Seán MacBride

Nobel Lecture

Nobel Lecture, December 12, 1974

The Imperatives of Survival

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is nearly with a feeling of despair that I come to your beautiful country and city to receive this hardly deserved honor. Despair partly because we are living in a world where war, violence, brutality and ever increasing armament dominate the thinking of humanity; but, more so, because humanity itself gives the appearance of having become numbed or terrified by its own impotence in the face of disaster.

Little thought seems to have been given to the effects of the fundamental changes that have taken place around us in the course of the last 30 years, and that are still taking place. Yet, the tremendous scientific and material developments that have taken place in this period have altered radically the whole structure of human society – and even threatened the survival of the human race. This stupendous scientific and material revolution has brought basic changes into every aspect of our lives and of the ecology in which we live. These scientific developments were accompanied by equally radical changes in our social and political structures. Of these, the demolition of colonialism began the dismantling, not before its time, of the most unjust system of racial, social and economic discrimination that could exist. During this period an ill-defined effort was developed to replace colonialism and economic dominance based on wealth or military supremacy, by a just social order that would ensure freedom from hunger, justice and security based on equality. The strivings for these results, let us face it, have not been universally successful. Hunger and famine still stalk vast areas of the world causing death and spreading disease.

In the midst of this rapid revolution man discovered nuclear energy and harnessed it to weapons of destruction, Now, for the first time in the history of humanity, human beings have it within their power to destroy all living beings on this planet. Nearly as soon as it was discovered, the nuclear bomb was used and annihilated the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since then additional countless and unknown thousands have been killed or damaged by nuclear “fall out” used experimentally.

This stupendous scientific and material revolution has changed practically every factor in our ecology and society. There has never been in the history of mankind a revolution so fundamental or far-reaching. Never before has humanity been presented with so many or such grave problems. Perhaps as a result of this scientific revolution, or coincidentally with it, there has taken place a near total collapse of public and private morality in practically every sector of human relationship. The previously existing standards of public and private morality may have left a lot to be desired but at least they existed. They were regarded as standards and did command a certain degree of observance. Now they have ceased to be either accepted or observed.

It is a rule of international law that weapons and methods of warfare which do not discriminate between combatants and civilians should never be used. Aerial bombings from balloons were outlawed; the use of “dum-dum” bullets was outlawed and made a crime, on the grounds that they inflict unnecessary suffering1. The bombing of hospitals and civilian targets was outlawed. All these principles and standards have suddenly vanished. They are not even mentioned by those whose responsibility it is to uphold them. The use of the most cruel, terrible and indiscriminate weapon of all time, the nuclear weapons, is not even outlawed. The manufacture and development of these doomsday weapons throughout the world is regarded as “normal” and “quite respectable”. One of the frightening, if not shocking, aspect of this particular breakdown in our public standards of morality has been the comparative silence of many of the established guardians of humanitarian law.

Governments go to war directly or by proxy without declaring war. Force, or threat of force, are constantly used to dominate other countries. In these undeclared wars, civilians, men, women and children are bombed and massacred indiscriminately; chemical agents are used to destroy humans, animals and crops. Prisoners are not only ill-treated but are tortured systematically in a worse manner than at any barbaric period of history. In many cases this is done with the direct or tacit approval of governments that claim to be civilized or even Christian. In some cases special courses in torture are conducted by army and police forces and new torture techniques are exported from country to country. Secret services are used to assassinate political opponents or to provoke internal dissension in another country or to procure the overthrow of a democratically elected government. In many cases leaders of governments have used their positions improperly to remain in power or to amass wealth. In other cases the overthrow of a government is followed by a massacre of its members and supporters. Again cases occur when one ethnic group seeks to supplant another in order to impose its domination and, for this purpose resorts to outright genocide.

From a survey of the contemporary scene it is only too obvious that it is often those in authority who set the bad example. If those vested with authority and power practice injustice, resort to torture and killing, is it not inevitable that those who are the victims will react with similar methods? This does not condone savagery or inhuman conduct but it does provide part of the explanation for the increasing violence and brutality of our world.

