News

Sacerdote Great Names 2013 Ebadi and Kouchner offer visions of peace

By Bonnie Wertheim ’14

April 25, 2013

“Peace should not be explained as the lack of war,” Dr. Shirin Ebadi told an audience of students, faculty, staff and greater Clinton community members in the Margaret Bundy Scott Field House at Wednesday evening’s Sacerdote Great Names Series lecture and panel. Rather, as Nobel laureates Ebadi and Dr. Bernard Kouchner explained in their speeches, peace is an ongoing process that comprises intervention, democracy, treatment, education and prevention.

President Joan Hinde Stewart opened the evening’s proceedings with a few words of thanks to the “loyal friends and alumni of the College” who helped bring the event to the Hill. In particular, she recognized the Sacerdote family, whose generosity led to the establishment of the Series. In her introduction, President Stewart also mentioned that this year celebrates the centennial of Hamilton College alumnus Elihu Root’s own Nobel Peace Prize award for his work in international relations. The selection of two Nobel laureates—specifically, Peace Prize winners—was a conscious decision made “to help mark that event.”

Panel moderator Ned Walker ’62 introduced Ebadi and Kouchner. Walker formerly served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Additionally, he acted as assistant secretary of state for near-Eastern affairs, during which time he worked with two former Hamilton College Great Names speakers: Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell.

Of the two Great Names speakers, Kouchner took the podium first, explaining his political and humanitarian motivations for founding Doctors Without Borders, the project that won him the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize, in 1971. His interest in public health began during his time working as a physician for the French Red Cross, or Croix-Rouge Française. Practicing in Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War, Kouchner found himself confronting for the first time in his career extreme cases of starvation in children. He estimated that during the course of the war, as many as 1.2 million children died of malnourishment.

While the limited resources could be attributed primarily to the fact that the Republic was in a state of conflict, Kouchner believed that the problems in Biafra were more deeply rooted. However, according to the Geneva Conventions, doctors could only cross “the thin and theoretical line of a border” to provide aid to soldiers and civilians during times of war. The way Kouchner saw it, “the ability to help people not only in wartime … was part of the duty of any medical doctor.”

He thus began making efforts to change international humanitarian policies. As Walker mentioned in his introduction, Kouchner was the “first person to challenge the Red Cross’ stance of neutrality and silence in wars and massacres.” In the 1980s, he advocated for and saw the acceptance of multiple UN resolutions related to public health, such as one that permitted physician access to victims of natural disasters and access to victims via humanitarian corridors.

“If you want to change the law,” Kouchner said, “you have to for a time be illegal.”

In his introduction to her speech, Walker said that Ebadi was “constantly in a position of challenging the authorities” as she fought to defend the rights of women, children and refugees in Iran. Her efforts reflect Kouchner’s statement that true change only results when people are willing to challenge the law.

When Ebadi approached the podium, she was accompanied by a Farsi-English translator. While in many cases, translation may be perceived as a limitation, Ebadi’s lecture communicated as powerfully as any and was even humorous at times. She focused on the idea of sustainable peace, citing social justice and democracy as two necessary components for the establishment and maintenance of a peaceful state.

“Many of our countries are not at war,” Ebadi said, “but they don’t live in peace either.” Increasing worldwide poverty rates, economic distress and, perhaps most significantly, political corruption have contributed to the lack of peace in so many parts of the world.

For much of her talk, Ebadi focused on the relationship between the U.S. and Iran, pointing to the falsified, propagandistic statistics put forth by the company Gallup, Inc. and the many Iranian immigrants living in the U.S. as evidence that the relationship between the two countries could and should be more cooperative.

She differentiated between the people of Iran and its government, which possess distinctly different beliefs, yet explained how difficult it is for Iranian citizens to speak out against their government as a result of the extreme monitoring of civilians’ telephone conversations and email correspondences. The inability for Iranians to communicate freely undermines Gallup’s reports about the Iranian people’s support of their country’s nuclear program and their belief that America is at fault for the strained relationship between the U.S. and Iran.

Ebadi offered clear ideas for how the international community can best deal with Iran’s often controversial government. She said that she does not favor current economic sanctions because they impoverish the people of Iran and encourage more corruption in the government.  Instead she called for “political sanctions,” that punish the leaders of Iranian government who engage in human rights violations by giving businesses disincentives to work with these leaders.

Finally, Ebadi advocated an alliance between the U.S. and Iran, saying that “the people of Iran and America have always enjoyed friendship. Long live the friendship of the people of Iran and the United States.”

After the two speakers concluded their individual talks, they sat for a panel discussion moderated by Walker, answering questions submitted by students and faculty prior to the event.

Throughout the evening, common threads appeared, such as discussions of the ongoing civil war in Syria, the importance of paying attention to world events and the imperativeness of speaking openly and truthfully about what is happening around us—all of which share the sentiment that a push toward peace starts with an effort toward change.

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