The audience for Samantha Power last Friday appeared to be the usual crowd for talks at Princeton: half students interested in the subject matter at hand, and half older townies getting a taste of culture. “War Crimes and Genocide Today: What Can One Person Do?” was hosted by the Woodrow Wilson School, and it showed in the composition of the crowd. The students had a confused, sympathetic mixture of careerism and noblesse oblige; one, after asking what she should do to prepare for her trip to Bosnia this summer (that’s right, she’s going to Bosnia, folks! Sniper fire!), was happily offered a card from the wife of a UN official. The older ones, on the other hand, had the weary, insecure but comfortable look of those inhabiting the many, multiplying rings of power just outside the one that matters. “What can one person do,” of course, is heard by all of these people as “What can I do?”—a question that, in its necessity and its limitations, cuts to the heart of what is both brilliant and unfortunate about Samantha Power.
Her talk began with some simultaneous praise for Barack Obama’s candidacy and the similar and overlapping anti-genocide movement that has sprung up around Darfur. The latter is a wonderful contrast to the reaction to the crisis in Rwanda, she noted, during which one congressman confessed that her inaction on the issue was due to the nature of her constituency’s interest—what effect it might have on endangered gorillas. This time, Power proudly observed, there is not just an “endangered peoples’ movement,” it has been very effectively “operationalized”: there are a number of organizations, including 500 chapters on college campuses, leading hugely successful awareness-raising campaigns; they’ve blanketed the New York subway in advertisements, established “genocide grades” much like those given out by abortion and gun rights groups, and convinced Steven Spielberg to withdraw his support for the Beijing Olympics. There is even a telephone number, 1-800-GENOCIDE.
She praised Obama’s campaign in similar terms: he’smobilized thousands of new voters, earned seventy percent of his campaign funds from donations of under $300, and generated unprecedented excitement. There was a twist to her praise of Obama, however–a twist that struck me as unfortunate in much the same way as the rest of her talk. One of the best things about Obama, she said, was his intelligent and bold willingness to break with conventional thinking and stand on the right side of the issues. It’s good as praise for the candidate, but over the course of the afternoon it became clear just how central this sort of thing—unusually intelligent, honest, and moral individuals, not in the aggregate but alone and in command—was to Power’s plan for global problem-solving.
Most of her talk was about one man, Sergio Vieira de Mello, as a model in the fight against human rights violations. Vieira de Mello was a central figure in the United Nations for thirty years, working in places as diverse as Bangladesh, Cyprus, Mozambique, Cambodia, Yugoslavia and Iraq, where he was killed in 2003. “A cross between James Bond on one hand and Bobby Kennedy on the other,” she spoke of him in glowing but honest terms, praising his unique grasp of the techniques truly integral to conflict resolution: a respect the dignity of all parties, no matter how egregious their crimes; a deep curiosity about the places he worked, which lead him to learn six languages; an unflagging commitment to justice that he nonetheless refrained from asserting too zealously.
In listening to her lecture, I got the sense that Vieira de Mello wasn’t just being used as a charismatic model for the audience: he really did seem to be a uniquely influential figure, one who had worked harder and done more for justice than most others over the last several decades. In her presentation he became the central hinge in the human rights movement, a weak and mortal vessel in which the power of our collective longing for justice was endowed. I’m sure this was, at least in part, due to her focus; a discussion of the ways and means of the human rights movement, when placed in the genre of biography, is naturally prone to overemphasizing the individual.
Nevertheless, extraordinary individuals really do appear to play a key, even determinate, role in Power’s approach. As she repeatedly emphasized in her criticism of the Bush Administration and her praise for the future Obama Administration, popular pressure is too fickle and weak to effect lasting change; what are needed are resolute and devoted officials to marshal this power effectively and to re-inspire popular pressure when it flags. Though it’s hard to disagree with the truth of this evaluation, it’s just as hard to greet it with enthusiasm. For one, it’s an anti-democratic sentiment coming from a well-respected participant in the latest campaigns that are redemocratizing domestic politics and the fight for human rights. Furthermore, any approach to problem-solving that relies on extraordinary individuals is going to suffer from the fact that they are, obviously, extraordinary—they’re few and far between, and though we should be grateful when they appear, we need to recognize the limitations on such a reliance.
Sergio Vieira de Mello is dead. He died because the American military, in a move that Power pointed to as a transparent betrayal of their cynicism, had not prepared for terrorist attacks on civilians during their occupation of Iraq, despite their claim that the country was a safe haven for terrorists. Vieira de Mello died, in other words, because his skills in diplomacy were not those required in the early days of the war; rather than negotiating between two hostile parties, he was called upon to change the intentions and the underlying social structure of a single party. In Power’s account, he was skilled at this, too—when meeting with President Bush, he emphasized that he had instituted a shoot-to-kill policy in East Timor, something that earned him great favor with the President—but the prospects for individually effected change in this realm are quite bleak. Vieira de Mello could not make the American military other than it was, an institution dedicated to protection only insofar as it involves killing; it was not until the attacks in Iraq were focused on the military itself that it took serious notice.
In some ways, this is a limitation not of Vieira de Mello, but instead the institution for which he worked. The United Nations is weakest, both in its popular support and in its ability to take real action, when it is advocating change in individual governments or their policies; it is strongest when it is brokering deals between conflicting parties. The former is too much to ask of an external party, but it is increasingly apparent that it is exactly what is going to be required for real and lasting change.