The rising generation are dismayed and deceived by the world we have created for them. I insist that it is “WE”, the mankind of this century, that have created the doomsday world in which we live. A section of the youth of today have not unnaturally lost faith in the future and faith in God; some have become cynical; some seek escape “from it all” by creating escapist fantasies of their own or by resorting to drugs; some, on the other hand, seek to pursue actively and idealistically the objective set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the achievement of General and Complete Disarmament. These, however, are often disheartened by the credibility gap between the ideas enunciated by governments, by religious leaders and by the United Nations itself. This credibility gap leads to a loss of confidence in all institutions.

It is clear from this recital, that Albert Schweitzer2 was absolutely correct when he pointed out that man had lost the capacity “to foresee and to forestall the consequences of his own acts”. Not only has man lost this capacity but he does not realize that knowledge without wisdom and idealism is dangerous. What does wisdom involve in this context? A realization that the world was not created by man and that in tampering with nature and creation, man is endangering human survival. And what does idealism involve? An ethical belief in a duty to help human beings to survive and to benefit from the natural goodness and beauty with which Providence has surrounded humanity. It is clear that it is not man who has created the universe – whether you believe in God, or in gods or deny any divine presence – man cannot alter the laws that govern the universe without damaging it.

I have drawn attention to these philosophical and ethical issues to underline the responsibility that rests on the religious leaders of the world in this situation. The breakdown in public and private morality is in no small measure due to their failure to adjust to the tremendous scientific revolution through which we are passing. Churches, by the very reason of their structures, are monolithic and do not adapt easily. But, in many cases they, too, have allowed themselves to become allied or even part of an unjust establishment or system. Often they have remained silent when they should have led the demand for justice; often they have resisted reform when they should have been leading the demand for it. It is the duty of the religious to give an unequivocal lead in the struggle for justice and peace. Those who believe in divine providence should insist that their religious structures provide such a lead.

It is important that rulers and religious and political leaders should realize that there can be no peace without justice. Likewise, that economic conditions which condemn human beings to starvation, disease or poverty constitute in themselves aggression against their victims. Structures which deprive human beings of their human rights or of their human dignity prevent justice from being realized. Racial and religious discrimination also constitute acts of aggression. Very often those who are defending the maintenance of the status quo are in fact defending the continuance of oppression or of an order which is unjust. This is so, particularly in the regions of southern Africa, where the political and economic structures are built upon racial discrimination and colonial exploitation.

Presumably Alfred Nobel by his bequest intended that the individual selected to receive his award would avail of the occasion which he thus created to propound his suggestions for world peace. If I have appeared to complain against the existing complacency of institutional establishments – governmental and religious – it is to permit me to make concrete suggestions. The first I would like to make, deals with what Alfred Nobel properly describes as “the horrors of horrors and the greatest of all crimes” – war. This is the threat that hangs over all humanity at the moment. War destroys all human values and is the greatest danger to everything which human beings desire and cherish.

I think that it is only right that I should quote here in Oslo a former Swedish Ambassador to Norway, Governor Rolf Edberg, who is now Chairman of SIPRI3 and who describes the meaninglessness of war in the nuclear age:

“In earlier wars, aggressions could be unleashed against a visible enemy; not so in the clinically impersonal war envisaged for the future, in which a human automaton, perhaps directed by a computer, presses a button to annihilate people on the other side of an ocean. Earlier wars, including the corporal’s, were a more or less naked struggle for living spaces and territories; in a nuclear war there is no territory to conquer nor any to defend, since the attacked and the attackers are alike threatened with annihilation. In earlier wars the man at the front was presuming to be sacrificing himself out of loyalty to his group and in the belief that he had a reasonable chance to defend his family and his nation; in a war of hydrogen bombs everything he was supposed to defend will perish with him.

Some meaning, whatever it was, could be imputed to earlier wars. The hydrogen bomb has made the waging of war an exercise in global futility.

Truly, once we feel at liberty to monkey with the forces of nature, the possibilities for doing mischief are innumerable”.

Peace then has to be the DESPERATE IMPERATIVE of humanity. Many imperatives flow from this only too obvious conclusion. These imperatives would be comparatively easier of achievement if those in authority throughout the world were imbued with an ethic that made world peace the primary objective and if they were inspired by a moral sense of social responsibility. It should be the primary role of the Churches to build this new morality.

