John Alderdice addresses Congress of Liberal International

[John Alderdice gave the following speech to the Congress of Liberal International, in Sofia, Bulgaria, on 14 May 2005.]

Dear Liberal Friends, I am most grateful for the trust you have placed in me by electing me to be your President, and I am deeply humbled to follow in a such a distinguished line. Who could hope to emulate the distinction of statesmen like Otto, Graf Lambsdorff and David Steel, the tough intellectual vigour of Frits Bolkestein, or the determined commitment to liberal values of my immediate predecessor Annemie Neyts? I do want on my own behalf and I know also on yours to thank Annemie most sincerely for her tenure as President. During her time and under her leadership our organization has grown in numbers, geographical spread and influence. Our wonderful Secretary-General Federica Sabbati has also made her own personal contribution to this success, and she has done so with efficiency, elegance and a very special winning way. I am really sorry that we are losing both these remarkable women from office at the same time. We will find another occasion to express more fully and tangibly our appreciation of them and their contribution to world liberalism, but meantime please join me in showing our appreciation of them.

I also want to say a word of thanks to our hosts in the National Movement of Simeon II and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. You have welcomed us and been attentive and generous hosts and we appreciate this very much. It is a long time since liberals have come in such numbers to Sofia. As far as I can ascertain the first visit of the international liberal family to Sofia was more than seventy years ago. On 16 August 1933 our predecessor organization the Entente Internationale de Partis Radicaux was hosted in this historic city by the then Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Nikola Mushanov. They met at that time under the dark shadow of impending crisis. The effects of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 had rippled out across the world bringing not only economic depression but also political gloom. In 1933 Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany and one congress goer asked almost in despair “Comment sauver l’Europe? – How can we save Europe?” In May the following year army officers in Bulgaria staged a coup d’etat, the constitution was suspended and political parties were outlawed. Those were dark and difficult days as Europe slipped downwards into conflict and chaos. As we have in recent days been observing the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the war in Europe and the inhumanity of the Holocaust, we should recall that the Bulgarian people maintained their dignity and humanity through these dreadful times, and it is notable how Jews were not subjected to the same level of abuse in this country as they suffered in many other places. The Bulgarian people will enrich the European Union and today we celebrate the completion of the accession agreement. Bulgaria brings much to the EU, and I know that our Bulgarian liberal colleagues in the National Movement of Simeon II, and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms will continue bring much to ELDR and to the world-wide family of Liberal International.

While today we do not face the economic collapse and insecurity that our predecessors confronted in the 1930’s, we are facing significant threats to our Freedom and Security in the aftermath not alone of the devastating terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, but also of the military responses to those attacks. Terrorism of course is not a new thing. From the ancient Assassins, to the Anarchists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it has always been on option, so what is it about the attacks of 9/11 that gives us a sense that something has changed? Is it the scale of the destruction? This seems unlikely since 15 times more people die in car accidents each year than died on 9/11. Is this sense of dread occasioned by the reawakening of memories of previous catastrophic experiences, or the anxiety that we are facing some altogether new uncertainty? Why has the attack on the United States of America provoked such a response, after all many of our countries have been experiencing terrorist attack for years?

Certainly it is the case that not only the threat of terrorism but the reactions to it have led to restrictions on our freedom, the expenditure of trillions of dollars and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These represent a challenge to our liberal approach to life. Fundamentalism is on the rise and not just in Islamic communities. Christian, Jewish, and Hindu fundamentalism are having profound consequences on the politics of our world. There are those who despair because they have held the view popular amongst Liberals since the Enlightenment that religion was a matter of ignorance, and that a few centuries of education, science and economic development would see it fading away. The evidence is clear. Religious faith is not a passing phenomenon. It is profoundly present, and probably a much more inherent part of the human condition than many would have assumed. But it is not religious faith that is the problem, for sometimes it can lead people to lives characterized by deep concern for and a generous commitment to the welfare of others. The threat to freedom comes from the fundamentalist conviction that my beliefs entitle me to destroy you and all that you stand for, and this approach is not especially religious, indeed it was a characteristic of the Marxism which dominated this part of Europe, and so much of the world during the twentieth century, and was sworn enemy of the Liberalism we hold dear.

