Elhadj As Sy IFRC Secretary-General
Date: Thursday, 7 June, 2018
Event: Reinhard Mohn prize 2018
Location: Gütersloh, Germany

(find here the German speech)

Sehr geehrte Frau Mohn,
Sehr geehrter Herr Gauck,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Jamm Ngeen Amm!  My apologies to the interpreters; that was mother tongue.
Udo, Uxolo, from the Igbo and Xhosa of my beloved African continent.
Salam, Shalom, from the region which perhaps needs it most.
And of course from Guetersloh and from Germany itself: Friede sei mit Ihnen.

I began briefly in English – and in different languages – by wishing ‘peace’ upon you and us all, in the name of our shared humanity.

That precious word ‘peace’ – uttered as a greeting all over the world – speaks so much to me of both our diversity and our togetherness.

When we talk of peace, we inevitably talk of one of the greatest figures of the last century: that extraordinary combination of the heart and the head that was Nelson Mandela.  Our esteemed and worthy prize winner today, Joachim Gauck, was described by a UK newspaper as ‘Germany’s answer to Nelson Mandela’.

And it was Mandela who said: ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.’

And Mandela is always right, so let me continue in German.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It was Ban Ki Moon who used to say, about climate change, that ‘there’s no Plan B, because there’s no Planet B’.  I’d like to say the same about Humanity – ‘there’s no humanity B’; there is only one humanity – the humanity we all share.

The humanitarian worker I am feels that our shared humanity is aching, and our world is hurting.

It has been hurting for far longer than the 150 or so years of the Red Cross, and the 100 years of the Federation of 190 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies which it’s my great privilege to serve.  But it is hurting especially badly now.

Many of you will know that the Red Cross Movement was born on a battlefield: the battlefield of Solferino in Italy where, in June 1859, our founder Henri Dunant was stunned into action when he witnessed 6,000 men lying dead on the battlefield, and 40,000 wounded.

In those days, the world’s battlefields featured kings, emperors and nations. The battlefields were geographically confined and had names: Solferino, Austerlitz, Waterloo, Verdun, La Marne… etc. They had beginnings and ends, winners and losers.

Today, the battlefields are everywhere – in our own communities, schools and places of worship. They no longer have names; we cannot remember when they begin, and we don’t know when they end. They no longer have winners, but there are still losers: too often, civilians, women, children, the most vulnerable.

Today, we see other types of battlefields as well. These are the global scourges of poverty, disease, migration, environmental degradation … and even pernicious ideas.

I think of the scourges as “three Ds”: Disease, Disaster and Displacement, affecting millions of people. They know no border; they know no limits.

Often they come together in ‘perfect’ or imperfect storms: like in Yemen and Somalia today, which are beset by civil war, famine, cholera, illiteracy, terrorist groups and more.

We see the aching world in the escalating numbers of what you might call ‘shocks and hazards’ all around the globe.  There are 400 of them a year: over four times as many as there were 40 years ago, so the World Meteorological Organisation tells us.  And we see the ways in which these shocks and hazards have been multiplied by human behaviour – by climate change, for instance, and by unplanned urbanisation.

We especially see the suffering in the sheer numbers of people who are forced to leave home, because home is no longer safe: 66 million of them around the world (the highest number since the Second World War), and double that number when we consider people who are wilfully on the move.

Numbers, statistics and figures which simply translate the difficulty in transmitting the reality of a situation until one feels it directly, until a friend or a family member is affected, or until a colleague dies in the line of duty. Numbers and figures that will never tell the stories of a deprived child in a protracted crisis; of a child that grows up knowing nothing but war; of a once-proud mother and father who, overnight, find themselves with a different identity – we don’t call them by their names anymore, we don’t even call them by their nationalities anymore …

We dub them “the refugee”, “the migrant”, “the beneficiary”.  These appellations are not identities; they are just situations that any of us could find ourselves in, if we had the misfortune of being born or raised in those environments because of so many factors that we do not have control over.

So what is our role in this hurting world?  For me, it is to help people recover what is most precious to them – their dignity.  Dignity:  the last scrap of cloth that people wrap themselves with in the nudity of humiliation, poverty and multiple deprivations.

We need more than ever a strong and vibrant community of carers. People who care when others are indifferent.  People who support when others turn away. People who embrace when others reject.


The two men we honour today – Reinhard Mohn, who instituted this Prize, and Joachim Gauck, who wins it this year – were and are part of this worldwide community of carers, helping people live side by side and with dignity.

Reinhard Mohn himself stressed that the motto of this Prize is ‘Learning from the world’, as Germany looks far afield to see how others create their own successful and harmonious societies.

Learning from the world was truly the creed of Reinhard Mohn. From his establishment of Book Clubs to spread the practice of sharing and talking about books, to the way he would himself live out his own version of inclusiveness by eating in the staff canteen.

He was a supporter of his community – from the early sharing profit-sharing scheme for his employees to the establishment of a successful non-profit foundation.

He was a dreamer. A dreamer who built a successful endeavour for his community.

As a Sahelian, I believe in the spirit of the ancestors, and I feel Reinhard Mohn’s spirit in this room. So, the Senegalese Poet, Birago Diop wrote:

“Listen to Things
More often than Beings,
Hear the voice of fire,
Hear the voice of water.
Listen in the wind,
To the sighs of the bush;
This is the ancestors breathing.
Those who are dead are not ever gone;

They are in the hut, they are in the crowd:
The dead are not dead.

Each day they renew ancient bonds,
Ancient bonds that hold fast….”

For Joachim Gauck, he will always be known as a passionate denouncer of ways of not living together.

His beliefs in individual freedom – and the responsibility that comes with it – embody his legacy.

