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"Make hope and history rhyme": Samantha Power in Sri Lanka

Jun 15, 2010 10:16:31 AM- transcurrents.com

Samantha Power, special assistant to the president on multilateral affairs and human rights, and David Pressman, National Security Council director for war crimes and atrocities, will hold four days of meetings in Sri Lanka.

Commenting on the visit, a press release by the US Embassy in Colombo said:

“Two senior foreign policy advisors to President Obama are visiting Sri Lanka from June 14-18. Samantha Power, Special Assistant to the President on Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights and David Pressman, National Security Council Director for War Crimes and Atrocities, will meet with senior government officials and members of civil society in Colombo, Jaffna, and Batticaloa. The visit aims to continue last month’s productive dialogue between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris, in which both leaders discussed Sri Lanka’s path through economic renewal, accountability, and reconciliation to greater peace, prosperity, and a stronger partnership with the United States.”

In May 2010 Time Magazine reported Stephen J. Rapp, Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues at the US State Department will be releasing a report on Sri Lanka on June 16th. It is not stated yet if that is still on the schedule.

Ms. Samantha Power, from 1993 to 1996 worked as a journalist, covering the Yugoslav wars for U.S. News & World Report, The Boston Globe, The Economist, and The New Republic.

Speaking at the Harvard Law School Commencement on May 26th, 2010, Ms. Samantha Power said:

“it is in your hands to decide whether law will be enforced, whether law will be just, whether law will be used to slow or speed the spread of liberty and equality. It's on you, graduates, to decide whether law will do what it has done so often - as the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney puts it, make "hope and history rhyme."”

The following is full text of commencement address delivered by Ms. Samantha Power:

Samantha Power, HLS Class Day Remarks, 5/26/10
Harvard Law School Class Day
Prepared Remarks

By Samantha Power ’99

Good afternoon, Class of 2010! Graduating students, parents - can we get a serious shout out for the parents and stepparents here today - None of us would be here without you. Literally.

I am more than a little humbled to be up here during your Commencement festivities and to be surrounded by this ferociously talented faculty and student body. One sign of how seriously I am taking this assignment is that I have invited my parents to your commencement!

Thank you so much for having me, graduates and Dean Minow.

Dean Minow -- that has such a nice ring to it. Elena Kagan is a tough act to follow, but Harvard Law School could not have made a better choice. Professor Minow has many virtues, but the one I cherish most is the way she unfailingly treats her students as her peers. Each of you who have taken her classes or engaged her on law, politics, geopolitics, or your personal lives know what I'm talking about.

I can say from experience that when you look into Dean Minow's eyes, the reflection you see of yourself is the person you hope you can become. Benjamin Franklin once said, "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn." The Minow stamp on this law school will be an involved student body - involved in learning, involved in tailoring what is taught, and involved in shaping the world beyond the ivory tower.

Congratulations, Dean Minow, on a stellar first year as dean!

In the old days, before I went into government, I gave a few commencement addresses and enjoyed them a lot. Now I'm in the Obama administration, and there is a risk that something I say here today will be associated with a certain other Harvard Law School graduate, who is my boss. I talked to a senior White House official about this speech and told him that I was half-dreading doing it because - in my current job - I couldn't actually say anything. He said, "Sure you can." I said, "Well, I can, but I can't say anything interesting." He said, "no, Samantha, you just can't say anything controversial." I said, "With me those are roughly concentric circles. Maybe it is like a Venn diagram where there might be a tiny sliver of space that is both non-controversial and interesting." I am here today to find that space. And you will tell me in 15 or 20 minutes whether I have succeeded.

My husband, Cass Sunstein, is here with me today. Many of you have made use of his Constitutional Law or Administrative Law case-book. Luckily when I took Constitutional Law here with Larry Tribe, I didn't use Professor Sunstein's casebook - if I had, I don't
think it would have been appropriate for me to date him. Dating somebody whose casebook you used would have crossed into what my girlfriends and I call "serious heeby geeby territory." But I will tell you this: I would trade every last Ivy League degree for just a single day on this earth with Cass as a companion. I am blessed to get to sit next to him and laugh with him for a life-time.

