Responsibility in the 21st Century

"Responsibility in the 21st Century"

A Working paper on the area of responsibility and public policy which assess' the issue of responsibility ten years after the draft of the Universal  Declaration of Human Responsibilities.

 Haethum Buttikhi

Jordan

Executive Summary

This paper discusses the issue of human responsibilities in the twenty-first century, and takes as its focus the Inter Action Council’s Declaration of Human Responsibilities (1997). It compares and contrasts the latter with its predecessor document, the United Nations Declaration of universal Human Rights (1948). Both documents, it is argued, develop the ideas of human rights and responsibilities according to the concerns of their respective contexts. Consequently, just as the 1948 declaration sets out to encode the right to freedom from persecution and discrimination, the 1997 variant sets out the correlative responsibility for mutual regard, self improvement and ethical behaviour. Although it is not entirely absent, political and military oppression are now arranged in a hierarchy of factors along with the contemporary considerations of globalization and the environment.  The paper concludes by arguing that these issues make the exercising of individual responsibilities and ethics imperative, in keeping with, and in some respects beyond the principles outlined in the 1997 declaration. If this does not occur, it is possible to envisage the return of a zeitgeist in which the more basic concerns of the 1948 document may once again assume primacy.

This working paper discusses the issue of human responsibilities in the twenty-first century, with particular reference to the issues raised in the Inter Action Council’s   Declaration of Human Responsibilities, published in 1997. Although it is not the only vehicle for such ideas, the latter does provide a useful focus for the idea of responsibility. These are also rendered particularly significant in the manner of their contrast with the expression of rights as codified in the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. It is important here to avoid visualising the straw person of a responsibility-free 1948 declaration, merely to facilitate a dramatic contrast with the 1997 document. It is not true that the 1948 declaration avoided the issue of responsibilities. Article 29 acknowledged that ‘…Everyone has duties to the community’, and that ‘…In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.’ [1]

Contrasts are however visible and important in their differentiation of particular values and priorities, the introduction of new imperatives, and the value attached to them. For example, the 1997 document ascribes new prominence to environmental factors, to animal rights, and to what it deems appropriate behaviour within the economic sphere. It could be observed that it proposes a new political economy precisely at the point when market economics is throwing off the accrued conventions of capitalism and reverting to an older, less fettered form of the latter.  This paper concludes by arguing that individual ethics are becoming increasingly important in the realization and exercise of responsibility, and that governments and administrations will only begin to act responsibly when their social constituencies genuinely demand this. As Falks observes of the United Nations declaration, ‘…too many UN member states in 1948 were themselves authoritarian and oblivious to the social responsibility of the state to make the implementation of human rights seem as if it were a genuine political project.’ [2] Just as this was politically true of many signatory states in 1948, so is it politically, socially, economically and environmentally true of many in terms of the 1997 declaration. The latter is of course even less binding on administrations, since it does not emanate from an international organization of governments. Above all, the novel aspect of the 1997 document is the perception that rights are upheld not merely through acknowledgement by governments, but in the manner of their observance by citizens.

The appearance and character of the 1997 Declaration itself illustrates many generic and enduring aspects of human rights discourse, and its establishment in documentary form. Firstly, the impetus for such production typically lays in the historical context of the document, and is derived from the particular concerns of the moment. This is visible in both the 1948 Declaration, and the 1997 Declaration of Human Responsibilities. The latter also acknowledges its own provenance in the 50th Anniversary of the former, judging this as ‘…an opportune time to adopt a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, which would complement the Human Rights Declaration and strengthen it…The following draft of human responsibilities seeks to bring freedom and responsibility into balance and to promote a move from the freedom of indifference to the freedom of involvement.’ [3]

Unsurprisingly, the differentiated character and purpose of the two documents is attributable to their respective political contexts. The preamble to the 1948 Declaration asserts that recognition of humankind’s inalienable rights  ‘...is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’[4] There are many reasons for locating the provenance of these principles in the denial of human rights, which occurred before, during, and following the Second World War. The right to equality before the law, to racial equality, to gender equality, to name but three, all of which had measures of implicit or notional priority before the 1939-45 conflict, now became more explicit claims. This is obviously not to suggest that they became settled principles of government, or social policy: but an important precedent and benchmark had been projected. The 1948 Declaration therefore contributed to processes with a much longer trajectory, in which social class was the first barrier to be challenged, along with that of the right to political enfranchisement, followed by those of gender inequality and racial discrimination. To these may now be added the rights of the disabled, gay rights, and now freedom from discrimination around age such as children’s rights and those of the elderly.  As with all such barriers, the government response and ease of concession has been variegated, diffuse, and gradual.

