Sri Lanka courting the 'wrong woman' in Washington power center on 'accountability-human rights' issue
When Obama administration's 'top diplomat' Hilary Clinton finds time to take leave for a moment from more serious exploding global issues that engulf her nation, she makes a passing remark about a South Asian nation - Sri Lanka - the importance of transparency, accountability and reconciliation.
Immediately after the Resolution on Sri Lanka was adopted in Geneva on 22nd March, she issued a short media release that said the US believes, the resolution “encourages the Government of Sri Lanka to continue on the path toward reconciliation” and for the second time said, “….. and I look forward to discussing future actions with Foreign Minister Peiris soon.”
Prof. G.L.Peries is scheduled to meet US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on 18 May in Washington to discuss issues such as ethnic reconciliation, devolution of power to peripheral provinces especially to the Tamil majority north and east, alleged violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) during the final stages (Jan-May 2009) of the battle between the GSL military and Tamil Tiger cadre, accountability and transparency of atrocities and, of course, implementation of reconciliation commission recommendations.
Greeting Sri Lanka on her April 14 Sinhalese/Tamil New Year, she reiterated, again in a short statement, that the new year "gives Sri Lankans of all backgrounds, living inside and outside the country, an opportunity to help build a prosperous, democratic nation defined by tolerance and respect for human rights."
When she met Sri Lanka's Minister of External Affairs Prof. G.L.Peiris eighteen months ago in her State Department office, she welcomed the appointment of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission but emphasized the need for accountability and transparency connected with the battle with the separatist Tamil Tigers which ended with some brutality in May 2009.
But another woman in the Obama administration was more
blunt: "So in the Sri Lanka case, I don’t think anybody’s disputing the right of a sovereign government to put down a rebellion within its territory, never mind one as brutal as the LTTE, but the question is, how you go about doing that and whether you observe the laws in war. Again, my government—Louise Aarbour is here from the International Crisis Group that has done very important work on Sri Lanka, on the ground there, in terms of what was done. Again, the reason that we have these principles is to stand by them. In the event that they’re just thrown out there, then there can be perverse consequences, but again, I think our struggle is to rationalize and ensure that they are more binding than they have often been."
That woman is Samantha Power, special assistant to the president, the senior director of the US National Security Council handling the subject multilateral affairs and human rights, and the head of the just inaugurated Atrocities Prevention Board. Obama is the first president to establish a position at the White House responsible for policy of war crimes and mass atrocity.
If Clinton is Obama's top diplomat dealing with foreign nations on critical issues that engulf the American nation and her interests using public affairs, public diplomacy and strategic communication occasionally touching Sri Lanka's human rights, accountability and transparency issues, Samantha Power is President Obama's 'point person' who monitors, investigates, researches and establishes policy planks on human rights, genocide, war crimes, international humanitarian law (IHL) for the administration's specific understanding.
“She is clearly the foremost voice for human rights within the White House,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told The New York Times “and she has Obama’s ear.”
She has had that ear since Obama, then a freshman senator sought her out in 2005 after he read her book - A Problem from Hell - on genocide and persuaded her to come and work for him.
Ms. Power made the above remarks on 15 November 2010 at an international symposium on preventing genocide and mass atrocities representing the symposium as President Obama's 'Special Assistant for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights'.
If this woman has succeeded to give a different tilt and posture to the already established long standing American policy toward Israel-Palestinian issue angering the Israel lobby here, bringing ripples in the ranks of the powerful and influential American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the right-wing politicians of both the Republican and Democratic parties, while Israel government of Benjamin Netanyahu viewing the Obama administration policy toward the issue with utter skepticism then she has the ear of the U.S. president.
Samantha Power has a long record of antipathy towards Israel. In 2001 she attended the United Nations' World Conference Against Racism (in Durban, South Africa), even after the U.S. had withdrawn most of its diplomatic participation once it became apparent that the gathering would give prominence to anti-American, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic perspectives.
Just months later, during a 2002 interview with Harry Kreisler, director of the Institute for International Studies at UC Berkeley, Power said that even if it meant “alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import” (i.e., Jewish Americans), the United States should stop investing “billions of dollars” in “servicing Israel’s military” and invest the money instead “in the new state of Palestine.” Moreover, she accused Israel of perpetrating "major human-rights abuses."
In a 2007 interview, while being the closest foreign policy advisor to presidential candidate Barack Obama, Power said that America’s relationship with Israel “has often led foreign policy decision-makers to defer reflexively to Israeli security assessments, and to replicate Israeli tactics...” The United States, she explained, had brought terrorist attacks upon itself by aping Israel’s violations of human rights.
One could assess the influence Ms. Power exercises over President Obama on specific issues such as human rights, war crimes, genocide, international humanitarian law and follow-up issues such as accountability and transparency.
The 'tilt' in the longstanding US policy toward Israel-Palestinian issue in the Obama foreign policy calculation is quite visible at present.
