[News] Samantha Power and the Weaponization of Human Rights

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Thu Sep 10 13:22:52 EDT 2009

September 10, 2009

Care Tactics
Samantha Power and the Weaponization of Human Rights


American liberals rejoiced at Samantha Power’s 
appointment to the National Security Council. 
After so many dreary Clintonites were stacked 
into top State Department positions­Dennis Ross, 
Richard Holbrooke, Hillary herself­here was new 
blood: a dynamic idealist, an inspiring public 
intellectual, a bestselling author of a book 
against genocide, a professor at Harvard’s Carr 
Center for Human Rights. And she hasn’t even 
turned 40. The blogosphere buzzed. Surely 
Samantha Power was the paladin, the conscience, 
the senior director for multilateral affairs to 
bring human rights back into U.S. foreign policy.

Don’t count on it. “Human rights,” a term once 
coterminous with freeing prisoners of conscience 
and documenting crimes against humanity, has 
taken on a broader, more conflicted definition. 
It can now mean helping the Marine Corps 
formulate counterinsurgency techniques; pounding 
the drums for air strikes (of a strictly surgical 
nature, of course); lobbying for troop 
escalations in various conquered nations­all for noble humanitarian ends.

The intellectual career of Samantha Power is a 
richly instructive example of the weaponization 
of human rights. She made her name in 2002 with A 
Problem From Hell: America and the Age of 
Genocide. In this surprise global bestseller, she 
argues that when confronted with 20th-century 
genocides, the United States sat on the sidelines 
as the blood flowed. Look at Bosnia or Rwanda. 
“Why does the US stand so idly by?” she asks. 
Powers allows that overall America “has made 
modest progress in its responses to genocide.” 
That’s not good enough. We must be bolder in 
deploying our armed forces to prevent 
human-rights catastrophes­to engage in 
“humanitarian intervention” in the patois of our foreign-policy elite.

In nearly 600 pages of text, Power barely 
mentions those postwar genocides in which the 
U.S. government, far from sitting idle, took a 
robust role in the slaughter. Indonesia’s 
genocidal conquest of East Timor, for instance, 
expressly green-lighted by President Ford and 
Secretary of State Kissinger, who met with 
Suharto the night before the invasion was 
launched and carried out with American-supplied 
weapons. Over the next quarter century, the 
Indonesian army saw U.S. military aid and 
training rise as it killed between 100,000 and 
200,000 East Timorese. (The figures and the 
designation of “genocide” come from a UN-formed 
investigative body.) This whole bloody business 
gets exactly one sentence in Power’s book.

What about the genocide of Mayan peasants in 
Guatemala­another decades-long massacre carried 
out with American armaments by a military 
dictatorship with tacit U.S. backing, officer 
training at Fort Benning, and covert CIA support? 
A truth commission sponsored by the Catholic 
Church and the UN designated this programmatic 
slaughter genocide and set the death toll at 
approximately 200,000. But apparently this isn’t a problem from hell.

The selective omissions compound. Not a word 
about the CIA’s role in facilitating the 
slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian 
Communists in 1965-66. (Perhaps on legalistic 
grounds: Since it was a political group being 
massacred, does it not meet the quirky criteria 
in the flawed UN Convention on Genocide?) Nothing 
about the vital debate as to whether the hundreds 
of thousands of Iraqi deaths attributable to 
U.S.-led economic sanctions in the 1990s count as 
genocide. The book is primarily a vigorous act of 
historical cleansing. Its portrait of a 
“consistent policy of non-intervention in the 
face of genocide” is fiction. (Those who think 
that pointing out Power’s deliberate blind spots 
about America’s active role in genocide is 
nitpicking should remember that every moral 
tradition the earth has known, from the 
Babylonian Talmud to St. Thomas Aquinas, sees 
sins of commission as far worse than sins of omission.)

