Selected Longer Reviews

A Problem from Hell: America and the age of genocide

By Power, Samantha

Basic Books, New York , 2002,
Shelf mark: 327.6'63'09

Look shocked but look away by Noel Malcolm Samantha Power, ‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide, Flamingo, 620 pp., £9.99 If insecticide kills insects, and infanticide means the murder of small children, what is the meaning of ‘genocide’? The word ‘genos’ is Greek for ‘race’; so it looks as if genocide should mean exterminating an entire racial group. Many people, even without the benefit of a classical education, jump to that conclusion, and react indignantly when they hear the ‘g’ word used to describe mere large-scale ethnic cleansing or sporadic mass murder. But they are wrong. This is a word with a very unusual history. Unlike most words, it was deliberately invented and, soon after its invention, enshrined in law. The inventor was Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish intellectual who had escaped from Nazi-occupied Poland and travelled to America, where he pursued his twin passions of philology and international law. Lemkin spent much of the war trying to get the US authorities to understand the enormity of what was happening to European Jewry. He compiled a chilling dossier of Nazi decrees, which he published, with a legal commentary, in 1944. And in this book (Axis Rule in Occupied Europe) he presented, for the first time, the new word he had coined. In such a context, the word might well have been intended to mean the extermination of an entire race. But that is not the meaning Lemkin gave it. Long before the war, he had already tried to draft a treaty outlawing the destruction of national cultures and the forcible assimilation of national groups; such offences as these were also meant to be covered by his new word, ‘genocide’. And when his term was legally defined by the UN Genocide Convention in 1948, it covered a whole range of actions: ‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’ might include, for example, ‘causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group’. Portrait of Lemkin Samantha Power paints a fascinating portrait of Lemkin in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell. She describes the heroic (and occasionally comic) monomania of his later years, as he turned himself into a one-man international lobbying organization in the UN, trying to get the Convention ratified by the requisite number of countries. She also tells the story of another quixotic individual, Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin, who vowed in 1967 to carry on Lemkin’s campaign, and made daily speeches on the subject thereafter - 3,211 of them - until the Senate finally agreed to ratify the Genocide Convention. Yet all this is just the curtain-raiser to the main body of this substantial and highly impressive work, which surveys the reactions of successive US governments to a series of genocides and attempted genocides in the latter part of the 20th century: first Cambodia (where ethnic and religious minorities, as well as ‘class enemies’, were singled out for slaughter), then Iraq (the Kurds), then Bosnia, Rwanda and (arguably) Kosovo. The question she finds herself asking, again and again, is this: why, when the concept of genocide had become prominently fixed in international law, when information about events in remote parts of the world was more available than ever before, and when the US was indisputably the most powerful state in the world, was so little done, so late, by American governments? But this is not, it should be emphasized, a general treatise on ‘humanitarian intervention’. Power keeps her focus firmly on the issue of genocide - the extreme case which all signatories of the Convention (and that included the US after 1988) were obliged to take action to prevent or stop. Avoiding the ‘g’ word One small but significant part of the answer is precisely the fact that the Genocide Convention carried with it such obligations. As a result, American officials tried desperately hard to avoid using the ‘g’ word. Half-way through the Rwandan genocide, in which 800,000 people were murdered, a confidential US government memo warned: ‘Be careful. Legal at State (ie the legal adviser at the State Department) was worried about this - Genocide finding could commit the US Government to actually "do something".’ Behind the refusal to use the word, there often lay a refusal to believe the facts. Perversely, the grossness of the grossest crimes becomes almost its own alibi: while the odd atrocity in the heat of war is believable, systematic mass-murder is so hard to comprehend that it can sound like fiction. And there are always the ‘useful idiots’ who will do the murderers’ propaganda for them on a voluntary basis: the Leftists who praised the progressive social policies of the Khmer Rouge, those (of Left and Right) who insisted that the Bosnian Muslims were merely shelling themselves, or those who denied the existence of mass graves in Kosovo. Samantha Power analyses the reactions of American officialdom, and finds the same syndromes recurring each time. First the officials argue that any attempt to stop the killings will be futile; then they argue that it will be counter-productive. The diplomats, naturally enough, always prefer diplomacy, which means treating the murderers with respect and constantly trying to split the difference between them and their victims. The US Ambassador to Iraq in the 1980s, April Glaspie (who praised Saddam Hussein’s ‘remarkably moderate and mollifying mode of presentation’ on the subject of gassed Kurds), does not come well out of this story. And yet, however badly the American politicians and diplomats may have performed, they are trumped again and again by the officials of the United Nations. It was the UN, not the US, that refused to request NATO air strikes against the Serb forces advancing on Srebrenica; and when that town had fallen, and 7,000 of its men and boys were being led away and machine-gunned, it was the UN Secretary General who said: ‘No, I don’t believe that this represents a failure.’ Samantha Power thinks that a proper use of air power could have saved Srebrenica. She also argues convincingly that just a few thousand extra US troops in Rwanda could have saved tens of thousands of lives. But she is not making a case for automatic military intervention in all such cases. As she points out, there is a whole spectrum of measures that Western governments can take, from denunciation and trade sanctions all the way to invasion: the Rwandan radio station which whipped up the killing frenzy, for example, could have been silenced by airborne jamming. Abstract arguments for or against ‘interventionism’ are, in other words, arguments on a false basis. Governments act and interact in innumerable different ways; even the effective use of words can be an intervention that influences behaviour. Whenever we look back at what happened in the concentration camps and the killing fields, most of us wish that we had done more - while knowing full well that we could not have done everything. The ‘all or nothing’ argument favours, in the end, only those who preferred to do nothing. This review appeared in The Sunday Telegraph, 20 July 2003

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