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'We cannot change the world without changing ourselves'

Tuesday, 5. August 2014



I shall share with you some moments of reflection, in French, during this Dialogue on Land and Security meeting. Whether we are professionals or merely responsible citizens, we are all dedicated to the path for peace, notably through preserving our environment and reducing poverty.

We cannot change the world – we repeat this often at Caux – without changing ourselves. Changing oneself can often be fraught with pitfalls. It requires energy, spiritual inspiration and individual action before rendering a collective approach. I will begin with my own progression, which began when I was 18.

I had invited my Scouts group to participate in a retreat at the Subiaco Abbey, near Rome, where Saint Benedict proclaimed the Rule of Saint Benedict ‘ora et labora’ (‘pray and work’). I had invited them so each could set a rule, or a motto, for life.

Mine was TO SERVE, TO DEFEND HUMAN DIGNITY, TO LIVE WITHIN AND LIVE FOR FAMILY. This motto trio remains very dear to me to this day.

I would like to start by giving you an example of my family, six children and 16 grand-children, six years after my dear and loyal wife and I celebrated our Golden wedding anniversary. Despite my travelling frequently for work and often being away for long periods at a time, my children and my wife showed me their love and gratitude with a gift for my 60th birthday; a watch which has each of their seven names engraved on it. Those who have not seen it may come and have a look at it on my arm later.

Saint Augustine wrote Proceed on your route because it does not exist without your step. This is what moved me, as Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, to oppose action proposed by my government on ecological grounds. The action concerned a State guarantee on the risks of investing in a Swiss business asked to build a thermoelectric plant in Indonesia (on the island of Sumatra). This coal-powered plant would pollute a densely populated region. In the end, I lost that battle. I anticipated resignations, but I remained in my managerial role, after speaking with the All Mighty, as per our Quiet Time custom at Caux.

Concerning poverty; one day I came across a declaration by Abbé Pierre which said that Any society which does not use what it produces to improve the lot of the underprivileged, but rather to increase the well-being of those who are already happy, is condemned to decline and death. Open your eyes to what is happening here around you: dare to look and act! There is a link here that we should make between poverty, health and sustainable land management as in every culture land is the basis of life.

Peace and human security have influenced all my professional endeavours. They are directly linked to my motto ‘to defend human dignity’. The rest of our meetings in 2014 will focus on Exploring the human factor in global change: A people based approach. Mother Teresa left us the message that we ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop. A passage from Grove Play, given in San Francisco in 1985 entitled SOLFERINO caught my attention. It said; One man alone…one voice, so weak … and yet if my heart is touched cannot I reach others? This is my place: one man can make a difference! This is what I call ‘to serve’ in my motto. To serve who, you may ask yourselves; To serve the All Mighty and reminding me also of the affirmation of one of my ICRC predecessors; The essential and decisive principle of the Red Cross is the idea of taking responsibility for human suffering.

Frank Buchman left us the message that Peace is not just words or phrases in a treaty; it is from men and women becoming different through truth and human intelligence. The Dalai Lama also stated that Peace must develop on the basis of mutual trust. Working individually and collectively to improve the environment and combat poverty is working for peace. However, so much energy and imagination is required as you must face failure along the way. Failure such as when I was in the ICRC hospital in Chechnya, where, in one night I lost five nurses and one representative. They were assassinated whilst they slept. Family support and dialogue with the All Mighty are essential in such circumstances. So often I have told myself the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi which says; Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

Allow me to conclude my account with The Geneva Spiritual Appeal, drafted by all religious faiths and international civil society in 1999.

Because our personal convictions or the religions to which we owe allegiance have a common respect for the integrity of humankind, a rejection of hatred and violence, hope for a better and more just world,

We appeal to the leaders of the world to strictly adhere to the following three principles:

° A refusal to invoke a religious or spiritual power to justify violence of any kind;

° A refusal to invoke a religious or spiritual source to justify discrimination and exclusion;

° A refusal to exploit or dominate others by means of strength, intellectual capacity or spiritual persuasion, wealth or social status.

I thought of this often during our discussion about the film on Chad.

I spoke at the Dialogue on Land and Security conference about values, such as the environment, security and peace that I hold dear and which give me the spiritual strength and energy to continue my commitment, despite many setbacks and failures.

My friendship and solidarity to you all!

Translation by Gillian Hunter

Cornelio Sommaruga was President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from 1987-99 and was President of the International Association of Initiatives of Change until 2006. He is currently the President of GICHD, Geneva International Demining Institute, which he founded.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.