Interview: Federico Mayor Zaragoza

Federico Mayor Zaragoza
Federico Mayor Zaragoza (Photo: Juan Carlos Rojas/Notimex-AFP)

In an age of terrorism and pre-emptive wars, Federico Mayor Zaragoza stands out as something of an anomaly: he is an unapologetic believer in, and proponent of, peace. From 1987 to 1999, Mayor served as the director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), an institution that he reformed substantially during his tenure. He now chairs the Madrid-based Fundación Cultura de Paz (Foundation for the Culture of Peace), which he founded in 2000, and which takes its impetus from the United Nations’ 1999 Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace.

A biochemist by profession, Mayor entered politics in the late 1970s, when he took on several ministerial posts in the Spanish government during its transition to democracy. He was subsequently elected to the European Parliament. But his passion is for humanitarian work, and for promoting multilateral solutions to global problems. In addition to Fundación Cultura de Paz, he has created Ubuntu, a world forum of civil society networks, which had its first meeting in Barcelona in the spring of 2002.

World Press Review correspondent Carmen Font spoke to Mayor in the Madrid offices of Fundación Cultura de Paz.

You have spoken out against the war in Iraq, and basically against any armed conflict, in very strong terms. One of the Bush administration’s main arguments for the war was that every diplomatic means with Saddam Hussein had been exhausted, and that war was necessary in order to ensure security, peace, and freedom. How can one convince leaders, then, that it is possible to talk their way to peace, however big their differences?
Federico Mayor Zaragoza: I would tell the Americans that we liked their Pax Americana in 1945, and that we detest this one in 2003. It was the Americans who said after World War II that we all have to look for guidelines at a world level, a framework of democratic reference, of global coexistence.

They created the United Nations in San Francisco; the Bretton Woods system gave way to the World Bank, which was initially called The Bank for Reconstruction and Development, although we have largely forgotten that. The United Nations exists precisely because “we, the peoples, have decided to protect our children from the horrors of war.” This is something we must applaud, since the Americans didn’t say “we won the war”—they went beyond that.

How is it, then, that years pass and America marginalizes the United Nations, uses it at its convenience? America cannot use the United Nations as if it were a humanitarian agency. The United Nations must give America a clear response: “No, we are not a reconstruction or a humanitarian agency. We are here to provide guidelines and act, and say we condemn the fact that you did not follow the U.N. path.”

Do you consider the war in Iraq a failure of international institutions, specifically the United Nations? Many commentators have said the United Nations was weakened by the U.S. decision not to wait for another U.N. resolution authorizing an attack on Iraq.
International institutions, particularly the United Nations, were already very weakened. They were weak before the war, and they are fragile now. On an international scale, we find total impunity: tax havens, all kinds of trafficking, every imaginable kind of shame—including the war on Iraq.

To my mind, the United States now has an enormous responsibility, because they expect others to respect certain U.N. norms that they themselves do not respect. They ask Iraq to observe them, while they know that Israel infringes those same norms every day.

So what would have been your preferred solution to the conflict with Iraq?
If the international community believes a person such as Saddam Hussein must be removed from power, because he was clearly a tyrant, the first thing to do would be to create a Truth Commission—then, following the U.N. system, we could proceed to trial.

The United States has a history of using force. In Chile, for example, in the 1970s, the United States thought President [Salvador] Allende was not a good leader, although Allende had been democratically elected. The United States removed Allende and put [Gen. Augusto] Pinochet in power. They did the same in Nicaragua with [Anastasio] Somoza, and in Argentina with [Jorge Rafael] Videla....

