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Samantha Power on stopping genocide
Ethan Zuckerman, 29 Feb 08

Samantha Power has a hell of a resume. She’s a celebrated journalist, a Pulitzer-winning author, a Harvard professor and an Obama advisor. She deserves the recognition she gets - she’s one of the smartest people in the world on foreign policy, and especially on the subject of mass atrocities.

She starts with a story about the Rwandan genocide, which killed 800,000 people in a very short time, with almost no intervention from the outside world. She tells us that, on April 21, 1994, the New York Times ran a story about 200-300,000 people who’d already died in the genocide. That day, reporters met with Colorado congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, asking her why the US government wasn’t doing anything about Rwanda and why the genocide wasn’t seen as newsworthy. Schroeder told the reporters that House members were getting dozens of calls about the lives of gorillas and apes, but no calls about human lives.

At that point, Power tells us that there was an endangered species movement, but no endangered people’s movement. We’ve embraced the idea of the holocaust in the US, built a museum to it, but “we haven’t figured out how to implement ‘never again’”.

In this century, we have an anti-genocide movement, a student movement that has appeared “almost out of nowhere.” There are more people involved on high school and college campuses that is now “bigger than the anti-apartheid movement.” The goal of this movement is to raise the political cost for not standing up against genocide.

The movement has done some very creative things. It’s run a thorough divestment campaign, trying to get businesses, university and government investors out of Sudan. They’ve launched “1-800-GENOCIDE”, a toll-free number that allows you to enter your zipcode and contact your congressperson directly. “They’ve lowered the transaction cost of stopping genocide.” They issue genocide grades to representative, which leads to Congressmen calling 19-year old students and saying, “I got a D-! How do I get a C?”

Despite the political environment, this movement has put tremendous bottom-up pressure on the Bush administration, leading to support for a 26,000 person UN force in Darfur. And it’s led to huge amounts of humanitarian aid. Unfortunately, this aid needs to be heated and cooked, and women are still being forced to leave the camps to seek firewood and getting raped in the process. And almost no country has stepped forward to put troops in harms way to defend these camps.

She sees flaws in the movement - it’s American-centric, and it hasn’t gotten traction outside of the US. She believes the US is primed to fight genocide because of our obsession with the holocaust. (Bruno, sitting next to me, strongly disagrees - he sees lots of European movements and argues that they simply don’t coordinate with US movements for obvious reasons.) Power believes we need this to be a global movement - “Governments won’t gravitate to protecting our ports or reigning in loose nukes - they won’t protect against genocide in other countries without pressure.”

She believes that the US has a credibility problem in international institutions. “It’s hard to denounce genocide on Monday, continue waterboarding on Tuesday, and ask for troop commitments on Wednesday.” The recovery is going to take some time, “and it’s going to require more than just an Obama presidency.” (This is a clear violation of TED rules, which demand that you don’t sell from the stage, but it gets good applause.)

Power’s most recent work is on a biography of Sergio Vieria de Mello, the UN diplomat killed in Iraq in the first suicide bomb in that country - she honors his life in a biogaphy titled Chasing the Flame.

She describes de Mello as “a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy - not many people in the UN have those qualities.” She celebrates his ingenuity, referring to him as “a decathalete of statebuilding in failed states.” He worked in 14 war zones, spoke seven languages and took on some of the hardest tasks the UN had to offer, including how to figure out how to feed refugees in Eastern DRC without feeding the genocidaires.

His death was a terrible illustration of the fact that the Bush administration did no pre-war planning to respond to terrorism, despite the fact that the administration went to war by connecting Saddam and terror. The US military was so woefully unprepared that the rescue effort for de Millo involved a women’s handbag and a curtain rope used to haul debris off him. “The upside of Sergio’s death and the other 21 who died that day is that the US military created a search and rescue team.”

She offers four lessons from Sergio’s life:
- Find a balance between refusing to talk to evil and excusing it
- Find a way to give aid without damaging people’s dignity
- Don’t let your fear get in the way of action - recognize genuine threats
- Be aware of the complexity of these issues, but don’t be overwhelmed by it.

It’s clear Power has more she wants to say, and that she almost can’t stop talking about de Mello and the lessons of his life. One of my fellow bloggers argues that she’s too close to the story - there’s a strong sense from this talk that she was profoundly affected by de Mello’s death and can’t let go of the story.

This piece is Creative Commons licensed and may be found here.

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