Balancing peace with justice is not an easy task, but it’s the only way to navigate the fraught world of international diplomacy, Ibrahim Gambari told the 43rd graduating class of Fordham’s International Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance (IDHA) on June 27.
The U.N. diplomat, scholar, and chancellor of Nigeria’s Kwara State University was in a unique position to deliver the above assessment. As former chairperson of the African Union Commission and the former Joint African Union-United Nations Special Representative for Darfur, he has navigated many a diplomatic briar patch in Africa.
When Omar Al-Bashir, currently under indictment by the International Criminal Court, was elected president of Sudan under questionable circumstances, Gambari had to decide between attending his inauguration, or declining at the risk of alienating a leader who was critical to achieving a peace agreement.
Gambari’s U.N. superiors decided that he should go “but not be seen smiling,” he said. Representatives from the African Union disagreed, however, and said he should express happiness.
Striking the right diplomatic balance is difficult. “How do you smile and not smile at the same time?” he said.
“My own experience and position is that you don’t have to choose between peace and justice; rather, you can sequence them.”
Gambari was presented with an honorary certificate in International Humanitarian Assistance at the event.
The IIHA diploma ceremony honored 35 students from 24 countries, many whom are already working in the humanitarian field. Two students were from Aleppo, Syria, and one from the outskirts of Baghdad.
The ceremony capped an intense month of 200 hours of multi-disciplinary lectures, workshops, and field experiences designed to simulate a humanitarian crisis. The program began in 1997 and has served students from more than 115 nations.
In his talk, Gambari addressed five issues of critical importance to the field of humanitarian assistance: justice; addressing the root causes of conflicts; the role of “spoilers,” or criminal/insurgent groups; how nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) factor in the process; and the need find common ground.
Among those, finding common ground is of paramount importance, he said. And getting the attention of warring parties sometimes requires all manner of flattery and cunning. He recalled how one of his professors at the London School of Economics asked him to write an essay for him.
“One of my professors at the London School of Economics asked me to write an essay. He told me ‘Ibrahim, this is the best paper that I’ve read I’ve read in many years, and I’ve been at L.E.S. for 20 years. Except for the following points’—and then he winked—‘Which make your paper complete nonsense.’” Gambari recalled.
“I reminded him he’d just said it was great. And he said ‘That was just to get your attention.’”
In humanitarian work, “I’m afraid you have to use all sorts of tricks to get their attention, because without their attention, you cannot influence anyone.”