The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.
Speech given by MIF Prize committee member Mohamed ElBaradei at the Horasis Global Meeting, Cascais, Portugal on 6 May 2018.
The theme of this meeting, a congregation of brainpower and experience, is how to ensure that our future will be peaceful and stable, and how to inspire and be inspired by young people in the process. My starting point is to acknowledge upfront that there is a good deal of angst and uncertainty as to the direction our future will take and to recognise the palpable disconnect between us, the 'mature' generation and those who have their future ahead of them.
I am not in the least trying to ignore or belittle our recent incredible achievements in understanding our world and ourselves, nor our unbelievable advances in fields like science, health and communication. I am, like you, equally amazed by these advances, which turned someone, like me in the space of less than two decades, into almost a dinosaur, trying desperately to grasp the onslaught of technology around me, for which thankfully I have my son to help me make sense of it all.
What I am trying to convey to you here is the widening gap between our paradoxical nature as humans: our ability to soar very high in pursuit of noble values and public good, but at the same time our capacity to sink very low without shame or remorse. This duality of good and evil expressed in Zoroastrianism and almost every other faith is neither novel nor unfamiliar. But the gulf between the two is widening. This is may be because our capacity to do both good and evil is amplified almost by the day. For while we are almost playing God in many fields like medicine and artificial intelligence, we are playing Satan in several others by expanding our ability to destroy our planet many times over in a blink of an eye. To draw from a field I am familiar with, the challenge before us is whether we will use the atom at our disposal for peace and prosperity or for war and destruction, and more specifically is this a choice still available to us or is it already too late.
It is my strong belief that the root of all the evils that permeate our human condition in all fields, whether civil, social, cultural or economic is inequality; inequality rooted in clashes of values that transcend policy differences and go to the heart of rights and freedoms, social justice, rule of law etc. When we hear president Trump saying that torture works and advocating a Muslim ban; when we see Mr Kaczynski of Poland saying that refugees from the Middle East would bring disease and parasites to Europe; when we listen to president Duterte of the Philippines declaring a nationwide state of lawlessness, we appreciate the dimension of the crises we are confronting: to me it is a frontal attack on some of our basic values; a budding confrontation between a world based on equity, inclusiveness, and rule of law and a world based on discrimination, segregation and extra judicial 'norms'.
What is worse is that this is coupled with a growing mindset of Cartago Deland Est between cultures, religions and people, and a creeping sense of otherness. Some comparison was already made with the 1930s (polarised societies, populism, economic crises, refugees, institutional failures and flouting of international norms), posing the question whether we are on the cusp of a major conflagration, this time one that could usher the end of the world as we know it. Last month the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres declared that “the cold war is back – with a vengeance but with a difference. The mechanisms and the safeguards to manage the risks of escalation that existed in the past no longer seem to be present”. He added that the risk we are facing today is that “things spiral out of control”.
In 1952 the great American statesman Adlai Stevenson declared that “the great enemies of man are war, poverty and tyranny and their assault on human dignity which are the most grievous consequences of each”. Today, seven decades after Stevenson’s words, these enemies remain just as powerful.
War continues to dominate the human timeline. We organised ourselves over the millennia into city-states, empires, and sovereign states. We had the peace of Westphalia, congress of Vienna, League of Nations, and United Nations to regulate international relations. We had security systems based on balance of power and collective security, but force and violence continued to be our preferred choice to settle differences. What is dreadfully disturbing is that our response to loss of life has become mostly driven by geostrategic interests; the bottom line being who is dying and where. We wrung our hands while millions were slaughtered in DRC, Rwanda, Darfur, Afghanistan, Syria and other places. Limitation on the use of force agreed to as one of the pillars of the UN Charter, is being steadily ignored (Iraq, Libya, Yemen and recently Syria); Humanitarian law is becoming almost a relic of the past (use of chemical weapons, attacking hospitals and civilians etc.); responsibility to protect against war crimes and crimes against humanity has become a historical footnote; the International Criminal Court has become a forum for the weak and defeated. Many people are facing threats of starvation and famine in East Africa and other regions, while the UN is literally begging for peanut money that is not forthcoming.
Poverty and hunger though having decreased in recent decades remain outrageous and inexcusable. Around 800 million live in extreme poverty and over 2 billion live below the poverty level; 1 in 9 people goes to bed hungry across the world even though we produce more than enough food to feed everyone. Inequality in the distribution of wealth between and within countries has reached an offensive level. Eight men own more global wealth than the 3.6 billion who are the poorest half of humanity, and who own a mere 1% of that wealth. More than a while back, in my 2005 Nobel Lecture, I emphasised that “this imbalance in living conditions inevitably leads … in many cases to loss of hope. And … the plight of the poor is compounded by, and results in human rights abuses, a lack of good governance, and a deep sense of injustice. This combination naturally creates a most fertile breeding ground for civil wars, organised crime, and extremism in its different forms”. Poverty, I observed then, is the most lethal weapon of mass destruction. The danger is also compounded by the fact that our most significant threats have no borders: terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, cybercrimes, climate change, communicable diseases, and organised crime, to name a few.
Brutal repression is the hallmark of a third of the world nations. Trampling of human rights has become a spectator sport for the international community, whose response is mostly limited to a pathetic expression of 'deep concern'. The argument invariably made is that our choices are limited; we have to choose between the bad, authoritarianism and the worse terrorism. But the reality is that in the process, the credibility of democratic regimes has almost vanished in the eyes of those fighting for their human dignity. And we are left with no vision, leadership or role models. We need better options other than regime change, dumb sanctions, use of force or embracing dictators and arming them to the teeth.
