Wednesday, February 23, 2011

How not to Stop Genocide

A few years back Samantha Power wrote an excellent book titled A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. A quick summary of the book would go like this. After WW2 Rephael Lemkin managed to convince the brand new United Nations to define Genocide, and to commit to take action against it. Ironically, the result was not an international willingness to stop genocide, but rather the opposite: a firm international determination never to recognize an event as genocide, not matter how horrible, since such recognition would require intervention, and no-one wants to intervene when faraway folks are being massacred (unless of course there's an obvious and immediate set of interests that do recommend intervention, but in that case the intervention is because of the interests, not the slaughter). Having set up the framework, Power then preceded to show how whichever American administration happened to be in power at the time of a genocide did everything in its power, including bending over backwards, not to recognize it as a genocide, so as not to have to intervene.

And the Americans, as a general rule, were better than anyone else, because they sometimes sort of did eventually do something, as in the Balkans in 1999 after years of European inaction. No-one ever intervened in the Congo, of course, which has had the worst slaughter anywhere in the world since the 1940s. No one had enough interests to care.

David Rieff has a thoughtful (if rather sardonic) article about a new American attempt to think through the issue of genocide prevention. He focuses on the United States Institute for Peace’s task force on genocide, chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen - two people, incidentally, who have track records of failing to deal with genocide in real time, in the days when they were powerful. Although a bit long, the article is worth the time it takes to read. The central insight I came away with is that there's a lot of chatter about multinational efforts, international law, and other fine words, but that the dynamic Samantha Power described is still with us and not about to change anytime soon. (I expect Rieff and Power may not be in the same political camp in American politics, but they're saying similar things).

Jackson Diehl, over at the Washington Post, asks why the Obama administration isn't doing much and certainly isn't being effective as governing Libyans kill civilians in the hundreds. Whats happening in Libya (at least so far) is not genocide, but it is mass murder. Diehl seems to understand the cynical aspects of intervention, which is why he asks what are the American interests that are informing the administration's policy, if any.

Seen from the perspective of a Jew, born after the Holocaust, and an Israeli, this all need not be a moral issue. Foreign countries generally don't intervene when large-scale violence happens, and only rarely do they do anything effective. This isn't because of an innate hatred of Libyans, Bosnians, Congolese, Cambodians and so on. It's because all those folks and many others are, well, ultimately not worth the effort. That's the way of the world. Only those who can take care of themselves will be taken care of.

Which is one reason among many why the endless international chatter and preaching about how Israel (or anyone else) must do this that or the other because the chatterers say so, must be resolutely shut out, not listened to, and never ever taken seriously.


Avi from Jerusalem said...

This was a classic on the Americans squirming not to define genocide, genocide back in the 1990s. the journalist in question, Alan Elsner is an old friend.

Excerpt from Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 2001

Christine Shelly, a State Department spokesperson, had long been charged with publicly articulating the U.S. position on whether events in Rwanda counted as genocide. For two months she had avoided the term, and as her June 10 exchange with the Reuters correspondent Alan Elsner reveals, her semantic dance continued.

Elsner: How would you describe the events taking place in Rwanda?

Shelly: Based on the evidence we have seen from observations on the ground, we have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred in Rwanda.

Elsner: What's the difference between "acts of genocide" and "genocide"?

Shelly: Well, I think ... as you know, there's a legal definition of this ... clearly not all of the killings that have taken place in Rwanda are killings to which you might apply that label ... But as to the distinctions between the words, we're trying to call what we have seen so far as best as we can; and based, again, on the evidence, we have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred.

Elsner: How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?

Shelly: Alan, that's just not a question that I'm in a position to answer.

The same day, in Istanbul, Warren Christopher, by then under severe internal and external pressure, relented: "If there is any particular magic in calling it genocide, I have no hesitancy in saying that."

Anonymous said...

Interesting article. However, I think the Kosovo War of 1999 would qualify as preventing a genocide. This occurred while Albright and Cohen were in office - so the charge "of failing to deal with genocide in real time, in the days when they were powerful," wouldn't apply.

I totally agree with your conclusion, that a group has to take of itself.

Somewhat related, Andy Borowitz has a clever satire piece today "State Department Offers Support ‘to Whoever Winds Up Winning’
Promises ‘Strongest Possible Monitoring of Events from Afar’ "


Barry Meislin said...

Ah yes, the Samantha Power whose "thinking outside the box" for cutting that Gordian Knot of I-P peace would first emasculate Israel and then pledge to protect Israel and the newly established Palestinian State from one another another by planting an American deterrent force between them.

What could possibly go wrong? And just think of those huge peace dividends!!

A deep thinker, our Samantha. Bold. Solutions oriented. Refreshingly counter-intuitive....

....Anything else?

Yaacov said...

Nycerbarb -

The Kosovo story in 1999 might indeed count - but it came after many years of inactivity, including by America, in the face of carnage in other parts of the disintegrating Yugoslavia. So Albright and Cohen earned that quip of mine.

Barry Meislin said...

Seen from the perspective of a Jew, born after the Holocaust, and an Israeli, this all....

