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Fabrice Weissman (ed), 'In the Shadow of Just Wars: Violence, Politics and Humanitarian Action'

Hurst, 2004; ISBN 1 8506 5737 8; Pb 288pp; £16.50

This book, published in association with Médecins sans Frontiéres, lacks a precise focus, but is principally concerned with international responses to intranational conflict and the problems they pose to humanitarian organisations.

It begins with an excellent and incisive introduction by Jean-Hervé Bradol who outlines three basic types of international response: intervention, involvement and abstention. A large part of the book is dedicated to case studies illustrating each of these three basic types.

Intervention is relatively self-evident, being direct military engagement, and is illustrated here with reference to East Timor, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. Involvement is less clear-cut. Here there is intervention, but it is not military, and its primary aim is to contain the conflict. North Korea, Angola and Sudan are used as examples.

Finally, there is abstention, which is again relatively self-evident. Here the international community takes little or no practical interest. The cases given here are Liberia, Chechnya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia and Algeria. This selection is somewhat problematic in the Democratic Republic of Congo at least since, as the essay on the conflict by Marc Le Pape clearly shows, a large part of the problem is the military interventions of neighbouring countries.

As the book makes clear, each of these responses tends to leave at least one group of victims of violence to its fate and, in the case of intervention, may well create a new group. As Bradol interprets it, the international order regularly requires people to be sacrificed for its sake, and it is the task of humanitarian organisations to care for these people.

Humanitarian organisations regularly find themselves facing choices they would prefer not to have to make. Working with governments leaves them open to cynical manipulation and identification with values and policies that are not their own. On the other hand, not working with governments may undermine their ability to do their work.

In a telling essay, Eric Dachy points out that humanitarian assistance does not always sit easily with the protection of human rights, since deals may have to be done

with the very violators of those rights in order for assistance to get through. Even the most enlightened providers of humanitarian assistance are likely to get their hands very dirty from time to time.

Although the book in many ways makes for depressing reading, it is genuinely helpful in articulating the fundamental values, but also the constant dilemmas, of humanitarian assistance.