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Naming Genocide


Rafael Lemkin, the hero of Samantha Power’s new book, spent his life fighting against the systematic destruction of national, ethnic, racial or religious groups. The word he invented in 1944 – just in time for its use at the Nuremberg Trials — was “genocide.” Or, as Lemkin, who lost forty-nine members of his family in the Holocaust, preferred it: “Genocide,” with a capital G.

Lemkin believed that naming the crime of genocide was a first step, albeit a crucial one, toward making the world commit to stopping the practice. A extremely persistent, even relentless advocate, Lemkin was determined to establish genocide as an international crime, one that all countries were bound to prevent.

The Genocide Convention, passed by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, represents the world’s stated commitment to Lemkin’s ideal. In its preamble, the convention emphasizes the need for international cooperation to free humanity of the “odious scourge” of genocide. Giving legal effect to this duty, the terms of the treaty require each of its state-parties to prevent genocide and punish the crime’s perpetrators.

In A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power describes how the world has failed to uphold these responsibilities. Focusing on the conduct of the United States, in particular, Power relates a number of case examples in which massive numbers of people were killed without seeming to rouse the country’s conscience. Time and again, not only did the United States fail to intervene to stop the slaughter, but officials ignored warning signs of genocide, exaggerated the dangers of confronting the situation, and minimized proof of the crime.

A Word Is a Word Is a Word

Early on in her book, Power describes Rafael Lemkin’s almost naive belief in the power of words. While the Holocaust taught others the utter impossibility of communicating certain experiences via language, Lemkin believed that the right term could be a deeply powerful tool. In crafting the word genocide, he aimed to achieve a precise semantic meaning, but one that communicated a larger sense of moral indignation.

In a painful irony, Lemkin’s fixation on the word genocide was mirrored, in later years, by U.S. officials’ strenuous efforts to avoid the term. Cognizant of the legal and moral obligation to confront genocide wherever it occurs, they opted to ignore genocide’s occurrence. By this reasoning, if the word genocide is never used – and, therefore, the existence of genocide is never acknowledged – the obligation to take effective action does not attach.

Accordingly — and in pointed contrast to the Bush administration’s current rhetoric — the U.S. government played down Saddam Hussein’s brutal suppression of Iraq’s Kurdish minority in the late 1980s. Concerned with preserving good relations with Iraq (which it appreciated as an enemy of Iran), State Department officials justified their lack of outrage by misreading the terms of the Genocide Convention.

While making a few relatively timid criticisms of Iraq’s reliance on chemical weapons, they opposed draft sanctions legislation that employed the term genocide. As one official later explained, “you have to use the term ‘genocide’ very carefully.”

The U.S. government’s inordinately “careful” use of the term culminated in the grotesque verbal contortions of Clinton administration officials during the 1994 slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda. Although, as Power points out, the case for genocide in Rwanda “was the most straightforward since the Holocaust,” the Clinton administration was anxious not to have to intervene to stop the killings – and thus, again, desperate to avoid naming the crime.

One of the book’s most compelling passages is Power’s lucid and unforgiving account of the government’s refusal to acknowledge the obvious: that the Rwandan violence amounted to genocide. The story is an ugly one. At the end of April 1994, a month in which hundreds of thousands of Tutsis had been slaughtered, the United States insisted on excluding the word genocide from a U.N. Security Council statement on the violence. Later, when the evidence of genocide was indisputable, the State Department would acknowledged that “acts of genocide” had occurred, but remained unwilling, until well on in the slaughter, to recognize the existence of genocide itself.

Power reserves especial contempt for President Clinton himself, who never even thought it necessary to convene his top policy advisors to discuss the Rwandan violence. Avoiding action and dodging responsibility during both the Rwandan and the Bosnia crises, Clinton seemed more preoccupied with opinion polls than with the death of thousands.

Armenians, Jews, Kurds and . . .

But not all cases of genocide are as clear as in Rwanda. Indeed, there is a good deal of disagreement and debate over which mass slaughters of the twentieth century should properly be condemned as genocide. Power does an excellent job of conveying what is at stake in such arguments – the political advantages and disadvantages of employing the label of genocide — but she is less effective in analyzing the term’s application to specific cases.

Power nowhere explicitly lists the twentieth century’s genocides. Instead of attempting an exhaustive (and necessarily controversial) accounting, she details seven case studies, including the Turkish murder of Armenians, the Nazi Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge terror in Cambodia, the repression of Kurds in Iraq, the slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda, and the “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims in Bosnia.

Power does not label Kosovo, the last case described in the book, as an instance of genocide. She does, nonetheless, defend the statements of public officials, journalists and others whose eagerness to embrace the term mirrored their desire to take the moral high ground in justifying the bombing of Serbia.

One could question the inclusion or omission of other cases as well, like Cambodia (which arguably falls outside of the terms of the Genocide Convention, at least in large part), or Guatemala. Characterized as a genocide by the country’s U.N.-sponsored truth commission, Guatemala’s long civil war is not even mentioned in Power’s book. Because the responsibility of the U.S. government is so direct in the Guatemalan case, it would provide an illuminating counterpoint to the story, illustrated by Power’s case studies, of toleration of genocide.

Individual Responsibility

Power ends her book with an assessment of the ongoing trials of alleged perpetrators of genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda, and of the possible trials of other human rights criminals. Here, she examines individual responsibility for atrocities, explaining the potential of genocide prosecutions to deter future crimes, establish a historical record, and assuage feelings of collective guilt.

Power’s belief in individual responsibility extends beyond the courtroom. Indeed, a central message of the book is that all of us – government leaders, military officers, journalists and ordinary citizens – bear responsibility for our decisions, and that includes the decision not to act. This book, in keeping with that message, is Power’s own effort to hold people to account: to praise the heroes, to shame the perpetrators and their allies, and to goad the guilty bystanders into action.

JOANNE MARINER is a human rights attorney. She lives in New York.


JOANNE MARINER is a human rights lawyer living in New York and Paris.

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