DCSIMG

Ambassador Power on Supporting Civil Society at the Social Good Summit

U.S. Mission to the UN - New York, N.Y.



MR. CASHMORE: Well, thank you, Ambassador, for joining us at a conference that’s already getting a lot of momentum online. We’re excited to have you here, especially because the Social Good Summit is very much about a lot of what your work is about, which is about how do you empower people, especially through technology. And your career has really been about the importance of human rights, human dignity. Maybe you could start by talking a little bit about how your career got you here and why those things matter so much.

AMBASSADOR POWER: Okay. I’m starting to feel self-conscious that I didn’t polish my shoes. (Laughter.)

MR. CASHMORE: Well, you didn’t – (applause) – what you guys missed though, is I just – backstage, I almost covered the ambassador in coffee. (Laughter.) And we were just, quickly–a little domestic emergency backstage. We’re good, though. But I do have a little coffee still.

AMBASSADOR POWER: Okay.

MR. CASHMORE: We’re all human.

AMBASSADOR POWER: True. So in terms of my own journey, I would not ever have been picked in high school to be most likely to become a human rights advocate or somebody who so believed in the power of ordinary citizens to change the world. But I was very moved when I was in college, when I saw for the first time the footage from Tiananmen Square, and I was working as an intern in the sports department of the CBS affiliate in Atlanta and I was taking notes on a Braves game, and then I looked up and there was Tiananmen, like, the crushing of this democratic movement and moment. And, so that kind of got into my head that, wow, that, look what those citizens – what they’re trying to do for their country, for their children, for their grandchildren.

And then when I graduated from college, I was struck by images in The New York Times of emaciated men behind barbed wire, again, in Europe, 50 years after the Holocaust. And it was at a time when the Bosnian Serbs were cracking down brutally, committing ethnic cleansing – a term that was sort of invented in that conflict. And I just thought, wow, you know, there’s got to be something that we can do about this.

I will say often, when we talk about technology, which I’m sure we’ll get to, and the pros and cons, I often say to my – when I used to teach young people, students, I would say the one downside of the technology is the way we select around our preexisting preferences. And I would never, in 1992, graduating from college, have put into my search engine “concentration camps,” but I stumbled into it by virtue of, you know, the sort of fuller exposure that one got through opening The New York Times the old-fashioned way. Now my students say, “Ooh, the smudge, the smudge, it’s so terrible.” And I say, “But the serendipity,” and the kind of things –

MR. CASHMORE: But do you think people are finding out about these things more in this new world of technology? Are they more informed or are they less informed?

AMBASSADOR POWER: Well, I think as the technology evolves, it feels like – and I know people are alert to this risk, that we just become more insulated and more cocooned in our own, more, you know, pleasant preferences, right?–but I think, alert to that, more and more people are trying to seek out kind of connections, and, you know, we all know how it works: you start here and then you end up over here. But I guess what I’m getting at, in particular, are kind of inconvenient topics, you know, things that one wouldn’t voluntarily really seek out because they’re depressing or one feels disempowered by even the magnitude of the badness. And I think a lot of us have that emotion. I mean, even in the job I have now, you sometimes think, “Ugh,” Syria being the latest example of that. It’s just so heartbreaking, and you could imagine why young people might not want to spend a lot of time watching videos of kids who have been gassed by chemical weapons. Right? And it’s a – that’s not necessarily what one seeks out.

So I think it’s just, be alert to once people are hooked and they have the conviction and they have the compassion, and they want to make a difference and they want to activate, raise money or alert people to human rights abuses or influence their congressmen, or whatever, then technology is dreamy, right? Because it is a force multiplier like nothing we’ve seen.

MR. CASHMORE: I mean, fundamentally you kind of hinted at that question and we can get into specifics soon. But with regards to technology, is it fundamentally a tool of democracy and of civil society and of these values you’re trying to push? Is it fundamentally, as we often discuss on this stage, is it just a very neutral thing and it depends how you use it? I mean, what’s your take on that?

AMBASSADOR POWER: Well, we’ve got examples on both sides of the ledger. I mean, governments are growing more and more sophisticated at shutting down the internet, blocking, filtering, using technology to trace human rights activists – the famous incident in Syria, devastating incident where Marie Colvin, who was one of the greatest journalists of our time, greatest war correspondent – one of the greatest war correspondents of the last century–was, we think, tracked down by virtue of her cell phone, the coordinates on her cell phone, and then struck by the Assad regime, and taken, killed. And, so we have those examples on the one hand.

