During the twentieth century there were not only two world wars but at least six major cases of genocide—the mass killing of Armenians by Turks in 1915, of Jews (and other groups such as the Gypsies) by Hitler, of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge, of the Kurds of northern Iraq by Saddam Hussein, of the Tutsi of Rwanda by the Hutu, and of Croats, Muslims, and the Albanians of Kosovo by the Serbs. In all cases except the Kosovo Albanians, the international community and its Western leaders failed to act in time.

In 1948, halfway through this bloodiest of centuries, the United Nations General Assembly approved the text of the Genocide Convention, which outlaws the destruction by a government, in whole or in part, of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such. Some forty years later the United States ratified the convention, and in the very last years of the century, the Hague tribunal held hearings that led to the first conviction for genocide under the convention—of the Serb General Radislav Krstic for his part in the killings of Bosnians.

Successive horrors have shamed governments into making some reluctant progress, but it is still far from certain that the nations of the world will act in time and with sufficient determination when genocide once again threatens some unfamiliar region. It remains to be seen whether the moral imperative of human decency will at last become the primary and undisputed basis for action, or whether it will still prove necessary to rely on elaborate and time-consuming arguments of enlightened self-interest to move governments to international intervention. Samantha Power’s agonizingly persuasive book, ‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide, provides an incomparable basis for considering these questions in the light of a century of atrocity.


In each of the twentieth century’s genocides a few lone voices sounded the alarm and tried to dispel the apathy and willful ignorance that immobilized governments that might have taken action. In 1915, when an estimated 800,000 Armenians were massacred by the Turks, Henry Morgenthau Sr., President Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, expressed his agonized frustrations in a cable to the State Department:

It is difficult for me to restrain myself from doing something to stop this attempt to exterminate a race, but I realize that I am here as Ambassador and must abide by the prin- ciples of non-interference with the internal affairs of another country.

Wilson, as Power writes, was so determined to maintain American neutrality in the war that Washington even refused to join the Allies in denouncing Turkish “crimes against humanity and civilization,” and would not intercede with the Kaiser or send relief. While Theodore Roosevelt expressed his contempt for this position of neutrality “between despairing and hunted people…and the victorious and evil wrongdoers,” the State Department advised Secretary of State Robert Lansing that “however much we may deplore the suffering of the Armenians, we cannot take any active steps to come to their assistance at the present time.” In the end Morgenthau rallied the Rockefeller Foundation and the churches, far too late, to send money and humanitarian aid. The main elements of the failure to deal with subsequent cases of genocide were already present in 1915.

Power describes how in 1921 in Berlin, Soghomon Tehlirian, a young Armenian survivor and soldier of Operation Nemesis, a group dedicated to the assassination of Turkish leaders involved in the Armenian massacre, killed Talaat Pasha, the former Turkish minister of the interior. While Tehlirian awaited trial, a twenty-one-year-old Polish linguistics student at the University of Lvov, Raphael Lemkin, read a news item about Talaat’s assassination. He asked his professors why Talaat could not have been arrested for the massacre and was told there was no law under which he could have been tried. “It is a crime for Tehlirian to kill a man, but it is not a crime for his oppressor to kill more than a million men?” Lemkin asked. “This is most inconsistent.” Lemkin transferred to the Lvov law school and spent the rest of his life searching for a way to correct this inconsistency.

Already in 1933, Lemkin had produced the text of a convention prohibiting the destruction of nations, races, and religious groups, but in the nervous, defeatist atmosphere of 1930s Europe he found little support for his ideas. In Poland he lost his job as a deputy public prosecutor for refusing to refrain from criticizing Hitler. Undaunted he continued to warn of the urgent need for his convention. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Lemkin was in no doubt of the mortal threat to Polish Jews, but he could not convince his family to leave. He himself finally got out to Sweden and arrived in the United States in April 1941. As he was to discover in 1945, Lemkin lost his entire family except for one brother.


In peacetime most Europeans tended to see the Nazi persecution of the Jews as none of their business; their governments took the position that respect for German sovereignty excused them from taking meaningful action. The number of Jewish refugees taken in by European countries and the United States was strictly limited. The mass atrocity of the Final Solution seemed inconceivable.1 When war came and quickly enveloped most of Europe, many measures that could have been taken in peacetime to help the Jews under Nazi domination were no longer practicable in the face of a shatteringly aggressive and successful enemy.

