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Roadmap for the International Endorsement of a Charter of Universal Responsibilities


by Pierre Calame

Our participation at the Thematic Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil (January 24 to 29, 2012), gave us a clearer view of the next steps to take for the advancement of the Charter of Universal Responsibilities. “Rio+20,” the UN Conference on climate change to be held in Rio de Janeiro in June, is the next stop to put responsibility, and more specifically co-responsibility, at the core of common ethics to be adopted for the global community. We are feeling optimistic! Join us by signing our Call on Governments to support the Charter of Universal Responsibilities (click here to find out how to sign).


Since the first international conference on environment in Stockholm, 40 years ago, it has become clear that the two pillars of the international community—the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—are not sufficient to deal with the growing interdependence among societies and between humanity and the biosphere. Given the current incapacity of our societies to curb the dominant development model and of the international intergovernmental community to make the most needed decisions to protect our future, the adoption of a third pillar has become urgent. As things stand now, governments, international corporations, and big finance institutions are only accountable to their own constituencies—national voters, shareholders, and national jurisdictions—regardless of their impact on the rest of the world.

Over the years, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been the starting point to define these rights in a broader sense, including economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights, which are part of human dignity and social justice. This claim for rights remains ineffective, however, when these rights are not opposable to any institution: responsibility is the hidden face of rights. A fair balance between rights and responsibilities is at the core of any true democracy and biocivilization.

All the thinking on the great transition that we are facing with the shortcomings of the present development model underscores the fact that underlying the different crises there is an ethical crisis, with personal short-term material interests and violent power relations being celebrated by current economic and political ideology at the expense of relations of reciprocity, compassion, and caring, among human beings, among societies, and between humanity and nature.

We need common ethics to run our only and fragile planet. This common ethics must be deeply rooted in our different cultures, philosophical or religious traditions, and reflect the interconnectedness of our universe. Responsibility is at the core of this common ethics, as reciprocity, caring, and management of the commons have always been the conditions for being part of a community. Therefore, even the poorest persons and communities claim not only their rights but also their responsibility, toward children, elderly persons, and the commons as the expression of being a citizen.

Responsibility is also the core of any social contract between a socioprofessional group and the rest of society, be they scientists, professionals, journalists, civil servants, educators, farmers and fishermen, servicemen, or children, etc., mitigating corporatist or sectorial interests or loyalty to a limited community with awareness of being part of a larger one. The very concept of co-responsibility reflects this idea of a social contract from the local to the global level.

Over the last fifteen years, all international negotiations have failed even when our long-term survival is at stake, as is the case for climate change. Considering the heterogeneity of the member states of the UN, all the major states have opted for consensus conferences with a de facto veto right for each and every country. International negotiations have therefore become mere bargaining sessions among leaders geared only by their so-called national interests and claiming their sovereignty. They have become truly irresponsible toward the common good. This cannot be changed unless the international community truly acknowledges our global interdependence and its corollary, the principle of universal responsibility.

Ethics is the link between personal inner convictions, which orient our choices and help us solve our ethical dilemmas, and the law, which is the expression of binding rules agreed upon by a community for personal and collective behavior. Common ethics are meant to influence personal choices and to orient the law. A Charter of Universal Responsibility will stimulate responsible behavior at the individual and collective levels, be a common ethical reference for the different communities, institutions, stakeholders, and persons in position of power and authority, and the basis for international and national laws.

Therefore, we representatives of the global civil society meeting in Porto Alegre :
- urge the governments that will participate at the Rio+20 conference in June 2012 to put on the agenda of the conference, as part of the institutional-framework agenda, the discussion of the attached draft of a Charter of Universal Responsibilities and the adoption of a roadmap for an international endorsement by the UN General Assembly of a binding charter within the next three years;
- support the call on governments issued by the international Ethics & Responsibilities network and will circulate it through our different networks;
- and, as a beginning for this process, suggest that at the occasion of the Rio+20 Conference, climate change be declared a threat to international security, thus opening the possibility for the General Assembly and the Security Council of the United Nations, successively, to deliberate and take their responsibilities in this matter.

Porto Alegre
January 28, 2012

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Charter draft

Illustration by Steve A Johnson

Published on: 7 March 2012
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