Samantha Power on challenges facing the UN

On 20 January Irish-born Samantha Power’s term as US Ambassador to the UN came to an end. She previously worked as a journalist, academic and author. Her 2002 book ‘A Problem from Hell – America in the Age of Genocide’ looked at decision-making during the genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia.

She spoke to Colm Ó Mongáin by phone on Wednesday, five days after her departure.

Looking back at your time in the UN, and looking ahead to what’s coming up, what issues do you feel you held a line on on the Security Council, that you fear now may not be held?

Well, there is obviously word out of certain quarters that the new administration wants to have a cosier relationship with Russia. I will say that I tried every day of my time in New York to have a constructive relationship with Russia but it was rendered difficult by the actions they were taking in the real world: The takeover of large parts of Ukraine; the bombing, the use of bunker-buster bombs in Syria on civilian areas, apartment buildings and so forth; and then most recently the egregious interference in our election. So that’s an example of where the new administration may seek to go forth in a very different way, but actions speak louder than words and it’s extremely important that any president of the United States looks out for the welfare of the American people, looks out for the rules of the road in the international system from which we benefit, so there would be some caution there.

I would worry, in the face of an epidemic like Ebola, that there would be a knee-jerk ‘let’s close our borders, let the people of West Africa tend to themselves’ [reaction]. If we had done that, which the precise opposite of what President Obama chose to do, we would have had way more Ebola cases in the United States than we did. I mean, this is the nature of a globalised world: you have to deal with a problem at its source or in the end, you’re so connected, it’ll come home to roost. So those are a couple of examples of things I would be cautious about.

So, when you say your engagement with Russia was constructive, I assume it was also robust. Everybody would have seen the footage of you asking them about, as you put it, their “shameless” attitude with respect to Syria. Give us an example of where you balanced robustness with constructive engagement and on what particular issue?

Well, I think it comes down to whether you have a bedrock set of principles from which you’re not prepared to diverge. When I say “engage constructively”, I mean that I went into every single discussion hoping that they were prepared to play by the rules. And when they were, like when we authorised peacekeeping missions to Sub-Saharan Africa, or even on Ebola, or on North Korea where they were prepared to join us in putting in place unanimous sanctions that are really cutting of the sources of hard currency that the North Korean regime have; when they engage constructively based on the rules of the road, then everything’s fine. The problem, as I noted, is that over the course of my time there the rules, that as permanent members of the Security Council we and Russia are uniquely privileged to get to try to enforce, are ones they viewed as distinctly optional.

I didn’t come at any of these discussions from a glass house. The prior administration to mine invaded Iraq absent a Security Council resolution, but President Obama invested in the rules of the road, believed in international law, embedded us within international norms and believed to his core that these rules would be rules that all of us would benefit from if they were enforced. So I think you balance robustness and constructiveness by engaging constructively and then being robust when the rules are cast aside, as they were by Russia.

So did the US’s links with Saudi Arabia prove problematic in making that argument to Russia, given the Saudi-led coalition’s bombings in Yemen and even Saudi Arabia taking the step to withdraw funding from the UN if they were placed on a blacklist [contained in a May 2016 report of UN Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict] of people who had killed civilians]?

Yeah, well I would distinguish between Russia’s active participation in a war where they themselves were bombing schools, hospitals, city centres and so forth from our provision of intelligence and so forth to the Saudi coalition. I know that’s not a perfect distinction, but it really is different when your involved in Grozny-ing civilians, which is what Russia and the Syrian regime partnered to do.

We tried to leverage the relationship we have with Saudi Arabia as best we could behind the scenes, certainly urging them not to seek to use blackmail over the UN, as it relates to the report that you’re referencing; trying to get lawyers in their targeting cells who knew how to apply the laws in war, which were clearly being applied in ways that we and everyone else found very problematic, given the number of civilian casualties. And we invested whole-hog, especially in the last six months led by Secretary Kerry, in trying to bring about a political solution to what was happening in Yemen, to no avail, in part because of the Houthi desire to retain what they’ve acquired militarily. In part too, because the Saudis and the Yemenis want to go back to what life was like before the war started and there’s going to be more compromise.

So I would very much distinguish the two cases, but it’s not to say that there’s not more that we would see to try to do on Yemen to try to bring the war to an end.

In a previous life as a journalist you looked at the area of genocide [in Bosnia and Rwanda] using Freedom of Information documents and extensive interviews [with high-level US decision makers]. Given that background, how did you approach the role you found yourself in, knowing how systems work, in terms of stasis and inaction in officialdom: How did you find it as a role?

Well, when I first got to the Whitehouse in January 2009, just after President Obama was sworn in, when I found myself in the situation room, I definitely had a large siren in my head going off saying ‘INTRUDER ALERT’, ‘INTRUDER ALERT’ [laughing]. Because these were the scenes in the rooms that I had sought to get US officials who had left the government to reconstruct for me and I sought to put pen to paper and describe them and describe some of the very human dynamics that unfold at those meetings – and suddenly I was in those meetings.

