Two big allies on genocide prevention have been promoted to positions that are among the most influential in shaping U.S. foreign policy. Susan Rice is becoming the National Security Adviser and, pending Senate approval, Samantha Power, will take on the cabinet level position of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
This could be a big deal for genocide prevention efforts. Susan Rice has long been a champion of human rights issues and the responsibility to protect, garnering a reputation for no-nonsense straight talk with actors like Russia who have been the most problematic in pushing international action in areas like Sudan and Syria. Samantha Power literally wrote the book on genocide prevention and can be largely credited with the establishment of the first ever whole of government U.S. strategy for atrocities prevention, an effort she oversaw as the first ever head of the Atrocities Prevention Board.
Both have been strong voices for human rights and genocide prevention throughout their careers. Power’s book “A Problem from Hell”, criticized the lack of political will of the U.S. government to prevent and respond to genocide and Rice once said (in an interview with Power actually) that if faced with another Rwanda, she “would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.”
Critics will be quick to point out that both Rice and Power’s records within the Obama administration are decidedly disappointing compared to the strong voices they had while outside of government. Much is left to be desired, to say the least, in the response to atrocities continuing in Burma, Sudan, Syria, and elsewhere. There are also legitimate criticisms that deserve attention including Rice’s questionable past stances with autocratic leaders in Ethiopia and Rwanda.
But for all the administration’s disappointments and their own shortcomings, Rice and Power continue to be cited as the strongest voices within it for preventing humanitarian crises and protecting human rights. And while legitimate criticisms exist, they are largely amplified by the fact that both Rice and Power have such a strong history on atrocity prevention issues and face expectations much higher than for others. For example, few have brought Tom Donilon, the outgoing National Security Adviser, to task for his stance on human rights, though he has arguably had more influence on U.S. foreign policy than anyone else over the past five years.
Given the longer record of both Rice and Power there is reason for optimism that with their elevation, genocide prevention will gain renewed attention and priority within the U.S. government. If they are strong proponents that have lost their voices, one would hope they seize these opportunities to rediscover them. If not, the advocacy community will be ready to remind them, and indeed they will have to answer to their own strong voices echoing from the past.