The celebrated diplomat Samantha Power rose to prominence as a journalist and writer who condemned global inaction in the face of large-scale atrocities. Her 2002 book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” castigated the international community—particularly the United States—for failing to stop horrific acts, including the Rwandan genocide, earning her a Pulitzer Prize and considerable notoriety.
When she was confirmed in 2013 as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Power defended the foreign policy principle known as “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), arguing that it is “incumbent on us to look” for ways to help civilians slaughtered by their own governments. The R2P doctrine, formally embraced by the United Nations in 2005 as the duty of the international community to halt genocide, was supposed to be the bedrock of Power’s tenure under the Obama administration.
But now, Power again finds herself at the center of the global community’s complicity in brutal attacks against a civilian population committed by a U.S. ally. The key perpetrator is Saudi Arabia, which is waging a 16-months-and-counting military assault on Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East.
By all accounts, the Saudi-led military coalition has unleashed a staggering humanitarian disaster on Yemen, and with crucual logistical assistance and arms from the United States. The Saudi-led coalition is blockading the country by air and sea, leaving at least 21 million people in desperate need of food. Journalists and human rights workers are being blocked from entering the country as an onslaught of coalition bombs rain down on civilian infrastructure—from factories to weddings to a center for the blind. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have confirmed that the coalition is dropping U.S.-manufactured cluster bombs on civilian areas, killing and maiming civilians, including children. The Saudi-led coalition is responsible for the majority of the thousands of civilians killed and wounded.
At least a dozen countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Pakistan, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United States and Britain) are participating in or backing the military coalition.
It seems that this military onslaught is exactly the kind of scenario that the “responsibility to protect” is designed for. But instead, Power has used her position at the U.N. to willfully ignore the atrocities while providing political cover for the ongoing bombardments.
Covering up Saudi war crimes
Power’s true role in shielding Saudi Arabia was exposed in June, when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admitted that he removed the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen from a “list of shame” of armed forces that violate the rights of children after the Gulf monarchy threatened to withdraw funding from U.N. programs in retaliation.
The move touched off a firestorm of outrage among leading human rights groups, which issued a joint letter declaring, “evidence of grave violations against children in Yemen by the Saudi-led Coalition is overwhelming. The U.N. Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism, which operates at multiple levels and gathers, reviews, and verifies information from all relevant U.N. agencies operating in a country, has documented over a thousand children killed and injured as a result of Saudi-led aerial attacks in Yemen, as well as dozens of airstrikes on schools and hospitals.”
Yet, U.S. officials were conspicuously silent, with Mark C. Toner, deputy spokesperson for the State Department, telling an unnamed reporter on June 9: “Look, I’m not going to second-guess the UN’s decision and the secretary-general’s decision. It’s up to him to explain and defend his rationale for doing so.”
In a recent article published in Politico, journalist Samuel Oakford revealed that Power has repeatedly refused to comment on the scandal and maintains a careful silence on the crisis in Yemen. According to Oakford, Power “has been forced to look the other way as a powerful U.S. ally does as it pleases in Yemen with political, logistical and military cover from Washington. Since news broke of Ban’s decision, I have asked Power’s office for a direct response to Saudi funding threats. Neither she nor her staff has ever replied.”
But Power has gone beyond silence and actively defended the onslaught. “As Saudi behavior grew more careless publicly, both on the ground in Yemen in the halls of the U.N., the silence from Washington, and at the U.S. mission to the U.N. in New York, continued,” Oakford notes. “Ambassador Power even found herself defending an intervention in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians, coincided with the spread of Al Qaeda, and undercut her own passionate work to draw attention to the crimes of the Assad regime in Syria.”
Responsibility to protect U.S. allies?
Notably, American officials set the precedent for the Saudi kingdom’s maneuver by withdrawing funding from UNESCO in 2011 after the Palestinian Authority was granted full membership.
Furthermore, Power reflects a virtual consensus among high-level Obama administration officials to stand by Saudi Arabia as it commits war crimes in Yemen. “We have made it clear that we stand with our friends in Saudi Arabia,” Secretary of State John Kerry declared in January 2016 at the Royal Air Base at Riyadh.
Still, Power’s responsibility for shaping this consensus is significant, given her role at the United Nations. Phyllis Bennis, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, told AlterNet, “As the U.S. representative to the United Nations, Samantha Power should have an even greater obligation to respond to the removal of Saudi Arabia from a list of children’s rights violators because of the U.S. special relationship with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia purchases more weapons form the U.S. than any other country and is routinely identified as Washington’s key Arab ally.”
“It appears that Israel-style impunity is now available to Saudi Arabia as well,” Bennis continued. “The question emerges: can any ally of the United States ever be held accountable for human rights violations at the U.N., or are those U.N. efforts to name and shame human rights violators only applicable to adversaries of the United States?”
In fact, Power has repeatedly intervened to shield Israel from the most modest scrutiny, including during the summer of 2014, when she vigorously defended Israel’s 51-day military onslaught on Gaza that killed more than 2,100 residents and wounded more than 11,000.
As part of the Obama administration, Power played a key role in influencing the U.S. to wage the disastrous military intervention in Libya. Power was “the first and most decisive advocate for aggressive actions in Libya, and she was a consistent voice before anybody else was,” a senior official involved in the Libya actions told me,” an unnamed “senior official involved in the Libya actions” told Evan Osnos of the New Yorker. “She really put on the agenda the use of military power to respond to what was happening there, at a time when the President wasn’t sure.”
Power built her reputation on the principle that powerful countries have a duty to wage humanitarian interventions to halt crimes against humanity. And while her R2P doctrine has failed the millions of civilians suffering under the guns of U.S. allies, it has helped burnish her image and protected her ambitions.