Volume 14 Number 2
Where Peace Begins
01 April 2001

Dr Cornelio Sommaruga was President of the International Committee of the Red Cross from 1987 to 1999. He is now President of the Swiss Foundation for Moral Re-Armament. This article is extracted from a talk he gave during a visit to Britain last January.

During my years with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), I witnessed massacres and genocides, the growing wave of torture and rapes, the displacement of civilian populations, and also extreme poverty, sickness and hunger.
I do not believe that these evils are inevitable. Since the causes can often be found in people themselves, the remedy also has to be found there. Peace cannot simply be made by the solemn signature of a nicely-drafted diplomatic or military document. Peace must also be made in the heart and spirit.

Take Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example. An ICRC survey, immediately after the signing of the Dayton Agreement in 1995, found that after less than four years of civil war 20,000 people were unaccounted for. Tens of thousands of women and children were still waiting for news after harrowing events.

The ICRC's first step was to work with the appropriate organizations to find out what had happened to all these people (mostly servicemen). We asked the military and civilian authorities on all sides to help with documentation and identifying burial places. The ICRC published a book, with 20,000 names and details supplied by the families, in order to get the help of the population.

Five years later, only 2,000 cases have been clarified and only about ten of these people were found alive. Only half the bodies so far exhumed have been identified. Mothers and wives have few illusions as to the chance of finding their loved-ones alive. In these circumstances, the process of re-establishing peace in people's hearts is progressing very slowly indeed. For if 18,000 people are missing, at least 40-50,000 people are affected.

In all parts of the world, we must restore a culture based on ethical values. We must do our utmost to prevent hatred from gaining the upper hand. Violence leads to an endless spiral of retribution. We must reject religious or spiritual justification for discrimination, exclusion and violence.

MRA allows us to join forces to take responsibility. We have to work towards far-reaching change, locally and globally, starting, if needed, with changes in our own lives. At the MRA conferences at Caux, Switzerland, we want to bring hope to those who are in despair--a hope rooted in God, hope for peace in open conflicts and in forgotten conflicts. We want to help overcome the most resistant wall in relations in war-torn societies: the psychological barrier.

Preventive work is vital. This is the responsibility of those wielding political power, but increasingly also of those holding economic power. Their ambitions are now global and so are their responsibilities. Security challenges must become a matter of concern to the whole of civil society. Global responsibility must accompany a global economy.

All governments have a duty to respect international humanitarian law and to ensure that others respect it. One of its cardinal principles is the ban on using weapons or methods of combat which cause unnecessary suffering. Among the weapons that raise questions are cluster-bombs and depleted uranium munitions. Their longterm effect on civilians requires careful consideration and possibly urgent legislative action.

The legal and illegal manufacture and transfer of ever more sophisticated weapons of all kinds must be taken much more seriously by the international community.

I was a member of the Panel on UN Peace Operations, which produced the Brahimi report last year. Between March and July 2000 ten of us focussed on the issue of conflict prevention. We requested governments and the UN to be much more active and effective in this area. We called on member states to make peace-building strategies an integral part of Security Council mandates.

In the future governments will find it increasingly difficult to invoke national sovereignty in the face of international concern about large-scale human rights violations. The Holocaust and the genocides of Armenians and in Rwanda make it impossible for us to remain inactive in similar circumstances now. This brings us to the delicate question of intervention, despite the rules of the UN Charter.

This burning political issue will be the theme of the new International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), of which I am a member. It will report to this year's General Assembly.

Last year our planet passed the six billion inhabitants' mark. These individuals do not all enjoy the same prospects nor the same access to resources or to education and health care. Most people in the world are not officials in nice buildings, diplomats in comfortable residences, officers equipped with modern weapons and technology, nor executives in dynamic and successful companies. They are not connected to the Internet and do not follow the ups and downs of the stock market, even though the latter can have a decisive effect on their lives. A growing number of people do not even have access to safe drinking water.

Max Frisch once stated: 'The rich expand their wealth, the poor their numbers.' Absolute poverty and the tremendous gap in living conditions around the world are a real challenge to peace and security.

Let us commit ourselves to making the following beautiful and powerful Hindi saying into a reality: 'The good man makes no difference between friend and foe, brother and stranger; he approaches everybody with impartiality. A real friend shows compassion at any time.'
by Cornelio Sommaruga

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