Chapter 1: The Ethics of Human Solidarity

“If the universe is non-ethical by our present standards, we must reconsider those standards and reconstruct our ethics.

 G. Wells, 1901

Humanitarianism is a basic orientation towards the interests and welfare of people. It demands that whatever detracts from human well-being must be questioned, regardless of its effects on economic growth, political power, or the stability of a certain order. Abstractions such as growth, stability and order are not ends in themselves, but have value only if they bring about the greater welfare of people.

Humanitarianism proceeds from the recognition that each one of us is no more but also no less than a human being. To emphasize our common humanity is not to deny or play down the importance of transcendental concerns, but simply to recognize that no single definition of truth is universally and unconditionally accepted. Common humanity is a point we can start with, as we learn to live with multiple perceptions of the truth .

The humanitarian perspective takes a long-range view of human welfare, and one of its essential dimensions is solidarity with future generations. Our first responsibility to our children is to ensure that they have a future by avoiding catastrophic war. It is also necessary to ensure that they do not inherit a planet whose environment has been substantially diminished or irreparably destroyed . We have a responsibility not to deprive our descendants of the chance to live fully and to push forward the frontiers of knowledge for the benefit of humankind . We have an obligation not to foreclose the options available to them . Humanitarianism is cautious. It has a strong bias against the irreversible.

We uphold humanitarianism as a framework for recognizing dilemmas and a formula for resolving them. Once human welfare has been placed firmly at the centre of individual and collective concerns, however, there are still a host of questions to be resolved in any specific set of circumstances. The humanitarian perspective includes an ethical orientation that equips us to approach these difficult questions: an ethic of human solidarity.

The identification of common values from which to construct an ethical framework for human solidarity is dependent upon the establishment of a broader consensus about the meaning of humanitarianism, and about its role in the promotion of human welfare.

For us, humanitarianism is both an attitude for individuals and a framework for policy-makers. It encompasses both humanism and human rights and goes beyond the confines of existing humanitarian law. It connects ethics to action at all levels . In this sense, we attribute to the term humanitarianism a broader context than its current usage permits.

Traditional concepts of humanitarianism tend to be negative in character, concerned more with refraining from certain actions which harm others than actually helping. They remain limited in scope. Providing emergency solutions to urgent social problems is, of course, a first priority, but too often they have come to be used as a substitute for addressing the root causes and providing long-term answers.

A more universal moral perspective suits our times, because we are linked so much more closely to one another. An expansion of humanitarianism better to match modern needs must occur in several dimensions: horizontal, to cover more of the globe and include a multitude of actors; vertical, to take in new kinds of moral issues; and temporal, to cover future generations. And there must be an accompanying reform of individual, collective and institutional attitudes to accommodate this expansion.


The Challenge

In a world of shrinking spaces, porous national boundaries, expanding technological capacity and instant communication, we live in an imperfect but vivid relationship with all of our fellow human-beings. Our attention to any one segment of humanity may be limited or self-limiting. But our mutual ability to affect each other’s lives, for better or for worse, has never had the scope and immediacy that it has today.

Modern communications have played an important role in strengthening our sense of human solidarity. This was seen most recently and dramatically when the images and descrip­ tions of the famine in Africa burst upon the consciousness of the public everywhere in the world. Coming face-to-face, in an almost literal sense, with suffering on such a scale challenges people’s notions of what it means to be human. It brings about an expansion of our moral universe.

Many kinds of environmental problems, such as air pollution, acid rain or the effects of destructive land-use practices, do not respect international borders. Increasingly refugees, other displaced people or migrant workers are also crossing national borders in large numbers. The vast population movements that are now taking place give rise to a plethora of humanitarian problems . Those who are obliged to leave their homes often become targets of exploi tat ion , discrimination or debilitating dependency; those who remain behind often face inhumane conditions.

Man’s inhumanity to man is not an invention of the modern era, but the scope and scale of his capacity to act it out is historically unprecedented. Age-old themes such as greed, betrayal of popular will, lust for power and ethnic hatred combine with contemporary economic and social strains to create new sources of conflict. Rivalry over land and resources has intensified, spurred by the need to satisfy the requirements and aspirations of increasing populations.

