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A world of dignity

About the author
Sergio Vieira de Mello was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1948, and studied there and in the Sorbonne, Paris. His distinguished career at the United Nations included roles as humanitarian coordinator in post-genocide Rwanda (1996), special representative in Kosovo (1999), leader of UN operations in East Timor (2000), and head of the United Nations High Comissioner for Human Rights (2002). He was working as the UN special representative in Iraq when, along with respected UN colleagues and others, he was killed in Baghdad in August 2003.

In discussing world civilisation – whatever that may mean – it is important to remember those who have suffered as a result of a breakdown of civilisation. We must also pay tribute to, and really think hard about, the women, men and children who continue to suffer the impact of armed conflict.

By conservative estimates, some eight million men, women and children died in the Great War of 1914-18. Countless others were wounded, imprisoned, displaced or disappeared. Millions more were scarred by this horror, a horror that occurred among what are viewed as being some of the pre-eminent civilisations of that time.

The United Nations in Baghdad: a tragedy for the world

On 19 August 2003, while a press conference about clearing landmines was taking place, a huge bomb exploded in the headquarters of the UN mission in Baghdad. Many senior and respected UN officials were killed in addition to Sergio Vieira de Mello. They include Nadia Younis, Ranillo Buenaventura, Fiona Watson, and Jean-Selim Kanaan. Arthur Helton of the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of openDemocracy’s humanitarian monitor, was killed in the blast. His co-columnist and close friend, Gil Loescher, was very severely injured.

The international community resolved, at the end of that war – whose anniversary falls today – never again to allow such human devastation. Governments banded together to establish the League of Nations, an organisation dedicated to promoting international co-operation and achieving peace and security.

Many consider the League to have been unsuccessful. They consider it so because it failed to prevent the outbreak of what became the second world war of 1939-45, which was a conflict – to the extent these comparisons have any meaning – still more terrible than the first.

Yet it remains a fact that the League’s creation did see the emergence of a deeper appreciation and awareness of human dignity and the sanctity of human life, as well as of the world’s growing inter-connectedness. It laid the foundation for the establishment of the United Nations and paved the way for the international protection of human rights. It is a source of pride to me that the office of the United Nations Commission for Human Rights, which I arrived at only two months ago, is itself called the Palais Wilson – and was also the original home of the League of Nations.

‘Wilsonianism’ is a concept that is frequently derided as being either naive or a failure, or both; I disagree entirely with the former and only partially with the latter. In short, it would be wrong to underestimate the importance of valuing these post-war achievements. It would be difficult to imagine the establishment today of a similar framework for attempting to ensure peace, security and respect for human rights, such as the UN system, if these institutions did not already exist.

If not, would the world we live in today have the capacity and the vision to create a United Nations as pure in its ideals as the one established in 1945? What would the world look like today had the United Nations not existed?

It is fortunate that we do not have to answer these questions for real. In the post-war years the international community committed to a set of basic universal values: equality, dignity, tolerance and non-discrimination.

We recognised, through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that ‘the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’. ‘Freedom from fear and want’ was our common aspiration.

We also agreed, in words of truly elemental passion and force, that ‘we the peoples’ would be ‘determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’. Together, we created a set of international human rights standards rooted firmly in these values and goals. Yet we have failed in our duties to ensure that these standards are upheld. Too often our world excludes and marginalises those of its citizens who, as a result of violence, inequality, intolerance, discrimination, are incapable of participating in any meaningful way, and worse: who have misery upon misery heaped upon them.

The shadows of ‘civilisation’

Civilisation is, I would suggest, a concept that eludes definition. After all, a definition risks being pretentious or subjective or incomplete, or a combination of these failings. I am even more sceptical of attempting a definition of ‘world civilisation’, which for me has rather alarming connotations of pan-uniformity. The best I can do is, first, to suggest that we should eschew homogeneity and embrace difference; and, secondly, to suggest that focusing on common perceptions of human dignity may be more fruitful than the pursuit of one world civilisation.

Furthermore, the difficulty of obtaining a satisfactory definition should not be used, or should not be allowed, to obfuscate the picture. For what I can tell you is that I know what is uncivilised: I have seen it. We all know. In my work with the United Nations, most of which I have spent in what we in peaceful and prosperous countries refer to euphemistically as ‘the field’, I have seen not only the best but also the worst of what we have to offer each other. Such behaviour can be found everywhere.