The practical imperatives for peace are many and far-reaching. But there is no shortcut and each must be tackled energetically. They are:

  1. General and Complete Disarmament – including nuclear weapons.
  2. The glorification of peace and not of war.
  3. The effective protection of human rights and minorities at national and international levels.
  4. Automatic and de-politicized mechanism for the settlement of international and non-international disputes that may endanger peace or that are causing injustices.
  5. An international order that will ensure a fair distribution of all essential products.
  6. An International Court of Justice and legal system with full automatic jurisdiction to rectify injustice or abuse of power.
  7. An international peace-keeping force and police force with limited function.
  8. Ultimately, a world parliament and government.

I can already hear many say “Utopia”. “Impossible of achievement”. Of course, it will be difficult but what is the alternative? The nearly certain destruction of the human race.

I cannot deal comprehensively in this paper with each of the 8 imperatives I have outlined but I can emphasize some immediate steps that can be taken and point to some indefensible contradictions that exist in our present endeavors.

General and Complete Disarmament

This was the accepted aim of all governments and of the United Nations up to the end of 1961. Why has this objective been dropped? Why is it never even mentioned now? The extent to which agreement had been reached in 1961 may be gauged from the two opening paragraphs of the joint Soviet-United States statement of 20 September 1961:

  1. “The goal of negotiations is to achieve agreement on a program which will ensure

    (a) that disarmament is general and complete and war is no longer an instrument for settling international problems, and

    (b) that such disarmament is accompanied by the establishment of reliable procedures for the peaceful settlement of disputes and effective arrangements for the maintenance of peace in accordance with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

  2. The program for general and complete disarmament shall ensure that states will have at their disposal only such non-nuclear armaments, forces, facilities and establishments as are agreed to be necessary to maintain internal order and protect the personal security of citizens; and that states shall support and provide agreed manpower for a United Nations peace force”.

The Soviet and American draft treaties prepared at that period represented an extremely wide measure of agreement and few points of controversy remained. Yet, in a matter of a very few years these objectives were dropped and replaced by the “cold war”. Is it not time that we got back to General and Complete Disarmament?

Far from considering General and Complete Disarmament the major powers are engaged in the greatest arms race that has existed in the world. Negotiations are only aimed at limiting the increase of defensive weapons and the increase of ballistic nuclear weapons. And this, only because the arms race is so costly that it is bankrupting their economies; they can no longer afford further escalation. The present negotiations do not relate to disarmament – they relate to phased armament.

Nuclear Armament

While strictly speaking nuclear weapons come within the scope of General and Complete Disarmament, they should also be dealt with in the context of Humanitarian Laws.

The arsenal of nuclear weapons is now such that there are now enough nuclear missiles to destroy the world twenty times over. Despite conferences and what are euphemistically called “Partial Disarmament Measures”, no progress has been made to outlaw nuclear weapons. The nuclear arsenal is growing day by day. Nuclear warheads are spread all over the world in bases, aircraft, ship and submarines to a greater extent than ever before. The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Non-Proliferation Treaty4 have been of little value but have been used to defuse public anxiety.

There is probably no field in which the credibility gap between profession and performance is greater than in the field of nuclear armament. As pointed out, weapons which are unnecessarily cruel, or weapons which are indiscriminate in their effect on combatants and civilian targets are outlawed by The Hague and Geneva Conventions5. These are the basic cardinal principles of Humanitarian Law enshrined in International Conventions and in many United Nations resolutions. What weapon could be more cruel or more indiscriminate than a nuclear bomb or warhead? Why outlaw a “dum-dum” bullet and not an atomic bomb? Yet, for some unexplained reason, there has been a refusal to include nuclear weapons among the weapons to be specifically outlawed in the revised texts of the Geneva Conventions. If any meaningful credibility is to be given to humanitarian law or to the ban on nuclear weapons, the first concrete measure which should be taken is to OUTLAW THE USE OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS. A simple Convention, or article in a Convention outlawing the USE of nuclear weapons would be a first simple step.