The greatest obstacle to the achievement of a sense of community based on an inclusive ethical consensus is the drifting apart of the rich and the poor into two separate worlds. Today , this is a far more complex phenomenon than the geopolitical division of the world into North and South or industrialized and developing countries. The rich in the capitals of the Third World have far more in common with the rich of the First World than they have with the poor in their own countries. The affluent also communicate more easily with each other across national boundaries than with their poor compatriots. Technologies of communication and transportation, to say nothing of a pervasive consumerist culture, have helped to create a new stratification of the world’s people into transnational classes that share very little information, experience or common concern with others. The gap in understanding between rich and poor is in imminent danger of reaching the point where the only form of discourse may be violent conflict, occasionally punctuated by outbursts of charity. It is matter of the greatest practical, as well as ethical urgency, to prevent the split between the two worlds from widening, and to restore a sense of solidarity among people.

The human person in today’s world is particularly vulnerable. For millions of people, violence has become a fact of life. Wars continue to plague developing countries. Civilian casualties have greatly risen in proportion to combatant casualties. In scores of countries, torture is becoming institutionalized as an instrument of state control and repression. Weapons oL indiscriminate destruction are being used increasingly in armed conflicts while nuclear weapons have become the sword of Damocles of modern times. Starvation continues to be used as a means of suppressing opposition, while control over civilian populations serves as a tactic as well as an objective of armed conflict.

Scientific and technological developments have given human-beings powers that far outstrip their collective good judgement. Formidable conventional weapons are easily available, even to small groups. Consequently, every country with an aggrieved minority , faces a potential risk. With the development of modern weapons of mass destruction , the power of the instruments of war has reached levels never before imagined, so that even those States not directly involved in a conflict have a strong interest in helping to resolve it. In today ‘s volatile world, conflicts cannot easily be contained and isol ated. Furthermore, each time a violation of international law is tolerated, it sets a dangerous precedent that makes it more likely that similar abuses will be repeated.

The State is on the defensive. The pursuit of national security has come to place excessive reliance on the threatened use of force. This has led to the militarization of whole societies to the detriment of the economic, social and political sectors State authorities seem to be increasingly willing to use violence , not only in their relations with other States but also against their own people.

In some cases, this turmoil may be a part of the struggle to throw off the remnants of colonial structures and power relationships. But in many more, the end of the colonial era has been followed by periods of contention and unrest as mechanisms for political representation failed to take hold. Even without the wilful appropriation of state power, the development process itself generates inequalities that a representative government must mediate. All too often, however , States have failed in , or abandoned, their mediating roles and substituted repression for social management.

With all societies so vulnerable to the actions of others , and all faced with the possibility of extinction, the need to formulate new standards for humanitarian decision-making is imperative. General rules and principles of human conduct have evolved and acquired authority in specific historical settings. But in a shrinking world and in a situation of rapid social, economic and technological change, it is necessary to find common values that are acceptable across a wide spectrum of cultures and ideologies.

Increasingly, ambivalence and uncertainty characterize the ethical choices that people are called upon to make. These arise because worthy goals can and do conflict with each other, because contemporary life puts before us a multiplicity of choices and because we cannot perfectly foresee or control all the consequences of our actions . In any complex situat ion , the unintended consequences of a choice may overwhelm the intended result. Even with an ethical orientation toward human well-being, we cannot , everywhere and at all times , completely eliminate risk or catastrophe. Nor is it always possible to prevent people from doing what they believe to be right even if the price in terms of human suffering, death and desolat ion, is very high.


The Framework

Certain ethical imperatives follow from the fact that we cannot control and predict the consequences of our actions in a complex environment. They include:

  • The responsibility to examine and attempt to understand the full range of consequences of an action and avoid one-dimensional thinking.
  • To make every effort to minimize harm and to compensate the sufferers when harm is unavoidably generated in pursuit of a competing
  • To exercise discernment in the face of unintended consequences or Justifiable actions may hurt some people. However it is important to acknowledge any ill effects for what they are rather than insisting that they are acceptable because they cannot be avoided.

Inaction can be as decisive as action, and just as damaging. On the other hand, the need to act without full knowledge or total certainty is a major dilemma for those who hold power. The fact is that no single person or institution has the capacity to marshal! all the facts, understand all the alternatives, or predict all the reactions to and interpretations of an action. This underscores the crucial importance of continual discourse on ethical issues. Exposure to different ways of looking at a problem may, therefore, increase understanding and in so doing enlarge areas of agreement. This is a necessary first step for an expanded consensus on humanitarian issues.