Although Power emphasized the problem of genocide and other human rights violations as one requiring Vieira de Mello’s negotiative skills, she has recognized elsewhere, especially in her support for Obama’s candidacy, just how necessary structural change is. In “The Obama Doctrine,” a recent article in The American Prospect, Power talked about “dignity” as “a way to unite a lot of different strands [of foreign-policy thinking]”: dignity not just meaning (as it did in her talk) a respect for the sovereignty of all parties involved in negotiations, but also a call to extend that recognition and respect to all individuals. This would involve combating the root causes of human rights violations—poverty, unequal distribution of resources, and pent-up racial and tribal anger. The Obama doctrine thus amounts to a recognition that, though fairly mundane and conventional in liberal circles by now, would be truly radical in its application; a foreign policy committed to righting the fundamental injustices of global capitalism and the lingering symptoms of colonialism would involve structural change of the highest order. It might also stop the flight of good, inspired people to the non-governmental organizations which, in their freedom from the taint of government and other official sources of power, are self-limiting in their scope.
But the last two paragraphs of this article are, as it were, off-topic. Power said almost nothing about this approach in her talk; she did not talk about reforming international institutions and law, and she hardly spoke about how to prevent genocides from occurring; her discussion of dignity was limited to a negative critique of the Bush Administration’s disrespect for sovereignty, and the word “poverty” was never, as far as I can recall, once mentioned. I would mostly attribute this to her newfound hesitation regarding politics—all because, as she cleverly put it, “Monstergate happened, no agency, the passive voice.” (Which is true, not a dodge; has a media-generated scandal ever knocked someone out of a position of power so quickly?).
But I suspect there is more to it than this media-created and -enforced wall of separation between Power and the Obama campaign. As she noted in her talk, the influence of the United States government has, over the last eight years, “eroded precipitously.” And as much as this is due to Bush’s squandering of American legitimacy—the desire for the reversal of which drives a great deal of Obama’s support—it is even more the result of the slow and steady re-balancing of global power. Now that a serious candidate for the Presidency is finally ready to talk about using the government as a tool to progressively restructure global relations, his or her power to actually lead this campaign is seriously waning. Power’s focus on the individual actor, then, especially the individual actor in the role of negotiator, swooping in to resolve crises that have already begun, may come from necessity. Work towards the resolution of global inequalities is increasingly occurring in fractured, localized debates, in which the United States and other mediating parties can expect to do no more than preside over a bargaining table and determe the distribution of damaged remains.
This is bad news for the fight for human rights, and yet another of the uniquely time-sensitive tragedies of the accidental Bush presidency. If the United States had spent the last eight years committed to enacting and fully participating in structural resolutions to the crises at the root of human rights violations—the most notable failed chances being the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, and the Doha Development Round—the demand for individually led, ad hoc and post facto solutions might be less acute.
That chance is gone now, if it ever even existed. If one takes a long, realistic look at what the next few decades might bring—we’re accustomed to routinely hearing predictions of widespread war in the Middle East, or of global warming triggering massive population and resource displacement in developing nations—Power’s emphasis on smart, humble individuals going into local conflicts and doing their best to stop the bleeding makes sense.
It’s a messy kind of sense, though, and the ugliness it entails came through during the talk—not just in comparison to the idealistic counterfactual of ambitious and liberal 90s and 00s administrations leading fundamental economic and environmental reform, but in itself. Power was quick to note that the “endangered peoples’ movement” is almost entirely dedicated to Darfur; crises in the Congo, Myanmar and Tibet have since entered or re-entered the American consciousness, without yet earning any serious efforts on the part of activists or the government. Any human rights movement that is focused on ad hoc crisis resolution, she implied, would have a necessarily limited attention, jumping from one vividly advertised disaster to the next without any long-term or wide-scale devotion to human rights as a general cause.
With this limitation to the individual and immediate crisis comes a more grisly, even voyeuristic, kind of devotion to human rights. Instead of focusing on dignity promotion generally, genocide and other outrages gain all the attention; one might analogize to popular culture’s concern for women’s sexuality only insofar as it involves the brutal rape of minors. One egregious example Power pointed to was a February 2005 Nicholas Kristof column on Darfur. Although she was quick to praise him for his tireless efforts on the issue, she did a little shaming over his choice to show four pictures of corpses, including a decomposed skeleton. Awareness promotionmof genocide is all well and good, but when it comes to rely on such shock techniques, it ends up dehumanizing the victims even further. Kristof is, one imagines, a kind of humanitarian’s Law and Order: SVU. Revolting your audience is effective as a way of grabbing attention, but it’s a bad rhetorical strategy—it transforms the crime from a problem to be solved to a spectacle to be consumed. This is a necessary feature of the form the modern campaign to preserve human rights has taken, led, as it is, by individuals outside the conventional corridors of power, competing for popular attention.
Although these limitations obviously don’t outweigh the good the human rights movement has brought, there is something regrettable about it all. Less about human rights than their violation, it has become a movement obsessed with the spectacles of death and destruction; limited to the extreme cases, it does not have enough to say about the daily injustices that, besides being objectionable in themselves, hold the next genocide within. The individuals that drive this movement, in their refusal to participate in conventional system integral to the existent problems and the potential solutions rot. And now that they finally have a chance of gaining meaningful access to the White House, its power is limited almost the point of irrelevance.
It is, on the whole, a generation that might be more generous and tireless than any other—but which, in its unlucky timing and its peculiar biases and choices, is tragically limited. I’m proud that Samantha Power is going to be advising the next President, but I think even she recognizes she is inheriting a flawed movement at an unfortunate time.