Henri Dunant, Red Cross, What Next?

EDITORIAL, 20 Sep 2010

#130 | Johan Galtung, 20 Sep 2010 - TRANSCEND Media Service

Talk at Heiden, Appenzell, Switzerland

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honor jointly with the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross to honor the great man, Henri Dunant–who, not to forget Florence Nightingale, set it all in motion.  He died 100 years ago in this little beautiful health resort where he spent the last 23 years of his life.  And his moment of truth, as we all know, was the battle of Solferino in Lombardy, 24 June 1859, a little more than 150 years ago, where he witnessed the unspeakable suffering brought about by one more stupid battle, pitting 300,000 soldiers against each other, in one more stupid war, between France and Austria that time; mainly waged by their upper classes sacrificing their underlings.

And yet that battle has an air of innocence relative to what happens nowadays.  The soldiers suffered and died from traumas, mechanical and thermal.  ABC weapons had not arrived.  There was no depleted uranium, so dear to US warfare, inflicting radioactive slow and horrible death, nothing biological or chemical with long aftereffects, not even landmines.  And war propaganda had not yet reached the stupid and mendacious levels of today.

We are now 90 years after the foundation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 80 years after the Geneva Convention related to the treatment of prisoners of war, and 60 years after the revision and signing of the four Geneva Conventions.  And all of this could only be initiated by someone from a neutral country, Switzerland, somehow above the belligerent parties after the de facto neutrality in 1515, shocked by Swiss fighting Swiss as mercenaries in Mariano, also in Northern Italy, imposed neutrality by the Vienna Congress in 1815, and neutrality built de jure into the Swiss constitution of 1848.

True, wounded and-or released soldiers are rehabilitated and sent into the killing fields again; and each army has a highly non-neutral Red Cross unit using the same symbol; sometimes hiding behind it.  And yet that is not an argument for not alleviating suffering, of the directly hit and their beloved ones.  But it is a strong argument for moving on.

The first phases were in bello, reducing the pain in war, be that on the battlefield, as prisoners of war, or as occupied by foreign armies.  The second phase is more ad bellum, watching carefully “humanitarian intervention”; all the time gaining confidence, gaining access, talking to all concerned, opening lines of communication, humanizing the non-humanizable, which in the meantime becomes worse and worse.  So, again, where do we go from here?  To neither in, nor ad, to no war at all.  To abolishing war, as a social institution, as a social evil.

But is that at all possible?  Of course it is.  To wit:

* in the 19th century we abolished slavery;

* in the 20th century we abolished colonialism;

* in the 21st century we are abolishing patriarchy;

* in the 22nd century war abolition will be much overdue.

There are still forms of slavery, young women, child labor; colonialism is surviving as imperialism; and patriarchy is deeply rooted.  But with a difference: they are no longer legitimate, or rapidly delegitimizing.  There is a difference between blossoming slavery down the Mississippi river and clandestine activity.  The same can happen to warfare, having the League of Nations, Kellogg-Briand and the United Nations, been heroic efforts.  But with far too many loopholes, like privatization, wars not among states, all kinds of “defense”, even “peace enforcement” by the United Nations–rejected by Switzerland for Afghanistan in 2008.

But there is a much more efficient method than working on those loopholes.  Underlying a war, or each act of violence, is an unsolved conflict somewhere, often from the past.  Solving conflicts is the approach, and it can be done.  Imagine an organization of skilled mediators, the size of the Red Cross, descending on each threat of violence, listening to the parties and their view of what happens, eliciting their views of what they want, sifting illegitimate from legitimate goals, bridging the gaps between legitimate goals with empathy, nonviolence and above all creativity, imagination.  Peace research in practice, in other words, not “security studies” based on threat and counter-threat, some kind of academically institutionalized paranoia.

Let me use as examples the themes of the six workshops in this important conference, with some comments:

* What when the Geneva conventions are broken?–important, but part of the old rule by law tradition, promoting norms and using sanctions when infracted.  Conflict solution calls for inspiring, even compelling and unifying visions–creativity, not punishment.

* Nonviolent protection, witnessing and accompaniment in war situations, Peace Brigades International.  I was one of the proud founders back in 1961, important, but a relatively small factor.

* Interreligious dialogue between Christians and Muslims based on human rights.  No, based on human rights and the Five Pillars of Islam would be better, and would lead to dialogues where both sides can learn, e.g., about Muslim togetherness and sharing.

* Peace can be learnt – overcoming conflict.  I agree, but not only learnt, there are concrete, complex skills of conciliation, mediation and peace construction, practice, experience.

* Without truth and justice no conciliation–well, that is the South African approach.  We in TRANSCEND have 11 more.  Welcome!

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 Sep 2010.

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2 Responses to “Henri Dunant, Red Cross, What Next?”

  1. Dear Johan,

    Having lived in Switzerland for almost 7 years, I could speak at length about – and against – the Red Cross and in London, where I live, I’ve already had several heated encounters with the British Red Cross.

    I’m always amused when I read about Switzerland’s neutrality. A very clever ruse to help the country become rich. If A and B are fighting, Switzerland “must” sell weapons to both parties, so as to show “neutrality”.

    The one thing with which we will eternally disagree is your constant stating that, “in the 19th century we abolished slavery”. Not only throughout the 20th Century but in our 21st Century, slavery exists in many corners of the world and in some countries, there are GREAT number of slaves.

    Anti-Slavery International, founded in Britain in 1839, is still at work today.

    The organization lobbies governments of countries with slavery to act against it.
    The organization lobbies governments and international agencies to increase the priority of combating slavery.
    The organization aids research to find out the extent of slavery.
    The organization works to increase awareness of slavery.
    Anti-Slavery International informs the public that slavery is a real issue today. Their goal is a world without slaves.
    Three teams work in Anti-Slavery-International, Programme, Communication and Information.

    The Programme team collects relevant information(in cooperation with partners) over central issues, the worst types of Child labour, Debt bondage, Forced labour, Forced marriage, human trafficking and traditional slavery. The team publishes the information and promotes legislation to protect victims.

    The Communications Team produces material to educate and promote action including the magazine, ‘The Reporter’. The team lobby governments, the United Nations and the European Union urging them to help end all slavery. The reference library contains material from early in the abolitionist movement to the present day.

    The Information Team deals with administration and fundraising among other issues. They publish an annual review and annual accounts.

    Have no time now to go into the “Colonialism” issue, another illusion.

    Abolition of war in the 22nd Century?????? ther may be no people to make wars by then, anyway !!!!

    Best wishes,


  2. Emma says:

    A very interesting piece. Just one small correction: Peace Brigades International (PBI) was founded in 1981, not 1961.

    Best wishes
    PBI UK/Guatemala