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  • An International But Especially American Event
  • Jacques Sémelin (bio)

The report of the Genocide Prevention Task Force (the Albright-Cohen Report), prepared under the auspices of the US Institute of Peace (USIP), is of great significance to the field of genocide studies. I do not hesitate to say that this report is an international event. Indeed, this is the first time that a group of experts—mainly former high officials, former diplomats, generals, and members of Congress—have worked together to propose a coherent and well-argued list of recommendations to a state so that its government can play a major role in preventing genocide throughout the world. One may certainly regret that so few genocide scholars and NGO members were consulted; it seems clear that the report has been written for a public policy audience rather than an academic audience. Nevertheless, to my knowledge, there has been no equivalent document—directed to a particular state rather than to an organization such as the United Nations—in the young field of genocide studies or in international affairs. In particular, such reports cannot currently be found in the United Kingdom or in France.

Above all, this report is an American event, since the Genocide Prevention Task Force recommendations have been formulated mainly by American experts to convince the current American administration (that of President Barack Obama) to implement policy in the field of genocide prevention. As its subtitle indicates, the report is intended to be a "blueprint for U.S. policymakers."1 However, to grasp the significance of such an initiative, let us consider a broader vision of its historical importance, keeping in mind all the past failures of states in general, and the United States especially, to prevent and to stop genocide. This is why the Genocide Prevention Task Force is an "answer" or, at least, a follow-up to Samantha Power's famous 2002 book, "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide.2 Power's book analyzes the constant passivity of the US government in the face of ongoing genocides throughout the twentieth century, including the Holocaust. To some extent, the Genocide Prevention Task Force was a way for America to say "never again": never again will America maintain a position of passivity.

Now, the question is: Is this report convincing to its target audience? In the field of genocide prevention, one too often reads generous statements and wishful thinking. This is not at all the case with the Albright-Cohen Report, whose goal is to be accurate and realistic as well as well balanced. All the report's vocabulary comes from strategic studies and international affairs. In this respect, the Task Force brings the debate on genocide prevention from the margins to the mainstream of foreign affairs. There is a price to be paid for this: the report's terminology is sometimes bureaucratic, in order, I assume, to convince key members of the US administration to take action on genocide prevention. [End Page 161]

Interestingly enough, the task force has decided to distance itself from the legal definition of genocide (as it is accepted and recognized by the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, or UNCG). This is a wise decision, not only because this definition is a matter of endless debate and controversy among genocide scholars but also because the legal definition protects only four kinds of groups. Furthermore, the legal definition places those who want to prevent genocide in a deep contradiction: as soon as lethal violence against civilian populations is legally recognized as the crime of genocide, it is by definition too late to prevent it.

But is the expression "mass atrocities," from the legal expert David Scheffer, the most appropriate choice for enlarging the notion? This is matter of debate as well. Faced with the same problem of definition, the steering committee of the Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence (OEMV) finally decided on the expression "mass violence," which was perceived as more neutral and general. The term is used to refer to

human phenomena of collective destructiveness which are primarily due to political, social, religious or cultural causes. This category excludes natural disasters...


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pp. 161-166
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