Toward an Enhanced Partnership: Human Responsibility in the 21st Century

Executive Summary

This paper reviews “A Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities,” proposed by the InterAction Council in 1997, in light of the current political and social context. Since its development, new issues have emerged, some of which have brought a more serious impact vis-à-vis previous years. New challenges in the 21st century include terrorism, climate change, resource shortage, digital divide and internet violence. Furthermore, issues of poverty and disease have remained unsolved, and threats to human beings have emerged with increasing instability of a globalized market.  

In dealing with these new challenges, this paper suggests the following measures:

  • Terrorism: No type of terrorism can be justified for any political reason in case of posing threats to lives of others.
  • Climate Change: Extensive participation in efforts to prevent global warming, or any type of environmental degradation which are detrimental to living conditions or lives of individuals is a critical agenda of human responsibility.
  • Resource Shortage: Safe access to energy, food and water resources should be provided for. This is particularly true when shortage can threaten basic living conditions. It is an important human responsibility to respect the rights of others’ access to proper resources and to devise methods to prevent isolation of individuals from necessary supplies.  
  • Digital Divide and Internet Violence: Technological development should assist everyone to have proper access of IT resources which have the potential of increasing future common prosperity. However, measures to prevent internet violence need to be developed. Respect for others should also be applied to a virtual on-line world.
  • Poverty and Disease: Absolute poverty issues still need more attention from the international society. It is an urgent human responsibility to provide aid to those suffering from absolute poverty and disease.
  • Instability of the Global Market: Human responsibility should include efforts to stabilize the global economy, further allowing it to become more constructive, leading to enhancement of prosperity for all participants.

As a way of enhancing human responsibility, this paper suggests the following principles:

  • Actors: Concerted efforts and mutually reinforcing cooperation among the state, business, civil society, and individuals are prerequisites for enhancing human responsibility in the 21st century, with special emphasis on the role of leader in this context.
  • Task: Human responsibility should be enriched through cultural exchanges. Common ethical standards should be built on foundations of tolerance and respect for other cultures which will, in return, nurture a more mature value system.
  • Method: The foundation of human responsibility should be based on education. In addition, media should support the spread of human responsibility and should not mobilize hatred against others.

Part I. Introduction

1.     Changing Environment in the 21th Century

A decade has passed since “A Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities (hereafter the Declaration)” was first proposed by the InterAction Council in 1997. The Declaration specifically pointed out the pillars of human obligation as: Balancing the notions of freedom and responsibility;  Fundamental Principles for Humanity; Non-Violence and Respect for Life; Justice and Solidarity; Truthfulness and Tolerance; Mutual Respect and Partnership. It also emphasized the right to life, liberty, security, political participation, just and favorable working condition, freedom of thought, education and earth’s natural resources.

These tenets are still valid today. During the past decade, however, a number of major events have evolved within world politics and economy. In 1997, many Asian economies were hit by an unprecedented financial crisis. In 1999, an anti-globalization movement was visualized in Seattle, initiating a heated debate on globalization. In 2001, the 9.11 terrorist attacks advanced a crucial turning point in world politics. The US engaged in War on Afghanistan and, in the following year, the War on Iraq. Terrorist threats have been growing in many parts of the world—Madrid, Bali, London, etc. Oil and gas prices have risen at an accelerated speed since mid-2000 and in recent months have been replacing highest record prices almost every other day. Meanwhile, attention to climate change has been significantly amplified. Kyoto Protocol came into effect and a number of countries have been attempting to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In spite of the overall growth in the world economy, human security issues—i.e. poverty, disease, HIV, etc.—continue to prevail in a number of countries and need to be cared for by the international society. The spread of the internet is certainly a beneficial factor that drives globalization but it also bears problems of online violence and digital divide. In sum, many new agenda have risen during the past decade, calling for more careful attention from the international society.

The Declaration rightly pointed out that “globalization of the world economy is matched by global problems, which needs global solutions based on common ideas, values and norms.” It also noted the fundamental principle of reconciling ideologies, beliefs and political views. However, with the backlash of globalization, it may be necessary to add more thought to the Declaration. Individual lives are often threatened by anonymous trends of globalization and states are not always capable of coping with changes. When people express opinions on globalization, they tend not to give full support and ask for second thoughts.[1] Conflicts of value system have also been noticeable. When globalization spreads rapidly, value systems may either converge or diverge.

Therefore, having a more careful look at the darker side of globalization can enlighten a way to “balance freedom with responsibility” and to “develop the fullest sense of responsibility to guarantee the greatest amount of freedom,” as mentioned in the Declaration. The goals and virtues that the Declaration pursue—i.e., human dignity, truth, justice, harmony, religious coexistence—are achievable only when the world is able to successfully handle the new environment of the 21st century.