Lemkin had long since realized that most, if not all, politicians always put their own interests above the interests of others, but he was increasingly frustrated by the refusal of the Allies to publicize and denounce the incipient Holocaust. In August 1941 Winston Churchill had described the destruction and persecution wrought by the Nazi forces in Europe as a “crime without a name.” Lemkin was determined to find a name for Nazi and other murderous racial policies and to have it inscribed in international law.

In the midst of a desperate war that had started disastrously for them, the Allies were reluctant to believe that Hitler’s racial program was more than a pogrom and that the “Final Solution” was total annihilation. In May 1942, Szmul Zygielbojm, a member of the Polish National Council in London, published an account of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen’s mass killings in Poland and Lithuania. A heroic Polish diplomat, Jan Karski, wearing the Star of David, smuggled himself into the Warsaw Ghetto and also infiltrated the Belzec death camp disguised as a Ukrainian militiaman. He escaped to London with hundreds of microfilmed documents concealed in the shaft of a key. Power describes how even the most potentially receptive listeners—among them Felix Frankfurter, Isaiah Berlin, Nahum Goldman, Chaim Weizmann, and David Ben-Gurion—could not bring themselves to believe the full extent of the atrocities Karski was describing. Zygielbojm killed himself in London in 1943 in protest against the world’s passivity in the face of the extermination of the Jewish people. Lemkin himself considered suicide.

The Allies’ position was that only the military defeat of Germany could stop Hitler’s murder of civilians; it is hard to quarrel with that overall strategy, which, like many other wartime strategies, had to put aside smaller objectives to achieve larger ones. Jewish requests for the bombing of Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto were rejected on the grounds that aircraft were not available. Whether such bombing would in practice have improved or worsened the fate of the Jews we cannot know with any certainty and the answer is in any case almost irrelevant. Its rejection, and the reason given for it, have never been forgotten or forgiven.2

In November 1944, in a compendious legal work called Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, Lemkin, who was then in Washington working with the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace, identified Churchill’s “crime without a name.” He called it “genocide.” The word was quickly admitted to Webster’s New International Dictionary, and on December 3, 1944, in an editorial entitled “Genocide,” The Washington Post proclaimed it the only possibly appropriate word for the revelation that 1,765,000 Jews had been gassed and cremated at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

With the appalling physical evidence of the Nazi extermination program, and with the founding of the United Nations, Lemkin assumed that the major powers would henceforth actively oppose genocide. He attended the Nuremberg trials and succeeded in getting the word “genocide” used in the indictment of all twenty-four defendants. But, paradoxically, the early postwar years were not a particularly welcoming period for an effort to introduce the new concept of genocide into international law. It was as if the world had had a surfeit of horror and wanted to get away from it and concentrate on more optimistic ventures. After the initial shock, even the extermination of Europe’s Jews and its aftermath were treated as a subsidiary part of postwar reconstruction and human rights—the word “holocaust” to describe the massacre of the Jews came into use only many years later, around 1959.

In this not very welcoming climate, Lemkin haunted the temporary premises of the new United Nations at Lake Success on Long Island.3 Gaunt, shabby, his pockets brimming over with notes and papers, he was the most indefatigable and relentless of lobbyists. Diplomats, politicians, officials, and correspondents, busy with their own affairs, tried to shake him off, but in Lemkin’s single-minded determination there was a heroic quality, an indomitable cheerfulness and sweetness that compelled busy people, often reluctantly, to pay attention to his cause. Piracy and the white slave trade were international crimes. Why not genocide?

In 1946 this was an unanswerable argument, and in December of that year, with the strong support of some developing countries, the General Assembly passed a resolution condemning genocide and setting up a committee to draft an international convention. Two years later, two days before the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Assembly approved the Genocide Convention. Theoretically, once the convention was ratified states committing genocide would no longer have a legal right to be left alone. Genocide, in principle at least, would henceforth be the world’s business.


The main part of Samantha Power’s extremely important and highly readable book is devoted to the century’s subsequent history of almost unchecked genocide, and the lack of practical response to it, especially in the United States. Because it is a book primarily about the United States and genocide, other countries get off rather lightly. Power’s underlying assumption seems to be that only United State leadership could ensure successful action.