This audience is filled with over-achievers. You can spot an over-achiever early – overachievers wear such heavy backpacks in elementary school that no hurricane could topple them as they wait at the bus-stop. Overachievers take so many Kaplan LSAT practice tests that Kaplan runs out of sample questions. Overachievers have great trouble starting a book but not finishing it - after all the point is less the content of the book than the act of turning that final page. Over achievers study right up until the last minute, genuinely believing that the extra five minutes of reviewing a Civil Procedure outline will make all the difference. Most overachievers care more about their grades than their sex lives, though there may be a few here who strive for over-achieving in all domains.

Overachievers were once those who tutored in low-income school districts - now in the 21st century they are those who sneak across the border into Burma to build schools from scratch. Overachievers often risk their lives by doing work on their blackberries while driving (Graduates, whatever you do, please don't text while driving!). If Cass and I are any indicator, overachievers watch the Olympics in middle age and fantasize about taking up curling because it looks like the one sport in which you can still win an Olympic medal.

Overachievers don't like failing. And they do like winning. Overachievers often have a hole in their psyche, and achievement is their way of filling that hole. As my favorite singer Leonard Cohen likes to say, "There is a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in."

I gather from my mother (who is here today) that the first sign I was determined to become an overachiever came early. She had grown up in County Cork, Ireland, had moved temporarily to England and in 1975 was simultaneously playing world class squash, attending medical school, and trying to complete her PHD in biochemistry -- scary overachiever - and all this while she was taking care of a tiny, red-headed demanding daughter. I always thought my Mother was extraordinary but now that I have a tiny red-headed demanding son, I literally marvel at how she did all she did. Well, this PHD of hers took years to complete. Finally, one day, she brought it into the printers to get it bound.

In those days there was no Kinkos on every corner, so when you turned something into the printers, you were making a permanent commitment. When she picked it up, she was elated. This was a very big deal: her 300-page plus treatise had acquired a splendid blue binder - the dissertation was a pristine monument to close to a half decade of work and passion. She laid it out on the kitchen table, so she could turn it in the next day to her academic supervisor, and she went to bed, content. But when my mother woke up on her big day, her overachiever 5 year old had struck. Emblazoned on the front of what had been the immaculate blue cover of her bound dissertation were words, scrawled in bright orange crayon: "Samantha Power Did This." When I wrote my book, "A Problem from Hell," - a book I began writing for a class I took at this very law school - my mother described it as my second book!

Now that I'm in my late 30s rather than my pre-kindergarten years, my sense of what counts as real achievement has evolved. I'm still an overachiever of sorts, but now I look at the ring on Cass' finger or my infant son splashing around in the bath, and I say, "Wow, How did Samantha Power Do This?"

My memories of Harvard Law School are fond - it was the last pure oasis of thought unmediated by politics that I inhabited. I came to Cambridge straight from a war zone - I'd been a journalist in Bosnia in the early 1990s -- so the conventional stresses of HLS seemed mild in comparison. But I felt a different kind of vulnerability, as if the qualities that had served me in other environments did me no good here. As 1Ls we were told that right and wrong was far less important than the quality of one's argument. And since I didn't know how to make good legal arguments, I was not at the top of my game. How many of you got through law school without experiencing an awful Paper Chase moment? Well, I very nearly escaped.

It was not until the first day of my final semester in law school, the spring of my third year--long past the time that I should have learned to "think like a lawyer"--when I heard those feared words out of my professor's mouth: "Ms. Power, will you kindly state the case!" I nearly died. I had survived the siege of Sarajevo, but my heart raced, my tummy somersaulted and a voice inside my head tried to soothe me, "This can't be worse than Milosevic, this can't be worse than Milosevic." But it was. The case was Spaulding v. Zimmerman. And mercifully I had read it. Back in the 1950s, there had been a car accident. A guy called John Zimmerman had rear-ended a 20-yearold named David Spaulding. Spaulding's ribs were broken and he suffered some internal bleeding in the head. He sued Zimmerman for damages. Fairly straightforward. But controversy arose when Zimmerman, the bad driver, contracted a doctor to examine Spaulding to gauge the gravity of his injuries. This doctor detected an aortal aneurism that might rupture and cause Spaulding's death. Spaulding was oblivious to his condition.

