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For the best or against the worst?

By Gilbert Holleufer

Should 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 of inhumanity.



A humanitarian army?

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.

Promoting human dignity

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 dignity.

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
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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