Fighting Genocide–Very, Very Slowly

A new poll has found 69% of Americans believe the United States “should prevent or stop genocide or mass atrocities from occurring in another part of the world.”

Yet the agency that the Obama administration created more than three months ago to fight against mass atrocities in other parts of the world still does not have an office, phone number, or email address. Somehow, the candidate who vowed, “I won’t turn a blind eye to slaughter” became the president who is blind, deaf, and mute to mass murder abroad.

In April, President Obama inaugurated the Atrocities Prevention Board, and named his adviser Samantha Power as director. It was the first time the United States officially took upon itself the responsibility for protecting civilians in other countries–and as the new Penn Schoen Berland poll demonstrates, it is a policy more than two-thirds of Americans support.

But that was April. Now it’s August. And the Board still has no web site, no phone number, and no email address. Unless they are well hidden, it does not have an office or a staff, either. Despite all the fanfare and high-sounding pronouncements –and despite all the fresh atrocities in Sudan and elsewhere crying out for its attention– the Atrocities Prevention Board still does not exist.

Recently I asked some colleagues in Washington what they made of this. “Sounds like government,” they said. If it were any other issue, I too might chalk it up to bureaucratic inertia, sigh in frustration, and turn my attention elsewhere.

But we’re talking about genocide. Genocide is different. And the response should be different.

During the Holocaust, one of the most frequent complaints by rescue advocates was the achingly slow pace of the Allies’ response.

Congressman Emanuel Celler (D-New York) charged that the Roosevelt administration’s procedure for reviewing refugees’ visa applications was “glacier-like in its slowness.” Newspaper ads sponsored by the activist Bergson Group, pleading for U.S. rescue action, bore headlines such as “Time Races Death; What Are We Waiting For?” A Treasury Department report accused the State Department of “gross procrastination” in dealing with rescue matters. An editorial cartoon in the Palestine Hebrew newspaper HaBoker depicted a race to Auschwitz between a German with a death’s-head flag driving a tank and an Allied “rescuer” riding a tortoise.

Mass murder required an approach that was not limited by ordinary considerations, they maintained. “Do we need to tell you [Allied leaders] what to do at a time of national danger?,” U.S. Labor Zionist official Baruch Zuckerman asked in an emotional address to the 1943 American Jewish Conference. “At such a time do you maintain your established peacetime methods? Do you not change your entire life?”

When Jews were being murdered every day, there was a direct correlations between the pace of the response and the death toll. In August 1943, Secretary of State Cordell Hull himself said he would approve a request by Congressman Andrew Somers (D-New York) and several other rescue advocates to travel to Turkey, in order to pressure the government there to let Jewish refugees pass through its territory. Two months later, a furious Somers was telling reporters that he still had not received the necessary authorization. “Who knows how many people we could have rescued by now if our delegation had been permitted to proceed as soon as Secretary Hull gave his approval.”

One of the most notorious instances involved several hundred rabbis who were placed temporarily in the Vittel transit camp in northeastern France, instead of being sent to Auschwitz, because they held Latin American passports and thus might be useful in an exchange for German POWs held by the Allies. When the Germans began doubting the documents’ authenticity and prepared to deport the rabbis, rescue activists pleaded with the Roosevelt administration to confirm that they would include the holders of the documents in a prisoner exchange. But State Department officials, uneasy about seeming to endorse false passports, stalled in responding. By the time they reluctantly assented, two months later, it was too late: the rabbis had been shipped off to the gas chambers.

How many Sudanese blacks in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, or the Blue Nile region have been murdered during the long months that White House aides have been trying to figure out how to secure a domain name for the Atrocities Prevention Board?

The outgoing prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said at his farewell dinner, in June, that “There’s ongoing genocide [in Darfur]…the new weapons of the genocide–starvation and rape–are working very well.” And New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof reported from Sudan earlier this summer that the regime of Omar al-Bashir is carrying out “mass atrocities that echo Darfur” against non-Arab tribes in the Nuba Mountains.

This is not to say that the Atrocities Prevention Board could have prevented every single one of those atrocities from occurring. But at least there would have been a glimmer of hope that some lives would have been saved. So long as the Obama administration continues to only pay lip service to the fight against genocide, there is not even that.

(As published in the Jerusalem Post – August 1, 2012)

August 2012