love letters


Interview with Samantha Power, October 19, 2005.


In making Uganda Rising, it was a huge pleasure to speak with Samantha Power. Power won the Pulitzer Prize for A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, a powerful, illuminating book that the New York Times Book Review called “A vivid and gripping work of American history…”

Samantha’s breadth of knowledge on the subject seemed to me to be rooted not only in her relentless research and forceful prose but in an innate sense of the potential of individual will. This begins right at the beginning, from Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word genocide, to so many others who upon becoming aware of atrocities, could not and would not stop until notice was taken.

I have kept that thought with me since the interview.

Samantha spent 2006 working as a foreign policy expert in the office of U.S. Senator Bharak Obama. She was also the founding executive director of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, and has suffered through many years of loss (save 2004) as a big fan of the Boston Red Sox.

I, for the record, loved the Big Red machine in my childhood (not communism, the Cincinatti Reds)—who won that thrilling World Series against the Red Sox in 1975, Carlton Fisks’ legendary homer in game six notwithstanding.

*It should be noted that this interview has not yet been cleared for accuracy by Samantha. That said, it was reproduced with painstaking care, and I hope you find Samantha's knowledge as inspiring and informative as we did—and I also hope you find the footnotes useful.


Pete McCormack: In the film [Uganda Rising], we say of Northern Uganda: “This isn’t the 100 days in Rwanda, this is not the gas chambers in Germany and Poland, of course. But could this be genocide?” The statement is actually leading towards your expertise, and why we wanted to interview you. What exactly is the definition of genocide, and what is the history of the word?

Samantha Power: The convention defines genocide as a systematic attempt to destroy, in whole or in substantial part, a national ethnic or religious group, as such. So the idea there is that you target a group, not because of anything the individual members of the group have done but simply because they are members of some undesirable clan—religious, national, ethnic.

The language of destruction was chosen very self-consciously back in 1945, ‘46, ‘47, when the treaty was being negotiated, because there was a real awareness that if you used the language of extermination and made the Holocaust the standard by which future genocides were measured, that you’d never get action before it was too late. That ultimately you would have to wait for a showing of proof that a group was being completely biologically wiped out before anybody would act.

The idea was to create a slightly more expansive category so that you could actually see destruction or an objective of wiping out a group, sometimes but not necessarily biologically, but also in other ways. And then the world community would somehow act earlier. But it wasn’t meant to be a catch-all phrase, either, of just really, really bad things happening to ethnic groups or religious groups.

The connotation was that it would involve killing, ethnic cleansing, forced sterilization of parents to prevent future biological existence.

The authors of the convention felt that the specificity of this definition would actually evolve with time, that it would get settled in a court of law, that you would have something like an international criminal court looking at the facts of Northern Uganda, looking at the facts of Darfur, looking at the facts of a Rwanda, in real time, and determining where ethnic cleansing gave way to genocide.

In the United States, we have this famous Bill of Rights that’s an inspiration to people all over the world, and one of the things in the Bill of Rights is that “…congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.” This phrase, or this clause or prohibition, is actually kind of meaningless. I mean, it’s the most important document in the United States but it is largely meaningless.

You could say that it protects shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre. I could say it protects pornography. We could disagree but it would just be a clause lying on a piece of paper.

But because the Supreme Court of this country got involved applying that law to real cases, we now know what freedom of speech means, you know, pretty much. We have much more specificity.

And that was really the model that people had in mind with genocide. You’d have a group of people that would take real cases and then sharpen this definition and then help us in a political context, not in a legal context, to know when we were talking about this crime atop the hierarchy of the horribles.

But for 50 years, of course, there was no court.  We do now have the beginnings of court decisions that are telling us whether, for instance, mass rape can be a form of genocide; telling us whether, if you kill only the men, and not the women and the children, can that be an act of genocide? These are decisions we’ve just received and that’s a half a century after this convention was written.

P: Trying to definitively describe Northern Uganda’s situation has been difficult for us with the film, to say the least. Can there be such a thing as, say, a genocide of attrition? Or a genocide by neglect—in other words, over time, because certain policies have become both institutionalized and neglected—and is that any different?

S: I mean, there is no truth on this matter of what is a genocide. In my view, just from having spent a lot of time with the authors of the genocide convention—not in real life but with their papers and with their thoughts—they seemed to very much have in mind a deliberate systematic attempt, with a wilful, self-conscious intent, to wipe out a group.

