She chose to do so at the Invisible Children Fourth Estate Leadership Summit, speaking to young activists.


Power gave an impassioned address to the young crowd, calling on their new breed of activism.


“...we need your positive moral vision more than ever.

We need your vision of justice to win over those who fear it.

We need your vision of freedom to overwhelm those who rely on repression.

We need your vision of equality and tolerance to overcome those who propagate division and terror.

And we need you to act so that that vision - your vision - prevails.”


Fast-forward to this past week, and Ambassador Power has found herself in the middle of a heated debate over U.S. involvement in Syria. Far from the fuzzy, uplifting address she gave on August 10, she is now out front, calling on the international community, and Americans in particular, to stand up to their responsibility to protect civilians in harm’s way.


A long time advocate of atrocity prevention, Power was an exciting appointment for many. She is well known for her work as a journalist, writing from places such as Bosnia and Sudan, as the author of books such as A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, and also for her more recent role as the director of President Obama’s Atrocity Prevention Board (APB). Further, she comes into this position well-versed in the principle of R2P, and with a broad understanding of what mass atrocity prevention entails.


Organizations such as the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (Global R2P) and the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP) are excited about the appointment, and confident in Ambassador Power’s abilities to lead.


Dr. Simon Adams, Executive Director of Global R2P highlighted that “...quite obviously she’s brought her background in terms of her commitment to mass atrocity prevention to the work she’s done in the White House, and I’m sure that will continue on into her work that she does as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.”


The atrocity prevention community sees her as a potential advocate within the UN. Having seen genocide close up, she is truly aware of what is at stake when civilian protection is the topic at hand. There is a definite level confidence in her ability to translate her experience into her new role as Ambassador.


That said, these organizations are not naive about the role the U.S. Ambassador plays at the UN, and the political expectations and constrictions that will be placed on her. Dr. Adams reminds us, “She’s not the U.S. Ambassador for Mass Atrocity Prevention to the United Nations. She’s U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.” So, while activists and organizations alike are excited by her appointment, many are realistic about the type of impact she will be able to have.


Yet, there are still hopes for what she might bring to the table, and the leadership role she can play not only as a result of her experience but also due to the unique position the U.S. holds within the UN.


Sapna Chhatpar Considine, Program Director at the ICRtoP explained, “There are a lot of things that I think we are hoping that Samantha Power will get behind here at the UN. And a lot of it is... making sure that we’re really kind of engaging multilaterally, working with other governments to prioritize atrocity prevention, encouraging other countries to really use this frame of atrocities prevention in their interventions and in their resolutions and their statements, and saying that it’s a priority for the U.S. and that it should be a priority for other governments.”


In recent years, particularly under the Obama Administration, the U.S. has become a strong leader in atrocity prevention. While the specific terminology of R2P is not necessarily always front and center, the core belief that states have a responsibility to protect civilians from the four major crimes is prominent. When asked about the U.S. role in atrocity prevention, Dr. Adams explained, "I think this current president has been more committed in principle to the whole idea of mass atrocity prevention than probably any other U.S. president in history, as evidenced by the establishment of PSD 10 and then by the establishment of the Atrocities Prevention Board... and that's not just meaningless rhetoric, it's also actual governmental action on the level of the bureaucracy of government."


In her address on Syria, Ambassador Power highlighted the failure of the UN to take meaningful action to protect civilians: "In short, the Security Council the world needs to deal with this urgent crisis is not the Security Council we have." She comes into this position as the situation in Syria is far past when R2P ought to have been enacted, and many would say beyond any realistic options for a successful solution. Dr. Adams stated further, "Syria stands out as a glaring, depressing, traumatic and traumatizing example of the inability of the UN system when it comes to institutional inadequacies, with or without R2P."


At this point, with the United States on the verge of a potential military strike against the Syrian regime, we are working outside the parameters of R2P and outside the approval of the Security Council. A key role of organizations such as Global R2P and ICRtoP, and one they hoped Ambassador Power would take on, is education about R2P and atrocity prevention. Considine explained that, "for us, our task is making sure we remind governments when R2P is being used properly and ensure that we continue to build understanding for what it is and what it isn't."  


In concluding her address at the Fourth Estate Summit in August, Ambassador Power challenged those in attendance to participate in a dialogue with her about what matters to them. She started the hashtag #WhatMatters and asked them to tweet at her the topics they think are most important in today's world. The majority of the Twitter dialogue centered on atrocity prevention, and the need to take legitimate action to protect civilians.


As she embarks on her time as US Ambassador to the UN, hitting the ground running in the midst of this Syrian crisis, let's hope she continues to remember #WhatMatters. Let's hope that she hears her own words, knowing that in her new role we need her positive moral vision and her vision of justice. We need her to continue to push the boundaries of U.S. foreign policy, moving us toward living up to our moral responsibility, and taking the time to see the world outside of what is politically beneficial for the United States.



Follow Corrie on Twitter @corrie_hulse



Genocide, R2P, Samantha Power, Syria, United Nations, US Foreign Policy, Morality, Bashar al-Assad