Living Up To Our Principles

A Conversation with Juan Somavia

Ambassador Juan Somavia, who, at the time of this interview in 1997, represented Chile at the Security Council of the United Nations, was the chairman of the 1995 World Summit on Social Development held in Copenhagen. From 1999 to 2012, he served as Director-General of the International Labor Organization. Prior to his participation in the Global Citizen Awards ceremony at the Boston Research Center (BRC) on November 2, 1997, where he introduced Hazel Henderson, Mr. Somavia kindly agreed to be interviewed. What follows is an edited version on his remarks on values, humanitarian aspects of security and development, and the mission of the United Nations.

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BRC: To what do you trace your deep commitments to social justice and human rights?

JS: It is the central belief in the dignity of the human being: there is nothing more sacred in the world than the respect for human dignity. If that exists, you can organize societies that are peaceful, in which people share and communicate. If that doesn’t exist, you have societies full of tensions, violence, inequality, in which people feel exploited.

It’s a belief that has roots in my own Christian tradition, but which goes much beyond that. Whatever our spiritual traditions are, we must all struggle to find our common humanity.

We focus at the Boston Research Center on common values across religions and cultures. How can interested people and groups create a positive consensus for change in a diverse and divided world?

My conviction is that we all share more values than the ones that we do not share. The great historical mistake on the part of everybody has been to look at religions, for example, in terms of the differences rather than in terms of the similarities: the idea that I am right and you are wrong; that I have the truth and you’re in error; that I have to convert you. I think these attitudes throughout time have led to division among us and have been the justification for all sorts of wars and conflicts.

As we approach the beginning of the twenty-first century, I believe more and more people will realize that we have to give the “common values” approach a chance. Why don’t we begin thinking together about the extraordinary things that we could do if we joined forces on the basis of the same values coming from different cultural, spiritual traditions? I think this approach is growing at a good pace. An indication of this was evident in the Social Summit in Copenhagen in which I made a particular effort to ensure that the spiritual dimension was present — a recognition that the integration of a society is not just a question of income and of material satisfaction of needs.

One of the things that I’m most proud of is that the Social Summit created for the first time the context within the United Nations to organize a Values Caucus. It’s terrible to realize that it took a full 50 years to organize a Values Caucus at the United Nations — an organization whose Preamble is probably the most significant values statement that has been made in the name of humanity in the course of this century.

Now we must proceed from the affirmation that we share values to an analysis of the practical ways in which we can use that strength to make society more just and to create social structures that acknowledge the basic dignity of human beings.

What role can world religions play in fostering development that respects and protects human needs?

That question can be answered on two levels — institutional and individual. First, the organized religions need to enormously deepen their interreligious dialogue. They all want to help people from a spiritual point of view. Their main responsibility is to respect and acknowledge each other while each tradition maintains the essence of its own identity. These identities can be complementary. Mutual respect and acknowledgement are major elements of trying to move beyond historical differences.

I think the prime task of organized religious structures is to say to members: live up to your principles. Conduct yourself in business and in politics and in government in line with the values of your religion. If you have power, use that power in terms of the values that you say you profess. An extraordinary level of competitiveness exists in the world today and that leads to a very high level of moral indifference. There is, in many cases, a complete disconnection between the religion we say we belong to and the manner in which we act. It is the responsibility of religious leaders to call attention to that.

Second, as individuals who belong to a spiritual tradition, we have to become much more outspoken about the central role that spirituality has in a sane society. What I’ve observed in the last decades is a sort of marginalization of people who would like to speak of values, of visions, of ideas, of the need for more spiritualization. We have to be extremely active, self-assured, and very convinced about what we’re doing and be very “militant” about the fact that we believe the world requires more visible spirituality than it has today.

This doesn’t mean that we’re going to disregard the way society has to reorganize politically, or the decisions that have to be made in the economic sector-particularly the growing central role that private investment and private decision-making is acquiring and the need to eradicate poverty as an ethical imperative. It’s a question of addressing what’s wrong in our society-people feeling more and more marginalized, insecure, and excluded-with a human eye.

If things were going all right, our commitment to these issues would not have the same urgency. But since the reality is that in almost every society things are not getting better, we have the responsibility to ask ourselves if we have forgotten some of the basic value principles that should organize society. We are all needed to make the world a better place.

Can you please discuss your ideas on the humanitarian aspects of security?

We began in the South American Peace Commission, which I founded in the middle of the 1980s, by asking the question: How do people perceive security at an individual human level? The answer we got was very different from the traditional state-centered view of peace and security. People identified the sources of insecurity as poverty, unemployment, and social disintegration, which gives rise to violence in the streets and in the home, violence against women and children, drugs, and environmental degradation. These create a general sense of instability and uncertainty.

Nation states have concerned themselves with security policies that address external security and public order. The South American Peace Commission concluded that, in the case of South America, we had to look at security in terms of the security of people. It was not enough to look at the security of the state. We came to the conclusion that you could have a very secure state full of insecure people, and that you needed to complement the security of the state with the notion of the security of the people. This is a very new notion. Now the operational and practical conclusions of such a major intellectual revolution around the idea of security will take some time.

What do you think is the legacy of the Copenhagen Social Development Summit?