But it didn’t take long to just focus on my job: I was the President’s human rights advisor, I was his UN advisor for the first four years and of course a member of his cabinet and his UN Ambassador for the last four years. You’re aware that in those rooms gridlock can take the room towards indecision or decisions not to decide and I think having the history of having looked at some of those cases [Rwanda and Bosnia] was very useful.

Having that history doesn’t mean you have a silver bullet for Syria, which is normally where this line of questioning goes. It just means that you’re alert to the fact that when you’re looking at issues of mass atrocities that aren’t in an area of great traditional importance to the US, you know, like the Central African Republic. The risk it that an issue like that languishes at lower level discussions and risk there is that if it’s lower-level people having those discussions, in addition to trending toward gridlock, it can be very difficult for them to mobilise resources. For instance, to use US planes to fly in peacekeepers from African countries to try to avert a genocide. And so, by being there and having the ear of President Obama, he was willing to take on causes like Central African Republic or even, in a wholly different issue, Ebola, recognising it required high-level, direct action on his part early in order to get the system to avoid its worst tendencies.

On the hardest issue of our time, which was Syria, we never suffered for lack of high-level attention to the issue, we just struggled with what was the tool to make things better on the ground. We invested massively in the humanitarian [effort], brought more and more refugees to this country, supported the moderate opposition, invested in the political track, but as you know well, it was just a case that there was more suffering per square inch in Syria than, I think, in any other place over the course of the last eight years. And it was not the President’s judgement that using military force against the Syrian regime would have made things better, that fundamentally it would have been adding more fire to a tinder box.

And was that calculation that more fire-power would have worsened the conflict? Or was it perhaps a creeping doubt that some of the militia groups were not as moderate as was thought when the initial backing was given to them? For example Nour al-Din al-Zenki in the Aleppo area, who were recently struck [by the US airforce], and to whom atrocities like beheading a teenager were attributed. They were once upon a time US-backed. Was it those kinds of calculations that made people reluctant to intervene in the conflict?

The starting point is that making war should be hard. Going to war against any country is a very complex undertaking and this is a country of more than 20 million people with incredibly complex ethno-sectarian dynamics that are fairly removed from your average American policy-maker’s daily life, let me put it that way, or your average Irish policy-maker’s life for that matter. So when you’re getting involved, you want an account of what your discreet or widespread use of force is going to achieve.

We had seen through Iraq, which was a very different set of circumstances, but had some dynamics in common, that it required a very substantial ground presence in the wake of the initial intervention that the Bush administration undertook to even begin to stabilise the situation. Indeed, it deteriorated very considerably since the departure of American ground troops. So you are looking at a very substantial investment.

You mentioned opposition groups, I would add that on the other side that there were plenty of opposition groups that remained rule-abiding, dedicated to the kind of Syria that, from what we understand, most Syrians remain dedicated to, but can’t get. But on the other side, you had Hezbollah, you had Iranian militia, you had militia coming up from Iraq, coming from all over the world, you had ISIL, you had Nusra – the Al Queda affiliate. I mean it was a mess on the ground.

And so, when you’re sitting in the situation room and you’re the President of the US, it should be hard to wage war. And when you’re confronted with that set of facts, coming up with a pathway, whereby you can draw, if not a solid line, well then a dotted line between the intervention that you’re contemplating and the outcome that you seek, that proved elusive over our time in the Whitehouse.

You mentioned the Central African Republic. Something which has been labelled as genocide is the inter-tribal violence in South Sudan: the mass killings; the appalling levels of sexual violence against women. What kind of attention did that get at the Security Council first of all and what did the US bring to the table in discussions about South Sudan, given the role of peacekeepers or more controversially their lack of a role, and the attacks on civilians there.

I think the Security Council, which was able to bring South Sudan into existence by being united, unfortunately has become more divided. And I think this is Ukraine and it’s Syria and some of Russia’s actions in other theatres spilling over into our discussions on South Sudan. Some of it is China’s growing assertiveness. Again, a complex set of dynamics. But I would say, in the wake of a very significant deterioration in December 2013, the [Security] Council responded robustly, sending more peacekeepers in, changing the mandate, giving the troops on the ground the ability to protect civilians. Since then, the Council has pretty much been AWOL. We have tried as the US to impose an arms embargo, at least to cut the flow of weapons going into South Sudan. We tried to sanction the leading stokers of ethnic hate, because, as you note, a genocide may come to South Sudan and there are ethnic killings going on even as we speak, huge refugee flow. But the Council did not embrace an arms embargo or sanctions and seem content to allow gravity to take hold and to hope for the best, which is, as President Obama would say, hope is not a strategy. But that amounts to what a lot of countries are bringing to South Sudan.

I would say, I think there’s some hope, in that the new [UN] Secretary General Antonio Guterres has made this his first diplomatic priority out the gate. And so a political process that has been languishing, basically since the attempted peace broke down in July now is getting a bit of a reboot by him. He’s going to go the Africa summit, meet with African leaders and see if the UN, the African Union and the sub-region can all get on the same page and get an underlying political solution on the table and then where the world can rally together to get the parties to embrace that solution.