What I and many officials and ordinary people say is: “Democracy, yes, of course, but on a world scale, not only locally.” The United States should be the first country to accept global democracy. It can’t demand compliance with the Geneva Convention from others where it concerns American prisoners, while it has Afghan prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

A lot of people, including U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, believe that the United Nations needs to be substantially reformed. Do you think that the power of veto, which is at the core of the Security Council, is the crux of the matter?
No, I don’t believe it’s the main problem. The power of veto needs to be corrected, as do many other aspects of the United Nations—although nobody knows exactly how. In the last 30 or more years there have been hundreds of studies and proposals for solutions to replace the power of veto, and to ensure that powerful nations don’t have a disproportionate influence in the organization. One proposal, for instance, is to keep the veto only in exceptional cases; another suggests a reorganization of the Security Council. For instance, is it not inconceivable that decisions are made without taking into account highly populated countries like India, Brazil, or Nigeria, which are not represented in the Security Council?

All these matters have been subjects for study, but since the late 1970s the stance of the United States has been: “We prefer to do without the United Nations, we prefer the Pax Americana.” This is the root of the prevailing hegemony

UNESCO is the cultural and scientific wing of the United Nations—what do you see as its role in today’s embattled world?
During the time that I had the honor to run UNESCO, I was very little concerned with museums. I’m really only interested in human beings. Frankly, I deeply regret that the current UNESCO is making more noise about things like the looting of Iraq’s museums than about the number of people being killed in the conflict.

UNESCO’s work is to “construct in the minds of men the defenses of peace.” It is a mistake to exclude UNESCO from current world problems, as if its only competencies were art and museums; it is a way to silence major international institutions.

UNESCO is the conscience of the United Nations. Its charter states: “UNESCO must foster the intellectual and moral solidarity of humanity.” When I heard about the looting in Iraq, my first comment was: “Shame on the invading countries, which did not place proper guards at the entrance of museums.” Frankly, for me the looting is a technical issue, and I never paid much attention to these things. Some years ago, someone told me: “Federico, [the Sphinx at] the Giza pyramids has a broken ear.” “Well,” I answered, “Don’t worry, we’ll put it back some day.” Fortunately, stones can be restored, and the end result is wonderful. But we cannot restore a lost human life.

In your view, what are the necessary steps to establishing peace between Palestinians and Israelis?
The only way is to continue the peace process, which I know very well, and never to stop it. Let’s not forget that, after the initial gathering in autumn of 1993 in the White House, the first meeting took place in Granada, Spain, under the auspices of UNESCO. Tell people like [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon that it is not through provocation and state terrorism that these situations are solved. And tell the ones who immolate themselves, the fanatics who throw away their lives to kill Israelis, that this is not the way forward. It all creates an endless spiral of violence.

I will tell you a nice anecdote encapsulating what I mean. Once, I was visiting the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, and its director was showing [me] a number of departments. Since he knew I was a scientist, he was particularly fond of showing me every detail, including a doctor performing a test on a woman behind some curtains. Then, one of the colleagues visiting with me said: “Doctor, that woman is Palestinian, isn’t she?” The doctor turned toward the woman, looked at her, and then replied to my colleague: “I don’t know, here we have only patients.” Beautiful, isn’t it? That’s precisely what we have to do, to realize that we are equals and that we must treat one another as such.

In 1988, Shimon Peres, [then deputy prime minister and foreign minister of Israel], shared with me something that everyone must understand. He said, “Eventually, there will be peace because we have to live in peace. At the end of 1987, my first visit was to [Palestinian President] Yasser Arafat in Tunisia. And he told me: “There will be peace, because we have to live together. We cannot continue fighting those we have to live with in the same house, in the same land.”

What is the main task of the Fundación Cultura de Paz, of which you are chairman?
It is to put into practice a declaration and action plan that was unanimously approved by the U.N. General Assembly in September 1999. I realized while at UNESCO that we are subject to the imposition of force and the imposition of the wishes of the few on the majority. It is the law of the strongest. I thought it was high time to say enough is enough, because the cost in human lives and suffering is so high that we all have to work to end violence and oppression once and for all. We have to proclaim that every human being is equal, in dignity, in freedom—and, as the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, we have to live “in a spirit of brotherhood.” And that’s it. Everything is so simple and so complex at the same time.

I can no longer accept that some leaders, in the name of the people and of democracy, continue to use force, when it is time, at the dawn of this new century and millennium, to discuss issues in order to find or create concrete solutions.