The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Samantha Power
On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Samantha
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The US Ambassador to the UN tells The Nation the US is reviewing its involvement in the conflict in Yemen, but denies it is on a par with Russia’s actions in Syria.
Samantha Power says she can see how the makeup of the UN and the veto for the permanent five members of the Security Council could be seen as unfair, but she says the US will not give up any power.
September the American ambassador to the United Nations,
Samantha Power, criticised Russia’s motives and called its
involvement barbarism, rather than counter terrorism. I sat
down with her in New York last week and asked her if she’s
just as concerned
Samantha Power: Yes, absolutely. The sieges over so many of the populated areas in Syria persist, the air strikes persist, Aleppo has not received food since July 7, the state of the population in there is very hard to get a good feel for, but at some point you are going to start to see starvation and disease kick in. And while Russia announces that it has made humanitarian corridors available, these are corridors lined with Hezbollah soldiers, Syrian regime soldiers, and people who have been subjecting the inhabitants of Aleppo to some of the most brutal tactics of war we have seen in our lifetimes. So one needs to hold Russia accountable for what it is doing and hope that the deviance from international principles and the public pressure and the global court of public opinion will have more influence on Russia's calculus than it has up to this point.
Lisa Owen: Because I suppose the thing is that Russia would say that it's supporting a government there and that it has a mandate. They did not go in there unilaterally.
They would say that. They do say that, in fact, it turns out. I think the question is governments through history have been of various stripes. This is a government that has instituted a policy of systematic torture in its prisons. We have seen with the Caesar photos just what that brutality has wrought for innocents or vulnerables. It has used sarin gas, chlorine gas against its own people. It does not think twice about starving people to death as a means of ‘taking territory’. So I think the question that all of us have asked ourselves since the founding of the UN is — does sovereignty shield everything; can you do anything just because you are a sovereign state? And we answered in the wake of the Second World War resoundingly no. In fact, there are rules; there are limits. And this regime, sure, can invite whoever it wants in. It’s done so. It’s invited Iran in, Hezbollah, Russia. But that does not give you a free pass to murder people.
So in terms of Russia, then, how much responsibility does it need to take for the deaths of civilians?
It needs to take responsibility for backing a regime that slaughters civilians. And now, unfortunately in the last year, it needs to take responsibility for killing civilians itself.
So in saying that, do you see any difference between what Russia is doing there and the US role in supporting airstrikes in Yemen?
We are not involved in carrying out airstrikes in Yemen. Russia is systematically using bunker busters to target people who are in apartment buildings. We are helping Saudi Arabia, which has been bombed by Houthi rebels and in a manner that puts thousands, tens of thousands of people at risk. Even near the town of Mecca, which you can imagine if a missile hit Mecca what that would mean. So we believe that Saudi Arabia has an entitlement to defend itself. We also believe that the military course of action being pursued now by both the Houthi on the ground and by the coalition in the air is only going to produce heartache for the people of Yemen. And this is why Secretary Kerry is thoroughly around-the-clock invested in trying to bring about a political solution for Yemen.
You may not be dropping the bombs yourself, but you are selling weapons that are being used in the strikes.
Russia is systematically targeting civilian-inhabited neighbourhoods. There is no parity at all. And we are instituting a review also of all of our arrangements with those countries involved in the coalition, because we ourselves have condemned those strikes, for instance, the recent funeral strike. Russia has never… It cannot condemn itself, I guess, but it has never condemned the Syrian regime for gassing people, for torturing people, for bombarding people in civilian areas. There is no parallel.
But the death of civilians in Yemen are a consequence of air strikes using military weapon and with the assistance of intel that is provided by the United States. How comfortable are you with that?
I am very comfortable with our — the United States' — observance of international humanitarian law, with the care we take, when we target. We have lawyers at the elbow of every military commander making a decision. We are discerning. When we make mistakes, which we have, in war — we did in Kunduz in Afghanistan, and we have recently in Syria, hitting a Syrian army position when we were intending to hit ISIL — we come forward, we pay compensation, we try to figure out what we do wrong. There is no comparison.
Do you think you're exposed legally in Yemen? You say you have legal people at the elbow when these decisions are made.
We are not targeting in Yemen. You are mixing two fundamentally different things. We are not involved in carrying out airstrikes in Yemen. We are not part of the coalition in Yemen. We are supporting Saudi Arabia on its border with intelligence because it is being—
$1.3 billion worth of weapons last year to Saudi.
The United States actually does provide weapons to countries around the world. That is true. If you think that is the same as slaughtering civilians with your own hands, that is a very strange comparison.
So you think these situations are totally different? That they’re of no comparison?
We are not bombing.
You don't think there is any kind of moral obligation to you in terms of—?
