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In his 9 March New York Times op-ed, “How to End Mass Atrocities,” Alex de Waal argues that the current (predominantly Westernized) anti-genocide movement, spearheaded by Gareth Evans and Samantha Power, has become overly idealistic. Touching upon points discussed in his co-authored paper, “How Mass Atrocities End: An Evidence-Based Counter-Narrative,” de Waal writes that interventionists have become singularly focused in both their means and their ends. He points out that while they tend to view perpetrators of mass atrocities as “insatiable,” the reality is, “In many cases, the perpetrators simply stop killing when they have reached their goals, become exhausted, fallen out among themselves or been defeated.” He cites several cases in which this has held true, and more in which this has enabled the brokering of deals which have ultimately ended instances of mass atrocities.

But De Waal then makes some sweeping generalizations, asserting that the aforementioned interventionists “insist on pursuing a more ambitious agenda: nothing short of democracy and justice, imposed by military intervention.” Coupled with getting mired in rhetorical semantics, this leads to indecision and resultant inaction when the killings ebb or stop. Before mentioning the current cases of Sudan and Syria, de Waal surmises his thesis:

Western policy makers interested in stopping mass crimes should not overlook tools that can work. Where violence is used as an instrument for political gain, it is negotiable. Some perpetrators can be moderated through diplomacy. Others will stop killing if they defeat a rebellion or realize they cannot. The main aim should be to stop genocidal killing. Holding elections and prosecuting the perpetrators of crimes, however laudable those goals, aren’t the priority.

Two days later, Gareth Evans responded in kind with a letter to the editor entitled, “In Defense of ‘R2P’,” in which he argues that

The whole point of the R2P doctrine is simply to generate a reflex international response that occurring or imminent mass atrocities are everybody’s business, not nobody’s. What the appropriate response can and should be — including diplomatic persuasion, non-military pressure like sanctions or International Criminal Court action, or (in extreme and exceptional cases) military intervention — depends entirely on the circumstances of each individual case.

Other scholars in the field have also weighed in on the debate.

Image: nytimes.com

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This week’s Guest Preventer on the AIPR blog is Elizabeth Dovell:

Power Lectures on “Obama, Human Rights, and the Lessons of the New Diplomacy”

Samantha Power, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning study “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, lectured at Columbia University last Monday on President Obama’s human rights agenda and the establishment of a “new diplomacy.”

Power, who currently serves as Senior Director of Multilateral Affairs on the National Security Council, has become one of Obama’s key advisers on genocide and human rights issues. Along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, Power was one of three women instrumental in the United States’ decision to take part in the intervention in Libya, an act that some consider the most proactive implementation yet of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

In her Monday address, Power recalled the world of crises Obama inherited that required major international cooperation: global economic recession, instability of the Iraqi regime, and a growing threat of terrorism all stood out as issues that demanded a renewed multilateral approach of “burden-sharing.”

By “clearing the brush” around U.S. response to genocide and mass atrocity, Power said, Obama is seeking to establish a framework that will shape U.S. involvement in global human rights concerns in years to come.

Although Power didn’t say so (perhaps in deference to U.S. conservatives’ distaste for the idea?), the establishment of this new framework, rooted in diplomacy and multilateralism, clearly reflects the Obama administration’s acceptance of R2P as the guiding concept in responding to mass atrocities (see p. 48 of the May 2010 National Security Strategy).

Still, despite UN General Assembly approval in 2005, most states have been hesitant to invoke the norms laid out in the R2P framework. As Power pointed out, it is one thing to agree on a moral imperative, another to agree on swift and decisive action in the face of the four atrocities outlined in R2P: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. (Here, it is important to note that the Responsibility to Protect falls first to states, then to regions, and only then to the international community.)

Striking a note of optimism on the UN itself, Power noted that the Human Rights Council, often viewed as controversial for the disproportionate attention it pays to some human rights abuses at the expense of others, has taken several unprecedented actions recently—suspending Libya from the council, creating a Commission of Inquiry in both Libya and the overshadowed Ivory Coast, and authorizing a special rapporteur to investigate human rights abuses in Iran.

Elizabeth Dovell formerly served as Communications and Social Networks Intern at AIPR and Research Assistant at the World Policy Institute. She will graduate from SUNY New Paltz in May with a bachelor’s degree in international relations.

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