Header image for news printout

Human suffering, moral blankness and the ties of sentiment Speech to the Carnegie Council, 8 June 2015

Ladies and gentlemen,

I want you to imagine, for a moment, a world without human rights.  A space so brutal, violence is the only currency of human exchange.  Fear is its fuel and its tranquilizer; a world where cruelty and deprivation mark all.  Where conflict slides unopposed on rails of discrimination and hatred – with every person desperately scratching for benefit, for themselves alone; where every man, woman and child struggles against arbitrary and capricious power; where even the rulers, in their tyranny, live in fear that they will be violently overturned.  It is a wretched place: our nasty little hut of suffering.

Seventy years ago, from the smoke of a war more hideous and devastating than the colossal burn that ended in 1918, states built a system for peace – again.  And from the pain of that most savage conflict, and the most detailed, mathematically planned genocide the world had ever seen, these states knew if countries and peoples could not live together, they would recycle the past behaviour again – but with nuclear weapons; no one could win, all would be annihilated.  And so they built the United Nations, and drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It begins "Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world..."

Recognition of the inherent dignity, and the inalienable and equal rights, of every human being. A respect for difference – and beyond it, a sense that whatever our differences, we are one, locked together on this planet where all of us must live and die.  These are the foundations of freedom, equality and justice.  And freedom, equality and justice are what hold the four letters: h-o-p-e, together.  Is this inter-letter space now crumbling?


Some weeks ago, with my thoughts wrapped around the Mediterranean boat-people, I left my apartment in Geneva and took a drive.  This crisis, along with that of the Rohingyas in South East Asia, has thrown the world into widespread dismay. People like us, but infinitely more desperate, whole families, share their suffering involuntarily with us, courtesy of our flat screens and iPads, as they drift over, or sink into, massive blue cemeteries.  And so on a temperamental Spring day, I drove to a lovely spot on the southern bank of Lake Geneva.  My destination was the Hotel Royal in Evian-les-Bains.  It was there, in July 1938, that 31 nations met for a shameful discussion that has been virtually airbrushed from our memory.

The Evian Conference was convened by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in response to the massive looming refugee crisis triggered by Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism.  Following the German annexation of Austria in March 1938 – faced with violent assaults, the seizure of personal property, restrictions of their freedom, campaigns of racial insults, and in deep and very rational fear – Jews had begun to seek to leave Germany and Austria in large numbers.  FDR felt that no country – certainly not his – would be able to solve this crisis alone.  Only a collective solution, he believed, could meet the challenge. 

Hitler, too, was hoping other countries would accept the Jews he was also trying to expel.  In a speech in Koenigsberg four months before the Evian Conference was convened, he jeered, “I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has felt such deep sympathy for these criminals, will be generous enough to transform this pity into practical aid.  As far as I am concerned, we are ready to place our luxury ships at the disposal of these countries for the transportation of these criminals.”

Indeed, Hitler was already placing many of them forcibly on ships and sending them to various destinations in the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic.

And yet in Evian that July, although many delegations voiced eloquent dismay over the torment experienced by the Jews of Germany and Austria, those sentiments were rhetorical only.  For the outcome of the meeting was a polite but blank denial of reality.  Neither Europe, nor the United States nor Australia would accept the refugees in any meaningful number.

In the verbatim record, two words were uttered over and over again: “density” and “saturation”.  The European countries were already beset with population “density” and had reached a point of “saturation” – in other words, there was simply no more room at the world's inns.  It was an absurd thing to say, of course, in 1938, given the size of Europe’s populations today.  And it would be an equally ridiculous thing to say now.

The participants in Evian could not, of course, have perceived the future unfolding of the Holocaust, nor foreseen that Europe was being drawn into another devastating war, and yet the absence of conscience on the part of the delegations at Evian was breathtaking – even their oral interventions where kept short, with many participants lured by the outdoor activities awaiting them at the spa.

The Nazis must have revelled in the knowledge that their anti-Semitism found a faint – or not so faint – echo in the rest of Europe. They also came to realize that if expulsion was becoming increasingly difficult, slave labour and extermination eventually would for them be alternatives.

Ironically, many of those countries refusing to take in refugees were themselves, in due course, occupied and brutalized by the same Nazis, and yearned for the compassion they denied the Jews in July 1938.