You can ask the question 45,000 different ways. We are not bombing in Yemen. We believe that the war in Yemen must end. We are more invested than any single country in the world in actually trying to bring about a political solution. We believe that the Saudis, who have bombed from the air, need to take much greater precautions. We believe that their observance of international humanitarian law is not what it needs to be. We have sent lawyers to urge them to take a different approach. But, again, your line of questioning, while persistent, does not bring us to a different place. We are not bombing in Yemen in the way that Russia is bombing in Syria. And we are reviewing our assistance to see — are there things that we, in light of what is happening, in light of what the countries involved are continuing to pursue a military solution, do we need to do things differently, do we need to adjust?
What? Stop selling weapons or…?
We are doing a review, and we will see what the review produces.
Okay. You mentioned Kunduz, which is Afghanistan, but four hospitals bombed in Yemen in the last 17 months, including one incident in August where the majority of victims were children. Doctors without Borders has raised some serious concerns about that issue. How much collateral damage is the US prepared to tolerate?
We are not part of the coalition in Yemen. We are not bombing in Yemen. I think you might be misinformed.
It comes back to the same issue, though, doesn't it, Ambassador? If weapons that are supplied by the US are used in air strikes and if you are assisting a particular government and as a consequence of that, there are deaths of civilians, how much…?
We have end-use requirements, and when weapons are used inappropriately, we have an obligation to look at whether those systems should be provided. We have already suspended the delivery of some systems to members of the coalition, and we are doing a review to see what more we should do.
Okay. Can you say 100% that there is no concerted campaign to target hospitals or health centres by the US or any governments or groups that you support?
You want me to answer the question as to whether we are systematically bombing hospitals around the world? Is that the question?
I also want to know whether any of the regimes or groups that you support, whether you are sure that none of them are intentionally bombing civilians.
Oh my gosh. If we had information that somebody was intentionally bombing a hospital, we would not support that actor.
Do you think you have done enough to make sure that regimes that you’re offering support to or groups you’re offering support to are not doing that? Because, obviously, what you’re saying is that you’d never knowingly support that.
Have you done enough to be sure?
I can tell you, as someone who’s part of these processes, we have our intelligence community involved, we have our military involved in judging as best we can not only which targets are hit but what is the mens rea, what is the mental state of those who are doing the targeting. Again, we would insist on accountability in the event that we knew that a country was knowingly targeting civilians. So the reviews are extensive. Again, from the standpoint of not being part of these processes, maybe some of this is not as visible. Also there is sometimes a sense that we are omniscient and that we know everything that is happening everywhere. We do have imperfect information, so it can be sometimes challenging to get all the information you want, but we hoover up as much as we can in order to make these judgements. I mean, it really matters to President Obama. He has dedicated himself to placing the United States back within the international framework, back within international law, to render what we're doing as transparent as we can, recognising that we call on other countries to do the same and we should practice what we preach.
Okay. I want to move on to the make-up of the UN. You would appreciate that New Zealand opposes the veto for the permanent five members of the Security Council. Can you see how some countries would see that that is too much power in the hands of few?
I can definitely see. I am from Ireland originally, and I absolutely can see that the way the power structure of the UN is seen from the standpoint of others, and I have seen also in my time here with all of the Russian vetoes of Syria resolutions how paralysed the Council can become by the veto.
How do you get around that, then? What needs to happen?
I think countries who have the privilege of having the veto — and the United States is one, and it is not a privilege that we are going to give up, even if we recognise again the vulnerabilities of the system — need to recognise that in order for the system to work, one has to use that privilege responsibly.
But that is the conundrum, isn't it? As you said, the US wouldn’t not want to give up their veto power. People with power don’t want to give up their power.
It is a conundrum.
Do you think that the Security Council is an outdated dinosaur, whether there needs to be greater representation, say, on emerging economies, like India, Africa?
I think there is no question that a Security Council that has at its core the World War II victors 71 years later needs a refresh. The challenge is — what refresh? And we have said that we would welcome a reformed Security Council. We believe the legitimacy of the Security Council really matters and it needs to be enhanced over time. We believe the countries in the 21st century who have economic, political power and who exercise it responsibly in the international order should get more representation on the council. But there is no issue more divisive in the UN membership, across the UN membership than the issue of the Security Council reform. And for every country that wants to be a member, there is usually a neighbour that is also usually quite powerful that wants to do nothing other than prevent that from happening. So at a time when we are also trying to walk and chew gum at the same time, trying to ensure that our institutions are representative and effective but also dealing with the problems of today, the issue of Security Council reform has never… any particular package of reform has never caught the momentum that would be required, I think, for reform to happen. So instead what we have are the elections, like the one that New Zealand was victorious in and a country like New Zealand cycling on and off the council. Countries like India, South Africa, Brazil, Germany tend to cycle more often on and off the council. And I suspect you are going to see more of that over time — that those countries that carry a lot of weight will be on the council in advance of any more permanent Security Council reform solution.
All right. Thank you so much for joining us this morning, Ambassador. We appreciate your time.
You bet. Thank you.
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