Power’s willful historical ignorance is the 
inevitable product of her professional milieu: 
the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard’s 
Kennedy School of Government. One simply cannot 
hold down a job at the KSG by pointing out the 
active role of the U.S. government in various 
postwar genocides. That is the kind of impolitic 
whining best left to youthful anarchists like 
Andrew Bacevich or Noam Chomsky and, really, one 
wouldn’t want to offend the retired Guatemalan 
colonel down the hall. (The KSG has an abiding 
tradition of taking on war criminals as visiting 
fellows.) On the other hand, to cast the U.S. as 
a passive, benign giant that must assume its 
rightful role on the world stage by vanquishing 
evil­this is most flattering to American amour 
propre and consonant with attitudes in 
Washington, even if it doesn’t map onto reality. 
A country doesn’t acquire a vast network of 
military bases in dozens of sovereign nations 
across the world by standing on the sidelines, 
and for the past hundred years the U.S. has, by 
any standard, been a hyperactive world presence.

For Samantha Power, the United States can by its 
very nature only be a force for virtue abroad. In 
this sense, the outlook of Obama’s human-rights 
advocate is no different from Donald Rumsfeld’s.

Power’s faith in the therapeutic possibilities of 
military force was formed by her experience as a 
correspondent in the Balkans, whose wars 
throughout the ’90s she seems to view as the 
alpha and omega of ethnic conflict, indeed of all 
genocide. For her, NATO’s bombing of Belgrade in 
1999 was a stunning success that “likely saved 
hundreds of thousands of lives” in Kosovo. Yet 
this assertion seems to crumble a little more 
each year: estimates of the number of Kosovars 
slain by the province’s Serb minority have shrunk 
from 100,000 to at most 5,000. And it is far from 
clear whether NATO’s air strikes prevented more 
killing or intensified the bloodshed. Even so, it 
is the NATO attack on Belgrade­including civilian 
targets, which Amnesty International has 
recently, belatedly, deemed a war crime­that 
informs Power’s belief that the U.S. military 
possesses nearly unlimited capability to save 
civilians by means of aerial bombardment, and all 
we need is the courage to launch the sorties. 
Power has recently admitted, perhaps a little 
ruefully, that “the Kosovo war helped build 
support for the invasion of Iraq by contributing 
to the false impression that the US military was 
invincible.” But no intellectual has worked 
harder than Samantha Power to propagate this impression.

A Problem From Hell won a Pulitzer in early 2003. 
America’s book reviewers, eager to be team 
players, were relieved to be reminded of the 
upbeat side of military force during the build-up 
to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Surely Saddam 
Hussein, who had perpetrated acts of genocide 
against the Kurds, needed to be smashed by 
military force. Didn’t we owe it to the Iraqis to 
invade? Hasn’t America played spectator for too 
long? Power, to her credit, did not support the 
war, but she has been mighty careful not to raise 
her voice against it. After all, is speaking out 
at an antiwar demonstration or joining a peace 
group like Code Pink really “constructive”? It is 
certainly no way to get a seat on the National Security Council.

The failed marriage of warfare and humanitarian 
work is also the subject of Power’s most recent 
book, Chasing the Flame, a biography of Sergio 
Vieira de Mello, the UN humanitarian worker who 
was killed, with 21 others, by a suicide bomber 
in Baghdad just months after the U.S. invasion. 
Most of the book is a sensitive and rather 
gripping account of Vieira’s partial successes 
and heroic efforts in refugee resettlement in 
Thailand, Lebanon, and the Balkans. He eventually 
rose to become the UN’s high commissioner on 
human rights­a position he left when asked by 
George W. Bush to lead a UN “presence” in Iraq. 
That the UN’s top human-rights official would 
rush to help with the clean-up after an American 
invasion that contravened international law may 
strike some observers as strange. (One can 
imagine the puzzlement and outrage if the UN’s 
high commissioner on human rights had trailed the 
Soviets into Afghanistan in 1979 to help build 
civil society.) But for Vieira, and for Samantha 
Power, there is nothing unseemly about 
human-rights professionals serving as adjuncts to 
a conquering army, especially when the prestige 
of the UN­scorned and flouted during the run-up 
to the war­is on the line. Besides, Vieira had 
the personal assurances of the U.S. 
administrator, L. Paul Bremer­a simply charming 
American: he even speaks a foreign language­that 
the UN taskforce would have a great deal of sway in how a new Iraq was built.

