• Send page
  • Print page

"Human Dignity and Humanitarian Space"


Remarks by Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah, Launch of Women and War Exhibit, 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva, 4 December 2003

I’m deeply honored to be a part of the 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. In wars and famines, outbreaks and earthquakes, the Red Cross and Red Crescent are always there… putting lives on the line for others, replacing horror with hope. 

It is noble work. It is dangerous work. And now, more than ever, it is necessary work, in a world crying out for compassion.

Nearly half a century ago, the photographer Edward Steichen composed an exhibition called “The Family of Man.” Its 503 photos from 68 countries captured the sweetness and struggles of life… reminding a world still scarred by war that we are sisters and brothers at heart. We all feel passion. We all feel pain. We all strive and hope and dream. As Steichen said, “Photography records the gamut of feelings written on the human face… the beauty of the earth and skies that man has inherited… and the wealth and confusion man has created. [Photography ] is a major force in explaining man to man.”

The photographs you will see today will evoke more questions than explanations. 

Why, in an age of progress, do we see so much brutality? 

Why, in a world of plenty, do so many people still suffer such deprivation? 

And how are we to comprehend the strength of the human spirit? For in the faces of the women in these photos, and the words alongside their images, we witness their struggles, their sorrow, but also their will to carry on. From female amputees in Angola, awaiting medical care, to Bosnian women, praying at a memorial for missing relatives, they seem to be saying, “We will not give up…so don’t give up on us.”

These women have found loyal champions in the Red Cross and Red Crescent, who understand that women’s well-being is more than just a marginal concern. An unsettled woman means shrinking levels of health and education for her family. And troubled families mean a troubled future for social and economic development. But by the same token, if we can uphold the safety and rights of women – if we can protect their human dignity, even in times of upheaval – we can lift the horizons for humanity as a whole.

The goal of protecting human dignity is what brought us here to Geneva today. Every day, in every country, we witness violations of this right.

Those who perpetrate such abuses are never at a loss for “why.” Security, order, even workplace efficiency are offered as explanations.

But a company’s rise in profit margin does not justify lesser treatment of its workers. A government’s obligation to preserve security does not override people’s right to self-respect. Men, women and children should never have to trade in their dignity for survival – to abandon their homes… suffer persecution … or endure any kind of abuse. 

Let’s make no mistake about it: The right to human dignity is non-negotiable. 

International law is a powerful tool to confront and address these problems. But we don’t have to be legal scholars to understand what feels right. The world’s great faiths and philosophies all draw strength from the same core belief: Dignity is intrinsic to humankind. It’s a universal birthright. 

Human dignity matters deeply to us as individuals who seek self-improvement. It matters to us as parents who want the very best for the children we love. And it has to matter to us as citizens of a globalizing world. In an age when borders no longer define the limits of cultu re and commerce, neither can they contain the enormous costs of human suffering.

Today, we find our global moral conscience lagging behind our global markets. The sophisticated international networks that have been employed to facilitate and enhance our everyday lives should also serve as the delivery system of a universal code of human values and ethics.

Human dignity should never be viewed as an expensive commodity, one that is least attainable in our hierarchy of needs. None of us can truly get ahead if most of us are left behind. Closing this “moral lag” will require a common conviction that access to human dignity and respect is just as important as access to medicine, education and technology.

And access to all is what the Red Cross and Red Crescent are about. Your efforts are guided by the fundamental impulse of human empathy. Neutrality and impartiality are the currency of your realm. You are defenders of human dignity, wherever it’s at risk. 

But you cannot protect others if you are vulnerable yourselves. And in recent years, we’ve seen an alarming erosion of humanitarian space. Encroachments on your neutrality have made it harder to do your jobs. Violence against aid workers, such as the bombing of the Red Cross offices in Baghdad, has shocked and saddened the civilized world.

If we do not address these problems, we will pay the price. We have to safeguard humanitarian space – in both physical and moral terms.

And more than that, we have to make room for humanitarian space in our hearts – and awaken the part of ourselves that aches at the sight of another in pain. We cannot afford to ration compassion… reject the unfamiliar… or save our sympathy only for people who look or sound like us.

I believe this exhibit is an excellent place to begin. For here, we will gaze not at strangers but at mothers and sisters and daughters we know. Perhaps it’s the way she smiles, or frowns. Perhaps it’s her quiet resilience. Perhaps it’s the way she holds her baby tenderly to her chest. 

It’s been said “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” Let us offer the women in these photos our promise: 

We see you. And we care.

Thank you very much