Jakob Kellenberger on the Importance of Values in International Relations

24 October 2012, 06:00

It was this position that helped him chair the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), one of the oldest humanitarian organizations in the world, for over 10 years now and participate in numerous negotiations in hotspots all over the world. Invited by the Embassy of Switzerland in Ukraine and Ukrayinskiy Tyzhden (The Ukrainian Week), Jakob Kellenberger delivered a lecture on “Power and Values in International Relations” at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv on October 4th.

UW: How does political power affect the shaping and evolution of values in the modern world?

States and international organizations all over the world use power to promote their interests and values. The European Union is an example of a community based on values. Open the Maastricht Treaty and you will see that the article on values precedes the one on the goals and objectives of the EU. Many countries pursue different value-based goals, but the EU is unique in this aspect, where soft rather than military power plays the pivotal role. So much depends on how the country protects the values domestically. If you want to be protected, it is not enough to stay at the level of abstract concepts or international treaties and agreements. It is important to integrate values into internal national legislation. They have to be reflected in laws that provide for punishments whenever the laws regarding these values are breached. A great challenge for any country in protecting its values is the necessity to prove that they do not run counter to state interests. Another important issue is the price that nations are ready to pay to protect their values. The EU has shown that it is able to go pretty far to achieve this. If you want to encourage others to believe in your ideals, it is extremely important for you to avoid double standards and be consistent. Otherwise, you could undermine trust in your declarations about your values. What standards are used when military criminals are not held liable? Commitment to and protection of certain values are important tools in spreading them. International negotiations are another tool. I believe that any negotiations will fail without the mutual respect of all parties involved. And when negotiations are about values, there is no place for concessions.

UW: How effectively can the Council of Europe exercise the moral protection of democratic values with member-states that deviate from democracy, taking into account the fact that PACE does not apply sanctions?

One of the biggest gaps in current international human rights legislation is the lack of a special court institution that could apply sanctions against member-states who signed the European Convention on Human Rights and CoE members that walked away from the path of democracy and violate human rights. In my opinion, the best solution would be to introduce penalties. Sanctions can be applied by international organizations such as the UN Security Council, but only if the peace or security of the citizens in a specific country are violated.

UW: According to American expert Ian Bremmer, we are living in a world without a leader, in other words, a G-Zero world. Western states which promote democratic values are losing some of their international influence. Meanwhile, new emerging countries grow more powerful economically and politically, but are often guided by different values. Is there an alternative to democratic values in modern international relations?

It's not only Western states that promote democratic values. This said, there are certain diffences in views as to the best ways to politically organize society at the current level of development. In my view, such differences exist, but I do not believe that democracy is the type of political organization which offers people the best options, taking into account their concerns about the level of political power. Democracy can change those in power if they do not act in the interest of the people.  Therefore I wonder if the attractiveness of democracy really depends so much on Western economic power. Yet, despite the rise of emerging economies as well as the Euro and debt crises, the EU as a whole still has the highest GDP in the world, which is even higher than that of the United States. I also see values that are generally accepted on the global level here, such as justice or human dignity.  Another question is how different countries guarantee respect for them. Some countries may decide that compliance with democratic rights is not sufficient to implement their interests and put the protection of their citizens’ security or providing them with food and water as their first priority. Thus, the global situation in this aspect largely depends on a specific situation in a specific country. It is extremely difficult to preserve democracy in countries that are poorly developed economically. It’s great that Western states promote their values internationally and integrate them into their constitutions and laws. At the same time, it is important to avoid double standards if you seek trust.

UW: Your 2007 statement that the USA cannot duly guarantee compliance with human rights at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp led to an international scandal and even pushed American authorities to improve detention conditions in the camps of Afghanistan and Iraq. The situation in Ukrainian prisons is hardly better than there. Have you monitored the Ukrainian penitentiary system?

I do not know the penitentiary system in Ukraine. The ICRC's detention visits focus on people detained during or after armed conflicts. It is true that the ICRC is also increasingly visiting people detained in other situations, including cases of violence – other than armed conflicts. In this sense, Ukraine is not within the typical ICRC context, but I am sure that representatives of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture of the Council of Europe have visited Ukraine. In spite of this, I'm afraid there are many places of detention in the world which nobody is visiting, even though there is an urgent need to control the conditions under which detainees are kept and the way they are treated.  

UW: During your term in office as Head of the ICRC, it expanded its operations significantly all over the world. How do you see the role of humanitarian diplomacy in international relations today?

There are various levels at which humanitarian diplomacy is being exercised, up to the highest level if deemed necessary. The operational component allows us to ensure access to those in need of protection and assistance through representatives of governments and NGOs. The thematic component promotes the signing of treaties with an important humanitarian impact, such the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The legal and thematic component is to spread the law, the implementation of its provisions and the promotion of the development of international treaty law.

UW: You were involved in bilateral relations between Switzerland and the European Union for almost two decades. Do you think that Switzerland benefitted from not joining the EU and maintaining a distance from European politics?

My country has not lost economically. On the contrary, it has saved money because it would have been one of the largest net contributors to the EU budget.  The price for not being an EU member-state is mainly political for Switzerland: it is impossible to participate in decisions being taken without us, having an ever greater effect on us. On the whole, Switzerland is not among the architects of Europe which, to a large extent, is constructed in Brussels.


Jakob Kellenberger is a Swiss diplomat, who began his career in 1974. Mr. Kellenberger served as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs from 1992 to 1999 and has been President of the International Committee of the Red Cross since 2000.

This is Articte sidebar