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A Count in Humanitarian Preparedness

Folke Bernadotte is best known as the leader of the legendary white buses. But he was also a precursor to what today are the cornerstones of Scandinavian diplomacy and foreign policy.

(Note: The article is mostly machine-translated from Norwegian by Gtranslate)

This year is 120 years since Count Folke Bernadotte was born, grandson of King Oscar I and godfather of Prince Carl – who is Sweden's current king, Carl XVI Gustaf. But it is not for its royal origin Folke Bernadotte is most famous. He is best known for the great relief action of 70 years ago, in April 1945, when he led one of World War II's major humanitarian relief operations with the legendary white buses. With the Red Cross's well-known mark on the roof and sides, the buses, which had been whitewashed in no hurry, carried over 20 000 survivors – of which 8000 Danish and Norwegian nationals – from the German concentration camps in the chaotic end of the war. The action was also initiated and largely implemented by the Norwegian diplomat Hans Christian Ditleff.

Three years later Bernadotte's life was ended by Jewish terrorists when, as the first – in a coming series of many – UN negotiators tried to come to a solution to one of the most difficult conflicts of our time. The problems Bernadotte fought against in this mission seem tragically enough to be as far from any solution today as it was at the time: the status of Jerusalem, the border crossing between the two states of Israel and Palestine and the situation of the Palestinian refugees. The solutions Bernadotte proposed in his two peace plans – not least the idea that Jerusalem should stand under an international supremacy – probably sealed his fate.

Screen Shot at 2015 09-15-19.30.17
With the murder
at Folke Bernadotte, one of the 1900's great humanitarian players went out of time. His efforts, even beyond the action of the white buses, deserve both attention and recognition. Today, they are very important parts of the toolbox of international diplomacy, and they have contributed to the fact that Folke Bernadotte was often mentioned as possible Secretary-General of the UN.
Characterized by their experiences from the end of the war, Folke Bernadotte noted that military prisoners of war were better treated than civilians. The reason was that the treatment of military prisoners was closely regulated in the Third Geneva Convention, while civilians lacked equivalent protection. Bernadotte therefore took the initiative to draw up a convention for the protection of civilians in war. The Convention was negotiated the same year, and ratified in Geneva in 1949, following Bernadotte's death, as the Fourth Geneva Convention.
But Folke Berndadotte's experience as a dealer in the Middle East also left her mark. The suffering he saw among the Palestinian refugees who had lost their homes and possessions convinced him that a lasting peace would be impossible if their situation was not recognized and taken into account. There is a direct connection from the content of his reports on the conflict to the UN, to Security Council Resolution 194 that the situation of Palestinian refugees must be resolved. The content of this resolution is today considered a cornerstone of a possible peace settlement. Bernadotte's efforts to provide protection and support to the Palestinian refugees also led to the establishment of the UNRWA – UNRWA – United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The idea was that UNRWA should be a temporary solution pending a peace agreement. Unfortunately, it has been necessary for the UN to renew UNRWA's mandate every year since 1949.

Like this not enough, Folke Bernadotte also created UNTSO – United Nations Truce Supervision Organization – in 1948. UNTSO, which still exists today, was the UN's first peacekeeping effort, and should serve as a model for many similar efforts over the years.
Folke Bernadotte thus not only saved lives through the efforts of the white bus-
late – from his hand we also have the Fourth Geneva Convention, UN Resolution 194, UNRWA and UNTSO. All are important components of the international diplomacy toolbox. Bernadotte was accused of being naive and overly optimistic, but what he actually achieved speaks his own clear language. Caution and realism rarely lead all the way.

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However, there are a tough criticism stuck in Folke Bernadotte and the action with the white buses:
In order to prepare space for the Scandinavian prisoners in the camp Neuengamme, it was demanded from Germany that other sick and emaciated camp prisoners should be evacuated to other camps. After considerable doubt, the white buses evacuated these estimated 2000 prisoners. There is information that several of these died during transport – people who thought they should be rescued when they first saw the Swedish relief workers.
But it will be wrong to criticize Folke Bernadotte and the efforts of the white buses for this. Rather, these events show how our usual norms and morals break down in the chaos of war, and how the strong dictate the terms. Anyone who wants to act constructively in such a situation immediately ends up in difficult moral dilemmas. World War II is full of similar situations, but they should not be taken into account for criticism of what is, in its foundation, admirable efforts of power.
Folke Bernadotte appears as a man who met reality as it was, one who saw what it took to act. He was a scout, "always prepared." He was driven by a strong religious ethic – the Bible was a firm companion – to try to be constructive in a hopeless situation. In many and many respects he personified principles that today are cornerstones of Swedish and Norwegian foreign policy: mediation instead of violence, the importance of peacekeeping and peace-making efforts, protection of civilians – not least women and children – and a deep conviction that international law and human rights must be guiding stars in international relations.


Wernhoff is Sweden's ambassador to Norway.

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