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Keynote speech by Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Conference on “Education for Peace” Palais des Nations, Geneva, 14 January 2015

General Assembly Hall

Excellencies, colleagues and friends, 

We are here to celebrate not one, but two important anniversaries: 70 years of the United Nations Charter, and 90 years of the International School of Geneva, the oldest international school in the world.

And I think – for very selfish reasons – I should focus on the second. You see, I already have a job with the UN. But I’m still eagerly waiting for school places for my children. 

So I will discuss with you the importance of education, recognizing the immortal words of the nutty and great British comedian Spike Milligan, who said, and this very much contrary to what every teacher will say, he said:  “Education isn’t everything.  For a start it isn’t an elephant!” 

And it is true, it isn’t everything, but the right sort of education is.  And what do I mean by that?  What follows is a lecture drawn from a number of other lectures I have given in the past and, if you will permit me, it is a strong lecture which, for the younger members of this audience, may be heavy going.  But I hope it will create discussion and debate in the classroom in the months and years ahead.  It is also motivated, in part, by the awful events in Paris last week and the anniversary, in thirteen days time, of the liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, seventy years ago.

The people who set up the International School 90 years ago wanted to create an environment in which the children of diplomats, and other internationally minded people could come together, share a curriculum; and then return, if necessary, to their home countries with broader horizons and an understanding of other perspectives.

Among them was Ludwik Rajchman, a Polish Jew who later inspired the creation of both WHO and UNICEF. Arthur Sweetser, an American former war correspondent, who was so shaken by the horrors of World War I that he dedicated his life to what we would now call education for peace. Edouard Claparède, a Swiss neurologist who is remembered for his work on fear and memory.

These were people who knew the meaning of terror. They had seen war, and the damage that war can do, particularly to children. They wanted desperately to believe that it would never happen again, and this, indeed, was the generation that called the 1914-1918 war “the war to end all wars”, since to them it seemed it must eclipse all others with the sheer scale of its death and destruction. To these and other humanist thinkers, it seemed the origins of the First World War lay coiled within pathologies specific to the early 20th century, such as secret diplomacy and nationalism. And so they sought to build the foundations of a new world.

The creation of the International School of Geneva was part of a brave movement towards solutions. The League of Nations would resolve international disputes; and institutions such as the International School would shape a new generation of young people who would shed nationalistic vanity and prejudice.

A couple of years ago, I visited Zeppelin Field in Nuremberg – the enormous space, about the size of 12 football fields, where Nazi Party rallies were held in the years before the Second World War. It is a horrible place, which very much retains its sinister memory of mile after mile of euphoric, jabbing arms and hate-filled rhetoric.

A few weeks later after my Nuremburg visit, I was invited to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Again, a wretched and nauseating place. It brought to my mind a scene recounted by Witold Pilecki. Pilecki co-founded the Polish resistance army, and in 1940 he deliberately allowed himself to be arrested and sent to Auschwitz so that he could find out what was happening there. His life-story is both extraordinarily inspiring and tragically bleak, and I recommend it highly to all of you.

The scene I had in mind took place in the spring of 1942, as the pace of killings was accelerating. Pilecki is marching back to the extermination camp from a work assignment. He and his companions are starving, filthy, maimed, close to death; they are returning to a place where hundreds of women, men and children are being gassed to death every day. And yet, as he later wrote, “we would encounter young couples out walking, breathing in the beauty of springtime, or women peacefully pushing their children in prams — then the thought uncomfortably bouncing around one’s brain would arise . . . swirling around, stubbornly seeking some solution to the insoluble question: Were we all . . . people?”

Are we not all people? How is it possible not to care what happens to our fellow human beings? What is happening behind the blank faces of those young couples who stroll past the pitiful victims and barely even avert their eyes?

Many years prior to this visit to Auschwitz, I had been working in the former Yugoslavia as a political affairs officer for UNPROFOR.  It was a time of brutal war and killing, where the most hideous things took place. 

