A doctor who has witnessed the worst forms of inhumanity in hot spots around the globe takes an unflinching look at the political and economic forces that provoke human suffering and offers a moving meditation on the nature of humanitarianism.
Orbinski was president of Doctors Without Borders when it received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, and this book echoes and expands on his acceptance speech. He argues that humanitarian action must be free of political influence, must not become a tool of war and must not be silent in the face of human-rights violations. Its goal is the relief of human suffering, and though imperfect, it is essential. In 1994, the author was chief of mission for DWB in Kigali, Rwanda, when a million men, women and children, 85 percent of all the Tutsis, were exterminated. By withdrawing its forces from Rwanda, the United Nations “became little more than a cowering paper lion,” Orbinski charges, “offering earnest resolutions and fine humanitarian rhetoric while the superpowers pursued their national interests.” The genocide in Rwanda provides some of the most horrific scenes of human brutality and suffering, but the author also takes the reader to the sites of a cholera epidemic in Peru, a minefield-surrounded refugee camp in Afghanistan, civil wars and famine in Somalia and Sudan and to Kosovo, where humanitarian action became a justification for military and political intervention. He tells powerful stories of individual courage and suffering, but equally important, he offers lucid accounts of the complicated political alignments and realignments shaping events. After completing his term as president of DWB, the author took up a new battle, spelled out in his penultimate chapter: the fight for access in the developing world to essential medicines against infectious diseases and the setting up of community-based care centers in developing countries for people with HIV/AIDS. Readers spurred to action by Orbinski’s example will find organizations worthy of support in an appendix.
An important, consciousness-raising work.