'We the Peoples': Reclaiming an Ethic of Solidarity.

Author:Elliott, Lorraine

1 Introduction

The John W. Holmes Memorial Lecture Series was inaugurated in 1989 in honor of one of the founding members of the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS). John Holmes, diplomat and scholar, served on both the 1987-1988 provisional committee and the planning committee for ACUNS' founding conference. As Kim Nossal points out, one of Holmes' abiding concerns in his post-public service role teaching Canadian foreign policy at the University of Toronto was the management of global conflict and the role of the United Nations in this task. (1) This is not surprising. Holmes was active as a diplomat in the post-World War II era and as an academic in the Cold War era (indeed he died in 1988 before the Wall came down). Holmes was clearly concerned with states. In contrast, my abiding concern is with peoples, but I consider this to be a challenge equal for our age as post-war conflicts were for Holmes and his age. Nossal also suggests that Holmes "was rarely explicitly theoretical" (2) in his work, even though there is evidence that he probably leaned toward an English School perspective on international society. (3) Yet we are often insufficiently theoretical, or at least insufficiently explicitly normative, in our search for solutions to global challenges of the kind that face a significant proportion of humanity. My purpose in this lecture in memory of John Holmes is to focus attention on the value of returning to theory in seeking to re-embed solidarity as a core principle of the UN system. This is not simply an exercise in "blue-skies" thinking. As Thomas G. Weiss puts it, "Without having a vision and then imagining how we can achieve it, we risk going nowhere and perhaps even moving backwards." (4)

We all know how the UN Charter begins--with the words "We the peoples"--a phrase that has become a leitmotif of the UN system despite contestation over just what it means. In its 1995 report Our Global Neighbourhood, the Commission on Global Governance suggested that any assertion "that it was the people of the world who were creating a world body was little more than a rhetorical flourish." (5) Uriel Abulof, on the other hand, argues that the Preamble does effectively declare peoples, not states, as the founders of the UN. (6) Former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has suggested that the Charter was, at least, drafted in the name of "We the peoples" even if it is states that are the UN's formal members. (7) But "We the peoples" is more than a lexical artifact about agency and ownership, important though that is. As Tim Dunne and Nicholas J. Wheeler point out, it constitutes a "significant advance in the normative vocabulary of international relations," an internationalist or even cosmopolitan identity based on an implicit promise of solidarity. (8) It is that joining of solidarity with "We the peoples" that I want to focus on today.

2 Challenges for Solidarity

The Preamble to the UN Charter offers some evidence of what could be taken as a foundational commitment to solidarity with its promises to save all humankind from the untold sorrow brought by the scourge of war and to promote social progress and better standards of life for all. It does so in the context of a commitment to the equal worth and dignity of all human persons based on key principles of tolerance and good neighbourliness. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, takes these principles one step further, calling for all "members of the human family" to act "towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood [sic]." (9) This commitment to unity and universality that underpins ideas about solidarity is reinforced in the Millennium Declaration, which proclaims the UN as the "common house of the entire human family." (10)

Yet we know that within this human family of "We the peoples," too many face a life of precarity, insecurity, harm, and immiseration, the kinds of harms that the Commission on Human Security identified as menaces not just to survival, but also to the "continuation of daily life and the dignity of human beings." (11) Indeed, the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit (more about this later) was convened in response to the highest recorded level of human suffering since World War II. While any concern with such suffering should ultimately focus on the lives of individuals, efforts to capture the intensity of insecurity are often related in aggregate terms. In Yemen, to take one example, 22 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian aid. To put that into perspective, that is almost the equivalent of the whole population of Australia, or the combined population of Norway, Finland, and Sweden. Starvation threatens 8 million Yemenis, and another 10 million are food insecure. One child under the age of five dies every ten minutes from preventable causes, and nearly half of all Yemeni children between the ages of six months and five years old are chronically malnourished. (12) Across the world, children are disproportionately affected by armed conflict. The Secretary-General's most recent report on children and armed conflict, submitted to the Security Council and the General Assembly in April 2018, documented a verified surge in the recruitment and deployment of children in conflict and increased (and increasing) levels of killing, maiming, abduction of, and sexual violence against children. (13)

Conflict is a key factor in what motivates people to undertake often perilous journeys in the search for some form of safety elsewhere. Since 2014, for example, more than 1.8 million people from a range of conflict-affected countries--including Syria, Iraq, and Guinea--have made the perilous Mediterranean crossing to seek refuge and haven in Europe. (14) Almost 17,000 of that number have lost their lives or are deemed missing. (15) While Antonio Guterres, in his capacity at the time as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, joined with other international human rights leaders in calling this a "tragedy of epic proportions," (16) we cannot forget that globally more than 68.5 million people are forcibly displaced by conflict, violence, and persecution. The UNHCR calculates that one person is so displaced somewhere in the world every two seconds. (17) Another 10 million people are stateless. Almost half of the world's 25 million refugees are under the age of eighteen. (18) While countries in the European Union fret about their "refugee crisis," although numbers of arrivals are in decline, 85 percent of the world's displaced peoples are hosted in developing countries. (19) Many spend years in refugee or internally displaced person (IDP) camps, face various forms of internment, or live their lives in precarious situations as marginalized peoples with little access to education, employment, or health services.

Poverty constitutes a further source of insecurity and precarity for a significant proportion of the world's population. Despite some advances in meeting poverty reduction targets under the Millennium Development Goals, (20) and despite more recent commitments under the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) reports that about 1.5 billion people in more than 100 developing countries still live in multidimensional poverty, facing multiple forms of deprivation across health, education, and standard of living metrics that limit their life choices. (21) Deprivation of this kind is not confined to developing countries. The UN's Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, reports that in the United States, for example, "contrasts abound between private wealth and public squalor," with more than 40 million people (about one in every eight Americans) living in poverty in one of the world's wealthiest economies and about half of those struggling to survive in conditions of extreme poverty. (22)

This is not the solidarist world conjured up by the concept of "We the peoples" or the "entire human family" in the UN Charter and the Millennium Declaration. Rather, to borrow from Andrew Linklater, this is a world increasingly characterized by an "indifference or hostility to the welfare of others," (23) a lack of care for or solidarity with those whose lives are most vulnerable and precarious wherever in the world they might be.

3 Revisiting Solidarity Ethics

Before exploring how the UN system has addressed these issues as both empirical and normative challenges, there is value in giving some thought to the ethical underpinnings of a global approach to solidarity. There is an extensive philosophical literature on ethics that draws variously on critical theory, identity politics, and moral philosophy. In the time available, my intention is to draw selectively on some of those debates as they have been translated into the fields of International Relations (including global governance) and International Law. In International Relations theory, claims for a solidarist world are most often associated with a version of English School approaches to world politics, reflecting a "cosmopolitan normative agenda ... strongly associated with world society" and the existence or creation of a "meaningful universal human community." (24)

The kinds of ethical apparatus that help to (re)construct a solidarity ethic to make "We the peoples" more meaningful--even in terms of what Audie Klotz calls a "plausibility probe" (25)--draw here on the insights and language of harm, care, rescue, recognition, and self-realization. An ethic of solidarity of this kind, I argue, enables us to attend to peoples rather...

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