Yet, this has not been done. Of course, this step should be accompanied by provisions to outlaw the manufacture, sale, transfer or stockpiling of nuclear weapons and the destruction of all existing stock. All kinds of problems, of course, arise as to control verification and inspection; but it is difficult often to escape the impression that many of these issues are raised only to find difficulties and to block or delay agreements. Why not begin simply by outlawing the USE, MANUFACTURE, SALE, TRANSFER and STOCKPILING of nuclear weapons or components thereof? Why not now stop completely the production of all nuclear weapons?

Is not the real truth that all or some of the nuclear powers want to be free to manufacture, sell, transfer, stockpile and use nuclear weapons? If this is the case, the truth should be exposed starkly to world public opinion. The distribution of drugs and narcotics is outlawed. Yet, self-righteous and civilized governments claim the right to make and distribute these engines of nuclear mass destruction.

For many years some governments sought to create the impression that they, and only they, had the secret to make nuclear weapons and that so long as it was only they which possessed this secret the world was safe. It was, of course, an idiotic fantasy to suggest that the technique of nuclear destruction could remain the secret of a few selected “trustworthy” powers. Or that the particular powers in question were worthy of such a trust. The conduct of governments in this era does not encourage one’s trust in their judgment or in their integrity.

The Proposed United Nations World Disarmament Conference

It must be admitted that the efforts made through the United Nations for disarmament have been fairly negative; not for fault of trying but, of course, the United Nations can only go as far, or as fast, as its members will let it go. The major nuclear powers have the right to veto all decisions of the Security Council; in addition, out of the 138 member states only a few have been very active on disarmament. The impression has been created that it is so complex that it must be left to the big powers; that there is an aura of magic relating to nuclear weapons that only the major powers really understand. In any event, many of the smaller states are too preoccupied with their own immediate problems and that of economic survival to get involved in disarmament; also many of them, for one reason or another, are themselves busy trying to build up armies. Let me immediately make an honorable exception of the Nordic countries whose steadfast and constructive initiatives on disarmament have been of considerable value. I should also mention the valuable contributions of Ghana (under the late President Nkrumah, which I hope will be revived by contemporary Ghana), Poland, Romania, Canada and India – and even if India has now become a nuclear power. It is sincerely hoped that the Non-Aligned states will again now turn their attention actively and persistently to the achievement of General and Complete Disarmament. It is they and the countries that I have mentioned that have the greatest interest in peace.

It is now generally recognized that the CCD (the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament6) which has been virtually in existence, in one form or another, since 1961, has achieved little or nothing; it seems in recent years to have successfully buried both the Soviet “Draft Treaty on General and Complete Disarmament Under Strict International Control” and the United States “Outline of Basic Provisions for a Treaty on General and Complete Disarmament in a Peaceful World”. Perhaps the failure of the CCD was due to its structure; or perhaps the failure of the CCD was due to the lack of a real desire by some, or all, of the major powers to disarm.

Because of the failure or lack of progress of the CCD, 36 Non-Aligned states in 1965 recommended the convening by the United Nations of a World Disarmament Conference. Somehow or another this proposal vanished into thin air and was forgotten until 1971 when the Soviet Union revived the idea. The Soviet proposal was received frigidly, and even with animosity, by some countries. However, finally a resolution was adopted by the General Assembly expressing the conviction that:

“… it is more desirable to take immediate steps in order that careful consideration be given to the convening, following adequate preparation, of a world disarmament conference open to all states”.

Someone, sometime should make a compendium of the gobbledegook verbiage used in United Nations resolutions. It is this meaningless language and everlasting procrastination at the UN that disenchant people, who have faith and who realize the dangers which our world faces. It is not the fault of the Secretariat but rather of those who torture words in order to say nothing. To talk of “taking immediate steps” after ten years of feet-dragging was encouraging; but we are now at the end of 1974 and there is not yet a United Nations Disarmament Conference in sight – despite the call for immediate steps. Conferences are being held all over the world about every imaginable topic; why this slowness and hesitancy on the United Nations World Conference on Disarmament?

These are the reasons which prompted the International Peace Bureau at its International Conference on Disarmament at Bradford to call on the General Assembly to announce on or before 17th June 1975 the date on which it is proposed to convene the United Nations World Disarmament Conference.