When you see policies that have disparate impact on one group versus another group, that’s awful and it should be stopped, and the disparate impact should be remedied. But whether from that disparate impact you can work backwards to an intent to destroy a group seems to me could be a bit of a stretch.

I mean, again, it depends on the facts of a particular case but I think the thing to look for is: what is a government, what is a rebel movement, what is the perpetrator up to? What is their objective? If their objective is to make money and their way of making money is to put policies in place that have a very negative effect on a particular group but they just assumed the group thrived, they are focusing on something else. Then that probably doesn’t meet a standard of intent.

What we want to do is develop institutions that will settle these questions, which are always going to be controverted. What we need is resolution so that we’re not having this debate.

P: That is what Mahmood Mamdani1spoke of as well.

S: Yeah. It’s such a waste of time.

Reasonable people will often disagree about where ethnic cleansing ends and genocide begins. Very cynical and selfish people will also disagree—that is, they will avoid the use of the word because they want to pursue their national interests and so on.

But given that reasonable people can disagree about just where that line is, we really need to put in place institutions that settle the question—or we need to bracket the question altogether until after the fact.

Because one of the things we’ve seen with Darfur and the massive killing, rape and ethnic cleansing that has gone on there is that policy makers have spent almost as much time on whether the word genocide should be applied to the horrors as they have debating which tools should be applied to stop the horrors. That’s very convenient, actually, it turns out, for governments.

So this word was meant to be this mobilizing, stigmatizing kind of force of nature. It was an amazing, radical, interesting idea.2 But the very stigma associated with the word has generated so much white noise around semantics that I think it is actually quite hard to argue that the word itself, or use of the word, has been a political mobilizer of a constructive sort.

Of course there may be occasions when it has been.

Part of the challenge is you never know. We don’t in fact know whether the Sudanese government, being told it was committing genocide, is now much more self-conscious about what it’s doing and has reigned in at least some of the horrors it was perpetrating—we’ll never know what was prevented by the use of the term.

But we do know that a lot of time in governments has been devoted to legal analysis and not policy analysis and not military analysis. So it does seem to be that there is something of a trade off.

P: It seems the word can be used almost as a diversionary tactic that delays action.

S: It does. I mean, it’s an alibi too. The word genocide was meant to be a trigger for subsequent action. What you see in the wake of Rwanda—because there is so much of a debate about, “Is it genocide, is it not genocide…?”—is [governments] can’t be seen to be dancing away from the term. But what you see is that the actual use of the term can become a substitute for action, rather than a trigger.

That, I think, is what the US government did in the context of Darfur. It used the word genocide in September of 2004 and a lot of the advocacy that was picking up steam and a lot of the pressure to send a meaningful protection force into Sudan was diffused because it was like, ‘Wow, they used the word genocide.’

And it was literally, I think, six months before another policy initiative came out of Washington.

It was as if, ‘Okay, we checked that box. What more do you want? We used the word.’

P: That’s interesting. In some ways it seems with use of the term genocide, one almost learns more about the nature of state power, state interests and politics than what is actually going on with the genocide, or what can be done about it. Is that accurate?

S: Yeah. Although, you know, the US government has used the word genocide in a couple instances: the first was in the war in Kosovo, saying that there were indicators of genocide—or that the NATO intervention there was aimed at preventing genocide. And people criticized this and said, ‘How could you not use the word in Rwanda and then use the word in Kosovo?’

Well, the answer is that you’re at war in Kosovo and you’re looking to justify what you’re doing—and you wanted to avoid Africa and so you didn’t use the word there. While I think there is some truth in that, I also think it exaggerates the degree of sophistication in governments, often, in terms of its terminology.

It was entirely conceivable that Slobodan Milosevic would have massacred huge numbers of Albanians in Kosovo. That’s what he had done in Srebrenica just four years before.

So for a government to come out and say we’re trying to prevent genocide—leaving aside whether you agree with the NATO convention or not—seems to be not necessarily a political act. It happens to be what an intervention—precipitated by atrocities—would be aimed at, just structurally.

Similarly in Darfur, I think people said, ‘Oh, the Bush administration is trying to distract the public from its own torture in Iraq and its own quagmire in Iraq, so it wants to deflect attention’—or the Christian influence on President Bush has led it to use the word.

Again, some number of moons have to line up for a government to even pay attention to what is going on in these settings. I think in both cases, you can make a good faith case for use of the genocide convention to lead to the use of the term.

