Lecture by José Ramos-Horta, at the Global Health Conference (GHC) Sydney 2014,
Australian Medical Students Association (AMSA)
In Sydney, 6 September 2014

Syria, Israeli- Palestinian conflict

The so-called Middle East “peace process” is the oldest so-called “peace process” in history and it constitutes the most abject failure of national, regional and international leadership in our recent history.

Israel and its supporters may assign full responsibility to Hamas for the latest round of violence, and even for earlier wars between Israelis and Palestinians, including the Intifada. But Hamas did not materialize out of thin air, overnight. Hamas and extremist politics are a by-product of this abject failure.

Expulsion of Palestinians from their ancestral lands and decades of ever expanding settlements, turning the West Bank into a “Swiss cheese” territory and Gaza into a virtual “Transkei” explain this decades-old cycle of violence.

At the same time, Palestinians would very possibly be celebrating 60 years of the existence of a Palestinian State today had the Arab leaders not rejected the 1949 UN Partition Plan, which would have created the two States being talked about today. Instead they launched three wars of aggression against the new State of Israel, locking their region into conflict.

If Palestinians today were more inclined to adopt peaceful means, if they used civil disobedience instead of suicide bombings, they would have achieved much more, winning broader sympathy among Israelis, Jewish communities around the world and public opinion in general, globally.

In an expansion of the same mistakes, the tragedy in Syria continues with no light at the end of the tunnel, creating conditions for many young people to rise up in anger, and to seek redress through the same means inflicted on them, on their parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, again creating a multi-generational, locked in conflict.

Preventing conflicts

Can we prevent social and political tensions from escalating into violent conflicts? Can we do better in bringing parties in a conflict to the table and restore peace? And how can we build durable peace?

In some cases neutral and credible national and/or external actors may be able to discretely or openly influence behavioral change and policies among competing actors, when those involved welcome advice. Too often, however, individual pride and egos block friendly, neutral help, whether domestic or external.

Unfolding situations in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Ukraine illustrate how social and political ukrainetensions, which are almost normal, but manageable, in multi-ethnic countries, can spiral into open conflict when excessive pride, lack of wisdom and humility prevail on all sides, and creative, rational debate and compromise are blocked.

It is far too often that those in power do not have the wisdom and humility of the truly great in embracing the other half who disagree with them. Also too often that the opposition overestimates their own power, underestimates the adversary and miscalculates.

Advice to leaders in power – humility and compassion

My humble advice: when you are at the top of the mountain,  embrace those on the fringes of power and privileges. In victory be magnanimous. Embrace the vanquished adversaries; if they are on their knees, help them to their feet, invite them to join in the new enterprise of peace.

To those in the opposition my advice is: never surrender to violence and hatred; seize every opportunity, enter the political process, and try to advance your interests with patience, through dialogue and persuasion.

There are many simple ways to prevent conflicts. Some old tested methods are genuine, patient dialogue, consultation and empowerment of all, making all feel part of the nation.

All it actually requires is serious investment in mechanisms of dialogue; and dialogue means listening attentively and respectfully to the other side, accommodating their views as much as you can.

Respect and embrace diversity

In too many countries, leaders view ethnic and cultural diversity as weakness and a threat to national unity. Rather than embracing ethnic, cultural and religious diversity as a blessing, they suppress particular ethnic groups, usually minorities, their language and religion, in the name of an artificial national unity – unity of the majority ethnic group.

When a particular ethnic/religious minority somehow achieve power, they build a powerful minority army and intelligence apparatus to protect themselves from the majority.

A people’s UN – in Guinea-Bissau

When I took up my UN assignment in Guinea-Bissau in February 2013, I was aware that I could not in one year fulfill all that was contained in UNSC Res. 2103 (2013) and 2048 (2012).

However, I believed that if I could just restore hope to the people, create an atmosphere of less fear and tension, and a habit of dialogue, I would have contributed much.

There were and there are those, among our brothers and sisters in Guinea-Bissau who called for the country to be placed under UN Trusteeship for 10 to 30 years. Some others and even some Member States called for a “peace-keeping force” to be deployed to Guinea-Bissau. I did not share those views. They were not doable anyway.

The UN Charter says “we the people of the United Nations”. Upon arriving in Guinea-Bissau in February 2013 I decided to make the UN operation there a truly “People’s UN” by crisscrossing that beautiful country and meeting with the poor and the forgotten, making them feel that the UN cares.

I met with community leaders, the Imans, Catholic and Protestants, the bideras (women vendors), and simple farmers, students, youth, and academics.

We made those living in remote regions of the country, in the humble tabankas, the forgotten and poor, feel that the is UN close to them. We opened four regional offices without requesting more resources from UN Headquarters.

gb-voteDuring my mission we saw a very successful voter registration, with more than 96% of potential voters registered. This was never before done in Guinea-Bissau. We saw a general election with more than 80% of voter participation – again this was never achieved in Guinea-Bissau. And for the first time ever in Guinea-Bissau’s history of elections, no complaints were lodged. Hopes and optimism have been restored.

Yesterday I received an email from a dear friend from Argentina who worked in Guinea-Bissau and is now visiting again to evaluate some projects there.

I share with you her email, similar to countless others I’ve received since I ended my mission there in late June.

Just want to tell you that the people of Guinea-Bissau are so happy with the new government and stability, they have a lot of hope and they are so grateful to you… you cannot imagine how much!  So I also want to say thanks for all you did here! Now my job is much easier and I’m happy to see all this good people happy.

We need leaders with vision, humility, compassion

Human beings (usually men) are the authors of conflicts and wars; and human beings are the only ones who can prevent the outbreak of violent conflicts, negotiate the end of wars and build peace.

Peoples are the makers of history but peoples need leaders. When they are inspired by leaders they trust, leaders who preach compassion and reconciliation, people follow, and peace grows.

To prevent conflicts, end wars, heal wounds, reconcile communities and nations, build durable peace, we need leaders with vision, courage, determination, humility and compassion.

Lacking such leaders at the community, national, regional and global  levels, we will not see the end of wars or durable peace.

Our collectivity called the United Nations is made up of its many parts, and the parts are the peoples of the world.

Sometimes we are well represented by those we truly elected, with our own free choice. Often, those speaking for us do not really represent us, for they were not freely, democratically elected.

This is our world, our common home, with its beauty and ugliness. From the ages till this very day, we the inhabitants of this increasingly crowded planet not only kill each other, but destroy the natural riches on which we depend on to survive. We manufacture nuclear bombs, chemical and biological weapons to  wipe out entire cities and peoples. We poison the water we drink. We dump every conceivable waste in our rivers and seas. We burn forests for short term gains.

But we also hear many beautiful, inspiring stories of resilience and hope, of individuals and communities who thrive in the midst of conflict, who do not succumb to despair and hatred.

As much as we have perfected weapons of killing, we have also made dramatic advances in science and medicine. We can make better decisions and develop new strategies to preserve our common home, Planet Earth, saving our forests, lakes, rivers, the seas — and the lives of our children.