Such a consensus must necessarily take into account the increasing prominence of new actors, particularly in recent decades, both within and outside the governmental structures of new States or States that have radically changed their political system. However, these new actors have emerged from nations, cultures and ideologies that did not participate in formulating the international consensus on humanitarian norms, and have not had the opportunity to give their views on it. It is not surpris-ing that they feel little obligation to abide by it.

Many of the new States do not have adequate experience of national politics, much less of international politics. Moreover, many States that accept international standards in external conflicts still refuse to apply humanitarian norms to the internal ones when dealing with opposition groups. These groups thus lack the incentive of mutual restraint to apply the norms themselves.

One additional explanatory factor in the fragility of the humanitarian consensus may be that the consensus itself has not drawn sufficiently upon non-Western cultural, legal and religious traditions. The historical reasons for this are clear. The norms of humanitarian conduct, therefore, might become more universally acceptable if they draw on more universal, rather· than strictly Western sources of inspiration. The holy texts of various religions and the legal systems, philosophies, and customary practices of other cultures, including oral trad itions , abound in moral injunctions that imply an ethic of human solidarity.

The international community can condemn violations of humanitarian standards but it can hardly claim to be surprised when desperate people react violently, and in so doing disregard basic humanitarian principles. The first reaction of the perpetrators to pleas for restraint is likely to be: ‘Where was the outrage of the international community , whose norms we are now being asked to respect, during the crises that imprisoned us in poverty, ignorance and oppression, that killed our children through malnutrition and disease, that despoiled our lands?’ The keen sense of structural violence on the part of its victims, and their determination to resist it , is the link that joins long-term issues of poverty and injustice to the breakdown of humanitarian norms in wars or violent internal struggles. The contenders in such struggles are not likely to observe the norms set by the international community until they are acknowledged to be a part of it themselves.

Dual standards, or multiple standards tailored to specific circumstances or to the perceptions and ideologies of separate societies are a luxury that can no longer be afforded . International standards must be such as to be acceptable across a wide spectrum of cultures and ideologies. They must be based on the notion of the human species as a single, indivisible but pluralistic unit.

The tenuousness of human judgement is an inescapable fact of life. However, to reduce the margin for error, we must strive to keep the channels of communication with others open. The broadest possible discourse can at the very least uncover differences of conviction and their sources. Exposure to different ways of looking at a problem may increase understanding and in so doing enlarge areas of agreement. Sometimes, received opinion may be false, or it may be necessary to clear up apprehensions about erroneous opinion. But the commoner case than either of these, is when conflicting opinions, instead of being one true and the other false, share the truth between them, and an exchange takes place to supply the remainder of the truth .

Calls for a strong international consensus are often dismissed as una ttainable , for they raise fears of forced imposition of a uniform system of values on a highly pluralistic wo rld. Such uniformity is neither necessary nor desira ble, for an inter­ national consensus can and should be a minimum one. It requires identifying a few irreducible values – but these may have a different configuration among themselves and in relation to other values , depending on their cultural setting . What is important is not the configurat ion , but rather that within each culturally specific setting the irreducible values are to be found. Each nation has a stake in helping to identify the core of the humanitarian eth ic, and in tolerating man y different expressions of it.

For centuries, the great religious texts have taught the essential oneness of the human race. That transcendent perception of common humanity seems to have waned, though it may yet be reawakened. It is strongly buttressed by the facts of mutual reliance as well as the logic of moral philosophy and it is fully consistent with the reality of international pluralism. Living together on this plant with its finite resources, where we all have the ab ilit y to hurt if not destroy each other, requires an enlargement of our vision and sense of neighbourhood.

Neighbours are bound together in mutual reliance, and in that sense all people today surely qualify as neighbours. But we lack the positive qualities of neighbourliness: an acknowledgment of mutual obligation, and a reasonable level of tolerance. It may be that the classic neighbourhood is also a place of intense suspicion, jealousy and even hosti lit y. But its members know that they must live together , and that the expression of open antagonism leaves them all poorer and less secure. There is also a degree of acceptance, within bounds, of the faults of one’s neighbours on the grounds that they display a weakness that we may all have to some degree. In the final analysis, they too belong despite what we may not like in them.