As a UN worker I have had to pause and wonder how different societies can develop such ruthless disregard for human life. Common perceptions of ‘civilisation’ have largely positive connotations. They suggest both a moral milieu as well as the attainment of some sort of cultural summit: they evoke images of arts and culture, of enlightenment, of sophistication. They suggest evolution in a non-biological sense or progress in social development.

But I would suggest that the term civilisation risks, but by no means implicitly carries, worryingly negative notions. These are notions of cultural superiority, of elitism, of imperialism and – largely speaking – of western idealism. If one considers oneself civilised after all, then those who are different are not civilised: they are uncivilised.

Indeed, it was only a few years ago that it was suggested that western concepts were so dominant, so incontrovertibly accepted, that what we were witnessing was an ‘end of history’ in the sense that there was no longer the fuel for a clash of civilisations. Who would really dare propound such hubristic notions now?

We must also acknowledge that the word ‘civilisation’ has been used throughout the course of history to justify brutality, expansionist thinking and behaviour, colonialism, even slavery and genocide – as in my continent, the Americas. In carrying out these acts, these civilisations argued that they were, in fact, on ‘civilising’ missions. Our discussion of world civilisation must bear these facts in mind.

The shadows of ‘globalisation’

Some might argue that at the start of this new millennium we have achieved world civilisation: that is, an advanced stage of social development at the global level – a contemporary version of Hegel’s Weltgeist, the spirit of the world. It is true that we live in an era of unprecedented wealth and of extraordinary technological, scientific and educational advancement. The world is more democratic today than ever before: 140 countries now hold multiparty elections. The number of inter-state wars, and of the human lives lost as a result of those wars, has dropped considerably.

Global markets have opened up as the result of new technology and increased economic integration has helped to create new opportunities. Globalisation has created the potential for greater communication and exchanges between different cultures. In so doing it has paved the way for greater human freedom. But in spite of these many positive developments, the end of the cold war and the continuing process of globalisation have also given rise to many uncertainties.

New forms of terrorism have emerged, creating untold suffering recently in New York, in Bali, and in Moscow. The human costs of terrorism have been felt equally in the Philippines, the Middle East, Algeria and Sri Lanka, just as they have been felt – in years now thankfully receding – in many countries of western Europe. Internal armed conflicts continue to ravage countries around the world. It is tempting – but wrong – to throw our hands up in despair when the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Colombia are mentioned. Although international wars have decreased in number, internal conflicts have killed about 3.6 million people over the last decade. Particularly worrying is the increasing victimisation of civilians: more than 90% of those injured or killed in post-cold war conflicts have been civilians, and half of these were children. The number of refugees and internally displaced people has risen sharply, an indication of the increased intensity – by which I mean disregard for the non-combatant – of today’s conflicts.

Seemingly intractable global conditions such as poverty, HIV/Aids, racism and gender inequality continue to cause widespread human misery. These conditions contribute to the growing marginalisation of individuals and communities and, where left unaddressed, create tensions, jeopardise human development and threaten security. Each one of them constitutes the antithesis of civilisation.

The responsibility of empathy

These problems are not necessarily new. Human beings have lived with war, disease and inequality for centuries. What is different today is that we have no excuse to be unaware of the divide between the world’s rich and poor, the powerful and powerless, the included and marginalised. We cannot today justify claiming ignorance of the cost that this divide imposes on the poor and dispossessed while at the same time claim we have attained civilisation. In spite of this, too often we appear to surrender in the face of global challenges.

There is, or so it can seem, a palpable lack of empathy towards those affected: a dulling of critical analysis of policies that may impact communities and societies outside and beyond our own. But more than that, I suspect there is a dulling of our ability to appreciate what this impact may mean, in real terms, on those affected. The danger in assuming that we, the so-called international community, are ‘civilised’ is this collective apathy to which we have become accustomed.

This cannot continue. We can no longer act as if only what happens in our immediate communities matters, as if we only owe solidarity to those within our neighbourhood, city or country. We should nurture our sense of self as part of a common humanity. We should appreciate better the ways in which we can all benefit from co-operation and solidarity across lines of nationality, gender, race or economic status. We should seize the potential of globalisation to become a unifying and inclusive force: a globalisation that places the promotion and protection of human rights at the heart of its objectives and strategies.

For human rights do indeed have a critical role to play today. In short, their indivisibility and universality are perhaps the closest concepts we have to being the foundations of a civilised world, as opposed to a world civilisation. The principles of social, political and economic inclusion are essentially based on rights and responsibilities.

Those in positions of power and privilege, however, too often see rights and responsibilities as a threat to their own interests. As a set of universally accepted values, principles and standards, which apply equally to all people, everywhere, human rights should in fact be seen as a tool to help build stable and prosperous communities.

