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BOOK REVIEW: A Problem from Hell - America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power

A Problem from Hell – America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power (Paperback, 656 pages, Flamingo, rrp £10.99, available £7.69)

Genocide is back in the news. Who would have thought?

There are allegations of genocide on Tamils made against the Sri Lankan government. There's the case of the alleged Nazi guard at the Treblinka concentration camp, fighting extradition from the US to Germany. Then, as Yule E noted here the other week, the UK High Court has recently decided not to extradite four men suspected of participation in the Rwandan slaughter. Just a few days before that, as Yule E also mentioned separately, President Obama went all the way to Turkey and managed not to utter the 'g-word' in relation to the mass-killing of the Armenians in the 1915. The Armenian genocide has been long denied, then and now, and just as long ignored. Yet, in Cailfornia, the Governator, big Arnie, has shown none of Obama’s equivocation, in dedicating this week to the remembrance of the Armenian genocide’.

I wonder what Samantha Power (previously reviewed on Belfast and Beyond), some-time foreign policy advisor to Barack Obama, makes of it all. She is one of the world's leading authorities on genocide and won a Pulitzer for this book, a master-work on the subject.

Power's story starts with the Armenian genocide and a tale of revenge taken on one of its perpetrators by a young man who had lost his family in the killings six years previously. Revenge was served cold, in the shape of some rough 'street justice', a revolver bullet to the back of the head of one of the perpetrators. Hard, cold lead taking the place of any court of law, national or international, willing to take on the job. Perhaps a million Armenians had died at the hands of the Turks, yet no law existed at the time to tackle the crime of genocide.

This brilliant and angry book is the story of those few who, since the time of the Armenian slaughter, fought to bring the new crime (and the new word) of 'genocide' onto the international statute books. It is also the story of the many presidents and others who have held and influenced power in the US, who chose to turn a blind eye to the moral and actual law against genocide.

From Wilson to Bush, a consistent line can be drawn between those US presidents who realised, as Power notes, that "no US president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on."

Power painstakingly draws on primary and secondary sources to document genocide against Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Kurds, Rwandans and Bosnians over the last century, and holds to verbal account those in the White House and Pentagon who stood idly by.

It makes for shocking, dreadful, compelling reading.Power makes a 600+ page, pretty convincing case for the prosecution in finding successive US presidents wonting when it has come to standing up against the world's worst crime, because, sadly and predictably, it has never been 'in the American interest' to do anything. Her clear call to action is for the US, as the world's foremost power, to change its habits and, if necessary, to use military might to prevent future genocide.

Should we take this sincere prescription for action at face value? Certainly, it is a fierce and comprehensively-made case. Yet, Power's book was published just before the dirty, deadly debacle of Iraq, where US military intervention has triggered loss of life on a dreadful scale. She did not, but we have that terrible hindsight (indeed, quite a few of us took to the streets with that foresight), when considering the implications of such a contemporary course of armed action.

For instance, Prof William Schabas, head of the Irish Centre for Human Rights and something of an expert on international justice, is one commentator who thinks that the debate on genocide prevention would benefit greatly from less sabre-rattling.

On his blog, he wittily paraphrases the Irish writer Brendan Behan that "there is no human situation so miserable that can’t be made worse by the presence of the US military (Behan said 'by the presence of a policeman'). Sending the US army to prevent genocide seems like killing the patient to cure the illness."

The jury is still out on Obama's thinking about such matters.  It would be great to think that he will face no greater 'genocide test' than that presented by Armenian history books (verdict: fail). Whether or not President Obama will heed the advice of Waterford-born Power remains a matter to be judged by history.

And whatever one's view on the merits or otherwise of American military intervention in times of extreme international crisis, this book must now be viewed as an essential work. We can never forget past genocides and we must always be willing to learn the lessons they teach from the mass-grave. In short, Power's work is a master-class of history, law and politics and is a required read for anyone concerned with the prevention of grave human rights abuse.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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