the best or against the worst?
By Gilbert Holleufer
humanitarian organisations accept war as an integral part of
human existence or strive to promote universal peace?
At the international level, political morality today seems
clearly peace-oriented. War is proclaimed a crime and has
been outlawed by the United Nations Charter which has nonetheless
failed to prevent conflicts from proliferating over the past
50 years. At the cultural level, war likewise seems to be
rejected on moral grounds by prevailing public opinion: essentially
unlawful, condemned by international rules, it is automatically
equated with barbarity and viewed as the most extreme form
Prompted by the commendable desire to eliminate this evil
as old as the world itself, international armed forces are
currently striving to restore peace in some of today’s
areas of conflict. Despite the merits of peace-making, a fundamental
ethical question persists: can one seriously hope to take
up arms against arms without also taking sides and without
the very quest for universal peace becoming a source of violence?
As experience suggests, the paradoxical notion of a “peace
army” is placing more and more of a strain on the elasticity
of international military logic with each passing day. Something
has got to give.
Perhaps it is the humanitarian pretext which has been invoked
to justify this type of intervention that has temporarily
neutralised these contradictions — doesn’t the
military version of humanitarian aid respond, after all, to
an admirable concern for efficiency?
Many humanitarian experts have, however, lost no time in
denouncing the untenable contradiction of combined “humanitarian”
and military endeavours.
Strictly speaking, the humanitarian code of conduct is not
concerned with settling conflicts, but with regulating them.
It attempts to preserve or promote humanitarian norms for
regulating violence and influencing war from the inside,
rather than from the outside. Its source and object are not
so much the act of peace as the act of war, in which —
more than in any other context — the end tends to justify
the means and human beings are particularly likely at any
moment to lapse into outright savage behaviour. Based on the
premise that warfare has hitherto been part and parcel of
human society, the humanitarian code of conduct is less concerned
with denouncing injustice than inhumanity. In other words,
the model it puts forward is not one of justice, but of human
A glance back at history and at human civilisations will
show that while war unleashes violence, it has also always
sought to regulate that violence. Failing that, it was no
longer qualified as war but as massacres, annihilation, or
genocide. Codes of conduct, or codes of honour, have existed
always and everywhere in order to mark the difference between
the practice of warfare and barbaric behaviour. Humanitarian
law and the law of The Hague are the most universally accepted
legal expression of those ethical codes.
Values to curb barbarity
Today, we are unfortunately witnessing the radicalisation
of violence wrought by increasingly smaller groups, a process
fuelled by the illicit arms traffic in which — in
keeping with a simple market principle — supply creates
demand. Each day violence is thus escaping the control of
states and of agreements or other legal instruments that
are supposed to regulate it.
In view of this situation, the Red Cross, gripped by a
deep sense of helplessness, must more than ever recall its
original ethical values. Those values are based on respect
for human dignity, a respect upheld even in the worst frenzy
of violence. Designed not to bring about the best, but to
stave off the worst, they have inspired humanitarian law
and are part of the wisdom of all peoples. The Red Cross,
which has succeeded in giving these values their best and
most complete form of expression, also has the responsibility
to adapt them to changing circumstances.
In a chaotic world where the law is no longer enough, where
unanimity can no longer be reached on any political project,
it is perhaps high time to give a more “political”
dimension to the call for unconditional recognition of human
dignity in the midst of violence. Maybe the time has come
for the Red Cross not to pass judgment, but to commit itself
to — or militate for — values to be embraced
not only by states but by all the prime movers and orchestrators
of war today.
Indeed, recent history would seem to require the Red Cross
to reaffirm its founding principles, and promote a wide-ranging
debate throughout the world community. As the last sentinel
on the frontier between the inhuman and the humane, the
Red Cross must resolutely maintain its dialogue with all
involved in violence, for if war plunges irretrievably into
sheer barbarity we shall all lose — and there will
henceforth be neither war nor peace.
Gilbert Holleufer is advisor on communication research and
development at the ICRC.
Red Cross, Red Crescent encourages readers with
a different point of view to contribute to this debate which
will feature in future issues.
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