Sustaining Peace: The Role of Ethics, Law, and Policy

April 24, 2018
Federica D'Alessandra
RPP adviser Federica D'Alessandra. Photo courtesy Federica D'Alessandra.

On May 3, the RPP Colloquium dinner series hosted by Religions and the Practice of Peace (RPP) will feature lifelong peace advocate Benjamin B. Ferencz, JD '43 Harvard Law School (HLS), the lead prosecutor and last living prosecutor of the Nüremberg Military Trials. Ahead of this special event, Federica D'Alessandra, Harvard Divinity School (HDS) fellow and RPP adviser, discussed her work with Ferencz and the urgent need to uphold international law and human rights norms in our era.

D’Alessandra is a human rights advocate, counsel, and policy adviser specializing in international peace and security, and the prevention and prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity. A former associate and fellow of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government (HKS) and visiting scholar/researcher at HLS, D’Alessandra advises governments and international organizations on war crime prosecutions and atrocity prevention.

D’Alessandra will moderate the May 3 event, during which Ferencz will take part in a conversation with HLS Professor Gabriella Blum and HKS Professor J. Bryan Hehir on the topic of “Sustaining Peace: The Role of Ethics, Law, and Policy in Promoting a New International Security Paradigm.”

D’Alessandra shared how Ferencz strengthened her belief that the long and tortuous path to peace eventually leads to a brighter future.

HDS: How have your experiences living and working on several continents shaped your vision about conflict resolution, human rights, and peace building?

FD: On the one hand, visiting countries experiencing state and institutional “failure” taught me a great deal about the intrinsic value of the rule of law, and of the essential bond of trust between a state and its citizens that enables the social contract to function. Some of the countries where I traveled and worked, like Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and parts of India, Jammu, and Kashmir, were in the grips of armed conflict or other forms of widespread violence. Bearing witness to how much worse abuse gets when conflict breaks out, what humans are capable of doing to one another, but also how much power there is in the human spirit for forgiveness and rebuilding got me interested in peace, peacebuilding, justice, and reconciliation more generally. Through this work, I learned that there cannot be peace without participative processes and without justice, which also means accountability for criminal conduct, especially for leaders who orchestrate and mastermind the abuse and use the full power of institutions to perpetrate it.

On the other hand, living in other European countries and the United States taught me the value and contributions of liberal thought and democracy. Living in places like France and the Netherlands, as an Italian, taught me the enormous advantages and opportunities of regional blocks of cooperation and identity built around common, higher values for those who, like me, participated actively as “European,” or “world citizens.” Living in the United States taught me that with power comes enormous responsibility. Leadership is a privilege that ought to be used wisely and ethically, that should be grounded in higher ideals and that, if abused, can be lost very easily.

HDS: When and how did you meet Ferencz? In what ways has Ferencz influenced your thinking and approaches to conflict resolution and peace building?

FD: I met Ben Ferencz in 2013, while I was a fellow at the Carr Center working on transitional justice, and particularly on accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. He visited campus to meet with "likeminded individuals” and requested a meeting, which both surprised and excited me.

As a prosecutor at Nüremberg, he was one of the first individuals who had ever tried the very crimes with which I was now grappling. Also, as an advocate for world peace and justice, he had been at the forefront of the movement that resulted in the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC). A human rights icon, he was one of my heroes. We have been working very closely ever since, and I have become one of his closest advisers. Amazingly, at age 98, he is still incredibly active before international fora and multilateral institutions, including the United Nations and the ICC.

HDS: You’re a policy maker, researcher, and practitioner versed in international law and politics. Given your prior work with HLS and HKS, how has being a fellow at the Divinity School changed or added to your perspective on international peace and security? What does the incorporation of religion or religious studies mean to you?

FD: My visiting appointment at HDS has given me a refreshing opportunity to work outside of the “law and policy” world in which I normally operate, take a step back, and take a bigger-picture perspective. Dean Hempton’s Sustainable Peace Initiative, in particular, embodies the type of thinking and leadership that people in my line of work, or who share my ideals, wish to see from an institution like Harvard. How do you train leaders to step outside of the sometimes parochial and often binary ways of conceiving “war and peace,” “justice and injustice,” “accountability and impunity?” How do you foster, at this crucial moment in history, a deeper and more sustainable understanding of what “international” or “global peace” means? But also, what can you do every day to practice peace in your life? If you find peace within yourself, you can become a much more powerful advocate.

HDS: One of your areas of research and expertise is United Nations (UN) reform. Though the UN has been a driver of important advances in fields such as global health and education, its record in international peacemaking and peacekeeping is mixed. Its central mission—the maintenance of international peace and security—has been stymied by disagreements among the permanent five members of the Security Council. What is the UN doing to reinvent itself so that it becomes more relevant in this aspect of its work?

FD: The United Nations has three fundamental pillars: development, human rights, and international peace and security. When I think of the enormous progress humanity has made when it comes to access to clean water, education, the fight against infant mortality and preventable disease, I credit the UN enormously. I also credit the UN for setting norms, paradigms, and standards and for developing a cooperative model of crisis response that has provided humanitarian and emergency relief for millions of people in need. I credit it for establishing a unique forum for multilateralism, where states can resolve disputes before they escalate into full-blown conflicts. Since the birth of the UN, very few countries have gone to war with one another, fewer than in any other period in human history. This type of perspective only comes with looking at the big picture and thinking in aggregate data over long timeframes.

At the same time, I am under no illusions that the UN is done achieving its goals, or that this “big-picture” perspective is sufficient. I am acutely aware that when the UN fails, it is always individuals who pay the price. Today’s world is rife with conflicts: From Yemen and Syria to South Sudan, Myanmar, and beyond, people are suffering enormously at the hands of violent and powerful human rights abusers. Though there might be less such suffering overall than at any other time in history, it remains unacceptable.

Your question touches on a very important aspect of this issue, which is the failure of the UN Security Council to live up to its responsibilities. The way the UN was set up in the aftermath of World War II gave the Council primary responsibility for international peace and security. Certain constituencies within the UN system have been particularly effective in trying to bring about small but incremental reform. What today can seem like a symbolic gain may set a new standard, and once that standard exists, it becomes harder to ignore. More generally, without going into a potential reform of the UN charter and its executive branch, we start to see innovative ways in which the leadership of the UN and of some member states are trying to make a difference and “reinvent” their contributions to international and global peace.

The 2016 “peace building resolutions” for example, which we will discuss on May 3, are an example of the ways in which the UN is engaging in new thinking when it comes to its fundamental responsibilities. These resolutions and the subsequent Sustaining Peace Agenda that the UN is now advancing were drafted precisely in response to a spike in violent conflict worldwide, and despite, or perhaps because of, the Security Council’s failures in recent years. Former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld once said: “The UN was not established to take humanity to heaven, but to save it from hell.” The path there is long and insidious, and not always linear. I am convinced, however, that slowly but eventually, the UN will fulfill that promise.

To learn more about Religions and the Practice of Peace at Harvard Divinity School, visit the RPP website. To receive RPP event announcements, join the RPP mailing list.

—by Fatema Elbakoury