I know that he served on the Management Board of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, and that he welcomed and promoted the debate on immigration in this country. Above all, I note his passion to turn what some perceive as ‘problems to be solved’ into ‘situations to be managed, welcomed, and maximised’.

He sees the benefit of diversity in all aspects of humanity.

Here I quote him: ‘Immigration [in Germany] was first ignored.  Then it was rejected.  Later still, it was endured and tolerated. And finally it was recognised as an opportunity, and accepted. And this is where we find ourselves today. I now know that we will not lose ourselves if we accept diversity.  We want this diverse ‘we’.”

Indeed, Herr Gauck, there is no “them” and “us”. There is no “them migrants” and “us”, no “them refugees” and “us”, no “them poor people” and “us”, no “them youth” and “us”, no “them women” and “us”, but “we”. A strong, collective “we” that is underpinned by the one, and only one, humanity that we share.

Thank you, Herr Gauck, for your belief in ‘We’. An understanding of ‘We’ is the essence of achieving the peace with which I began today.


How might we achieve this peace, following the lead of Mr Gauck?

The Reinhard Mohn Prize asks us how we apply the lessons of ‘We’ to Germany, this country of over 80 million people, of whom nearly a quarter now have non-German heritage. This country, with so marked a history, for better and worse, of facing waves of immigration from east and south.  How do we not just tolerate diversity, but shape it, embrace it, and learn from it?

This year’s Prize looks especially at the ideas of Heritage, Religion and Language as some of the key building blocks of collective humanity.

Heritage – and diversity – must be celebrated and safeguarded. We must celebrate the places, objects and cultural traditions that make the world such a rich and vibrant place.

“Inanimate objects, do you have a soul, which sticks to our soul and forces it to love?”, asked Lamartine.

Yes, objects take us back to our history and heritage. They can make us cry or laugh.

Here in Germany, in Europe, the values of our collective humanity are indeed compatible with European values of history, tradition, culture and civilization. That is the reason why, when the world is hurting, people turn to Europe for care, support and solidarity. Not because Europe owes it to the world; but simply because of the values Europe embodies.

Germany is no stranger to the protection of heritage and diversity. Its Basic Law of 1949, on the naturalisation of new German citizens, put the liberal constitution at the heart of a forward-looking, not backward-looking, process.

Almost half a century later, and on the other side of the world, South Africa, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, epitomizes the very themes of peace, diversity and togetherness.

So heritage – and the culture, the customs, the codes, the cuisine, to name just four Cs, that come with it … – enrich not just those who own them, but also those who don’t.  Enrichment is for all.  But ownership is ultimately for none, because heritage is a concept which is in fact living and evolving. It is there before us, with us, and after us.

The second of your three cornerstones is religion.  And of course the great irony is that, for all the awful and frequently bloody differences between and even within faiths, all faiths say broadly the same things. They honour a deity and thereby the deity’s creation: that creation is our fellow human beings.

Muslims say: ‘no one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself’.

Christians say: ‘do unto others what you would have them do unto you’.

Jews say: ‘what is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man’.

Hindus say: ‘do naught unto another which would cause pain if done to you’.

Sikhs say: ‘treat others as you would be treated yourself’.

Buddhists say: ‘hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful’.

And then we get to language. Is language supposed to divide us (as the myth might lead us to believe), or to differentiate us, and multiply the possibilities of expression?  I believe the latter.

Languages have fed into and enriched each other from time immemorial, and that is no less the case now, in the 21st Century in the continent of Europe.  ‘To have another language is to possess a second soul,’ said the Emperor Charlemagne – so beloved by those with a vision for this continent – in the early 9th Century.

And language is the key to what makes you feel part of a society, or conversely (in its absence) what makes you feel removed from it.  It’s why, in the hotly contested issue of European immigration, some countries are introducing language tests for would-be immigrants.  And that’s why National Red Cross societies in Europe run language courses for migrants, to allow them to embrace and be embraced by the societies to which they travel.


Many on this continent focus on the supposed ills of migration.

But it is wrong, surely, to deny the potential of immigration – to the refugees, to the societies which receive them, and to the countries they leave behind, as they send home remittances and often return home to make a difference in the lands of their birth.

But our overarching Red Cross Red Crescent belief is that ‘No human being is illegal’, and that our priority is to preserve the dignity of each individual.


I draw to a close by saying that so much of what I have shared with you today, I was taught.  By my mother.  By those many people in my family and community who kept an eye on me.  By my teachers, from the palaver tree in my native land, through the small hut in which I started primary school, to the Maria Theresa Castle I graduated from the Vienna Diplomatic Academy.  Let me quote Mandela again: ‘Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world’.

Education is the key to making societies work, and living together harmoniously.  And education is of course more than learning and information.  It’s about values, heritage and language.


So, dear friends, my message to you today about how to live together in harmony is based on our shared, diverse, “rainbow” humanity and our shared and deepest desire for peace: peace within ourselves, and peace in our communities.

The Southern African notion of Ubuntu says it beautifully: “I am, because you are, because we are!”

Principled Humanitarian Action is a journey from fear, stigma and exclusion to care, support and inclusion. It’s about accompanying people to restore what is most important to them, their dignity. It is about being part of the solution when it is easier to be part of the problem.

Heritage, religion and language are a compass through compassion, respect and tolerance to nurture our diverse humanity. That calls for humility, courage and leadership, virtues embodied by both Reinhard Mohn and Joachim Gauck.

Thank you, Madam Liz Mohn for your generosity and inclusive leadership that allow this son of the Sahel to address this august gathering today.

Congratulations, Mr Gauck!

Thank you for your kind attention.