A Declaration on Human Responsibilities?

Address given to the UNESCO Conference
Carlton Crest Hotel
March 30, 1998

By Malcolm Fraser

In 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was endorsed by the United Nations. For at least the last 15 years there has been a group of people who believed 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 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 economic and social issues. Above all, to globalisation and to problems of population and of the environment - questions which are closely inter-related.

The government of Japan had asked that we always meet shortly before the G7 meetings, so that we could provide a commentary on events that would be given not only to the Japanese government but also to other G7 members.

The most important task of the Council began in 1987 when I and other members, including Takeo Fukuda, Helmut Schmidt and Olusegun Obasanjo, now imprisoned in Nigeria, met with significant people from the world's major religions - Buddhists, Muslims, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, and the Jewish faith were all represented. Religious leaders came from countries as diverse as Sri Lanka, the United States, Indonesia, Austria, the People's Republic of China and India.

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.

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 in promoting values which are thought to advance American interests.

We know quite well that, at some point, the Chinese economy will pass that of America. No great power has ever enjoyed seeing another climbing up the greasy pole to displace it. The possibility of significant problems between America and China are real and in our part of the world it is not difficult to point to issues which could trigger a major calamity.

Our original meeting in Rome with leaders of the world's major religions was prompted, not only by a consciousness of past religious bitterness 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 cooperation if significant dangers are to be avoided.

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.

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 predicted on enlightened self-interest between industrialized 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.

Responsible public policies require systematic projections of population, environmental and economic trends, with recognition of their interaction.

The group in Rome was clearly aware of the approaches of different religions to family planning yet all the leaders there agreed that present trends make the pursuit of effective family planning inevitable.

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 addresses itself to the inalienable rights of humanity and to the protection of all people against abusive power by governments or institutions of government.

Three years after the end of the world war, during which basic rights of people had been totally disregarded, it was appropriate and necessary to have official recognition of the need for basic human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a legal document. It represents a moral standard which, through time, has come to be almost a statement of international law. It has, however, been given effect by two important treaties: the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights and the international covenant on civil and political rights. These are binding treaties and only a handful of countries have failed to accede to them. It is significant that the United States has not acceded to the international covenant of economic, social and cultural rights.

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".

The United Nations that adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights comprised 56 members. It is a very different organisation today.

The Declaration was in many ways a creature of the West and that also is appropriate because significant parts of the West had been the principal perpetrators of the most terrible crimes against humanity. The West needed to redeem itself an establish universal standards of behaviour.

There has been considerable progress in the development of human rights in the last 50 years. In recent years in particular, more and more governments have adopted democratic constitutions, even if they do not reach the purist form with which America or Britain would regard their constitutions. We now call Russia a democracy. If their constitution were applied to us we would regard it as a dictatorship. As in many things, there are few absolutes.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been advanced by many countries of the West to seek to change behaviour in other countries. Such attempts were applied to the Soviet Union before its disintegration, they are applied to China today.

They are not applied to President Mobutu of Zaire, they have not been applied to Nigeria, they have not been applied to the Sudan.

Human rights activists and countries which argue publicly for a better human rights record have been selective in their targets. We should not be surprised. The declaration of human rights is too often used as a political tool to advance the self-interests of, for example, America against China.

If that were not so, the demand for better adherence to the Declaration would be applied universally.

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 the purpose of the original authors. 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. It needs promoting and supporting.

While we do not subscribe to Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations 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 other to be more like us.

A senior but retired diplomat from Europe said in a small meeting the other day that some progress was being made, Asian countries that he had visited were becoming "a bit more like us" but he said there was a long way to go. I put the view that in some respects we should become a bit more like them and interchange was not a one-way road. He could not understand the point I was making. But we had better understand it for, unless we do, there will be significant adverse consequences.

Other cultures and other religions do place more reliance on responsibilities than we 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 the greatest 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, 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. Some curious reasons for not actively supporting the document have been promoted.

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.

It the United Nations is not prepared to give a lead in such matters, then who might?

In any case, Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not only address itself to what governments should do, it also has implications for individual behaviour.

While much of our proposed declaration does relate to the way individuals should behave, it also has serious implications for governments.

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.

So that objection, I believe, falls to the ground.

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, on analysis, it represents an dangerous and wrong-headed view.

There is a growing belief that the Declaration of Human Rights is an instrument of the West and every time the Article is used publicly to criticise governments in Asia, that impression is advanced. There will, I believe, be attempts to modify the Universal Declaration of Human Rights if it is not balanced by a Declaration of Human Responsibilities. In the InterAction Council we are opposed to an attempt to change the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and believe that our proposed Declaration would remain inviolate and intact. We also believe that, if responsibilities come to be recognised, as are human rights now, that greater progress will be made in advancing human rights themselves where there are still serious deficiencies.

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. Duty towards the Fuhrer, the Volk, the Party, has been emphasised by totalitarian and authoritarian ideologies. 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 distortionof such "duties" would be clear.

In any case, the concept of rights can itself be abused and could lead to anarchy.

Rights and responsibility are closely intertwined. Most rights imply responsibilities for their effective implementation but the converse is not true: there are responsibilities which do not follow from rights. For example, the freedom of the press or of a journalist is guaranteed in a modern constitutional state. There is the right to report freely. The state must support this right and, if necessary, act to enforce it. The state and the citizen have the responsibility to respect that right, however, the right to report freely does not impinge on the responsibility of the journalist or of the media.

It can be seen therefore that rights entail responsibilities but the converse is not necessarily true. There are ethical responsibilities grounded in the dignity of the human person and which do not flow from specific rights.

The West should put aside its hesitancy. There are some I believe genuinely wondering what the impact on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be. There are others who see responsibilities spelt out in clear and ethical terms, which have particular application for the wealthy and the powerful, whether they be governments or corporations. That the United States has not acceded to the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights may well be a pointer.

The intellectual arguments for rights and responsibilities are well based. Some in the West may believe that to accept both will weaken their effectiveness against other countries whom the West believes inadequately protects human rights. People in the West may also believe that to accept a Declaration of Responsibilities may open themselves to criticism for inadequate acceptance of responsibilities on the other. Such views demean the West.

Perhaps it is time for leadership in the West to recapture that sense of idealism and faith in the future which led to the formation of the United Nations itself and other great international institutions in the immediate post-war years and which led to the single most generous act of any nation at any time, the Marshall Plan. There should be no suggestion that human rights or human responsibilities should be played for specific national objectives or advantage.

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 in to 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.