Only Zimmerman and his lawyer possessed the vital, life-saving information. My ethics professor asked me whether Zimmerman's lawyer had a duty to disclose what he knew of Spaulding's perilous medical condition, when nondisclosure could result in severe harm. I was confused by the question. I looked around at my classmates, assuming that they too would be surprised by the professor's line of inquiry. But they seemed unflustered.

"We're talking about an aneurism," I said simply. "Yes, I'm aware of that Ms. Power, but what should the defendant's lawyer do?" the professor asked. "Pardon me?" I asked, wondering whether it was a trick question. "It's an aneurism!" I said again. "Yes, we've
all read the case," the professor continued. "But what should the defendant's lawyer do?"

I was totally confused: "Um, if Zimmerman's lawyer doesn't tell Spaulding, Spaulding might die!" I said.

By this time virtually every hand in the class had shot up to the sky. Everyone understood the grave fallacy of my thinking. If Zimmerman's lawyer disclosed Spaulding's medical condition, think of the spillover effects! What defendant would ever trust his lawyer again? How would our system of justice fare if a defense lawyer privileged the needs of the plaintiff over those of the defendant, who, after all, was not necessarily responsible for the aneurism? What I had long suspected to be true was now official: I was
structurally incapable of thinking like a lawyer.

But while that aspect of thinking like a lawyer didn't stick, I did learn a couple big things here:

I and every HLS grad gained the ability to argue. Now all the parents in the audience will protest - they will tell tales of your pre-verbal, pig-headed toddler selves that indicate that you were serving up good arguments before you were weaned off of diapers. Many of you have probably always been the advocate in the family. But parents, siblings, you think it was bad growing up with these people. Have you argued with them lately? Watch out!

The graduates of 2010 have built on already formidable foundations and gained daunting powers of argumentation. Where once their emotions might have stood in the way, this place has taught them to channel those emotions so that they can parse and rebut arguments with a clinical coldness that can be devastatingly-effective. HLS grads, as you head out into the world, you have to be careful with this scalpel that this place has helped you sharpen. Like any scalpel, its incisions can cause severe bleeding. But like any medical scalpel, it can also help heal those in need, right many wrongs, and end a whole lot of pain out there. Reason is the tool this place has given you, but justice is the cause that must lie within you. A regard for the welfare of others cannot
be taught.

I have not practiced law, but I have used what I learned here in every article I have written, and every cause I have advocated for. I use my law school education every day in government - anticipating the other side's case, mobilizing facts, and presenting oral arguments. I don't always win, and sometime the pre-law school me bubbles up and my underlying convictions show, but I am far better at what I do because I stopped here along the way.

The other thing we got from this place is an admiration -- even a reverence -- for the sturdy majesty of the law itself. When I arrived on this campus, most of my classmates couldn't put a finger on why they were attending law school. They said things like, "I got in," "I wanted to create options," "tough job market," "you can't beat the credential." Rarely, if ever, did I hear much about law itself.

But by the end of three years, most of us had come to understand that, whatever motivated us to come, law offered its own rewards. Law is the foundation for what President Roosevelt called "Freedom from Fear and Want" - for physical security in one's person and property, and for basic dignity. Law is the one recourse the vulnerable through history have had against those who bullied them. Law today reflects the contributions and wisdom of countless people over time. In societies like ours, which are endowed with imperfect but durable legal systems, as the old saying goes, "law is the wise restraint that make men free."

Of course law's application and law's effects depend upon the determination and judgment of those of us privileged to be its caretakers: two-thirds of you will work in a law firm next year, one-fifth of you will take up clerkships; and ten percent of you will work in government or public service. You will end up the Williams and Connolly associate, the lawyer in the city district attorney's office, the Texas public defender, the intellectual property lawyer, the rural family court judge, the legal blogger, the Tulane law professor, the local, state, or federal government official. Maybe you will even end up writing fiction like Scott Turow. Regardless, it is in your hands to decide whether law will be enforced, whether law will be just, whether law will be used to slow or speed the spread of liberty and equality. It's on you, graduates, to decide whether law will do what it has done so often - as the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney puts it, make "hope and history rhyme."