And then I just came from a meeting just now, there were a lot of civil society activists who were in town and I met with a subset of them just before coming on stage. Many of them are going to be meeting with President Obama tomorrow, who is himself very concerned about the crackdown on civil society that’s going on around the world, the use of technologies to impede rather than expand democratic accountability and civic activism. It’s a major problem right now – major. I just want to make sure everybody is alert to this trend around the world, even with all the technology.

Like, this young Syrian activist was describing, in Syria, Assad has used SCUD missiles and fired SCUD missiles on his own people, which, again, is just ghastly. But it takes apparently between eight to 15 minutes for these missiles to land from the time of launch. And they now have people who are texting if they see anything in the launch phase, texting the coordinates from where the launch occurred, I guess, somehow able to predict then sort of the flight trajectory. And that text message goes to some central hub and then people in the area where the SCUD is likely to land X number of minutes hence will receive the text message warning them about it. Now, it’s obviously not sufficient when you think about what a SCUD can do, but it’s an example of the creativity and the ways in which, you know, people are using this technology.

I traveled with the President a couple of years ago to India, and there’s this amazing website in India called ipaidabribe.com. And it’s basically just people sharing their personal testimonials about how – just the indignity of having paid a bribe. And then there was a second section, or was the last time I checked, on the site that was “I didn’t pay a bribe.” So they actually list sort of the ways in which they stood up to a particular person who was trying to get, you know, a bribe for – in order to get social services or get their kid into school or this or that. And then there’s a third section to the site that’s “I didn’t have to pay a bribe,” and it’s about, like, the kind of noble civil servants who are just doing their jobs, you know, in cultures that often make bribery the exception – bribery the rule and not the exception.

So, you know, again, the ways of sort of heroizing one form of behavior, creating a community of concern, you know, to activate. The sentinel – the Satellite Sentinel Project, that George Clooney, John Prendergast and others have used–paying for or getting companies to donate satellite time and resources so they can document mass graves in parts of the world that are not necessarily accessible to humanitarian workers. So, it feels like, you know, it’s the yin and the yang; it’s a lot that feels like how you use it.

MR. CASHMORE: And we’re seeing a lot of these issues in the news even this week. It’s very much a hot button issue. Um, to what extent is government responsible for these situations? To what extent can individuals help? You know, if you’re someone here in America or globally that wants to engage in these issues, that believes in the power of democracy, I mean, what is the role of the civilian? And then what is the role of government?

AMBASSADOR POWER: Well, I mean, I think it depends on the situation, but certainly citizens have the capacity, as they did in this country on Darfur, to put an issue on the map, and that was driven mainly by young people and people in the faith community – Jewish groups, Christian groups and others – teaming up with high school students, college students, and they just – they made Darfur, you know, matter in Washington. I think there’s fundraising that is done via using these technological tools. You know, once people do get moved by what they see or are exposed to, it’s just – it’s a great way of pooling resources and really getting it to people in need.

We’ve created in the U.S. Government, or combined, I should say partnered with civil society organizations, foundations, and I think other governments, to create a lifeline fund for those human rights defenders who are being arrested, are being targeted by their governments so that they feel like someone in the international community has their back. So, you know, it’s voice, it’s resources, it’s political pressure, you know, on people like me, because everybody has bandwidth issues, so what issue is on the map at, you know, a particular time, at a particular level of government is variable. And, you know, we were talking just a minute ago about Twitter, which I have just joined and completely unsophisticated –

MR. CASHMORE: What’s your handle?

AMBASSADOR POWER: What is my handle? I think #AmbassadorPower. Someone told me it’s #AmbassadorPower. (Laughter.) #AmbassadorPower? Okay, #AmbassadorPower. You should tell everybody. But, you know, initially I was following only one person, my husband. (Laughter.) And who – Cass – that’s #CassSunstein, or hashtag – you know, Cass Sunstein. Very interesting also and worth following, but maybe not worth being the only person I follow. So it has taken me time. And then I would get these notes from people saying, “You don’t care about our issues?” I’d be like, “No, no, I care passionately about your issues, I just didn’t know about following.” (Laughter.) So I’m learning myself how to make use of these tools in a rather primitive way at present, but I’m seeing already the power of it.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. There are issues that we are doing – raising every day. I’m raising the plight of, you know, for instance, a Cuban activist, Oswaldo Paya, who was run off the road in Cuba and there hasn’t been a sufficient investigation into his death and his family has been pushing us as a government, and we’ve been pushing the Cubans. I encountered the Cuban Foreign Minister in my first week here, at a UN event, raised the case, and then could come out and tweet that I had raised the case, and it could be a show of solidarity with – you know, at least it was an attempt at a show of solidarity with Cubans who had been pushing for human rights and democracy and pushing for an investigation into this remarkable man’s death. You know, in the old days, you’d kind of almost have to stage a press conference to be able to get your voice out there in that way, even as the UN Ambassador. So the transaction cost now for speaking out on human rights issues, the bar is lower, which allows us, I think, to project American values and the priorities of this President, you know, in a more fluid way.