But almost as shocking as these quite terrifying atrocities was our proximity to the carefree luxuries of modern life. One minute you were in a theatre of war, a staggering crime scene in progress, and an hour later you would be attending diplomatic meetings in Vienna or Geneva, where a waiter would casually ask if you wanted sparkling or still water, as if distinctions of that sort were important, and merited a response.

“Are we not all people?” My Pilecki moment, if you will. A small thing, but the small things have great power to shake you. In 2005 I was invited to New York for a scholarly discussion of the massacre of about 8000 people which took place in July 1995, in a small mining town called Srebrenica, in Bosnia – only about 400 kilometres east of Italy. All the scholars gave very cogent and sophisticated explanations for how and why the wars in the former Yugoslavia had unfolded. But when it came to me to speak, I was simply flooded with emotion – because, to me, there was not even a particle of an answer, in terms of human reason, that could explain all the torture, all the killing, and account for the giant void in mercy and empathy that made these massacres possible.

I had experienced yet another contrast like this in October 1994, when I travelled with a UN delegation from Bonn to Gotha, in the former East Germany. As our aircraft approached its destination we were told by the control tower that a thick layer of fog covered the airfield, and so our pilot was told to divert and hold over nearby Weimar until the fog lifted.

I went back to my papers. The situation in Bosnia seemed completely desperate: only hours earlier, the Sarajevo airport had once again been struck by mortar shells, and this on the heels of a machine-gun attack on the tramways that had killed numerous people. The peace process was to all intents and purposes dead: it seemed there was no hope of any kind.

I continued reading: the people of Rwanda were still reeling from the systematic, exhaustive genocide that offered further proof of just how powerless our collective conscience remained. A genocide inflicted by machete, by hand, in which ordinary people simply hacked at their neighbours, one by one, grimly and without apparent remorse.

And so we entered into a hold over Weimar, a beautiful city that was bathed in bright sunlight. Looking down, I thought of the marvellous artistic and intellectual achievements of Goethe and Schiller – you’ll have to forgive me, but I am a historian by training, and when you love history, it comes to life wherever you go.

And yet, as our plane circled, we could also see a low, dark cloud-bank to the north of Weimar, as if keeping a watchful eye over the town. And under it lay a small hill and a clearing. With every turn – and, for a fleeting moment, with every 360-degree sweep of the wing – this clearing, formerly the Buchenwald concentration camp, came into view.

Weimar, always in sight and dressed in sunlight; Buchenwald, appearing intermittently in the shadows. Another incongruous juxtaposition of serenity and horror. The meaning of this vista was clear: no matter how brilliant our achievements – artistic, scientific, or technological –we still live in Albert Camus’ “age of murder,” in which, with shameful frequency, the evils and horrors that some people are capable of inflicting on others severely test our belief in humanity.

And it has not stopped there, of course: the catalogue of inhumanity runs on and on, with Syria the latest grim and terrible addition.  Just as the First World War was not “the war to end all wars”, it appears that the perpetrators of atrocities, the mass killers and the torturers, are not characterised by any specific pathologies. They are desperately, discouragingly ordinary.

They could be any of us. These monstrous tendencies may lurk within us all. Peace is probably not inherent in our DNA.  We must confront this, with fearless clarity. Our task becomes the need to rework our software – perhaps even our hardware – and begin to change human nature. We must strengthen our ethics, our clarity and openness of thought, our moral courage.

Education for Human Rights

To accomplish this we must, of course, rely on education.   An education that goes beyond reading, writing and arithmetic, and which includes skills and values that equip children to participate responsibly in our communities. I am increasingly supportive of the proposition that education of any kind, if it is devoid of a strong universal human rights component, can be next to worthless when it should matter most: in crisis, when our world begins to unravel.

What good was it to humanity that Josef Mengele had advanced degrees in medicine and anthropology, given that he was capable of committing the most inhuman crimes? Eight of the 15 people who planned the Holocaust at Wannsee in 1942 held PhDs. They shone academically, and yet they were profoundly toxic to the world. Radovan Karadzić was a trained psychiatrist. Pol Pot studied radio electronics in Paris. Does this matter, when neither of them showed the smallest shred of ethics and understanding?

