Samantha Power, Esq.                                             
Interviewed February 26, 2002 via telephone from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Genocide: A Problem From Hell
"I wanted to see how the United States responded over the course of the century to different cases of genocide and quickly realized that it's response to the Bosnian war and to the violence there was quite similar to the response mustered in virtually every case of mass slaughter."

"The typical response is for the system to produce nothing in terms of a response."

"I think it's very important to legitimate the lives and the travails of those who tried to make a difference, the upstanders, you might call them. It's worth looking at those individuals."

Q:  I have read that you are a war correspondent and a human rights lawyer. Which came first?

A:  War correspondent. I reported in the former Yugoslavia between 1993 and 1996. In Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. I was a bit frustrated by the impact of my words and decided to go to law school. I went to Harvard Law School and got my degree here. Now I'm a human rights lawyer, although I have never practiced as a lawyer.

Q:  Why did you want to become a human rights lawyer?

A:  I felt very frustrated with the non-impact of my stories and felt that having a law degree would be a tool where I could do something for people. I ended up coming to the conclusion quite quickly that policy and politics were probably a more efficient route to that end in a sense of dealing with systemic problems. Now what I work on is the enforcement of human rights law, on the politics of enforcement. I teach at the Kennedy School and run a human rights policy center.

Q:  You are now the executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government.

A:  I took a year off of law school in calendar year 1997-1998 and in the spring of 1998 was asked to run the Human Rights Initiative at the Kennedy School, which was going to be a small sub-program.  I ran that for a year. And then Greg Carr and I found a way to create a full-fledged center within the Kennedy School. It was created in June of 1999 and is almost three years old.

Q: What is the purpose of the Carr Center?  

A: It's a human rights policy think tank to do critical analysis of what works and why from the standpoint of human rights protection.  It's very focused on the politics of enforcement. There are human rights classes for the Kennedy School students; so, it is a teaching and a research center.

[Go to Top]                          What is the US response to genocide?                        [Go to End]

Q: Your personal focus is on genocide. How did that come about?

A: When I returned to the United States from the war in Bosnia, I was struck by the extent to which people in this country were saying, "Never again. Never again." We were so committed to Holocaust remembrance and education ... appropriately committed, in my judgment. But there didn't seem to be any recognition of something, not of the scale of the Holocaust, of course, but of something resonant with the Holocaust occurring at the same time as we were becoming more attentive to the Holocaust.

I was struck by how we could think that we could never again allow it, that we allowed it and that we didn't notice. So, I decided to see if Bosnia was somehow different or if there were other cases of genocide where we had responded more aggressively. That's how the project started. I wanted to see how the United States responded over the course of the century to different cases of genocide and quickly realized that it's response to the Bosnian war and to the violence there was quite similar to the response mustered in virtually every case of mass slaughter.

Q: How many genocides have been in this century?

A: It's a controversial category, of course, in terms of what is genocide and what isn't. I focus on what I think are the major cases: the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians, the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide by Pol Pot, the Iraqi destruction of the Kurds in Northern Iraq in 1987-1988, Bosnia, and Rwanda.

Q: How do you define genocide?

A: I use the Genocide Convention: the systematic attempt to destroy in whole or substantial part a national, ethnic, or religious group.

Q: I have read that genocide basically revolves around intent.

A: Yes, in that it's not a body count. If you wait for a body count to be your determinant, then inevitably, necessarily, enforcement will only come after the bodies have been stacked up and counted. I think numbers are often a good indicator of intent. When you see large numbers of bodies floating down a river, you know it's time to start asking what is in the mind of the people who are doing the killing. Are they trying to wipe out a national, ethnic or religious group? If there is some way to retrieve that information prior to having such damning evidence, I think that's usually the time to get politically invested in these crimes.

Q: You've combined your research and you have written a book. What is the name of the book?

A: The book is called A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide published by Basic Books. It's excerpted in the current New York Review of Books, came out last week and is in the bookstores now. It's the story of America's non-response to genocide and is told through the lives of Americans who actually tried to stop the crime and who were thwarted. It's a book of stories.

Q: You interviewed how many people?

A:  More than a thousand people. Many were victims and perpetrators in the countries in question. The important reporting from the standpoint of understanding the American side of it came from about three hundred interviews with US officials and those who played a critical role in influencing them.

Q:  Were they willing to speak with you?