In comparison with its 1948 predecessor, the 1997 declaration was formulated against a background of accelerating and intensifying claims to a much broader range of rights, mostly undreamt of 50 years earlier. A burgeoning range of highly segmented – and from some perspectives specious  - causes has exposed natural rights theory to increasing scepticism. Debates around such issues as gay inclusiveness, the morality of security surveillance and true extent of animal rights all illustrate this.[5]  The 1997 Declaration also attempts to engage more fully with the economic implications of the rights issue, implicit in the move towards globalization. ‘Globalization of the world economy is matched by global problems, and global problems demand global solutions on the basis of ideas, values and norms respected by all cultures and societies.’[6] In a sense then the 1997 declaration recognizes that much older moral dilemmas are being revived by superficially modernizing conditions.  For example, it is difficult not to acknowledge the resonances of nineteenth-century political economy in some of the document’s pronouncements on the creation and distribution of profit. ‘All property and wealth must be used responsibly in accordance with justice and for the advancement of the human race. Economic and political power must not be handled as an instrument of domination, but in the service of economic justice and of the social order.’[7] Whilst the moral strength of this statement is undeniable, it is more problematical to locate it in a realistic or cogent system of ethics, or align it with corporate social responsibility. As Altman indicates, from a Kantian position, ‘…a corporation can have no responsibility at all. Insofar as it is a tool, and a good tool performs its designated function well, a good corporation maximizes profits for its shareholders.’[8] As contemporary CEO’s and boardrooms understand, this is not a vague guiding principle, but a central and urgent tenet of corporate governance. Whilst it cannot be assumed that shareholders will not exert pressure for the maintenance of ethical standards, such vigilance is variable and mediated through the nature of the business in question. For example, it is far easier to maintain an ethical portfolio in organic agriculture, than in petrochemicals. Generally speaking, boardrooms have little latitude in ethical dilemmas, and he – or she – who hesitates is lost, as Monks and Minow point out:  ‘...shareholders should attempt to maximise contestability in the corporate paradigm by seeking board members who will replace under-performing managers when necessary, and by replacing board members who will not accept this responsibility’[9].  The growing presence of private equity firms and activist investors means that only a very slight anomaly in corporate profitability can trigger the most acute and protracted scrutiny of its operations, assuring that it is unlikely to be ignored.  As one activist firm puts it, ‘…Activism to a large extent is trying to truncate risk by eliminating the misallocation of capital, which is less likely when those responsible truly act as if they're spending their own money…’[10].  Ethical responsibility cannot of course be located only in the creation of shareholder value. Shareholders themselves are merely the risk-bearers in the realization of the enterprise, which relies, ultimately, on the end purchaser for its day-by-day reproduction. This is equally true whether the firm is engaged in business to business, or consumer facing transactions. Somehow, somewhere, these relations can be traced back to some form of consumption by, or for, the general consumer public, making all – at least those living in the developed world - complicit in the enterprise.

If this is accepted, then the 1997 declaration’s   pronouncement on economic responsibilities begins to appear narrow and skewed: ‘Economic and political power must not be handled as an instrument of domination, but in the service of economic justice and of the social order.’ [11]

This will of course depend on the precise location of economic power, and agreed interpretations of economic justice. Governments are charged with the distribution of wealth but cannot themselves create it, since this remains the function of private individuals, firms and corporations. Furthermore, economic justice remains a subjective definition, mediated through the motives and abilities of the individual. The same dilemma is arguably present in the declaration’s pronouncement on economic independence and self-help. ‘All people, given the necessary tools, have a responsibility to make serious efforts to overcome poverty, malnutrition, ignorance, and inequality. They should promote sustainable development all over the world in order to assure dignity, freedom, security and justice for all people. [12]

In locating economic responsibility with the individual, the declaration echoes the kind of Third Way neo-liberalism, which has underpinned centre-right economic thought in a pervasive way. Although obviously formulated to exhort individuals in the developing world to greater activity, it also expresses the kind of moral – rather than economic – paternalism, which has featured in developed-world social policy.  For example, as Jordan observed, ‘The Blair government…tackled the legacy of the Thatcher-Major years  - issues of inequality, division and conflict – by redefining social justice in terms of “opportunity” and “community”.’ [13]

Similar expectations are perceptible in the ethical debates around involvement in military conflicts, such as US and UK involvement in the Iraq war. As Falks observes, ‘Global statecraft was, and still is, firmly in the hands of a political leadership that overwhelmingly embraced a realist or Machiavellian ethos with respect to international law and morality. As the cold war unfolded, security was considered the core national interest in the countries of both the East and West, which left little room for the independent promotion of humane values in intergovernmental settings.’ [14]

