A Discussion with Mohamed Sahnoun, Chairman of the Caux Forum on Human Security

With: Mohamed Sahnoun Berkley Center Profile

September 28, 2011

Background: Mohamed Sahnoun inspired the Caux Forum on Human Security, which has met each year since 2008 in an endeavor to galvanize a comprehensive and meaningful call to world action that can assure physical, economic, cultural, environmental, and political security for the world’s people. During the 2011 Forum, on July 16 and 17, 2011, he discussed the Forum’s objectives and perspectives for the future at Caux, Switzerland, with Katherine Marshall. The challenges, he argues, are above all about ethics and values, and to translate that into reality we need most urgently a renewed sense of solidarity, a global solidarity. The conversation was continued by email, with helpful contributions by Andrew Stallybrass (Initiatives of Change). Sahnoun also recounts his experience with President Kennedy around the time of the Cuban missile crisis, when he accompanied Algeria’s president to Washington.

How do you see the role of the Caux Forum on Human Security? You were the driving force and inspiration behind this five-year effort. What were and are your goals?

The idea came from my sense of the deep insecurity in today’s world, nourished by all sorts of events and changes taking place. We had and have real opportunities, with a move towards a greater sense of common purpose and solidarity. People know far more about what is happening and thus can be mobilized, and the grip of autocratic leaders is lessening. But we have also missed opportunities in recent years, in part because of terrible events that have consumed so much attention. In 2008 it was the financial shocks, then in 2009 disasters, including fires in Australia, in 2010 the Haiti earthquake and terrible floods in Pakistan, and then, this year, the Japan earthquake and tsunami.

Insecurity is always born of fear, and of apprehension, and to meet that we must find ways to look to the root causes of those fears and apprehensions. We are at a unique point in history, and I have a sense of urgency that we must act with far more energy and cohesion to address this insecurity. With so many problems that need to be addressed, the solutions that are being offered are partial and insufficient. The Forum is a way to bring together the different elements and to look to new avenues for action.

You speak often and movingly of the need for dialogue and that is a core feature of the Forum. How did you come to focus so specifically on dialogue and how do you counter the cynics who see dialogue as little more than talk?

It began when I was very young. It was a tense period in Algeria, and, aside from the national tensions, communities were fighting constantly among themselves. Even children fought over territory, across neighborhoods, and in my quartier (neighborhood) we were at odds with our neighbors. Out of some drive and instinct, I came out of an identity that tied me to my own neighborhood, and began to negotiate with the other side. This same drive has stayed with me as an adult, throughout my career and life. It is partly a product of education, partly of nature, this desire and inclination for dialogue. I have refused to be a hostage to insecurity. All of us, together, must also refuse to be held hostage.

I also come to the issues because I have lived the experience of insecurity, and I know what it really means. I was arrested, tortured, and suffered; it was enough, though I recognize that my pain was less than that lived by many others.

What took you first onto the international stage?

It came about through what was in a sense an accident. I was elected adjunct Secretary General of the Organization for African Unity in the 1960s, called on to address a politically charged set of issues around the boundaries of newly independent states. The colonial boundaries were often arbitrary, simply straight lines that divided villages. As independence came, many questioned these frontiers and there were complex debates and some confrontations, and it delayed and complicated the independence process. In a sense, I have lived with these issues all my life but this experience brought home the significance of such disputes for insecurity and the diversity of their manifestations.

You were in Washington at a critical time, in the early 1960s, at a time of Cold War tensions and on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis. Can you give a glimpse of what happened then?

In 1962 I had just finished my studies in New York University, and I went back to Algiers for the celebrations of Algeria’s independence. I was invited to become part of the team setting up the Algerian state, and in particular, our diplomacy. I became diplomatic advisor to the provisional government. In October, Algeria joined the United Nations, and I was part of the delegation, with President Ben Bella. After the ceremony in New York, Ben Bella was invited by President John Kennedy to visit Washington—he was much respected in Algeria, because of his support when a Senator for Algerian independence. I went to Washington with the Foreign Minister to prepare the visit, and we met with Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State. He wasn’t happy. He said ‘You’re going on to Cuba after Washington; a Cuban plane is coming to pick you up. Our relations being what they are, that plane could be impounded.’ We broke off the interview, and our Foreign Minister said we must go back to New York and inform our President. Ben Bella said that we should cancel the visit to Washington, and get the Cuban plane to meet us in Canada or in Mexico. But he got a personal phone call from JFK: ‘You’ve had a problem with my Secretary of State, but I’m asking you to come, and I’m asking you to take a personal message to Fidel Castro.’

There was another protocol problem. At that time, the entire diplomatic corps would meet visiting heads of state at the airport. The Dean of the Washington diplomats was the South Vietnamese ambassador, and we had to say that our President could not shake his hand: we didn’t recognize South Vietnam. So Kennedy scrapped the diplomatic reception, and in fact, this set a precedent, and ended these meetings with the entire diplomatic corps.