Of course while Marxism dominated what passed for progressive political thought it was not the only practical political dynamic of the last one hundred years. My generation of Europeans has come to see the European Union primarily in terms of the undoubted benefits of the Common Market, Monetary Union and the Euro. Indeed many pro-European politicians are trying to sell the benefits of the EU in terms either of the economy or of a geo-political counter-balance to the asymmetric power of the United States of America. Perhaps this is part of the reason that many ordinary people are losing the vision of Europe? They do not feel economically or politically powerful and many of them see these arguments in favour of the EU as motivated by an elite who seek power and wealth for themselves. We must not forget that for the original architects of ‘ever closer union’, and the mass of ordinary people who supported them, the driving force was not primarily a commitment to economic liberalism or geo-political influence, but rather a reaction to their experience of the horrors of war. Europe had many wars throughout the centuries and the humiliation and misery of conflict had been the common experience of almost every generation, however the unprecedented destruction of not one but two World Wars in a single generation demonstrated that nationalism and imperialism offered no stability to the people of Europe. Worse still, scientific advance had created the frightening prospect that a future war would be even more catastrophic.

Previously the slowness of communication and travel and the limited power of physical force and traditional explosives had confined the capacity for destruction through war. Radio, air travel and nuclear power and other scientific marvels changed all that. The new technologies offered dazzling beneficial opportunities for wealth creation and distribution. Surely if the world’s capacity to produce enough food and the other necessities of life could be harnessed to a scientific means of production and social distribution the recipe for a better world was at hand? The speed of change ensured that things could get better more quickly, but to the silver lining there was a dark cloud. They could also deteriorate with terrifying speed. The Second World War ended with the demonstration that man at war could lose all the vestiges of civilization in a Holocaust, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed how we could now with certainty destroy not only an enemy but also all life on the planet. Men no longer went off to war. War now visited itself with terrifying results on whole communities through aerial bombardment, biological and chemical weapons and nuclear attack. The boundaries had gone and the nature and significance of conflict had changed completely and irrevocably. Any local war could now escalate into global destruction.

The belief that wars were primarily caused by the individual vanities and ambitions of monarchs and imperialists was also dealt a blow for it was democratically elected politicians and communist leaders who had led their countries into the costly blood bath of the Second World War. Democracy in the form of free and even fair elections is no guarantee of liberal democracy. Elections are necessary but not sufficient, for even in democracies majorities can oppress minorities, inside as well as outside their borders.

After the Second World War, particularly here in Europe, which had been the cockpit of both the conflicts, the fear of war was greatest. To the traditional rivalries between France, Britain and Germany was added the even more terrifying prospect of being the turf upon which a nuclear conflict would be fought out between the USSR and the USA. War was now too terrible to contemplate and so it must at all costs be prevented. Cooperation on the economic reconstruction of a devastated Europe opened the route to new models of cross-border co-operation, and the pooling of sovereignty in an increasing range of competencies. Sixty years later war between historic Western European rivals like Germany and France is unthinkable and the benefits of this international approach may even have manifested themselves in the resolution of long-standing small scale conflicts such as that in Northern Ireland. In other places like Cyprus and the Balkans many hope and believe that it is just a matter of time and effort.

