The Humanitarian Times

December 29, 1998

 

HT’S TEN MOST IMPORTANT HUMANITARIAN BOOKS OF 1998

 

1: "WAR CRIMES: BRUTALITY, GENOCIDE, TERROR & STRUGGLE FOR JUSTICE" (1998, NY: Times Books) by Aryeh Neier ranks as the most timely, educational and compelling book of the year. Neier explains the incremental progress, via experience in many countries, in elaborating war crimes conventions, using truth commissions, deploying rights monitoring, & activating humanitarian law diplomacy. "War Crimes" argued effectively for the international criminal court, crafted in Rome last summer, concluding, "for the first time in human history, those committing war crimes, crimes against humanity or… genocide, would have to reckon seriously with the possibility that they would be brought… to face truth, be held accountable and serve justice."

 

2: "REFUGEE HEALTH" CONVEYS LESSONS OF MEDECINS SANS FRONTIERES experience in refugee primary health, emergency nutrition & epidemic infectious disease control and becomes the definitive text for both field reference & educational curricula (London: MacMillan Education Ltd, and Brussels: MSF).

 

3: "COMPASSION FATIGUE": NEWS-MAKERS BEAR RESPONSIBILITY to education readers on root causes, writes author Susan Moeller. "Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death" (1999, NY: Routledge) argues that journalists needlessly simplify humanitarian crises and pass up opportunities to explain trends beneath the stark graphics.

 

4: ELECTIONS ARE NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR ONGOING PEACE NEGOTIATIONS finds "Post-Conflict Elections, Democratization and International Assistance," edited by Krishna Kumar, which casts a critical eye on the link between early elections and post-conflict reconciliation and stability. On balance the authors find that intl. aid has permitted democratic processes to take hold in countries like Angola, Cambodia, El Salvador, Haiti, Liberia, Mozambique and Nicaragua. (1998, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Pub.)

 

5: CONFLICT CAN INDEED BE AVERTED, REPORTS CARNEGIE CORPORATION in "Preventing Deadly Conflict" the summation report of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, which consolidates findings of many research studies. It finds, "The costs of prevention… are miniscule when compared with the costs of deadly conflict and the rebuilding and psychological healing in its aftermath… The circumstances that give rise to violent conflict can usually be foreseen. A culture of prevention …must become a global cultural heritage passed down from generation to generation." Modernization of the UN Security Council and creation of a rapid reaction military force are two among numerous recommendations.

 

6: "EVERY SURVIVOR WONDERS WHY HE IS ALIVE" is one among many quotes or vignettes captured by Philip Gourevich in his post-genocide survey of the 90s Rwanda crisis, "We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families" (1998, NY: Farrar Straus & Giroux). The 1995 Kibeho massacre, in which 5,000 IDPs were killed, shows how the failure of aid agencies to return people home led instead to harsh military solutions.

 

7: ECONOMC SANCTIONS AND PERSISTENCE WON SOUTH AFRICA recounts historian Robert K Massie in his 880-page "Losing the Bonds" (1998, NY: Doubleday). Tracing tensions back to the 1700s, Massie details the essential steps which over many decades united activists in South Africa and America and England, with universities, labor, corporations, banks, city councils, the Kennedys, and the US Congress in pressuring the white minority in South Africa to allow a full democracy, realized in the April 1994 elections that brought Mandela to power. In the US the South Africa movement dramatically expanded shareholder activism, promoted corporate disclosure, and created a unique method "that allowed huge pools of capital to respond to criteria other than immediate financial return." Given enough time, sanctions can have their intended effect: Massie writes, "Amazing changes can and do take place in history… acts of protest and conscience, so often dismissed as pointless, can gradually accumulate into an irresistible force for change. We have control of our ideas, our ideas have material consequences, and, in the end, as a people, we become what we believe."

 

8: A COMMITMENT TO NON-VIOLENCE IN THE BURMA STRUGGLE is expressed at length by Burmese Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, calling parallels to other freedom movements in "The Voice of Hope" - interviews with Alan Clements (NY: Seven Stories Press).

 

9: "BETWEEN VENGEANCE AND FORGIVENESS" by Harvard Prof. Martha Minow (1998, Boston: Beacon Press) explores the benefits and shortcomings of truth commissions, post-conflict reparations, trials and their variations, drawing on dozens of historical cases. The author describes her book as a "fractured meditation on the incompleteness and inescapable inadequacy of each possible response to collective atrocities [and also as] a small effort to join in the resistance to forgetting."

 

10: ONGOING NEGLECT OF INTERNALLY DISPLACED IS REVIEWED in two new books by Roberta Cohen and Francis Deng (SRSG) "The Forsaken People" and "Masses in Flight" (both 1998, Wash-DC: Brookings Institute). The authors call for "a system of shared responsibilities regional organizations would be the first to monitor… mass displacements [and be] the first to intercede. Most regional organizations, however, have no operational capabilities or enforcement powers of their own." Where Masses in Flight is a global synthesis by Cohen and Deng, Forsaken People is an anthology of case studies they edit, covering Colombia, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, the Caucasus, Liberia, Sudan, Peru and Burundi.

 

ALSO OF NOTE IN 1998:

 

-- "UnWinnable Wars," by David Callahan (1998, NY: Twentieth Century Fund) observes that peacemaking interventions will have a mix of outcomes, some unpleasant, but argues against inaction.

 

-- "The Earth in Turmoil" by K Sieh and S LeVay (1998, NY: WH Freeman) describes scientific inquiry into earthquake and volcanic hazards, and concludes with disaster prevention methods.

 

-- "Rising From the Ashes: Development Strategies in Times of Disaster", the much-in-demand 1989 classic by M Anderson and P Woodrow was re-published in 1998 by Lynne Rienner (Boulder, Colorado), giving several dozen examples of effective NGO community-based programs that mitigate disasters.

 

-- "Resisting the Bomb: The Struggle Against the Bomb, A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement" is volume II, covering 1954-1970, in Lawrence Wittner series about how grassroots action gradually turned international policies against nuclear arms competition (Stanford Univ Press).

 

-- David Landes’ "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations" (1998 New York: WW Norton) explains the causes of different historical economic growth rates of different parts of the world, giving balanced coverage to developed and developing countries. Cultural factors, including openness to new technologies and pioneering investments, account for economic disparities, the author explains.

 

-- Emerging infections and mass murder of civilians are the theme of two recent novels. Richard Preston’s "The Cobra Event" accurately describes the likely responses to a deadly biological pathogen created via genetic engineering. It is the first fully fleshed out description of a new bio-weapon. (NY: Ballentine Books). A similar tale, "The Eleventh Plague" by J Marr (Harper Mass Market) shows how bio-weapons may kill large numbers of people yet prove difficult to isolate or trace.

 

-- RIGOBERTA MENCHU PUBLISHES MORE OF HER OWN STORY, in her second autobiography, "Crossing Borders" (1998, London: Verso Books), in which she focuses more on her activities in the 80s and 90s working for the rights of indigenous peoples in Central and North America. Menchu’s stories reiterate the neglected underside of development, including refugees: "All refugees know the immense solitude you feel in exile." Crossing Borders is also referenced in David Stoll’s new book "Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans" (1999; Westview Press), covered in last issue’s news story about inaccuracies in Menchu’s record. Stoll compares Menchu’s explanations for how she let her ghost- writer Elizabeth Burgos stitch together stories of different people as if they were Menchu’s own.

 

CORRECTION: The HT Dec. 22 issue mistakenly said that Rigoberta Menchu won the Nobel Prize in 1982. She won in 1992.