In June 2003, Vieira arrived in Baghdad and was 
surprised to find himself completely powerless. 
That Vieira and company believed the UN insignia 
would be more than a hood ornament on 
Blackwater’s Humvees bespeaks not tough-minded 
idealism but wishful thinking. Power herself 
claims that Kofi Annan’s main reason for sending 
Vieira off to Baghdad was to remind the world of 
the UN’s “relevance” by getting a piece of the 
action. But for him and his colleagues, this 
confusion of means and ends proved deadly, one of 
tens of thousands of blood-soaked tragedies that 
this war has wrought. The clear lesson is that 
humanitarian work is always fatally compromised 
if it’s part of a militarized pacification 
campaign: NGO workers wield no real power and 
serve mostly as window dressing for the conquering army.

But this isn’t the moral that Power draws. She is 
still looking for Mr. Good War. Today, her 
preferred human-rights adventure is an escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

For the past seven years Afghanistan has been the 
“right” war for American liberals, but this carte 
blanche is fast expiring, as more civilians and 
soldiers die, as the Taliban resurges, and as the 
carnage whirlwinds into Pakistan. The numerous 
humanitarian nonprofits in Afghanistan are no 
longer backed up by the military; it is they who 
are backing the armed forces, having morphed into 
helpmeets to a counterinsurgency campaign. This 
transformation has, according to one 
knowledgeable veteran of such work in 
Afghanistan, rendered humanitarian work 
unsustainable. But Power, like so many American 
liberals, remains committed to “success” in Afghanistan­whatever that means.

As a human-rights entrepreneur who is also a 
tireless advocate of war, Samantha Power is not 
aberrant. Elite factions of the human-rights 
industry were long ago normalized within the 
tightly corseted spectrum of American foreign 
policy. Sarah Sewell, the recent head of the Carr 
Center for Human Rights at Harvard, has written a 
slavering introduction to the new Army and Marine 
Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual: 
human-rights tools can help the U.S. armed forces 
run better pacification campaigns in conquered 
territory. The Save Darfur campaign, more 
organized than any bloc of the peace movement in 
the U.S., continues to call for some inchoate 
military strike against Sudan (with Power’s vocal 
support) even though this disaster’s genocide 
status is doubtful and despite an expert 
consensus that bombing Khartoum would do less 
than nothing for the suffering refugees. 
Meanwhile, the influential liberal think tank the 
Center for American Progress also appeals to 
human rights in its call for troop escalations in 
Afghanistan­the better to “engage” the enemy.

Nor is the imperialist current within the 
human-rights industry a purely American 
phenomenon: the conquest of Iraq found whooping 
proponents in Bernard Kouchner, founder of 
Médecins Sans Frontières, now Sarkozy’s foreign 
minister, and Michael Ignatieff, also a former 
head of the Harvard’s Carr Center and poised to 
become Canada’s next prime minister. Gareth 
Evans, Australia’s former foreign minister and a 
grinning soft-peddler of Indonesia’s massacres in 
East Timor, is perhaps the leading intellectual 
proponent of the Responsibility to Protect, or 
R2P as it is cutely called, an attempt to embed 
humanitarian intervention into international law. 
Evans, who recently stepped down from leading the 
International Crisis Group, laments the Iraq War 
chiefly for the way it has soiled the credibility of his pet idea.

To be sure, the human-rights industry is not all 
armed missionaries and laptop bombardiers. Human 
Rights Watch, for example, is one of few 
prestigious institutions in the U.S. to have 
criticized Israel’s assault on Gaza, for which 
its Middle East and North Africa division has 
endured much bashing not just from right-wing 
media but from its own board of directors. That 
said, HRW’s rebuke was limited to Israel’s manner 
of making war, rather than Israel’s decision to 
launch the attack in the first place­the jus in bello, not the jus ad bellum.

Human-rights organizations can do a splendid job 
of exposing and criticizing abuses, but they are 
constitutionally incapable of taking stands on 
larger political issues. No major human-rights 
NGO opposed the invasion of Iraq. With their 
legitimacy and funding dependent on a carefully 
cultivated perception of neutrality, human-rights 
nonprofits will never be any substitute for an 
explicitly anti-imperialist political force. In 
the meantime, America’s best and brightest will 
continue to explore innovative ways for human 
rights to serve a thoroughly militarized foreign policy.

Chase Madar is a translator of 
and a civil rights lawyer in New York. He can be 
reached at <mailto:chasemadar at hotmail.com>chasemadar at hotmail.com

This article originally appeared in 
<http://www.amconmag.com/>The American Conservative.

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