In a post-Cold War environment, the substitution of economic globalization as a determinant of national interests and security has done little to diminish this alleged Machiavellian zeitgeist. The case of conflict over resources provides a useful model of this mechanism. For example, the U.S. led war in Iraq prompts fierce criticism of coalition governments on the grounds that they have misrepresented the reasons for involvement in Iraqi affairs. The specifics of this preponderate on suspicions about the control of energy resources (oil), and extend beyond the oil reserves of Iraq itself, to those of the entire region. Thus, the logic flows, through removal of Saddam Hussein, the US acquired proxy control of the Iraqi supplies, and a significant role in the  ‘energy politics’ of the Gulf region. However, the question as to exactly how governments and individuals can be held accountable is one which the 1997 declaration skirts cautiously, in pronouncements spread across several articles.   Article 14 for example declares that, ‘The freedom of the media to inform the public and to criticize institutions of society and governmental actions, which is essential for a just society, must be used with responsibility and discretion. Freedom of the media carries a special responsibility for accurate and truthful reporting. Sensational reporting that degrades the human person or dignity must at all times be avoided. [15]

It should perhaps be borne in mind here that signatories and supporters of the 1997 declaration are themselves drawn from former premieres and other political elite figures, quite likely to be highly sensitized to journalistic incursion.  The interplay of these two interest groups – government and the media – was brought into sharp relief by the death of Dr. Gerald Kelly, the reporting of the latter by the BBC, and subsequent Hutton enquiry. The BBC, through its reporters, suggested that Dr.Kelly may have haplessly contributed to his own death in his framing of intelligence from Iraq, a vital component in the British government’s justification for war against the latter. If Kelly’s evidence supported the idea that government had ‘sexed up’ the information to ensure grounds for mobilization, then his life – or so the logic of the BBC story argued – was in danger from the British authorities. The resulting furor saw both the latter, and the BBC, with its credentials on the line. Although Hutton substantially exonerated the government, he told the BBC that its governors ‘…should have recognised more fully than they did that their duty to protect the independence of the BBC was not incompatible with giving proper consideration to whether there was validity in the Government's complaints…’[16].

There was nevertheless enough in the report to suggest that a more judicious government approach – or one less vulnerable to American pressure – might have demanded more concrete evidence that weapons of mass destruction actually existed in Iraq. It is also interesting to speculate on the extent to which either the BBC or the government were exonerated of wrongdoing by Hutton, in underlying public perceptions.

In the final analysis, the 1997 declaration provides rather equivocal guidance on such issues. ‘Every person has a responsibility to speak and act truthfully. No one, however high or mighty, should speak lies. The right to privacy and to personal and professional confidentiality is to be respected. No one is obliged to tell all the truth to everyone all the time.[17] The dissonance between the necessity of constant truthfulness and discretionary honesty will come as no surprise to critics of official duplicity: again it is worth reflecting that the provenance of the 1997 declaration lies predominantly with professional politicians. It is, however, a highly realistic and pertinent illustration of how such mechanisms operate. At the time of writing, a potentially more damaging impasse   - even than the Hutton/BBC example - is developing for the British government, judiciary, and industry. This has been raised by allegations of ‘irregular payments’ within the UK/Saudi/BAE al-Yamamah arms deal. In 2006 a Serious Fraud Office investigation into suspected bribery of Saudi officials was stopped by the (then) Prime Minister Tony Blair, on the grounds of national security. In a recent case brought against the S.F.O. by anti-corruption pressure groups, Lord Justice Moses observed that ‘No one….is entitled to interfere with the course of our justice. It is the failure of government and the defendant to bear that essential principle in mind that justifies the intervention of this court.’[18]

Two points become clear when assessing these developments against the pronouncements of the 1997 declaration. Firstly, it seems unlikely that the authors intended their clause on the discretionary nature of honesty to be extended to the protection of corrupt officials, whether on the UK or Saudi side. Secondly, it seems reasonable to assume that this is precisely the kind of discretionary facility which Tony Blair and his allies would see as appropriate when operated in this case. It is specifically alleged that, if pressed on matters of corruption, the Saudi’s would withdraw logistical and intelligence support which would comprise both Gulf and UK homeland security. It was almost as if a kind of diplomatic immunity was being extended to elements of the corporate procurement community. The official line here obviously relies on the ultimate brinkmanship: establishing the probity of its claims relies on publication of the facts, which would also breach security and run counter to the salus populi. The whole community is therefore enlisted as a proxy stakeholder in the decision to withhold the information from the judiciary: the complicity here lays, not in overtly pressing for the maintenance of secrecy, but the failure to insist on publication. As Zyglidopoulos and Fleming argue, ‘Closing the distance between a corrupt act and its lived consequences (and thus one’s position in the continuum of destructiveness) is generally considered to be a function of broader contextual mechanisms like socialization, peer pressure and other enlisting forces.’[19]