If this woman persuaded Obama over the opposition of others in the National Security Council to intervene in a regime change in Libya she is undoubtedly the administration's foremost war crimes, human rights, genocide policymaker.
In March 2011, Power was instrumental in persuading Obama to authorize military intervention in Libya, to prevent President Qaddafi's forces from killing the rebels who were rising up against his regime at that time. Power's counsel in this matter was consistent with her longstanding advocacy of the doctrine known as the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P), which encourages the international community to intervene in a sovereign country's internal affairs -- with military force if necessary -- in order to thwart genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, or ethnic cleansing.
In “A Problem From Hell” Samantha Power describes how government is not well structured to respond effectively to humanitarian crises. Part of the problem, she shows, is that individuals in government sometimes react to these crises in politically expedient ways that do not do much to address or reverse ongoing genocide or mass atrocity or even ethnic reconciliation following a catastrophe.
The heroes of her book are people who rail against the system–people like Raphael Lempkin who coined the word genocide, and US Senator William Proxmire, who gave daily speeches on the senate floor on the need to ratify the Genocide Convention. She shows real admiration for these agents of change, and as Mark Goldberg remarks in his Blog "I suspect that she will be an important advocate for human rights in critical inter-agency debates."
Power’s 2002 book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, grew out of a paper she had written in law school and won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2003. This book examines the origin of the word “genocide,” the major genocides of the 20th century, and the reasons why governments -- most notably the U.S. -- have so often failed to collectively identify and forestall genocides before the crisis stage.
In February 2008 Power released her second book, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World. This book is about the eponymous United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who was killed in a Baghdad hotel bombing on August 19, 2003.
The Obama Connection
She has had that ear since Obama, then a freshman senator sought her out in 2005 after he read her book - A Problem from Hell - on genocide and persuaded her to come and work for him.
It was during a four-hour dinner, they found themselves so much in sync that she volunteered to take a leave from her Harvard professorship to work for him.
The book argues that genocides — in places like Armenia, Nazi Germany, Cambodia and Rwanda — have occurred because governments averted their eyes and individuals made conscious choices not to intervene. “The most common response,” Ms. Power wrote, “is, ‘We didn’t know.’ This is not true.”
At the 15 November 2010 international symposium on preventing genocide and mass atrocities in which Sri Lanka was mentioned many times Samantha Power's following remarks clearly stand out:
(Quote) My fourth and final point is that it is extremely unlikely that even the modest steps I have described would have been taken if not for the advent of the modern anti-genocide movement, comprised of students, religious groups, and citizens from across the United States. The kernel of this movement appeared for the first time around Bosnia, but it 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.
High school and college anti-genocide clubs have mobilized divestment campaigns, forcing state and university pension funds to divest themselves of tainted holdings. People of all faiths have marched on the Mall in Washington to protest the genocide in Darfur. Letters to the editor have been written, funds for refugees raised. Members of Congress, hearing from their constituents, have traveled to Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Congo, and Darfur to talk to the survivors of mass atrocity and to mobilize US governmental efforts back home. Such films as Hotel Rwanda, and such exhibits as the Holocaust Museum’s Sudan exhibit have made energized citizens of today to recognize that “never again” is a society-wide responsibility.
The truth is that the cause that brings us together today must become politicized. In democracies all over the world, a universal truth holds. Policymakers and politicians respond to public pressure. It was the outrages that occurred in the fields around Srebrenica that united a divided international community and brought about the NATO intervention that probably prevented the deaths of tens of thousands more innocents. It is the citizen and Congressional pressure on Sudan that brought this issue to the immediate attention of a freshman Senator from Illinois and convinced him to visit the refugee camps in Chad on his first trip as a Senator to Africa. And it is President Obama’s knowledge of the issue that has led him to assert day-to-day leadership on Sudan in the run-up to the January 9 referendum. Grass-root and “grass tops” pressure works. It broadens the circle of people inside government who focus on a given issue, and – even when you are pushing on an open door as you are in this White House – the noise you make creates a more permissive environment for your partners in government to push a prevention or response agenda. (my emphasis) (End Quote)
One commentator very lucidly put: “In advocating for a more effective human rights policy, Power has attempted to connect activists to policymakers in meaningful ways. In 2002 Samantha Power stated that in order for the human rights movement to be successful in preventing genocide and stopping atrocities, “we've got to build a way of connecting grassroots to grass tops, to elite centers of power.” In 2005, Ms. Power got just such an opportunity when she moved to Washington with the support of the Council on Foreign Relations to work in the office of an up-and-coming Senator from Illinois and fellow Harvard Law School graduate, Barack Obama. At that time, Obama was not as well known as Ms. Power, and her arrival brought attention to Mr. Obama. In her role as an advisor first to the junior senator, then the presidential candidate, and now the President, Ms. Power has indeed succeeded in connecting the grassroots to the grass tops.”
The entire exercise in this Political Note is to highlight Samantha Power's influence over President Barack Obama on issues that the South Asian nation - Sri Lanka - is facing today, issues that Samantha Power alone in the US administration handles for Mr. Obama's understanding and action.
