Universal Declaration of Human Responsibility: Are We Meeting Our Responsibility to Children?

Interaction Council Seminar, Tokyo - 21 March 2004

A little over fifty years ago the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was endorsed by the United Nations. Over that time, much progress has been made but much more needs to be done. For at least the last 15 years there has been a group of people who believe that, in a globalised, inter-related world, we also need a universal declaration of responsibilities. Those working to this purpose believe that a world in which everyone demands rights but do not accept responsibilities, will be an unequal and even a dangerous and discordant world.

In 1983, sponsored principally by Takeo Fukuda of Japan, the interaction council, composed of around 30 former heads of government, was formed. Its members comprised people from all continents, from east and west, from north and south, there were conservatives, liberals, socialists and communists involved in the affairs of the council.

The council has devoted a great deal of time to the problems of peace, to economic and social issues, to globalisation, to population and problems of the environment.

The most important task of the council began in 1987 when, along with Takeo Fukuda, Helmut Schmidt and Olusegun Obasanjo, we met with significant people from the world’s major religions.

Our purpose was to explore with religious leaders the possibility of establishing a common ethical standard. We were conscious that innumerable wars had been conducted in the name of religion. Since we met in 1987 the terrible conflict in the former Yugoslavia has been religious and racial in content. We are conscious too, that with rapid growth of population, especially in Muslim countries, Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ could become a reality. With problems in Iraq it may already be on us.

Since the collapse of communism, our concerns have deepened. Despite the dangers of the cold war, the factual existence of two super powers placed a degree of modesty on each super power. There is now one super power which has claimed a great moral and democratic victory over communism and which, as a consequence, has become more assertive, unilaterally, in promoting values which are thought to advance American interests.

Our original meeting in Rome with leaders of the world’s major religions was prompted, not only by a consciousness of past religious bitternesses and hatreds but also by a consciousness that, in a world that was becoming increasingly globalised in trade, in movements of capital, in inter-dependence, there needs to be a new spirit of co-operation.

Exploring areas of agreement with significant leaders of major religions was a testing ground for the interaction council in determining whether or not a common ethical base could be established.

We were encouraged to believe that that was a possibility. The initial exchange of views resulted in a striking degree of common perception of the valuation of present dangers and on the recognition of the need for action built on a widely shared ethical basis. The need for peace is easily stated but to see people from extraordinarily diverse backgrounds agreeing about the major ingredients for peace, was encouraging. This was before the United States enunciated the policy of pre-emptive strike and of unilateral united states action.

The need for a more equitable economic structure to reverse the present appalling poverty which affects such a large part of humanity, was agreed. Dialogue predicated on enlightened self-interest between industrialised and developing countries, was and remains important.

The need for moral values for the family was accepted by everyone, the recognition that a common responsibility of both men and women is indispensable in dealing with these issues.

The Rome meeting provided a foundation. In the intervening years, the council considered how it could take matters further, how it could advance a common belief in basic ethical standards.

The 50th year after the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights seemed an appropriate time to promote debate and discussion about the need for a declaration concerning human responsibilities.

It is important to understand that the universal declaration of human rights addresses itself to the inalienable rights of humanity and to the protection of all people against abusive power by governments or institutions of government.

While most of the articles in this universal declaration relate to civil and political rights, article 25 and article 26 have economic and social implications and it is worth noting that article 29 states: ‘everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible’.

In the interaction council we believe that the constant demand for rights alone, without better recognition of matters covered in article 29, would not achieve our original purpose. There is in many ways a cultural divide. There has been and still is, a religious divide. These need to be overcome. Tolerance between cultures and religions, between geographic regions, is often a scarce commodity.

While we do not subscribe to Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilisations as being inevitable, that clash is a real possibility if world leaders do not take positive steps to avert it. Such steps cannot be taken by trying to persuade others to be more like us.

Other cultures and other religions do place more reliance on responsibilities than we in the west may do but surely, in our own societies, we have seen problems, grave and serious deficiencies, where people demand rights without the acceptance of a responsibility to family, to community or to country.

Since our first meeting with religious leaders in Rome in 1987, we have discussed amongst ourselves how we might move forward the idea of universally accepted ethical standards or responsibilities. That Rome meeting had given us encouragement because, as a result of it, we believed that such a standard could be framed acceptable to the world’s major religions. Thus it seemed that an attempt to draft a declaration of human responsibilities was a natural consequence of our first meeting in Rome and a natural consequence, having regard to the difficulties and dangers foreseeable for the future. It also represented a necessary extension of article 29 of the universal declaration of human rights.

And so we prepared a draft. It has been widely circulated. It has met considerable support throughout Asia, throughout developing countries but major countries in the west are less enthusiastic

It has been said that the United Nations is an organisation of governments and, since our universal declaration of human responsibilities relates principally to how individuals should behave, it would be quite wrong for the United Nations to declare an agreed ethical standard.

This would seem to be wrong in fact because the universal declaration of human rights does also carry strong implications for the behaviour of individuals.

Our article 6 states that ‘disputes between states, groups or individuals should be resolved without violence. No government should tolerate or participate in acts of genocide or terrorism, nor should it abuse women, children or any other civilians as instruments of war. Every citizen and public official has a responsibility to act in a peaceful, non-violent way.’ this is quite directly aimed at governments.

It has also been said that, since there is still considerable progress to be made concerning the universal declaration of human rights, we should not be diverted by another declaration.

At first blush this argument may have some appeal but I believe it is a misguided argument. A true analysis of rights makes it quite clear that their enjoyment depends upon individuals and governments behaving with a real sense of responsibility.

From an ethical perspective, the declaration of human responsibilities supports and re-enforces the declaration of human rights. We cannot dispute the fact that the rule of law and the promotion of human rights depend upon the readiness of men and women to act justly and to accept the responsibility for so doing.

It is valid to argue that in many cases the weakness of human rights is not grounded in the concept but in the lack of political and moral will on the part of those responsible for implementing them. Ethical behaviour is required for an effective realisation of human rights.

Some might argue that the concept of responsibility can be abused. In Europe especially the sense of duty has been significantly misused in quite recent history. But that is no argument to avoid the basic and necessary sense of responsibility, without which civilised, humane society could not operate. Our declaration of responsibilities would provide a framework whereby the distortion of such ‘duties’ would be clear.

Rights and responsibility are closely intertwined. Most rights imply responsibilities for their effective implementation. On the other there are ethical responsibilities grounded in the dignity of the human person and which do not flow from specific rights.

A demand for rights is widespread throughout the world. Many people in nearly every country are well aware of their rights as enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights. The sense of responsibility in many places is much less well understood. Our proposed declaration would redress that. In addition it is worth noting that, while the universal declaration of human rights properly addresses itself to the protection of individuals against the abusive power of governments, our proposed declaration of human responsibilities places obligations on governments, on institutions and corporations as well as on people themselves. The totality provides a balance which, it could be claimed, is presently lacking.

Our hope is that the proposed declaration on human responsibilities will be introduced into the United Nations for debate. It has been well received in political circles in Asia and in the developing world. It has been well received by academics and religious leaders in many parts of the world. It is the political leadership of the west that appears to be hesitant and doubtful. That hesitancy is wrongly based. The constant pursuit of rights without a sense of responsibility will not achieve our desired objectives. Both rights and responsibilities are essential to each other. Both should be adopted and a better world will result.