VI: Samantha Power: The Responsibility to Protect (R2P)

VII: Samantha Power: The Responsibility to Protect (R2P)

by

Howard Adelman

Evan Osnos’ New Yorker pre-Christmas piece on Samantha Power provided me with a window into the priorities and workings of the Obama administration and an opportunity to comment on one of the most high profile figures in that administration. These series of blogs have not been an analysis of Osnos’ essay. Rather, I have used the essay to discuss much of what he did not say. For example, he not only did not discuss the doctrine of “The Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), he did not even mention it once. Yet R2P is the doctrine with which Samantha Power has been most closely identified by both her friends and certainly her enemies. In this blog I want to discuss Samantha Power’s understanding of and commitment to the Canadian originated doctrine of “The Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) that was so conspicuously absent from the article. As a follow-up in subsequent blogs, I will first explore the credits she claimed for the USA related after chairing the ABD, President Obama’s Atrocities Prevention Board, set up in 2011 and subsequently discuss the application of R2P to specific cases.

At the beginning of this century, Tom Axworthy, when he was Foreign Minister of Canada, initiated a commission to study and make recommendations on how countries should behave when there are indications that wide-scale atrocities are or may be taking place or even about to take place. Formed in September 2000, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) delivered its massive two volume report, “The Responsibility to Protect,” in 2001. Its goal was to develop a global political consensus about how and when the international community should respond to emerging crises involving the potential for large-scale loss of life and other widespread crimes against humanity. The report pointed to the central challenge – the primacy of the doctrine of the sovereign state as absolute. It outlined how that could be overcome by limiting sovereignty and creating a doctrine of intervention as a trump when states failed to fulfill their responsibilities to protect their own citizens. Under the auspices of the United Nations, the doctrine was to include both a “Responsibility to Prevent,” endorsing early warning systems and root cause analyses, and a duty both to respond and rebuild, although the overwhelming public image has been on intervening within a sovereign state. In 2005, the doctrine was endorsed by the United Nations unanimously.

In the doctrine, a state has a responsibility to protect its own population. If it fails to do so and mass atrocities seem immanent or underway, the international community assumes the responsibility of, in the first instance, assisting a state unable to provide protection on its own. If the state fails to protect its citizens from mass atrocities, the international community has a right to use a variety of tools at its disposal to ensure protection of those citizens. Coercive military intervention could be used as a last resort.

The uptake of R2P by the international community in a very short time is very instructive. Contributing to a Safer and More Secure World. (2005-05-12) and its complementary International Policy Statement were issued at the very beginning of 2005 by the Government of Canada (GofC) followed by “A Role of Pride and Influence in the World” that set forth the principles of R2P, how Canada would implement it, and the steps Canada would take to get the international community to buy in. One part of the last document reads: “While diplomacy remains the preferred tool in the pursuit of international peace and security, our country must possess the hard military assets necessary to achieve our foreign policy goals.” Coercive military means would be used to back up diplomacy in the traditional realist mode. However, the policy document also stated that, “the Government has made clear that it intends to engage members of the United Nations in moving forward with the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ initiative.” In fact, that process was well underway.

The UN High Level Panel on Treats, Challenges and Change wrote “A More Secure World, our Shared Responsibility;” the document was released by the Office of the Secretary-General of the UN in 2004; R2P was endorsed in 2005. The objective was to develop new rules to enable the international community to protect civilians from extreme harm when their own government is unwilling or unable to do so.   In 2005 at the UN World Summit, when the UN unanimously endorsed the doctrine, it was already clear that it was a stillbirth. China, for example, was just one of many countries that put caveats on their support. That country was quite clear that it was voting for motherhood; anytime the issue came up and R2P was to be applied, it was to be subordinate to the absolute sovereignty of a state. Sovereignty must always trump R2P. A nation’s permission to intervene would still be required. The doctrine was only to be applied with the consent of the nation targeted, a principle that the doctrine was intentionally designed to overcome. The United States under George Bush’s administration also voted in support of the doctrine while making quite clear that decisions of multilateral bodies, such as the UN, would be subordinate to the decisions and interests of the United States. Sovereignty still ruled.

