“The Real Power of Hope: That It Has a Contagion Effect”

The first inaugural Raoul Wallenberg Address delivered by Dr Helen Durham AO, Director of International Law and Policy of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Dr Helen Durham AO argued in a recent speech in Stockholm that history teaches us that many of the seemingly impossible challenges we face today in fact are not new. She said that falling into fear will only limit our capacity to react accordingly and that there is today an urgent need for courage as “the implementation of hope.”

A big, varied crowd gathered at Stockholm’s Army Museum to listen to Dr Durham’s speech titled, “Courage in complex times: looking backwards going forward.”

She called for courage, in line with the kind of “sheer bloody guts” that Raoul Wallenberg himself is so well-known for. And she said we need to restore belief in international humanitarian law, law that regulates the conduct of war.

Is cynicism the luxury of those who do not experience a Red Cross parcel, a family member traced or reduced exposure to the impact of war because of the implementation of IHL training?

We need the courage (and the hope) to strengthen our beliefs with a long lens

The first inaugural Raoul Wallenberg Address on 1st June 2018 was initiated by the Australian Embassy in Sweden in order to mark the 5-year anniversary of granting honorary Australian citizenship to Raoul Wallenberg. In the audience were also holocaust survivors that were saved thanks to the passports handed out by the young Diplomat in Budapest in the 1940’s.

The Address was organised by Australian Embassy in Sweden, the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law and Raoul Wallenberg Academy.

Watch the entire lecture here or read the transcript below.

Courage in complex times: looking backwards going forward

1 June, Swedish Army Museum.

I am deeply honoured to be invited by the Australian government, and in particular Ambassador Kenna, to deliver the inaugural Wallenberg Address.

Mr Wallenberg was a man of breath-taking courage, whose personal interventions in the close of the World War II saw the survival of up to 100,000 Jewish people in Budapest, Hungary. When the Governor General of Australia bestowed honorary citizenship upon Mr Wallenberg in 2013 our then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard stated:

His legacy ensures. It is measured in the example he set for our own and future generations. But it is also measured in the tens of thousands of deaths he prevented through his actions.[1]

Of the many he saved, an individual called Frank Vajda made it his life work to honour the man who rescued him and his mother. Mr Vajda is an Australia citizen, citing “Australia was the only country compassionate enough – and intelligent enough – to grant us entry and for that I’m forever grateful”.[2] He was instrumental in pushing for the granting of honorary citizenship for Mr Wallenberg, stating that he was the greatest humanitarian of the 20th century and through “his sheer bloody guts in standing up to murderers…he brought people back from the jaws of death”.[3]

Today, in paying tribute to Mr Wallenberg we must acknowledge his legacy as a gift to the living, to the survivors and their descendants, and, by serving as an inspiration, to us all.  Indeed, when I was reflecting on what Mr Wallenberg has really given to the world, the word ‘courage’ followed by the word ‘hope’ kept rising in my mind. Thus, I would like to take a moment to pause and briefly examine what courage means, and what courage like Mr Wallenberg’s looks like in today’s world. I would then like to move onto one of the actions of courage (what I would call the implementation of courage) which is hope – something fragile but the strongest bind we humans possess.

Jonathan Kenna, Australias ambassador to Sweden, presenting the lecture

There are many different definitions of courage. It is described as elegance under pressure; the ability to control fear in dangerous situations; and as simply being brave and confident enough to actual do what you believe in.

Aristotle describes a courageous person as someone who “withstands and fears those things which it is necessary [to fear and withstand] and on account of the right reason, and how and when it is necessary to [fear and withstand] them.”[4] From this definition we can highlight two elements. The first is that courage, as described by Aristotle, is not nearly the lack of fear. It is more nuanced than this.  By this definition, the courageous person is not reckless. The courageous person both ‘withstands’ and ‘fears’. The second is that the reasons for the act of courage matter. Aristotle’s definition retains the idea that ‘courage’ is linked to the reason of the person. For Aristotle, it is only on account of the ‘right reason’ that someone is courageous.

To these two elements we can add the active nature of courage – that courage calls for action. Hannah Arendt, a German philosopher stripped of her German citizenship in 1937, makes an impassioned plea for courage, because “in politics not life but the world is at stake”.[5] If courage relates to acting out what you believe in, the first step is knowing what we believe in. I hope for all of us in the room that we believe in the intrinsic worth of humanity, the dignity of human beings as human beings.  And that each person is entitled to the respect of that dignity at all times, without any adverse distinction based on sex, race, nationality, religion, political opinion or any other similar criteria. These are simple but precious principles that reflect what it means to be human.

