U.S. UN Ambassador Power Remarks Following Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria Trip at Moms +SocialGood 2016
Ambassador Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
May 5, 2016
JUJU CHANG: Hi, everyone. I've been tweeting away madly, and listening in on the conversation. I'm so glad to be here — honored to be here with Ambassador Power. I feel like this is the road show that continues.
AMBASSADOR POWER: Thankfully, yeah.
MS. CHANG: Thankfully. So, Ambassador Power just returned from a breakneck, three-country Africa tour. We went to Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, in the Lake Chad region, which is where Boko Haram is most active. And as a journalist for ABC News, I had tried to go to the region about a year earlier, and couldn't because of restrictions. And therefore, I jumped at the chance to go as a member of your press corps, following you, and also doing side reporting on all of the issues. But there were two basic issues that we were trying to get at, and I want you to talk about the mission, and what you got out of — you know, it's been two years since the hashtag BringBackOurGirls was seared into the international conscience. Where are we on the search, and where are we in trying to fight Boko Haram?
AMBASSADOR POWER: Well first, hi, moms and non-moms and would-be moms. I think that the constituency reflected in this conference, the interest that you showed, that a lot of other mainstream publications showed when we went on our trip, it really has made a difference, insofar as there is now a much more robust campaign against Boko Haram that would have ever otherwise happened.
When the girls disappeared two years ago, the government in Nigeria initially denied that they had been taken, and they looked in the eyes of the parents who were just saying, "They have my daughter," and said, "No, what makes us think that that's true?"
I mean, it was sort of mind blowing, the initial response, and it was the global campaign and support of these stricken parents that made that untenable for the government at the time. They began a campaign, but it was a campaign that would go in without the planning, or the seriousness, with a lot of human rights abuses committed in the course of razing villages. And now what we have is Chad, Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria teamed up in a multi-national task force. We've set up intelligence platforms, which we set up right when the girls went missing, but now the information fans out more naturally through this coordination mechanism. And the territory that Boko Haram had held at its height has shrunk by 75 percent — but the girls are still missing.
MS. CHANG: Right. So, we did a piece for Nightline that aired — and it's still online. You can get through it through Nightline, or my Facebook page — but I want to play you a little clip to give you a sense of some of the issues that we covered in the half-hour broadcast.
MS. CHANG: As you can see, it was a harrowing trip for us. I know I go through a melancholy after I come back from a trip like that. I caught you in a particularly emotional moment, after you emerged from an interview with a young girl. Tell me about that.
AMBASSADOR POWER: Well, we — everywhere you look in a refugee camp, or in a place where internally displaced people have gathered, any family you go up to, you ask them what happened, how they got there, and they tell a story. Every one, literally — of some family member having been taken away from them, whether a child, or all their children in the case of one woman we met, or when you meet kids, most — many of them, not most — but many of them are separated from their parents. There were 2,000 unaccompanied kids in Cameroon from Nigeria that just were in flight, and lost their parents, or had their parents killed in front of their eyes.
So the trauma that just is omnipresent, that the air is thick with, the demons that these individuals are carrying with them, and all they want to do is mind their own business. So one of the individuals that we sat down with — that I sat down with — was a 14-year-old girl who had the experience of Boko Haram coming into her village, taking everything that was of value in the village — the cattle, you know, anything that families needed to survive. And they burnt down the village, and one of the men said, "I'm going to kill you, or you can come with me and be my wife." And she went with him —
MS. CHANG: Thirteen, 14 at the time?
AMBASSADOR POWER: She was at the time — she would've been 14. And when we met her now it was almost two years later, so she was almost 16. She escaped, eventually, and this — in some ways, her journey is also a reflection of a much more effective — not fully effective — campaign against Boko Haram in the sense that every town she was in with Boko Haram, the Nigerian Army came to and began to push them out, so she was in constant flight. But her level of shame and guilt — and that's I think what I was reacting to having just walked out —
MS. CHANG: Sorry, I literally ambushed you as you came out of the tent.
AMBASSADOR POWER: Yes.
MS. CHANG: I'm like, "Tell me what you're feeling?"
AMBASSADOR POWER: Thanks for that. But what was so striking was just, you know, she didn't look up the entire time. The light in your eyes had dimmed, and I didn't know her before, but just the sense somehow that she had made a choice, and to try to say to her, "You did nothing wrong.” I mean, any of us, similarly situated — how could you do otherwise? You went, and now part of the reason of course she's not getting the support that she needs in the camp is because kids are being used a suicide bombers, a wholly new, grotesque device in the nature of terrorism, in the nature of conflict. But because of that, she's been with Boko Haram, living with them, and the level of — it's not just the stigma of, "Oh, as a young woman, you were in effect sexually enslaved by this movement." That's stigma enough, but also the mistrust that you might be an agent from Boko Haram sent into this community to do something terrible.
MS. CHANG: Let's talk about that further, about these kidnapped children being turned into suicide bombers. You know, of the 151, I think UNICEF reported one in five were children, and of those children suicide bombers, 75 percent were girls. To me, it highlights the dangerous nature of Boko Haram. Their pledged allegiance to ISIS. This is not just a humanitarian matter on our hands. This is a national security issue.
