Proposal for a Universal Declaration on the Common Well-Being Of Humanity

By Francois Houtart [1]


Monday, June 22, 2009


Confronted as we are by a financial crisis which is affecting the world economy and which combines with a food, energy and climate crisis that is leading to a social and humanitarian catastrophe, various reactions are being expressed.  Some suggest that the actors be changed and punished (the "chicken stealers", as Michel Camdessus, former IMF director, calls them) in order to continue as before.  Others, like George Soros, stress the need to regulate the system, but without changing the parameters. And then there are those who believe that it is the logic of the contemporary economic system itself that is in question and alternative solutions have to be found.


The urgency of solutions is the greatest challenge. There is not much time left to act effectively on climate change. According to FAO, during the last two years, 100 million people have fallen below the poverty threshold and the necessity to change the energy cycle has become imperative. There are a multitude of alternative solutions in every field but they need to be coherent with each other if they are to be effective: they require, not a new dogma, but an articulation between them.


In the same way that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was proclaimed by the United Nations, a Universal Declaration on the Common Well-being of Humanity could play this role. It is true that human rights had a long way to go between the French and American revolutions and their adoption by the international community.  The process was also gradual before the third generation of rights, including a social dimension, was proclaimed.  It was very Western in its perspective and  the document was completed by an African Declaration, while a similar initiative was taken in the Arab world. Of course the Declaration has often been manipulated for political interests, particularly by the Western powers. But it is still a basic reference that is indispensable for all political legitimacy and the protection of persons.


The time has come for the process to be completed because the survival of humanity and of the planet is at stake. Four founding principles could give coherence to new initiatives that seek to construct alternatives and guide all new practices.


1.  A sustainable and responsible use of natural resources.  This means another approach to the relationships between human beings and nature, moving from exploitation to respect for nature, the source of all life.


2. To give priority to the use value rather than to exchange value.  Thus, the economy as an activity should create, while respecting social and ecological norms, the bases of the physical, cultural and spiritual life of all human beings on the planet.


3. To generalize democracy in all social relationships and in all institutions. It should not only be applied and strengthened in the political field, together with a new definition of the State and international organizations, but extended to include the economy, culture and men-women relationships.


4. Multiculturalism, in order to make it possible for all knowledge, all cultures, all philosophical and religious traditions to participate in the definition of the common good of humanity and in the elaboration of its ethics.


The adoption of these principles would make it possible to start up a genuine alternative process as opposed to the rules that currently dominate the capitalist economy, the world political organization and the Western cultural hegemony which have brought about the social and natural consequences that we know today.  The above principles could lead to general orientations that can be sketched out.


Clearly, respect for nature requires the collective control of resources.  It also requires the essential constituents of human life, such as water and seeds, to be considered as the heritage of humanity, with all the juridical consequences that this entails. It also means taking into account the ecological ‘externalities' in economic calculations.


Preference must be given to use value which means a transformation of the production system, at present based mainly on exchange value to contribute to the accumulation of capital considered as the engine of the economy. This means restoring public services, including health and education - that is, they would not be treated as merchandise.


The generalization of democracy, particularly in the organization of the economy, mean the end of the monopoly over decision-making linked to the ownership of capital, but also the starting up of new forms of participation in which citizens becomes their own subjects.


Accepting multiculturalism in the building of these principles means not reducing culture to one of its components but allowing the wealth of the human cultural heritage to express itself, putting an end to the patents that monopolize knowledge and enabling a social ethic to be expressed in different languages.


Utopia? Yes, because it does not exist today, but it could tomorrow. It is a necessary Utopia, because it is a synonym of inspiration and the creator of coherence between collective and personal efforts. But it is also of very practical application, recognizing that changing a development model does not happen in a day and that it is constructed by an ensemble of actions which require different periods of time to come to fruition. How, then, to propose measures that form part of this logic and could be the objective of popular mobilizations and political decisions? Many proposals have already been made, but others could be added.


At the level of natural resources, an international pact on water that envisages its collective management (not exclusively by the State) would reflect an existing consciousness of the problem. Some other orientations could be proposed: the sovereignty of nations over their energy resources; the prohibition of speculation on food products; the regulation of agro-fuels so that they respect biodiversity, the conservation of soil and water quality and the principle of peasant agriculture; the adoption of measures necessary to limit the increase of the earth's temperature to 1ºC during the 21st century; public control over oil and minerals through an international code of exploitation, verified and authorized, concerning the ecological and social effects (including, inter alia the rights of indigenous peoples).


As for use value, some practical examples would include re-establishing the common good of water, electricity, the post, telephones, internet, public transport, health, education, in function of the specifics of each sector. It will be necessary to demand a guarantee of five years on all manufactured goods, which would prolong the life of products and diminish the use of raw materials and energy.  A tax should be levied on manufactured goods that travel over 1,000 kms between their place of production and the consumer (to be adapted according to the products), the proceeds of which would be used for the local development of the most fragile countries.  The norms for working conditions established by the ILO should be reinforced, with a reduction of working hours and an improvement in their quality. The parameters of the GNP should be changed, with the introduction of qualitative elements that express the idea of "living well".


The application of generalized democracy are without number and could concern all institutions that require a publicly recognized status, both for their internal function and for the equality in gender relationships:  businesses, unions, religious, cultural and sports organizations. At the level of the United Nations, a rule could be proposed of two-thirds agreement for major decisions and absolute majority for measures that are to apply them.


As for multiculturalism, it would include, among other things, the prohibition of patenting traditional knowledge, putting discoveries linked to human life (medical and pharmaceutical) at the disposal of the public and establishing the material bases necessary for the survival of specific cultures (territoriality).


This is an appeal for concrete proposals that can be put together to form a coherent ensemble of alternatives and which would constitute the collective objective of humanity and the applications of a Universal Declaration of the Common Well-Being of Humanity by the General Assembly of the United Nations.


Source: CETRI and



[1] François Houtart (Brussels, 1925) is a Belgian sociologist and Catholic priest. He is very much active in the Globalisation and Ethics discourse. He is also an advisor to CETRI (Centre Tricontinental ).

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