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Monday, Oct. 20, 2008

A Question of Will

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Despite daily proof of man's capacity for cruelty, there are some who draw great sustenance from whatever morsels of humanity we can get our hands on. This wary optimism gains credence when espoused by an individual like Jan Egeland, current director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. During his previous tenure as the U.N. under-secretary-general and U.N. emergency relief coordinator, he witnessed more tragedies and acts of barbarism than most of us could dream of, yet prefaces a book published earlier this year with a message of hope.

"I have confronted warlords, mass murderers and tyrants but I have met many more peacemakers, relief workers and human rights activists who risk their lives at humanity's first line of defense," he wrote.

In A Billion Lives: An Eyewitness Report from the Frontlines of Humanity, Egeland offers a firsthand account of some of the greatest global disasters and conflicts of recent years, including the genocide in Darfur, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the tsunamis of Southeast Asia. The book includes a meeting with Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who decried a U.N. offer of tents to shelter the thousands of impoverished and ill Zimbabweans left homeless by his policies, as well as a pained recollection of the day Egeland's predecessor, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was killed in Iraq's Canal Hotel bombing in 2003.

However, it's clear from page one that this book is more than a recollection of the trials and tribulations of a long and eventful career. A palpable sense of anger pervades the book, directed partly toward the way today's wars are waged mainly against civilians ("In our age, it is more dangerous to be a woman or a child in those battlefields than an armed adult male soldier") and partly toward the manner in which secure and wealthy nations like the United States, China, India and the Persian Gulf states fail to fully deploy their diplomatic leverage in places like Africa and proffer only nominal amounts of support to the billions of impoverished individuals with whom they share the Earth. Time and again he rebukes the member nations of the United Nations for being "stingy" and "penny-pinching" in their compensations, offering "blankets and Band-Aids rather than justice and protection." He uses the war in Iraq to illustrate the failures of unilateral force as opposed to cooperative multilateralism. His book precipitates a grander, more generous understanding of the debt we owe to our fellow man, the dispensation of which is only "a question of will."

Egeland comes to UW-Milwaukee's Golda Meir Library Conference Center (2311 E. Hartford Ave.) at 7 p.m. on Oct. 27 to speak about his humanitarian work. For ticket prices and information, call 229-3220. A book sale/signing will follow the talk.