At the White House, JFK and Ben Bella met with just their interpreters, and JFK showed him the U2 reconnaissance photos of the Russian missiles. ‘If they’re not pulled out, this could lead to war,’ he told Ben Bella. And our President said that he would pass on the message. It was important for all humanity. So we went back to New York, and then went to Havana on the Cuban plane. Castro received our delegation, and Ben Bella asked for a private meeting to pass on JFK’s message, which he did, underlining the gravity of the situation. All this was before the missile crisis became public knowledge.

Looking back, what do you see as important successes? And disappointments?

Of the many situations where I was involved as a mediator, perhaps the creation of Namibia out of the difficult situation of Southwest Africa stands out. Sam Nujoma was an inspirational leader and we were able to draw the best from many sources. In contrast, the long efforts to work towards a positive change in Zimbabwe were fraught at every stage. Mugabe was simply unwilling to accept the cooperation of white administrators. It was like observing aloud, in the middle of the river, that the crocodile has bad teeth. But I come away from my long years and crisis after crisis optimistic that we can succeed.

And the Caux Forum? What is your assessment of what has been achieved and what should come next?

The Forum has done excellent work. It is approaching a profound analysis of the diversity and complex dimensions of human insecurity. The establishment of the five categories of human security issues is an important accomplishment. We see them clearly in the five pillars around which this year’s forum is organized: Healing Memory, thus overcoming the mistrust created by the wounds of history, Just Governance, to work for integrity, transparency and justice worldwide; Living Sustainably, which calls us to move towards greener economies and lifestyles; Inclusive Economics, to create a global economy that benefits everyone, and Intercultural Dialogue, that works for peace and physical security. We also see, powerfully, the need to work on them jointly, both as the different issues, and the different communities which tend to give priority to one or another. That joint intellectual and practical effort is above all what has been missing.

Why did you see Caux as the place where this dialogue should take place? How did you come to know Caux and Initiatives of Change? [Note: Initiatives of Change after World War II acquired the large Beaux-Arts Hotel in Caux, a village perched high above Lake Geneva.]

Caux is a place where interreligious dialogue is well and deeply established. I had heard about Caux from friends over many years, Algerians and others. I had also heard about Moral Rearmament (as the organization used to be called, before it became Initiatives of Change). Caux was a place, I had heard, where Muslims, Christians, Jews, and people of other religions could come together and negotiate, a safe place where people could build trust in one another. It has played a useful role in many settings, and I hope with this Human Security forum that we can continue the tradition.

But still more, organizing this Human Security Forum here, and now, gives us a chance and offers a way to make people understand what we really mean by human security. So often the understanding of security has been purely focused on physical security—that is what comes to mind. That is especially true for your people [Americans], and perhaps most of all the U.S. military. But human security includes far more. It is about the very fundamentals of our existence. So first we must press to understand: what are the root causes? That is where the five categories on which the Forum has focused have emerged.

I place a special emphasis on healing wounded memories, because that is something that has played such an important role in conflicts in many places: Algeria and Northern Ireland for example. The feelings there, the product of long conflicts and pain and violence, run so deep that a special effort is called for to heal. That is also true in the Balkans, Japan, Korea, Africa, and many other places. We need more ideas on what we should do to heal. 

The concept of human security is not an easy one. Especially in the United States it seems to be understood poorly and even misunderstood. What can be done?

Discussions about security are dominated by the realist schools, and the language they speak. It is a language of power and polarization. One of our central purposes is to change that language, to bring in the language of human values and the language of ethics.

You have spoken about the culture of peace. What is the essence of that idea?

The example of leadership by Frederico Mayor, when he was Director General of UNESCO, is a case in point, and he traced a path we should pursue, as he argued for the creation of a culture of peace. He had the idea of bringing together media people from Turkey and Greece. I co-chaired the conference at his invitation, along with Costa-Gavras, the Greek film-maker. The discussion was very open, and it was interesting to see how the media people, on both sides, understood that they had a contribution to make, to avoid using clichés, insisting on the negative aspects of history. They gradually saw the need to change their own approaches. They could invite journalists from the ‘other side’ to give their point of view, in their media. They could write themselves in ways that would avoid clichés and caricatures. This played, I believe, an important role in the improvement over time in the relations between these two countries. The media have a very important role.

Linking governance and security takes the Forum into some new territory. How do you see the links? And what should be done about bad governance?

Bad governance is so often a cause of conflict. In some areas, the way to improve governance is obvious. But what is needed most of all is more ethics. It goes back to teachings like those of Max Weber and many others. But suddenly there does seem to be an awareness emerging that there is an urgent need today for an ethical culture. The problems of endemic poverty, violations of human rights, and injustice, cry out for a deeper and more consciously ethical approach. That awareness is the work of civil society, above all, to call us to more work and less selfishness. Against the very human tendencies towards selfishness, we need to build a sense of human solidarity.

And solidarity makes new demands today. The past tendency was to defend one’s city, one’s nation, one’s tribe or congregation. In the Cold War where ideologies seemed clear, there were sharply defined sides. But today, with our globalized world, we need a global solidarity that includes everyone.