I don’t think we always have to strum up the absolute worst possible motive. What we do have to do is take note of the fact, though, that governments don’t ever want to do anything about these crimes.

To an extent I think for [governments] it is actually something of a relief to be able to get some credit for using a meaningless word that doesn’t really effect their relations with the Sudanese government. Where they can say: ‘Hey, we have to use the word but we’re still friends, right? We’re still going to be able to exploit the oil fields,  we’re still going to be able to exploit your knowledge of Osama Bin Laden’s former Sudanese base…?’ et cetera, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

That’s what governments do. But I don’t know that there is in any way a political payoff that progressive people tend to attribute to governments when governments use the word—as if it is some big political bonus to call something genocide in Kosovo or Sudan. I don’t think there is much payoff at all.

P: You mentioned in one interview with the Washington Post that “….often it was a combination of serendipity and curiosity that made certain individuals more prone to stand up [to genocide] than to stand by.”

S: You mean an outsider, a bystander?

P: Yeah. An individual. And I really felt this same theme present in your book: that it takes individuals, not the institution, to make a difference, to raise awareness to create some sort of momentum that might just help stop a genocide from taking place. And you mention some surprising characters who make big differences—Bob Dole3 in the Balkans on behalf of the Kosovo Albanians, Jesse Helms4 for the Kurds he met through his church.

I recall Noam Chomsky once saying that it was about six determined individuals that kept any awareness of East Timor alive for, literally, almost two decades, just by putting the information out about the atrocities as much as they could.5

This idea of the individual instead of the political institution being the key to action is, for me—given how much of our lives are run by the institution—both inspiring and disconcerting. Where do you see seeds of hope?

S: Well, you know, when it comes to genocide especially, I almost called my book, “The Trouble With Genocide.” The trouble with genocide is that state responses to it are largely over-determined. That is, we know what states exist to do. They exist, at best, to advance the needs or the interests of their own citizens—more often to advance the needs and interests of elites or of government officials themselves.

So given that, it is kind of hard to square the mass destruction of a people and a country that isn’t terribly relevant with the pursuit of [another country’s] national interest which is usually defined in terms of security and economic interests.

But that structural reality that all democracies are prey to, gives way when the domestic political interests of policy makers or of politicians are at stake.

For that reason, the times genocide has risen up and become the subject of high level policy debate and even action is when there is—perceived by a politician or policy maker—a domestic political cost to doing nothing. That’s one example, one criteria—and that comes as a result of political pressure.

And you see this again in Darfur: Christian groups, Jewish groups, student groups, middle school students who have seen documentaries about Rwanda, who have seen Hotel Rwanda, writing their congressman; members of congress counting letters and saying, “Huh, who knew?”

There seems to be, oddly, noise in America around Darfur. What that succeeds in doing is convincing policy makers who might be otherwise indifferent or uninterested or unaware that this issue belongs on the policy radar.

When you put it on the policy radar, you depend on something else, which is either a self-interested calculation that, ‘Gosh, doing something about this is better for me or better for my government than not doing something.’

And that’s rare because usually the idea of doing something carries with it the risk of finances or troops or just the investment of political and diplomatic capital. 

Or, it takes an individual like you or me—because people in government aren’t that different or  they don’t start off that different—actually just getting that kind of sick feeling in their tummy. That is hard to make happen without some kind of proximity between that individual and the horrors that are, ultimately, truly awful but also truly abstract if you are insulated within a bureaucracy.

So the hope for me comes from the existing domestic constituency that is often latent but does occasionally bubble up as it did in Bosnia, as it did in East Timor at a certain point, and as it did and has been in Darfur.

But it also lies in the fact that individuals within government are human beings too. So when you’re thinking of advocacy, you have to think about maximizing the moments, the opportunities for serendipity.

What has to happen is, the one reason for doing anything—namely the dead people—has to kind of rise up in order for a government official, who's got a very logical, well-reasoned account of all the itemized reasons for why you should stay far away from atrocities, [to do something]: because there is no payoff in terms of economic interest, no payoff in terms of security interests, no payoff in terms of professional advancement within the system. You’re probably even going to lose points at home with your wife because you’re not going to get promoted.

There are so many reasons not to act. In order for all those things to be overcome, it often takes an emotional connection and that is very hard to manufacture, given the geographic distance between people within government and people in the field.

