Samantha Power

A Problem from Hell

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A Problem from Hell Summary

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A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide is a nonfiction book by Samantha Power. Published by Basic Books in 2002, the book discusses how America failed to understand and properly react to 20th-century genocides. The book won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize. At the time of writing the book, Power was Professor of Human Rights Practice at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Power is currently the United States Ambassador to the United Nations in New York.

Throughout the book, Power considers numerous waves of genocide in turn, such as crimes in Iraq, Bosnia, Germany, and Kosovo. She discusses the US reaction to these crimes against humanity, and their lack of a robust response when needed. She discusses how dedicated activists helped develop international laws against genocide and the Genocide Convention, but that it takes many, many years before there’s meaningful change.

Power more specifically reminds us that, while laws now exist to ban genocide, it took until the 1990s before any international court tried perpetrators for their actions. She also notes that many of these criminals do remain free and at-large in their own countries. This is alarming, particularly since these criminals could be easily apprehended.

The first chapter in A Problem from Hell outlines the Armenian genocide of 1915. This takes place even though countries like the US understand the dangers to Turkish Armenians at the time. The interior minister for Turkey, Mehmed Talaat, makes no secret of targeting Christian subjects before executing 250 Armenians in Constantinople. Armenians must go to deportation camps in Syria, and many die in transit. Power notes the lack of response from the US and the international community, despite knowing about the tragedy.

Power then looks at Raphael Lemkin, a young Polish Jew who questions why Talaat is not held accountable for his actions. Once a lawyer, he tries to speak at an international law conference about Hitler’s concerning rise to power and proposes a law to prohibit similar destruction. He is, however, blocked.

Many others make similar arguments and hope for similar laws but are also dismissed, even as war breaks out and Hitler’s death camps become public knowledge. However, the Allies do not deal with these camps until WWII ends and camps are liberated. Now, Raphael and others are hopeful the international community will listen to their pleas, but these hopes fade when a newly-formed international tribunal only prosecutes Nazi war crimes against state sovereignty. Individuals are still not prosecuted or held accountable for their grievous acts.

In 1945, the indictments of this court all mention ‘genocide’ in a legal setting, but not in the convictions themselves. Raphael’s law passes the UN General Assembly, but it requires ratification by 20 UN member states. Although 20 countries do ratify the law, the US fails to do so.

Power then looks at further genocidal campaigns, such as the Khmer Rouge’s campaign in Cambodia. She notes that Raphael makes connections between war and genocide, and how they are almost always linked in some way. Raphael connects US reluctance to adopt genocide laws with previous interferences in regions like Cambodia and Vietnam.

Attitudes, however, shift by the early 1980s, and Power notes it’s around this time that the Holocaust is debated more openly. Interestingly, she also connects US interest in anti-genocide laws with their growing awareness that lack of cooperation damages their international reputation. Power is, clearly, critical of US motives for now seeking change.

In the late 1980s, Saddam Hussein begins his campaigns against the Kurds, resulting in mass executions and population displacement. Meanwhile, Yugoslavia begins its breakup into several smaller countries, all with minority populations fearing for their safety. Rwandan moderate politicians are executed in the 1990s, and its army attempts to seize control of the country. And at the tail end of the Bosnian War, over 7,000 Muslims are slaughtered—the largest massacre since the Holocaust. Power gives us snapshot insights into these atrocities and the general lack of international response.

Power then describes more generally how long it takes for criminals to be brought to justice for their crimes against humanity and genocide. It takes until the 1990s before anyone is punished for these acts. Power attributes this, in large part, to powerful countries such as the US failing to take crimes such as genocide seriously until then.

A Problem from Hell does not make heroes of anyone, per se, but rather offers insight into how long advocates such as Raphael Lemkin pushed for change before it became a reality. Power criticizes US passivity and its ability to stand by and watch these atrocities unfold. She doesn’t go so far as to blame the US for these genocides, but she does have a clear stance. We are left with a grim sense of wondering whether, should conflicts break out in the future, genocide or similar motives will be behind them.