MR. CASHMORE: Is that an example of social media becoming the primary kind of communication, like, for breaking news? Do you include some of the breaking news and decisions on social media? How is that?

AMBASSADOR POWER: Yeah, I think that, I mean, because you can do it so quickly it’s very easy to do it that way. But I think, I think all forms of media still do remain relevant. I mean, we are – social media has its limits. Sometimes doing things so quickly is not always the way to get out the kind of nuances of a policy, which is challenging anyway, on issues that are complicated, like some of those we work on. So I think, I think you still – you always want to have the time to sort of expand and expound, but it might be a way of alerting people to – there is a political prisoner, you know, where all of you could make the difference in, you know, putting pressure on a particular government that has an embassy here or a mission here, or you could connect with people in European countries or in African countries and have them raise it. You know, there are ways to build coalitions, I think in particular around the fate of civil society and the prospects for human rights that just didn’t exist when we were relying solely on mainstream media.

MR. CASHMORE: So you’ve been meeting with a group of activists and you have this meeting tomorrow. I mean, how are they using technology and which countries specifically do they come from and how are they engaging with technology in order to get their voices heard?

AMBASSADOR POWER: Well, again, the technology, I think, is a major piece. It’s how they connect with one another. One of the very sad features of this crackdown on civil society that the President is seeking to draw attention to tomorrow is the ways in which leaders are learning from one another, whether it’s on shutting down the internet or blocking Twitter, blocking Facebook, or every bit as egregiously, just using plain old-fashioned laws and regulations to restrict foreign funding to NGOs or to inhibit the space that they have to restrict public protest, to crack down on freedom of association. So it’s not – technology is not the only problem and it’s not the only solution. This “strangulation by regulation” is the way a Zimbabwean colleague just put it in a meeting that we just had.

So, you know, I think we’re trying to signal that this is a crackdown. They, the governments are – it used to be that we would talk in development or in human rights about best practices, about how can we push for best practices, this sort of old-fashioned phrase. It’s now clear that a lot of these governments are sharing worst practices. I mean, it’s literally like textbooks on how to crack down on civil society, on how to use the tools of technology to impede social media or to impede the kind of connectivity that can occur virtually. Even as they close off the public space and sort of the downtown square with their restrictive permit laws or whatever, then they are migrating those practices that they’ve used over time to the internet and to the social media space.

And so what technology enables these young people to do – we met with activists from Egypt, Zimbabwe, Russia – or, I’m sorry, Ukraine; the President met with a bunch of Russian civil society activists when he was on his trip recently with – in St. Petersburg. You know, we have a chance to show solidarity, to hear their concerns. We then can take those concerns and inject them into our bilateral diplomacy. We had heard from Sri Lankans about the importance of the Human Rights Council, which has become a venue where civil society actually gets to speak to government through something called the Universal Periodic Review. That had never existed before.

So we’re always seeking ways, using the perks of government to make space for civil society, both, again, pressing governments to open that space themselves but also bringing civil society to the table.

Just last point on that: The President a couple of years ago created something called the Open Government Partnership, which is one of the rare multilateral initiatives that combines – that has at the table, governments and civil society representatives as equals. And in the beginnings, it was awkward because you’d have these people in Birkenstocks and kind of different forms of dress – (laughter) – literally going toe to toe in discussions and steering committee meetings about what the rules of governance should be for this multilateral partnership. And there was some discomfort. And then at a certain point, the steering committee governments started to see the benefit of this because they were actually hearing the precise ways in which – we included, we in the United States, because we had our civil society partners who were part of this–it’s the kind of input you need to tailor your policies to actually respond to the needs of your people. So not all governments, you know, kind of welcome that feedback, and obviously democratic governments do more than others.

MR. CASHMORE: To what extent will this new role play a role in the decision-making process? Clearly there’s some very big decisions happening right now that people feel extremely strongly about, and if you follow any of your social media feeds, there’s a lot of talk right now about some of the decisions that are being made. To what extent does the listening role play in? And to what extent…how is the government able to listen at scale?

AMBASSADOR POWER: That’s interesting. I mean, we do things like Hangouts and, you know, try to – even when an activist can’t come to us, we try to make ourselves available to them from far away. But, you know, I think listening in its own rights is, of course, valuable in the sense that it does show the America that cares, and doesn’t just care about human rights in the abstract but cares about particular individuals and their stories. I’m a bigger fan of listening and then doing something, so that’s maybe important to point out. But I think, you know, part of the function of these sessions is to actually get a more granular sense of what these people are going through. It’s one thing to hear about a crackdown on civil society; it’s another thing to hear so-and-so was arrested, can your embassy go and raise his case at the highest levels?

