Abolishing war is urgently needed, and this is achievable
Gino Strada's acceptance speech at the Right Livelihood Award 2015 (the "Alternative Nobel Prize") ceremony.
Honourable Members of the Parliament, honourable members of the Swedish Government, members of the RLA Foundation, fellow Laureates, Excellences, friends, ladies and gentlemen.
It is a honour for me to receive this prestigious award, that I consider a sign of appreciation for the outstanding work that the humanitarian organization EMERGENCY has done in the past 21 years in favour of the victims of war and poverty.
I am a surgeon. I have seen the wounded (and the dead) in several conflicts in Asia, in Africa, in the Middle East, in Latin America and in Europe. I have performed surgery on several thousands of people, injured by bullets, by shrapnel from bombs or rockets.
In Quetta, the Pakistani city close to the Afghan border, I met victims of antipersonnel mines for the first time. I performed surgery on many children injured by the so-called “toy mines”; small plastic green butterflies the size of a pack of cigarettes. Scattered in the fields, these weapons wait for a curious child to pick them up and play with for a while, until the detonation occurs: one or both hands are blown away, burns over the chest, the face and the eyes. Armless and blind children. I still have vivid memories of those victims, and the view of those atrocities changed my life.
It took me time to accept the idea that a “war strategy” could include practices like deliberately targeting and maiming children in the “enemy’s Country”. Weapons designed not to kill but to inflict horrific suffering upon innocent children and posing a terrible burden to their families and their society.
For me, even today, those children are the living symbol of contemporary wars, a persistent form of terrorism against the civilian populations.
A few years later, in Kabul, I went through the files of about 1,200 patients, and discovered that less than 10 percent of them were likely to be combatants.
Ninety percent of the victims were civilians, one third of them children. Are they "the enemy"? Who pays the price of war?
In the past century, the percentage of civilian casualties has dramatically increased from approximately 15% in WWI to more than 60% in WWII. And in the more than 160 “major conflicts” that the planet has experienced after the end of WWII, that took the lives of more than 25 million people, the percentage of civilian victims has consistently been around ninety percent of the total, very much like the data from the afghan conflict.
Working in war torn regions for more than 25 years, I have witnessed this cruel and sad reality, perceived the magnitude of this social tragedy, of this carnage of civilians, mostly occurring in areas with almost non-existent health facilities.
Over the years, EMERGENCY has built and run surgical hospitals for war victims in Rwanda, in Cambodia, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Sierra Leone and in many other Countries, then expanded its medical activities to include pediatric and maternity centers, rehabilitation centers, clinics and first-aid posts.
The origin and foundation of EMERGENCY back in 1994, did not derive from a set of principles and declarations. Rather, It was conceived on operating tables and in hospital wards.
Treating the wounded is neither generous nor merciful, it is only just. It has to be done.
In 21 years of activity, EMERGENCY has provided medical and surgical assistance to more than 6,5 million people. A drop in the ocean – you might say – but that drop has made a difference for many. Somehow it has also changed the lives of those who have shared the experience of EMERGENCY, like me.
Every time, in the different conflicts we have been working in, regardless of who was fighting against whom and for what reason, the result was always the same: war was nothing but killing of civilians, death, destruction . The tragedy of the victims is the only truth of war.
Confronted daily with this dreadful truth, we embraced the idea of a community where human relationships are founded on solidarity and mutual respect.
Indeed, this was the hope shared worldwide in the aftermath of the Second World War. This hope led to the establishment of the United Nations, as stated in the Preamble of the UN Charter: “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”
The indissoluble link between human rights and peace and the relation of mutual exclusion between war and rights were also stressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed in 1948. “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and the “recognition of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
70 years later that Declaration sounds provocative, offensive and clearly false. So far not one among the signatory States has completely implemented the universal rights they had committed to: the right to a dignified life, to a job and a home, to education and health care. In one word, the right to social justice. At the beginning of the new millennium there are no rights for all, but privileges for a few.
The single and most aberrant, widespread and persistent violation of human rights is the practice of war, in all its forms. By denying the right to stay alive, war denies all human rights.
I would like to stress once again that in most Countries ravaged by violence those who pay the price are women and men like us, nine times out of ten.
We shall never forget this.
In the month of November 2015 alone, more than 4000 civilians have been killed in several Countries including Afghanistan, Egypt, France, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Syria, Somalia. Many more people have been wounded and maimed, or forced to flee from their homes.
Being a witness to the atrocities of war, I have seen how turning to violence has most of the times only brought in more violence and suffering. War is an act of terrorism, and terrorism is an act of war: they share a common denominator, the use of violence.
Sixty years later, we are still confronted with the dilemma posed in 1955 by leading world scientists in the so called Russell-Einstein Manifesto: “Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?” Can we have a world without war to guarantee a future to the human race?
Many would argue that wars have always existed. This is true but it does not prove in any way that the recourse to war is inevitable, nor can we assume that a world without war is unachievable. The fact that war has marked our past does not mean that it has to be part of our future as well.
As with illnesses, war should be considered as a problem to solve, not as our destiny.
As a doctor, I could compare war with cancer. Cancer vexes humanity and claims many victims: does this mean that all efforts of medicine are useless? On the contrary, it is exactly the persistence of this devastating disease that prompts us to increase the efforts to prevent and defeat it.
Conceiving a world without war is the most stimulating task that the human race is facing. It is also the most urgent. Atomic scientists, through their Doomsday clock, are warning the human race: “The clock ticks now at just three minutes to midnight because international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty—ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization.”
The biggest challenge for the coming decades is to imagine, design and implement the conditions that will allow us to reduce the recourse to force and to mass violence until they fully disappear. War, just like deadly diseases, has to be prevented and cured. Violence is not the right medicine: it does not cure the disease, it kills the patient.
The abolition of war is the first indispensable step in this direction.
We may call it utopia, as it has never occurred before. However, the term utopia does not designate something absurd, but rather a possibility that still has to be explored and accomplished.
Many years ago even the abolition of slavery seemed “utopian”. In the XVIII century the “possession of slaves” was deemed as “normal”. A massive movement – gathering hundreds of million citizens over the years, decades and centuries – changed the perception of slavery: today we repel the idea of human beings chained and reduced to slavery. That utopia became true.
A world without war is another utopia we cannot wait any longer to see materialized.
We must convince millions of people that abolishing war is urgently needed and achievable. This must penetrate deeply into our consciousness, until the idea of war becomes a taboo, expelled from human history.
Receiving the Right Livelihood Award encourages me personally, and Emergency as a whole, to multiply our efforts: caring for the victims and promoting a cultural movement for the abolition of war.
I take this opportunity to appeal to you all, to the community of the RLA laureates to join forces and support this initiative. Working together for a world without war is the best we can do for the generations to come.
Thank you very much.
– Gino Strada, EMEGRENCY NGO Founder, Stockholm, November 30, 2015