So: trips to refugee camps, bringing survivors of massacres from the field to Washington to testify, using film, using images—if it’s a sterile account in a White House memo, the likelihood of it puncturing those walls is very, very slim. It has to be a kind of synaptic, human, almost kinetic thing that happens. And it happens very, very rarely.

P: With Rwanda, there seemed to be so many indicators that happened before the genocide: the historical effects of colonialism antagonizing the Hutu-Tutsi relationship, further polarization exacerbated by the church in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s around the time of independence, the IMF coming  in in the ‘80s, the collapse of coffee prices, the civil war with the invading Rwandan forces out of Uganda, the Hutu president being killed in Burundi, the swarm of refugees into Rwanda, French support for the Hutu extremists, and finally the plane being shot down with the president on board—like everything that could happen, happened.

A nightmare.

Is this the nature of a genocide unfolding? Are there indicators that say, “Hey, look out for this one”? Or is it more random than that? 

S: If you went across the globe in March of 1994, you’d probably see close to a dozen countries that met many of the kind of prerequisites for genocide, including Rwanda—a history of ethnic polarization, no access to free media where the people are getting manipulated sources, massive arms shipments—many countries would have met that criteria. I mean, not 191 UN member states, but again, probably a dozen countries, and they didn’t turn genocidal.

So by definition, you are going to have what you might  call “false red flags” if you go down the checklist of genocidal indicators—and that’s a good thing.We should be very pleased that a lot of those seriously screwed up places that are seriously vulnerable to ethnic showdown or meltdown, somehow stayed the hand of violence and of vengeance.

In Rwanda, there was a precipitating event. Also one of the things that other countries wouldn’t have had would have been very well-placed, wealthy—scared-in-its-own-way—elite that had plotted a genocide.

I think in some senses, that was the warning that distinguished Rwanda from other places at the time: one group [Hutu extremists] feeling like it was about to be excluded from a new political structure, that had blood on its hands, and was afraid that when excluded it would become accountable—and that group began to make lists and make plans for the destruction of its rivals and its perceived foes. So that, in a sense, is the one thing that would have distinguished Rwanda from those other places.

We, the world, the west, didn’t do a good enough job seeking out more information about that. There was plenty of early warning that this place was in trouble, that many massacres were occurring.

The thing is, if a country falls so far a field from your national interests, the last thing you are going to do is go out of your way to acquire more data about how screwed up it is—more data about something you don’t intend to do anything about.

So even among those who cared—and that was perhaps the most incredible thing about Rwanda. The people who had emotional relationships with Rwanda and who visited the country and really cared about the future of the country totally self-censored—within the US government in particular, but also within the UN, because they were so aware of what the `land of the possible’ was politically.

That self-censorship didn’t just mean being afraid to be chicken little and say, ‘The sky is falling!’ That was one thing.

But they actually self-censored in that they didn’t dig. They didn’t infiltrate, they didn’t say, ‘Hey, we’re in the red zone and we now need more intelligence assets to be deployed,”—and perhaps even the act of deploying them would have had a deterrent effect.

So the consequence of this self-censorship and this restraint, and what ultimately looks like a lack of curiosity about the warning signs, is that those armaments were able to come in, those lists were able to be prepared in the full and consoling knowledge that nobody was watching. And that whatever data governments were getting, they were just kind of burying it and filing it in the filing cabinet for future use.

P: In Uganda for ten years the camps in the north have had no sanitation, no means of self-sustenance, have been underprotected against rebels, and yet there has been very little international awareness or involvement. Human rights groups and the Ugandan Ministy of Health6 have even lately said there are now many more deaths from living in the camps than there are deaths by the heinous LRA rebel group, and yet these reports remain largely ignored.

So as an outsider one might then turn their focus on the UN and say, ‘Okay, it’s great the the World Food Program is in there but, between the rebels and the government, this is murderous and ongoing. Why doesn’t the UN security council go in and do something?’ What does it take to make that jump from, say, helping out with food to the Security Council going in there with peacekeepers to try and reign in such a disaster?

S: Talking about the UN is always very challenging because it is such a big amorphous blob, a kind of multi-headed hydra. The UN is so many different things. Richard Holbrooke likes to say that blaming the UN for Rwanda or for Uganda, let’s say, is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks play badly. That ultimately you’re blaming a building for the play of the people within it. One thing the UN is—just very simply—is a building.

I think that is the UN’s principal function. It’s just a place where states come and they bring their interests. If it weren’t for the UN, they would play those interests out somewhere else. They’d find some other building. You don’t need an organization in order for states to pursue their own interests.