Many will ask “what is the use of calling another conference, after all the conferences there have been?” It is a valid question. The answer is that it would be nearly useless if it were to be left to governments only. This brings me to what I regard as a single most important factor in the struggle for peace and disarmament. Unfortunately, it is the rule rather than the exception that in all matters relating to war, peace and disarmament it is not the people who decide the issues but the governments. In fact, while it is nominally the governments which take decisions, the decisions are definitely influenced by a number of powerful vested interests.

Vested Interests and Experts

I use the words “vested interests” here in a broad sense to include, not only financial vested interests but also professional vested interests, sectarian and political vested interests. The issues of peace or war, or the armaments race versus disarmament, are never put to the people. The people are never given the opportunity of either knowing the facts or of deciding the issues. Even parliaments are often bypassed on such issues or only partially consulted. The real decisions relating to armament are taken behind closed doors by the Joint Chiefs of Staffs or by the General Staffs of the Defense Forces. It is they who are the “experts” to whom all questions relating to armament, disarmament, nuclear weapons, war and peace are referred. It is even to them that questions on Humanitarian Laws are referred. They are the experts to whom governments turn to for advice on all these vital questions on which depend the future of humanity. It is natural that members of governments should do so; the members of a government are not military experts. Therein lies the nerve center of our problems in regard to Complete and General Disarmament.

Who are these “experts?” Military officers, often drawn from a particular caste or class of society, whose profession it is to prepare for war; defensive or offensive war, it matters not; it depends on circumstances. But to prepare for war they require arms. Their professional objectives must be to have the best army and armament possible. What is the best armament possible? The armament that will wreak the greatest destruction on any potential enemy. Therefore, the experts the governments rely on for advice are generals whose profession is war and whose objective is the building of a military machine equipped with the biggest and best engines of destruction it is possible to obtain. Their ambition is to have the greatest land, sea and air fire power possible. Of course, an atom bomb is more effective than a conventional one and therefore the experts do not want the use of atomic bombs outlawed. Of course, a fragmentation bomb will kill more people than an ordinary one, therefore it is desirable. Nerve gases and napalm are very effective killers, therefore we must be free to use them. “Dum-dum” bullets are of little value therefore they can be outlawed without any real inconvenience. An army looks more respectable and is less unpopular if it makes minor concessions to a few humanitarian concepts such as the outlawing of “dum-dum” bullets.

So, the experts upon whom the governments rely for ultimate advice on disarmament are those whose profession it is to make war and who want bigger and more destructive arms. By training, by philosophy, by formation and by profession, they are against “General and Complete Disarmament” and in most cases against any form of disarmament or weapon prohibition. They are probably very decent, sincere and God-fearing men; but their profession is war and armament. They cannot help a bias or vested interest by reason of their profession and training. No conscientious objector or peace leader is ever likely to be consulted by a government! Why not?

In addition to the military experts who advise governments on armament, there are the financial interests which make money out of armament and also the industrial-military complex that live by increased armament. To the industrial-military complex and to the banks and financial interests that finance the industrial-military complex, the arms race is a boon. A war faraway, such as in South-East Asia or in the Middle East means increased arms sales and more profits to the industrial-military complex; it is not unwelcome. Peaceful conditions in the world are not welcome to the arms industry. General and Complete Disarmament would spell disaster to the industrial-military complexes in the United States, France, Britain and Germany, to mention but a few of the countries that thrive on increased armament.

The socialist countries do not have a profit-motivated industrial-military complex. They can therefore adjust more readily to disarmament. The military industrial complex is state owned and controlled. To them disarmament means an automatic switch from increased arms production to increase in production for industrial development and for the consumer and export markets. They cannot lose by disarmament, they can only gain. This, no doubt, accounts for the much more sincere and far-reaching approach of the Soviet Union to General and Complete Disarmament than that of the Western powers.

While vested interests arising from the military-industrial complexes in the communist countries favor disarmament, the industrial-military complexes in the West are very powerful factors in favor of every increase in armament. It would be foolish to underrate the massive influence of the organized lobbies of military-industrial complexes in the United States and Western Europe. They constitute an unseen and unmentioned powerful force operating silently in the corridors of NATO and of most Western governments. Their resources are unlimited and their influence is great. This constitutes a huge vested interest which works silently against General and Complete Disarmament.

In addition to the military and industrial vested interest there are also the vested interests arising from political or ideological considerations and that favor armament as part of the processes for the imposition of policies or ideologies on other areas. These obstacles to disarmament unfortunately exist all over the world. They are not the monopoly of one side.