Brazilian lessons for a plural world

I come from a country, Brazil, famous for its rich cultural diversity. It is a country with more than 120 surviving indigenous nations. They speak even more indigenous languages and dialects. Peoples such as the Kayapo, Makuxi, Parakana, Xavante, Yanomami and many more have retained much of their culture and traditions and have strong attachments to their homelands: harvesting, managing and inter-relating within a space – the rainforests. That is also one of our planet’s most important regions of biodiversity.

Brazil is also a country that has pursued policies of development over decades and even centuries that have impinged upon and marginalised its original indigenous inhabitants. If we look at recent years, we can say with some honesty that corporate Brazil – and I include international companies – has been one of the principal sources of the destruction not only of the forest itself but of the indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and communities. We cannot say that Brazil has not made striking material advances but we must also acknowledge that indigenous peoples have been victims in many instances, rather than beneficiaries.

These observations lead me to two comments. The first is related to what, surprisingly, is a relatively new phenomenon, at least in my region, namely that states are beginning to recognise that they are pluri-cultural and multiethnic and that this is a wealth that needs to be protected. Our deeper Brazilian identity is rooted in our diverse cultures: our indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and many more. No development, however profitable, should be undertaken at the expense of the rich cultural diversity to which I have referred, but rather for the benefit of all its components. Equality must be our goal.

The second comment is that human rights are dynamic, not static. They move with the times. They confront new challenges.

For indigenous peoples, the corporate sector presents such a new challenge with its technology, its apparently unlimited wealth and its legal expertise. It is not easy to find the balance that will protect indigenous peoples’ rights, ensure the legitimate obligations of governments towards all of their citizens, and not impede entrepreneurship and development.

Some requirements are clear, however. Fair rules are important. Benefit sharing is vital. The prior informed consent of the affected communities is an ideal towards which we should be aiming. The inclusion of indigenous peoples and their diverse cultures is central to this concept of civilisation.

There is another important change in the current conception of citizenship. While corporations are being cast as world actors with specific responsibilities commensurate with their influence, at the same time individuals are increasingly voicing global rather than local concerns. There is recognition that we are part of a global community in which our actions impact on life in other regions, and that the concerns of others are also our concerns. While these might not always necessitate global solutions, these worldwide connections across frontiers are generating a sense of responsibility: not only within one’s community but also within empathetic networks across the world.

This kind of interest and participation, what has been called ‘globalisation from below’, is vital to a healthy world civilisation. This manifestation of globalisation provides some cause for optimism.

Not world civilisation, but universal dignity

What I am suggesting is that we may be overreaching ourselves to talk of world civilisation. We also may be misleading ourselves. More important than striving to attain such a state or even to define it is the need to focus on, highlight and better appreciate the universality of human dignity.

I have also tried to explain why I believe that human rights provide the best roadmap for this investigation. The principles of the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration and the other human rights instruments adopted in the last half-century are the closest we have to a universal code of conduct. These instruments provide the necessary building blocks to ensure that our common humanity is an inclusive one, built on values such as tolerance and dignity. The commitments they embody have been accepted voluntarily. It is the responsibility of all to ensure that they are respected.

Human rights possess three additional advantages. First, they are easy to understand. Yet we have a tendency to engage in lengthy rarefied debates defining this right or that. Definitions and semantics do have their role to play, but the results are often confusion, a degree of acrimony and the failure to implement the right in question. The victims, needless to say, have no problem in understanding what right it is that is being violated and how.

Second, with rights come attendant responsibilities. One of these, which falls both on states and other actors, is precisely to ensure that our rights are respected. Third, it is at the core of human rights that they apply to everyone; inherent within them is a celebration of their universality as well as of diversity. My main message today is that we need to allow for such diversity and, by so doing, ensure that we respect human rights.

To ensure that we allow for different cultures and people to co-exist and flourish alongside one another is as relevant today as it has ever been. Robert Knox, the British Museum orientalist, has just introduced me to a stoneware Chinese Buddhist figure, known as luohan. It is not far from this amphitheatre. The task of this figure is one that I would like, in conclusion, to commend to you: to guide us to the greatest truth, to help us transcend the repetitions and the contradictions of our earthly experience and – perhaps even more important – to discover the unity of the world.


This is an extract from the Third Annual BP World Civilisation Lecture, delivered by Sergio Vieira de Mello – then United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights – at the British Museum, London, on 11 November 2002. The full text of the lecture is available here

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