January Book Club: Lessons in the Work of Genocide Prevention

On Wednesday January 22nd, USC’s Global Policy Institute kicked off the Spring semester with GPI’s first Monthly Book Club, a space where students have the opportunity to read the work of important and influential international relations scholars and share their thoughts with another. 

On Wednesday, over 20 students joined to speak about Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell, the former US Ambassador to the United Nation’s 2002 book on genocide and American intervention. GPI was joined by Dr. Steven Smith, a life-long advocate for genocide prevention and director of the USC Shoah Foundation and

Dr. Smith kicked off the event with his initial reactions to Power’s writing, having read the book when it was first released 18 years ago. Smith highlighted three key reminders from Power’s story telling.

First, governments act in self-interest, not in morals. This calls for an infrastructure that will fight to prevent genocide, a duty Dr. Smith recalled as motivating his decision to establish the Aegis Trust. Second, Power’s book highlights the importance of being on the ground to understand the situation at hand. Dr. Smith recalled his most recent visit to Myanmar and the clarity that came with seeing the impacts of these crimes against humanity first-hand.

During the discussion, students raised several relevant questions, asking if the global community will reject humanitarian intervention post-Iraq and Libya and what role social media plays in genocide prevention.

The event also highlighted several criticisms of Power’s book. First is the missing narrative of the victims, which Dr. Smith notes as crucial to sharing the full truth of genocides and ethnic cleansing. The second, as Professor Lamy highlighted, is the difference between speaking about genocide prevention and having the power to enact the policies. In the case of Samantha Power’s, the axiom of “it’s much more difficult in practice” held true and calls us all to think critically about what we do with the seats we have at tables and the danger of indifference.

Finally, Dr. Smith highlighted key ways to transform the US from a national citizenship to a global citizenship that is committed to fighting against genocide and in defense of human rights. First is diction. Dr. Smith emphasize that, while it may be counterintuitive, using the word genocide less may spur more action as the word genocide typically elicits helplessness. Ringing the bell on genocide is important, but it must happen before the genocide is underway. Second is education.

While public opinion traditionally plays a much larger role in election years, teaching of a universal moral obligation can combat that collective action problem that lets so many human rights violations persist. Finally, is the leveraging of technology to counter misinformation and the hiding of genocide even in an age of information. Through the incorporation of encryption mechanisms — such as the one that the Shoah Foundation is currently testing to encrypt photos taken by victims of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar — can help dispel misinformation campaigns and spur action sooner.

Ultimately, Dr. Smith noted 2 numbers which speak to the work of genocide prevention. First, the 3211 speeches that Senator William Proxmire made on the senate floor to urge action against genocide. Senator Proxmire was never invited to that very bill signing. Second, the seven people who attended Lev Kin’s funeral after his life of sharing his story as a Holocaust survivor.

Dr. Smith reminded us that the work of genocide prevention is a thankless one, though it is no less important as a result. Just days before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Global Policy Institute’s first book club highlight just how important it is that we remember the work of those who fight against forces of genocide in our world and the victims who could not be helped.

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