If I have drawn attention to the importance of the military, financial and ideological vested interest that oppose General and Complete Disarmament, it was to enable me to emphasize the importance of the role of Non-Governmental Organizations and of public opinion in the field of disarmament.

Public Opinion – “We The People …”

Many of the results of the tremendous scientific revolution which has taken place in the last 30 years have been counterproductive and dangerous, e.g., the atomic bomb. However, this revolution has also brought with it some means which may enable us to protect ourselves from the atomic bomb and other engines of destruction. The advent of the mass media of communication (radio and TV) coupled with higher standards of literacy and education are giving a much greater degree of influence to public opinion in the world than it has ever had in the past. The public can now be informed as to current events and policies. Governments can no longer keep their actions and policies secret from their public. There can no longer be an impenetrable curtain which can prevent the spread of news and views. The press, radio, TV and political commentators probe deep into the secret activities of governments and inform public opinion. Once informed and alerted to the issues involved, in turn, public opinion can be formed and can make itself heard.

This is a new development which is leading to a change in the center of gravity of power from governments to the public through the press and the mass media. This is a new development; it began to make itself noticed during the Vietnam War. It was American and world public opinion that forced the United States to withdraw from Vietnam. It was the first time that a country at war was stopped in its tracks by its own and by world public opinion. Before that, a government at war, rightly or wrongly, received the support of its people. Now, because the public can learn and see what its government is doing, it is able to curb its government. The same thing has happened and is happening in the Soviet Union in regard to human rights and the right to intellectual freedom. This is a new and welcome development which neither governments nor the non-governmental sector have as yet understood fully. It will give tremendous new powers to the press and the mass media. Greater vigilance than ever will have to be exercised to ensure that the press and the mass media do not become controlled by governments or financial interests. The non-governmental sector will have to use this new power constructively. In no field is it more necessary, and at no time was it more urgent than now, to alert public opinion to the danger of war that exists and to the imperatives of peace.

Why do I think it necessary to inject this note of urgency? The answer is simple. The armament buildup has soared so high and is so costly that, at any time, the General Staff of one side or the other may warn its government: “We have armament superiority now but we will not have it in six months’ time; therefore now is the time to strike”. It does not matter how wrong the generals who give this advice may be; it is the kind of advice which influences governments and which may cause a crisis to explode into a full-blown war.

These are the reasons why the time has come for “WE THE PEOPLE . ..” referred to in the Charter of the United Nations to assert ourselves and to demand the outlawing of all nuclear weapons and the achievement of General and Complete Disarmament. It is essential that the ordinary people of the world should have a say as to their own survival. The non-governmental sector is just as qualified as the “experts” or those who have a vested interest in armament and war.

The International Conference of the International Peace Bureau at Bradford has formulated a demand for the representation of “We the people …” at the proposed United Nations World Disarmament Conference by not less than 30 representatives from the non-governmental sector. Quite rightly the International Peace Bureau Conference pointed out:

“It is essential if the Conference is to succeed that effect be given to the spirit of the Charter so that “WE THE PEOPLE” can be heard. In the absence of direct democratic representation at the United Nations, this must be done through non-governmental organizations which are concerned with general and complete disarmament. Otherwise the World Disarmament Conference will represent in the main the official, military and industrial establishments that have vested interest in maintaining and increasing armaments. It is the governments and the industrial-military complexes that have failed so far to achieve disarmament. It is they who have been responsible for the increased military establishments and the arms race”.

Unless this is done and governments can be persuaded to take a much more enlightened view as to the urgency of General and Complete Disarmament, the proposed Conference will be of little value.

The Special Role of Women

Just as the questions relating to disarmament are usually left to military experts and to those with a vested interest in armament, these questions are also usually regarded as the exclusive prerogative of men. Women (with the honorable exception of Mrs. Alva Myrdal7) are excluded from disarmament negotiations, indeed, as they generally are from important government posts. Yet, it is their children and their homes that will be ravaged by war. In my life I have found that women have a much better understanding of the imperatives of peace and are much less easily “taken in” by the specious arguments of experts or diplomats. They should be given a real decisive role in all disarmament negotiations and conferences. War and peace is surely the concern of women as much as it is that of men – and perhaps much more so.

