'Watchers of the Sky' and the Full Cruelty of Consciousness

Brutality can take many forms, from war making to banking.

Watchers of the Sky

Director: Edet Belzberg
Cast: Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Samantha Power, Emmanuel Uwurukundo, Ben Ferencz
Rated: NR
Studio: Music Box Films
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-10-17 (Limited release)

"I am fighting an infinitely small part of the world, which arrogates to itself the right to speak for humanity." These words appear on screen in white typeface, floating over a close, confusing, black-and-white shot of foliage, all blurred grays. The quotation goes on -- "They want non-enforceable laws with loopholes in them so that they can manage life like currency in the bank" -- while the frame swings up, out of the trees, to look up at the United Nations building in New York, stretching up into a blurred gray sky.

Here Watchers of the Sky underscores Lemkin's daunting insight, that brutality can take many forms, from war making to banking. Still, as Edet Belzberg's film shows, Lemkin remained undaunted, working for decades to impose some measure of order on these many forms. Specifically and as a first step, as United States Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power notes here, he decided to coin a word for one version of brutality, a word to "connote that moral judgment that he [felt was] necessary." The word was "genocide", and with its invention -- pictured in the film through animation, handwriting on notebook paper suggesting the process of imagining and scratching out and reimagining -- Lemkin undertook a campaign to unite nations in identifying, assessing, and punishing its repeated instances.

That process took as a point point of departure World War II, though the film makes clear Lemkin saw the instances as multiple and repetitive. The Holocaust, however, drew particular attention from nations all over the world, and so the opportunity to shape a response to it. If that response might not be closure, it might be thinking ahead, anticipating teh next instance: no matter how hopeful anyone might be that this genocide would never be perpetrated again, Lemkin and others, including Power, believe that imposing order on chaos, a legal frame on brutality, could slow or prevent the next instance. Writing in 1946, Lemkin describes the Nazis' "crime of destroying national, racial or religious groups." But even as the crime is recognized and named, he goes on, "The problem now arises as to whether it is a crime of only national importance, or a crime in which international society as such should be vitally interested. Many reasons speak for the second alternative. It would be impractical to treat genocide as a national crime, since by its very nature it is committed by the state or by powerful groups which have the backing of the state. A state would never prosecute a crime instigated or backed by itself."

Here Lemkin identifies a key reason that these powerful groups or world "leaders" don't want such definitions imposed, a reason they might not want to pursue such crimes, no matter how obvious or how horrific: someone else, sometime, might want to impose such order on them, to call their actions criminal and to hold them to account. For Lemkin, observes Ben Ferencz, a longtime prosecutor of war crimes, including serving as an investigator during Nuremberg, Lemkin wants "to use the law to bind humanity and to prevent crimes." Samantha Power adds, "That was Lemkin's point, you have to convince perpetrators they will be watched, that they will be accountable in some way."

This ideal of community, of a humanity that shares a common understanding and seeks to protect populations from mass abuse and murder, remains difficult to organize. Such perpetrators rarely self-identify, and pursue their genocidal practices because others decline to identify them even as they may "watch" them. The film traces Lemkin's particular efforts, his lobbying of world bodies like the UN to work together, and even to agree to an International Criminal Court. The film also shows the complications following, an initial agreement to a world tribunal, as the UN and tribunals remain reluctant to act in the face of genocide. As Madeline Albright observes here in archival footage, "It becomes a legal thing unfortunately, a definitional question," as language slips and criminals feel, still, unaccountable. And so, the film suggests, even if German Einsatzgruppen might be reviled, framed as part of a reviled past, current criminals like Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir or Syria's Bashar al-Assad might still elude official or any sort of material judgment,.

This dilemma inspired Power's Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Problem from Hell: American in the Age of Genocide, which in turn serves as Watchers of the Sky's inspiration. Just so, the film focuses on Power's efforts to delineate and pursue perpetrators, along with efforts by Ferencz and Luis Moreno-Ocampo (whose work on behalf of the International Criminal Court regarding the Bashir case is recounted in, for example, The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court), as well as Rwandan genocide survivor and humanitarian worker Emmanuel Uwurukundo.

As the film showcases the valiant, difficult labors of these workers for justice, or at least, for a sense of some "accountability", a word that comes up repeatedly in relation to "genocide", it also indicates that each step is fraught. So, Ocampo brings charges against Bashir, but then finds himself a target of media and legal structures, needing to defend his legal steps as these might threaten current or future abusers. While individuals might imagine that other individuals or communities --- their governments, for example -- might help them when they face brutalities, the more typical response on the part of such communities is not to be involved, to think of what happens within national borders beyond the jurisdiction of those outside.

Power has argued against such thinking vigorously, of course, and lamented the popularity and seeming practicality of so-called "realpolitik". And yet, as Lemkin suggests, each instance also has an intimate dimension, if only because the next victims might be people you know. When his own parents declared that the Nazis would not come for them, because they were old, because they had done nothing, he soon became aware, even as a child, that their thinking was wishful. "It was like going to funerals while they were still alive," he wrote later, "The best of me was dying with the full cruelty of consciousness."

This consciousness matters, as Lemkin and Watchers of the Sky argue. Knowing is a function of responsibility, and vice versa.

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