One of the survivors from Budapest who benefited from the personal intervention of Mr Wallenberg articulates this very point. Susan Tabor stated:

[H]e made me feel human again. For the first time I had hope… he showed us that we were not animals, that someone cared about us. And the point of it was that he came himself, he came personally.[6]

My professional career has been dedicated to international humanitarian law (IHL or the laws of war), of which the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been entrusted as guardian. The ICRC values highly the principle of proximity – meaning the importance of ‘coming personally’ and understanding the needs of people we serve by engaging directly with them. In my own experience as a delegate in the field, I found talking to detainees ‘looking each other in the eye’ was extremely rewarding and important.

The Geneva Conventions[7], ratified by every State, reflect the humanitarian principles. What they say, condensed into over 400 articles, is that what unites us as humans is deeper and more profound than that which divides us. That during the horrors of armed conflict, there is still a space for humanity. The universal ratification is a simple affirmation that the principles are not tied to one religious or cultural code, nor political framework. The Geneva Conventions may have been adopted almost 70 years ago, but these words continue to have life and resonance, in every decision that is made in times of armed conflicts, to protect civilians and respect the human dignity of all.

I often feel, when talking about IHL (be it to armed groups, militaries, politicians or the general public) that indeed we almost need courage today to believe that such law can make a difference. We are surrounded by a ‘discourse of despair’. We see every day on the TV, in the media, on our phones, the terrible and unacceptable images of the laws of war being broken. From Syria to Mali, Afghanistan to Colombia; the targeting of hospitals, the cruel treatment of detainees, the use of sexual violence against women, girls, men and boys as a method of warfare. It is too easy to become deeply cynical about the chance for change or the hope that we can indeed improve the situations.

In the face of such information that tells us every day of instances of disregard of these fundamental principles, can we really say that international law which is over 150 years old is capable of modern application? Are we being idealistic, or worse, naïve in holding these beliefs? Courage – the strengthening of our beliefs to counter the perception of despair – is very much needed.

Helen Durham, Sarah Scheller and Morten Kjaerum

The focus on negative news is understandable. It is often said that no newspaper will ever bear the headline “Plane Arrives Safely”, “Today Prisoner of War treated humanely” or “Correct targeting of military installation saves 1,000s of deaths”. Our attention is drawn to the atrocities, which by definition, stand out and attract our attention.

Further, it can be harder to identify good news. What we are looking for is what did not happen. It is indeed ‘counter-factual’. While these ‘acts of absence’ happen on a daily basis, the reporting is harder, and requires a longer lens than the news cycle allows for.

The natural response to a negative news cycle is despair and can create in us the lasting belief that this is the only story. Psychologists describe this as the availability heuristic.[8]  We form our beliefs on the information that is readily available to us. We have to acknowledge that the availability of information has not necessarily translated to greater knowledge. We need to challenge ourselves and others to seek that wider story. We live in a world in which the laws of war have never been better known, better ratified or more voluminous.

Is it perhaps a gap between expectations that we should and can treat each other better, and the volume of negative information and examples that is making us more cynical and darker in our views? The ICRC conducted a survey recently of 17,000 individuals in war torn and ‘peaceful’ countries, and the evidence was stark. Two-thirds of those interviewed globally believed in the principles of IHL.[9] 49% of people living in conflict zones thought that IHL made a difference during conflict, but only 36% of surveyed people from P5 countries and Switzerland considered it helpful.[10] Is cynicism the luxury of those who do not experience a Red Cross parcel, a family member traced or reduced exposure to the impact of war because of the implementation of IHL training.

We need the courage (and the hope) to strengthen our beliefs with a long lens.

Thousands of acts that are consistent with the respect of the dignity of people occur every day, even in the worst possible circumstances. We know globally speaking that the number of people who die in armed conflicts is declining. If we look at the number of battle deaths per 100,000 people, this has declined from almost 300 people per 100,000 at the close of World War II to 1.2 people in 2016.[11] Similarly, while the world continues to see mass killings and genocides, these too have significantly declined from the aftermath of World War II until today. This might be a harder fact to accept, and I do not want to minimise the absolute devastation caused by more recent genocides. But it is the case that numerically, the number of genocidal deaths in recent history is significantly less than that previously.[12]

Struggling with acts of terrorism is another challenge. Every instance of terrorism rightly requires condemnation. At the same time, I think most of us could acknowledge that the real risk to lives posed by terrorism is small in comparison to, for example, car accidents, other forms of violence or common diseases. Globally, for example, 38,422 people died in 2015 from terrorism, while in the same period 1,250,000 people died of car accidents.[13] In Western Europe during the same period (and noting that 2015 was a terrible year for terrorist incidents in Europe), 175 people died from terrorism, while 19,219 people died from car accidents.[14] In fact, it is the nature and purpose of terrorism to cause fear. That our attention is so fixated on the issue of terrorism demonstrates the success – if we can say – of the terrorism model.