So I think that’s really the dominant UN. The executive branch of the UN, of course, is the Security Council. That’s the five most powerful members—or, I suppose, the four most powerful members…and France (laughs).

Those five permanent members, China, France, Britain, Russia and the United States come out and decide: is dealing with Northern Uganda in our interests? If so, how much?  Is it in our interests enough to send election monitors? Is it in our interests enough to send peace keepers? Do we want to establish a political mission? Do we want to establish a high-level special envoy like we did for the tsunami?

To what extent does any one country or any one crisis on the earth matter to us, as states?

The thing is, no state changes its interests by virtue of entering the UN. So for that reason, really, getting at the roots of Uganda’s crisis and tackling it as a political challenge—which is what it is, with military and humanitarian symptoms—would require some number, a kind of coalition of the diplomatically willing or a coalition of the interested, to come to the Security Council and decide that Uganda matters.

Usually that doesn’t happen. Very few countries meet that criteria. Those countries that do…? Often or sometimes one of the other Security Council states will have a vested interest for keeping it off the map—so Sudan has a very hard time getting put before the Council. Even though the United States claims to want to do something about it, China wants to exploit oil fields—as eventually will the US if it can get in there.

Often though, when a country doesn’t measure up politically, the residual part of the UN gets tapped—and that’s the part that actually doesn’t have to get clearance through the Security Council. It’s the part that is operated out of Kofi Annan’s shop—operated out of the secretariat. Those are the agencies, whether the World Health Organization or the feeding programs or UNAIDS.

And the coordination of a humanitarian response can be done without Security Council assent. Now, it can’t be paid for without member states. So all those agencies have to come back to those same member states, begging bowl in hand. But states are much more willing to throw macaroni and plastic sheeting at a problem than they are willing to tackle political problems.

So those are the two UNs: the executive branch is the Security Council. The humanitarian branch—aimed at dealing with the symptoms of crises that the Security Council doesn’t want to deal with—is housed with Kofi Annan.

And that’s where Uganda gets one but not the other. It will get the macaroni, it will get the housing and it will get maybe some low level political attention. But the kind of attention that makes a chronic problem and a problem that deadly go away is not the kind of attention that Uganda has received so far.

P: Some have said that with the post-9/11 attacks, their was a subsequent amped-up and very open war against terror that allowed certain states to punish rebels or other people, non-rebels, with increased impunity. This would seem to make it even more difficult for people under attack to be able to stop repression by their own government or rebel groups. What was your take on the subsequent effects of 9/11?

S: What 9/11 should have been, of course, is a wake-up call about the consequences of allowing failed states, failing states, repressive states, to fester. Ultimately, the kinds of threats that western governments are now dealing with are threats that get nurtured in the kinds of humanitarian complex emergencies that so often go untended.

So the lesson should have been: let’s really deploy resources to shore up failed states. Let’s work in a united front of developing and developed world countries together, under a “banner” that’s seen to be more legitimate, namely the UN banner—a more legitimate banner than any single member state—certainly than the US flag.

But of course that’s not the lesson of 9/11 that’s really been taken.

I think what we’ve seen with Robert Mugabe, with the Sudanese government, and I guess to an extent as well in Uganda, are governments saying: ‘Look, you have rebels. You [the US] have insurgents in Iraq and you have them in Afghanistan. We have rebels and insurgents. You deal with your rebels and insurgents your way, you know, see Abu Ghraib, see Fallujah, see what independent observers would call excessive responses to genuine threats. Well, we also occasionally slip and have excessive responses to genuine threats.’

So I just think that whatever standing the United States in particular, but western governments more generally, had to be the engine for taking developing world repressive governments to task has melted away. Not by 9/11, but by the conduct of western democracies in the wake of 9/11.

And so now you have developing world countries having a closing of ranks, countries that have always resisted meddling, partly because they are in many cases committing their own abuses—or would prefer to be free of outside scrutiny within their own borders. As most of us would like to be. So you see them with their traditional reluctance to criticize one another.

And then western governments that have long been hypocritical but have at least had some sway—partly because of their financial leverage—being themselves muted by their own sins in other areas. Either muted or discredited. So now there is a moral void, a protection void in the UN system, and it is not at all obvious who is going to fill that void.

P: It’s more often clothed in a cutural context these days, as opposed to a purely racial way, but how do you respond to people who come up to you and say: “Why do these Africans keep fighting and killing each other?”