AMBASSADOR POWER: Yeah. I mean, you can — Boko Haram declared affiliation with ISIL now more than a year ago. You can see they're getting much more polished, and glossy in their social media, in their means of recruitment. Again, they're on their heels on the battlefield, but the challenge with violent extremism is it can't be defeated merely on the battlefield. It's defeated in schools, and with livelihoods, and jobs, and things that this — the parts of these countries that we visited are just so poverty stricken in the best of circumstances.
So I think it is a very dangerous affiliation. You can see them wanting to mimic some of the techniques and practices. But Boko Haram's trademark is using young girls — new trademark, it has had lots of trademarks over the last seven years as they've gotten stronger and stronger — but is to use these girls that it has stolen from families, and then either drug them, or coerce them into putting on suicide belts. And then taking advantage of the openness and the trust that all of humanity feels instinctively toward children, and having that — having more innocence pay the price for that trust. And that's what — that social fabric, that's the lasting damage that Boko Haram could do. If that frayed, if you started to look at a child in a different way, or at a Muslim — because a lot of these communities are mixed Muslim and Christian —
MS. CHANG: A lot of the victims I talked to talked about forced conversions, too.
AMBASSADOR POWER: Yeah.
MS. CHANG: I'm sure everyone in this room was familiar with the hashtag BringBackOurGirls. Why is it that two years later, we still can't find them, and tell us a little bit about the U.S. military role there in the region, but also the larger fight that you see as sort of non-military?
AMBASSADOR POWER: Well, I mean I think I spoke earlier to the relative passivity of the Nigerian government in the face of this assault on this school, and one of the challenges — and I know it's hard for the American superpower, and our public to sometimes adjust to this idea, but in these fights against terrorism, we need partners. And so a lot of what we seek to do is to strengthen our partners on the ground. Give them the capabilities they need. Give them the intelligence. Train and equip them. Make sure that they're not creating more terrorists as they go into a community than they are defeating. And this is true in Iraq, it's true in Syria.
You know, fundamentally, we need actors on the ground who are going to hold the territory that gets taken. So we needed people who spoke Hausa, and knew the Sambisa Forest, and these intricate tribal and other kind of networks that existed that Boko Haram was able to tap into. But the United States sort of parachuting in would be dependent, of course, on our partners to be able to support them in working that issue. So those partnerships have been built up over time, and I think that the search goes on. I mean, it is mercifully now a big priority for President Buhari in a way that it hasn't been, and they are shrinking the territory that Boko Haram controls, but you have to be very careful how you pursue that fight, because this is the most brutal movement with ISIL in the world today, and they'd be perfectly prepared to make these girls human shields —
MS. CHANG: Sure.
AMBASSADOR POWER: — as an air force comes in, or even as ground forces come in. So that's the balance, is you're trying to protect the girls as you seek their rescue.
MS. CHANG: It occurs to me, you're a Pulitzer-Prize winning chronicler of human rights abuses, atrocities, genocide. As a diplomat, how does that work when you're having to partner with leaders of countries that have odious human rights records?
AMBASSADOR POWER: Well, you're — I mean, the good news is that our national security interests narrowly defined and our human rights interests are inextricably linked. So the number one advocate for my message — which is that you have to respect human rights even as you pursue terrorists; you have to respect international humanitarian law — the number one advocate alongside me as the head of our delegation was our military; our uniformed military, saying look, you know, you will not defeat this group if you alienate the local population, if you lose legitimacy, if you come in and you raze a village and kill a lot of civilians as you also, you know, kill some Boko Haram soldiers.
So of course it's not — sometimes there are the kinds of dilemmas that you're posing, but in the Boko Haram case, there's no way to win this fight if you short change the legitimacy and if you lose the population.
MS. CHANG: Give us some insight into your life as a diplomat. Do you get used to being called "your excellency" first of all —
AMBASSADOR POWER: Quickly. Very quickly. [Laughter.]
MS. CHANG: And what, if anything, has surprised you in your role with "Ambassador" in front of your name?
AMBASSADOR POWER: I live in the Waldorf Astoria Towers. As an Irish immigrant, that's weird. [Laughter.] But something that I did manage to get used to, I guess. We've transformed — there's a huge room that we use for receptions but it now has all the bases. Like, the carpet has the indentation from the bases that my son —
MS. CHANG: That's awesome. First base, second base, third base?
AMBASSADOR: Literally, because the actual bases have been trodden on. It's a big room, which gives you some sense — I mean, in New York to have a place that could even accommodate the bases is a little strange, again. I think the surprising part may be — and I'll give you a couple answers to that. It's a very automated culture; there are some talking points that get delivered that I think may well have been delivered back in the 1950's with equal fervor. There's not a lot of spontaneity. I would've expected more debating — hashing it out. A lot of ambassadors are receiving instructions form capital and don't have a lot of flexibility. I'm very lucky to be able to be a little more spontaneous. I've tried to puncture the kind of abstract, sometimes ideological, often robotic, debates by bringing in human stories. I will very rarely give a speech in the UN Security Council that doesn't entail, in effect, bearing witness on behalf of some individual who is suffering the effects of the conflict.