Outside Europe too, world leaders moved beyond placing their hope in the independence of nation states and are now committed to interdependence through international cooperation. This was the basis for the United Nations and for the rapid development of international law and international economic institutions. The United Nations established various organs whose purpose was to address hunger, disease, underdevelopment, and workers rights, but let us never forget that its inspiration and primary purpose was and remains the prevention and peaceful resolution of conflicts. This is a recognition that we can no longer depend on the limits of our ability to destroy each other and our environment, to protect us against the excesses of our wars. The adoption of the International Declaration of Human Rights showed humanity’s realization that if we did not find a way of containing and transforming our aggression there was a real danger that we would simply destroy our race and life on this earth. Without a recognition of and respect for human rights there would be nothing left. Local laws set down the boundaries for acceptable behaviour in a local community, but Human Rights set down limits and requirements for humanity’s survival. The Nuremburg Tribunals may have seemed to be “victor’s justice” but they have proved to be a precedent for the more recent tribunals established after the terrible conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Central Africa, and they in their turn presaged the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

While no reasonable person would dismiss these profound signs of progress in the implementation of our liberal agenda, we must recognize the limits of their success in preventing and resolving conflict. The end of imperialism, the democratization of political power, and the establishment of international and in some cases global institutions of law and cooperation are remarkable, positive liberal achievements and we should celebrate them and support them, but we are still threatened by our human capacity for violence. The socialist conviction that man is essentially an economic animal whose desires can be met and aggression controlled by political institutions framed on a Marxist analysis has proved itself inadequate, but the collapse of Communism and the ending of the Cold War which divided the world on this very issue has not brought peace either. The extensive use of terrorism during the second half of the twentieth century was often promoted by the United States and the Soviet Union. After 1945 the super-powers knew that a direct confrontation could bring total war and complete nuclear catastrophe and so they diverted their aggression into sponsoring guerrilla wars and terrorist campaigns in various parts of the world, often by contributing to or exacerbating existing conflicts. While the collapse of the Soviet Union led to an end of some hostilities, most notably in South Africa and Northern Ireland, in other places especially in the Middle East there was a further deterioration. Terrorism was not merely a tool of the great powers, an expression of their vicarious struggle. It was a phenomenon in its own right. Indeed after September 11 2001 it is clear that it no longer facilitates a localizing and controlling effect. On the contrary in its use of planes and mobile telephones, two of the symbols of progress and globalization, it globalizes the threat at a stroke. The genie is suddenly out of the bottle. That is the significance of 9/11. That is what has changed.

A senior American official famously remarked about Saddam Hussein, ‘We knew that he was a son of a bitch, but we thought that he was our son of a bitch.’ He was referring, apparently without an appropriate sense of guilt to the fact that Saddam Hussein had been promoted by the USA as part of their game plan in the wider Middle East. The same was true of Al Qaeda in the insurgency against the Soviet Union after the invasion of Afghanistan. When these pawns were no longer needed they were set to the side. But people are not so easily disposed of. Whatever our background or commitments we all share a powerful and universal wish to be treated with respect, and that was true of Saddam, and Al Qaeda, and is true of all of us.

Annemie Neyts in her opening address to this conference rightly pointed to the central significance of humiliation in the genesis of this kind of violence. Examination of the stories of people involved in such violence and exploration of the reasons they identify as most significant causes of the violence, point to the salience of experiences of disrespect and humiliation. In individuals and communities the sense of injustice which comes from humiliation produces a deep wish for vengeance and the ‘righting of the wrong’, as it is perceived. Research into those who have actually been involved in the recent terrorist attacks of the so-called Global Jihadists has shown that they are not poor, ignorant, mentally disturbed people. In fact those who have become active in the Global Salafi Jihad are usually of high than average education, often married with children. There is no evidence of mental illness and almost all are already living in the West, part of the Diaspora, and mostly in Europe not the USA. They do however share a sense of alienation and a fundamentalist conviction which is not susceptible to rational debate or argument, and they have a deep sense that their community has not been given due respect by the West. This is something they share with those who are involved in terrorist actions and living in very different circumstances. The Palestinians are impoverished but I believe that it is the sense of humiliation and disrespect more than the poverty that provokes the dehumanizing violence of suicide bombing, and any response which adds to that sense of humiliation will stimulate rather than obviate the cycle of violence. Terrorism is not a belief system. It is a tactic of asymmetric warfare used by insurgent groups from Nepal to Peru, and from Southern Africa to Western Europe, and the growth of terrorism is no fringe activity. The deterioration in the world-wide situation was noted recently by the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, Walter Schwimmer when he remarked that more people had died in terrorist attacks in the previous year than in any other year in history. It affects us all, and will affect us more.

