There is nothing perfect about the international relief campaign for Haiti, but as I've watched the endless news coverage this last month, I've been reminded of how powerful the force of humanitarian action can be when it is unleashed. It is truly awe-inspiring. Yet, for me, there is always the same question:
Why Haiti and not a holocaust? Why can't we galvanise that same level of empathy to aid not only the victims of a natural disaster but of genocide?
The question is not as crazy as it seems. I'm on the road with Screamers, a film I made about the recurring problem of genocide in the last century, being released in Australia this week. The film is based on the thesis of the Pulitzer prize-winning author Samantha Power, who argues in A Problem from Hell that, starting with the Armenian Genocide, western governments have consistently turned their backs on stopping that most horrible of horrible disasters, genocide, even when the evidence is right in front of them.
There were “screamers” during the Armenian Genocide, “screamers” during the Holocaust, “screamers” in Cambodia and Rwanda - people who raised the red flag and made available the crucial information needed for governments to make decisions about how and when to intervene. But the intervention did not happen. People were left to die, not under collapsed buildings, no: they were left to be murdered, family by family, by their own governments.
The fact is, we say "Never Again," but we don't mean it. Samantha Powers' answer is that we have consistently allowed genocides to occur, but, because that is such an unpalatable idea to sell to the public, our political leaders do the "g-word dance".
In the case of the Armenian genocide in 1915, when the massacres began, Britain, France and Russia said they would punish Turkey if it continued to massacre the Armenians. After the war, in the Treaty of Sevres, President Wilson duly mapped the partition of Turkey, to give back lands to Turkey's Armenian victims. But later, it was a different story - oil and the fight against Bolshevism. In the Great War's aftermath, punishing Turkey was politically inconvenient. And so the dance has gone on ever since, recognising the events, yes, but not calling it what it is - genocide. That, despite the historical record being loud and clear, despite the overwhelming evidence in the archives of all the leading players, America, Britain and Germany included.
President after President has recognised the events, never denying what happened. Fear has revolved around that one word - the g-word. Genocide.
President Ronald Reagan called it genocide in 1981, before the US ratified the UN Genocide Convention. But after ratification, he flip-flopped and called it a "great tragedy", for fear of offending Turkey. President George Bush Sr prevaricated over Bosnia, never being clear about what was "ethnic cleansing" and what was "genocidal actions". President Bill Clinton turned his back on Rwanda. It didn't matter that he apologised for his inaction years later. UN Commander Romeo Daillaire asked for a small force to intervene - but the Clinton Administration said “no”. The damage was done.
And so it goes on. President George W. Bush campaigned to recognise the genocide among the rich Armenian communities in the US, but once in power, he backed down and called it "the forced exile and murder of 1.5 million people".
President Barack Obama campaigned to call it genocide, but four months in office, during his visit to Turkey last year, he would only say "he stood by his position" which is to call it genocide, but … he wouldn't say the word. We await his actions this April, the month of the Armenian genocide's commemoration, but the prospects don't look good for either truth or justice. President Obama, so far, has proved he can do the g-word dance better than any President, whether Democrat or Republican.
Samantha Power says it would be a different story if there was more "people power" i.e., domestic political constituencies who could pressure our representative leaders to "do something now!" There have never been enough Cambodians, Rwandans, Bosnians, or for that matter, Armenians, to have that sort of influence in America. All we can rely on, apart from our own small but mighty voices, is to appeal to our fellow citizens' sense of empathy.
After all, those children who are being murdered in Darfur - they could be your children, right? But to galvanise that level of public opinion you need the pictures - and that relies on a news media that is economically and politically committed to covering those difficult parts of the world, consistently and unhesitatingly. As I know too well though, having been a member of that elite squad, those pictures have not always been forthcoming.