Interviews March 2002

Never Again Again

Never Again Again

Samantha Power, the author of "A Problem From Hell," explores why America—the home of Holocaust awareness—did all but nothing to stop the genocides of the twentieth century

In many of the cases you study—Rwanda, Bosnia, and Iraq—there were tortuous debates over whether the killings in fact constituted genocide. U.S. officials figured that if they didn't call it genocide, then they wouldn't be forced to act to stop it. But does it really matter whether these atrocities were classed as genocide? We seem to be able to squirm out of responding even in cases where genocide is incredibly clear cut. Can the debate over the word distract countries from their moral obligation to act?

I think so, though there is utility to having a category of crime called "genocide." The American people, for instance, are much more in favor of military intervention to stop genocide than to stop other forms of human-rights abuse, so I understand why advocates spend so much time trying to generate a finding of genocide. The Genocide Convention obliges some sort of response to prevent or to suppress genocide. But for the most part I'm not sure the creation of the ban has been so constructive. Intelligence on genocidal crimes is always present, but it's always blurry enough that if you make an absolute certainty over whether genocide is underway the precondition for acting, you are putting the bar in a place where it's going to be too easy for risk-averse policymakers to continue to move it upwards. What I would suggest is that you'd be better off scaling the amount of U.S., Western, and international engagement to atrocities, and as they ramp up, so too should outside concern and response. If it's only libraries and synagogues that are being burnt, then that doesn't mean that you don't do anything—that means that you start to pay attention. You say it looks like a precursor to something very dangerous and you deploy additional intelligence assets. Now, you don't have an unlimited number of resources so you deploy cautiously, but there's something in your mind saying, "Uh-oh." You don't create an all or nothing scenario meaning you'll only respond if sure-fire genocide is going on. Nor do you say that the possible responses are to send in the Marines or to do nothing. In a sense you just watch and respond as things escalate on the ground, and the worse it gets the more you do. We don't do it that way. We wait until genocide is happening, and then maybe if we're lucky we get a high-level debate about whether it is genocide. But we haven't gotten high-level attention to stopping the atrocities.

In an article on artificial societies in the April Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch argues that there seems to be a kind of tipping point when it comes to genocide—ethnic groups will be living together for years with a great deal of tension, and suddenly that tension will spill over into genocidal violence. Are there certain "tipping points" for genocide that you've identified in your research? What things should countries be looking for so they can intervene before a genocide begins?

Well, the first place to begin looking is spots where ethnic violence has taken place and where democracy is either fragile and/or transitional or where it's nonexistent. Usually in more established democracies, even if there is a history of violence, which there usually is, ethnic groups have the capacity to give vent to their grievances, and that's its own kind of salve. If they feel acknowledged by a democratic process, they don't feel shut out. Often, the places where democracy is transitional are more vulnerable than where it's nonexistent, because in a sense what you have is people rising up and claiming rights that have often been denied them. That stirring of fear among more established groups can cycle very, very quickly into an invocation of past violence.

I would also keep an eye on the media and look at the extent to which a country is moving from merely a state of tension to one of ethnic polarization, where in a sense the media outlets are asking people to take sides. And then when you hear about the compilation of lists and things like that, that's a sign that something evil is planned. It may be a round-up or it may be murder. Genocide is often preceded by little massacres. You know, kill a hundred people here, fifty there, so I'd be watching for these kinds of killings. For instance, the Hindu-Muslim violence now could turn into something even more dangerous. Again, to make the occurrence of genocide your standard for concern would be a mistake. The things that I've described should be enough to generate mid- to high-level policy attention.

That kind of violence could even be a test to see what sort of response they get from the rest of the world.

Exactly, that's what massacres are. They're trial balloons. I think in so many ways they are meant for external consumption, just to see how the outside world will respond. And when individuals who are members of the perpetrator group, or what becomes the perpetrator group, see that there's no harsh response, it really undermines the moderates in a society. If you're a member of the group, you realize basically it's "kill or be killed." There's no cost to killing and there's great fear of standing back. Outside powers really have to do more to alter that calculus.

What do you think of the way the Milosevic trial is playing out? I have mixed feelings about it. I think it's great that he's there. But I'm surprised at some of the credulity of people, their capacity to be charmed by him. He's a very smart, very funny man. But he is not a charming person. When you wreak that much havoc, one has to put a check on one's propensity to see the good in people. I wish that people in the Balkans were more engaged with the proceedings. I think the trial is helping attract attention to the courts and hopefully when they see that Milosevic gets to ask whatever questions he wants to, people in Serbia will see it's not a vehicle for anti-Serb hatred.

What do you think it says for the future of the international tribunals?

I think it shows how important having these courts actually is, not just because it helps establish individual responsibility, which it does—that is, to get away from collective guilt, you don't blame all the Serb people, you actually blame just a discrete number of individuals who were responsible—but also because it incapacitates people who are noxious and who are incredibly detrimental to international stability, who are the fosterers of hate and of militarization of the very kind we are now combating in the war on terrorism. I think these are great places to stick people who do terrible things and who would never be brought to justice at home. That should be the lesson. But I'm not sure it's the lesson that's being learned.

Aside from the courts, are there other things that can be done to force countries to respond to genocide? How can we keep the political calculus from winning out as it seems to have done?

You can hope for enlightened leadership, but I wouldn't hope for too long. Rather than ensuring that the political calculus doesn't win out, perhaps the better strategy is to figure out how we can play into the political calculus and alter the outcome. How can we ensure the next time around that it doesn't take Bob Dole three and a half years to lift an arms embargo in the Senate? How can we get more senators and congresspeople out into the world, get them their passports if they don't have passports, and get them encountering the very people whose lives they are affecting by the policy they make?

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