A Problem From Hell: America And The Age Of Genocide | Samantha Power

Books | Review

non-fiction | politics | U.S. foreign policy

First published 2002

At the time of writing this book, Samantha Power was a Professor of Human Rights Practice at Harvard. She went on to become the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development in the Biden administration.

She gives us the history of the word genocide, invented by a Polish lawyer and Holocaust survivor, Raphael Lemkin, and his relentless quest to get all states to ratify and adopt a law against genocide to ensure that it never happens again.

The 20th Century showed us that genocide has happened and will continue to happen. Before the Holocaust, there was the Armenian genocide; after the Holocaust, there was Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda. Powers takes an in-depth look at each of these atrocities, highlighting the lack of US involvement in each case, what it could have done, and why it didn't do the things that ultimately (in Powers' opinion) could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

US self-interest is the most common factor in successive administrations' decisions not to intervene. It took the US 40 years to ratify the Genocide convention becuase all Presidents before Reagan (who finally signed it) feared that the US might be held accountable for historical crimes. The influence of the US in international affairs has been criticised. The fight against genocide can only really be a moral one, and the US does not consider this as a good enough reason to intervene to stop the slaughter of innocent people.

Although this book is 20 years old, it resonates loudly today. The current war in Ukraine has chilling echoes of the Balkan conflict in the early to mid-1990s, as do the allegations of genocide that have been made by human rights groups investigating the massacre at Bucha. The conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region is eerily reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's attempted extermination of the Kurds, as is Myanmar's brutal repression of the Rohingya people. 

It would appear that humanity is incapable of learning from the past, and certain leaders hell-bent on committing genocide know that they can probably get away with it. The international community's historically poor peformance in preventing genocide, isn't likely to change any time soon, as states and their populations become ever more polarised and divided. The establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002, following on from the Balkans and Rwanda, has had mixed success. As with the UN as a whole, the idea is wonderful, and it is better to live in a world where these institutions exist - however useless they may seem.

Review Award - 5/5

Posted 28.04.2022

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