If Mr. Obama listened to Ms. Power to effect a 'tilt' in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, to a posture even Hilary Clinton came aboard, isn't she the person Sri Lanka needs to court to get out of its anti-American crusade to marginalize the pro-Tamil Tiger lobby and achieve some redress for the colossal foreign policy adventurism and blunders that have affected the body politic of Sri Lanka?
In 2005-06, when Ms. Power was Senator Barack Obama's foreign policy advisor she helped to spark and inform Obama’s interest in the deadly ethnic and tribal conflict of Darfur, Sudan.
Samantha Power's influence over Mr. Obama deepened when she married law professor Cass Sunstein in July 2008 whom she had met while working on the Obama campaign.
Sunstein is an old friend of Obama from the days when they both taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago.
Sunstein currently runs the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a deceptively innocuous-sounding part of the White House Office of Management and Budget that Washington insiders recognize as one of the presidency's most powerful offices.
"Atrocities Prevention Board"
The president Obama's speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on April 23 announcing new sanctions against perpetrators of mass atrocities was shaped in large part by senior aides with first-hand experience in places like Bosnia and Rwanda, according to White House watchers.
The key person here is Samantha Power, now a senior foreign policy advisor to Mr. Obama, who was a young reporter in Bosnia in July 1995 at the time of the Srebrenica massacre, seething in frustration at the failure of the international community to take effective action against the likes of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic.
Other steps include the formation of a presidential Atrocities Prevention Board chaired by Ms. Power that had its first meeting the same afternoon (April 23, 2012). The board is meant to coordinate action across the entire government on stopping genocide and liaise with the NGO community. The intelligence community has been instructed to make intelligence-gathering on mass atrocities a priority.
In an essay at whitehouse.gov, Samantha Power described the mechanism put in place creating the Atrocities Prevention Board:
"We know that often holding those who have carried out mass atrocities accountable is at times our best tool to prevent future atrocities. As such, we have engaged in an intensive effort to create a variety of international mechanisms charged with uncovering the facts and identifying those responsible for gross human rights abuses.
"In addition to the Presidential directive, which makes clear the level of priority attached to preventing mass atrocity, we are taking another important step forward in our effort to hold accountable human rights abusers by, for the first time, barring entry into the United States of persons who organize or participate in mass atrocities, war crimes, crimes against humanity, or other serious violations of human rights."
Hilary Clinton has already announced her intention to leave her secretary of state position at the conclusion of Obama administration's first term, that is January 2013. She was very positive that she will not be in the second Obama administration cabinet or any other position. She has not dismissed the growing belief in credible political circles that she will be seeking the Democratic Party nomination for the presidential election in November 2016.
If Mr. Obama is elected to his second term this November there is widespread speculation that his closest foreign policy adviser and long-time confidante Samantha Power will be his next secretary of state. If not the other most influential position in any administration - the head of the National security Council.
After all, Ms. Power is the spouse of Mr. Obama's twenty-year old friend Cass Sunstein, a law professor who was at the Chicago University when Mr. Obama was teaching constitutional law.
When Sri Lanka's External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L.Peiris endeavors to get some redress to his nation and soften the diplomatic onslaught on the human rights and accountability front in meeting Hilary Clinton on May 18 in Washington highlighting that he and Bill Clinton were Rhodes Scholars at Oxford but missing the life's opportunity to establish a rapport with someone who is handling the issues that have been an irritant to the body politic of Sri Lanka, it amply reflects Sri Lanka's adventurism in public diplomacy and strategic communication.
Sri Lanka should have identified Samantha Power to establish a dialogue and an intimate rapport long before her visit to this South Asian Island-nation early last year. The advantage Sri Lanka had was no pro-LTTE Tamil Diaspora group funded her for her upkeep the manner in which 'Tamils for Obama' did during her primary campaign for Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2007-08 election cycle.
On the other hand, Ms. Clinton has a broader portfolio and responsibility, and human rights, genocide and war crimes are either interwoven to her broader portfolio or secondary parts of that.
In contrast, Samantha Power, entrusted by Mr. Obama, is the sole official in the US administration dealing with an issue that has plagued Sri Lanka because of the growing international pressure.
Despite close and cordial working relationship Ms. Clinton is not so close to the president as Ms. Power. And serious political circles to speculate that she is expected to succeed Hilary Clinton at the state department or be the head of the National Security Council in the second Obama administration Samantha Power has Mr. Obama's ear and confidence.
To miss this woman means missing a basic point in public diplomacy and strategic communication. Sri Lanka cannot afford this misstep at a time she had faced an ignominious defeat in Geneva in March at the UN Human Rights Commission, and when there is news leaking, to this Asian Tribune network, that a resolution against Sri Lanka is in the offing at the next UN General Assembly Session. And, the most influential and active pro-LTTE Tamil Diaspora with many EU nations are ganging against Sri Lanka for an 'international' scrutiny possibly in The Hague.
- Asian Tribune –