S: I would just say that there is no region of the world that is immune to these kinds of breakdowns and that these countries are pretty new at governing themselves. It’s not about race and it is not about “African-ness.”

As it happens, Africa correlates with the novelty of political experience; the continent correlates with some very skewed borders that don’t correlate to people’s ethnic national identities or forms of identification.

During the Bosnian War, when people used to talk about how people in the Balkans just keep killing each other—they used to talk about the Balkans like they talk about Africa.  You kind of say to yourself, you know, ‘Hey, last I checked, Europe was on fire just 60 years ago’—and those were relatively well-developed democracies, relative to those in Africa today.

I used to always say that. But that was back in the mid-90s. Now, we’re at war all over the earth [the US]. The fact that we’re not at war with Mexico or Canada on our own continent, in a sense, makes us even more bizarre. We go in search of monsters to slay far a-field, you know, who don’t pose direct threats to us.

I think the key with Africa, or the particular African countries that are plagued by violence, is just: how do they build and how do we in some way assist the building of structures that will mitigate tendencies that have been revealed to exist in all of us?

We’ve just been at it for several hundred years. It would be a shame if they had to be at it for several hundred years.

P: With regard to the question of genocide and violence—for example in Rwanda, in the killing fields in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, the Jewish holocaust under the Nazis and so on—certain events are eternally etched in our mind in their virtually incomprehensible brutality as undeniably genocidal.

Time not withstanding, why do you think genocide committed by, say, the colonialists7 against the Herero people in German Southwest Africa, against the Congolese in the Belgian Congo, or against the Native Indians in America and Canada, during the formation of those countries, are never given a similar weight?

In other words, it remains very rare, almost un-American to say the United States was built on genocide (let alone slavery), or to feel that even. What’s the difference, and was that in fact genocide?

S: Well, I think, certainly, what American settlers did in Native American lands was genocidal. But we’re no different, no better, than governments like that in Turkey that won’t acknowledge the genocide that they were a part of, that their predecessors were part of, 90 years ago. States don’t admit wrongdoing, easily or often, about anything.

Look at our war in Iraq. I mean it’s a manifest disaster. It’s a catastrophe. So many mistakes have been made and the President doesn’t acknowledge that he’s made any mistakes. He says maybe if you get back to me I’ll think of one.

So you would think that with the passage of time, we would get better—that we’d find it easier to acknowledge mistakes made by our predecessors. But there’s a weird closing of ranks that goes on across generations. I think we as a culture prefer the idea of being exceptional and morally pure. And being morally pure requires being built on a morally pure foundation—which we tell ourselves is what extracting ourselves from the corrupt British model was all about.

Of course, if the story of ourselves is of a morally pure beginning, we are going to leave out the grim footnote of who we trampled in order to be in a position to be pulling away from someone else.

So every genocide is different from every other one. There is always a combination of factors, the extent to which one genocide is about extreme hatred for an ethnic group or religious group of the kind Hitler had towards the Jews, or Rwandan radicals had towards the Tutsi.

In certain quarters, when it came to Native American lands, you didn’t have that same content or that same sort of  “eliminationist” desire to get rid of people because of race. You had a desire for the land. And, ‘Well, if you’ve got to murder all those coloured people in the meantime, then that’s the way to get the land.’ That doesn’t make it not a genocide. It means that a genocide becomes a means-to-the-end of land acquisition, as against an end in itself, which it might have been for Hitler or for the génocidaires in Rwanda.

P: There seems to be so much of a sort of structural, even institutional apathy towards really helping protect people outside our own “tribe” or our own country who may be vulnerable to the threat of genocide or atrocities—particularly if that country has no effect on our economic interests.

What takes you beyond the statistics, the debates, the stalemates, the agendas, even your own research, and keeps your heart on fire—or rekindles the fire—and gives you hope inside these desperate situations?

S: I think for me, the source of not just hope, but relentless inspiration, is the people you meet who aren’t helped, who aren’t tended to and who, despite all of the betrayal that they feel they’ve encountered, keep believing that it can be different and keep letting people like me into their homes and telling their stories and getting re-traumatized. I mean, the terrible things I do to people in order to piece together their stories and in order to try and build some political momentum around institutional change.