The fear that is felt is disproportionate to the risk. This can create the risk in turn of a disproportionate response that dehumanizes people, whether by employing a broad brushed rhetoric that divides or demonizes people, or by the imposition of policies that do not protect the fundamental guarantees owed to people as people. When our ‘fear to fact’ ratio is out, we can be mistaken into considering situations as ‘exceptional’ and therefore requiring ‘exceptional’ responses outside of the framework of the accepted fundamental guarantees.

This is not to discount the serious violations of IHL that occur on a daily basis, resulting in the destruction of people’s lives. The principle of humanity that underpins the Geneva Conventions was recalled in the immediate aftermath of the horrors of World War II, of total war and genocide.  This was of course the situation that Mr Wallenberg faced. He himself came to know the situation in Auschwitz upon arrival in Budapest, due to another act of courage, being the smuggling out of the Auschwitz Protocols by two young escapees of the camp.

Today we face new challenges. When the Geneva Conventions were adopted, armed conflicts were primarily between States. Today, we have seen a proliferation of non-international armed conflicts. These armed conflicts are increasingly complex. Parties to armed conflicts often fragment and multiply, and new parties intervene in ongoing conflicts. A ‘conflict trap’ can be created where conflicts themselves generate further conflicts.

Conflicts today last longer. The longevity of conflicts puts a significant strain on the affected countries and their populations.  We know that around the world there are children, who become teenagers, who become adults, only having known conflict.

Conflicts are increasingly urbanised as well, posing greater risks to civilians. Fighting in cities is not new, of course, but in most armed conflicts today, civilians bear the brunt of the hostilities, especially when fighting takes place in densely populated areas or when civilians are deliberately targeted. Belligerents often avoid facing their enemy in the open, and instead intermingle with the civilian population. The dangers of urban welfare are not only in the immediate risk to civilians, but the longer term impacts of the destruction of civilian infrastructure – people’s homes, schools, electricity services, sewerage. The consequences in terms of displacement are obvious.

Flutist, Anna Petraškeviča

We need the courage to think that things can get better – this is hope in action. When we meditate on the inherent worth of the fundamental principles, applicable at all times; when we challenge the dominant discourse of the news cycle and take a longer lens; when we face directly the challenges of today with the convictions that our belief in humanity applies at all times; we go boldly. We look the beast in the eye and deny its narrative of negativity. We assert that we can and will respect the dignity of people, and that we can influence others for good, and that we can thereby affect change.

There are two simple application points that can be drawn from this. The first is that there are no exceptional circumstances that warrant deviation from the principles. The dignity of people must be upheld at all times. There will always be challenges that we face – be it any form of extremist ideology. The fundamental principles were recalled at one of the worst points of human history. Humans will always be human, worthy of respect, whatever the time, whatever the politics.

The second, is that upholding the fundamental principles can sometimes be difficult. That is why I wanted to reflect on the word courage.

The real power of hope is that is has a contagion effect. We rightfully reflect on the example of Mr Wallenberg but it is also useful to remember the effect he had on others. It would not have been possible to issue the number of travel passes, to establish the safe houses, to personally intervene in preventing deportations, were it not for donors, clerks printing the passes, drivers, translators, and the political leadership behind the scenes creating the mission in the first instance. Courageous leadership can make the acts of one person multiply.

The active protection campaign launched by Mr Wallenberg gave renewed energy to other organisations and neutral States to follow suit. For example, the issuing of the Swedish passes prompted other neutral States to start to do same. Mr Wallenberg’s active negotiations for protected houses prompted the International Red Cross and other neutral States to press for the same.

The great Martin Luther King Jr once said that courage “breeds creativity.” The world always needs more creativity; in the face of fear and a lack of interest in our fellow beings. What Mr Wallenberg leaves as a legacy is not just lives saved, but a demonstration of the courage it takes to hope for a better world and to risk it all for the most powerful principle which is humanity.


[1] Transcripts from the Prime Minister of Australia, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, 6 May 2013, http://pmtranscripts.pmc.gov.au/taxonomy/term/4?page=11.

[2] Quoted in Briana Shepherd, “Holocaust survivor pays tribute to Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews,” ABC News, 16 March 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-17/holocaust-survivor-pays-tribute-to-swedish-diplomat/8361276.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, III.7, 1116b17-19.

[5] Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (1961) p. 156.

[6] As quoted in Danny Smith, Lost Hero (1986) p. 16.

[7] Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, 12 August 1949; Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea, 12 August 1949; Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 12 August 1949; Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, 12 August 1949.

[8] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (2011) 129.

[9] ICRC, People on War; Perspectives from 16 Countries (2016) 4.

[10] Ibid, p. 6; WIN Gallup International, People on War – 2016 survey (2016) 76.

[11] Steve Pinker, Enlightenment Now; The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018) 159-160.

[12] Ibid, pp. 160-162.

[13] Ibid, p. 192.

[14] Ibid.

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