MR. CASHMORE: Right. What can individuals do, though, beyond, just, government? What can people who are in the audience or at home – obviously tens of thousands of people are hearing these messages. To what extent can individuals get involved? What are the actions they can take?

AMBASSADOR POWER: Well, I mean, everyone knows their own sort of skills set and their own set of particular interests, you know, for themselves. But I think we’ve seen activists when an emergency strikes. We saw in Haiti, famously, the crowdsourcing that went on where we literally were able to document who was buried where by virtue of people who were using this Ushahidi technology and so forth. We’ve seen technology being used in this country, in the United States, but also recently in the Kenya elections, to police fraud and, you know, when polling stations closed early, that was blasted around the – illegitimately closed early, perhaps to cook results; that was immediately, you know, put onto the web, and then you’d see a kind of – all of the dissent and critiques that would flow from that.

I do think, you know, also just this point about resources, about actually knowing who’s in need, whether abroad or in our own communities. Again, having that kind of transparency into that. Technology, I think, has created the possibility of a kind of match.com – what are the things you care most about, and then are those caught – are there people out there who are doing the kind of work that you would most wish you were doing if you weren’t in your day job, that you’d most like to support. I think those things are very important.

And then, as I said, I mean, I take very seriously, now that I’m on Twitter – I take very seriously, if I give a speech and people are telling me, “That didn’t make sense when you said that,” or, “How does that square with this? And aren’t you forgetting about these people? Why do you only talk about them and not” – I mean, that’s real feedback for government. And I know Secretary Kerry and Ambassador Rice – this just on the national security side – but they also are alert to this feedback, and it gets gathered for us every night if we’re running around. If I’m in the Security Council all day and haven’t been able to see what people are saying, I get something in my book when I go home every night that sort of says, here’s what people think of what you’re up to today. Sometimes it’s not –

MR. CASHMORE: So you get a tweet summarizer?

AMBASSADOR POWER: (Laughter.) Yeah, yeah. But it’s not always the most pleasant reading, I’ll have you know. (Laughter.) But it’s important to hear. And I don’t think that leaders, before these – this citizen voice was able to be shared so immediately, I’m not sure – I think the bubble was more pronounced, that there was a layer that was really hard to penetrate.

MR. CASHMORE: Well, (inaudible) on time, but I’d love to ask you finally: We’re talking about 2030 Now. What is the outlook for civil society, for democracy in 2030? Is it a situation where more people are empowered, where more voices are heard? Is it a situation where crackdowns continue to happen and, you know, the internet gets cut off and having your voice heard is just as difficult? I mean, what is your outlook for 2030 in civil society?

AMBASSADOR POWER: Well, I think right now the trend lines are not positive. But I think the truth of the matter is one reason that these governments are having to grow more sophisticated, in the last five years, 40 laws, restrictive NGO laws have been put in place – more than 40, even in countries that are democratic; restricting freedom of speech, expression, religion, association. I mean, basic stuff. So as I said, they’re sharing worst practices, but they’re doing so also because they’re aware of the explosion in civil society and they’re aware of the power of social media.

So I think the answer to your question turns on, you know, who’s more sophisticated, who’s more creative, who’s better able to network, the bad guys, as it were, or the citizens who are simply trying to, you know, enhance dignity and rights for their people? And I’d always bet on the citizens over time, but right now this is one of the reasons, again, the President is drawing attention to this trend that goes a little bit unnoticed. You see it in one country, you see it in another and you think, oh, maybe that’s just Russia, or maybe that’s just Zimbabwe. But when you see the pattern across the globe, that’s – you sound the alarm and you see if you can get other likeminded governments and likeminded citizens and NGOs and foundations and others to team up in really contesting this very worrying trend. And if we do that then, again, it’s not a close call. Governments – anachronistic governments–who are trying to crack down on basic dignity versus the power of the people? I mean, history shows who’s going to win that one.

MR. CASHMORE: Okay. So we’re out of time, but you are @AmbassadorPower? Is that it?

AMBASSADOR POWER: So it seems.

MR. CASHMORE: I’m guessing that’s what it is.

AMBASSADOR POWER: So it seems. Yes.

MR. CASHMORE: All righty, if you want to follow up and continue the conversation online. Thanks so much.

AMBASSADOR POWER: Thank you. (Applause.)

- Cross-posted on: usun.state.gov

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