A review of Power, Samantha. 2002. A problem from hell: America and the age of genocide. New York: Basic Books.

Sean Lindsey


March 8th, 2019

       The book, “A Problem from Hell” America and the Age of Genocide, by former United States Ambassador to the United Nations and Harvard professor Samantha Powers, is presented as a well-informed journalistic and at times a historical account of genocide in the 21st century. Powers starts the book by taking the reader through the historical atrocities that led Human Rights crusaders like Raphael Lemkin to not only invent the term genocide, but make the crime recognized by the International Community after the horrors of the Second World War. In doing so she provides the basis and understanding that led to the formulating of the international law intended to persecute and prevent future genocides. The historical context of these laws; chiefly the genocide convention is then used to examine the roles and failures of the International Community and the United States during the atrocities committed after they had sworn too never let them happen again. Powers does this by providing an in-depth historical/journalistic analysis of the warning signs and the international communities actions taken during the Genocides that occurred in Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. Through her analysis Powers is able to paint a picture of how Genocide has been allowed to occur post World War Two and how Raphael Lemkin and those who took up the cause to prevent genocide. Ultimately revealing, “A consistent policy of non-intervention in the face of genocide [that] offers sad testimony, not too a broken American political system but to one that is ruthlessly effective.”

        Chapter 4 of Samantha Power’s book aptly titled, “Lempkin’s Law” Establishes both the historical context leading up to the genocide convention, while also clearly demonstrating the ongoing challenges that would persist in the formation and implementation of international law intended to prevent and persecute Genocide. The chapter sets the stage for the uphill battle international law would face when confronted with atrocities by beginning with the Nuremberg trials. She recounts the endless effort of Human Rights Advocate Raphael Lemkin too include the crime of genocide in the prosecution of the Nazi war criminals on trial.  Lempkin, who had just recently coined the term genocide believed, “naming the crime was just a first step along the road to banning it,” and that it would take genocides recognition under the law for it to be prevented. Though he was successful in including Genocide in the charges filed against the war criminals they were ultimately not convicted of it. The failure to convict and Powers recount of Lempkin’s fight for the passage of the Genocide Convention by the United Nations highlights one of the main problem seen in other later chapters analyzing future atrocities. This problem is an unwillingness by the International community to acknowledge the horrors of genocide due to fears that by acknowledging it they would be forced to act or even worse prosecuted for the very crime.

           Throughout the book, Samantha Powers demonstrates the ability of the United States and the International Community to prevent genocide but how their unwillingness and willful ignorance have allowed them to occur. She provides ample evidence both in the cases of Iraq and Cambodia of warning signs of atrocities to come and confirmation of them when they do. She then shows how despite the best efforts of a few, a policy of inaction prevails. In each case presented in the book instance after instance short-term gains and fear, short-term losses have taken priority while thousands are murdered. Thousands of murders that were not prevented, not from a failure of knowledge but from a political system, “that in good conscience favor stopping genocide in the abstract will simultaneously opposing involvement in the moment.”

         Samantha Power’s book accomplishes an in-depth overview of the historical context of the formation of international law on the crime of Genocide and both law and policy makers limitations when confronted with genocide in the Twenty-First Century. Her extensive research and the compelling way she communicates her message through the personal stories of Raphael Lemkin and William Proxmire provide a relatable medium that can resonate with all audiences. Professor Dipak K. Gupta from the University of Sandiego hail’s Power’s for her ability to put forward a comparative historical analysis of the Genocide Convention to more modern cases such in Serbia and Cambodia. Anthony Holden in The Guardian applauds the former ambassador’s ability to provide a subsequent narrative of the international communities grappling with Genocide from Armenia to modern-day Serbia. Power’s book even though it acknowledges the shortcomings of the United States in the past to intervene falls short in condemning the United States military action in Afghanistan and warmongering for intervention in Iraq. Power’s ascribes intervention action to prevent atrocities but overlooks the repercussions of ill-conceived foreign intervention such as Vietnam or nefariously intended as would be Iraq.  



Gupta, Dipak K. Political Science Quarterly 117, no. 4 (2002): 694-96.