Samantha Power’s first book was not A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide published in 2002, which traced the history of genocides in the twentieth century and government responses to those atrocities as they developed, but a co-edited volume with Graham Allison the previous year called Realizing Human Rights: Moving from Inspiration to Impact. The order of the books and their titles are instructive. For her focus was not to provide a scholarly understanding of why genocides take place nor why governments stand by and do nothing. The book was intended to inspire action, initially by ensuring that warning information was collected and analyzed and a box of prevention tools developed, including military intervention.

This coincidence of timing led to the close identification of Samantha Power with the R2P doctrine rather than any role she played in its development or getting the UN’s endorsement in unanimously adopting the doctrine while gutting it of any meaning, though undoubtedly the fame of her second book, combined with the aftermath of the failure to prevent atrocities in both Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, helped in both publicizing the doctrine and linking her name closely with it. Samantha Power had no significant role, even in the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP), which was organized to ensure the doctrine was implemented.

The New American, as a very loud voice on the far right in America, has insistently contended with the original R2P doctrine and insisted that U.S. sovereignty and interests had to be protected against the insatiable hunger for power of the UN, the globalist government-in-waiting. Right wingers claim that the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard, with its commitment to make human rights principles central to the formulation of U.S. public policy, and, more particularly, Samantha Power as its founding executive director, participated in the advisory board of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty established by the Canadian government. In fact, Michael Ignatieff, at the time Carr Professor of Human Rights Practice at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, was on the commission, not Samantha Power. The Carr Center itself, however, is not included in the index of the report. Further, in the supplementary second volume of the Responsibility to Protect Report edited by Thomas Weiss and Don Hubert, to which I contributed an essay and which includes an exhaustive bibliography, Samantha Power did not contribute to any of the thematic essays. Nevertheless, these facts never stood in the way of the right in the United States linking her intimately with the doctrine or for branding Samantha as a “worldwide leader” in the promotion of this “sovereignty-stealing” doctrine that Samantha Power allegedly worked to develop in partnership with The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCRtoP).

How does this have any significance since Samantha Power unequivocally endorses R2P? It is significant only in pointing out that anything the right says about Samantha Power, both generally and with respect to R2P, is not to be trusted. Unfounded comments from the right make Samantha Power an epitome of scholarly accuracy and acuity. Ramesh Thakur, when he was director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation, published an op-ed in a number of Canadian newspapers on the new world order. The right wrote that Thakur in his article quoted Samantha Power as “pushing for a “global rebalancing” and “international redistribution” of power that would usher in a “new world order.” Contrary to their claim, Samantha was not even cited in the article.

What really bothered Marco Rubio (R-Fl) at her inauguration hearings for her appointment as UN permanent representative to the UN was not Samantha’s threat to the supremacy of the absolute sovereignty of the USA, but her call for the USA to confess its past sins, for a collective public mea culpa, a public equivalent to the secret confessional in a Catholic Church. In her article, “Force Full” in The New Republic in 2003, Samantha had criticized George Bush’s use of “illiberal power.” “U.S. foreign policy has to be rethought…We need: a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored, or permitted by the United States. This would entail restoring FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] to its pre-Bush stature, opening the files, and acknowledging the force of a mantra we have spent the last decade promoting in Guatemala, South Africa, and Yugoslavia: A country has to look back before it can move forward. Instituting a doctrine of the mea culpa would enhance our credibility by showing that American decision-makers do not endorse the sins of their predecessors.” Samantha favoured humanitarian intervention and opposed imperial military intervention. Samantha’s response to Marco Rubio’s query, however, was an exercise, not only in sophistic political side-stepping, but in turning a challenging political question into an exercise in obfuscation. Further, she used the question to exclaim her vaulted view of the United States.

In this blog I focus on words and ideas rather than claimed deeds, such as Presidential Study Directive 10 (PSD-10) of September 2011 declaring the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide to be a “national security interest and core moral responsibility” of America and directing the National Security Advisor to conduct a comprehensive review assessing U.S. government capabilities and needs in this area.