MS. CHANG: And tell me about the role of mother, because these are moms doing social good. How does being a mom affect your diplomacy, and how does your diplomacy going out in the world affect the way that you parent? It's a big question in three minutes — three minutes left.
AMBASSADOR POWER: Okay. I think that, you know, I can't separate what is me being a mom and what is me being a human being, because there's no way to see a young boy lying on a beach, or any of the kids in Aleppo that we've seen over the last week or two, or the parents you meet who have had their kids taken away by Boko Haram. I mean, of course as a mother, I think — I cannot even imagine — cannot imagine the sense of powerlessness in the face of that kind of evil. I just can't.
And I feel so blessed and come home every night and, you know, hug my kids extra tight just knowing how lucky we are to be able to live without that constant thought of, "how do we get water," "will I ever be able to get my kids back in school," "what will happen to them long term because they don't have an education because we've been displaced and lost everything?"
So it makes me more grateful for what I have, for sure. And again, as a human as well as a mom, we just — we have to be looking under every stone for what we can do to bring this suffering to an end and to stop whether it's a government like the Assad regime, or it's a terrorist movement like Boko Haram or ISIL. This is what makes it hard to ever put the Blackberry down or to ever —
MS. CHANG: Sure.
AMBASSADOR POWER: — not work at the weekend and be fully present for my kids. Because the urgency of what is happening with 60 million people displaced around the world — more than since World War II. It's a perennial summons for those of us who are privileged enough to be in positions of authority and who have the chance to draw on American power to do something about it.
MS. CHANG: And these are moms, often bloggers, doing social good through social media. What — if there's a call to action, what would you say?
AMBASSADOR POWER: Well, I think I would make a specific appeal on refugees and displaced persons. We have a political debate now in this country that is going to get all the more stark, I think, over the next months. But living among us are people who have just arrived on our shores and who are hearing these messages of, "go home," and "you're not welcome." But they have the opportunity to hear a very different kind of message. And there are all kinds of places to volunteer in one's own community to help families get resettled, whether it's to give hand-me-downs from your own kids, or tutor, provide English lessons, or just lend a helping hand when they're moving in.
I've had the privilege of having a Syrian family to my home. And I've watched them, since I met with them, just struggle. You know, first they came and the American ambassador has them over for dinner, it looks like it's going to be okay. But finding work, seven kids, none of whom speak English, trying to get settled with the governor of the state that they're living in who told them that Muslims weren't welcome. I mean, how does that feel? Those people are everywhere in our society, mercifully, because we are still brining families in and people in.
And then, if I may, in terms of what's happening out there, whether it's UNICEF or any of the non-governmental groups like Mercy Corps, Oxfam, the International Rescue Committee who are supporting education — I think I've heard the other panelists also address this — education for boys and girls alike, making sure that these people who are suffering the trauma of these conflicts get an education for their own sake and for all the joy that education offers our own kids, and all the challenges and the discoveries. But also it's an investment in our collective security and in our shared humanity for the future.
MS. CHANG: I just want to indulge a question about another election. You alluded to the American presidential election, but you're at a building where there's a race on for Secretary-General?
AMBASSADOR POWER: Big race.
MS. CHANG: Big race. And we're looking at female candidates.
AMBASSADOR POWER: We are. Seventy years of existence for the UN, and we've only had two women presidents of the General Assembly out of 70. There's one every year, so two out of 70, and we've never had a woman Secretary-General. So we have encouraged lots of woman to apply and we have a good crop who are in the race now, maybe more coming as well. Turns out you don't need women in binders [laughter] it turns out, there's lots of — I probably shouldn't say that. [Laughter.]
But there are lots of women out there who are amazing and leading in their countries — not enough in foreign policy, but it's going to be an amazing race. And I think, again, we're going to choose the best candidate, of course, all things considered, in terms of the United States and our perspective on this election, but it's long overdue that we have this kind of field with this kind of diversity. And when I think of my young daughter, who's three, I don't, certainly, want her to go much long where she looks at these leading institutions and sees such minimal representation.
I sit on the Security Council every day, which is the premier body for enforcing peace and security. There are 15 ambassadors on the Security Council, only one woman. One out of 15 in 2016. And so everywhere we need to try to ensure that there's proper diversity and that the default, which is the same guys reaching out to the same guys — we've got to check that and bring a proper field into view, which is what I think is finally happening.
MS. CHANG: Thank you. I'll never forget when my youngest son came up to me and said, "What do you mean, there's never been a girl American President?" I said, "Yeah, that's right."
Thank you so much for sharing your insights. Thank you for letting me go on your trip and for shining a light to that region of the world. And thank you all for being here and being social moms doing social good. Thanks.
AMBASSADOR POWER: Thank you.