Picture: Sylvain Liechti / MONUSCO / Undated – M23 fighters head towards the provincial capital of Goma in the eastern part of the DRC. The UNHCR, in its latest statistics, last week reports that there are 114 million refugees and displaced people, up from 110 million in the previous report because of conflicts, the writer says.
By Fillipo Grandi
THERE was a time, in the lives of many of us, in which we thought that we had entered an era of peace.
A time after the Berlin Wall was finally reduced to rubble when co-operation would substitute the fractures of the Cold War.
This is why – when Pope Francis, a few years ago, warned that we were close to a “Third World War in pieces”, I dismissed the thought as exaggerated.
But Francis might have spoken with sad foresight – as he often does – when he coined that expression. Because, as we look in anguish at the destruction of Gaza – after having watched Ukrainian neighbourhoods devastated by Russian rockets; peaceful Sudanese cities savaged by armed men; communities in Ethiopia torn apart by violence; Afghanistan drifting from years of civil strife into an apparent tranquillity in which women’s rights are denied – when we look at this litany of crises, one after the other, we can only conclude the same.
We live – again – in a time of war.
A time in which – with increasing impunity – men pick up arms to kill, rape, destroy and above all seize power. A time of great global divisions – perhaps the most severe that we have seen in our living memory.
No matter where we look and which issue is discussed, we see, we feel those divides, from global geopolitics to local communities. We are almost driven to polarisation, as if it had become impossible to consider different perspectives: “be with us, otherwise you are not good; not loyal; and not deserving of respect and rights”.
The big rifts: north/south; east/west, rich/poor, strong/weak, have been made even more visible by the unequal and inequitable response to the Covid-19 pandemic; by the responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine; and now – putting us at risk of a fracture that could be irreparable – by the war in Gaza.
And let me go beyond Gaza and the Middle East because procrastinating peace and perpetuating unresolved conflicts – which do not disturb the powerful but have a disastrous impact on millions – is becoming the prevailing pattern in many places around the world.
This is why the UNHCR, in its latest statistics, published last week, reported that there were 114 million refugees and displaced people, up from 110 million in the previous report, up from 89 million … and so forth. And this awful number is destined to grow, because new crises add themselves to the existing ones and the existing ones suffer from the syndrome of procrasti¬nated peace, and continuing conflict.
I won’t bore you with a long description of the many crises which we are grappling with every day. A few examples: Sudanese refugees in Chad tell us stories of rape, mutilation and murder in Darfur that 20 years ago caused outrage in the world, and today are barely a ripple in the 24-hour news cycle; the abuse of women and children in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo happens every day in a situation so desperate that survival sex has become a coping strategy for thousands displaced by this mother of all unresolved conflicts, or the displacement is growing in Sahel as a result of armed groups growing stronger amidst political instability.
In this world of wars, it has become easier to speak of retribution and score-settling instead of peace and security.
So, today, as food for thought, let me offer some simple thoughts on the pursuit of peace and how we can all intervene.
First, we keep humanitarian action strong. There are so many crises – and peace-making is failing so badly – that humanitarian presence and operations are more necessary today than ever. Political support and, crucially, much more funding are necessary to help and stabilise people.
Second, we humanitarians are there with the people. This is where we should enjoy a great deal of flexibility, instead of being compelled to work with one hand behind our back, as is the case in many such places. Flexibility, first and foremost, from those controlling the territory, but also flexibility and trust on the part of others, including donors, giving us more space on how and with whom we engage to carry out our work.
Third, we must finally address – more decisively and systematically – one area which is crucial in pursuing peace, which is to invest more efforts and resources in creating resilience among affected populations at the onset of a crisis.
Resilience is a bulwark of peace. And it can only occur if there is a shift in the way development works – this is why the reforms of the global financial architecture promoted among others by the UN secretary-general are so important. This is why reversing the climate emergency; or at minimum ensuring that the vulnerable have the tools and resources needed to mitigate or adapt to the circumstances – are also crucial peace-building measures since climate change is a driver of conflict.
There is a fourth and last point that I must raise. Our world desperately needs a reboot of the very principles of law and humanity to counter the trends and actions that we are seeing today. And here, I would propose that we look at this in two distinct, but related layers.
The first is a “hardware” issue – the respect for the law. This is especially important as we get ready to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
And talking of war, it is especially international humanitarian law that is increasingly being violated without any consequence for the violators, but with the gravest of consequences for civilians.
There is a second layer; a “software” dimension that each of us – irrespective of position or power – must reflect on. It is a voice of respect for others, even or especially those with whom we do not agree. It is a voice of care. Of compassion. Of positive contributions in language and deeds.
For it is upon those foundations – those values and the ways with which we, as individuals, carry ourselves – that peace, real peace, even an imperfect peace, can be built.
Fillipo Grandi is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. This is an edited version of his Kofi Annan peace lecture delivered on November 3 in Geneva