Peace and Human Rights are Inter-related

The fundamental relationship between peace and human rights is now recognized. Structures which deprive persons of their human rights and dignity prevent justice from being realized; and systems which condemn people to starvation or to substandard conditions are a denial both of human rights and human dignity. It is these conditions which compel people to resort to violence. Hence, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed:

“It is essential, if man is not to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law”.

Recognition that violations of human rights were among the causes of war led to the adoption by the nations of the world the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10th December 1948. This historical instrument was, and remains, the most important declaration ever adopted by mankind. It should be taught as a text in all the schools; it should be displayed in all parliaments; it should be used as a text by the churches.

Magna Carta (England, 1215), the American Declaration of Independence (1776), La Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme (France, 1789), Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867) were all important historical documents but they were all limited in scope or territory. The Universal Declaration of 1948 is both universal and comprehensive. I cannot over emphasize the importance of the Universal Declaration. It provides a basis for the relationship between human beings and states inter se. The political and religious leaders of the world should utilize it as part of an effort to rebuild standards of morality that have crumbled in the decadence of this age.

However, it is deplorable that so little progress has as yet been made towards its implementation. The two Covenants to implement it, which took over fifteen years to draw up are still not yet in operation. They were adopted unanimously but can only come into operation when signed and ratified by 35 states. The position in regard to these two Covenants is as follows:

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966
(adopted unanimously on 16 December 1966).

As of December 1974 this Covenant was:

– Signed by 51 states

– States that have ratified or acceded: 29 states

– Number of ratifications or accessions required to enable entry into operation: 35 states

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966
(adopted unanimously on 16 December 1966).

As of December 1974 this Covenant was:

– Signed by 50 states

– States that have ratified or acceded: 28 states

– Number of ratifications or accessions required to enable entry into operation: 35 states.

In addition to the two Covenants there are also many other Human Rights Conventions that require ratification and implementation. But above all, there is a need for effective implementation mechanism at domestic and at international levels. May I suggest that the universities and youth organizations should concentrate actively on these questions and make their voices heard. The rising generation are entitled to demand of their governments that they ratify and implement the principles which they proclaim as being theirs and which are enshrined in the Universal Declaration. An active public opinion campaign should be mounted in every country on these issues.

There is nothing more damaging to the concept of world order and peace than the massive violations of human rights that continue to occur in various parts of the world. The torture and massacres of political prisoners have spread like a malignant contagious disease from country to country. The detailed Reports of Amnesty International, which are not seriously challenged, provide an index to the extent and ramification of this malignant disease. In Southern Africa the imposition of racial discrimination and of slave-like conditions on the African populations are an affront to the principles of the United Nations. Likewise, South Africa’s refusal to relinquish its illegal occupation of Namibia and its flogging of Namibian political prisoners are acts that call for determined action by the governments.

To the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights one more might, with relevance, be added. It is “The Right to Refuse to Kill”. Both at the World Conference on Religion and Peace at Kyoto (1970) and at the Baden Consultation on Churches (1970) very clear-cut conclusions were adopted:

“We consider that the exercise of conscientious judgment is inherent in the dignity of human beings and that, accordingly, each person should be assured the right, on grounds of conscience or profound conviction, to refuse military service, or any other direct or indirect participation in wars or armed conflicts. The right of conscientious objection also extends to those who are unwilling to serve in a particular war because they consider it unjust or because they refuse to participate in a war or conflict in which weapons of mass destruction are likely to be used. This Conference also considers that members of armed forces have the right, and even the duty, to refuse to obey military orders which may involve the commission of criminal offenses, or of war crimes, or of crimes against humanity”.

I have drawn attention to the issues raised in these Conclusions because they appear to be of particular relevance to the present-day world. The right of an individual to refuse to kill, to torture or to participate in the preparation for the nuclear destruction of humanity seem to me to be fundamental.

