This Fall, the Dutch Carnegie Foundation awarded Belgian war correspondent Rudi Vranckx the Carnegie-Wateler Peace Prize. Mr. Vranckx was commended by the board of the Carnegie Foundation for his outstanding courage and exceptional commitment to reporting from the most dangereous conflict zones around the world. Before the award ceremony took place in the Great Hall of Justice in the Peace Palace, we had the opportunity to briefly interview Mr. Vranckx about his work and his views on one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time.
PPL: In what ways is the work of a war-correspondent, a journalist, similar to that of a lawyer? Are both ultimately contributing to a correct historiography?
RV: I’m originally a historian and I consider myself as such, a mixture between slow journalism and instant history. At this moment in time, we need to supply resources and the chronicles of what is currently taking place. Writing actual history requires a certain distance. Over the years, historians will have to go through all available sources and put together the pieces of the puzzle.
Lawyers on the other hand, have a different job to do and with that comes another form of logic, different from that of a journalist. A lawyer will ask wether an act constitutes a crime according to international law or the laws of war. This requires certain specifications that I, as a journalist, will judge differently. But perhaps there is common ground when we, for instance, uncover a mass grave and we know that forced dissapearances have taken place and chemical weapons may have been used. The lawyer will also ask: ‘Who is responsible?’ The search for the perpetrators starts and resembles that of the journalist. Afterwards, you will still need to address a situation that exceeds both tasks and duties of lawyers and journalists, namely how to get to a stage of reconciliation.
In this light, we can think of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South-Africa and the results this has brought about. I believe its success is in large part attributed to the role both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have played here and who they were as people, namely personalities with prestige. I have to say that, unfortunately in the case of Syria, I have not come across such personalities. Here, I’m afraid, the Latin quote Vae Victis (Woe to the Conquered) still applies.
PPL: Recently you stated that the war In Syrian in one of the worst wars of our time. We learned some years ago, that inquiry commissions in different locations in the world have been conducting criminal investigations into international crimes in Syria. Do you think that these commissions can play an important role in helping to stabilize war torn societies?
RV: I believe that the process of reconciliation and healing can not take place without establishing clarity and transparency of the narrative of the events during times of war or conflict. Social media plays a huge role in the work that I do.
I have always stated to believers and the non- believers in social media campaigns reporting on conflict zones, war crimes and the use of chemical weapons, to also give way to international law and the laws of war. We have to create room for inquiry commissions and international law to play their part and to carry out their work for the purposes of trut hand transparency. It’s my belief that only after proper investigations, reconciliation and healing will be possible. These investigative commissions are not the ‘Nuremberg Trials’ as this is not about Victor’s Justice; they should serve as a truth-finding mission.
PPL: In one of your interviews, you stated that you are somber about the current state of the Middle-East. How do you stay optimistic in your work?
RV: The Middle-East is an abstract concept. The people who I meet have different needs and concerns. I’m optimistic when I meet and speak to people who are trying in their own way to make a difference. My motto has always been that ‘hope should be placed in the deep tissues of societies’. In human rights activitists, lawyers, professors, students and those who make up civil society. This will be a very long-term process. I think we learned to no longer believe in Saviors, whether they are leftist or right wing dictators. If they stay in power too long, it usually does not end very well. Eventually, the people who make up a society will determine its course.
PPL: In addition to bringing us extensive coverage from the worst conflict zones in the world, the board of the Carnegie Foundation also praised you for your exceptional personal involvement with the inhabitants of these conflict areas, in particular the actions you took when you came across a music school in the Iraqi city of Mosul that was deliberately and completely destroyed by IS in 2017. This made you decide to start collecting musical instruments in your home country Belgium. You collected a total of 120 instruments and personally delivered these to the Music School yourself. How can music contribute to issues of international peace and justice?
RV : Can you realistically expect that of Music? I think music can contribute to peace in your heart. For me, it can work as balm to the human soul. In this particular case of Mosul, music was prohibited according to the rules of the Caliphate. Any expression that would bring about human joy or was connected to beauty was prohibited. The power of Music is that it’s a universal language. I have personally seen musicians who don’t speak the same language come together and make music together. I’m also reminded of Daniel Barenboim, a famous music conductor , who is doing the exact same thing. In this way, music becomes the antidote to intolerance, not just in Iraq but also here in Belgium, in the West. It struck a sensitive chord in our own society, longing for hope and action against polarization and hatred. It gave me strength, because even as a journalist, sometimes in the darkness, you need this glimmer of hope.