And so what of today?  It is clear the Europe of 2015 is not the Europe of 1938.  There are many European countries, led by Germany and now also France, who are prepared to consider very seriously, working along with the European Commission, not just the numbers of people that they should resettle, but fixing on a broader, more comprehensive, treatment of the crisis.  And we support them in their effort to do so, and to do more.  It is tough, however, as other European countries doggedly reject any proposal requiring them to accept more migrants.  And I worry; will this second category of countries ultimately set the trend?  Look at the Syrian refugees: only a small number of countries around the world -- led by Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan -- have, since 2011, shown unfailing generosity; while most who could have helped have not done so, and remain in moral default.

Must we not ask ourselves, therefore, what will be our future, if we succumb to a thinness of mind, to a fanatic populism, where our fears are so easily stirred, our reasoning so easily subdued?   If all states, in due course, mimic the most anti-immigrant of countries, and garrison their foreign policy with barbed wire, machine-gun nests and naval vessels; impenetrable to the suffering of the wretched who flee war and persecution – what will be our common destination then?  To what address will we humanity go? 


The German novelist Gunther Grass died six weeks ago. In his last interview before his death, he told the newspaper El Pais that today, "There is war everywhere. We run the risk of committing the same mistakes as before; without realising it, we can slip into a world war.”

Many of our most chronic crises -- their human rights abuses and attendant suffering included – still remain unresolved, from the occupied Palestinian Territory, to the deeply-wounded eastern communities of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Added to them in recent years, have come fresh disasters like Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, the Central African Republic , Libya and Yemen.  
And it is that accumulation of crises, at rates faster than our collective ability to resolve them – or even the earlier ones – which now, indeed, creates heightened cause for concern.  The horrific abuse of human life, of the inalienable rights of people by Takfiri groups such as Da’esh, Boko Haram and the Shabab organizations, have staggered us all.  Dumbfounded us.  And certainly require a response from states that is as effective as it is intelligent.  

It can only be intelligent, however, if these states recognize the importance of distinguishing the state -- which has a duty to uphold its human rights obligations -- from those extremists who believe otherwise.  Regrettably, we still see too many governments expect they can deliver their people from the threats of terrorism by way of security or military measures alone.  They are severely mistaken.  In the short term, yes they can provide relief from terrorism and palpable insecurity.  But as the months roll on, the reversal begins.  For the policing state will squeeze the space for political dissent, and stifle civil society, thus assuring in time an inexhaustible supply of fuel to the violent extremists, in the form of frustration and grievance – because by stifling criticism the policing state encourages a drift into ever more dismal standards of public service delivery, including justice, conspicuous corruption, and deep inequalities to boot.  Militarily too, unless supervised very carefully, aerial or ground operations will produce civilian casualties in numbers which destroy whatever moral arguments were put forth to justify the need for battle in the first place.

Unless we spin these security/military obsessions around, think laterally and focus not just on countering the ideology, but also place international humanitarian law and human rights law squarely at the centre of state response, it may very well be the case that these groups will continue, notwithstanding the occasional set-backs, to evolve and grow, menacingly – and their violence will remain extreme. 

Could Gunther Grass be right?  If countries already plagued by terrorism and prone to violate the law themselves continue to unravel, and humanitarian crises worsen, numbers of migrants swell, borders are walled off, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is betrayed by an ever growing number of countries – are we in danger of losing it all?

Are we reaching a state of moral blankness?  From Ukraine to the Central African Republic why do people hate the other with such ferocity; and why do they become so diabolical in their actions?  How is it in this century that femicide continues to somehow exist?  That people with albinism are hunted down for their body parts, and that the LGBTI community remains persecuted, with so many still fearing for their lives across the world?  Can we not smudge these sharp and poisonous boundaries?

In 1932, Albert Einstein wrote a remarkable letter to Sigmund Freud. It was just 14 years after the end of World War I, and as Europe struggled to its feet, a thuggish political group, the Nazi Party -- which was destined to drive both men from their homelands -- had just received more votes than any other political party in Germany. “Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?” Einstein wrote. Is it possible to control man's mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness?"