It may also be helpful here to refer to Fischer and Lovell’s assessment of what they deem ‘act utilitarianism’. ‘One danger of Utilitarianism, which cost-benefit analysis is designed to address, is that organizations seek to maximise a good rather than the good.’ (Fischer and Lovell, 2006: p.131). In this instance, ‘a good’ lays in the preservation of national security from an unknown evil, whilst ‘the good’, the maintenance of honesty, integrity and trustworthiness, has been judged a lesser priority. This would appear to contradict the 1997 declaration’s own prescription that ‘…the rule of law and the promotion of human rights depend on the readiness of men and women to act justly....’[20] It is very difficult here to escape the logic of Burke’s injunction, that mere inaction on the part of ‘good’ is sufficient for the triumph of ‘evil’.  This is perhaps not what the 1997 declaration intended to say, however the prescription nevertheless remains available to the unscrupulous.

In conclusion, it may be argued that one of the most imperative of all responsibilities is that of individuals and societies to adopt ethical standards, and to genuinely accept the personal and societal implications of those standards. It may also be argued that, at present, these objectives have been marginalized in favour of lesser ones, in which individual responsibilities are delegated to governments, the expectation being that the latter can exercise them vicariously on behalf of their subjects or citizens. This is a reasonable expectation, up to the point at which it incorporates the idea that individuals can continue patterns of behaviour, which are incompatible with the standards which governments are somehow expected to uphold. This may be conceptualized as a form of ‘moral offsetting’, a substitution of unethical for ethical behaviour elsewhere: the paraphrasing of ‘carbon offsetting’ is quite deliberate here, since the moral variant imitates the carbon model by hoping to mitigate ethical lapses through compensatory actions elsewhere. As with the carbon model, the ethical model is specious: remote offsetting of carbon emissions cannot totally mitigate the greenhouse gases we produce, since they will still remain in the atmosphere to contribute to climate change.  The same is arguably true of ‘moral offsetting’ in which citizens abrogate their ethical duties to the state, with the expectation that they can live their lives unaltered. They deliberately overlook the fact that this continuation relies implicitly on the maintenance of economic and political systems inimical to their own expectations. Environmental issues provide a useful illustration of this dilemma, especially when viewed from the perspective of teleological ethics. Article seven of the 1997 declaration states that ‘….The animals and the natural environment also demand protection. All people have a responsibility to protect the air, water and soil of the earth for the sake of present inhabitants and future generations.’[21]

When it comes to mitigating the effects of developed societies on the environment, it could be argued that neither governments nor voter-consumers develop a true teleology within their argument. Instead, they revert to an interpretation best adapted to their own position. In other words, governments have a default recourse to the discourse of sustainable development, but cannot accommodate the socio-political effects of genuinely significant measures. As Monbiot indicates, ‘…If a government allows air travel to continue, for example, the effects are delayed, diffuse, and hard to blame on any one source. If by contrast it restricts or reverses the growth in flights, the effects are immediately attributable to its actions. Everyone knows who is responsible…’ [22]

Meanwhile, the majority of the electorate holds environmental protection desirable only if accomplished without disruption of the industrialised economy, and their own consumption within it. There is a very little moral or ethical high ground available to those living in the developed world, when the totality of reproduction and consumption relies implicitly on unsustainable growth. This makes it all the more comforting to accept the views of apologists like Hart, who argues that, ‘…Properly focused, the profit motive can accelerate (not inhibit) the transformation toward global sustainability, with nonprofits, governments and multinational agencies all playing crucial roles as collaborators and watchdogs.’[23] It would take an extremely benign and optimistic interpretation of the 1997 declaration to envisage its production of such a desirable state of affairs. It is not so much that we are exercising the wrong choices, but that, as the following extract suggests, the exercise of choice in itself demonstrates the reliance on unsustainable practices.   ‘On the issue of carbon emissions, Maxwell contends, citing research by the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that half the total environmental impact of food transport is caused by individual consumer shopping trips - in fact, Maxwell says, more than the impact of transporting it from overseas. And there is the issue of jobs in developing countries. In Kenya alone, more than 1m jobs depend on exporting fresh produce to the UK.’ [24]

