Eyes wide shut
by Emran Qureshi
Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the age of genocide, Basic Books, New York 2002
The past century is reckoned by many historians to have been a particularly grim and bloody one in the annals of humankind. Samantha Power, a young journalist who covered the Bosnian war for US News and World Report and The Economist, and who is now executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University, undertakes an examination of the genocidal impulse in the 20th century and the largely ignoble responses to it by the United States.
Power begins by calling attention to the Holocaust and the lonely and visionary quest of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew, who, from 1933 to 1948, fought for the enactment of international laws to deal with genocide. Put simply, Hitler could murder every Jew in Germany but, shockingly, violate no international law. In those days, there were no international statutes that dealt with these crimes.
Lemkin, whose family perished at the hands of the Nazis, coined the term ‘genocide’. A linguist and a lawyer, he understood that vocabulary mattered. His word was a hybrid of the Greek derivative for race, ‘geno’, and the Latin derivative for killing, ‘cide’. Bravely walking the corridors of power in New York, Nuremberg, Geneva and Washington, Lemkin proselytized, in an attempt to obtain converts to a new idea, namely, that perpetrators of genocide should be brought to justice.
Because of his lobbying efforts, the third count of the Nuremberg indictments of October, 1945,used that new word. For Lemkin, that wasn't enough. Exhausted, he returned to New York to lobby the United Nations, where he helped prepare the first draft of the UN genocide convention. On 9 December 1948 the UN approved a law banning genocide.
Power tells Lemkin's story, then tracks the genocides of the 20th century in their various shapes and forms, from the Armenian genocide at the bloodstained hands of the Young Turks to the carnage in Rwanda. She ambitiously examines the Holocaust and the genocides in Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. And, against each genocidal moment, she surveys the response of the United States and finds much wanting. In the case of Iraq and its Kurdish minority, it was realpolitik. In Bosnia, a form of pessimistic conservatism congealed, denying that there was a moral imperative to intervene. In all cases, countless lives could have been saved, Power argues, had the United States intervened in a more robust and timely manner.
Her description of Saddam Hussein's treatment of the Kurds is illustrative. In 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq began to slaughter its restive Kurdish minority. Unfortunately for the Kurds, the Americans had tilted toward Iraq against Iran. Thus, when Saddam Hussein used poison mustard gas to decimate the Kurds, there was little protest from the US government. Halabja, the site of one notorious gassing, became known as the Kurdish Hiroshima. Instead of expressing outrage, the US State Department suggested these were unconfirmed allegations. Indeed, at the time, US farm credits were being provided to Saddam Hussein's regime.
It was left to a young US Senate staffer, Peter Galbraith, to agitate and bring the gassing of the Kurds to the media's attention. Power notes that in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, the Kurds were granted a measure of security when a NATO ‘no fly zone’ was declared over northern Iraq, after Saddam Hussein threatened them with slaughter again.
The title of Power's book is derived from an infamous quip made by Warren Christopher, the former US Secretary of State, on whose watch the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda took place. Christopher described Bosnia as ‘the problem from hell’. Between 1992 and 1995, Serb nationalist and Bosnian Croat forces went on a genocidal rampage, killing 200,000 Bosnians and ethnically cleansing another two million. Power describes the response of the Clinton White House as vacillating, ineffectual and spineless. The weak Western response ultimately thrust NATO and the leadership of President Clinton into a spiralling crisis. It was the slaughter, in 1995, of 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, regarded as the worst human rights atrocity in Europe since 1945, that became the trip-wire precipitating NATO air action. More recently, the Dutch government resigned en masse over the failure of its UN peacekeepers to prevent the slaughter in Srebrenica.
In 1994, Rwandan Hutu extremists slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis while UN peacekeepers looked on helplessly. It wasn't entirely unexpected -- a CIA report had warned of large-scale ethnic violence. When confronted with massive evidence of genocide, US State Department officials opposed using the term, as it would cast them in a poor light. Here, too, Power retells the well-known story of Canadian Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, whom she views as a moral hero. As is well known now, Dallaire, upon his return from Rwanda, became more and more consumed by an ‘inner agony’. According to Power, Dallaire's superior, General Maurice Baril, instructed him that he ‘had to abandon’ the ‘Rwanda business’ -- in effect, to stop testifying at tribunals -- or he would be forced out of the Canadian military.
The failure of US policy to confront genocide has been so systemic that Power despairingly writes, ‘the US record is not one of failure. It is one of success. Troubling though it is to acknowledge, the US officials worked the system and it worked.’ Her last chapter is a summary of policy recommendations, outlining the banal and the obvious -- the influence and reach of the United States, the requisite will to act and, finally, the novel suggestion that leaders be held accountable for inaction.
Canadians, reared on a culture of ‘peacekeeping’ and anti-Americanism, should not feel smugly complacent about the US dilemma Power scrutinizes. There are lessons here for Canada. Peacekeeping and its inherent refusal to distinguish between victim and perpetrator is not a suitable response to genocide, as Dallaire learned. Consequently, Canadian peacekeeping is likely to be complicit in future genocides, as it has been in Rwanda and Bosnia.
Raphael Lemkin struggled to give the monstrous crime without a name its proper name. That he succeeded is a testament to the diligence of his efforts and to the efforts of those who have refused to be silent or indifferent. Power argues that governmental policy should resist genocide categorically. However, far too often in this past bloodstained century, official knowledge has been followed by evasive and disgraceful official silence. We allow this to happen at our collective peril.
Samantha Power has written a profoundly important book. She revives enduring and troubling questions about government policy toward genocide. We are in her debt.
This review appeared in National Post (Canada), 11 May 2002