The Role of the United Nations

It is easy to criticize the United Nations but it must be borne in mind that it is dependent upon the goodwill of its member states and that its Secretariat can only go as far as the states will allow it to go. Again I would like to emphasize the importance of the role of public opinion in regard to the United Nations. The more public opinion can be interested in the work of the United Nations the further will governments be prepared to go. Unfortunately, however, much of what transpires at the United Nations does not reach public opinion and has little effect on it. Also, it would be useful if governments and parliaments themselves could participate in and follow more closely the work of the United Nations. The World Federation of United Nations Associations plays a useful role in this field but should receive greater direct assistance from the United Nations and governments to enable it to step up its work

There are certain things that could usefully be done to make the United Nations more effective:

(a) The provision of conciliation machinery that would automatically initiate discussions and mediation wherever the likelihood of a conflict can be foreseen.

(b) Conciliation mechanism that would continue to operate during the existence of any conflict that is taking place.

(c) A United Nations mechanism to enable the receipt of complaints, and their investigation in all cases of allegations of violations of Humanitarian Laws in the course of armed conflicts.

(d) Full authority to the Secretary-General to send fact-finding missions in any cases involving gross violations of human rights and in particular in cases involving the torture of prisoners.

(e) An extended compulsory jurisdiction for the International Court of Justice and a wider jurisdiction to pronounce advisory opinions.

These are not very far-reaching reforms, but I think that they would prove of value. Much more fundamental changes involving a surrender of partial sovereignty should also be envisaged at a later stage, particularly when General and Complete Disarmament is in sight.

Importance of Voluntary Organizations

By reason of higher educational standards and of the mass media, public opinion is now capable of influencing events more than ever before. In recent years the non-governmental organizations have been playing an increasingly important role. They are virtually the only independent voices that are heard and that can alert public opinion through the press and the media. The International Commission of Jurists and the International Association of Democratic Lawyers have rendered valuable services in the process of integrating human rights into the practical application of the Rule of Law. Amnesty International has succeeded in focusing attention very successfully on the torture of prisoners. These three organizations have also rendered invaluable humanitarian service by sending missions to areas where human rights were being violated and by sending observers to trials. In the field of apartheid the work of the Anti-Apartheid Associations coupled with that of the World Council of Churches has been of considerable value. In regard to Disarmament, the Society of Friends, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the International Peace Bureau, the International Confederation for Disarmament and Peace and the World Peace Council have all made valuable contributions. In particular, special credit should be given to the Soviet Peace Council for its initiative in organizing and hosting the World Congress of Peace Forces.

In my view the role of voluntary organizations is becoming more and more essential. They are the only bodies that will have the necessary independence and initiative to restore some faith and idealism in our world. They deserve a great deal more support and encouragement.

If disarmament can be achieved it will be due to the untiring selfless work of the non-governmental sector. This is what Alfred Nobel appreciated in his days. It is more urgent than ever now. The big powers are traveling on the dangerous road of armament. The signpost just ahead of us is “Oblivion”. Can the march on this road be stopped? Yes, if public opinion uses the power it now has.

1. The use of “dum-dum” bullets, which flatten when they enter the human body and cause great wounds, was declared to be prohibited by the Hague Conference of 1899.

2. Albert Schweitzer won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.

3 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

4. The Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963, the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968.

5. Conventions limiting the use of such weapons were signed at The Hague in 1907 and in Geneva in 1949.

6. The United Nations General Assembly established the Commission on Disarmament in 1952. Since 1959 the General Assembly included on its agenda an item on “General and Complete Disarmament”. In 1961 the Commission on Disarmament established the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee, which reported to the General Assembly. It expanded in membership and became the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (CCD), with a permanent character.

7. Alva Myrdal shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982 with Alfonso Garcia Robles.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1971-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Irwin Abrams, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1997

* Disclaimer
Every effort has been made by the publisher to credit organizations and individuals with regard to the supply of audio files. Please notify the publishers regarding corrections.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1974

To cite this section
MLA style: Seán MacBride – Nobel Lecture. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2024. Tue. 23 Jul 2024. <>

Back to top Back To Top Takes users back to the top of the page

Nobel Prizes and laureates

Eleven laureates were awarded a Nobel Prize in 2023, for achievements that have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind. Their work and discoveries range from effective mRNA vaccines and attosecond physics to fighting against the oppression of women.

See them all presented here.

Explore prizes and laureates

Look for popular awards and laureates in different fields, and discover the history of the Nobel Prize.