Getting Down to Earth

Benjamin B. Ferencz

Everyone should have some guiding stars, but it’s also important to keep an eye on the ground, or you may fall on your head. We all have dreams, yet to be called “a dreamer” is rarely considered a compliment. Progress has always depended upon dreamers being realistic. The scholarly books that I wrote between 1975 and 1985 were basically notebooks that reproduced the original documents on which my conclusions were based. They showed that every civilized society in history depended upon effective laws, courts, and enforcement for survival. My 1985 Common Sense Guide to World Peace summarized my suggestions and aspirations. My 1991 book PlanetHood proclaimed that it was possible to mange the planet earth so that all its inhabitants could live in peace and dignity. What was missing from my writings was a roadmap explaining how one goes about transforming that dream into reality. Could it be done? I refused to believe that humans were genetically incapable of behaving in a more humane way, and were doomed only to self-destruction.

It has often occurred in history that what was scorned as impossible is hailed as self-evident when it is finally achieved. No one could have predicted the current communications revolution. There was a time, not too long ago, when “reaching for the moon” was considered the ultimate absurdity. Now we are exploring distant planets in outer space. The Wright brothers were taunted that “If God meant men to fly, He would have given them wings.” Still, ignoring the ridicule, the determined pair kept pumping away on their old bicycle until, in 1903, it took to the air and transformed the world. For many months, in 1993, I rose at 5 AM in the morning and worked on a new book until 9 PM at night, pausing only for food and exercise. My wife noted that normal humans worked from 9 AM to 5 PM, and not vice versa. I think she was the only one who read my material carefully. She was concerned that I was losing my sight as well as my mind. I really couldn’t explain why I worked so long and so hard on such a seemingly hopeless endeavor. I was not sure that it would do much good, but I was firmly convinced that it would do no harm. So I took the optimistic option and just kept peddling.

The challenge of getting from the harsh reality of “here” to the dream of a more peaceful “there” was faced in my 1994 book New Legal Foundations for Global Survival. It was well received. Ved Nanda, renowned Professor at the University of Denver, in reviewing it for the American Journal of International Law described my plan for an improved world as “A masterpiece!” UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent a generous note that it was a remarkable book that supported everything the UN stood for. No one really expected the prevailing chaos in the world to be eliminated by a new blueprint, even if it contained a thousand footnotes and 500 volumes listed in the bibliography. The UN Legal Librarian, Britt Kjolstad of Sweden, who compiled the bibliography, said she was honored to have her name on a book of that quality. Since my Global Survival book can be found in many law libraries, and I am not sure how many readers could survive reading it, I will only sketch some of its major conclusions.

The historical review of international laws showed that international norms designed to maintain peace were gradually acquiring a mandatory character. My book cautioned, “It must be anticipated that the legal prohibitions against the use of armed might will be ignored by some well-armed or terroristic fanatics who are not prepared to be bound by the rules and who refuse to recognize the enormous perils of the nuclear age.” I argued that the pace toward peaceful change had to be accelerated. The medieval system of independent sovereign States was no longer suitable for a world that had become increasingly interdependent. The growth of democracy proved that sovereignty no longer belonged to ruling monarchs, who are above the law, but to the people they are supposed to protect. That’s what the American Declaration of Independence was all about. The courts at Nuremberg held, and the UN confirmed, that no nation and no person is legally entitled to commit aggression, genocide, or crimes against humanity. The ends will never justify such means. New institutions are needed to make the world function more effectively. Until such agencies are created with global reach and vision to peacefully ameliorate justified complaints, violence will increase rather than diminish. Relying on universal consensus before initiating vital changes is to condemn the world to stand still while waiting for its own annihilation.

Global Survival tried to encompass the entire panorama of world peace problems. It noted that the well-known shortcomings in the UN Charter could not be corrected as long as those in power continued to cling to the status quo. The founding instrument had to be interpreted in ways that enabled the UN Organization to carry out its original purposes. All that was suggested was that nations live up to their legal commitments. The book offered drafts of a dozen resolutions to strengthen the law, courts, and enforcement mechanisms needed to maintain peace. These included a clearer definition of aggression, an international criminal court, a new court of social justice, elimination of all weapons of mass destruction, creation of an international military force, and an improved Security Council.

My book showed that the nations comprising the Council failed to discharge their most important duty. They never gave the Charter a chance. They ignored vital provisions. The privileged five Permanent Members were urged to waive their unfair veto rights and to represent not merely their own nations, but the interests of people everywhere. Powerful world leaders who lacked the political will to make vital changes tried to justify their inaction by the refrain: “The time is not yet ripe.” The world has become too dangerous to leave peace to such politicians. I tried to bring home to them that they were not dealing with bananas. The voices of the people had to be heard loud and clear; only then would effective change be possible.

