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Humanitarian Intervention and Prevention in Post Cold War Conflicts: a Global Responsibility

23-09-1998 Statement

International Chamber of Commerce, Geneva Business Dialogue. Address by Mr. Cornelio Sommaruga, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, 23 September 1998.

 Conflict at the End of the Twentieth Century  

One is almost embarrassed at having to stress once again the depth and radical nature of the changes brought about by the year 1989, which marked the end of the cold war. And it is from this still recent turning point, unforeseen and still far from being fully decanted, that a discourse on today's conflicts must be begun.

During the Cold War years the study of peace and war advanced mainly in the barren and disembodied terrains of technology, at times drifting into virtual reality. I will not interfere with historians as they debate up to which point the nuclear holocaust has ever constituted a real danger. What is certain, however, is that, both politically and psychologically, the counterposition of the two Superpowers in the field of nuclear armaments has contributed in a fundamental way to determining the specific features of our history throughout the second half of the twentieth century. This " balance of terror " was disproportionately focused on the instruments of conflict: their number, their type, their possible uses and effects.

However, less than five years after the fall of the Berlin wall, didn't we witness the extermination in Rwanda, i.a. with machetes, of the equivalent in victims of at least seven Hiroshima-type nuclear bombs? Isn't it high time that we at last focus our attention upon the mechanisms that bring about conflict and on those that can prevent it or stop it once it has started.

Today we live in a world that, when we speak of conflict is impressively pluralistic and polycentric: irreconcilable claims of all sorts, nationalist obsessions, ethnic paranoias, demential fundamentalisms reach the threshold of armed conflict without anyone being willing to spend money or risk lives in order to prevent or stop the clash. We are all orphans of the Cold War, but instead of weeping the not-so-dear deceased, we should try to grow up.

Focusing on the quantity of conflicts, on their pluralism, is important, but it cannot by itself supply the full measure of the problems we are facing in this disconcerting end of the twentieth century. As a matter of fact, the most disturbing feature is not the quantity, but the quality of present-day conflicts.

In "The Republic" Plato referred to organized violence using two different terms: stasis , i.e. a conflict between groups mutually recognizing a basic affinity, though seeking to solve by force a divergence of interests; and polemos , i.e. total war against the totally "Other" , the barbarian, the threatening stranger, the alien.

It is a fact that instruments created to prevent, limit for humanitarian purposes, or settle conflicts were developed by the international community with reference to war/ stasis and not necessarily to war/ polemos , the latter not recognizing, by definition, either rules or limi ts. Thus it is false that, as critics often maintain, those instruments (such as the Geneva Conventions) are invariably useless or ineffective.

And the real tragedy is that, contrary to what was true in ancient Greece, today the enemy is no longer the barbarian with an unusual appearance and an incomprehensible language, but literally (see former Yugoslavia or Rwanda) the next-door neighbour. It is indeed the neighbour that is to be identified as a threat to one's survival and identity. It is the neighbour that must be either forcibly removed or exterminated, with no space for compromise, coexistence, compassion, or respect for limits or rules in the clash. In this form of total war, the purpose is not the defeat, but the annihilation of the enemy.

If we examine more closely the specific case of the kind of conflict that characterize our time, we see that the inevitable interaction between socio-economic and politico-cultural factors unfolds in profoundly differentiated patterns according to different situations, geographical realities, levels of development, cultures. And although we should definitely refrain from drifting into the banal equation underdevelopment equal conflict, yet how can one deny the linkage between poverty and reduction of the margins for compromise, struggle for scarce resources and temptation of mors tua, vita mea? Indeed, extreme poverty is the main challenge mankind is facing today for its very survival.

 The Red Cross Response  

In an editorial of the Economist's Yearbook about the prospects for 1998 you could find the following very astonishing statement: "Everywhere there will be peace... indeed the number of people killed in military conflict will be the lowest in modern history..."  Today, in September of 1988, I stand as President of an organization whose budget for the current year is still assessed in more than half a billion dollars, earmarked to protect and assist hundreds of thousands of victims of conflict.

Our world -I said it- is indeed beset by conflicts that are increasingly being fought by indiscriminate, chaotic and barbaric means. In many cases it is no longer possible to draw a distinction between war and banditry. This is the environment in which ICRC delegates today carry out the humanitarian mission assigned to our institution. In the 50 years since the Second World War ended with everyone solemnly declaring "Never again!" , we have seen around 120 conflicts, affecting almost 22 million people.

We at the Red Cross -the National Societies and their counterparts at the international level- work side by side in mutually complementary areas of activity. It is our solidarity with those many victims that gives us strength in our endeavour to bring about a more human world.

The ICRC has received a mandate by the international community to care for war victims. It does it in the field of prevention by promoting international humanitarian law -the Geneva Conventions (that set up the rules of behaviour in war, both international and non international) as well as in its operational activities, in favour of prisoners, wounded, civilians- as neutral humanitarian intermediary. Nearly 9,000 staff -1,000 of which expatriated delegates- are carrying out this task in around 80 countries, of which 28 in open war. This requires tremendous efforts also for warranting the needed logistical and financial resources. Our budget -of around half billion dollars for 1998- is to be covered by voluntary contr ibutions. Over 80% is funded by Governments. Other sources of funding are contributions from the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and private donations; such donations are becoming increasingly important, because of their quality, that is to say exempt of any possible political constraint.