Their resilience makes me very impatient with my own sadness or whatever. They’re the ones that have really suffered. I suffer in mild, derivative ways by extracting from them their stories but, ultimately, if they’re getting up in the morning and if they’re testifying in a courtroom or if they’re bringing their children and walking 50 miles…?

So I get my hope and my inspiration from the people who haven’t been helped and yet somehow, I don’t know how, haven’t given up on the rest of us. They don’t have the resources to do it themselves—they would love to have the resources to do it themselves. But, ultimately, if genocide is being committed in your neighbourhood or if HIV is at large in your community and you don’t have protection forces or condoms, you are dependent—you are going to be dependent on people you don’t want to be dependent on.

And their dignity and their resilience put mine, anyway, to shame. And so any time I get tired or self-pitying or tempted to give up on our national and international structures, I just think, how do you give up?

That is all there is.



(1) From Uganda Rising with Mahmood Mamdani:

“But to me, whether we call it genocide or not is not really the key question right now—simply because there is such a 'politics' around naming genocide or not. Sometimes, the effect of that politics is to detract attention from the situation and to focus it on the debate. I’d rather focus attention on the situation.”

(2) Rafael Lemkin, who had been as a child “…oddly consumed by the subject of atrocity,” would be the man to coin the term “genocide.”  He would also experience brutality firsthand, as early as 1906 in Poland, when “seventy Jews were killed and ninety gravely injured in local pogroms” (pg 20). Later, he was intrigued by the lack of historical recollection of the Armenian genocide by the Turks during World War I, and finally, of course, being a Jew in Poland during the Nazi regime.

Samantha Powers writes in “A Problem From Hell” (pg 29): “As [Lemkin] lobbied for action in Washington and around the country in 1942 and 1943, he flashed back to a speech delivered by British prime minister Winston Churchill in August 1941, broadcast on the BBC, which had urged Allied resolve.

“The whole of Europe has been wrecked and trampled down by the mechanical weapons and barbaric fury of the Nazis…As his armies advance, whole districts are exterminated,” Churchill had thundered. “We are in the  presence of a crime without a name.”

Suddenly Lemkin’s crusade took on a specific objective: the search for a new word…Maybe if he could capture the crime in a word that connoted something truly unique and evil, people and politicians alikemight get more exercised about stopping it.

Lemkin began to think about ways ways he might combine his knowledge of international law, his aim of preventing atrocity, and his long-standing interest in language. Convinced that it was only the packaging of his legal and moral cause that needed refining, he began to hunt for a term commensurate with the truth of his experience and the experience of millions. He would be the one to give the ultimate crime a name…

(Pg 42) The word that Lemkin settled upon was a hybrid that combined the Greek derivative geno, meaning “race” or “tribe,” together with the Latin derivative cide, from caedere, meaning “killing.” “Genocide” was short, it was novel, and it was not likely to be mispronounced, Because of the word’s lasting association with Hitler’s horrors, it would also send shudders down the spines of those who heard it.”

(Pg 45) Lemkin made little secret of his desire to see “genocide” gain international fame. As he proselytized on behalf of the new concept, he studied the lingual inventions of sicience and literary greats. But fame for the word was just beginning. The world had embraced the term “genocide.” Lemkin assumed this meant the major powers were ready both to apply the world and oppose the deed.”

(3) Republican senator Bob Dole had been badly injured in World War II. Upon returning home, the reconstructive surgeon who helped him recover, also kept him company “(pg 253-255) by regaling him with stories about the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians. Kelikian [the doctor] had escaped to America as a boy after three of his sisters were massacred in the genocide…

“Dole, who had never before heard of these crimes, was shocked. When he joined the Senate, he kept an eye trained on the Balkans….

“But none of the Kansas senator’s rhetorical litanies [which began in 1986 denouncing Yugoslavia’s human rights record] had prepared him for the official visit he paid to Kosovo in August 1990.”

“As the bus [Dole was on] entered Pristina, thousands of ethnic Albanians lined the streets and began chanting, “USA, USA.” Dole later recalled “appalling and unforgettable scenes” of hundreds of people running across the fields to wave to the speeding bus, while police with clubs and guns mauled them.”

See also, on the same page, congressman Frank McCloskey’s “awakening.” Despite what McCloskey claims he had seen—and he saw the remains of a massacre, of body parts dismembered by chainsaw—“Milosevic told McClosky that no matter what he had seen or thought he had seen…no massacre had been committed…“[Milosevic] was very smooth and polished, and described himself as a peace-loving man,” McCloskey remembers…The war would rarely deviate from this text: shelling, massacre, straight-faced lies, and plenty of early warning of worse to come.”

