Envoys reflect on WWI centenary

Diplomatic missions across London turned their lights off and burned a solitary candle on 6 August to commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War.

The missions were joined (via Twitter) by British embassies around the world, while London’s heads of mission attended a moving candle-lit service at Westminster Abbey.

An Embassy survey after the event asked diplomats if the lessons of WWI had been learned. Some envoys felt that current conflicts proved the lessons of WWI had been ignored while others felt that world leaders had indeed “learned to appreciate de-escalation”.

Envoys argued that the post-WWII settlement was proof that the lessons of WWI had been learned but envoys were divided over whether the UN Security Council was “fit for purpose” to combat modern conflict.

In particular most diplomats felt the UN Security Council veto had been used by the Permanent Five “to pursue national self interest”.

Asked to consider a French proposal for the Permanent Five to voluntarily agree to restrain from using the veto in incidents of mass atrocities, diplomats thought this was an idea worth pursuing as part of “wholesale reform” of the Security Council. However, some warned that even defining mass atrocities may be problematic, citing the recent conflict in Gaza as an example.

Envoys also felt international law had been impotent in the face of internal conflict and asymmetric wars as most countries only “pay lip service” to the principles of the Geneva Convention wrote one embassy worker .

One head of mission pointed out: “The UN is only as strong as its Members and it is up to them to fulfil their obligations. While the nature of the conflict has changed, our collective goal has not.”