Of course we need schools to nurture curiosity and intelligence. Knowledge of complex geometry, or molecular cell biology, or Cartesian philosophy – or thousands of other facets of the great kaleidoscope of human brilliance – can be a precious thing. But when humanity topples on the cusp of real and vicious self-destruction, we don’t necessarily need people who are smart.

We need people who are kind.  People with PhD-level compassion. People who feel joy, and generosity, and love, and who have fully integrated the values that are essential to life in freedom and dignity. We need people with a strong moral compass.

Before every child on this planet turns 9, I believe he or she should acquire a foundational understanding of human rights. And I am far from being alone in this. Sixty six years ago, the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which is perhaps the most thoughtful and resonant international agreement of modern times – felt that human rights education would be so crucial that they wrote it into that great, foundational text. Article 26 reads “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Moreover, all UN Member States have affirmed on many occasions their belief in the centrality of human rights education as a long-term strategy for the prevention of human rights violations and conflicts; for the promotion of equality and sustainable development; and to enhance people’s participation in decision-making processes. The World Programme for Human Rights Education has been set up to encourage stronger and more consistent national action.    

Even in kindergarten, children should learn – and experience – the fundamental human rights values of respect, equality and justice. From the earliest age, human rights education should be infused throughout the program of every school – in curricula and textbooks, policies, the training of teaching personnel, pedagogical methods and the overall learning environment.

Children need to learn what bigotry and chauvinism are, and the evil they can produce. They need to learn that blind obedience can be exploited by authority figures for wicked ends. They should also learn that they are not exceptional because of where they were born, how they look, what passport they carry, or the social class, caste or creed of their parents; they should learn that no-one is intrinsically superior to her or his fellow human beings.

Children can learn to recognise their own biases, and correct them. They can learn to redirect their own aggressive impulses and use non-violent means to resolve disputes. They can learn to be inspired by the courage of the pacifiers and by those who assist, not those who destroy. They can be guided by human rights education to make informed choices in life, to approach situations with critical and independent thought, and to empathise with other points of view.

Sadly, they must learn that the Zeppelin Field, the shadow of Buchenwald, the glint of the machete and the horror of life today in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Central African Republic and elsewhere – wherever we live, they are never that far away.

These lessons are surely as fundamental to life on Earth as advanced calculus.

Today, at schools such as the International School of Geneva – and it should be true of every school, everywhere – children can learn that no human being can properly be defined by a single point of reference: not nationality, not ideology or religion. As the Indian economist Amartya Sen points out in his thought-provoking book Identity and Violence, every human being has many identities,  related to gender, nationality, language, location, class, religion, occupation, political beliefs and personal inclinations. As he says, “The best hope for peace in the world lies in the simple but far-reaching recognition that we all have many different associations and affiliations; we are not rigidly divided by a single categorization of hardened groups which confront each other.”

Every child should be able to grasp that this recognition of blurred and cross-cutting identities – of the wonderful diversity of individuals and cultures within our shared membership of humanity – is a source of tremendous enrichment. It is my experience that every child, after some discussion, is enthused by the famous Martin Luther King quote looking forward “to a day when people will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”.

Children are fully able to grasp the implications of human rights. And they are able, too, to understand the power that human rights principles bestow on them. Every child can help to shape her or his universe: this is the lesson of that physically tiny and yet symbolically immensely powerful young woman, Malala, who has enriched the moral heritage of humanity. We do not have to accept the world as it is; indeed, we must not. We do not have to give in to the dark allure of hatred and violence: indeed, it is vital that we find the energy to resist it.

As we progress into this century, all of us will face moments of doubt, and even despair. We may well encounter terrible suffering. But the clarity of human rights values provides the only possible basis for solutions. And only with them can we answer Witold Pilecki’s simple question posed as he marched down that road near Auschwitz: Yes, indeed, we are all people. And it matters very much what happens to every single one of us.

We are here to celebrate 90 years of the International School of Geneva, a fine example of an educational framework that strives to teach the skills and values that promote peace. May there be 90 more years of such work. May every educator become a human rights defender and every educational institution, a zone of tolerance and dignity. And may the students who benefit from this work use the values that they have learned to create greater peace in the world.

Thank you.