The danger is that because its central feature is an emotional one – the creation of profound fear is after all what terror means – there is a tendency for us to react emotionally and to lose our capacity to think clearly. Let me give you some examples of what I mean. It is wrong to assume that every group which uses the tactic of terrorism is related to all the others who act in this way, and also to any other enemy we might have. Though there is indeed a possibility that some of them might use weapons of mass effect, we are not justified in concluding that all terrorists are going to do so and every such weapon does not have similar implications, whether used by state or non-state actors. Such a misguided approach is reflected by the thinking of President George W Bush when he conflates the notions of an ‘Axis of Evil’ and a ‘War on Terrorism’. The truth is much more complex. Every terrorist group is not likely to use Chemical, Biological, Radiological or Nuclear weapons. Those who are fighting for control of a territory they love are unlikely to render it an uninhabitable desert, but Global Jihadists who are part of the Diaspora will have much less compunction in attacking a community to which they have no attachment other than hate. The fact that I regard Saddam Hussein as my enemy, and I am under attack from Al Qaeda does not automatically that I am likely to be attacked by Saddam Hussein, or that he is aiding Al Qaeda. But if I treat them as a common enemy, I should not be surprised if they make common cause, and I have only succeeded in making a bad situation much worse. If I talk all the time about WMD – Weapons of Mass Destruction – then I stop appreciating the differences between these very different weapons. Chemical Weapons, Biological Weapons and Radiological Diffusion Devices can all have dreadful local effects, but they are not in the same league Nuclear Bombs, which can not only destroy lives but whole civilizations, and which need to be addressed in different ways. The problem with Chemical, Biological and Radiological use in a so-called dirty bomb, or other terrorist attack, is not primarily one of new controls, but of proper and widespread implementation of regulations which currently exist, and which states can address in order to prevent access by non-state actors. The Nuclear threat is quite different. The current Non-Proliferation Treaty simply does not address the problem any more and I have not much optimism that the conference currently taking place in New York will provide us with a resolution. Meanwhile the decision by Iran to resume a quite unnecessary uranium enrichment programme and the announcement by North Korea on plutonium rods are profoundly worrying. There is a clear need for an initiative to introduce a further additional protocol to the NPT, by which states commit never to use for military purposes facilities or materials acquired by the state as a non-nuclear-weapon state under the NPT. This expanded obligation would endure even beyond the renunciation of the NPT, and a state’s having signed the additional protocol would give the other signatories and the UN Security Council the standing to take enforcement actions, despite the absence of settled international law. We are on the brink of nuclear build-up and the control of proliferation is urgent.

As if that were not enough the new position of the US links the state and non-state actors together by maintaining that should it suffer a terrorist attack with WMD materials it will chose who it attacks back, not on the basis that the state which it attacks has directly sponsored the attack but because it has not satisfied the US position on these materials. This is not a hypothetical issue. Iraq is an actual case in point.

There is an urgent need to point up the differences between these state and non-state actors, rather than regard them as a common enemy and force them into the same camp. There must be a commitment to a no first strike principle. War is not prevented by getting your retaliation in first. The doctrine of pre-emptive strike is not the same thing as prevention of conflict. On the contrary it may make war more likely.