What about the economic challenges that face the world? There too, we see the perils of differences of framing and of language.

Economics also can be very divisive, often as divisive as bad governance. The reality and the perception that global affairs are managed by an oligarchy, a small group of powerful people, are corrosive. The spending on the military—$1.5 trillion, an unimaginable sum, while less than $100 billion is spent on the broad cause of development, is a scandal. We spend 15 times more to kill each other than to heal. This is something that we must correct. The sources of tension are obvious in trade patterns, again where oligarchies dominate. The U.S. subsidies for cotton are just one example of what are evident and very visible injustices. We can see the end of poverty, and it is above all an ethical challenge and one that calls for far more determination and commitment to work together.

The trade in cotton and cotton subsidies also link in important ways to the challenge of environment and land degradation. And here it becomes a matter of survival. The droughts in the Sahel region bring together the raw economics of trade, the challenges of governance, and the clash of cultures. The infamous “clash of civilizations” that Samuel Huntington spoke about is often misread, in Washington, as a clash of religions. It is not one religion against another, nor one language against another, not even ethnic or class, but a clash of ethics. We see that so clearly in Somalia: the clash there is not about religion—it is a people who share a common religion, language, and ethnicity, yet they are plagued by conflict, with clans and families fighting one another. 

In a drought and famine, how can one speak of civilizations? It sometimes seems that people do not even make an effort to understand what is at stake, and what lies behind the tensions. There I place much hope in bringing the spiritual and ethical perspectives to bear. 

There can be no ethical culture without a clear and strong notion of justice. This has absolute importance, as the concept of injustice is felt by all peoples, and the principles of justice apply to all the issues and dimensions that the Forum seeks to address.

What do you hope for in the next Forum, in 2012, which is to be the final event in this Human Security initiative at Caux?

Next year I hope that we can and will look even more actively and creatively towards solutions. I hope that we will be able to develop a clear message to the rest of the world—in the form of a charter or declaration. Then we ourselves must set have objectives for ourselves. These need to be framed in an overall determination to ensure that this is not a clash of civilizations but a dialogue of cultures.

To achieve this large shift in mentalities and spirit, we need to work much more and more effectively with the media. That is the most powerful way to combat images, prejudices, and painful memories. We also need to do more with Parliamentarians. And thirdly, we need to bring spiritual leaders more into these discussions. With them, there is a window open, but not yet a door.

So the challenge for next year is to emerge with an effective, workable strategy for change, one that looks to deep cultural roots but that draws, creatively, on modern methods and media. We need a clearer articulation of the categories, and original and compelling syntheses.

I am not certain what form this strategy will take, but it will surely look to action with governments and civil society, to efforts along the lines of the truth and reconciliation processes that several countries have followed. It will call for robust analysis, honest and frank confrontation and dialogue, and forgiveness. It must be built on a strong common view of ethics and on a sense of common interest. It can accept no taboos in the discussion, but look to an honest and caring dialogue.

The Rhone River is lined with castles, sometimes built by brothers who were fighting one another. It symbolizes the divisions that we face. We see this also in the divided communities, across the world. In many countries in Europe, migration is creating antagonisms. But the divisions run deeper. The rivalries that spark conflict are deep and eternal but there are solutions. Look at Belgium, with two divided communities, who cannot understand each other, leading to what amounts to a failed state, a state that is paralyzed. But then look at Switzerland, a country with different languages and communities, which has for many years had a stable and efficient government.

I have great faith that if we can clarify the problems, raise awareness, and look to ways to resolve them, we can move ahead.

There has been much discussion and quite diverging views at this Forum on the year history of the “Responsibility to Protect," introduced 10 years ago in the report that you co-authored, and that the United Nations proclaimed in 2006. You (and Cornelio Sommaruga, who has spoken about the topic here) gave much hope to this approach and instrument. What is your view of what has transpired?

Our core idea in advancing the Responsibility to Protect was that the UN must be a place of peace; the UN does not make wars. It faces many legacies of tensions, many still left over from the deeply divided period of the Cold War. The discussions about the New Economic Order also led to few constructive solutions. But, at its core, the UN has above all a responsibility of prevention, not intervention. The idea is responsible sovereignty, with the imperative of peace. Sadly, to date the Security Council has not worked out the details on Responsibility to Protect that must guide intervention, and it is ironic that the Libya case is the first time that the principle has been applied in practice, in a case where the merits are so clearly open to debate. The question that lies ahead is how to connect the valid and important principles of “Responsibility to Protect” to the advancement of human rights regimes. 

But we should be proud of the progress that “Responsibility to Protect” represents, and the crises that its presence has helped to avert.

Usha Gandhi spoke at the Caux Forum about the continued challenge for humankind of wrestling with our demons, of Caux as a place where we can do so despite the insanity in our world because of the focus here on humanity. That is the beauty of Caux, the essence of what we are trying to accomplish here, and its promise.

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