Ambassador Power told one interviewer that, in addition to the constraints around the moral imagination and budgets that she encountered, and the time required to convince others, she had to cajole and convince after understanding where those resistant others were situated even when she experienced herself as an outsider and an alarm went off, “intruder alert, intruder alert.” Although she had come to appreciate and understand those constraints, nevertheless she always felt blessed “to have the chance to bring these issues to the fore.” Barack Obama was not one of those constraints because he has had a longstanding interest in multilateral efforts to combat war crimes and genocide and supported a more constraining international legal regime on war crimes, even at the cost of national sovereignty even as he appears more the “realist” than an advocate of humanitarian intervention. So she had always been working with the imprimatur of the president.

At an International Symposium on Preventing Genocide and Mass Atrocities in Paris convened by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, Samantha Power, as Special Assistant to the President for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs at the U.S. National Security Council, gave a keynote address on 15 November 2010. The conference focused on genocide prevention and policy initiatives, current threats of mass atrocities, and prospects for greater international cooperation. Samantha made four points.

To the question of what we should do differently as governments and members of civil society to reduce the likelihood of atrocities, she stressed the importance of strategic commitments to prevent mass atrocities in Obama’s National Security Strategy that go beyond a vow of “Never Again!,” beyond the UN’s endorsement of R2P, or even citing R2P in a Security Council resolution. The strategic commitment is one that sends a critical message throughout the government and to the world of American priorities in order for resources to be allocated and political will to be mobilized and harnessed.

In the Torah, there is a distinction between oaths, vows and promises. When one reads Samantha Power, a strategic commitment is not an oath which a higher authority will require you to fulfill, nor a vow where there are consequences if you fail, nor even a promise where your sense of self to yourself and others will be diminished if you fail to act. A strategic commitment is none of these. It is about symbols. It is about messaging. It is about enhancing and reinforcing a constituency. It is about creating an organization that can work towards a singular goal. But it is not about developing practical tactics on the ground and certainly not about delivering results. In other words, it is about politics. It is about spin.

Samantha went on to insist that the strategic commitment also had to be personal and embodied in an individual who will ensure a president’s legacy and an organizational structure that will guarantee that the information flows up and the options are available to the president. This is consistent with her misplaced analysis of what went wrong when President Clinton was dealing with Rwanda. It is not consistent with my analysis of that failure nor with my appreciation of the significant humanitarian successes by governments. Ron Atkey, when he was Minister of Immigration and was confronted with the Indochinese Boat people crisis, told his staff in the Ministry that he did not want to go down in history like those Canadian officials who turned their backs on the Jewish boat people in the thirties and said “None is too many.” Practical more than rhetorical leadership is required.

Look at the difference. In Samantha’s world view, underlings are required to ensure a legacy so “that the President doesn’t look back on his presidency and wonder why he wasn’t informed or presented with decisions.” In the Canadian understanding of commitment, that commitment is a will to act in a specific direction in a specific context faced with a specific problem. Whether it was Jack Pickersgill’s commitment to facilitate entry of Hungarian refugees into Canada or the Clark government’s approach to the problem of Indochinese refugees, commitment was not a strategy but an action, not setting up and devolving the problem onto an organization and making an impersonal structure responsible and simply appointing someone at the top committed to the same purpose. Those steps followed from a specific commitment to act, not as a condition for acting. For Samantha, what is required is governmental organization that matches the methodical organization characteristic of mass-killings. However, a prior requirement of genocide is the commitment of a few to destroy a group. The organization is simply a tool to accomplish the task.

Samantha simply demonstrated that she neither understood the source of the problem nor how commitments are formed to deal with them. Her approach is essentially bureaucratic and not action-oriented, concerned with general abstract propositions not specific deeds. Though it has some resemblance to mass lining in the Chinese political system, it lacks the key element of determination on the part of leadership to get something done.