Although President Truman asked the Senate to ratify the treaty, the Genocide Convention soon ran into the same mindset in the Senate that has blocked ratification of a number of international treaties that the United States has played a major role in formulating. They include several human rights conventions, the Law of the Sea treaty, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Rome treaty on the International Criminal Court. Xenophobia, isolationism, and the sense of American exceptionalism all had a part in the Senate’s aversion to the Genocide Convention. As Power puts it, “Genocide prevention was a low priority in the United States, and international law offered few rewards to the most powerful nation on earth.” The Eisenhower administration quickly declared its opposition to ratifying the convention and human rights conventions in general, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ceased all hearings on it. In the United States, at any rate, Lemkin’s momentum seemed to stall, although he continued to struggle valiantly for his ideas.

In 1959, Lemkin, penniless, died in New York of a heart attack at the age of fifty-nine. Only seven people attended his funeral, but in an editorial two days after his death The New York Times wrote, “Death in action was his final argument—a final word to our own State Department, which has feared that an agreement not to kill would infringe upon our sovereignty.”

Lemkin had a few loyal followers in the United States, motivated, as he had been, by the sheer indecency of condoning the monstrous phenomenon of genocide. In January 1967, Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin delivered, to a deserted Senate chamber, the first of 3,211 speeches on the Genocide Convention that he made to the Senate over the next nineteen years, ranging over the horrors and massacres of the time—Biafra, East Pakistan, a Tutsi massacre of 150,000 Hutu in 1972, and the Khmer Rouge murder over one million Cambodians. “The most lethal pair of foes for human rights everywhere in the world,” Proxmire told the Senate, “are ignorance and indifference.” After the Cambodian atrocities, other senators—Claiborne Pell and George McGovern—took up the cry for humanitarian intervention and international action, but in vain. It was the Vietnamese who finally defeated the Khmer Rouge. In a supreme cold war absurdity the Soviet Union cited the Genocide Convention and argued that by their brutality the Khmer Rouge had forfeited their claim to sovereignty, while the Carter administration orchestrated the vote in the UN Credentials Committee that kept the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia’s UN seat for ten more years after their overthrow.

In another irony, it was neither the heroic efforts of Proxmire and others nor the more than one million Cambodian dead that finally brought about United States ratification of the Genocide Convention. In 1985, Power writes, President Ronald Reagan’s visit to a cemetery at Bitburg in Germany that contained SS graves provoked widespread domestic outrage. To appease his critics Reagan decided to press for immediate ratification of the Genocide Convention. In 1986, with various reservations that immunized the United States itself from being charged with genocide, the Senate finally ratified the treaty, eighty-three in favor, eleven against, and six not voting. The United States was the ninety-eighth country to ratify the convention.

This belated ratification did little to remove the obstacles to practical action against genocide. In 1987 Saddam Hussein undertook to resettle or destroy the rural Kurds of northern Iraq, sometimes using chemical weapons (mustard gas, sarin, tabun, and VX); more than 100,000 Kurds died. The reaction of the Reagan administration to the reports of Iraqi atrocities was all too familiar. Saddam Hussein was in a war against America’s enemy, Iran; he was, Power recalls, receiving annual credits of $500 million to buy US farm products; the Kurds were known to be unruly and difficult; and anyhow, as the State Department said, no one knew for sure, did they, what the facts really were. Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran elicited no complaint from the United States either.

The courageous on-the-spot investigations and reports of Peter Galbraith, Senator Claiborne Pell’s foreign policy aide, made little headway against such thinking, even when, in March 1988, pictures appeared of some of the five thousand Kurds killed by Iraqi chemical weapons in the Kurdish town of Halabja. Only after the end of the Iran–Iraq war, when Saddam Hussein’s campaign against the Kurds went into high gear, did Pell and Galbraith score a temporary victory in getting the Senate to vote unanimously for a “Prevention of Genocide Act” imposing sanctions on Iraq. This was done despite strong opposition from the Bush White House and the State Department, which still maintained that normal relations with Iraq served US long-term interests and promoted peace and stability in the Gulf and the Middle East, and that anyway there was a lack of convincing evidence of Iraqi atrocities.