Holden, Anthony. “Observer Review: A Problem from Hell by Samantha Power.” The

Guardian. June 29,

  1. Accessed March 09, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2003/jun/29/highereducation.news.


Power, Samantha. 2002. A problem from hell: America and the age of genocide. New

York: Basic Books.




A Problem from Hell: America and BOOK REVIEWS | 695 cide or justify inaction by stating that there was nothing they could have done. As if to correct the first mistake of the past, in 1992 UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in his Agenda for Peace called for systematic efforts to- ward developing early warning systems for humanitarian catastrophes. A good deal of scholarly research and money followed his call to develop a system that would forewarn the world about an impending crisis. Samantha Power, by skillfully narrating the horrendous stories of human cruelty and savagery from a number of genocides around the world, dispels both the arguments for inaction. As unspeakable as these crimes against hu- manity are, the most insidious finding of her painstaking work is that the succes- sive United States administrations not only had full knowledge of the events as they were unfolding, but also supported the genocidal regimes (in Iraq against the Kurds, Pakistan against the Bengalis, and Indonesia against the “commu- nist” insurgents), or had indirectly created the conditions under which genocide could take place (Cambodia, Bosnia), or made every attempt at ignoring the hellish problem as long as they possibly could (Turkey, Rwanda). No U.S. pres- ident of the twentieth century escapes blame for directly or indirectly contribut- ing to the causes of genocide. Scorn is particularly strident for Bill Clinton for his role in allowing the Rwandan genocide to take place. Most administration insiders and other world leaders, including the heads of the United Nations, share culpability. A number of individuals, such as Raphael Lamkin, a Polish Jew and an international scholar who first coined the term “genocide,” worked tirelessly to bring concerted action against mass slaughter of innocent civilians. So did Senator William Proxmire. However, their hard work and good inten- tions were no match for the institutional forces that prevented the United States from taking a moral position in foreign policy. Power’s passionate work is a call to arms to exhort U.S. leaders into active intervention in the world of fratricidal frenzy. The most reassuring part of this book demonstrates how little it often takes for the United States to stop mass murder by genocidal regimes. She convincingly argues that a timely interven- tion could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives in Rwanda. For all their strength, Power’s arguments for U.S. humanitarian interven- tion suffer from some crucial shortcomings. First, the term “genocide,” like por- nography, remains nearly impossible to define. If we strictly adhere to the key terms of the 1948 genocide convention, then does the current U.S. embargo on Iraq, which is taking its horrible toll on innocent children, not qualify as a geno- cidal act? Alas, such is the nature of moral ambiguity. Second, the motivations for U.S. noninterventionist policies rest on the same reason why so many wor- thy policies from global environmental causes fail to make headway through the labyrinth of the congressional legislative processes. The benefits are diffuse among the multitude and the costs on specific targets (the military and the poli- ticians, if the humanitarian intervention fails, regardless of the moral impera- tives), remain outside of the institutional agenda. Third, and perhaps less conse- quentially, Power somewhat overstates her case in the title of the book. The This content downloaded from on Sat, 09 Mar 2019 03:16:50 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms 696 1 POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY twentieth century did not invent genocide; it simply found a term for it. How- ever, Samantha Power’s book should not be judged by the pragmatic reasons why we might fail to act the next time the world faces yet another humanitarian catastrophe. Her work should be judged for what it inspires us to do, regardless of the odds. DIPAK K. GUPTA San Diego State Univers


A blind eye to genocide

Through its non-intervention, the US has been complicit in the deaths of millions, claims Samantha Power in A Problem from Hell. Anthony Holden weighs the evidence

Anthony Holden

Sat 28 Jun 2003 22.31 EDTFirst published on Sat 28 Jun 2003 22.31 EDT

A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide

by Samantha Power

pp656, Flamingo, £9.99

The word ‘genocide’ was coined as recently as 1946 by a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin, only four of whose 50-plus relatives survived the Holocaust. He became a major player in the framing and adoption of the United Nations Convention on its ‘prevention and punishment’, passed in 1948 but not ratified by the United States for another 40 years, and then only with an ‘à la carte’ opt-out clause.

