Here are twenty books that I have compiled that I think would be beneficial to anyone interested in the subject of human rights. I have tried to make the list as diverse and comprehensive as I can, and yet, I know I have done a mediocre job of it at best because it is impossible to create a comprehensive list of books for a subject so dynamic and complex.
1. Nothing to Envy
By Barbara Demick
Nothing to Envy, a nonfiction portrayal of the North Korea plight, makes this list for its ground-breaking insights into the human rights crisis that still affects the majority of the North Korean population. The author, Barbara Demick, compiles a realistic and often grim set of interviews from over a hundred refugees, using their anecdotes to novelize the hardships commonly suspected, but rarely verified, that take place within the large cities, such as Pyongyang or Chongjin. The novel follows several key characters, including a doctor, who, overworked and disadvantaged with minimal resources, must combat the continual starvation and malnutrition faced by the people of Chongjin. By illustrating a professionals struggle, Demick portrays the lack of adequate resources and the human rights abuses without blurring the often sited line between reporter and commentator. Near the end of the book, the reader is given an overview of the 2009 currency reform and its consequences, and one is prompted to keep in mind the effects of international policies upon the rights of those already disadvantaged within the borders of the enigmatic North Korea.
2. Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal
By Conor Grennan
This novel is a combination of an individual’s story and a commentary upon international crimes. Set in Nepal, the autobiographical work by Conor Grennan follows his pleasure vacation around the world, beginning with a volunteer stent in a children’s home in war torn Nepal. When he discovers that the children are not orphans, but children trafficked from remote villages into the capital for use in a variety of criminal enterprises, including sex trafficking, Conor takes it upon himself to reunite the children with their families despite the raging civil war surrounding him. In this manner, Little Princess is an individual story with a small scope. However, its commentary is on that of sex and child trafficking, and therefore has significantly broader implications that can be approached from either a national or an international perspective. The story deserves its place on the list not only for its willingness to address the concerns of trafficking and chart one person’s efforts to combat such crimes, but also for its story, which is at times heart-breaking and inspirational, often at the same time.
3. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
By Ishmael Beah
Moving into the specifically national, A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah paints a grim, but educational picture of the 1990 civil war of Sierra Leone and its child soldiers. The book is actually a memoir, and narrates the author’s flight from his village at the age of 12, his brainwashing and integration into the army and the violence perpetuated by and against him at a very young age. The memoir tells a fascinating story, but perhaps more importantly discusses the crimes committed against children in the name of war, and the difficulty in placing blame upon soldiers when they are indoctrinated into the conflict at a young age. It provides a solid glimpse into the realm of war crimes policy, as well as the role that former child soldiers can have in the public light once rehabilitated. The memoir explains Beah’s return to his birth country and his subsequent efforts to prevent more violence, providing a platform for any reader to begin considering the efforts of agencies to prevent the human rights abuses discussed within the book.
4. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families
By Philip Gourevitch
Unlike the previous one, this novel is less a memoir and more a nonfiction look at Rwanda and its evolution over the last century, culminating in the genocides that led to international intervention and a number of highly publicized human rights trials. The author, Philip Gourevitch, travels throughout Rwanda, compiling interviews from displaced refugees from the conflicts, as well as recording the stories of survivors within the slowly rebuilding cities that were damaged in the genocide. During this examination of survivor stories, Gourevitch takes time to discuss genocide and its causes, as well as its impact both nationally and internationally. The title comes from an April 15, 1994 letter written to Pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church ‘s operations in western Rwanda, by several Adventist pastors who had taken refuge with other Tutsis in an Adventist hospital in the locality of Mugonero in Kibuye prefecture. Gourevitch accused Ntakirutimana of aiding the killings that happened in the complex the next day. Ntakirutimana was eventually convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. This, along with other reflections upon the policies surrounding war crimes and crimes against humanity establishes this book as a must-read for anyone considering such human rights issues, and especially those evaluating the problems most common in Africa and/or the Middle East.
