The vicious sectarian violence in the Central African Republic continued last week as Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, visited on Thursday to make an appeal for peace.
It was a particularly significant trip for the ambassador: She began her career as a journalist and an activist, and was a vocal critic of the U.S. response to past atrocities and genocides.
In an interview, Power tells NPR’s Michele Kelemen that her priority is to work with the African Union to get humanitarian assistance and protection into the countryside, where atrocities have already occurred. Kelemen reported Thursday that Power played a lead role in getting the Obama administration to focus on this remote country in Africa, where the U.S. is offering $100 million to support French-led African Union peacekeepers.
“The key now is for the international community, but also the leaders in the Central African Republic — whether faith leaders, community leaders or political leaders — to come out and make clear that those who have committed crimes of this nature will be held accountable,” Power says.
Power says the international community needs to help set up and expand a commission to find justice for victims of atrocities, and to do it quickly — revenge killings are increasing.
“People need to feel that they have a destination for their pain, that they can park it somewhere,” she says, “because otherwise there is a risk that they will take justice into their own hands.”
You covered the Balkans as a journalist. Are there similarities between the Balkans what you’ve seen in CAR?
The most worrying feature of the situation right now in the Central African Republic is that people who until recently spoke so unthinkingly about their religious identity … These communities are totally intermingled. You know, so many mixed marriages, Muslim kids going to Catholic schools and vice versa. The worry now, though, is that they are thinking about themselves as Central African Muslims, or Central African Christians, and that is a very new dynamic, and one when coupled with insecurity and fear, can be very combustible.
Do you worry that the U.S. has little leverage in a lot of these conflict situations, such as CAR or South Sudan?
It’s true that the United States doesn’t get to snap its fingers and, you know, make tribes in South Sudan that have been in some tension with one another for some time and who have had violent episodes, we don’t make those tensions go away just by showing up … What is our responsibility to do, is to ask ourselves, in times like this, ‘How can we engage diplomatically in a fashion that will encourage people to walk back from the brink that they are now on?’ They’re on the brink in the Central African Republic, and they’re on the brink in South Sudan.
Is it frustrating being a government official, as opposed to an activist, to see conflicts like Syria, where you have hundreds of thousands of refugees in another winter?
I would say it’s less frustrating than it is just purely heartbreaking … I don’t read the newspaper any differently today than I did when I was an activist outside government. Seeing barrel bombs dropped on children affects me exactly the same way today. The difference today is that I throw myself into an internal policy process and on the president’s direction, try to make sure we’ve looked under every stone to see is there more we can do to affect the calculus of people who would perpetrate such monstrous crimes. So I feel privileged to actually be able to do something with the heartbreak that I feel day to day.