Required Reading: Human Rights Fiction and Non-Fiction


Amnesty International is celebrating its 50th anniversary with Freedom , an anthology of short stories that are each cleverly paired with one of the 30 rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Featuring contributions by prominent authors like Paulo Coelho, Joyce Carol Oates, Yann Martel, and Nadine Gordimer, the collection presents mixed interpretations of contemporary issues in global justice while drawing attention to Amnesty’s hard-fought work. Freedom offers an enticing and eminently readable primer on a range of contemporary human rights issues that many people might otherwise ignore or overlook, but we also recommend the following ten non-fiction titles to complement their fictional counterparts with a deeper look at specific UDHR issues.

ARTICLE 7: “Equal Protection and Freedom from Discrimination”

World on Fire by Amy Chua

“The Trial,” Walter Mosley’s short story for Freedom, is the unsettling tale of a housing project that assembles its own ad hoc tribunals in response to the indifference of local law enforcement. But Amy Chua interrogates this implied subtext with a searing examination of inequality, discrimination, and incitement in World on Fire. She argues that the simultaneous injection of free market capitalism and democracy in countries with pre-existing socioeconomic disparities creates a volatile blend of resentment and empowerment among the lower social strata, which frequently results in the violent persecution of wealthy minorities. Chua recently provoked a firestorm with her memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but her thesis in World on Fire is no less incendiary.

ARTICLE 8: “The Right to an Effective Legal Remedy”

A Bed for the Night by David Rieff

David Mitchell’s story “Character Development” — featured in Freedom alongside Article 8: the right to an effective legal remedy — focuses on a humanitarian doctor’s accidental murder, but is perhaps more interesting for the conflict it reveals between the often conflated concepts of humanitarianism and human rights. This conflict is also the subject of David Rieff’s book A Bed for the Night, which levels a scathing critique at humanitarian organizations and their deliberate refusal to pay heed to human rights concerns based around discrimination neutrality. Rieff defends the controversial position that these organizations have an ethical obligation to withhold assistance from human rights abusers — an argument also strangely echoed by the antagonists of Mitchell’s story.

ARTICLE 9: “Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile”

The Pinochet File by Peter Kornbluh

The campaign against arbitrary arrest, detention, and exile is one of Amnesty’s causes celebre, and was an impetus for the organization’s creation in 1961. It’s fitting, then, that this theme receives such brilliant treatment in Freedom, courtesy of Ariel Dorfman’s sublimely nostalgic story, “Innocent Passage.” Dorfman is a Chilean expatriate to the United States, and his contribution recounts the tide of political violence that rose with Augusto Pinochet’s ascension to power over Chile in 1973. But what Dorfman’s story doesn’t reveal about the US government’s role in facilitating Pinochet’s coup, The Pinochet File does. Peter Kornbluh’s studied expose is a damning case against the Nixon administration and its leading foreign envoy, Henry Kissinger.

ARTICLE 12: “Freedom from Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence”

Chatter by Patrick Radden Keefe

The subject of privacy is only briefly addressed in Milton Hatoum’s story “Torn,” in which a student protester returns to his dormitory after a night spent in detention to find that authorities have rifled through and destroyed his belongings. In a more comprehensive yet harrowing analysis of privacy issues, Patrick Radden Keefe’s Chatter exposes the workings of Echelon, a global satellite spy network helmed chiefly by the United States’ National Security Administration. If information travels by air, Echelon can intercept it, and the network’s Orwellian omnipresence only grows as land-borne communication channels fade into obsolescence.

ARTICLE 18: “Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion”

Politics of the Veil by Joan Wallach Scott

Helen Dunsmore’s wistful and soft-spoken “Where I Keep My Faith” is personal more than political, meditating on the spiritual and psychological phenomenon of faith, and the intractability of deeply held beliefs even under extreme pressure of assimilation. The Politics of the Veil provides a counterpart to Dunsmore’s story by placing this struggle in a more visible present-day context — specifically, France’s ban on religious garments in public schools. Joan Wallach Scott traces the evolution of this ban over 20 years to show how its proponents have subverted liberal principles of secularism to entrench the primacy of French culture and suppress minority traditions.

ARTICLE 21: “Participation in Government”

Sovereign Debt at the Crossroads edited by Chris Jochnick and Fraser A. Preston

Freedom offers two short pieces on the subject of elections that broach the topic from both literal (“Mr. President . . .” by Juan Goytisolo) and figurative (“The Obvious Candidate” by Richard Griffiths) angles. The case for securing public voting rights and for making democratic approval a prerequisite for government authority has particularly interesting repercussions in the arena of international finance, however. Sovereign Debt at the Crossroads explores creative and practical policy solutions to the massive debt borne by many of the world’s poorest nations — much of which was incurred for the benefit and at the request of authoritarian regimes that lacked a democratic mandate.

ARTICLE 22: “The Right to Realize the Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights Indispensable to Human Dignity”

Choice, Welfare, and Measurement by Amartya Sen

Yann Martel ruminates on the abstract prescriptions of Article 22 with “The Moon Above His Head,” an offbeat story about a traumatized Somali refugee who forms an unusual habit while trying to cope with the loss of his family and homeland. Martel’s story dovetails nicely with Amartya Sen’s work, which applies classical Keynesian economics to arrive at an ethical model in which the most valuable resource is neither food nor money, but the human right to self-actualize in accordance with one’s own choices and preferences — however idiosyncratic those might be.

ARTICLE 25: “The Right to an Adequate Standard of Living”

Enough by Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman

Alice Pung’s contributes Freedom’s only non-fiction entry with “The Shed,” a retelling of her mother’s hardscrabble resettlement in Australia as a Cambodian immigrant with no command of English. Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman’s Enough takes a broader sweep of such circumstances, examining the systemic, sometimes misunderstood variables that contribute to global starvation. Enough provides a particularly persuasive critique of American hunger relief programs, which subsidize domestic farmers and stopgap solutions at the expense of supporting sustainable local markets.

ARTICLE 26: “The Right to Education”

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

Ishmael Beah delivers one of Freedom’s highlights by discussing education from the perspective of his experience as a former child solder in Sierra Leone. His story “ABC Antidote” praises the value of education in anchoring the minds of conscripted children and in saving them from a total loss of identity. A Long Way Gone features Beah’s profoundly introspective account of his service as a child soldier, and expands the arc of his short story with fluid, casual prose and narrative aplomb.

ARTICLE 28: “The Right to a Social and International Order”

A Problem from Hell by Samantha Powers

Unfortunately the politics of division and nationalism still prevail, and the international community responds sluggishly to human rights crises, if it at all. Liana Badr’s “March of the Dinosaurs” echoes this bleak sentiment by describing how quickly cosmopolitan courtesies give way to indifference and abandonment when Israeli forces descend on a Palestinian woman and a corps of international journalists stationed at her home. Badr’s story calls to mind the famous flight of international peacekeeping forces from Rwanda in the early weeks of the 1994 genocide. Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell studies the phenomenon of genocide over the course of the 20th century to show that what happened in Rwanda typified a pattern dating to the start of the century.