Senator Pell’s success was short-lived. One quarter of the rice grown in Arkansas and one million tons of US wheat were now annually exported to Iraq, and congressional support for the Prevention of Genocide Act died. The Kurds had no lobby in Washington. In the spring of 1990, a group of senators, including Robert Dole and Alan Simpson, visited Saddam Hussein and proclaimed him a “leader with whom the United States can work.” In August of the same year, Saddam invaded Kuwait.

In Bosnia there was plenty of international activity but no armed intervention to stop genocide—only neutral UN peacekeeping troops, not using force, and humanitarian aid—until the worst had already happened. In the United States, fear of military casualties and a self-serving notion that the situation—“a problem from Hell,” as Secretary of State Warren Christopher called it—had always been insoluble and that all sides committed atrocities buttressed the Clinton administration’s conviction that US, and therefore NATO, military involvement while the fighting was going on could not be justified by the US interests involved.

Great pains were taken in Washington to suppress any use of the word “genocide,” for fear of activating the obligations of the convention. Eventually the Serb massacre of seven thousand Bosnians in the UN “safe area” of Srebrenica in July 1995, and the Serb shell that killed thirty-five people in a Sarajevo market, generated the pressure needed to get NATO air action which, along with a successful Croatian counter-offensive, ended the war. By that time 200,000 Bosnians had been killed and two million displaced. Only after peace had come did a large, heavily armed NATO force appear on the scene.

The genocide in Rwanda that started in April 1994, and in which more than 800,000 people were slaughtered in one hundred days, revealed starkly how little the world was still prepared to deal with genocide. The UN and its leading members failed to act on specific warnings of the catastrophe to come. When the killings started, the Security Council, under US leadership, ignored appeals for reinforcements from General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian commander of the tiny UN force in Rwanda, and instead progressively reduced the strength of the force and its capacity to intervene. The Clinton administration, obsessed with the loss of eighteen US Rangers in Somalia six months before, was determined to block any serious UN action in Rwanda. To this end it once again engaged in ignominious efforts to avoid the use of the word “genocide.” As Power points out, even the reduced UN force managed to save some lives in Rwanda, and its commander, General Dallaire, believed that with five thousand men he could have made a decisive difference. “What we have been living here,” he wrote, “is a disgrace.”

The abject failures in Bosnia and Rwanda had much to do with the far more aggressive response to Serb atrocities in Kosovo. After negotiations at Rambouillet had failed, NATO embarked on the coercive bombing of Serbia, which unexpectedly lasted for seventy-nine days and caused much damage, particularly in and near Belgrade, before President Milosevic gave in. Since Milosevic is now a defendant at the Hague tribunal, and the Serb threat to the Kosovo Albanians has been removed, it appears that at the very end of the century, some practical progress in preventing genocide has, at last, been made.


Why is the world still so slow to recognize and deal with the most terrible of mass human aberrations? In her conclusion,4 Samantha Power points out that the United States, and other powers as well, have consistently refused to take risks in order to suppress genocide. Washington and its allies have also made extraordinarily little effort even to deter incipient genocide by diplomatic, economic, and financial means, and in some cases—Saddam Hussein, the Khmer Rouge—have actually continued to support the regime concerned.

Power concludes that the failure of the United States to stop genocide was due less to a lack of knowledge or influence than to a lack of will. Washington wanted to avoid involvement in conflicts that posed little or no threat to American interests and at the same time to avoid the moral stigma of condoning genocide by stressing the ambiguity of the facts and the likely futility of any intervention. “The battle to stop genocide,” Power writes, “has thus been repeatedly lost in the realm of domestic politics…. Genocide has never secured top-level attention on its own merits.”5

Power speculates that the events of September 11, because they were an attack on civilians simply because of who and where they were, may make Washington and the American public “more empathetic toward the victims of genocide.” On the other hand the war on terrorism is likely to reduce the availability of resources for humanitarian intervention; and in the pursuit of that war, the US is allying itself with several extremely repressive regimes. Power urges the United States to make opposing genocide a priority, first for moral reasons, and secondly in enlightened self-interest, because genocide undermines regional and international security in many ways, feeding the expansionist appetites of dictators and endangering the very foundations of international security. While urgent deterrent measures would be a great improvement, she feels that in the last resort the United States and other governments must also be prepared to risk the lives of their soldiers to stop this worst of crimes.