Samantha’s third requirement to combat the prospect of mass atrocities focused on institutionalization. “Governments must work to systematize ‘prevention…to routinize our response to indicators of mass atrocities.” But indicators, as demonstrated in the developing East and West African early warning systems, do not connect with action but with the process for gathering and classifying information. Structures and organization do not necessarily make it easier to ensure early engagement. They just can help make it possible. Possibility should not be confused with engagement. Further, instead of announcing a new “Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention” that will “invite ideas–and award grants–for innovative technologies that strengthen the U.S. government’s capacity for early warning, prevention, and response with respect to mass atrocities,” why not, instead, recognize and enhance what is already in the field and is working by strengthening local capacity to anticipate the prospect of mass killing? It is not the American DOD that needs strengthening in its capacity to deal with atrocity prevention and response. The U.S. already needs to be on a weight loss program relative to its array of intelligence services. The military in Africa need to be strengthened. It is hard to imagine the American army being authorized to, let alone embarking on, an “atrocity prevention mission.”

Osnan’s article on Samantha was subtitled, “In the realm of the possible” with the implication that ideals had to be tempered with reality. But that is simply the result of construing idealism and realism as poles apart. In fact, they are complementary. The problem is to get the two into a dialectical embrace. Strategic commitments, in Samantha’s construal, structure and organization, and even institutionalization simply will not do. The focus has to be on decisions and deeds in responding to concrete challenges, not creating abstract general principles and a bureaucratic structure to enact them. Principles must be embodied in practices and not in abstractions. So all the convening of bureaucrats would not have led to the decision to take Hungarian refugees or Indochinese refugees into Canada. Decisions to act were crucial. “Whole of government” meetings focused on prevention are a crock, except as an educational tool. They do not and will not drive plans and responses. Samantha is just demonstrating her ignorance of the way governments actually accomplish anything.

Samantha’s fourth and final point in her address was to stress the importance of civil society and the value of social movements, such as the movement of which she was a part on the Darfur issue. I will take up that as an example in more detail tomorrow. But having been very active in many social movements rather than politics, from the nuclear disarmament movement to Operation Lifeline in the private sponsorship of the Indochinese refugees, it is my considered opinion, as a result of my research as well as critical reflection, that they are not a sine qua non, as Samantha contended. As both my involvement and research have tried to establish, civil society pressure can be complementary and enhance the ability of government to lead and act. But government has and must provide real leadership. It is not a graduate seminar for considering options. That leadership can initiate actions independent of social movements or, preferably, with their help, but the existence or non-existence of a social movement is not key.

Samantha’s involvement in the Darfur movement is a prime example. It has been a total bust as I will try to show tomorrow. Contrary to what she claimed, there was a movement dealing with Rwanda headed by Alison des Forges. The failure was not because of the absence of such a movement, but because the government was traveling in a very different direction with very different commitments. Her contention that, “it (a social movement) didn’t activate for Rwanda. However, because of Darfur, which reached its peak killing period around the ten-year anniversary of Rwanda, the movement has been broadened and institutionalized.” Indeed, but to what effect?  On Sudan, as I will try to show, what was needed was an accurate assessment of the problem and a commitment to action. To conceive of government working because of grass root and grass top pressure is just a fallacy. The top is not a pressure point but a centre of activity. Grass roots can help the centre; it cannot mobilize it.

President Obama’s endorsement of Samantha’s prophylactic recipes to strengthen the U.S. government’s ability to foresee, prevent, and respond to genocide and mass atrocities are misplaced. “Strong organization,” “a whole-of-government approach,” “bureaucratic monthly meetings,” “appropriate burden sharing,” “National Intelligence Estimates on the global risk of mass atrocities and genocide,” as if genocide and mass atrocities were equivalent to climate change and anticipations of food shortages. Pap! Bureaucratic spin for doing nothing. Training peacekeepers and local capacity building are not new tools. Neither are targeted sanctions, even if the targets are tweaked somewhat. Nor visa bans. These, and lessons learned studies, have been utilized by both Republican and Democratic administrations in the past. Very economical initiatives on the ground have been underway, ironically largely financed by the American government for over a decade. These should be recognized and enhanced rather than concentrating on bureaucratic remedies. But I have not been able to find whether Samantha knows they exist.

Samantha’s fallacious analysis would not be so awful if it was not the prime cause for the impotence of the most powerful country in the world.

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