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Do We Still Have Universal Values?

Can we still claim universal values in this era of market globalization?

December 24, 2003

Can we still claim universal values in this era of market globalization?

Recent events have shown that we cannot take our global values for granted. I sense a great deal of anxiety around the world that the fabric of international relations may be starting to unravel.

I also perceive that globalization itself may be in jeopardy.

Globalization has brought great opportunities — but also many new stresses and dislocations.

There is a backlash against it — precisely because we have not managed it in accordance with the universal values we claim to believe in.

In the Universal Declaration, we proclaimed that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care — and necessary social services.”

Just three years ago, in the Millennium Declaration, all states reaffirmed certain fundamental values as being “essential to international relations in the 21st century:” freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect for nature and shared responsibility.

They adopted practical, achievable targets — the Millennium Development Goals — for relieving the blight of extreme poverty and making such rights as education, basic health care and clean water a reality for all.

Millions of people in the world today are still far from enjoying these rights in practice.

That could be changed, if governments in both rich and poor countries lived up to their commitments.

Yet, three years after the Millennium Declaration, our attention is focused on issues of war and peace. We are in danger of forgetting these solemn commitments to fulfill basic human rights — and human needs.

Globalization has brought us closer together in the sense that we are all affected by each other’s actions — but not in the sense that we all share the benefits and the burdens.

Instead, we have allowed it to drive us further apart, increasing the disparities in wealth and power — both between societies and within them.

This makes a mockery of universal values. It is not surprising that, in the backlash, those values have come under attack at the very moment when we need them most.

Whether one looks at peace and security, trade and markets — or at social and cultural attitudes — we seem to be in danger of living in an age of mutual distrust, fear and protectionism.

It is an age when people turn in on themselves, instead of turning outwards to exchange with — and learn from — each other.

Disillusioned with globalization, many people have retreated into narrower interpretations of community. This, in turn, leads to conflicting value systems.

These encourage people to exclude some of their fellow human beings from the scope of their empathy and solidarity because they do not share the same religious or political beliefs, cultural heritage — or even skin color.

We have seen what disastrous consequences such particularistic value systems can have: ethnic cleansing, genocide, terrorism — and the spread of fear, hatred and discrimination.

This is a time to reassert our universal values. We must firmly condemn the cold-blooded nihilism of attacks such as those that struck the United States on September 11, 2001.

But we must not allow them to provoke a “clash of civilizations.”

One in which millions of flesh and blood human beings fall victim to a battle between two abstractions — Islam and the West — as if Islamic and Western values were incompatible.

They are not, as millions of devout Muslims living in Germany — and elsewhere in the West — would be the first to tell you.

Yet, many of those Muslims now find themselves the objects of suspicion, harassment — and discrimination.

Meanwhile in parts of the Islamic world, anyone associated with the West or Western values is exposed to hostility — and even violence.

In the face of such a challenge, we can reassert universal values only if we are prepared to think rigorously what we mean by them — and how we can act on them.

Muslims, for example, should not be reviled or persecuted.

They have the right to identify with Palestinians or Iraqis or Chechens — whatever one thinks of the national claims and grievances of those people or the methods used in their name.

No matter how strongly some of us may feel about the actions of the state of Israel, we should always show respect for the right of Israeli Jews to live in safety within the borders of their own state.

We also need to respect the right of Jews everywhere to cherish that state as an expression of their national identity and survival.

Values are not there to serve philosophers or theologians — but to help people live their lives and organize their societies.

At the international level, we need mechanisms of cooperation strong enough to insist on universal values.

But they must be flexible enough to help people realize those values in ways they can actually apply in their specific circumstances. In the end, history will judge us — not by what we say — but by what we do.

Those who preach certain values loudest — such as the values of freedom, the rule of law and equality before the law — have a special obligation to live by those values in their own lives and their own societies.

They have a right to apply them to those they consider their enemies — as well as their friends.

So what is my answer to the provocative question that I took as my title?

Do we still have universal values? Yes, we do — but we should not take them for granted. They need to be carefully thought through. They need to be defended — and strengthened.

We need to find within ourselves the will to live by the values we proclaim in our private lives, in our local and national societies — and in the world.

Adapted from Kofi Annan’s speech “Ethics, Human Rights and Globalization” given in Germany on December 12, 2003 at the University of Tübingen. For the complete version, click here.