A:  It was mixed. I really appreciate those who were willing to look back and try to understand what had gone wrong. Some were just trying to defend their own records and knew that they had not come across well in the declassified documents I was able to obtain through the National Security Archives. It really helped me having those documents. That was a reason why many of them agreed to speak with me.

[Go to Top]                                The system produces nothing                                 [Go to End]

Q:  What I learned from the excerpt in the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly was that the typical response to genocide is to stand by and do nothing.

A:  The typical response is for the system to produce nothing in terms of a response. What's interesting is that there are these individuals who are doing something, fighting like cats and dogs to try to get the issue on the policy radar and to get the higher ups to heed them and to listen to them, and they basically tend to fail.

The book tries to understand why that is. And, ultimately, I think it's because there is no cost to the United States or to the individuals making US policy to standing aside, while there is a significant risk, an emotional risk, to getting involved and to paying attention.

What is so extraordinary about the US response is not that we don't intervene with our troops, which we don't do, of course, but we do very little on the continuum of intervention. We don't sanction it. We don't freeze the foreign assets. We don't even use the word genocide while it's being committed. That is when the question becomes interesting: how can it be that we shut down so completely and greet something of such enormity with a policy of such extreme silence? That's what the book attempts to understand.

The book concludes that, ultimately, there is no domestic political cost to staying out, and, if you shut down entirely, not much of an emotional cost.  Most people avert their eyes so that they don't feel all that badly. The fear of getting involved, of dipping a toe in and having the whole body submerged, in issues of this magnitude is so great that people tend to stay away altogether.

Q:  I sense that while genocide is occurring, one has an unwillingness to believe that such evil could be happening. People try to rationalize it away by wanting to believe that it's not really going on or that it must be a civil war.

A:  That's absolutely right. Rwanda is a great example of that. We see it again and again in every case. We tell ourselves the same story: that it is war, that it's not genocide, its ancient hatreds, it's not a discreet individual group plotting to wipe out another group.

We tell ourselves a story that makes it easier to justify avoiding politically and morally risky decisions. It's much easier to call it something it is not. It's very much about using one's own moral dissonance. People in government are just like us. They're not any different. It's hard to say, "Never again," and then to allow genocide.  And so it's better to say, "Never again," and tell yourself that you're not intervening in a civil war.

Q:  You discussed the genocide in Rwanda in The Atlantic Monthly article. What happened there in 1994?

A:  Beginning with the plane crash in which the Hutu president was shot out of the sky, a group of armed extremists began systematically murdering the Tutsi, a fifteen percent minority populace, and very nearly succeeded in wiping out this people. There were UN peacekeepers present on the ground when the plane went down and the killing started. But, on US insistence, those peacekeepers were withdrawn. A small force was left of about 450 peacekeepers under the command of Romeo Dallaire, UN general. The perpetrators set up roadblocks and began checking identity cards. They broadcasted hate, license plate numbers and addresses over Radio Mille Collines, which later became known as Rwandan hate radio. With so few peacekeepers to deter or impede the violence, some 800,000 people were killed in a hundred days.

Q:  And what was the US response?

A:  The US was very fearful that if the peacekeepers in Rwanda got into trouble, the United States would be left to bail them out. When ten Belgium soldiers were killed in the second day of the genocide, the US insisted on a complete withdrawal of UN peacekeepers. Ultimately, because of African opposition, a partial withdrawal was settled upon. But then, the US blocked subsequent efforts by the secretary general and others to have a group of reinforcements sent to Rwanda. 

The US response was distinctly mid-level, even low-level. Very little senior policy makers' attention was devoted to this question. The US refused to use the Pentagon's jamming equipment to block the hate radio. The US did not denounce the crime and US officials went to great lengths to avoid using the word genocide to describe what was underway.

Q:  There is a statement in The Atlantic Monthly article, "Officials in the Bush Administration say the United States is as unprepared and unwilling to stop genocide today as it was seven years ago. 'Genocide could happen again tomorrow,' one said, 'and we wouldn't respond any differently.'" Do you want to comment?

A:  I think that it's true. In fact after September 11th, I think it's less likely that we would respond. I do think that individuals that have been involved in trying to draft a policy response to genocide have learned. The problem is each official has to learn anew every time. There is nothing in the bureaucratic culture that trains them, that prepares them for this crime.

