4 May 2004
"I am certainly honoured to be the first speaker at your conference. But I am also somewhat intimidated by the title you have chosen for it, “Naming Evil”, and by the way you have described me in your brochure:
“Kofi Annan”, it says, “is a man whose global experience has exposed him, over and over again, to the pervasiveness of evil and the precariousness of civilization. He will discuss the character, scope, and implications of evil in the emergent global reality. His job is to name the evils that afflict us.”
Well, I have heard my job described in many ways, but never quite like that! And I’m not sure that my life has been quite as grim as you make it sound.
In fact, to be frank with you, I don’t even think that the word “evil” is a regular part of my vocabulary. There is something about the word, when we apply it to another human being -– and more especially to a group of human beings, that makes me uncomfortable.
It is too absolute. It seems to cut off any possibility of redemption, of dialogue, or even coexistence. It is the moral equivalent of declaring war.
When we think of other people as evil we are perilously close to depriving them of any rights, and releasing ourselves from any obligations towards them. We are poised at the top of a slippery slope that leads to violence, murder, even genocide.
And there, of course, is the paradox. Who can avoid using the word “evil”, when confronted with genocide?
Unquestionably, some very evil things happen in the world. And you are right, it has been my fate to come face to face with such things at certain points in my career. I think particularly of the genocide in Rwanda, and the massacre at Srebrenica, in Bosnia –- the climax of a brutal war, which brought the horrible euphemism “ethnic cleansing” into everyday speech.
Both those disasters happened when I was head of the United Nations peacekeeping department. In both cases we had peacekeeping troops on the ground at the very place and time where genocidal acts were being committed.
In both cases I had subsequently to examine my conscience, as did many others who were involved. All of us had to ask what more we might have done, and why we did not do more, to stop this horror in its tracks –- or, better still, before it started.
And one of the conclusions we came to, in the UN Secretariat, was that we had -– to quote my report to the General Assembly on the fall of Srebrenica –- “an institutional ideology of impartiality even when confronted with attempted genocide”.
In other words, we were reluctant to face up to evil when we saw it. As peacekeepers and peacemakers, we were trained to listen, to see both sides of the case, to look for common ground, to work for reconciliation. Our experience told us that in no conflict is one side entirely to blame, and that all parties, in every conflict, will sometimes violate the laws of war.
We were not immune to moral indignation. But we had learnt that, in peacekeeping and peacemaking, moral indignation is seldom a good guide to action. One often has to swallow one’s indignation, and talk very calmly to men of violence –- men who one knows, or strongly suspects, have committed horrible crimes.
That can be unpleasant, but I don’t think we should be ashamed of it. Often it is the only way to save lives. The difficulty is to know where to draw the line.
With hindsight, of course, it may be easy. But, at the time, it is usually not at all easy to judge the precise point where violence becomes so deliberate and systematic that to carry on talking achieves nothing, except to give the perpetrators more time to carry out their ghastly work. The point, that is, where impartial peacekeepers or peacemakers are no longer the answer -- where force has to be met with force. Which means -– dare I say it? -- that evil has to be met with evil.
Because, yes, use of force is an evil, even in the best of causes. There is no such thing as a war in which only the guilty are killed, or wounded, or see their homes destroyed and their loved ones perish. Even in the best of causes, young men are sacrificed. Even those who are clearly fighting on the side of right inflict terrible pain and injury on others.
Sometimes I wish I could share the moral certainty of the pacifist -– of the person for whom the prohibition of violence is absolute -- so that no matter what is being done to innocent people, even to one’s own family, one must always turn the other cheek rather than fighting back.
That is not an easy position to take, but it does have the merit of simplicity. Those who really stick to it undoubtedly deserve our respect.
But, it is not my position, and it is not the position of the United Nations. The Charter provides very clearly, in Article 42, that when the Security Council considers other measures inadequate, “it may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security”.
So there are times when the use of force is legitimate and necessary, because it is the lesser of two evils. But the lesser of two evils is still an evil, and we should not forget that.
I think it may be helpful if we resolve, when we use the word “evil” as an adjective, to apply it to actions rather than to people. Of course, it is tempting, when someone commits many evil acts, to say that that person is evil in himself or herself. But I am not sure that it is right.
I do believe, very firmly, that people must be held responsible for their actions, and sometimes must be punished for them. Nothing is more dangerous than to let people think they can literally get away with murder –- that because they have superior force in their hands, at a particular place or time, they can do what they like, and will never be called to account. We call that “the culture of impunity”, and the United Nations is strongly committed to fighting against it. That is why we are doing whatever we can to help build and maintain robust judicial systems, both national and international.
But to say that any human being is irredeemably evil in himself, or herself -– that is a different matter, and one probably better left to the distinguished theologians who are going to address you tomorrow and on Tuesday.
Personally I do not feel -– either as a Christian, or even as a simple human being -– that I have the right to make such an absolute judgement about any of my fellow human beings, however evil the acts they may have committed. Indeed that is why, personally, I have never felt able to support the death penalty. I tend to think there is some evil even in the best of us, and some chink of light and hope and human feeling even in the worst of us.
But, what I am sure of is that, whatever we think about individuals, we must not allow ourselves to generalize, and attribute evil characteristics to whole groups of people. That is contrary to natural justice because it amounts to finding people guilty without even examining their individual beliefs and actions. It is also very dangerous because once we have classified people as evil we may easily think ourselves entitled and obliged to suppress them. Thinking of people as evil can lead to us to become evil, or at least to do evil, ourselves.
So, let me end this short reflection by thanking our co-hosts, Trinity Church and the Chautauqua Institution, for their sponsorship of this Interfaith Dialogue, and let me congratulate all of you who are involved in the Abrahamic Initiative.
One of the great dangers of our time is that the politics of fear and anger and intolerance may force us into an artificial “clash of civilizations”, in which people of different faiths and cultures perceive each other as enemies.
Acts of violence and terror, committed by a small number of individuals, are blamed on “Islam”, and all Muslims become suspects.
Acts of dispossession or disproportionate use of force undertaken by the State of Israel, in what it sees as legitimate self-defence, are used to justify a resurgence of anti-Semitism, and all Jews become potential targets.
The use of force by certain western governments is used to revive anti-Christian sentiments in the Muslim world, and all Christians, including local Christian communities, are made to feel insecure.
We have to get away from such unjust and sweeping reactions.
We must learn to see each other as individuals, each with the right to define our own identity and to belong to the faith or culture of our choice.
Tolerance is essential, but it is not enough. We must be curious about each others’ traditions, anxious to find what is positive in them, and what we can learn from them.
As I understand it, that is precisely the objective of your Abrahamic Program, and I salute those of all three faiths who are taking part in it.
I am sure you will not conduct in an exclusive spirit, but will be open also to contributions from people of other faiths, and of none. The three great monotheistic faiths that derive from Abraham need not only to understand each other, but also to value the different forms of spirituality that inspire many millions of their fellow human beings.
If we are intent on Naming Evil, as the title of your conference tells us to, then let us name it as intolerance.
Let us name it as exclusion.
Let us name it as the false assumption that we have nothing to learn from beliefs and traditions different from our own.
That, I believe, is the true evil of our time, and I urge you all to join forces against it."
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