2.     Need for an Enlarged Scope for the Human Responsibility

An enlarged scope for human responsibility is required to deal with these new challenges. This paper, therefore, tries to answer “what kinds of human responsibility should we add in the 21st Century?” This next part identifies major new challenges that have emerged and explores measures to cope with them. Most of these issues can be categorized into “non-traditional security” and “sustainable development.” More suggestions for actions to enhance human responsibility will be made in Part III, as the principle of human responsibility is explored in terms of actors, tasks and methods. Most surveys and arguments in this paper reflect approaches in international politics and international political economy. However, the purpose of this paper is moves beyond the boundaries of specific disciplines and attempts to incorporate broader perspectives of social sciences and humanities.

Part II. Coping with New Challenges: Some Suggestions

1.     Terrorism

Since the 9.11 attacks on the World Trade Center, threats from terrorism have been amplified. However, terrorism has had, in fact, a very long history. Recently, a number of terrorist incidents has been witnessed in many parts of the world, depriving many innocent lives of anonymous people, which is why terrorism is an especially serious threat to human beings.

Roots of terrorism vary but recently terrorist incidents have often reflected political and religious reasons. The efforts of InterAction Council to reconcile religions are, in that sense, critical. Approaches undertaken by international society to enhance socio-economic conditions in failing states is also useful. To this end, issues related with terrorism should be fully emphasized in the Declaration:

  • No type of terrorism can be justified for any political reason in case of posing threats to lives of others.

2.     Climate Change

Impacts of environmental degradation often pose direct threats to the lives of human kind. The environmental agenda with utmost concern nowadays is global warming and climate change. Climate change stems from the emission and accumulation of greenhouse gas (GHG) and raises a number of environmental concerns. For example, the rise of sea level, desertification and related natural disasters actually threaten the lives of other people and their living conditions.

The impact of climate change is often cross-border. Therefore, the invisible spread of environmental threats by GHG emissions and subsequent climate change should be dealt as global agenda. Currently, a number of countries are participating in the Kyoto Protocol to accelerate GHG reduction while many other countries pursue their own methods of reducing GHG emission. These efforts should be strengthened in the future and should also be noted as an important element of human responsibility, which should be shared by everybody.[2]

  • Extensive participation in efforts to prevent global warming, or any type of environmental degradation which are detrimental to living conditions or lives of individuals is a critical agenda of human responsibility.

3.     Resources Shortage: Oil, Gas, Food & Water

Proper access to resources necessary for everyday living and economic activity is getting more and more difficult. Compared to a decade ago when oil and gas prices were much more stabilized, the current situation in the global energy market necessitates a more urgent attention to resource shortages and methods of ensuring safe access to energy resources.

Food and water shortage is not less serious. Food prices have risen rapidly during past few years and directly threaten lives of people in many parts of the world. Access to clean water is getting more and more serious in sub-Saharan Africa as well as many regions that have traditionally suffered from water shortage. As such, the intensity of these threats has become increased in the recent decade.

Although the issue of resource shortage was properly mentioned in the Declaration, as the agenda has become much more important, it needs to be reinforced for the future.

  • Safe access to energy, food and water resources should be provided for. This is particularly true when shortage can threaten basic living conditions. It is an important human responsibility to respect the rights of others’ access to proper resources and to devise methods to prevent isolation of individuals from necessary supplies.

4.  Digital Divide and Internet Violence

The development of internet and information technology (IT) has been, without a doubt, a driving force of globalization. The spread of internet has facilitated simultaneous interactions among diverse peoples, which in turn opened a new way of political mobilization, as well as business facilitation and cultural exchanges.

However, digital divide between those who have full access to internet and various IT resources and those who do not benefit from the virtual community is becoming more evident. Digital gap also often results in widening the economic gap. With advancements of technology, more efforts are needed to narrow the digital divide and information gap.

Violence in the virtual community is another important agenda that has emerged as a by-product of the spread of the internet. More freedom is guaranteed in online virtual worlds; responsibilities of users do not match these levels of freedom, allowing people to often attack others under the shield of anonymity. Therefore, respect for others should be expanded not only off-line but also within the realms of the on-line world.

  • Technological development should assist everyone towards proper access of IT resources which have the potential of increasing future common prosperity. However, measures to prevent internet violence need to be developed. Respect for others should also be applied to a virtual on-line world.

5.  Poverty & Disease

Poverty and disease are direct threats to the lives and living conditions of people. A significant number of people continue to live under the poverty line ($1 per day) and they are often caught in a poverty trap which they cannot effectively get out of without external assistance. Alleviation and eradication of absolute poverty has been a main agenda for the international society. The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) led by the United Nations and other aid from numerous international organizations and donor countries have contributed to poverty eradication, but we still observe numbers of humanitarian crises from famine, disease and absolute poverty. We also need to reconsider whether current criteria ($1 per day) indicating absolute poverty is appropriate, or if it should be readjusted to a higher level so that more people near or just above the poverty line could receive more support. The issue of disease should also be considered seriously in tandem with poverty issues.

  • Absolute poverty issues still need more attention from the international society. It is an urgent human responsibility to provide aid to those suffering from absolute poverty and disease.