As a non-practicing lawyer, I am not going to stand up here and tell you how to use your law degree. I am no authority on these issues. But I can offer four tips that don't appear in the overachiever manual you can pick up at the Harvard Coop.

First, never compare your insides to somebody else's outsides. At the start of law school I didn't feel I belonged. Everyone else had their act together, it was clear. They seemed to know where to buy books, who to study with, what the teachers expected, what the cases stipulated. I marveled at how people so new to this world seemed to fit right in.

My friend John Prendergast and I call our heads "bat-caves" -- yes, from Batman.

Because we are in our heads so often that sometimes it is hard to concentrate with all the bats swarming around. In law school, I spent a lot of time with the bats: all of us did, as HLS is a bat-friendly place - where fears and insecurities run rampant. Of course, the fact is that when people feel unsafe, they are the least likely to talk openly about their bats. It was not until a couple years into law school, as friendships tightened, and as all of us unwound, that we each learned that self-doubt was the rule not the exception. We were all confused, all groping. The only thing that distinguished us was how well we hid it.

I've had the identical experience in government. Soon after candidate Obama won in November 2008, I was offered my dream job. To serve President Barack Obama and to help him implement his vision for multilateral affairs, human rights, and the prevention of mass atrocity - from the White House. As they say, OMG. When I arrived in Washington with my campaign teammates, I was no newer to this experience than many of my peers - but everyone around me had purposeful, directed strides while I staggered around, initially bewildered by the bureaucracy. I hadn't been there long, when I had my first meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office. Since my office is not far away, I left myself 5 minutes to get there. The only trouble was I couldn't find the Oval. Nobody passed out maps of the West Wing, so I had printed out a small map from the Washington Post website, but it wasn't drawn to scale and I ended up on the third floor when the Oval - which is tough to miss - was on the second. By the time I found my way, I was late. To my first meeting with President Obama. Seven months pregnant at the time, I was also breathless and completely discombobulated. When I walked in, General Jones, our National Security Adviser, and his deputy national security adviser were already seated. I sat down awkwardly, setting down the water bottle every pregnant woman keeps nearby and trying to catch my breath before I had to start briefing.

Unfortunately, as soon as my battered Poland springs bottle touched the surface of the centuries-old coffee table, a man
behind me reached over my shoulder and removed the unsanitary item from view of the 44th President of the United States.

Now I am in the equivalent of my 2L year in government and every single one of my colleagues has told me a version of the story I have just told you. When you get out into the real world, just like here, it is easy to believe that you - and only you - are the one who doesn't belong. When you get to Skadden, when you join the Department of Justice, when you take the foreign service exam, when you return to your country to start your own practice, when you walk into a philanthropist's office and make a pitch to raise money to launch your new NGO, and you feel unsafe -- while everyone else seems to be brimming with confidence -- remember you see only their outsides. There could be a fleet of bats inside. Maybe that understanding will inspire not only a degree of calmness, but also a compassion for others - everyone of you out there has a back story and, probably, a Bat Cave. Life is not about mastering uncertainty; it is about channeling it.

Second, selling out is really hard. Let me define what I mean by selling out. By "selling out" I do not mean "working for a corporate law firm." By "selling out" I do not mean "making gobs of money." I just learned that you have paid $41,500 dollars a year in tuition for the privilege of this remarkable education. That is an awful lot of money and many of you probably have steep debt payments ahead of you, though kudos to HLS for offering generous subsidies to those here who explored the public interest realm. And kudos to parents for supporting their kids where they were able.

By "selling out" I just mean doing something that requires you to check your heart at the door. I have classmates from HLS who are earning tons of money in corporate law and love their lives. I have classmates from HLS who are doing corporate law and who hate their lives because they don't actually want to be doing what they're doing. They read the Class Notes of the alumni magazine and sigh wistfully at the lives of others. No relative, friend, teacher, or graduation speaker can tell you what you should do - it is your compass, your values, your gut that will carry you. But if your compass, your values, and your gut don't like what you end up doing, I promise you that they will not keep quiet.

