Responsibility: the backbone of twenty-first century ethics
The story behind the ‘Earth Charter’ and the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Responsibility’
Pierre CALAME, March 2020
Can we agree on a common ethics at a world level in the twenty-first century? During the nineteenth century, Western society developed the concept of limited liability to help and develop entrepreneurship, but that, combined with the sovereignty of states, it has given way to an « illimited irresponsibility » of our societies, the fact that no one can be liable for the destruction of the biosphere being a perfect illustration. Responsibility is the backbone of twenty-first century ethics.
Can we agree on common values at a world level in the twenty-first century? Is the Earth Charter the possible common ground? What is the relationship between personal ethos and collective values? What are the next steps? These are some of the issues I would like to briefly address, having devoted a lot of time and energy to them over the last thirty years.
It hapens that according to a wish of Maurice Strong, I have been one of the two European members of the Earth Charter Commission since 1996 (the other one being Ruud Lubbers, former Prime Minister of the Netherlands and a strong supporter of Maurice and of the Earth Charter). I have always expressed strong reservations about the scope and the draft of the Earth Charter, and it is only because Maurice Strong and Mikhail Gorbachev (represented by Alexander Likhotal) so wanted to have a consensus among the Commission members that I ultimately agreed to say yes to the draft at a UNESCO meeting, given that I could not make further edits.
Let me start with the second question: is the Earth Charter a possible common ground? I do not think so. The Earth Charter has its own history. To put it in a nutshell, it all started with the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, for which Maurice Strong served as Secretary-General. The conference’s organizers pointed out that the two pillars of the « international community,” the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, contained nothing on the issue of the environment and the biosphere. And so the idea of an Earth Charter to complement them was born. The Earth Charter would not be about creating a new global ethics but about filling a gap, and organizers hoped that it would be endorsed by the International Community, thus becoming a new foundation for international law. Maurice Strong firmly carried this perspective when he became the Secretary-General of the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, and in the two or three years before the Summit took place, many Earth Charter drafts flourished. Unfortunately, the heads of state of the inter-governmental (rather than global) summit in Rio were not ready to endorse any strong text to serve as the « third pillar, » and Maurice was extremely disappointed by this defeat. The third pillar was replaced by an Agenda with very limited real commitments and no basis for the development of a compelling international law relative to the protection of the biosphere.
This is the reason why Maurice had to change his strategy. He created the Earth Charter Institute and started relying on civil society, grassroot organizations, and occasionally big business, rather than governments. Therefore, the Earth Charter became something completely different: an « educational document » aiming to raise consciousness on the issue of biospheric integrity. In so doing, we would lose the grounding in international law and would take the risk of reducing the Charter to an « environmental document. » The will also to be « operational” drove the drafting Committee (at the beginning, the Commission was much more of a window dressing than a real pilot of the process) to combine in the same document very general principles and concrete recommendations, which was fine for an educational tool but not for a long-lasting document. I did my best to introduce social issues along with environmental ones, but the document remained strongly influenced by its origin.
At the same moment, in the ‘Alliance for a Responsible and United World’, we were convinced that we needed such a third pillar as we would need to agree on common values at the global level, if we were to assume collectively the main common challenges we face in an interdependent world. And we thought that in a new multi-polar era, it would not be possible to « impose » our “western” values on the rest of the world as we did in 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted with the inspiration of René Cassin and Eleanor Roosevelt and endorsed by an « international community, » which was, to make it short, the winners of World War II. And we remained convinced that even though the strategy had failed in 1992, we still badly needed a compelling document to underlie future international law. For us, the « biosphere » was certainly a key issue but not the starting point of the quest. And one must remember that during final decades of the twentieth century, many similar efforts took place, mostly from Christian origin (such as Hans Küng’s Foundation for a Global Ethic), but also strongly supported by Federico Mayor as CEO of UNESCO, in order to identify « universal values.
The Alliance working group on this issue adopted a strong interfaith and intercultural perspective and came to the conclusion that the backbone of twenty-first century ethics would be Responsibility. It is truly universal since being liable for one’s own deeds towards the other members of the community is the very definition of what a community is. As we were moving towards a global community, we had to develop a new understanding of what responsibility was.
We recognized that, during the nineteenth century, Western society developed the concept of limited liability to help and develop entrepreneurship, but that, combined with the sovereignty of states, it has given way to an « illimited irresponsibility » of our societies, the fact that no one can be liable for the destruction of the biosphere being a perfect illustration. We then came to a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibility (initially conceived as a ‘Charter of Human Responsibilities’), which is the real counterpart of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. During the last few years, we started a collaboration with esteemed jurists to see what could be the common ground for future international law. My book devoted to this question is in the process of being published, in French. It starts from the fact that common ethics covers three levels: the personal level; the collective level of each stakeholder; the normative level. Responsibility is the common ground for these three levels.