Culture | Humanitarians can’t afford to be neutral

Dr. James Orbinski’s memoir questions crimes of inaction

The 20th century has seen war, bloodshed, and humanitarian catastrophe, carried out by crudely armed tribal groups and modern industrial superpowers. In these situations, humanitarians find themselves in a problematic position. They can decide to remain silent and continue to give aid to those who survive, or speak out against the atrocities and risk being expelled from the affected country. The position of the Red Cross in Nazi Germany represented perhaps the epitome of such moral dilemmas.

Dr. James Orbinski, former president of Médecins sans Frontières, is no stranger to these questions. His latest book, An Imperfect Offering, gives detailed accounts of his experiences in some of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent memory. Beginning his work in Rwanda investigating the condition of paediatric AIDS, he realizes that much of the widespread pain and suffering he saw could have been prevented had the right political and economic choices been made. From there he travelled to Peru during a cholera epidemic, to Somalia during the American-led intervention, and to Afghanistan, which was still reeling from the attempted Soviet invasion.

Above all, it was Orbinski’s experience in Rwanda during its 1994 genocide that would fundamentally change him. “The Genocide in Rwanda was my undoing,” he writes, “It was where I came to know intimately the fullness of what we are capable of as human beings. No illusions or fantasies were possible after this; no retreat into false hopes or comforting yearning for a lost past.” The failure of both the Rwandan government and the international community truly altered his understanding of the world.

When governments like the United States and France initially blocked attempts to label the Rwanda crisis as a genocide – a distinction that would have made it obligatory for the Security Council to intervene – Orbinski decided to take a different approach. Too much emphasis, he believes, has been placed on the need for humanitarian groups to remain neutral – ultimately, such a position is impossible. To not speak out against atrocities committed by regimes essentially legitimizes them, allowing the acts to continue.

“The doctor’s role is to witness authentically the reality of humanity, and to speak out against the horrors of political inaction,” Orbinski explains. “The only crimes of equal inhumanity are the crimes of indifference, silence, and forgetting.” Ultimately, governments will act largely in their own self interest, not within the realm of higher humanitarian ideals. Orbinski calls upon humanitarians present on the ground at areas of crisis to tell the world what is happening.

A 2008 nominee for the Governor General’s Award, The Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-first Century is $35.


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