The challenge posed by Global Survival was whether human intelligence could overcome antiquated slogans and myths that threaten human survival. The only victor in war is Death. Yet, wars continue to be glorified. Many people still believe that the only way to protect national interest is through the use of military power. They echo the 1881 sentiments of Prussian Field-Marshal von Moltke that war “is a link in God’s world order.” These are self-styled “realists” who mock the “idealists.” The hard-liners must be persuaded that their militant policies are leading the world to ultimate destruction. After World War II, the victorious U.S. Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur, who would hardly be described as “dreamers,” were among countless other military leaders who joined in the denunciation of war as an instrument of national policy. In 1958, as President of the United States, Eisenhower declared: “In a very real sense the world no longer has a choice between force and law. If civilization is to survive, it must choose the rule of law.” The wise and conservative Professor Myres MacDougal of Yale postulated that today, no people and no nation can be secure unless all are secure.

People being ravaged by conflict, poverty, and disease are concerned primarily with staying alive. They cannot be expected to have the energy or ability to work for an improved world order. Many others are indifferent, skeptical, or even cynical about their capacity to influence the future. This “silent majority” becomes prey to those who still believe that warfare remains the ultimate national safeguard. The voices of the “idealists”—those who have an ideal—must be loud enough to be heard by those “realists” who hold the reins of power in their hands. People must have the courage to stand and speak up boldly for what they know is right. Moderation, compassion, and compromise must find a home in the human heart. In the nuclear age, every rational mind must recognize that law is better than war. Yet, gaining universal support for that obvious principle won’t be quick and it won’t be easy.

Hope is the engine that drives human endeavor. The first step in achieving any goal is to believe that it can be done. The next step is to make it happen! The frightened public will not remain indifferent forever to the broken promises on which they depend for their security and tranquility. Lincoln was right: “You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Educational institutions throughout the world are being mobilized to understand the requirements for a peaceful universe. Courses on human rights, that were unheard of fifty years ago, are now being taught in universities everywhere. Preaching hatred is being condemned as a crime. Religious congregations of all denominations must recognize their common advantage in fostering collaboration rather than conflict. Peace publications are proliferating and thousands of new Non-Governmental Organizations are campaigning for a more humane world. An enlightened public must make plain to the media, and their advertisers, that glorification of violence and killing is dangerous to their public as well as their purse.

Modern information technology and the free worldwide internet now offer educational tools that were previously unimaginable. President Ronald Reagan acknowledged that nuclear weapons can never be used; they are homicidal, genocidal, and suicidal. It should be possible to persuade those who support military budgets costing many billions of dollars that investing only a fraction of those sums to create new institutions that may help prevent wars is the best hope for avoiding atrocities and protecting the courageous young people who serve in the armed forces.

My book gave no assurance that the proposals contained therein would be attainable. No doubt, they are only a small part of a vast matrix of needed improvements, but what is suggested is no more complex than many past accomplishments. It is up to the people themselves to create the conditions for a more secure future. It is a call for bold new thinking and new action to avert disaster.

When New Legal Foundations for Global Survival was published, I asked the publisher, Philip Cohen of Oceana Publications, to keep the price down to encourage wider readership. He agreed and also promised a paperback. The 350-page book was initially offered for the relatively modest cost of $45. Very soon thereafter, the company was taken over by Philip’s son David who nearly doubled the price and rejected any thought of a less expensive edition. The wrath of Ferencz was upon him! I promptly arranged to print 2,000 copies in soft cover, and donated them to the World Federalist Association on the condition that they sell them for no more than $15, and the Federalists keep all of the proceeds. I do not know how many people were influenced by the book, despite the fact that my wife Gertrude thought that it was my most important work, and should be read by everyone. The torchbearers who never fail to strive for peace shall be rewarded by the knowledge that they participated in the race to save the human race.

After having completed what my protective wife hoped would be my last book, and being of an age where normal human beings would ordinarily have said farewell to this world, I decided that I would try to save some strength for my old age by concentrating on only two problems for the remainder of my life. Both of them related to what I had learned at Nuremberg in the wake of the Holocaust. I had been working on them for decades without seeing much progress. One was the establishment of an International Criminal Court to build on the foundation of the Nuremberg tribunals. The second was to outlaw war-making itself. Undaunted, I set about to achieve these seemingly impossible goals. I signed some of my letters, “The Man of La Mancha.”