On President Obama's Nobel Speech

Ben Ferencz has received several inquiries about his view of President Obama’s Nobel Speech last week in Oslo. We share the following response, originally sent privately, in the hope that readers of the web site may benefit from its message:

Thank you for your clear and moving expressions of disappointment regarding President Obama's speech when accepting the Nobel Prize. Your points are well taken but perhaps a rereading may help explain the political approach that was inevitable in a speech heard round the world. I was happy when the awards committee selected our President for the world's most prestigious peace prize. I felt it conveyed appreciation and hope that American policy toward the use of armed force had changed.

Some of the President's remarks tended to confirm those aspirations: "War is never glorious and we must never trumpet it as such." Obama quotes President Kennedy's declaration that attainable peace must be "based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions." He praised the consensus that, following UN approval, responded to aggression by Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and noted, "America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves.” “...If we want a lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something. Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable." He says that a just and lasting peace must be "based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual…." He recognizes that "strong institutions"" are a vital component of peace. All of the above citations deserve a Nobel prize. They reflect Nuremberg principles of 1945 that earned the respect and love of nations everywhere. I tried to uphold those American-led traditions when I accepted the Erasmus Prize in the Hague on November 13, 2009.

Of course, it was to be expected that the President’s speech would also reflect sentiments of those patriotic and dedicated Americans who have no confidence in rules of international law and prefer to rely on unilateral force to protect US interests. I suspect the President's speechwriters may have had such constituencies in mind when he said: "There will be times when nations --- acting individually or in concert --- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified...." He notes the world's suspicion of the US as "the world’s sole military superpower." He proclaims nuclear disarmament to be "a centerpiece of my foreign policy.” Yet, the President concludes that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds" and he, justifiably, praises the military and condemns torture.

In short, the speech, in my view tried to cover too many topics and tried to assuage too many voters of diverse views. It reflects the ambiguities and paradoxes within which he must try to govern an unruly and impatient nation plagued by pressing economic and health problems that demand immediate solutions. I would have welcomed some reference to the International Criminal Court and the ongoing long-range efforts to build the legal institution that seeks to deter the crime of aggression. But I recognize that this is not the best time for such diversions. The Helms-Bolton efforts to kill the court have been repudiated by the Obama administration and I am hopeful that our government will return to the ideals of Justice Jackson.

As I approach the age of 91, I continue to argue, wherever and whenever I can and by every available means, that those who hold the destiny of peoples in their power must be answerable before an international criminal court for the supreme crime of aggression. After the horrors of World War II, that was the hope of Justice Robert Jackson, President Truman, the Nuremberg judges and leading legal experts everywhere. President Eisenhower appealed for reliance on law rather than war and that has become the credo on my website. What a pity that such respected organizations as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have not yet recognized that deterring illegal war-making is the best way to avoid crimes against humanity. Eliminating nuclear arms would also be an important step. I am grateful for your help. Let us recall President Obama’s concluding sentence in his Nobel speech: striving for peace and justice is "the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth."