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Podium: Knut Vollebaek: Modern conflicts and the legacy of ancient Greece

Taken from the Fridtjof Nansen Memorial Lecture, delivered by the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs
THE ANCIENT Greek political thinkers sought to achieve the ideal state, in which conflict would be eliminated in the interests of the good life for all. But they were also the first to insist that no real state, past or present, had attained or even approached this goal.

Today we are facing a number of ethnic, religious and cultural conflicts threatening peace and stability on several continents. Our challenge is how to contribute to reconciliation and understanding, and create the necessary confidence on which to bridge these conflicts and build a peaceful future. That is the challenge we are facing in the war-torn Balkans, where conflicts have led to the loss of so many lives and caused so much suffering to millions of people.

The conflicts following the break-up of Yugoslavia have been at the forefront of the attention of the international community during the Nineties. That goes for my own country, too. Our commitment to peace and stability in Europe, to promote democracy and respect for human rights, is also reflected in our taking on the responsibility of chairing the OSCE this year.

Our task is to provide people - every individual - with a choice. It is to allow them to have their own political views, their own religions and beliefs, their own ethnic affiliations - and still live side by side.

In the Kosovo crisis, an extensive military operation was chosen as a last resort. Taking up arms is a failure in itself. Employing force has enormous human and material costs. It leaves behind a legacy of hatred.

The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, put his finger on the greatest dilemma in crisis management today. Like Ulysses passing the sirens, we can tie ourselves to the mast and insist on a mandate from the Security Council. But then we shall also have tied our hands if one of the five permanent members lays down a veto.

On the other hand, if we no longer require an explicit UN mandate, we shall lower the threshold for intervention and may pave the way for the misuse of intervention in pursuit of other political objectives. We need to contribute to what Kofi Annan has called "a culture of prevention".

Long-lasting stability can be achieved only if Yugoslavia's present isolation is broken. We must include the Serbs in the stabilisation process. However, Belgrade has chosen to isolate itself from Europe. I do not foresee a normalisation of relations as long as President Milosevic's regime remains in power. We should, however, respond actively to human needs and support the political opposition in order to break the isolation.

Peace and stability in Kosovo is a key to stability in the whole of southeastern Europe. It is clear that Albanians and Serbs still have a long way to go before they can live together in peace. As long as hatred prevails in Kosovo, it is virtually impossible to start rebuilding the province, to establish democratic institutions or to develop a vigorous economy. I have appealed to the leaders of all communities, including religious leaders, to encourage their people to work towards peace. I have stressed that if the violence continues there will be only one loser, the people of Kosovo.

Confidence-building acts can be carried out only by the parties to a conflict. Only they can move the peace process forward, through their actions and involvement.

The OSCE can never substitute for any of the parties - not before, not during or after the escalation of a crisis into a full-blown conflict. What we can offer is advice, personnel, a supportive political framework and a long-term commitment. What we need is for the parties to show political courage and a sense of responsibility. And, above all, we must remember that actions speak louder than words.

But as we step into the 21st century, let us not forget the legacy of the ancient Greeks. They knew that formal agreements and charters are never ends in themselves. People and their actions are what really count. What mattered for security and stability in the Greek city state, and what matters today, is that people act in a way that makes them worthy of confidence and respect.