Projet de Charte des responsabilités universelles Proposal for a Charter of Universal Responsibilities

Also available in Français, Español, Português


The Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are the global community’s two ethical and political pillars. For the past sixty years, they have made it possible to set up institutions and international rules to humanize international life. Today, they have proven insufficient to manage our interdependences and to protect the integrity of the planet, on which our future depends.


The need for a “third ethical pillar for the global community” alongside the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been acknowledged for the past forty years. There have already been many attempts in this direction. None of them has actually materialized. Hard and long cross-cultural and interreligious work has shown that the concepts of responsibility and co-responsibility are at the heart of twenty-first ethics and law, and should therefore be the foundation of this third pillar. These experiences have shown that this is a difficult exercise, but have also brought about an overall vision of the difficulties that are to be overcome. These experiences have served to inform the formulation of the Charter of Universal Responsibilities and its submission to debate.


The challenges are twofold: defining the criteria to be met by a text on “universal” ethics; finding the way to introduce the text into the international debate then to its adoption by the international community. This is the culmination of fifteen years of work. Rio+20 is very timely in this process and makes the Brazilian government’s initiative crucial.


1. Criteria for the third pillar


a) A text on universal ethics must be rooted in the conscience of societies. Ethics cannot be decreed. It is the result of a long history. Ordinary people will recognize the legitimacy of a text when it resonates within their heart and makes sense in their life.


b) A text on ethics must have a universal scope by applying to different scales, from individual lives to global governance, from children to states or multinational corporations, and by applying to all fields of life, from the economy to international relations, from science to the environment. This is why texts that were targeted on a specific field, such as the Earth Charter drafts drawn up at the 1992 Earth Summit did not reach completion or enactment. It must then be possible to translate a text on universal ethics into international conventions on specific fields (biodiversity or tax havens, for instance), in which the text is their foundation.


c) A text on universal ethics must be the product of interreligious and cross-cultural dialog. The time has passed when the willful action of a small number of persons facilitated by René Cassin and Eleanor Roosevelt could turn a Western concept into a universal principle as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; a principle of universal ethics must resonate in the different cultures, which is both a condition for it to be adopted by a multipolar international community and a condition for it to have a practical scope.


d) The text must express general ethical principles, not enumerate normative precepts; this is the corollary of its generality; faced with the diversity of situations and the ethical dilemmas of real life, where moral standards can contradict one another and where setting priorities and choosing is necessary, it must propose ways of choosing; faced with the diversity of activities, it must make it possible for each of these to formulate more specific principles, and even codes of conduct. The ethical principle is the foundation for the code, not the code itself.


e) As indicated by the expression “third pillar,” the text must be a strong and sustainable base on which to build a variety of constructions over the decades: the rules of international law, international conventions applied to the greatest variety of fields, codes of professional ethics, education programs, contracts, etc.… Like the preambles in constitutions, it must be the lasting expression of the foundations for “living together in harmony.” To be sustainable, the text must therefore be short and not refer to problems to be solved immediately but to categories of problems met at different times.


f) The reasons for submitting it now must refer to a deep change in our societies, to a new state of humankind that is meant to last. This is the case for global interdependence, for the impact of science and technology, for the need to make everyone’s wellbeing compatible with the preservation of the integrity of the planet.


g) A general text is not a vague statement of general intent to which everyone subscribes because it is binding for no one. The ethical principles must give proof that they inspire a change in behavior in a multitude of specific situations, that this change is the result of an individual ethical concern—the desire to make one’s acts consistent with one’s convictions, of a contractual agreement—as in the case of professional codes of ethics adopted by an institution or a profession, or of rules of law derived from an ethical principle—such as the rules and courts of law derived from human rights.


h) In its transposition as rules of law, an ethical principle must be able to follow three paths: transposition as national law; institution of international law with its own bodies and sanctioning mechanisms; institution of a cultural atmosphere favorable to the emergence of an international jurisprudence circulating from one national legal sphere to another.


The work process that led to a draft of Charter of Universal Responsibilities was directly inspired from the analysis of these criteria and we believe that the idea of responsibility, on the one hand, and its translation into a draft text on the other, is a satisfactory response to all these requirements. In particular, the ten years of debate and specific translations of the principle of responsibility in different cultures and different professions have made it possible to verify a number of these specifications.