First they will take a nap, waiting for you to pay back your loans, or hoping that the days will get more stimulating and the law more fulfilling, but then the compass, the values, the gut will start to speak. First they will gnaw, then they will tug, and at some point they will scream out: "NOOOOO. This is the only life you have. You don't get a do-over."

And then it will be time to make yourself vulnerable again, to take another plunge, even at the expense of releasing the bats. A job that doesn't feel right is no more likely to last than a marriage of the same description. It is hard to seek or experience inspiration when you are insulated in a life that isn't working for you. But even as you work your day job, if you start to feel that tug, try to expose yourself to places, issues, and people outside your comfort zone. People who defy gravity and make change are brave. Try, if you can, to remember that there are people out there who have stopped dreaming about a better world, have stopped believing that the blessed are also the just. Restore their faith that, while they may feel forgotten, some kickass Harvard Law School graduate has their back. You have already done this while in law school - each of you somehow did an average of 533 hours of pro bono service while here. How is that even possible? I gather this is a record. Nearly two-thirds of you did a summer of public interest. It is clear that you are searching, you are seeking. And no matter where you start, you can find your way back to loving what you do. It doesn't have to be the guy down the row from you who loves his job and respects himself. It can be you. But for that to happen, you will have to open your
ears to try to hear your gut.

Third, in whatever you do, try to be present, fully present. As Satchel Paige put it, "Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody's watching." You gotta be all in. This means leaving your technology behind occasionally
and listening to a friend without half of your brain being occupied by the inner longing for the red light on your blackberry. I sat in on a close friend's HLS class a couple years ago, slipping into the back-row of Pound hall lecture hall. [I swear: if I come to HLS as a senior citizen, I will still sit in the back row: the fear of getting called will never leave me.] Well, on this field trip to my friend's class, I got a glimpse of modern learning: students had done away with spiral notebooks, and almost every lap top I saw in the rows in front of me had split screens - notes from this law class, and then a range of parallel stimulants: one person was trolling through football statistics on ESPN, another was booking their flight home for thanksgiving on Travelocity, and another was adding a friend on Facebook.

What was so incredible about this is that when the students were called on, they managed not to betray that they were moonlighting. You are remarkably good at multitasking. You have developed the modern muscle set - you are first class grazers. I know of what I speak because I am a culprit. You have never seen an NSC official and new mother so dexterous in her ability simultaneously to blackberry and breastfeed. But I promise you that over time this doesn't cut it. Something or someone loses out. No more than a surgeon can operate while tweeting can a public defender do his client justice or a corporate lawyer fend off motions with one ear in, one ear out.

You actually have to reacquaint yourself with concentration. We all do. We should all become, as Henry James prescribed, a person "on whom nothing is lost." Fourth and finally, these are the "Good Ol Days." I don't mean just your law school years, or this gathering with family and friends. I mean every phase of your life stands a great chance, later, of becoming a source of nostalgia and reminiscence -- "the good ol days."

Yet the same events, friendships, routines, challenges that are later fond memories are too rarely savored in the moment. My husband Cass Sunstein has taught me this in a myriad of ways. As we leave the office at night, the fastest path to our car does not take us directly by the front of the White House, but Cass insists we walk up the steps hand in hand, appreciative of the incredible opportunity this President has given us to serve. When we get home at night, we try to count our blessings. Silly as it seems, we run through the ten things we are most thankful for in a given day - half of whom are here today. Who or what is in your top ten?

Going forward, we are all vulnerable - to accidents, personal tragedies, political and economic realities. But the one thing we control is how much of the journey we pause to appreciate. Albert Einstein once said, "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." Here, I'm with Einstein. Freeze this day in amber in your mind because I promise these are the good ol' days.

Harvard Law School, Class of 2010, Thank you so much for allowing me to share your incredible achievement. Remember that this is the only life you have, and you don't get a do-over. Argue well and fair, never forget the majesty of law and the privilege of being annointed its guardian, don't compare your insides to other people's outsides, listen to your gut and know that a small contribution from you can make a giant difference to those who can never get here, be present, and savor every single one of these oh so precious good ol' days. Starting with today.

Best of luck, Class of 2010. We need you.