Power says little about improving the performance of international organizations. International will and international law are still weak and delicate, and there is no international mechanism for automatic action in cases of genocide. Nor is there any standing international force to undertake urgent military action when governments are reluctant to involve their own soldiers. Not only action against genocide but any form of humanitarian intervention is still dependent on the will and the willingness to be involved of a few sovereign states.

The aversion to binding international law and effective international institutions in some powerful countries, especially the United States, makes it unlikely that a better or more responsive international system to oppose genocide will come into being in the near future. In its absence, it is likely that ignorance, willful or otherwise, apathy, Realpolitik, and claims of a lack of “national interest” will continue to befuddle the reactions of world leaders, even when they are confronted with clear cases of genocide.

Only recently has it begun to be accepted in principle that national sovereignty cannot continue to be a cloak of immunity for rulers who commit genocide or grossly abuse their own peoples. In the United Nations General Assembly in 1999, Secretary-General Kofi Annan posed the following question:

…If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda or a Srebrenica—to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?

In response to this challenge the government of Canada, with a group of major foundations, established an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) to “wrestle with the whole range of questions—legal, moral, operational and political—rolled up in this debate….”6 The central theme of the commission’s report, which was issued in December 2001, is that states are responsible for protecting their citizens from avoidable catastrophe, but if they are unwilling or unable to do so, that responsibility must be borne by the broader community of states. The report is a comprehensive study of the nature and extent of that responsibility and of the authorities that might discharge it. The commission allots primary roles in this task to the UN General Assembly and the Security Council. In contrast, Samantha Power’s book strongly implies that, as a practical matter, United States leadership is the key to improvement.

Underlying the ICISS report is the assumption that during the past thirty years or so the traditional idea that sovereign states can do as they like with their own people has become unacceptable. The resulting conclusion—that the “international community” must react decisively when states fail to protect their own people—will not be readily and universally accepted in practice. The United Nations, which is the obvious channel for such action, is dependent on the Security Council, and especially on its veto-wielding five permanent members, for authority to act. And since it has no forces of its own, the UN, if it is to turn that authority into action, must depend on the willingness of a limited number of states to put effective forces into the field quickly. The UN’s performance will therefore continue to be determined to a large extent by the domestic politics and concerns of a few sovereign governments, and by international power politics—precisely the forces that have often blocked timely reaction to genocide in the past. If, for example, reports of mass killing amounting to genocide in Chechnya prove to be true, we can be sure that there will be no international intervention there and the Putin administration will not be prosecuted.

At present, UN humanitarian intervention—indeed UN intervention of any kind—is often a controversial issue. Whether separating out genocide from humanitarian intervention would increase the likelihood of a more satisfactory UN response in the future is uncertain. Even the unanswerable advocacy of Samantha Power and the ICISS commissioners will take time to have an impact on the policies and habits of governments. There is no reason, however, why their recommendations for timely preventive measures should not be acted on in future by governments which are more alert than before to the signs of impending genocide. Among such measures Samantha Power lists are expulsion of representatives from international institutions; closing embassies; economic sanctions; freezing of assets abroad; jamming hate broadcasts; and providing safe areas for refugees and civilians, who would be protected by well-supported and well-armed peacekeepers. The ICISS report has a comprehensive chapter on prevention, including similar measures to deal with the root causes of genocide. Such actions would certainly be steps in the right direction.

The world still provides plenty of reasons why the members of the international community should think very seriously about how they might deal with genocide in the future. It will always be difficult for outsiders to believe, before the event, that genocide will happen and to respond wholeheartedly to a sudden and irrational calamity on the other side of the world. Neville Chamberlain’s unforgettable description of the Nazi threat to Czechoslovakia as “…a quarrel in a foreign country between people of whom we know nothing” remains the classic statement of an attitude that is all too easily and too often applied to genocide.

Recently we have heard much talk of civilization standing against barbarism, of good against evil, of freedom against bigotry. Genocide, which targets people for extinction on the basis of their birth, religion, or race, seems, for reasons hard to understand, to lie outside these rather simplistic categories. This ultimate unpardonable crime needs not only its own place in the law of nations but a more permanent and respected place in the preoccupations of the world’s leaders.

This Issue

April 25, 2002