UN, New York, 43d session of the Commission for Social Development: Statement by the Circle by Adama Diarra on Follow-up to the World Summit (Copenhagen + Ten). Workshop on the same subject convened by the Circle.

Item 3: Follow-up to the World Summit for Social Development and the twenty-fourth special session of the General Assembly

I have the privilege to address this assembly on behalf of the Triglav Circle, an organization created in the aftermath of the World Summit for Social Development to continue the reflection initiated by the Secretariat when it organized in 1994 a seminar on Ethical and Spiritual Dimensions of Social Progress. The Copenhagen text, as you are aware, has a strong and explicit moral dimension. It presents, for example, the eradication of poverty as a moral imperative. And it refers, also explicitly, to the spiritual dimension of the human condition, including by acknowledging that “our societies must respond more effectively to the material and spiritual needs of individuals, their families and the communities in which they live.”

Ten years after, an assessment of the usefulness and relevance, in a United Nations context, of these references to the moral and spiritual dimensions of life in society, will require serious collective effort. In the hope that this effort will be possible in the near future, allow me to make a few remarks.

Today, with perhaps more urgency than yesterday, the public discourse needs to include calls for the respect and application of high moral standards in the conduct of human affairs, by everyone, and most particularly by those in a position of power. High moral standards are straightforward and universally understood. They refer to human decency, to dignity, and to the nobility and generosity of the human spirit. To shy away from articulating these universal values and aspirations is to leave the floor to a vacuous technocratic discourse and its companioning cynical attitudes and practices. To assume that humankind has a “reservoir” of moral principles, which does not need to be constantly replenished and nurtured, is an error that materialist, utilitarian and pragmatic philosophical currents have not been able to avoid.

Words, expressing moral principles and political ideals, are important, and so is their translation into recommended practices and policies. This is the great strength of the text adopted in Copenhagen. The elimination of extreme poverty — linked with the reduction of inequalities, the provision of work and employment opportunities, and respect for human rights in free and open societies — is a moral imperative to be fulfilled through very concrete national and international processes and policies. Those recommended policies include, for example, fair and progressive tax systems, as well as the transformation of current patterns of production and consumption into ways of life that humankind and planet earth can sustain. Neglect, or rejection of these and other policies, led to the persistence of extreme poverty and the deepening of many forms of inequality.

Universality, of principles and ideals, does not mean vagueness and facile adaptability to fundamentally different political ideologies and practices. The moral corpus upon which the United Nations has been built, and the universal values that it has the mandate to promote are demanding. They must not be confused with a vague syncretism.

Although consistent with regard to the translation of proclaimed moral principles into concrete recommended policy measures, the Social Summit agreement was deficient in establishing controls or monitoring mechanisms for the respect of the commitments governments and international organizations made and the degree of implementation of the related policies. During these last ten-years, the Secretariat, NGOs and some governments, through the Commission for Social Development, have voiced their concerns about the rapid side-tracking of these commitments, notably with regard to employment, social integration and the creation of a favorable environment for social development, but they have had no visible impact on prevalent policies.

This is, of course, a general and fundamental problem. The United Nations was never given the means to monitor effectively or to garner respect for its agreements, resolutions and decisions. This deficiency was compounded, recently, by the emphasis on voluntary rather than legally binding and enforceable duties and obligations. And by the affirmation that power determines the right and the wrong. More thinking and debate is needed on the exercise of the moral power of the United Nations, and on its relations with enforceable legal obligations. I would simply note that the increasingly open character of the Commission for Social Development is an important step in the direction of moving towards a greater consistency between moral principles and their concrete implementation.

But, Mr Chairman, are these moral and spiritual orientations and values embodied in the text and legacy of the Social Summit in need of revisiting, in need of an “aggiornamento” imposed or suggested by the realities of the time? For resolute opponents of moral relativism, including the Triglav Circle, there are values that are “a-historical” and universal. They stem from the natural law, particularly well articulated by the Stoics, and from conceptions of human nature that accept the oneness of the human family beyond the rich diversity of social roots and mores.

This perspective, however, leaves open a number of difficult questions. When, for instance, does a basic moral principle such as equality of all human beings become “adjusted” to the point of being violated? And, through which processes and institutions, could different “operational” values (as opposed to “fundamental” moral principles) be reconciled and balanced? Cases in point are competition versus compassion and solidarity, openness to the other versus preservation of one’s identity and traditions, or personal security versus the taking of economic and financial risks. These conflicts, or moral and political “trade-offs”, need to be openly addressed, for instance when macro-economic and trade policies and their relations with social development are examined.

Finally, is it necessary to add that, also in line with the Social Summit and the tradition of the United Nations, morality and rationality ought to support, inform and orient each other? As we all know, there is only a short step between morality and moralization, and another short step between the call for moral values and the coercive or manipulative imposition of one’s own values on others, the “other” being an individual, a social group, a nation, or a part of the world. And there is also a short step between the use and the misuse of the wonderful possibilities of human reason and human inventiveness. It seems that the world is currently tempted by both courses: bigotry and fanaticism, and use of intellectual ingenuity for consumption, power and destruction. “Reclaiming” Copenhagen is also working patiently and diligently for more humility, more attention to the other, more capacity to listen and to learn, and more wisdom in our private and public undertakings.

To this end, the Triglav Circle would like to engage other organizations in a collective consideration of the moral legacy of the Social Summit, and its present relevance. We hope to make proposals to this effect shortly.

Thank you for your attention.

Jacques Baudot
Secretary of the Triglav Circle

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