5. King Leopold’s Ghost
By Adam Hochschild
A classic both in subject matter and publication, King Leopold’s Ghost is more of a historical piece than a discussion of human rights though its insights are still applicable today. Following the Dutch colonization efforts of Africa and the human rights abuses common during the time period, this lengthy novel deals with the slave trade, colonization brutalities, and international policies that have largely been addressed in the UN and ICC laws, however, as a study of human rights, the novel provides valuable background information to the formation of these laws, as well as a look at the impact of European colonization and missionary efforts within the Central African continent.
6. What is the What
By Dave Eggers
What is the What is a semi-autobiographical account of the hardships suffered by the “Lost Boys of Sudan.” This group of children journey from Sudan to Ethiopia, suffering many ordeals along the way due to the ongoing regional conflict that displaced them. Unlike the other African novels on this list however, this one is written in two parts. The second part deals with the protagonist Valentino Achak Deng who struggles upon reaching the United States as well as his hardships while still in Africa. This partitioning of the novel allows readers to glimpse the duality between human rights abuses in one region versus another, and serves to illustrate a comparison between the abuses practiced in wartime and in peace. Both forms of human rights abuses are discussed and equally important, but require different approaches to deal with. For example, Achak Deng’s narrator, Dave Eggers comments that in Africa, threat of violence is the most telling difficulty, while in the United States, threat of indifference plays a far more significant role. He notes that in both cases, the solution to one is insufficient to combat the other.
7. Woman at Point Zero
By Nawal El Saadawii
This biographical work takes an in-depth look at the human rights case of Firdaus, a female prison inmate in Egypt who was convicted for the murder of a man. The biography follows the woman’s life from a birth into poverty and subsequent genital mutilation to her prostitution and sexual abuse until one day when her pimp attacks her with a knife, and in self-defense, she commits murder. The author, Nawal El Saadawi, records Firdaus life story and commentary on men, including such quotes as: “Every single man I did get to know filled me with but one desire: to lift my hand and bring it smashing down on his face. Needless to say, this is an excellent introduction to the realm of women in a patriarchal society and the abuses often accompanying such a position, including genital mutilation and the cost this has upon women’s’ sexual health.
8. I am Malala: The Girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban
By Malala Yousafzai
This book makes our list, but is difficult to categorize. Taking place in Pakistan, it is both a look at girls’ education in the Middle East and a discussion of the war on terror and it’s affects upon women, and yet neither of these issues is the main focus of this autobiographical text, but rather the story of an individual girl resisting the Taliban for her rights. It is common for human rights novelizations to take this approach, however in this case the author and subject of the book are very well-known, and the documented struggle can be traced throughout mainstream media. This book therefore serves more as a platform for Malala Yousafzai’s comments on female rights to education and freedom within the new Islamic world. The story follows Yousafzai’s protest as her home in the Swat valley of Pakistan, as well as the eventual shooting that nearly ended her life, making the story more personal than most similar discourses.
9. A Thousand Splendid Suns
By Khaled Hosseini
Yet another well-known novel, and one of my favorites, A Thousand Splendid Suns is completely fictional. However, this gives the author, Khaled Hosseini more flexibility to address the issues of the woman’s place in modern Afghan society. The novel follows two Afghan women with a generational gap and their relationship, both with one another and with the rest of the society in which they live. It is often noted that though the characters are fictitious, this is a rare work of art, capable of evoking emotion from any reader, giving life and personality to the “burqa-clad woman on the street.” While pinpointing the specific human rights issues illustrated in A Thousand Splendid Suns is difficult, the storyline does address the challenges of the traditional woman within a modern Middle Eastern world, as well as the human rights abuses that threaten them on a day to day basis. This may not serve as a comprehensive look at statistical rights abuses in the region, however, it makes the list for its ability to provide insight to the culture and ideologies that make up the society in which the abuses may happen.
By Elie Wiesel
Every student from primary school onward knows Night and i’s famous author Elie Wiesel. Yet, for the purposes of this list, Night still serves a valuable purpose: a look at the Holocaust and its resounding human rights implications that continue to affect the international community to this day. The well-known and often read story follows a family through the concentration camps, providing stark descriptions of the brutalities therein, as well as the psychological damage done to a massive group of people. This, one of the first modern works on genocide establishes grounding for the modern international response system to genocide and other crimes against humanity. Though the story is individual in its scope, it goes to great lengths to discuss, if indirectly, the effects of these crimes, and the responsibility of external agents to act in their prevention.