 Shift of Power - Shift of Responsibility     

Fifteen years ago it would have appeared strange for the ICRC President to address the glorious International Chamber of Commerce. The world was then divided into two major blocks, founded on antagonistic economic systems. Today market economy has asserted itself almost everywhere. The actors of the economy have become particularly important, hence the necessity of a new form of dialogue.

In fact, the period of the cold war was something anachronic, a unique parenthesis in the history of the world, during which three categories: the warriors, the prophets and the merchants intervened in their respective spheres of competence; the warriors gave shape to the world map, the prophets spread ideas (religious, political, humanitarian ones) and the merchants, by favouring relations between different regions, made commerce a vehicle of thought (the Phoenicians, the Greeks, Venice, the Hanseatic League, the developments that followed the great discoveries of the Renaissance are good historical examples of this very important role played by the merchants in the history of Europe). Today, ten years after the fall of communism, we find once again the same three categories in their respective roles. But it is highly characteristic of our time that the role of the merchants has become increasingly important.

All the more so with the globalization of market economy and communications and the fact that the power of governments is presently shrinking. Structures and habits built up in the 50 years of cold war, where the State -even in democratic societies, and this very much for security reasons- was everywhere present, structures, power centers and patterns of behaviour are changing. Financial and business circles, multinational corporations have a much greater say. Both directly and indirectly in the whole functioning of societies in the world.

This also means responsibility. Responsibility certainly in their own self-interest in the social field, and also very much in the construction of societies built on commonly shared ethical values such as human dignity, solidarity and democracy. Long term stability can only be built on the respect for human life and dignity of all. The economy necessary for this is one that serves human needs. Those human values should be integral part of education and training in families and schools -including business schools- as well as in business. Power and responsibility go hand in hand. People with a particular social responsibility must also have sufficient power to put their social concept into effect. Responsibility without power inevitably leads to resignation and to an administrative mentality which precludes the formulation of long-term prospects and strategies. Conversely, power without responsibility leads to the breakdown of society. Finally, power which is not value oriented leads to mechanistic and technocratic models which largely neglect human dignity.

In fact, when we refer to globalization, we must ask ourselves if it is really benefiting everybody: more wealth does not necessarily mean more rich people! The danger exists that we come to what Max Frisch declared: "Die Reichen werden reicher, und die Armen zahlreicher". It seems to me that there is some sort of a " no man's land " between structural policies of the macroeconomy and the problems linked to the m icroeconomy, or, expressed in simple terms, the " every day life " .

Today's main challenges are expressed in terms of economic stability across the world. It is perfectly relevant to ask oneself which of Wall Street or the Security Council is more influential. The recent Asian crisis and the upheavals shaking the Russian economy are here to remind us of the dangers of destabilization such events can provoke for the entire world. Economic changes don't even spare prosperous countries. And I shall not elaborate here on destabilizing factors such as the power of the mafia or drug trafficking.

The advocates of economic liberalism -and I think we all here have to be considered members of this club- realize the necessity of restoring certain rules. Free competition needs " Leitplanken " : one has to avoid that it becomes the law of the stronger, the law of the jungle. Moreover, mafia and warriors are now intermingled and where conflicts persist, there is little perspective of development. The truth is that it is only by bringing well-being to a country that we can achieve democracy. And here, businessmen carry a heavy responsibility. A destabilized economy is a danger for the State. Politics without a fair economy result in never-ending conflicts.

How could business effectively contribute to facing world humanitarian challenges? The challenges of armed conflict, violence, crime, drug and arms trafficking, landmines. How could business help us replace the rule of violence by the rule of law?

We need a globalization of responsibility if we want to avoid a globalization of terrorism, fundamentalism, the spreading without borders of epidemics of all kinds. We all need to defuse the time bomb of next century: extreme poverty. If we want to transform today's chaos and violence into order and harmony, we need to reaffirm ethical values that will provide legitimacy and sust ainable peace to all. Everyone of us -humanitarian organizations, diplomats, businessmen- has the possibility to bring a small or larger contribution to humankind through humanity, to make the world safer and more humane.

What we need today is a new alliance between the warriors, the prophets and the merchants. Or, as I say it in Red Cross fora, a new contract of humanity. A contract is possible, to the mutual advantages of all its partners; it implies responsibilities that every partner must assume.

The fundamental principles of the Red Cross and International Humanitarian Law give some indications on the values implied by such a contract:

- unity , which calls for the participation of the greatest number of people, their access to rendering services and fulfilling responsibilities;

- universality, which implies solidarity (the Latin word solidus means precisely these two things: open to everyone and solid, lasting);

-the value of life and its protection;

-the proportionality between political, economic and social measures.

We all together can realize a new interdependent world which could transform despair into hope, confrontation into cooperation, conflict into solidarity. Your invitation to join you tonight shows your interest. I thus know that you are aware of this common responsibility, therefore I count on you.

 Ref.: EXSO 98.09.23-ENG