Monday, December 8, 2008

Ex-Officials Propose Ending Genocide: "This time we really, really mean it"*

*Certain restrictions apply. See administration for details.

The sixtieth anniversary of the UN covenant against genocide (adopted by the UN on December 9, 1948) produced this two-hour documentary by CNN's Christiane Amanpour, and this report by ex-Clinton officials Madeleine Albright and William Cohen. The documentary is a paint-by-the-numbers history of genocide in the 20th century, with pit stops at the usual places: the Armenians, the Holocaust, Raphael Lemkin, Cambodia, Rwanda, Serbia, and now Darfur. It humanizes each incident by profiling--not a victim--but a witness whose urgent cries for action were met with shrugs of indifference from Western governments. The witnesses are an odd bunch: They include Francois Ponchaud, a French priest who was among the first to document Pol Pot's atrocities, and Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general whose depleted UN force was insufficient to protect the Rwandan Tutsi in 1994. Both men were shattered by their experiences. But they also include diplomat Richard Holbrooke, the Washington insider whose counsel for stronger action on Bosnia never came close to "screaming bloody murder"--as the documentary's title would have it.

The report, one of those thumbsuckers by out-of-work officials whose chief function is to polish reputations tarnished by the sail trimming that made their careers possible, is the sort of thing that gives thinking people aneurysms. The red-haired stepchild of three Washington think tanks, the grandly titled Commission to Prevent Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers got off to a rocky start at its inaugural session last November when Armenian reporters asked the two commission chairs why they supported blocking congressional efforts to recognize the Armenian genocide. "This is basically about the future," said Albright, who had spoken minutes earlier about the need to learn from the past. "There are no absolutes in this," chimed in Cohen, whose consulting firm enjoys a profitable alliance with a group hired by Turkey to deny certain facts about the Armenian genocide--that it occurred, for example. In any case, they too "were concerned about the human suffering that took place between 1915 and 1923." It was embarrassing to watch these two grandees circumlocuting around the term genocide, which no doubt explains why the video of that session was eventually yanked from the sponsoring organization's web site. "After all, who now remembers the Armenians?" as someone somewhere once said.

Still, let's stipulate that asking power to speak truth to power will often lead to awkward moments; as Dr. Johnson said in another context, the wonder is not that it does it well, but that it does it at all. Then the question is whether anything useful has come out of the exercise. I will address that question in a later post.

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