11. In the Time of the Butterfly
By Julia Alvarez
Set in the Caribbean, this historical novel deals with less an international human rights abuse, but more a political one. It follows the Mirabel sisters struggle against the dictator, Truillo for their various rights. The plot primarily revolves around their interactions with one another and their various occupations, such as the first sister’s determination to become a lawyer. Subsequently the novel discusses the dictator’s blocking of her ambitions, as well as his assassination of the sisters in the end of the book, demonstrating the blatant disregard for human life and rights expressed by the Dominican Republic dictatorship of the 1960s, as well as resonating with the human rights issues involving other dictatorial regimes of this time period. Unlike most other books on this list, In the Time of the Butterfly addresses political issues in conjunction with their tendency to promote human rights abuses.
12. House of the Spirits
By Isabel Allende
This novel is yet another one of my all-time favorites. Similar to In the Time of the Butterfly, this novel which draws heavily upon the genre of magical realism explores the political sphere and its influences upon a multigenerational family. In this case, the story portrayed by Isabel Allende follows the del Valle family and its branches, interweaving a mixture of generations and interfamily struggles. The political system of the unnamed country that bares startling similarities to Chile becomes apparent within the story arc when the protagonists father is poisoned. As the plot progresses, the action centers around the individual relationships and their implications, however, several human rights issues are highlighted, including the women’s’ rights issues, aptly discussed when multiple men achieve positions of power and abuse them through rape and coerced sexual activity. However, perhaps the most striking human rights issue discussed is that of political ideology and the influence of this upon South American classism, particularly with the influx of communism. House of the Spirits does not aim to provide comprehensive discourse on human rights activism as other books on this list might, yet it serves well to express the harms caused by political abuses and the dynamics of power.
13. Freedom Summer
By Doug McAdams
As the first North American book on my list, Freedom Summer by Doug McAdam stands out as a compilation work for its applications today. The novel, comprising a selection of anecdotes, personal narration from the author and commentaries from veterans of the Freedom Summer movement in 1964 Mississippi covers a lot of ground, including a firm summation of the events leading to and the effects of the movement upon modern America. The book deals with the protests and petitioning of mostly white Northern college students in June 1964 to legalize for Black American voting rights, and the subsequent reprisals that led to hundreds of death in the following months. By tying together personal narrative and interviews, as well as supplementing hard data where necessary, Freedom Summer does something few human rights novels can. It succeeds in creating a personal story as well as a critique of prejudice and segregation, as well as the human rights violations that accompany such actions.
14. Uncle Tom’s Cabin
By Harriet Beecher Stowe
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is paramount amongst the classics, and its subject matter, though historical in nature, deals largely with the human rights issues that affect much of North America and other parts of the world today. The novel, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe was a response to the Fugitive Slave Act, and has roots in the slave narrative “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself.” It was an anti-slavery piece, following the life of the slave Eliza and her son Tom. The story includes extensive dialogue on the rightness or lack thereof regarding slavery, and by necessity shows the brutality of slave masters and those that supported the continuation of the practice. Though historical, Uncle Tom’s Cabin serves as a means of looking at anti-slavery in the modern world, for though it is prohibited in all nations, slavery is nonetheless a common practice and the discourse to abolish it remains valuable.
15. The Jungle
By Upton Sinclair
Upton Sinclair is a household name even to this day, and one of his more political and outstanding pieces makes my list for its social commentaries and early century insight. The Jungle, a story of an Eastern European immigrant to the US and his subsequent employment in the meat packing industry of early 1900s Chicago has a tendency to deal with both social and political discourse. One finds that as the story progresses and the protagonist are drawn into the beginnings of the Marxist movement in the US it presents us with two human rights issues: immigration and the abuses often associated with the immigrants, and the common human rights violations accompanying political shifts within a region. This is particularly evident when Sinclair breaks the story narrative to give a dissertation on the positives of Marxism and socialism, the involvement of which in the story causes both violence and murder. Therefore, this book deserves its place on my list for its dual nature and ability to critique political effects of human rights.