Freud had developed a theory that in all human beings, latent, savage urges spring to life when forces that ordinarily would inhibit them cease to operate. His answer to Einstein is very long, and I would not agree with parts of it, but on this point I think it is worth quoting extensively:

"Under primitive conditions, it is superior force – brute violence, or violence backed by arms – that lords it everywhere," Freud writes. But, he says, "The superiority of one strong man can be overborne by an alliance of many weaklings, l'union fait la force." He continues, "For the transition from crude violence to the reign of law, a certain psychological condition must first obtain... The union of the people must be permanent and well organized; it must enact rules to meet the risk of possible revolts; it must set up machinery insuring that its rules – the laws – are observed and that such acts of violence as the laws demand are duly carried out. This recognition of a community of interests engenders among the members of the group a sentiment of unity and fraternal solidarity which constitutes its real strength."

So the answer to Einstein's question – how to prevent war – is, Freud says, the rule of law, and the "ties of sentiment" that it helps to generate: the bonds of compassion and identification, or empathy.


What, exactly, is the rule of law? And how do we amplify its effect on empathy?

There are essentially two ways to look at the rule of law. One quite simply ignores the content of the laws: what matters is their formal structure. If laws are properly passed – enacted by a competent authority, public, non-retroactive, and so on – then one properly enforces them. This is a narrow, legalistic and procedural vision:
“rule by law” rather than rule of law. It ignores the fact that some laws may be unjust, indeed tyranny operates on that very basis.  Apartheid is an example of a situation that was governed by rules which were themselves unjust, and illegal under international human rights law.

The second vision of rule of law goes much deeper. This rule of law, involves looking at the ways in which laws ultimately contribute, or fail to contribute, to the legal protection of the human rights which stem from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the ten great human rights treaties and conventions – themselves the distillation, the accumulated wisdom, drawn from the long pain of human experience, with roots in customary law and of course religious law.

Those universal human rights principles include the right to life, liberty and security of person.  The rejection of torture.  Freedom from unlawful or arbitrary arrest or detention, and the right to a fair trial. They include equality.  The right to education, health, food, shelter, clothing and social protection.  The rejection of any form of discrimination, whether based on sex, race, ethnicity, colour, belief, sexual orientation or any other factor.  Freedom of expression and association, and the right to privacy.  Freedom of thought, conscience and religion.  The question here is justice: is the law just?

The quality of the law-making process is as important as the quality of the law.  Rule of law requires transparency: there should be no secret rules. The views of those directly affected must be considered. And all persons, institutions and entities – public and private, and including the state itself, – must be accountable for any breaches of law. Only this vision of the rule of law prevents a law from being enacted to permit torture, or to deprive women or ethnic minorities of the right to vote. It is also this vision, which is grounded in equality, participation, transparency, accountability and the collective good, which creates Freud’s “ties of sentiment”.

Let me return to the subject of hatred and violence, the ultimate expression of which is the calculated destruction of human life altogether. What often precedes the horrors will be a slow bubbling simmer of hatred – first verbal, then involving personal acts of physical intimidation and attacks, followed by discrimination seeping into all kinds of acts and laws, leading up in crescendo to a massive eruption of violence. But in the beginning there was speech.

 It is axiomatic that the freedom of expression, including speech, is foundational to the maintenance of human dignity. It is on this freedom that democracy rests, because this freedom swings the gate wide open for individuals to argue for their enjoyment of all other rights.  It is, essentially, the window into, and from which, the freedom of thought can have meaning.  The “ties of sentiment” also demand freedom of expression.  Because tyranny and, at the extreme, atrocity, will thrive through its absence – and so tyranny will always attempt to quash it.  Although – and here’s the rub -- tyranny will often also pervert its use by others, abuse it, transform it expertly into an incitement to hatred, in order to impose its will.  And its not just tyranny that will be tempted to do so, but also those filled by bigotry and chauvinism, and ultimately hatred.

Significantly, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) distinguishes between the right to the freedom of expression in Article 19, and the incitement to hatred in Article 20.  The latter reads that: “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”  The trick before us, therefore, the real challenge, is how to know the boundary, to recognize when one becomes the other. 

Naturally, the freedom of expression requires wide berth and should be expansive – for you may be offended.  And the right to freedom of expression, while it is to be enjoyed by everyone – equally – ideally, in practice, in a community that thinks, it would be exercised by a only few (the fringe), as the majority would be just too aware of the perils when many, most or all exercise it at its very limits -- because the dangers of a breach into Article 20 increase dramatically with each successive jump in numbers.  And yet, the threshold separating the two articles must also remain high, for the reasons I have already stated: Article 19 is still the best check against tyranny. 