So I think you’ll have more energy invested in this. It’s a great regret of ours that a country we all worked so hard to bring into existence, that deserved to be independent, that has a very distinct and independent identity for itself, has devolved in this manner. And it’s extremely important that the peacekeepers on the ground who are there now be able to move about the country and protect civilians. But unfortunately the government of South Sudan, a member state of the UN, is largely blocking their movement even as militia are wreaking havoc on the civilian population.

And did the US ever consider beefing up the security presence for its own personnel there? Some State Department staff were attacked. There would have been concerns and fears for civilians, not only from South Sudan, but for US staff and civilians living there too.

Yeah, well it’s a great question and with spike in violence that began in July last summer, there was a monstrous attack on a group of aid workers, and it included American aid workers. A spate of sexual assault carried out by [South Sudanese] Government-affiliated militias, for which so far there has been minimal accountability. We sent in a heavy military contingent after the situation deteriorated and we evacuated diplomats and aid workers, not only Americans, but all aid workers and diplomats who wanted to be evacuated as it felt like the bottom was coming out of the country in the crisis.

So, that US military presence helped to the situation to stabilise up to a point. But in order for this to be enduring and sustainable, the peacekeepers who are there –and there are 12,000 peacekeepers on the ground and others who should be on the way- need to be able to do a better job and be out and about offering the kind of protection that you’re talking about, where an attack of the kind you reference at the Terrain Hotel against the aid workers occurred, that the UN would spring to action and come and show anyone who would carry out such an attack that that’s unacceptable and the international community is prepared to enforce its writ.

Instead what happened was even though the little compound where the women were being raped was less than a kilometre from the largest UN base in South Sudan, UN peacekeepers didn’t leave their base and allowed these women to be systematically brutalised over a matter of hours. So if that doesn’t change, the prospect for the international community providing stability through peacekeepers is modest at best.

Finally, where’s the bar for intervention? As I said at the outset, you were an advocate for the Responsibility to Protect, but you’ve said before [in her 2002 book ‘A Problem from Hell – America in the Age of Genocide’], a president needs to believe it’s in their interest to intervene. How bad do things have to get for a consensus to be reached at the Security Council that something is worth putting a stop to?

Well, there’s a lot in your question. If I could separate out a few different things: The Responsibility to Protect, which I still embrace, is about having a responsibility when a government is unable or unwilling to protect its people, to look inside the toolbox and figure out which tool is appropriate.

At no point in my career, despite all kinds of [laughs] misinformation to the contrary, was I some kind of knee-jerk kind of ‘let’s send in the Marines’-type whenever anyone was getting hurt. I opposed the war in Iraq. I didn’t think it made sense, I thought it would make the situation on the ground worse. I think every case needs to be looked at on its merits and demerits. And every tool – diplomatic, economic sanctions, peacekeeping, arms embargo, safe havens, an outright military intervention of the kind that was used in Iraq – look at each like a judgement of what is likely to bring about the desired effect.

It’s very hard to make those judgements, I will say, because, as I noted in the Syria context, often the parties on the ground are all marbled up together. It’s hard to distinguish one group from the next. You may be reliant, too reliant on one party that is providing information, not reliant enough on others and not have a full picture. But that’s life. That’s why President Obama was the commander in chief, that’s the world we’re in now with President Trump as commander in chief. You have to make judgements on the basis of imperfect information with huge human stakes. Because a decision not to act diplomatically, economically and even militarily, can carry consequences along the lines of those that occurred in Rwanda.

So, I would caution anyone about some threshold. You know, if you meet this amount of killings, you’ve got to do ‘X’ or ‘Y’. You’ve, of course got to look at what the tool is, what kind of international support you can mobilise etc. Now that’s for a country like the US as it makes the judgement. You asked about the Security Council: I would say regardless, almost, of the threshold that is met or the number of people killed, these days the Security Council is more divided on issues, at least as it relates to the use of force, than they have been in at least the last decade.

So when we first came into office in 2009, the ghosts of Rwanda, the ghosts of Srebrenica still prowled the halls of the UN and the US Government. Those ghosts now feel almost like distant history, that they are no longer very salient. I think what’s more prominent now is Iraq, the war in Iraq. What’s more prominent is the focus on terrorism and there’s a desire to husband or contain the use of military force by governments except and unless it’s going to be useful to combat ISIL, which is, you know, a genocidal movement in its own right.

So I think the dynamics are very, very different on the Security Council: The assertiveness of Russia and the deep, deep attachment to and use of the concept of sovereignty by China means that you’re looking at two countries who, right from the start, are going to be very disinclined to do much in response to a humanitarian crisis, other than to provide food and potentially send peacekeepers. But if those peacekeepers aren’t mandated to actually protect civilians and are there more to deter or more for symbolic purposes, you’re going to wind up with a situation much like that in South Sudan.

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