Lemkin’s story is told in fascinating detail by Samantha Power, an Irish-born, American-based journalist-turned-academic, and lies at the heart of this important book, a superb piece of reporting which cumulatively grows into a major political work, part polemic, part moral philosophy.

Power continues Lemkin’s mission by chronicling all the major twentieth-century acts of genocide in truly horrifying detail, while seeking to establish exactly how much the US administration of the day knew about what was going on as it invariably managed to avoid getting involved.

‘The United States has never in its history intervened to stop genocide,’ she concludes, ‘and has, in fact, rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred.’

Taking her title from Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s tortured circumlocutions about Bosnia, Power accuses US Presidents since Woodrow Wilson of ‘considered political inaction’ costing millions of innocent lives abroad while losing not a single vote back home.

An extreme case is, of course, currently being unearthed – all too literally – in Iraq, where every week sees the discovery of new mass graves and the exhumation of the victims of Saddam Hussein’s Shia and Kurdish purges. With characteristic boldness, and detail so meticulous as to defy refutation, Power shows that Presidents Reagan and Bush (the first) were, meanwhile, raising levels of US aid to Saddam for a variety of self-interested, if deluded, reasons.

Her passionate interest in genocide was sparked by her baffled indignation as a young foreign correspondent at the Clinton administration’s reluctance to intervene in the slaughter of 200,000 Bosnians between 1992 and 1995. The Western powers which looked away or sat on their hands were the same ones then opening Holocaust museums and solemnly promising (in Clinton’s hollow words): ‘Never again.’

Starting with the Turkish massacre of the Armenians in 1915, Power proceeds via Cambodia, Iraq and the Balkans to the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsi and Hutus in Rwanda in just 100 days in 1994. Each case is examined in brutally exhaustive detail, almost defying the reader to proceed without a sense of collective guilt at the consequences of inaction, not just from the US, her central target, but among its supposedly civilised Western allies.

She identifies heroic protesters, invariably as ignored or reviled as Cassandra, while revealing astonishing evidence, much of it new, of just how much the US government of the day knew, whatever it may have said at the time.

The eventual intervention in Kosovo and the subsequent trial of Milosevic are the ‘sole exceptions which prove the rule’, and may yet come to be seen as ‘high-water marks in genocide prevention and punishment’. Otherwise, throughout the twentieth century as throughout history, genocide has all too often been seen by foreign powers as beyond their remit, an internal matter for the country concerned. Reports from the front, by survivors, refugees or courageous journalists and diplomats, have been ignored or discredited.

In the case of the US, as Power argues even more powerfully than we already knew, any overseas adventures have been dictated solely by national self-interest, usually more economic than moral. To this day, there are disagreements over the precise definition of genocide, flouting the UN declaration and largely designed to dodge any moral imperative to intervene.

Pre-Lemkin, and to a shameful extent since, national governments have been left free to treat their own citizens as they choose, ethnic cleansing being as much (or as little) a matter for foreign interference as any other domestic policy. Power’s litany from the last century alone makes highly uncomfortable reading for the world conscience: beyond the tens of millions dead in the Holocaust and those other, more familiar examples, she cites the Hausa slaughter of the Ibo in Nigeria in 1968 (a million dead), West Pakistan’s culling of East Pakistan Bengalis in 1971 (up to two million), Tutsi versus Hutu in 1972 (150,000).

Amid her righteous anger, Power unwittingly allies herself with the neo-conservatives now calling the shots in Washington, with such apparent influence on our own moral crusader of a Prime Minister. Many of her arguments are uncomfortably unilateralist; she does not specifically say so, but they tend towards the kind of intervention which recently took place in Iraq, if too late and for all the wrong reasons. The US, she says, ‘has a duty to act’, if necessary ‘to risk the lives of its soldiers in stopping this monstrous crime’.

A world in which Bush Junior’s America plays moral policeman and goes in shooting on its own self-interested evidence is not a world with much appeal to its supposed allies among other Western democracies. A world in which the US stops dodging its international responsibilities, signs up to such global initiatives as the World Court, and helps build a stronger UN to enforce such laws as its charter against genocide, is a very different matter.

Power’s book makes a major contribution to that debate and is required reading for anyone inclined to take part.