There's no political leadership from the top saying, "We're not allowing genocide. On my watch there will be no genocide." Nothing like that has been said. There's a lot of talk of, "Never again," and a lot of commemoration of the Holocaust, but that's different than a political commitment being made by senior officials, specifically by the President, or at least by his top advisors, such that everybody is scurrying around the halls of the bureaucracies in Washington trying to avoid another genocide.

Until that kind of leadership is exerted, people will be running around trying to avoid another September 11th, another Somalia, another Viet Nam. They will be dealing with the nation's priority of combating terrorism. It's difficult to make policymakers who think in the short-term to see beyond the horizon, to see that allowing genocide will ultimately have a cost for the United States.

Q: Would the UN respond any better today than it did in 1994?

A:  The UN is a tricky beast because it is the sum of its parts and it also has a secretariat that has a responsibility to be independent of the member states. In the case of Rwanda, the member states behaved abominably, led, of course, by the United States; but also, the secretariat did not behave well. It self-censored information it had from the field. It didn't circulate, it didn't publicize, it didn't shine the spotlight on the United States and the other member states in order to summon public interest and shame around this issue.

I think if something similar happened today what you'd see is a more willing secretary general and secretariat to confront the member states of their own inaction rather than become the punching bag for the member states.

[Go to Top]                                    Legitimate the upstanders                                    [Go to End]

Q:  Have you focused on any ways to prevent a bystander mentality?

A:  I think it's very important to legitimate the lives and the travails of those who tried to make a difference, the upstanders, you might call them. It's worth looking at those individuals. My hope with the book, especially the Rwanda piece, is that by bringing those stories to light, kids will grow up wanting to be like them.

Maybe some of these cases will be taught in war college and foreign service school so that we're really asking ourselves, at what point are we negotiating too long with somebody? At what point does what looks like intransigence becomes outright evil? At what point does ethnic cleansing become genocide? How can we distinguish civil war from ethnically motivated mass murder? What are the best policy tools we can muster in response? These questions have to be asked and have to be debated by people more informed than I.

Q:  Does the Carr Center and similar centers have the ability to help support the upstanders?

A:  We have a fellows program here and we are hoping that General Dallaire will come and join us next fall and put his ideas down on paper in terms of the military component to what it takes to be an upstander. I think we're a haven for people who want to sound the alarm and we would give them a platform. We try to tell their stories in a public way, as I have done. And my colleague, Michael Ignatieff, does a lot as well.

Q:  What has been the reaction to your book?

A:  Nothing yet. It just came out last week and it hasn't really been reviewed. It hasn't hit the mainstream yet. I think it's going to be something that people are going to be talking about for a while. I never would have said that, even a year ago, but the response to The Atlantic Monthly article was so overwhelming. People are conflicted by this issue. There is something about genocide. It is a thing that we don't want to allow. The question of why we keep allowing it is one that general readers seem quite interested in understanding. And the book sheds some light on that.

Q:  What can each individual do?

A:  The problem with genocide is that the public doesn't make noise when genocide happens. If an individual reads something in the newspapers, try to prevent the eyes from glazing over. Try to imagine oneself in the position of the person who is being targeted just on these arbitrary grounds of how the person was born. And, pick up the phone.

I know it's crazy, but if the phone doesn't ring, policy makers think that the American people don't want to do anything and don't care. You'd be amazed how few phone calls it takes to create the perception of concern. Call your Congressional representatives. Let you local newspaper know that it's something that matters to you. Foreign coverage has dropped off dramatically partly because of the perception that the American people don't care, that they don't know anything and that they don't want to know anything.

Tell your kids and your friends about these extraordinary heroes who stood up, the upstanders. Part of the challenge is to legitimate that way of behaving so that more people, rather than fewer, will stand up.

Q:  What would you like the reader to retain after having read the book?

A:  A greater sense of empowerment. Part of the reason that people do nothing is they just feel that they will not make a difference. In the book we see these individuals standing up and slowly but surely moving the goal posts, moving the public climate, moving policy fundamentally over time, and incrementally making progress: getting an intervention in Kosovo, getting a war crimes tribunal set up. You can see that these seemingly futile efforts in one historic period actually can plant the seeds for fruit to be grown and nourished later.


March 2002
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[Editor's Note: Samantha's book Genocide: A Problem From Hell
won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction.]
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