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

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

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.

A table is adorned with flowers, a reminder of her National Magazine Award last month for public-interest reporting. The winning article, published in the Atlantic Monthly in September 2001, argued that the United States basically stepped aside as 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda (www.theatlantic.com/issues/2001/09/power.htm).

A shift in focus

Power points out a copy of the July 12, 1995, Washington Post front page that included her account of the Srebrenica massacre.

She had pressed to have the story run earlier, to highlight the impending threat to Muslims in the region. The fact that it didn't, motivated her to strike out in a different direction that might help influence foreign policy – a fascination since her college days.

Coming to America from Ireland at age 9 with her mother and stepfather, she attended high school in Atlanta. Later, she entered Yale University, wanting to be a sportscaster. "But I happily got sidetracked and consumed by the war in Bosnia," she recalls.

Shortly after graduation, armed with a new computer and the determination to see why innocent people were dying, she flew to the Balkans.

For two and a half years, she wrote as a freelance journalist for a number of national publications. It was frustration with an editor who wanted a Srebrenica story only after the massacre, however, that spurred her to enroll in Harvard Law School to get international law credentials.

Now, she helps oversee a research, teaching, and training program she hopes will "mainstream" discussions of human rights policy questions because they're relevant to American security.

"You can't just lament genocide," she says. "We do so little about violence when it's ongoing that we're often stuck in clean-up mode. We try to understand how you can both look out for security interests and protect the values that are the best long-term guarantees of your security. The vision would be to do for human rights policy what environmental scientists did for environmental policy."

Her goal for her book is to help readers learn to speak out. "Don't be afraid to make moral arguments in a world that speaks principally of interests," she says. "As citizens, make noise."

'This isn't charity work'

These days, she noisily opposes America's decision to renounce formally any involvement in the International Criminal Court, which is designed to prosecute individuals for genocide. "Are we going to sit back and let this happen, or are we going to send letters to the editor, to our congressmen?" she asks. "Take little steps. Pick up the phone. Pick up a pen."

Power chafes at the notion that "human rights is a kind of charity work. After Sept. 11, she says, there's ripeness – the potential to mobilize a political constituency, to understand the long-term consequences of allowing genocide.

"Instead of marginalizing upstanders as soft and irrational," she says, "we have to send a message that there will be a political price to be paid for looking the other way. Unless regular people and not just human rights people start to identify with upstanders, we'll always be saying 'never again.' "

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