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James Orbinski wins Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing

James Orbinski, early mentor of SAFER since the very beginning, recently published a hardcover book entitled  An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-first Century. Through personal accounts as a doctor with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders), factual details, and political insights that build over time, An Imperfect Offering is an eye-opening and heart-rendering experience written from the perspective of ground-zero.

Orbinski chronicles his experiences in Somalia during the civil war; Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Russian invasion and the CIA-backed mujahideen conflicts; Rwanda during the genocide; Zaire in the wake of the Rwandan genocide; North Korea after famine and disease had already killed 3 million;  the Sudan after the ravages of sixteen years of civil war; and Kosovo as NATO bombed Serb military positions.

Despite the complexities of the situations he faced, and the layers of horror that will forever change the answer to the question, what does it mean to be human, Orbinski writes with clarity–almost a simplicity–about events: people’s lives, their suffering, and their deaths, the political inaction that accompanied them, the hypocrisy that underscored every delay, and the futility of unenforceable systems of human rights laws, declarations, and covenants.

“The genocide [in Rwanda] was life as we can choose to live it. For years before the genocide, the French government trained and armed the Rwandan soldiers. And all the way through the genocide, the French supplied them with arms, mercenaries and intelligence. MSF and other NGOs repeated called for UN invervention, but Belgium, France and the United States paralyzed the UN, and each knowingly pursued their foreign policies through genocide. The evenutal UN/French-led military intevention was too little too late, and barely more than a deception that allowed those who committed the genocide to escape into Zaire.

“Many have described genocide and similar human cruelties as unspeakable. But they are as unspeakable as they are undoable. As human beings, we do genocide. Doctors cannot stop this crime. But the little girl in the latrine had no voice, and as doctors we had a responsibility to speak out against what we knew. And we did not speak into the wind. We spoke with a clear intent to rouse the outrage of public consciousness around the world, and to demand a UN intervention to stop this criminal politics.

“An Imperfect Offering is about finding a way to confront unjust human suffering in the world as it is.” [p. 10]

And yet, the book–and Orbinski himself– is not without hope. Through the telling of stories, Orbinksi shows the contradiction of the darkness and lightness of humanity and he doesn’t let go of the potential for good that we can realize if we harnessed the collective political will. For the individual, he has written about What You Can Do in the epilogue. “Choose a political party or a non-governmental organization…and through it, actively challenge relevant public policies, laws and practices both nationally and internationally…If you can’t find an organization, then start one and let others join [p. 397].” SAFER is honoured to be among one of the organizations that he supports in the ensuing list.

Last night, James Orbinski received the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for political writing. While such recognition cannot undo the “undoable”, it does recognize the dignity and humanity of the millions of people who have suffered while the world looked away.


An Imperfect Offering, Humanitarian Action in the twenty-first century, James Orbinski, Double Day Canada, 448 p., 2008.


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