The central challenge in the Middle East and many other parts of the world is how to transition from authoritarianism to good governance; how to expunge repressive regimes; how to achieve societal cohesion; how to settle disagreements peacefully and how to eschew foreign meddling and proxy wars. It was the lack of mechanisms to supplant the entrenched regimes, and the absence of a culture which could reconcile, compromise and forge a consensus on shared values on the 'day after' that led to chaos and violence in all Arab spring countries. It was not that the quest for human dignity was premature or unjustified. It was that the head winds of counter revolution were too strong for the fragile 'freedom flight' to take off at least for now. A complicating and divisive issue Muslim majority countries continue to grapple with and which stymied the emergence of national consensus is the nature of the relationship between religion, religious institutions, morality, the rule of law and the state. This is an issue that has been with us since the 7th century with no agreed resolution in sight.
Our institutions, national and international, have become anachronistic. National governments are facing a crisis because of their inability to adjust to a globalised world. They are also unable to meet the expectations of a growing and urbanised population for prosperity and fairness. There is a loss of trust in the political class; in the power and influence of money; and in the suitability of direct democracy to address complex issues such as Brexit or a peace agreement in Colombia. Worse still the structures and authority of the state as an organising unit is now being questioned. While a large territorial grouping based on geographical proximity and an overarching culture such as the EU was seen as the model for the future, we now see increasing retrenchment towards the ethnic and the small; Catalonia and Scotland are recent examples.
International institutions suffer from structural deficiencies and lack of authority and resources. They were created for a different era and are steadily becoming polarised and paralysed. The recent performance of the Security Council regarding Syria is a stark case in point. Noise about the need to reform the UN system to make it suitable for the 21st century continues to be made since the end of the cold war but is now muted and seems to be dead in its tracks.
To add insult to injury, and a quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War when we talked about a new world order, we still rely on nuclear weapons for our global security, the mother of all inhumane weapons. 15,000 of them are still in existence and 2,000 are on high alert ready for prompt launch in matters of minutes. This is a security system which is based on an insane doctrine – mutual assured destruction – that is totally irrelevant to extremists; is grounded on the premise that some – those who have nuclear weapons – are more equal than others, and is naturally subject to the inevitable human fallibility and miscalculations. It is a glaringly dangerous system, unsustainable, and naïve. This system is now being put to the test in Korea and Iran and its subjectivity and loopholes are coming to the surface. I pray that we have learned from the Iraq catastrophe, and would be able to reach accommodations based not on demonisation and flaunting our destructive abilities, but rather, on a search for shared security and mutual trust building.
In this bleak environment I just painted is there anything we can do? Can we still dream of a peaceful and stable world? Can we still inspire the younger generation? As depressing as our current situation is, I still believe that yes we can, and we owe it to ourselves to at least try. It is comforting to note that all the ills I mentioned are not beyond repair thanks to the human, financial and technological resources at our disposal. The central issue is one of skewed values and a blinkered mindset. Poverty, tyranny and other forms of inequality are not genetic or endemic human features. They are the results of an environment we created and a mindset we cultivated. We can easily fix them if we set our minds to it and comprehend their evil nature and destructive impact on our lives. These values and mindset are not immutable; think of slavery which we accepted for millennia, of torture, of gender discrimination and many other values and mindsets that we are slowly managing to shed as inhumane and unjust. So the key is to embark on reexamining our values anew. The current blitz on some of these values is an opportunity for an overdue counter attack not only to respond to this dangerous wave of prejudice but also to revisit all of our values; reaffirming the good and challenging the bad and the ugly in order to distill them to fit our present day realities and future aspirations.
We need a new global paradigm based on a value that we often reference but rarely honour: human dignity and all its derivatives: sanctity of life, equality, inclusiveness, diversity and solidarity; and not double standards, polarisation and humiliation. We need to address global challenges through global responses based on public common good, where human dignity comes first. We need to shift focus from rivalry and competition to cooperation and complementarity. There must be zero tolerance for tyranny. And there must be a new cooperative system of collective security that does not depend on nuclear weapons.
We need a fresh approach to our governance modalities and institutions, nationally and internationally. Focusing on global economic and social growth through the creation of level playing fields and through making full use of science and technology; reengineering international institutions and equipping them with the tools to deal with the new realities of globalisation; and building a robust and functioning civil society and a democratic culture to ensure full participation by individuals in shaping their future. These together are our best and most effective tools to counter populism and xenophobia.
[su_highlight]Democracy and freedom are the key to long term stability. But democracy is not instant coffee. It is a set of values and a culture that go much beyond the ballot box. It is mainly about eliminating the barriers to free and fair political participation. It is about institutions, dialogue, compromise, tolerance, inclusiveness and much more. We also need to realise that supporting freedom can be costly in the short run but pays handsome dividends in the long haul.[/su_highlight]
If we put our emphasis on growth and social cohesion, if we concentrate on freedom and human dignity, as many of the young generation call on us to do, we will eventually understand the simple truism that is basic to our survival: we are one human family, irrespective of any superficial differences of religion, colour or race. Sharing the same planet with each other fairly and equitably is not only ethical but also the key to our survival. My experience everywhere tells me that young people understand and demonstrate this thinking instinctively. Their mindset and values are refreshingly different from us. And they are making their presence felt on social media and through events like the March for Our Lives across the world. Their slogan is simple: “we are the change”. It is time to listen to them, share their wisdom and do our best to empower them. They will inevitably overtake us soon. A few weeks ago I took my seven year old granddaughter to the park. As we were walking along, she didn’t find one of my evasive responses very convincing. She then immediately stopped, looked me in the eye and said in an irritated voice “I want an answer right now!” I realised then, as we all should, that it is time to listen and move fast.