2. Conditions for the adoption of a third pillar by the Global Community


a) Adoption of a founding text by the international community is the result of a process. An essential step in the process is putting on the international agenda the idea of the text—its need—and of a draft of the text—the materialization of a possible answer to this need. This is this step that has to be taken at Rio+20.


b) The legitimacy of a draft text comes from three considerations: it is the outcome of a cross-cultural work process; it meets the specifications expressed above; it is also supported by society and is not only the product of diplomatic intercourse.


c) The role of a committee made up of senior dignitaries is to affirm audibly and credibly to policymakers, society, and the media that there is absolute need for this third pillar. Without a shared awareness of this need and this emergency, the progress of the text in the arcane secrets of international negotiations will be interrupted on the way. The committee of senior dignitaries embodies a form of universal moral awareness able to proclaim the need to make this text a reality.


d) The role of the seminar of international jurists of September 2011 was twofold: to show the international and cross-cultural character of the formulation process; to verify that the draft text complies with the stated specifications and in particular that it responds to the need of proposing a new source of international law, reflecting attempts of evolutions that have already gone in this direction.


e) The ethical reflections must also be supported by society, hence the importance of the Peoples Summit preceding the Summit of Heads of State. During the Peoples Summit, the ethical issues must be discussed, as well as the current deadlocks due to the weakness of international regulations or international law. The format and agenda of the Peoples Summit are therefore part of the general strategy.


f) An influential country must take the initiative to put the issue on the Summit agenda, by finding a way to impose it on the diplomatic negotiations currently taking place to prepare a summit with no consistence so as not to threaten any national interest. For a series of reasons, only Brazil is in a position to take this initiative for Rio+20.


g) At the outcome of the debates that will take place at Rio+20, a group of countries will have to take the initiative to put the adoption of a text on the agenda of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Several types of groups can be approached.



Proposal for a Charter of Universal Responsibilities




We, Representatives of the Member States of the United Nations, gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the Earth Summit, June 2012




  • -1- that the scope and irreversibility of the interdependences that have been generated among human beings, among societies, and between humankind and the biosphere constitute a radically new situation in the history of humankind, changing it irrevocably into a community of destiny;


  • -2- that indefinite pursuit of current lifestyles and development, together with a trend to limit one’s responsibilities, is incompatible with harmony amongst societies, with preservation of the integrity of the planet, and with safekeeping the interests of future generations;


  • -3- that the scope of today’s necessary changes is out of range of individuals and implies that all people and all public or private institutions become involved in them;


  • -4- that the currently existing legal, political and financial procedures designed to steer and monitor public and private institutions, in particular those that have an impact worldwide, do not motivate these latter to assume their full responsibilities, and may even encourage their irresponsibility;


  • -5- that awareness of our shared responsibilities to the planet is a condition for the survival and progress of humankind;


  • -6- that our shared responsibility, beyond the legitimate interests of our peoples, is to preserve our only, fragile planet by preventing major unbalances from bringing about ecological and social disasters that will affect all the peoples of the Earth,


  • -7- that consideration of the interests of others and of the community, and reciprocity among its members are the foundations of mutual trust, a sense of security, and respect of each person’s dignity and of justice;


  • -8- that the proclamation and pursuit of universal rights are not sufficient to adjust our behaviour, as rights are inoperative when there is no single institution able to guarantee the conditions of their application;


  • -9- that these facts require the adoption of common ethical principles as inspiration for our behaviour and our rules as well as those of our peoples



We adopt, in the name of our peoples, the present Charter of Universal Responsibilities and we commit:


  • to make it the foundation for our behaviour and our relations,
  • to promote it among all sectors of society,
  • to take it into account and to put it into practice in international law and in national law.



Principles of Universal Responsibility


1. The exercise of one’s responsibilities is the expression of one’s freedom and dignity as a citizen of the world community.


2. Individual human beings and everyone together have a shared responsibility to others, to close and distant communities, and to the planet, proportionately to their assets, power and knowledge.


3. Such responsibility involves taking into account the immediate or deferred effects of all acts, preventing or offsetting their damages, whether or not they were perpetrated voluntarily and whether or not they affect subjects of law. It applies to all fields of human activity and to all scales of time and space.


4. Such responsibility is imprescriptible from the moment damage is irreversible.


5. The responsibility of institutions, public and private ones alike, whatever their governing rules, does not exonerate the responsibility of their leaders and vice versa.


6. The possession or enjoyment of a natural resource induces responsibility to manage it to the best of the common good.


7. The exercise of power, whatever the rules through which it is acquired, is legitimate only if it accounts for its acts to those over whom it is exercised and if it comes with rules of responsibility that measure up to the power of influence being exercised.


8. No one is exempt from his or her responsibility for reasons of helplessness if he or she did not make the effort of uniting with others, nor for reasons of ignorance if he or she did not make the effort of becoming informed.



Details of the initiative