From my perspective, I think they're trying to tell us something. Really, desperately trying to tell us something

Kind of what the Sudanese were trying to tell us with regard to whats been happening in Darfur.

Or what's been happening in the streets of Iran. (Or what happened in Hama).

They're trying to tell us something.

They're trying to help us.

What are they trying to tell us?

That if they COULD do to the Jews (and anyone allied with them) in Israel what they've been doing to the people of Darfur, they WOULD.

That if they COULD do to the Jews (and anyone allied with them) in Israel what they've been doing to their own Libyan (or Iranian or Syrian, etc.), then they WOULD.

They can't yet (fortunately or unfortunately---according to one's political or religious or ideological views).

Not yet.

But they are, indisputably, trying to help us.

Will we agree to be helped?

Barry Meislin said...


"...what they've been doing to their own Libyan (or Iranian or Syrian, etc.), then..."

should be:

"...what they've been doing to their own Libyan (or Iranian or Syrian, etc.) people, then..."

NormanF said...

Israelis should be under no illusions the world will come to the Jews' rescue if G-d forbid, the day ever comes that Israel can no longer take care of itself. Weak peoples are left to die - this is the way of the world.

Silke said...

I've heard Samantha Power in several lengthy podcast when she pushed her book on that UN-guy who got killed in Irak. I labelled her not to be trusted flighty given to sycophancy and romantics but I envy her most for her luxurious shock of hair.

I know her book on genocide is lauded all over the place and now by Yaacov - whom am I to trust my own ears, Barry's facts or all the rest of the world?

I suspected at the time that that genocide book of hers appeals to our Christian desire of feeling guilty, after all we are supposed to be born with inherited guilt (don't ask me, it is beyond me), but if Yaacov says it also then why????

Silke said...

I started reading David Rieff's columns at the TNR after the Marmara -

it is hard to make out where he stands. I'd bet definitely to the left but with a functioning sense of reality.

When he promoted his book on his mother Susan Sontag he sounded like he was her son but at the TNR he sounds more like Orwell did about socialism. I work hard at finding an idea so that it could work but warn of all nutters who try without having found the magic ring.

My current favourite on the subject is John Gray btw i.e. somebody humble enough to admit that what one can do is often precious little, which btw in the case of Israel I just don't buy. I think the stupidity with which we act towards her is not only criminal towards her but also towards our very egotistic interests.

Unknown said...

I have to point out, in regards to the US government's inaction regarding Libya, that, quite frankly, coming out directly in opposition to Qaddafi would have been outright murder. Not of Libyans, but of the US citizens and diplomatic staff in country. Only today did ferrys arrive to evacuate US personnel.

Remember that not that long ago, Qaddafi essentially kidnapped Swiss citizens in response to his son's arrest in Switzerland. The man is not only manipulative, but essentially insane. He would think nothing of ordering the deaths of American personnel in response to vocal US support or actions in favor of the protesters. He continually denied airspace access to US planes to evacuate our diplomatic staff and citiznes, in a move that I suspect was engineered to prolong his window of threatening US citizens. To have tried anything prior to evacuating our staff would have shown a callous disregard for US civil servant's lives. I find the general populace's omission of that in their thinking to be appalling, seeing as I am a State Department brat, and the lives and work of diplomats are near and dear to my heart.

Discussion of being soft or not is entirely premature, because until the US can be certain no US citizens (including tourists and diplomatic personnel) will be directly harmed by its actions, it won't do anything. The first and foremost concern of the US government in response to a disaster is the lives of US citizens. In response to the Haiti earthquake, the 2004 tsunami, the Egypt protests, the Tunisian protests, the unrest in Cote D'Ivoire, the list goes on and on. Once they are out of the country, then such discussions regarding the particular failings (or not) of the US government can begin in earnest.

AKUS said...

The word "genocide" was created to cover the case of a systematic effort to completely exterminate a specific national, ethnic, or religious group, specifically the Jews in the Holocaust.

While it can be accurately applied to certain other cases - the Armenian massacre, the the Rwandan massacre, Darfur - its used has for other smaller, though horrific, actions has made it lose much of its value as a description.

So, for example, we are hearing on the news Libyans claiming that Gaddafi is committing genocide against his people when in fact, of course, he is responsible of killing hundreds and maybe even one or two thousands, but is not systematically trying to wipe out the entire Libyan people.

Our dear friend Saeb Erekat was never hesitant about using the word either every time he and his pals stirred up Israel enough to bring down some heavy retribution, but as is often noted, the Palestinians represent one of the fasted growing groups on the planet, so "genocide" hardly applies.

Barry Meislin said...

...but is not systematically trying to wipe out the entire Libyan people.

Well that remains to be seen.

They have severely disappointed him and so may have to pay the price of letting their leader down.

Yaacov said...

Schmeelkjp -

You're right. And that was precisely my point, and also essentially what the two scholars said: interests trump morality, so don't expect anyone to come to anyone's aid unless they've got their own interest in doing so, and since interests can change, in the long run each nation can trust only itself.