16. Guantanamo Diary
By Mohamedou Ould Slahi
Similar to a book reviewed lower on this list, Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantanamo Diary addresses a commonly ignored facet of human rights, that of prisoner rights. The diary, written by a detainee of the US government in Guantanamo prison narrates his actions prior to imprisonment and the corresponding events that he went through day by day within the maximum security island jail. This, unlike many other prison rights novels deals not only with the abuses common to such detention centers, but also with the political reasoning behind being detained despite court rulings. The 2010 court ruling to release Slahi, and the US government’s refusal to comply is documented, bringing to light the question of the human right to fair trial, among other issues. This therefore is a valuable resource for any reader seeking information regarding international human rights, particularly within the arena of prisoner detention.
17. The House of the Dead
By Fyodor Dostoyevsky
This novel is yet another classic that takes a look at a human rights issue often overlooked in the modern world of large scale genocides and war crimes. Written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in 1862, it follows the narrator who has been convicted to serve a prison sentence in a Siberian prison. Accordingly, this novel, a loosely tied set of facts, philosophical insights and recollections from the author’s own incarceration in a similar facility, discusses the conditions of the Siberian prisons. While not ground-breaking in and of themselves, these facts construct a framework from which to analyze the potential human rights abuses perpetuated in the prison systems across the world. The corporal punishments given in the Siberian prisons are especially brutal and savage, yet the commonality between these and any other prison system are striking, and the philosophical discussions of Dostoyevsky ask important questions regarding the necessity of such measures and the impact upon the inmates. Naturally, the environment of the novel is isolated, however it can be extrapolated to a larger scope and applied to many different human rights cases. Therefore, The House of the Dead is a relevant addition to this list.
18. My Whispers of Horror: Letters Telling Women’s True Tales from
By Olga Brine
While still set within the former Soviet Bloc, this book, My Whispers
of Horror takes a different tact than that of The House of the Dead. In this novel, the subject matter crosses several borders, including both Russia and the Ukraine. The novel is a collection of interviews and narrations of various women’s lives, struggles and abuses at the hands of men within largely patriarchal societies, including domestic abuse and repeated rape. This, naturally, places the novel within the realm of women’s rights. However, the novel does more than address the difficulties of women, it also provides insights and solutions to disadvantages faced by women, going so far as to encourage it’s female readers to act as a source of empowerment and otherwise discuss ways to prevent the abuses outlined by the horrific accounts told by its characters.
19. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
By Nicholas Kristof
Another nonfiction piece, Half the Sky is a coauthored husband and wife effort that encompasses multiple countries, many of which were later toured and examined in the 2012 PBS documentary created as a follow-up to this book. Naturally, the book therefore has a broad scope of commentary, and covers its topic, the oppression of women, sex trafficking, and domestic violence with a global perspective that provides concise analysis, regardless of culture or nation. The telling moves between direct author commentary and compiled information, with rigorously supported research that continually promotes a policy of girls’ education and micro financing as a means of combating the abuses outlined in the book. This piece makes my list as it forms a strong basis for any reader preparing to investigate women’s’ rights, particularly within the international sphere, with heavy emphasis upon national policy making and its application to abuse treatment.
20. Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man
Who Would Cure the World
By Tracy Kidder
I conclude my list with a final international piece, called Mountains beyond Mountains. This biographical novel follows one Dr. Paul Farmer on his quest to cure tuberculosis in a variety of countries, including Haiti, Peru and Russia. This book is worth particular note due to its focus upon the human rights issue of sickness and poor health care within both developing nations and developed countries. The author, Tracy Kidder, recounts his meetings with Paul Farmer, his impressions of the man and the doctor’s life story, including his efforts to establish international efforts at preventing infectious diseases.
The list ends here on an inspirational note, as the author states: “And I was drawn to the man himself. He worked extraordinary hours. In fact, I don’t think he sleeps more than an hour or two most nights. Here was a person who seemed to be practicing more than he preached, who seemed to be living, as nearly as any human being can, without hypocrisy. Challenging people, the kind of person whose example can irritate you by making you feel you’ve never done anything as important, and yet, in his presence, those kinds of feelings tended to vanish.” Mountains Beyond Mountains is a biography detailing a successful means of combating human rights abuses and finding successful solutions too many of the issues still facing the international community as a whole.
Note: This entry was originally posted on the author’s personal blog, which you can access here.