Human Rights and Human Responsibilities in the Age of Terrorism

High-Level Expert Group Meeting 

1-2 April 2005

Santa Clara University, California, U. S. A.

Chaired by Malcolm Fraser

1.      Since Magna Carta, since the adoption of Habeas Corpus, there has been a long march toward the liberty of individual citizens.  In the 20th century efforts have been focused on establishing basic rights and the Rule of Law throughout the wider international community.  Fearing a clash of civilizations and to reinforce moves toward a law-based world, the InterAction Council convened a meeting in Rome in 1987 where the world’s major religions were represented at a high level.  The purpose was to decide whether an ethical statement could be drafted that was acceptable to all religions and to all faiths.

2.      Out of this discussion evolved a common view about what is needed for a peaceful, cohesive and constructive society, where discrimination and prejudice can be brushed aside. With the advice of philosophers and religious leaders, the InterAction Council drafted in 1997 a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, which is a statement of ethical principles. It states the responsibilities and obligations of all persons and all states.

3.      It was and still is our view that if major states can be persuaded to accept such a statement, it would become an important companion declaration to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We believed that an acceptance of universal “responsibilities” would enhance the acceptance of human rights around the world.

4.      The InterAction Council’s Declaration was not initially accepted by the human rights community. Some argued that it was already extremely challenging to persuade nations to accept their obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that a second declaration would confuse the issue and obstruct efforts to promote adherence to the Human Rights declaration. Others argued that some states would use a draft Statement on Responsibilities in a repressive or even a reactionary fashion. Some believed the Declaration on Responsibilities was a matter for individual and not governmental action; therefore it would be wrong for governments to be prescriptive about what individuals should or should not do. Furthermore, many human rights advocates argued that existing international instruments already address the importance of responsibilities, such as in Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

5.      Since the war on terror began, many democratic states have diminished human rights in an effort to combat terrorism. This movement which is substantial in some states underlines the need to reinforce the human rights movement and to reverse this discouraging trend. A broader acceptance of responsibilities of a common ethic would assist greatly in this process.

6.      Establishing a common ethic is a task long overdue.

7.      This ethic calls for a responsible balancing of security and the rule of law. The speed with which governments in the West, after 9/11, turned their backs on Due Process and the Rule of Law, and the speed with which they embraced the methods and techniques of tyrants greatly disturbs us. In particular we believe that governments have gone too far toward attempting to provide security by infringing upon the rights of the innocent, shifting the burden of proof, and removing due process. Too easily, some world leaders have accepted the idea that liberty cannot be defended by the principles of liberty. 

8.      These events demonstrate that a debate about responsibilities and ethics is an urgent necessity today for all countries, but in particular for Western democracies. 

9.      Human rights are the possession of all people including future generations and they are inalienable. But without leaders and governments making ethical decisions that allow citizens the opportunity to enjoy those rights, the goals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will not be achieved. The international community would do better in the war against terror if it could demonstrate that the war can be fought while respecting and implementing rights and responsibilities.

10.   The concept of human responsibility is nothing new. For millennia, western and eastern philosophers have discussed responsibilities before the discussion of rights began. They have taught about the necessity for internal transformation in order to discipline our human emotions. The issue of reviving responsibility is especially crucial today.

11.   We are facing a crisis of responsibility. In field after field, individuals have failed to embrace a sense of ethics in their every day lives.  In recent headlines from every domain, there are examples of political leaders who have misled deliberately or inadvertently, corporate leaders who have lied, auditors who have assisted in that lying, reporters who fabricate stories and church leaders who have failed to provide moral examples.

12.   Responsibility and rights are deeply intertwined. With rights, there are responsibilities for each of us. Our society would disappear without individuals paying their taxes; it would not function without individuals fulfilling their contracts. Society thrives on trust and personal conscience. The first defence of civilization is the internal ethics of each and every one of us. The second defence is the maintenance of the rule of law.

13.   It is certainly the responsibility of states and political leaders to provide reasonable security and stability. Security is particularly crucial today in the age of terrorism; however, we all must remember how economic and social situations threaten security and lead to terrorism. We share a responsibility for the way in which that protection is achieved. Today, certain states practice and justify torture in the name of security. Conventions on international human rights must be strengthened because of that torture. Yet there is little outrage from this derogation of basic human rights.

14.   What is required in the global architecture is a document which outlines core principles of moral responsibility, a code of ethics and responsibility which places a premium on truth, respect for every individual, and concern for the security and well being of all. This code will engage the moral compass of our leaders. The problem with international machinery is not the law or the treaties, but the absence of political will. The failure of that political will underlines the need for a publicly stated code of ethics.

15.   We remember that the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights began as a series of principles, not law. In the same way, our document on responsibility also starts with principles. The two concepts of rights and responsibility are complementary. One is a pre-condition of the other. If human rights and decent societies are to be experienced and enjoyed all – individuals, institutions, corporations, and governments -- must behave responsibly. A code of ethics is essential to re-establishing the primacy of human rights.

16.   In a time when we talk about the clash of civilizations, the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities is especially important because it was derived from the golden rule of all of the major religions – Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Taoism. The Declaration offers an ethical orientation of everyday life which is as comprehensive as it is fundamental. This is the basic demand: the Golden Rule “what you do not wish to be done to yourself, do not do to others” and “do unto others as you would have them to unto you.”   We have never needed it more.

17.   A World Charter on Responsibility, adopted by the United Nations, would not have legal force. But like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it will be a light on the hill. It would be a beacon of hope for the wide acceptance of a common world ethic. 


18.   A) Because it is essential to gain the support of the human rights community for an international code of ethics, and because of concerns expressed in the past regarding competition with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the name of the InterAction Council’s document should be changed to the World Charter on Responsibility.

B) If the Council accepts a change in the title of the document, a small committee should be established to examine criticisms made since1997 to see if alterations should be made to the Declaration.

19.   Because of the reaction of many states in the war against terror, it is all the more necessary to advance the concept of human responsibilities. The InterAction Council should make a renewed commitment to propagate the Charter worldwide – in both the public and private sectors.

20.   If our objective is to be achieved, it will be through a paradigm shift in attitude. We must ensure that those in positions of responsibility can regain public trust essential to a new worldwide culture of ethical leadership.