Samantha Power: Human rights advocate no more?

On July 17, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on Samantha Power’s nomination to be the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations. In order to gain the support of the members of the committee, which it is clear Power did as demonstrated by the committee’s 16-2 vote in her favor, Power disavowed her previous criticism of U.S. foreign policy, ignored President Obama’s own disastrous human rights record and, in the process, undermined her credibility on issues of human rights.

Two of Power’s claims exemplify her detachment from the reality of the Obama administration’s human rights record, a record that has been built largely under Power’s supervision. The first claim deals with how the U.S. responds to human rights violations committed by other members of the international community. In her testimony Power claimed, “If I am given the honor of sitting behind the sign that says ‘United States,’ I will do what America does best: stand up against repressive regimes and promote human rights.” This must be news to protesters in Bahrain.

In Bahrain, a popular protest movement seeking democratic reforms and greater respect for human rights began on February 14, 2011. Nearly two-and-a-half years later, the situation in Bahrain continues to deteriorate. Bahrainis with the courage to openly protest their government’s repression face systematic abuses that include arbitrary detention, torture, and extrajudicial execution. Members of the political opposition and human rights activists have been specifically targeted.

Rather than stand up for the rights of Bahrainis, the Obama administration has done the opposite. In 2011, Congress delayed a planned $53 million arms sale to Bahrain over human rights concerns. The Obama administration resumed arms sales to Bahrain in 2012, using a loophole that allows the executive branch to make arms sales free of congressional oversight when individual sales are under $1 million.

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More recently, Juan Mendez, who was seeking to investigate allegations of torture in fulfillment of his mission as UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, was denied, for a second time, entry to Bahrain. These are the actions of a repressive regime that does not respect the rights of its people.

If confirmed, will Power raise the issue of Bahrain’s repression and human rights violations at the Security Council? Is there a Security Council resolution sponsored by the United States condemning Bahrain in our future? Clearly, what Power meant to say in her testimony was that she will stand up against oppressive regimes and in promotion of human rights when the Obama administration and the “national interest” permit.

Power’s second claim deals with the United States’ own human rights practices. According to Power, “The United States is the leader in human rights. It’s the leader in human dignity…We hold people accountable. That’s what we do—because we believe in international humanitarian law and we observe those laws.” Bush and Obama administration officials, you’ve been forewarned. Guantanamo detainees and potential innocent victims of drone strikes, rejoice!

Guantanamo Bay currently holds 166 detainees. 86 detainees have been cleared for release. At least 70 detainees are on hunger strike, with 46 of those designated for force-feeding. The indefinite detention of prisoners cleared for release is a clear violation of human rights law and the force-feeding of detainees on hunger strike is a violation of the UN Convention Against Torture.

President Obama’s targeted killing program violates international humanitarian law in a number of ways. For example, the authorization of so-called “signature strikes” violates the laws of war’s principle of distinction. By targeting individuals and groups based in behavioral characteristics rather than concrete identification, the Obama administration is failing to distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Two recent revelations also undermine claims of drone precision. According to Larry Lewis, a principal research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses, drone strikes in Afghanistan have been ten times more deadly for civilians than attacks performed by fighter jets. Chris Woods of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported on a leaked Pakistani document, stating, “The internal document shows Pakistani officials too found that CIA drone strikes were killing a significant number of civilians – and have been aware of those deaths for many years.”

If confirmed, will Power seek to hold members of the Bush and Obama administrations accountable for violations of the Torture Convention and for war crimes? Is there a Security Council resolution referring members of both administrations to the ICC under Rome Statute Article 13(b) in our future?

Bush and Obama administration officials, have no fear. According to Power’s testimony, “serving in the executive branch is very different than sounding off from an academic perch.”

Apparently, whether violations of human rights and humanitarian law are recognized as such depends on who one’s employer is. Until I’m invited to join an administration, I guess I’ll keep chirping away from my academic perch.

Bachman is a professorial lecturer in Human Rights and Director of Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs at the School of International Service at American University.