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Genocide is defined as a list of prohibited acts, such as killing or causing serious harm, committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.
It was not until sexual atrocities were committed during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia that consistent references began to appear throughout the UN to the problem of sexual violence during armed conflict. Security Council resolution 798 of 18 December 1992 referred to the "massive, organized and systematic detention and rape of women, in particular Muslim women, in Bosnia and Herzegovina".
Interview with Samantha Power
Samantha Power
To buy the book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power cut and paste this url: http://www.amazon.com/
Paula Goldman:
You’re a strong role model for young people looking to make a difference, though your example probably seems unreachable and intimidating to some of the same people who admire you.

Yet, as far as I know, no one walked up to you and gave you a little key to the Pulitzer prize and a set of Washington contacts, or a roadmap for how to do it all. At what point did you decide that you were capable of taking on such a gigantic goal as changing US foreign policy on genocide?

Samantha Power:
I did not set out believing I could do anything of the kind— and even today I do not believe that it is exactly likely that a person or a mere idea can change the way states have been behaving for more than 200 years.

But, I had a very formative experience right out of college. I was very moved by the images of emaciated men behind barbed wire in Europe. When I went to Bosnia, I did not go thinking I could stop the war, but I did think I could report information that might move certain policymakers to act on the atrocities. I went to the Balkans without a job, but I ended up as a freelancer for a variety of publications—the San Francisco Chronicle, The Irish Times, The Miami Herald, etc… It was a life changing experience for me. In living through that war and in contributing to a variety of publications, but seeing the policy NOT change, I became inspired to try to find more effective solutions.

While in law school a few years later, I began asking why our political system is so inattentive to human beings. And I guess I could have asked that question over drinks with friends but it was for a paper for a law school class that the seed for the book was planted. The paper was titled “Why Does America Not Respond to Genocide?” It started out as 20 pages but quickly turned to 80 pages. And I thought, “God, I’ve almost got a book here. I might as well keep going.”

And because of the surprising reception to the book, my life has changed; I have access that I couldn’t have dreamed of having before writing it. But, my job remains the same: to talk to people in positions of power, to come up with suggestions about how to improve our decision-making processes—and then to present these ideas in an way that is accessible to ordinary Americans in order to get people excited about a different vision for America.

But my goal grows out of working on rather specific, narrow issues--- and understanding the degree to which our failure to tend to something like Bosnia, for example, is actually reflective of a larger systemic flaw in the policy-making process. It is a flaw that absolutely must to be addressed, but it is a very incremental process. And I think rather than setting out to change “the world,” it is probably better to narrow one’s focus. I mean, I can barely fix my own life, my toaster, never mind the world. So I think young people are best off familiarizing themselves with an issue and then divining the larger lessons from concrete cases. The big ideas will present themselves. The key is to have an intimate focus on something small... Try to fix one smaller issue you know well, and that can render you more productive in larger policy conversations.

PG: In many of your earlier speeches and writing, I have noticed a healthy sense of self critique about both the ability and the limits of an individual or group to actually change something as big as US foreign policy. If you look back over all your efforts to date, how would you summarize their positive impact?

SP: With the book , my fantasy was that a president or a prime minister would pick it up and read it cover to cover in one sitting and say “Oh my God! We don’t do enough about genocide. We must change the way we do business!”

That is not what has happened. But the central message of the book is that genocide will only be stopped if ordinary people convince their politicians that this is an issue that means something to them. And that has begun to happen, which was a fantastic surprise. Young people, in particular, say, “Okay. Well, if we are ‘the Rwanda generation,’ haunted by that crime every bit as much as the Holocaust, then we have to get off our butts and press for the kind of change we want to see. We can’t be passive hopers for a new paradigm. We have to create a new politics.” When I see young people with battered copies of the A Problem from Hell, with post-its coming out of all sides, I know it’s gotten into them in ways I really would have never envisioned.

I probably had a slightly elitist orientation that policy would be made by policymakers. But it turns out that the policymakers are so stuck in their own frames that it is actually people on the outside who can bring the sort of freshness and credulity that is required for believing that you can change governmental behavior.

I get a lot of students coming through Harvard College who want to go into human rights because they have read the work. Journalism schools are increasingly thinking about this kind of indepth investigation of sins of omission, as well as comission. It has contributed in at least some small way to a movement with growing energy.

Genocide, to me, is just a symptom of the problem with the conduct of states in the world and the exclusion of citizen concerns from foreign policy. But one of the things that’s not terribly well understood or studied is what goes on within bureaucracies to allow genocide to occur. Not many people ask these kinds of questions. So what has also been really encouraging to me is that more and more people seem to be using my approach and applying it to different fields. For example, if you want to understand why global warming continues, and why we don’t do anything about it, well, tell us what goes on within the structure. How do the reports get doctored? Etc.

In the past, this structural approach probably seemed very abstract or dry, but I think people are starting to understand that the underlying structure is actually what one has to expose and what one has to change before the outcomes change.

PG: What has been the biggest disappointment thus far?

SP: I think the biggest disappointment was that the book was meant to play a role in getting publics and governments to respond more quickly to genocide, and we remain painfully slow. We need to inject regard for human consequences into our decision-making. And to this day, one can still see that disregard for such consequences remains, not only with Darfur--- but also with Iraq, with the way the war was carried out, with the torture that persisted for several years in US detention facilities. It is a gravely disappointing and challenging moment, and what has happened in Iraq, and the damage to the credibility of the US as a human rights defender, has been a huge setback for people in our field.

PG: It’s clear that the activism itself is full of ups and downs. But you haven’t yet gone off to write for fashion magazines instead. So something is keeping you going…

SP: It is an amazing thing to see that this movement has become real. And I feel like there are hundreds of thousands of people out there eager to be given guidance. It is a tremendous responsibility and a huge privilege. When I was writing my law school paper, I had no idea I would be in a position to work with Barack Obama, or write for The New Yorker, or to have a major publishing house like Penguin Press in my corner for my next book.

I am in a very fortunate position now. And if change is going to happen, it is because people with a human rights agenda get past the gatekeepers. And now that I am here, I have to hold the gate open and get more people on the right side of the gate. I love baseball and I would be very tempted to write a book about baseball, but there is just too much more to do on human rights, and it is just too urgent.

PG: Why should young women in particular care about issues like genocide, and what would be one action they could take right now to make a difference?

SP: Well, a few reasons. First, we can watch the way women in Darfur are systematically raped in order to create lighter-skinned babies and wipe out the next generation. I think that this aspect of the genocide in Darfur creates a personal connection that many women identify with.

Second, genocide aside, foreign policy has been the purview of people who, last I checked, appear to be making quite a mess of the world. I think it has more to do with these policymakers having an anachronistic relationship with the world than with their being men. I don’t think they’ve lived in this world. But young women have the opportunity to go out and learn Arabic, and travel, and do things that our predecessors did not do. The national security threats have changed, the human rights crises have changed, and the environmental challenges have changed. We need a new generation of innovators to meet these twenty-first century phenomenon.

What young women should understand is there is no such thing as “us” and “them.” Our livelihoods and our security are very intertwined with those of people who are being deprived of economic welfare or social justice. We are all linked profoundly, especially now, and young people have the ability to go out there and explore, and to figure out effective solutions based on what the world is really like today.

And what you can do about Darfur is go to the Genocide Intervention Network and get involved. There’s a huge movement of young people that are forcing the US government into behaving differently about genocide, and we need to internationalize that. Start by going to www.genocideintervention.net, and join the ranks of the “upstanders.”
Cheryl Wilson
United States
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