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A call to nations to prevent genocide

Author of 'A Problem From Hell' says opposing mass violence wherever it occurs is a matter of national security

By Bill KirtzSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 20, 2002


Is genocide a "problem from hell" that statesmen can lament, but never stop?

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Samantha Power thinks not. She deems fighting murderous regimes both moral and – after Sept. 11 – vital to America's national security. If "bystanders" don't become "upstanders" who oppose genocide wherever it occurs, she warns, terrorism will continue to spread.

The former foreign correspondent, and outgoing executive director of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, says the story of "bystanders and upstanders is the story of the century."

But, she adds, "it is a story ultimately of bystanding. No state has ever made stopping genocide a priority."

Power's new book is "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," (Basic Books). It takes its title from a description by former Secretary of State Warren Christopher of 1995 Serb massacres of Bosnian Muslims in the "safe area" of Srebrenica. Aimed at showing that the US could do nothing to stop the slaughter, his words helped trigger Ms. Power's exhaustive investigation of mass murder throughout the century.

She uses hundreds of interviews and thousands of pages of newly declassified policy papers to document America's indifference or failure of imagination when faced with mass killing – from the 1915 Turkish slaughter of its Armenian population to the 1994 Rwandan extermination of Tutsis.

Amid the bureaucrats who looked away and the policymakers who decided that America could isolate itself from genocide, Power found some heroes – upstanders like Raphael Lemkin.

A Polish lawyer repeatedly dismissed as an alarmist and fanatic, Lemkin in 1944 coined the term "genocide," and a few years later helped pressure the newly established United Nations into creating a convention on preventing and punishing that crime. A portrait of him hangs on the wall in Power's office.

"Thanks to upstanders like Lemkin," says Power, "you see the ball being moved down the field ever so slowly during the course of the century so that [stopping genocide] really is a viable possibility. We have the power and just need to muster the will to do something about it."

Faulty logic

Power says that a more passive approach is beneficial to no one. "We can't look back in any case [to see] that short-term alliances we made with genocidal regimes, or bystanding, was good for us. The very logic of [those] decisions was thrown on its head by history."

As an example, she cites American policy in Bosnia. "We thought, 'What difference does it make if Serbs kill Bosnian Muslims? We don't have a dog in the fight.' Well, Osama bin Laden got in there when we let the Muslims die and noxious elements like Al Qaeda will get into [other] places like this if we turn our back on them. Bin Laden traveled in the 1990s on a Bosnian passport, and that would not have happened had we rescued the Bos-nian Muslims from genocide."

Sitting in her sunny office overlooking Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Power squeezes in a chat between a cross-country book tour and a human rights conference in Budapest. Her bookcases bulge with biographies of Martin Luther King Jr.and Eleanor Roosevelt; her walls feature posters celebrating Balkans freedom movements.