The same is true about the adoption of questionable legal procedures such as those at Guantamemo Bay. The USA is normally scrupulous in its legal protections for suspects, but the decision to adopt internment without trial (and worse) in response to the current terrorist threat is polarizing world opinion and dividing friends. My own experience in Northern Ireland is unequivocal. Abandoning due process is ultimately counter-productive. The purpose of defence, policing and the administration of justice is first and foremost the maintenance of the human rights of everyone in the community. Of course there is a balance to be struck between liberty and security as our old friend and colleague Gijs de Vries pointed out yesterday, but if the liberal democratic nature of a society is damaged by the reaction of any of our governments to terrorist attacks, then the authorities will be blamed for the loss of freedom in the long-term, not the terrorists. Any resort to general repression makes it difficult for a government to demonstrate that it is taking proportionate and properly directed measures only against terrorists and their active collaborators. Such measures usually adversely affect the law-abiding population more than the terrorists. We see it for example in the restriction of the freedom to travel, where we know that visa restrictions are being used to obstruct the free movement of people for entirely other, often political purposes. Freedom of movement is a profoundly liberal issue and sadly we have seen the problem arise even in regard to our own meetings. Soon the terrorists are able to present themselves, to at least some sections of the community, as the protectors of civil society and freedom against oppression – exactly the view the terrorists set out to demonstrate and address.

Perhaps the most dangerous response however is the tendency to think and speak of the situation in moralizing terms. One of the tributes to those who died heroically serving and saving others in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, quoted approvingly from an address by President John F Kennedy to the United Nations almost exactly 40 years earlier on 25 September 1961. “Terror is not a new weapon,” he said. “Throughout history it has been used by those who could not prevail, either by persuasion or example. But inevitably they fail, either because men are not afraid to die for a life worth living, or because the terrorists themselves came to realize that free men cannot be frightened by threats and that aggression would meet its own response. And it is in the light of history” he continued, “that every nation today should know, be he friend or foe, that the United States has both the will and the weapons to join free men in standing up to their responsibilities.”

It is not hard to imagine the current incumbent of that high office making a similar declaration, and though its truths are no less true in our time than they were nearly half a century ago, some of its rhetoric is more difficult to believe. Free men can be frightened by threats, and terrorists do not inevitably fail. The question is not whether the United States has the will or the weapons but whether we all have the combined insight to bring the use of terrorism to an end in our time. Merely describing it as an evil has led to the futility and foreign policy inconsistency that “one man’s terrorist is man other man’s freedom fighter.”

There is no easy, simple, moralizing solution to these difficult problems. We must try as Liberals to understand what is going on, even in the minds of those who wish to destroy us and what we stand for. We stand for democracy and the rule of law, both domestically and internationally. Where the rules are unsatisfactory we must change them by agreement, not unilaterally ignore them. I value the great leadership that our friends in the United States have often given the global community but this leadership in improving international security is impaired by its approach to international law. We have all lamented their attitude to the International Criminal Court and when it comes to the issue of weapons what about the fact that the U.S. has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), has reversed its emphasis on inspection protocols for the Biological Weapons Convention, and maintains stocks of nuclear weapons far beyond its security needs? Limiting nuclear weapon proliferation and the terrorist threat from IND and RDD requires the concerted action of nations, and that is inhibited by the perception that important nuclear weapons states regard themselves as outside the international regime. This is not just a matter of the United States. A number of our countries could in their different ways play a more helpful role, and it must a profoundly important part of our task in LI to press for this exercise of responsibility and restraint.

These reflections must surely lead us to conclude that the international institutions need overhauled, and that Liberals must support Secretary General, Kofi Annan in his efforts to save the UN institutions through reform. It was liberal ideas which were there at its foundation, and Liberals must see it as a matter of real responsibility to press our ideas for its reform, including improving its legitimacy through democratizing its structures, making changes to the Security Council and encouraging more of a sense of responsibility in attitudes. The institutions of the United Nations have fallen victim to abuse on all sides. It is not just the larger powers. The credibility of the Human Rights machinery of the UN has been damaged by countries taking a leading role as accusers when their own record is appalling. Blaming others behaviour in the past without taking responsibility for the present, is no way to build a better future for your people, and our good friend Maitre Abdoulaye Wade has courageously pointed this out to many of his African colleagues. We can, and we do, express our sympathy and moral support for colleagues who are working in areas of violence and injustice, and I see here friends from Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire and Congo, all of whom operate under the most difficult conditions. But sympathy is not enough. We must do more to build the international institutions which can address conflict and repression. That is why I welcome the thoughtful comments of our Canadian liberal colleagues who have tried to help us to think about how we take responsibility for protecting people from extreme harm and widespread atrocities through developments in international law and practice. The key here is surely that any action must be undertaken under a UN mandate – always and only acting in accordance with the law and with due process.