What we need is an explanation and justification of moral obligations which are predicated upon ensuring mutual welfare. It is natural to talk about helping those with whom we are in immediate contact, but here we are talking about those far away as well. The duty to help those in need , at least within the family circle and the immediate community if not the nation and the wo rld , is widely if not universally acknowledged in some form. Psycholo gically, most human-beings are made uncomfortable by the suffering of others. But why should one be concerned with persons one does not even know?

In part the answer lies in the combined notions of solidarity and reciprocity. The main motivation in the present times comes from the increasing realization that adversity anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere. Solidarity and reciprocity thus take the form of enlightened self-interest. This is based on the realization that inequalities which are incompatible with human dignit y are politically, socially and economically destabilizin g. The willingness to ignore humanitarian needs is likely to encourage the same attitude in others.

General rules and principles of human conduct have evolved in specific historical settings, and within those settings they have acquired strong presumptive authority. But in a situation of rapid social, cultural and technological change, the old principles may lose their acceptability as ethical guidelines. Still, it is possible to define the outer limits of ethical behaviour that would be acceptable very widely in the modern world. What is more difficult to define is ethical decision-making within those limits , in the complex, ambiguous , uncertain and fast-changing circumstances in which humanitarian issues unfold.

It must be recognized that the problem is not of morality versus politics but rather of the kind of politics which allow moral restraints to emerge and to be observed . Such political activity begins with a sober consideration of the underlying self-interest that will persuade States and other actors to accept the precepts of common humanity.

The willingness to blunt voluntarily the sharper edges of national sovereignty can be seen in all successful efforts to bring about greater international cooperation. It is essential to the task of preserving and extending humanitarian values. Restraint in the exercise of sovereignty does not require an undermining or superseding of the State. It does, however, imply the need to agree upon effective and mutually agreed methods for holding States accountable for their actions, or for their inaction, in the face of another’s dereliction of humanitarian obligations.

We recognize that disregard for humanitarian values is not found only in situations of overt conflict. It is also manifest in the willingness of the international community to stand by while hundreds of millions of people sink into the depths of absolute deprivation. This amounts to acceptance of a doctrine of dispensability applicable to the poorest and most helpless members of society. While the first line of responsibility for them rests with their own commun “ties and States, these are often helpless to remedy a harmful situation. Often, they lack the resources or the skills to combat deprivation, or are in the grip of larger forces in the national or the world economy over which they have no control.

A broader consensus on humanitarian issues requires, in our view, a search for the highest common values that are widely shared despite all the negative, conflictual elements of human societies. All cultures and religions credit human-beings with a moral dimension and expect to see it manifested in however fragmented and diluted a form.

The conceptual framework within which our Commission functioned was based essentially on an ethical core which can help build a wider consensus. The cornerstones of this framework were the values which from time immemorial have been a part of the collective consciousness of the human species, which have ensured their survival and well-being, and which have stood the test of time:

  • Respect for life;
  • A responsibility towards future generations;
  • Protection of the human habitat
  • Altruism nurtured by a sense of mutual interest and a recognition of human dignity and worth.

We have borne in mind these values when exammmg the specific humanitarian issues which form the bulk of this Report. Recognizing the value of a pragmatic and realistic approach, we endeavoured at the same time to remain fully conscious of the over-arching global issues which condition the humanitarian problems as well as the new forces which are bound to affect , for better or for worse , the future shape of things. These are treated briefly in the first part of our Report. Our purpose was no more than to be catalytic, however modestly , in encouraging public debate on the need for people to be more humane in facing contemporary challenges . We are fully aware that the idea of human solidarity and the ethics which must cement it imply an almost Copernican change of perspective, from a fractured to a holistic view of human welfare which is centred on the commonality of human interests. The task of building a consensus around an ethic of human solidarity is a long-term proposition . The key is to engage individuals in collective action at all levels: to bring the needy to see themselves as individuals whose primary purpose is self-sufficiency; and to bring to those in a position to help, the understanding that true self-realization involves the alleviation of others’ suffering. Progress in removing the causes of human suffering is a step-by-step proposition which calls for tenacious efforts on a long-term basis. This should not be a source of discouragement , but rather accepted as a challenge that the eternal human spirit needs to achieve its own fulfilment.