 

In Benthamite utilitarian terms, achievement of the greatest happiness may unfortunately be the most costly to those least able to bear it. In its concluding article, the 1997 declaration acknowledges its status as a developmental or intermediate instrument built upon the foundations of the 1948 document. ‘Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any state, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the responsibilities, rights and freedom set forth in this Declaration and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948’[25] This is a point not without significance. One of the implicit assumptions of the later document is that the basic freedoms achieved through the principles of 1948 may now be safely augmented, by balancing responsibilities. This is all very well if the challenges of globalization, energy security and sustainability may be faced collectively, rather than perceived as segmented issues in which discrete national communities must compete for survival. It was in such a context that the most culpable denials of human rights were exhibited prior to 1948, and the impetus for universality of rights was produced. The main question to be answered is whether that universality, the enabling principle of the United Nations declaration, can withstand the renewal of nationalism.

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[1] United Nations,  A Declaration of universal Human Rights, Adopted and proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948,  Article 29.

[2] Falk, R., (2000), Human Rights Horizons: The Pursuit of Justice in a Globalizing World, Routledge, London, p.189

[3] Interaction Council, (1997) A Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, INTERNET, available at http://www.interactioncouncil.org/udhr/declaration/udhr.pdf, n.p.

[4] United Nations,  A Declaration of universal Human Rights, Adopted and proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948, INTERNET, available at http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html [viewed 15.6.08], n.p.

[5] Odone, C., ‘Children are ignored in Gay Adoption Row’, Daily Telegraph, INTERNET, available at

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2007/01/23/do2304.xml [viewed 25.6.08], n.p.

[6] Interaction Council, loc cit, n.p

[7] Ibid, Article 11.

[8] Altman, M.C., (2007) ‘The Decomposition of the Corporate Body’,  Journal of Business Ethics,  Vol.74, No.3, pp.253-266, Springer, USA, p.261

[9] R. Monks and N. Minow, (2004), Corporate Governance,   Basil Blackwell,  Oxford,  p.516.

[10] Tilson, W., ‘Activist shareholders are here to stay - and investors should be glad.’, Financial Times,  Oct 12, 2007, INTERNET available at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/610ade00-78cd-11dc-aaf2-0000779fd2ac.html   [viewed 15.6.08] n.p.

[11] Interaction Council, loc  cit., Article 11.

[12] Ibid., Article 9.

[13] Jordan, B., (2001), ‘Tough Love: Social Work, Social Exclusion and the Third Way’, British Journal of Social Work, 31, Open University Press, pp.527-546, p.527.

[14] Falk, R., (2000), Human Rights Horizons: The Pursuit of Justice in a Globalizing World, Routledge  London,  p.198.

[15] Interaction Council, (1997), A Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities,   INTERNET, available at http://www.interactioncouncil.org/udhr/declaration/udhr.pdf, Article 14, n.p.

 

[16] Hutton, R., (2004) Return to an Address of the Honourable the House of Commoms
dated 28th January 2004
for the Report
of
the Inquiry into the Circumstances
Surrounding the Death of Dr David Kelly C.M.G.by
Lord Hutton, INTERNET, available at  http://www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk/content/report/chapter08.htm#a56 [viewed 15.6.08], n.p.

[17] Interaction Council, (1997), A Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities,   INTERNET, available at http://www.interactioncouncil.org/udhr/declaration/udhr.pdf, Article  12.

[18] Boyle, C., ‘Serious Fraud Office challenges court ruling on BAE Systems inquiry’, The Times,     23 April 2008, INTERNET, available at http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/engineering/article3799039.ece [viewed 15.6.08], n.p

[19] Zyglidopoulos, S.C., anf Fleming, P.J., (2008), ‘Ethical Distance in Corrupt Firms’, Journal of Business Ethics , Vol.78, pp.265-274.

[20] Interaction Council,  loc cit., Preamble

[21] Interaction Council, loc cit.,  Article 7.

[22] Monbiot, G., (2007),  Heat: How We Can Stop The Planet Burning,  Penguin, London, p.22.

[23] Hart, S.L., (2007), Capitalism at the Crossroads:  Aligning Business, Earth and Humanity, 2nd Edition, Wharton, Upper Saddle River, N.J., p.3.

[24] Lander, N., ‘FT WEEKEND SUPPLEMENT - LIFE & ARTS: The global local food market’, Financial Times,  
Published: Jun 14, 2008, INTERNET, available at  http://search.ft.com/nonFtArticle?id=080614000205&ct=0 [viewed 25.6.08], n.p.

[25] Interaction Council, loc cit., , Article  19.