Home Page Go to Bottom

Erskine Childers

Some three hundred years ago, “ethics” had acquired a definition that seems entirely valid today: the science of human duty in its widest extent, including the science of law, whether civil, political or international.

Ever since, but with unprecedented intensity since the Second World War, we have been amplifying and refining our international ethics, at least in delineating and collectively adopting standards of behaviour. In 1945, the Preamble to the United Nations Charter, its Purposes and Principles and the economic and social ethics stated in Article 55, in a very real sense consolidated for all of us the understandings of "human duty" that should infuse the behaviour of our main organised instruments of society up to now, nation states.

Since then we have built and built on these goals, and have elaborated ethical standards to be followed within the nation state, in some seventy detailed instruments of Human Rights and a long succession of other declarations and programmes of action adopted either by an overwhelming majority of the member states or by total consensus. For example Agenda 21 added a whole body of specificities to our ecological ethics at every level from the global to the local. Yet the application of these ethics that we do have is continually and seriously blocked and subverted. Our world is global and our globe is the habitat of our world; but it says something that it is still necessary to make the emphasis.

The (mis-)use of the United Nation's Charter

Every member state is obligated to use the United Nations to advance the Charter's economic, social, and development ethics "for all peoples". The founders at San Francisco thoroughly debated and adopted a definition of “economic" in the UN mandates. They did so to verify that it was the UN itself - the General Assembly - that was supposed to implement these ethics in the Charter. The Assembly was supposed to adopt global macro-economic policies, prepared in the Economic and Social Council, to be implemented by the specialised agencies including the International Monetary Fund an International Trade Organization and the World Bank. But the G-7 powers, with the shameful acquiescence of the rest of the North, have always refused to hold any serious discussion at the UN on trade, money, finance and debt - always claiming that the IMF, the GATT (all that we received when the United States blocked the creation of a Trade Organization) and the World Bank are the proper bodies to deal with macro-economic policy. The powers then make sure that these agencies, which they control through weighted voting, do not even discuss global macro-economic policy.

Of course we are annually informed by our orthodox media that the G-7 industrial powers discuss "the global economy" at their annual summits, so we should be grateful for such crumbs. But even the crumbs are myths. The G7 Summit communiqués certainly claim to have analysed and agreed on measures for what they refer to as "the global economy”; and the orthodox media dutifully report this phraseology with their usual supine laziness, so that many people around the world are lulled into believing that, if not at the UN, then at least these very important governments are discussing the "world" economy, including the desperate problems of one in every four of us alive who exist on the margins of survival, in absolute poverty. But if you read these G-7 communiques you discover that what these leaders mean by "the global economy", and all that they have in fact discussed, is the North-North economy, from Japan to North America to Europe. Their "global economy" covers a little less than 25 percent of humanity.

So, the socio-economic ethics of the Charter are not being applied for “all peoples”. And the consequences are that (according to UNDP’s Human Development Report), the 20 percent northern minority has 80 percent or more of just about everything; 81 percent of world trade, 80 percent of domestic savings and over 94 percent of commercial lending. And the grossly unethical diversion and deception by these very governments that continuously lecture the rest of us about the ethics of good governance, continues unchecked.

Worse again, our UN institutions are themselves often subverted in their decision-making processes. In 1991 the great majority of member states in the General Assembly adopted a special resolution condemning the political coercion of developing countries by economic means - that is, condemning the current use by northern powers of a form of state terrorism whereby economically weak UN members are told how to speak and vote on a given issue if they want debt relief, any continued development assistance, emergency credit to pay their oil bills, or less harsh IMF, World Bank and bilateral conditionalities.

This is a form of state terrorism because brutal economic threats of this kind are threats to kill or condemn to disease and malnutrition thousands, even millions of children, women and men by further impoverishment in already poverty-stricken countries, as surely as if it was announced that bombers were being warmed up. This economic coercion, of course, is not reported: as with an individual victim, so a country that is the victim of blackmail and extortion cannot reveal it. This coercion was most recently used only a few months ago to break the solidarity of the Non-Aligned Movement and prevent the adoption of a General Assembly resolution to refer the use of the threat of nuclear weapons to the World Court as contravening international law and ethics.

All Northern states (including my own, Ireland) voted against the resolution to condemn such coercion, further widening the dangerous abyss between humans in the North and South.

In facing up to our ethical deficits then, do we need new ethics themselves or do we need the renewal, and uniform practice of, the substantial body of ethics for our world community that we already have? Another emerging problem of enormous scope is that the very frame for our ethics of the last 300 years is now unravelling the nation-state itself. The new western fundamentalist religion of the magic of the market wishes to have government - currently government in nation-state structures decline some sort of service role for corporations, and our currency reserves placed at the instant electronic disposal of unknown profiteers sitting at computer terminals, plunging more and more hundreds of thousands of human beings across the world into unemployment, homelessness and abject poverty. We do need correctives in the role of the state in the economy, but we have allowed long-established socio-economic ethics to be shredded before our very eyes by small mercantile elites in a handful of countries. And in that process we have allowed not the correction but the serious weakening of the only protective and regulatory institutional framework we have - the nation state.

The scandalously unethical behaviour of a handful of governments at the global level has had a devastating impact all the way to the villages of our human family. The hand of a neo-imperial IMF is visible in Chiapas, in Algeria and in Senegal.

We need to discuss the problem of reviewing and where necessary amplifying our ethics at the community level, as this, at long last, comes into ever more urgent focus. We are though really talking of a seamless inter-active fabric of ethics from the global to the local level. Within this seamless fabric, this totally inter-connected and inter-dependent process, we certainly have major problems in the definition, the perception and the application of ethics in terms of gender. Our existing body of ethics has overwhelmingly been developed under patriarchies; here we really do have deficits. Even where our existing ethics could be gender neutral in application, somehow men seem to forget to “see” women. Let us not presume that gender ethics are “being discussed everywhere”, which is what always happens to women’s concerns. Gender ethics must be discussed everywhere.

Source: Article from Development 1994/2 journal of SID, by Erskine Childers, (senior consultant for the UN), based on a paper delivered at the SID World Conference, Mexico April 1994.

Home Page Go to Top