During United Nations meetings, representatives turn their country's nameplate to the vertical position to request the floor to speak. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power requested the floor last week to make this dramatic intervention on the situation in Aleppo:
To the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran, your forces and proxies are carrying out these crimes. Your barrel bombs and mortars and airstrikes have allowed the militia in Aleppo to encircle tens of thousands of civilians in your ever-tightening noose. It is your noose. Three Member States of the UN contributing to a noose around civilians. It should shame you. Instead, by all appearances, it is emboldening you. You are plotting your next assault. Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit? Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?
Withstanding some unforeseen breakthrough, Power will not succeed in persuading Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime in Syria. Her plea is passionate, but likely not a winning argument. The best arguments don’t always win. But I believe I know why she still fights so hard, and it’s a lesson for all of us who care.
As a White House intern six years ago, I met with Samantha Power and had the chance to ask her questions about serving in government. It was a dream come true for a human rights junkie like me. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide had more impact on me than any contemporary book. She began her career as a journalist covering ethnic cleansing and civil war in the Balkans. Before joining the Obama campaign and serving in his administration, she directed the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University. She has reported on human rights, advocating for them, and advised the president on them.
Power told me and a group of fellow interns that her mission throughout her career has been to raise human rights concerns. Of course, we all knew that. She had done that as a journalist, an academic, and now as a government official. She would go on to champion human rights as ambassador and member of the president’s cabinet. The most surprising and telling tidbit she shared with us that day was how often she lost. She shared her disappointment about times when she voiced concerns about human rights and they were not addressed.
“Power sometimes argued with Obama in front of other National Security Council officials, to the point where [Obama] could no longer conceal his frustration,” Goldberg reported. The president, a man who rarely gets frustrated, even once told her in a meeting “Samantha, enough, I’ve already read your book.”
Both the president’s frustration and the situation in Aleppo reveal the undeniable fact in U.S. foreign policy: Advancing human rights is just one of many concerns. There are just as many opponents of humanitarian intervention on the left as on the right in American politics. Outraged progressives will post about human rights abuses abroad on Facebook, but are loath to support U.S. military intervention. Power did succeed in convincing President Obama and our allies in 2011 to intervene in Libya, where she claimed the U.S. had a similar responsibility to protect mass civilian casualties. But that’s not what her critics remember about Libya. They remember a power vacuum after the Gaddafi regime fell and the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in 2012.
It’s difficult to watch her speak before the United Nations and plead for the dignity and rights of so many in Aleppo. The probability of convincing Russia and its allies to stop the attacks seems low, especially when President-elect Trump pledges to cozy up to the Kremlin. While it’s unlikely Power will succeed with her stand on Aleppo, it’s even more unlikely she will ever stop promoting human rights. This isn’t the first time she’s requested the floor to make the case for human rights. It won’t be the last.
Her persistence is a model for all who are outraged by stories coming out of Aleppo or are heartbroken by other atrocities in history. If Aleppo awakens something within you and you are willing to accept you have some power to address mass atrocities in our world today, then follow Ambassador Power’s example: Raise your voice with whatever audience you can reach. Request the floor when you have a position to do so. Take the baton from the human rights defenders from generations past and declare once again, even when we see new examples in the world today, “never again.”