6.  Instability of the Global Economy

In spite of global market integration and financial liberalization, the world economy still bears a number of instabilities which often threaten the lives of people. As the market requires more competition, (neo) mercantilist perspectives are prevailing in many parts of the world. National interest often comes first, many times at the expense of others. Neo-liberalism and neo-mercantilism are, in fact, maintaining a fragile equilibrium that could be swayed by the rise of strong nationalism. As these competitions intensify, consideration for others becomes even more difficult. Therefore:

  • Human responsibility should include efforts to stabilize the global economy, further allowing it to become more constructive, leading to enhancement of prosperity for all participants.

Part III. Toward an Enhanced Human Responsibility

1.     Who is Responsible?: Concerted Efforts among Stakeholders

Who is responsible for defending and enhancing human responsibility? The ultimate answer points to each and every individual. Human responsibility comes from the free-will of individuals. Nonetheless, the role of a leader is especially important in enhancing human responsibility. In this time and age, many people carefully watch the behaviors of their leaders. Leaders are, therefore, required to meet much higher ethical and moral standards. When they show deep respect for human responsibility, both domestically and internationally, the potential impact they possess could be huge. In this sense, the movement to spread human responsibility should be conducted in a more “top-down” modality, at least during its initiation. Political leaders, business leaders and religious leaders should be able to bring themselves to higher ethical standards of respecting others.

However, as an individual, one is fragmented and fragile in face of a huge global market and international system, thus individuals need to rely on a larger and stronger unit of society. Although it has traditionally been the role of state to protect its citizens and maintain social cohesion, the capacity of the state has waned with the advent of globalization. States are often powerless in front of huge global financial markets, and furthermore, traditional means of economic intervention either lack effectiveness or are heavily regulated by international agreements.

On the other hand, the corporate sector is a forerunner of globalization. While the main function of the corporate sector is to make profits, an important duty is to make a constructive contribution to human responsibility. Corporate social responsibility and good corporate citizenship are common notions that emphasize this contribution. Civil society and NGOs are also becoming major pillars that devise and execute human responsibility.

The acts of civil society are not confined to the domestic level. International organization and institutions should also accelerate efforts to provide a peaceful environment of co-prosperity of human beings. Those who assume the leading role in international society, whether the state, institutions or individuals, should possess a more urgent sense of human responsibility and considerations for others.

In sum, the goal of enhancing human responsibility can not be pursued by a single actor and needs to be pursued by common participation of all stakeholders.

  • Concerted efforts and mutually reinforcing cooperation among the state, business, civil society, and individuals are prerequisites for enhancing human responsibility in the 21st century, with special emphasis on the role of leaders in this context.

2.     What is to be Done?: Common Ethical Standard Based on Tolerance and Relativism

The standard indicators of what is right or wrong often differ according to diverse value systems. It is important to note that so many wars and terrorisms were conducted in the name of “justice.” The Iraq War is a good example of the clash between states engaging in wars on “justice,” in which both the US and Iraq fought the holy war to defend their values. Herein lies the necessity of building a common ethical standard despite the fact that success can never be guaranteed.

Common ethical standards should be based on tolerance and relativist perspectives. Respect for others also contains a respect for others’ way of living and their cultures. No civilization, no culture and no political system can be perfect. Everyone should be aware of the intrinsic imperfectness within value systems. Unilateral demands for ethical and cultural convergence do not nurture tolerance.

Nowadays more people in the world are exposed to more diverse cultures. Tolerance based on the respect of other cultures can, on the other hand, nurture a more matured culture and value system.

  • Human responsibility should be enriched through cultural exchanges. Common ethical standards should be built on foundations of tolerance and respect for other cultures which will, in return, nurture a more mature value system.

3.  How to Do?: Education & Media

Human responsibility should be embedded at the bottom of thoughts and behaviors of mature global citizens. Education, here, takes an important role of strengthening and spreading the recognition of human responsibility. However, ethical values have often been sidelined in a real-world competition to get more material rewards. Future education, therefore, should constantly address the primacy of human responsibility regardless of the political and economic type, also including cultural traits.

The role of media is important in educating citizens. Diverse types of media have more accessibility to people. Media should have a sense of duty in spreading human responsibility to audiences and readers. The media should be able to provide a constructive criticism and constrain from mobilizing hatred.

  • The foundation of human responsibility should be based on education. In addition, media should support the spread of human responsibility rather than mobilizing hatred against others.



[1] The vote on the European Constitution draft in 2005 would be an interesting case for support. Even though it should have been a referendum for the Constitution draft but, as many observers insisted, the debate and the vote expressed a gap between the perception of elites leading the European integration and globalization and the public who had a hesitation on accelerating the globalization and neo-liberal reform.

[2] Under the current climate change regime, advanced countries are supposed to bear the burden of reduction. Even though developing countries have a status not to be imposed by a numeric reduction target, they should also be able to participate in the efforts to prevent climate change by all means.