Given how important these two articles are, my office began to organize, starting in 2012, a number of expert meetings devoted to identifying the elements, which will help improve our understanding as to where the boundary between the two articles lies.  They examined: the context; the intent; who the speaker/writer is; the form or content of the expression, and the extent of it; and the likelihood or imminence of violence.  Formalised and known as “the Rabat Plan of Action”, we are pleased to note that this initiative is now generating a great deal of interest, and we are working together with civil society, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa region on its further development and elaboration.  In effect, we are working hard to solidify the foundations for Freud’s “ties of sentiment”.

But there are also much broader and more insidious forms of intolerance in societies – including democratic societies – that should not, and probably cannot, be dealt with by prohibitions and the application of criminal law.  What do we do about stereotypes? About prejudice?  About the insidious assumptions that form a shadow across so many interactions, shaping the view that humanity is divided into sharply etched groups.


Today, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, xenophobia and anti-migrant feelings are once again rising – not only in Europe, though they certainly are rising in Europe -- but also elsewhere, across much of the world.   So can we correct it?  Can people of different backgrounds, history and religion live together, and remain true to themselves, without pushing others away?  More than half the world's population now lives in cities, and those cities are increasingly multicultural and multi-ethnic. In a world where we all encounter more people from other cultures, or who hold very different opinions, is it possible to create and uphold the bonds of empathy, so that we can live together in peace?

The answer is yes, and it lies in education, but not in formal education – but an education starting in primary schools shaped heavily by a basic understanding of human rights.  Education in rights – the content, and the why, of human rights. The world’s little human being, must know they too have rights, they must practice those rights, they must be critical in their mental orientation and, above all, humane and kind.  Children, and adults, can learn to uphold the dignity of others; to detect scapegoating; and to analyse the instinct that may lead us to blame others when life feels insecure.  Schools the world over themselves must also practice the very rights they aspire to teach: the environment itself must enable it.

For evil is not the exclusive property of moral monsters – the Hitlers, Pol Pots, Torquemadas and Tamurlanes of our history. The power to choose between good and evil is within reach for all of us, as Origen says.  Moral blankness – an indifference to the fate of others – is a choice. We may understand it, but we must resist it. When people retract into blankness about the fate of others, this may stem from fear. It may be a partial blankness – "our" group is important, "their" group is not fully equal, fully deserving of human rights. The need for the sense of belonging – we matter, but they do not – is a powerful tug. But the path of moral blankness and discrimination leads to hatred, and to the world of war. Unchecked, it threatens us all.

Schools are not the only place of learning; we learn new lessons throughout our lives. But schools can create, and radiate outwards, a culture of respect. Not only in ethics classes, but also throughout the school curriculum. I am increasingly surprised, for example, by the fact that the vast majority of schools across the world focus only on the narrow history and geography of their own countries – ignoring the fact that many students can claim their origins in other cultures. For greater respect, and better knowledge of the world, can we not introduce a curriculum of global history?

Such a subject – which is taught, currently, in a very few schools and universities – can develop a sense of the common patterns that emerge across all frontiers. The interconnections—cultural, economic, ecological and demographic—among world societies. The ways in which peoples have grappled with, and released themselves from, tradition. And the deep history of migration, the sway of peoples that have irrigated every culture. Inevitably, these lessons anchor within us the deep conviction that all human beings are equal. A Jewish family fleeing Nazi persecution; a Tutsi family fleeing the cold glint of the knife in 1994; a woman, man or child fleeing war, persecution or economic despair – all these people are fully deserving of human rights.

Our planet is indivisible. There is no longer such a thing as a small, faraway country. No such thing as an acceptable level of discrimination, against any group. But as the years take us further away from the memory of the terrible wars of the past century, their lessons may seem less urgent; our alertness fades; and we forget that intolerance, though it begins as a murmur, will arc into a movement that will blight human lives and obliterate peace.

We must build respect, and acceptance, and not just tolerance into our societies – tirelessly, beginning again and again, repairing constantly the rule of law and the bonds of empathy. Only in this way can every government, every society, and all of us, truly, and in very practical terms, embody the principles of our equal and universal human rights, and divert us from becoming a nasty little hut of suffering and keep us peaceful, keep us humane, on this little blue pearl we call earth, the home of all us humans.