09/02/2015

The Code of Hammurabi and the Juncker Kiss

The recent burning of the Jordanian pilot by the Islamic State and the revenge hanging of two prisoners by the Jordanian government harken to the principle of Hammurabi’s ancient Babylonian law code of 1754 B.C., “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. The terrorists reacted to the refusal of the Jordanian government to negotiate the release of jihadist prisoners; the Jordanians reacted to the brutal murder of their pilot. An eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth indeed.


Compare this level of violence and retribution with the recent visit of the Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga to Brussels. The Swiss, as we know, have had enormous difficulty negotiating with the Europeans following the national vote of February 9, 2014, concerning the free movement of people from within Europe to Switzerland. The refusal by the Swiss people to continue what they consider mass migration has put a halt to a series of negotiations between the European Union and the Swiss government. While the relations have been superficially cordial, tensions exist.

Ms. Sommaruga, as the new Swiss president in the rotating system of Federal Counsellors, visited Brussels last week to restart the negotiations. It was the first official meeting between her and the new president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. Most experts expected the talks to be diplomatic and cordial, but nothing more.

What did Mr. Juncker do at the news conference before their discussions began? Before the cameras, instead of the traditional handshake, instead of the usual forced smile between the parties in spite of their differences, Mr. Juncker leaned over and gave Ms. Sommaruga a kiss. Mind you it was not flirtatious. Mr. Juncker, as a proper European, was giving a welcome to the female Swiss president that was more than a traditional handshake but certainly less than an undiplomatic smooch.

Was the kiss prepared? Was it spontaneous? Was Ms. Sommaruga surprised? None of these questions is really relevant. What is important is that it changed the atmosphere, at least the public perception of the relationship between Switzerland and the EU. Just as Didier Burkhalter’s “my dear colleague” greeting to President Putin in June 2014, also changed the perceived atmosphere between the President of the OSCE and Russia, Juncker’s action confirmed that although there are differences between the EU and Switzerland, the differences are among neighbors. Headline-seeking journalists and politicians try to inflate the situation. Crisis screaming sells newspapers and garners voters. Juncker returned the discussions to a responsible perspective.

How to compare the atrocity of the beheadings and burning with the graciousness of the Juncker gesture? One should even include the vengeful hanging of the two prisoners. After all, more and more countries have outlawed the death penalty. The United States goes through a national if not international trauma each time a prisoner is executed. Should we condone the hanging of the two prisoners as an act of revenge for the brutal killing of the pilot?

Does the term graciousness even relate to international relations today? Graciousness, civility, diplomacy in the largest sense, seem to have disappeared from international relations. Humanitarian norms were established to limit the consequences of war. Distinguishing combatants from non-combatants, treating prisoners of war with dignity, the banning of weapons such as gas and anti-personnel mines are all part of regulating the use of force. “We agree to disagree” is the first rule of formal negotiations.

What does all of that mean in a world of video beheadings and burnings? Aren’t hangings frightful remnants of the Wild West in the United States in the 19th century and the brutal treatment of slaves in the South?

The American political scientist Samuel Huntington’s 1993 classic The Clash of Civilizations was roundly denounced at the time as initiating a self-fulfilling prophecy. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, critics said, we were witnessing the end of the Cold War and the beginning of peace if not the end of history. Why was Huntington so pessimistic when the world looked so rosy?

Nothing symbolizes the clash of civilizations like the beheadings, burnings and hangings compared to the diplomatic kiss. Are diplomatic negotiations, international law, international humanitarian law and human rights truly universal? Are they merely Eurocentric? Is it possible to find basic norms respecting human dignity that we can all agree upon? For the moment, Huntington appears very prescient.

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intéressant de savoir quelles sont les motivations qui vous invitent à ne pas présenter ce texte en français Daniel Warner, vos commentateurs? vous qui a priori, vos lignes de bienvenue, connaissez notre parler...?

Écrit par : Myriam Belakovsky | 09/02/2015

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