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Samantha Power: Witness to Genocide


May 2, 2005

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In Samantha Power’s Pulitzer-Prize winning A Problem from Hell: America & The Age of Genocide (Basic, 2002) Power looks at the U.S.’s response to all the cases of genocide in the 20th century, and finds it beyond lackluster. Essentially, she argues, American leaders have never had any political incentive to halt a case of genocide, and—as Clinton found out in Somalia—it has been “all risk, no reward“. When her book was published, no American president had ever used the word genocide while in office, since the coining of the word by Polish linguist Raphael Lemkin during World War II. American promises of “never again” have largely proven hollow.

Last year, Power traveled on a fact-finding mission to Darfur, whose bloodshed Congress has, in fact, described as ‘genocide.’ Since her trip, she has written numerous articles for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The L.A. Times, Time, and other magazines and newspapers, detailing the brutality in Darfur and the need to stop the aggression; she has argued vehemently for the International Criminal Court as a means of holding perpetrators of such crimes accountable.

I spoke with Ms. Power by phone and discussed a range of issues, surrounding the questions raised in her book and whether Congress’s push to define the events in Darfur as “genocide” could be a step toward ending the killings and rapes widely reported by witnesses and journalists.

[Interviewed by Joel Whitney for Guernica Magazine]

Guernica: What’s the latest in the Sudan?

Samantha Power: All the evidence is that the attacks are continuing. It’s a different situation now because the estimates are that as many as 80% of the villages and rural areas have already been destroyed. The frequency of aerial attacks in the scale that we saw in the beginning is necessarily going to be less, simply because—unfortunately—there’s much less to destroy. The protection issues around the camps are the same. As I understand it people are adjusting to this new life, living in terror but within these kind of sprawling displacement settlements. There are no free returns that I’m aware of at all.

Guernica: You point out in A Problem from Hell that no American president has ever used the word ‘genocide’ while in office. Is Mr. Bush the first?

Samantha Power: Yes, I think so. There’s no question that diagnostically this administration was much quicker to call a spade a spade than any of its predecessors.

Guernica: When I spoke with him late last year, William Schulz of Amnesty International gave President Bush a passing grade on the Sudan. It sounds like you do as well, given Bush’s role in leading the international community on the Sudan crisis?

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Samantha Power: No, I wouldn’t. Well, a passing grade maybe. I think it’s more complicated than whether you use the word “genocide.” Among advocates there was a big debate about whether to invest much of our energy in trying to get that designation. I was against investing energy because it would become in all likelihood not a trigger for the exertion of power but a substitute for the exertion of power. And unfortunately that’s what it’s become. Yes, because Bush is acknowledging it, we should credit him for that. But unfortunately—because other countries don’t want to do anything about genocide either, and because of the problems of U.S. legitimacy—the mere declaration of genocide is not going to mobilize a coalition willy-nilly.

You’ve got to deploy serious political assets around a plan. And the Bush administration has never had a plan. Ever. The Europeans don’t want to do anything, saying, “The Americans are in charge of that.” And in fact the Americans are in charge of naming it and bringing these resolutions every few weeks to the Security Council. But when it comes to actually saying, “How the hell are we going to stop the protection crisis, how are we going to stop the killings and the rapes in the camps, how are we going to stop the destruction of what few villages are left, how are we going to ensure eventually that these people return to their homes, get a political settlement?”—there’s no leadership, that I’m aware of, no senior leadership anyway.

Guernica: You focus your book on those rare figures who, through tenacity, make the system work a little better so that “never again” would ring a little less hollow. You call them ‘upstanders’ in one interview I read…

Samantha Power: Upstanders, yeah.

Guernica: Who are your upstanders in this situation, regarding the Sudan?

Samantha Power: I think a couple people at USAID, Roger Winter and Andrew Natzios cared, you might say, early and often. They’ve made multiple trips to the region. On Capitol Hill there’s been decent leadership, pretty good really, by Frank Wolf (R-VA-10th District), by Sam Brownback (R-KS), by John Corzine (D) from New Jersey, who’s been terrific. I got a call the other day from Dick Durbin (D, Illinois)… I don’t ever talk to Dick Durbin. He called me at home and said, “What do we do about Darfur?” People are scratching their heads.

Unfortunately, there’s not a match between the amount of words spoken on Darfur and the amount of high-level planning and leadership exerted, again by the executive branch. Ultimately this is something the Congress could have tackled. There’s enough concern out there, enough guilt over Rwanda, that they might have actually succeeded in doing something. But this is something that obviously the executive branch isn’t going to do.

