The limits of humanitarian intervention
The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response. By Peter Balakian. HarperCollins, 475pp., $14.95 paperback.
A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. By David Rieff. Simon & Schuster, 400pp., $15.00 paperback.
DURING THE 189Os, almost 200,000 Armenians were murdered on the orders of the sultan of Anatolia, in what is now Turkey. It was the first modern manifestation of a phenomenon that has become all too familiar. The Armenians were the minority Christian culture in the Ottoman Empire, second-class citizens without many of the rights Muslims enjoyed. In the late 19th century they began to mobilize politically. The resulting Armenian reform and protest movement gained strength at a time when the Ottoman Empire was “the sick man of Europe,” disintegrating under a burden of debt and corruption. Afraid that the Armenian movement could become a viable political opposition, Sultan Abdul Hamid II gave the Muslim Kurdswho shared the same territory as the Armenians-the arms to “defend themselves.”
The world was outraged. U.S. journalists and activists, including Clara Barton, president of the American Red Cross, traveled to Armenia. International relief committees were formed, Christian and Jewish religious organizations sent aid to the Armenians, and the U.S. Congress passed a resolution condemning the massacres. None of this prevented the events that unfolded some years later, early in World War I, when the Turkish government decided that the Armenians posed a threat to national security and began to arrest, deport and murder Armenian leaders. This was followed by several waves of killings between 1915 and 1922. More than a million Armenians died through starvation, torture and outright murder.
Peter Balakian’s The Burning Tigris places the story of the Armenian genocide in its larger historical context, which includes the international response and the emergence of a fledgling human rights movement that, two decades later, turned its attention to events in Nazi Germany. Balakian’s book also illustrates how quickly the victims of history are pushed aside and forgotten in the greater geopolitical picture. Adolf Hitler, addressing his generals as they prepared to invade Poland in 1939, told them to be as ruthless as Genghis Khan and ominously asked, “Who today . .. speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
This is a powerful book, not only because it offers a compelling, readable narrative of the Armenian genocide, but also because it takes up the larger humanitarian and political questions genocide raises. The Armenian genocide, the Holocaust and the Cambodian, Rwandan and Sudanese genocides (or politicides, depending on ones interpretation) have sparked growing acceptance of “humanitarian intervention” that includes political and military initiatives as well as the more traditional humanitarian aid. This development has opened a Pandoras box of political dilemmas and-in the opinion of David Rieff-altered the very nature and integrity of humanitarian work.
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