Samantha Power

The Empire’s New Clothes

Jay Rosen likes to talk about the Snowden effect — the events that have followed on Edward Snowden’s leaks that lead to more public knowledge.

This is surely a superb example of it. Someone has leaked the US Redlines — US negotiating goals aiming to curtail the German-British proposal to recognize an international right to privacy in electronic communications – to Colum Lynch. Lynch writes,

Publicly, U.S. representatives say they’re open to an affirmation of privacy rights. “The United States takes very seriously our international legal obligations, including those under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” Kurtis Cooper, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, said in an email. “We have been actively and constructively negotiating to ensure that the resolution promotes human rights and is consistent with those obligations.”

But privately, American diplomats are pushing hard to kill a provision of the Brazilian and German draft which states that “extraterritorial surveillance” and mass interception of communications, personal information, and metadata may constitute a violation of human rights. The United States and its allies, according to diplomats, outside observers, and documents, contend that the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does not apply to foreign espionage.

The Redlines set three goals:

  • Clarify that references to privacy rights are referring explicitly to States’ obligations under ICCPR and remove suggestion that such obligations apply extra-territorially.
  • Clarify that the focus of the resolution is on “unlawful” or “illegal” surveillance and interception of communications.
  • Clarify that violations of privacy rights to not necessarily violate freedom of expression.

The Redlines, along with a basic understanding of the degree to which the US dominates global telecommunications networks, make it clear how important retaining this advantage is to the American Empire. After all, a limit on extraterritorial spying primarily limits the US and its partners, because no one else has the ability to operate extraterritorially at such scale. And assuming the US can limit the application of privacy to nation-states, then limiting the resolution would exempt all the extraterritorial dragnet that would otherwise be in violation. I’m perhaps most intrigued by US insistence that massive dragnets don’t violate freedom of expression, because while that’s obviously false, the US already depends on that false claim to conduct its dragnet domestically.

This is, then, in addition to being a perfect example of the Snowden effect, it’s also a perfect example of what Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore have described in their essay on American hypocrisy and what I elaborated on here.

US hegemony rests on a lot of things: the dollar exchange, our superlative military, our ideological lip service to democracy and human rights.

But for the moment, it also rests on the globalized communication system in which we have a huge competitive advantage. That is, one reason we are the world’s hegemon is because the rest of the world communicates through us — literally, in terms of telecommunications infrastructure, linguistically, in English, and in terms of telecommunications governance.

Aggressively hacking the rest of the world endangers that, both because of what it does to our ideological claims, but just as importantly, because it provides rivals with the concrete incentive to dismantle that global infrastructure.

We’re opting to retain the ability to spy on everyone else, all using the increasingly flaccid claim of terrorism, all while pretending that simply endorsing this basic principle of human rights won’t devastate one tool of our Empire.

But as the leak of these Redlines makes clear, we clearly do believe it would undermine the Empire.

Whatever Happened to the Atrocities Prevention Board?

I should be analyzing the Administration’s case for war to punish Bashar al-Assad because someone in his regime allegedly used chemical weapons against civilians. I will do so soon.

But I keep thinking back to the President’s Atrocities Prevention Board.

Back in August 2011, Obama rolled out an effort to figure out how to prevent attacks like the one that occurred on August 21. It was a then-NSC Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights and now UN Ambassador Samantha Power baby, closely in line with the Responsibility to Protect standards an attack on Assad would ultimately serve.

And while it suffered from some potentially fatal problems (notably, a remarkable selectivity about which atrocities actually counted as such and which should, for expediency, be ignored), it was a thoroughly laudable effort, an attempt to find new tools to prevent the mass killing of civilians.

Here are some things a May update reported have been going on in Syria.

On Syria, the State Department and USAID have deployed experts to support targeted projects that lay the foundation for accountability and a democratic transition that protects the rights of all Syrian people, such as building a cross-sectarian network of civilian activists by training local leaders and activists, including women and minorities.

[snip]

In Syria, the United States has strongly promoted accountability efforts, supporting organizations that are collecting and reviewing evidence to establish criminal responsibility and that are leading efforts to help the organized opposition begin the process of developing Syrian-led accountability mechanisms.

I raise the APB not to declare its failure, but to point to parts of the framework that seem absent from the discussion of how to respond to the Syrian CW attack.

For example, the APB emphasizes multilateral work, with the UN a key player.

Our diplomats will encourage more robust multilateral efforts to prevent and respond to atrocities.  An effective atrocity prevention and response strategy – in which burdens are appropriately shared by other nations  – will require cultivating deeper and broader support among our bilateral partners, as well as international and regional organizations:

[snip]

  • UN System Capacity: The United States will work with the United Nations to strengthen UN capacity for conflict prevention and crisis management, including through preventive diplomacy and mediation, especially when UN missions encounter escalating atrocity threats.
  • Regional Capacity:   The United States will also work with our partners to build the capacity of regionally-based organizations to prevent and respond to atrocities.

Now UN Ambassador Power is not so optimistic about UN’s use here.

Recall: In July Russia blocked nonbinding #UNSC resolution condemning any CW use; last week even blocked press statement against CW attack.

Syrian regime must be held accountable, which #UNSC has refused to do for 2+ years. US considering appropriate response.

In 2011, Power’s Board believed one potential response to a crisis was a civilian surge.

Civilian Surge: State and USAID will increase the ability of the United States Government to “surge” specialized expertise in civilian protection on a rapid response basis in crisis situations.

Whereas here we’re going to surge cruise missiles, nothing more.

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America’s Power Couple: Samantha Power Fights Atrocities, Cass Sunstein Defends Child Labor

These two things happened in the same week.

On Monday, Obama rolled out his Atrocities Prevention Board. While in reality, this appears an excuse to sanction Israel’s enemies, in theory at least, it’s an initiative to find alternative tools to prevent the massacres of women and … children.

Obama put Samantha Power in charge of this effort.

On Thursday, Obama’s Labor Department withdrew rules designed to prevent kids under the age of 16 from being paid to perform dangerous farm jobs.

Obama’s equivocations regarding imposing limits on businesses are usually attributed to Samantha Power’s husband, Cass Sunstein.

It must take a lot of effort for this power couple, working so hard to help and hurt kids all in one week.

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