But back to upstanders, I would put Eric Reeves in there. He’s tireless—this literature professor [at Smith College], scholar of Milton, who is relentlessly documenting the abuses. And even Nick Kristof [of the New York Times], as well, I would put in that category. Just will not let it go away. Outside the government, and in the Congress, I think you see the greatest leadership. And on the humanitarian side.

Guernica: What does it seem like it’ll take? After the tsunami, people around the world showed how generous they can be when something sudden and catastrophic hits somewhere. But when the news is no longer so new, it seems like the attention dries up quickly. What does it take—I mean, genocide is a staggering thing—so what does it take in this case to turn words, and well wishes, into action?

Samantha Power: In this case, the United States’ leadership is just much much weaker than it was at the end of the 20th century. Their ability to speak with a moral voice was always suspect in certain quarters, but now it’s just laughed at. And that’s not to suggest that the loss of U.S. credibility is the reason no other country wants to do anything. No other country wants to do anything for its own reasons. But what’s happening now is that because the United States is so over-stretched, it doesn’t have the capacity or the desire to get involved on the ground itself. The Sudanese government has been brilliant about using the potential of American involvement to kind of raise the specter of jihad, sort of saying, “Come. You want to kill Americans? They’re gonna be here soon.”

And I’ve never favored U.S. troops on the ground in Darfur for that reason. I think it would invite a foreign element that would complicate the situation. But just because the U.S. isn’t going to put troops on the ground doesn’t mean it can’t mobilize NATO countries and middle-tier countries, and really ask them (because they’re not doing it on their own) that they step up. They’re the countries that should be partnering with African Union states to increase the number of troops to be deployed from 3300 (which is a joke) up to the twenty or thirty thousand (which is actually going to be needed) to fan out across the country and make it possible for people to eventually return home.

There should be a settlement between the government and the rebels in Darfur, part of
which should stipulate the right of return and protection forces. These things have to be done, but they will require American leadership.

If only Kofi Annan took that role upon himself and mobilized those resources… But, you know, he hasn’t done that. If only Canada, Holland, Japan and Turkey teamed up and formed a coalition of the willing, initially equipping African Union troops and ferreting them in and eventually joining them, that would make a huge difference. But none of these countries has stepped up.

The only long-term way that the terrorist threat will be neutralized is to ameliorate conditions in which terrorists thrive, improve human dignity, and shore up failed states like Afghanistan, like Darfur, so that they don’t become a breeding ground for more people hostile to the United States and literally a physical space for training and plotting.

Guernica: Now balancing perhaps your more cynical with your more idealistic views on this, what are your expectations? What will actually happen over the next year or two?

Samantha Power: I don’t know. I think that in all likelihood we will see a gradual ramp-up of the African Union force, probably to no more than 5000. I mean, if I’m being realistic. You’ll see the creation of a protracted refugee population, namely the few hundred thousand people in Chad and then the two million internally displaced. You’ll see the proliferation of rebel groups and with every passing day it’ll get more and more difficult to actually sit them down to negotiate at a table because instead of a square table it’s already going to have eight sides. In all likelihood you’ll see an influx of foreign elements and Darfur (and I’m not just saying this as a way to get people’s attention but…) you know Darfur is a perfect place for people… What Afghanistan once was Darfur I fear will become—a sort of failed state, or statelet—where elements hostile to this country and others will have ample breathing room. So that’s what I think.

Guernica: It sounds like you’re confirming something that Schulz told us—that respecting human rights and eliminating the horrendous conditions that we’re seeing in a place like Darfur are the basis for the only long-term strategy that can be effective in fighting terrorism. He links these two, human rights and terrorism—

Samantha Power: Yeah, me too.

Guernica: You agree with that?

Samantha Power: Totally. Tactically they’re going to be at cross-purposes from time to time. You know it’s not like it’s instant everywhere, Oh, human rights first, security will follow. You still have to figure what the hell to do with Musharraf or what to do with North Korea’s nuclear weapons. So it’s not instantaneous. But the only long-term way that the terrorist threat will be neutralized is to ameliorate conditions in which terrorists thrive, improve human dignity, and shore up failed states like Afghanistan, like Darfur, so that they don’t become a breeding ground for more people hostile to the United States and literally a physical space for training and plotting.

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