FREEDOM ON FIRE: Human Rights Wars and America's Response

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FREEDOM ON FIRE Human Rights Wars and America's Response John Shattuck Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003. 390pp, US$29.95 cloth (ISBN 0-674-01162-7)

John Shattuck was United States assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs during the major human rights crises of the 1990s. Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo serve as main chapter titles for his political memoir covering the period from June 1993 until he was appointed ambassador to the Czech Republic in November 1998. In addition to these humanitarian crises, two chapters cover Bill Clinton's human rights policy towards China and the final chapter presents implications for the "war on terrorism."

Shattuck identifies himself as a "human rights hawk" (7) who believes that the United States should promote human rights globally and in concert with other nations. He calls for prevention before crises spin out of control and expensive and risky humanitarian interventions become necessary. Shattuck criticizes the current US government for undermining its leadership role in the world by refusing to sign international treaties and rejecting the International Criminal Court (ICC). He blames the current administration's unilateralism for making the United States an "object of global resentment" (6) and failing to recognize that human rights crises are breeding grounds for terrorism. The main sections present his perspective of the bureaucratic struggles within the Clinton administration, but rarely reveal the undoubtedly difficult personal decisions Shattuck, as a human rights activist, had to make. While he provides early on some personal background and talks about having made "mistakes" (14) during his tenure, the rest of the book offers a more conventional perspective of an activist using moral persuasion in a hostile bureaucratic environment.

The events underlying the narrative have been told in much greater detail elsewhere. This book adds a crucial (and often marginalized) perspective from inside the US government. Shattuck provides his readers with a comprehensive perspective where each crisis creates ripple effects and their simultaneity overwhelmed decision-makers in western capitals. The book provides an intimate view of interagency gridlock and the interests that added to the "Somalia syndrome" (26), hampering the ability of the US to effectively intervene for human rights around the world. The book is compelling in describing the widening gap between ambitions to promote human rights abroad and the lack of political will and means to do so in the face of authoritarianism and the determination of politically instigated communal violence. …


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