The effect of the Summit today is to remind us all that we have to put people back into the picture. The world has been organizing itself in such a way that it appears as if people are unimportant.

The reason I think the Summit was successful in introducing such a wide consensus is that the problems were posed as political problems, that solving these problems has to do with the stability of our society, with the function of democracy, with the real possibility of development for the many and not for the few. Politicians and heads of state understood that elections and careers are won and lost on the issues of poverty, unemployment, social disintegration, and social tension. People understood the political implication of all of this. And yet, the things that the Summit said should happen continue not to happen.

Nevertheless, I am convinced of the importance of the UN conferences for three reasons. First, if you look from an historical perspective at the last twenty-five years, what these conferences have done is to help effect a profound and complex change of consciousness on a number of issues. Our present thinking at the multicultural level about the environment began not with the Rio Conference of 1992, but with the Stockholm conference of 1972. Our thinking about population issues began not with Cairo, 1994, but with Bucharest, 1974. Our thinking about gender issues began not with Beijing, 1995, but with Mexico, 1975. If you look at our thinking on those issues in the beginning of the 1970s, right before these conferences, and the state of thinking today, there has been a major change. Where does that evolution come from? It comes from the United Nations. It doesn’t mean that because consciousness changes you’ve solved the problems, but we all know that moving in the right direction is the beginning of finding a solution. We are now working at these issues in ways that are different from the way we were working twenty-five years ago.

The second point is that these conferences produce an extraordinary mobilization of civil society. They energize civil society. Look at the ecological movement, the women’s movement, the human rights movement-worldwide movements. Part of the change of consciousness is the result of civil society influence on these conferences and then working within various countries to make the objectives and declarations become reality.

Third, these conferences have an incredible power to legitimize new ideas and set new standards. Governments declare and commit together to policies they know are right but they’re not prepared to implement right away. That is why you can look two or three years down the road and it appears the UN conference has not been a success. But if you look again over time, ultimately these declarations have great impact on public and private policies.

Now in that context, I want to answer the question of the legacy of the Social Summit. I think the historically significant achievement of the Summit is the commitment to the full eradication of poverty. What the Summit actually did was to move from the then accepted notion of the attenuation of poverty-limiting poverty, working around the fringes of poverty-to saying: “No, we will eradicate poverty.” Obviously, we don’t pretend that this will happen overnight, but the Summit made a political, ethical, social, and even an economic statement: it is now an imperative of humankind to eradicate poverty.

What is the logic behind this declaration? The logic is: there are times in human history when certain social institutions become ethically and politically untenable. It happened with slavery in the nineteenth century, and with apartheid and colonialism in this century. I’m giving these examples to answer the obvious response: these people are crazy. How do they think we are ever going to eradicate poverty from the face of the earth? Yes, this is exactly the same reaction as those who said that slavery could not be eliminated, that colonialism could not be eliminated, that people would always be ignorant, that apartheid would never disappear. Is this eradication something that we’re going to see soon? No. This is going to take many, many decades. But the political decision that we cannot go back on the commitment to eradicate poverty was made at the Social Summit. I think that in time when we have been able to organize our societies in ways in which people no longer live in poverty, people will see that the root of this movement was first formulated in Copenhagen as a unanimous political commitment of the largest meeting of heads of state and government in the history of humankind. That is the legacy.

What is your view of the mission of the United Nations in the twenty-first century, and what role can civil society organizations play in helping the UN fulfill its mission?

The nineteenth century was very much marked by the construction of the nation-states; the twentieth century by the struggle for liberty in the most diverse of forms. I think the big challenge of the twenty-first century will be the struggle for equity. This does not mean an equalization of everybody in society but the assurance that one is not being exploited, that society is fair, that the differences that exist are acknowledgeable and acceptable. The United Nations has to make its contribution to this goal. The Social Summit is a good step in that direction because we approach the twenty-first century with a strong statement precisely about equity and fairness.

This movement towards equity must also express itself politically. Implicit and embedded in the struggle for equity is, of course, the need for societies to be at peace. Peace comes, in part, because people aren’t feeling insecure. But we’re also observing in the world an enormous number of conflicts — of ethnic or religious origin, or simply power disputes among factions. I am presently sitting in the Security Council of the United Nations. Ninety percent of the conflicts that we see there are not conflicts among states. They are conflicts among warlords and armed groups controlling segments of territories. This is another dimension of how the old notion of the security of the state is withering away.

In the future, the UN will have to be able to express itself in these conflicts. Today it doesn’t have the means. Unless the bigger powers with the capacity to do so become engaged in helping bring peace to these societies, working with the regional leaders and the areas in conflict, the UN on it’s own isn’t able to fill that role. On the other hand, people expect the UN to do something; yet we do not provide the UN the mandate nor the means.

With the end of the Cold War, the tendency of the bigger powers to want to intervene has lessened enormously. It’s no longer necessary in order to maintain their influence in the world. Problems are not defined any longer as purely ideological. More and more their own nationals ask: What are you doing out there?

We are at the point when it is the responsibility of major countries to equip the United Nations to resolve conflicts and protect human security. The UN is not an autonomous instrument. Because the United Nations is not equipped and the major countries do not assume their responsibilities, the end result is a lot of tragedy.

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