(4) As for Jessie Helms, he “had battled Pell and Proxmire over the genocide convention, but he often took a strong stand against flagrantly abusive regimes. In this instance he and his wife had been moved by an encounter with three Kurds who were on hunger strikes to protest the Iraqi atrocities (see the note below), whom they met through their church, the First Baptist in Alexandria, Virginia (page 204).”

Showing the difficulty of the battle of  which Powers writes (pg 173):

“After the September 1988 [chemical weapons] attack [by Iraq on their own Kurdish people], Senator Clairborne Pell introduced a sanctions package on Capital Hill that would have cut off agricultural and manufacturing credits to Saddam Hussein as punishment for his killing unarmed civilians...”

“Pell argued that not even a U.S. ally could get away with gassing his own people. But the Bush administration, instead of suspending the CCC program or any of the other perks extended to the Iraqi regime, in 1989, a year after Hussein's savage gassing attacks and deportations had been documented, doubled its commitment to Iraq, hiking annual CCC credits above 1$ billion.”

(5) As cited in Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, (pg 109), from an Interview Chomsky did with Joop van Tijn on Humanist TV, Holland:

“There was actually one person [Arnold Cohen] in the United States who, in my view, would get the Nobel Peace Prize if it meant anything, which, of course, it does not. He was a graduate student at Cornell University, who simply devoted his life trying to get this [East Timor] issue known. And it was through his efforts that I began to become involved.

Now, my name is known, his name is not known, he is the leader, I am the follower. And what it says about intellectual life is that there are a lot of important people who do very serious work and when they build up to a point where someone can help them gain visibility, there are people like me around who are able to help, but that is a supportive role.”

From Arnold Cohen (also from MC, pg 109): “Our goal [a small group of people based in the Cornell community] was to ensure that publications such as these [the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe] noticed the issue and put out as much accurate information on the situation as possible.

Obviously, we did not always succeed but we did create a network of contacts that was ultimately available to East Timor’s Catholic Church, refugees, human rights organizations and others. We did this by strict attention to accuracy, professionalism and politeness. There is really no substitute for this. And it does pay off.”

(6) From The Republic Of Uganda Ministry Of Health, July 2005:

“Health and mortality survey among internally displaced persons in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader districts, northern Uganda. Internally displaced persons health and mortality survey, Uganda, 2005.

4.6 Conclusion and recommendations

Our study demonstrates that the 1.2 million displaced persons living in camps in the Acholi region of Northern Uganda are experiencing a very serious humanitarian emergency, undoubtedly among the very worst in the world today, and possibly the most neglected by international media and the relief community. Almost 1000 excess deaths occur every week in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader Districts among IDPs in camps, above and beyond the baseline mortality not attributable to the crisis.”

(7) When I interview I tend to accidentally lean on the side of excitable, interested, detailed. In this question I quoted (unbelievably quickly) to Samantha something I had read in her book and jotted down on my piece of paper (pg 155):

The Liberty Lobby’s Spotlight Magazine (Spotlight, May 14, 1979 Charles R Allen Jr. “The Genocide Convention: America’s Shame”), claimed that “ratification of the genocide convention would allow missionaries to be tried before an international tribunal for genocide “on grounds that to convert cannibals in Africa to Christianity is to destroy a culture…””

Further to this, the John Birch Society described the Genocide Convention as a “vicious communist perversion.”

Similar (if not so outrageous) fears are evident from, for example, Jesse Helms, who had fought against ratification of the genocide convention.

“(pg 163) Recognizing that President Reagan’s support for the law made the passage inevitable, Senator Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.), Orrin hatch (R.-Utah), and Richard Lugar (R.-Ind.) introduced a stringent Senate “sovereignty package” that included “RUDs,” or reservations, understandings, and declarations. These interpretations of and disclaimers about the genocide convention had the effect of immunizing the United States from being charged with genocide but in so doing also rendered the U.S. ratification a symbolic act.”

At least some of this hesitation to ratify the genocide convention had to do with the fact that “(pg 164)…in April 1984 Nicaragua had sued the United States at the ICJ [the International Court of Justice] for mining its harbors.

When the court sided with Nicaragua and accepted jurisdiction, the United States walked out of the case. Neither the Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee nor the president was prepared to see the United States judged by an international court..."



copyright 2006 Pete McCormack