"War, just like deadly diseases, has to be prevented and cured. Violence is not the right medicine: it does not cure the disease, it kills the patient."
Acceptance speech – Gino Strada – EMERGENCY
It is an honour for me to receive this prestigious award that I consider a sign of appreciation for the outstanding work that the humanitarian organisation EMERGENCY has done in the past 21 years in favour of the victims of war and poverty.
I am a surgeon. I have seen the wounded (and the dead ones) in several conflicts in Asia, in Africa, in the Middle East, in Latin America and in Europe. I did surgery on several thousands of people, injured by bullets, by shrapnel from bombs or rockets. In Quetta, the Pakistani city close to the Afghan border, I met for the first time the victims of antipersonnel mines. I did surgery on many children injured by the so-called ñtoy minesî, small plastic green butterflies the size of a pack of cigarettes. Scattered in the fields, these weapons wait for a curious child to pick them up and play with for a while, until the detonation occurs: one or both hands are blown away, burns over the chest, the face and the eyes. Armless and blind children. I still have vivid memories of those victims, and the view of those atrocities changed my life. It took me time to accept the idea that a ñwar strategyî could include practices like deliberately targeting and maiming children in the ñenemyÍs countryî. Weapons designed not to kill but to inflict horrific sufferings to innocent children and posing a terrible burden to the families and the society. Even today, those children are for me the living symbol of contemporary wars, a persistent form of terrorism against the civilian populations.
A few years later, in Kabul, I went through the files of about 1,200 patients, to discover that less than 10 percent of them were likely to be combatants. Ninety percent of the victims were civilians, one third of them children. Is this ñthe enemyî? Who pays the price of war? In the past century, the percentage of civilian casualties had dramatically increased from approximately 15 percent in WWI to more than 60 percent in WWII. And in the 160 and more ñmajor conflictsî the planet has experienced after the end of WWII, that took the lives of more than 25 million people, the percentage of civilian victims has consistently been around 90 percent of the total, very much like the data from the Afghan conflict.
Working in war-torn regions for more than 25 years, I have witnessed this cruel and sad reality, perceived the magnitude of this social tragedy, of this carnage of civilians, mostly occurring in areas with almost non-existing health facilities. Over the years, EMERGENCY has built and run surgical hospitals for war victims in Rwanda, in Cambodia, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Sierra Leone and in many other countries, then expanded its medical activities to include pediatric and maternity centers, rehabilitation centers, clinics and first-aid posts.
The origin and foundation of EMERGENCY back in 1994 did not derive from a set of principles and declarations. It was rather conceived on operating tables and in hospital wards. Treating the wounded is neither generous nor merciful, it is only just. It has to be done. In 21 years of activity, EMERGENCY provided medical and surgical assistance to more than 6,5 million people. A drop in the ocean _ you might say _ but that drop has made a difference for many. Somehow it has also changed the lives of those who have shared the experience of EMERGENCY, like me. Every time, in the different conflicts we have been working in, regardless who was fighting against whom and for which reason, the result was always the same: war was nothing but killing of civilians, death, destruction. The tragedy of the victims is the only truth of war. Confronted daily with this dreadful truth, we embraced the idea of a community where human relationships are founded on solidarity and mutual respect.
Indeed, this was the hope shared worldwide in the aftermath of the Second World War. This hope led to the establishment of the United Nations, as stated in the Preamble of the UN Charter:
“To save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small”.
The indissoluble link between human rights and peace and the relation of mutual exclusion between war and rights were also stressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed in 1948.
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rightsî and the ñrecognition of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.
Seventy years later that Declaration sounds provocative, offensive and clearly false. So far not one among the signatory States has completely implemented the universal rights they had committed to: the right to a dignified life, to a job and a home, to education and health care. In one word, the right to social justice. At the beginning of the new millennium there are no rights for all, but privileges for few. The single and most aberrant, widespread and persistent violation of human rights is the practice of war, in all its forms. Deleting the right to stay alive, war denies all human rights. I would like to stress once again that in most countries ravaged by violence those who pay the price are women and men like us, nine times out of ten. We shall never forget this. In the month of November 2015 alone, more than 4,000 civilians have been killed in several countries including Afghanistan, Egypt, France, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Syria and Somalia. Many more people have been wounded and maimed, or forced to flee from their homes.
Being witness of the atrocities of war, I have seen how turning to violence has most of the times only brought in more violence and suffering. War is an act of terrorism, and terrorism is an act of war: they share a common denominator, the use of violence. Sixty years later, we are still confronted with the dilemma posed in 1955 by leading world scientists in the so-called Russel-Einstein Manifesto:
“Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?”.
Can we have a world without war to guarantee a future to the human race? Many would argue that wars have always existed. This is true but it does not prove in any way that the recourse to war is inevitable, nor can we assume that a world without war is unachievable. The fact that war has marked our past does not mean that it has to be part of our future as well. Like diseases, war shall be considered as a problem to solve, not a destiny to embrace or appreciate. As a doctor, I could compare war with cancer. Cancer vexes humanity and claims many victims: does this mean that all efforts of medicine are useless? On the contrary, it is exactly the persistence of this devastating disease that prompts us to increase the efforts to prevent and defeat it.
Conceiving a world without war is the most stimulating task the human race is facing. It is also the most urgent. Atomic scientists, through their Doomsday clock, are warning human beings:
“The clock ticks now at just three minutes to midnight because international leaders are failing to perform their most important dutyensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization”.
The biggest challenge for the next decades is to imagine, design and implement the conditions that will allow reducing the recourse to force and to mass violence until their full disappearance.
War, just like deadly diseases, has to be prevented and cured. Violence is not the right medicine: it does not cure the disease, it kills the patient. The abolition of war is the first indispensable step in this direction._ We may call it “utopia”, as this never occurred before. However, the term utopia does not designate something absurd, but rather a possibility that still has to be explored and accomplished. Many years ago even the abolition of slavery seemed “utopian”. In the XVIII century the ñpossession of slavesî was deemed as “normal”._ A massive movement gathering hundreds of million citizens over the years, decades and centurieschanged the perception of slavery: today we repel the idea of human beings chained and reduced to slavery. That utopia became true. A world without war is another utopia we cannot wait any longer to see materialized. We must convince millions of people that abolishing war is urgently needed and achievable. This must penetrate deeply in our consciousness, until the idea of war becomes a taboo, expelled from the human history.
Receiving the Right Livelihood Award encourages me personally, and EMERGENCY as a whole, to multiply our efforts: caring for the victims and promoting a cultural movement for the abolition of war._ I take this opportunity to appeal to you all, to the community of the RLA Laureates to join forces and support this initiative.
Working together for a world without war is the best we can do for the generations to come. Thank you very much.
Via Gerolamo Vida, 11