Whatever we do at an international level there are some things that must be undertaken locally. The greatest obstacles to poverty reduction and the development of poorer nations are not lack of education, though this is vital, nor the opening up of markets though this is also very important. The greatest problems are with corruption and disregard for the rule of law. Some of our colleagues are operating in a context where corruption is endemic, and some are even grappling with issues of integrity and transparency within their own ranks. We have taken a stand on this in LI, even in recent months publicly challenging a member party in Nicaragua. Where lack of integrity is to be found in the area of politics it is for politicians to face up to issues like campaign and political finance, the obstacles to bringing corrupt politicians to justice, and disclosure and access to information. Sadly it is not just terrorists who make their nefarious links with domestic and transnational crime. However painful, we must address this issue if we are going to make a difference and build a better future.

One part of the world which exemplifies all of the problems which I have outlined is the Middle East. Political instability, the absence of real democracy in many countries, disregard for human rights, the use of brutal force, the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons, violence and organized crime, and the tragic failure of the international community and its institutions to bring change for the better in the lives of so many of its citizens – small wonder then that this region is also the setting for, and an exporter of the most lethal forms of terrorism.

It would be easy for us to despair, to blame religious fundamentalism, or to heap blame on the unfortunate people of the region and their political leaders. I know from personal experience in Northern Ireland, which also in the past provoked similar reactions, that this does not help.

We could also blame those who do get involved, particularly the USA, for doing the wrong thing. We may or may not be correct but it does not help. For too long Liberals and Liberal International have been, with the notable exception of our Israeli friends, on the sidelines in the Middle East. I do not think that this is enough. The problems of the Middle East affect us all and if we really believe that Liberalism has answers to our human dilemmas then we must take liberalism to the places that need it most. The Middle East is one of the most strategically vital of these regions, and we will be beginning to look at this issue at the Executive Meeting in November in Mallorca. I hope that we can commit ourselves to doing whatever we can to advance the causes of development and democracy, dignity and respect, freedom and security and the growth of our Liberal family in the Middle East.

The needs of the Middle East region remind me of how we have seen our work expand so much in the other regions. Our Congress here in Sofia is heart-warming testament to our continued growth in Europe and the success of our liberal partners in Bulgaria, Romania and elsewhere in this region. We also celebrate the growth of CALD led currently by Taiwan and soon handing over to the Philippines. The work of FNS not just with CALD but now with our Latin American partners in RELIAL and the support to the African Liberal Network from the Westminster Foundation for democracy reminds us how much we owe to the commitment and generosity of our cooperating organizations and foundations, FNS, WFD, TFD, SILC, IMD, NDI and many others. I want to see all these regional bases expand and deepen and I look forward to working with our partners to achieve this.

Friends, our liberal agenda is a wide one and the fact that I have not dealt specifically with our on-going and vital work in areas equal opportunities for women and men, in politics and development, the local and global threats to our precious environment, or the crying needs in healthcare and education does not mean that I undervalue them; on the contrary. However I wanted to speak to you today about Freedom and Security and not alone because it is the theme of this Congress. I also wanted to outline for you something of the personal priorities for me as your President during my tenure and to ask for your help and support in working for them. In return I will give you all the assistance and leadership I can as together we try to live out our commitment to freedom and security, the welfare and dignity of our people, respect and concern for our world, and all this and always with the liberty and liberality which is our common creed as Liberals.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *