Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Human Rights and Human Responsibilities: Closing Remarks by Malcolm Fraser

These remarks were delivered at the close of the symposium "Human Rights and Human Responsibilities in the Age of Terrorism," April 1, 2005, by Malcolm Fraser, former prime minister of Australia.

I want to end with two important issues:

1) The status of the United Nations. There were some pretty dispiriting things said about the United Nations today: It's in a mess, it's going to fall apart, so what,; do something outside of it. But, the United Nations is as good or as bad as the major states that make up its major constituent parts. If those major states, especially this country, want to make it work, it will work. To say the United Nations is a wreck and has no leadership is to say that major states have no leadership, because if they want it to work, they can make it work.

2) [The situation can change for the better.] I accept today a U.S. government that won't support the International Criminal Court, even though American lawyers played a very significant part in its drafting, it's not going to accept the statement of ethical standards. But we're not here just because we're concerned about today, or tomorrow, or next week. What we're talking about is much larger than [President Bush's nominee as ambassador to the UN, John] Bolton, and it will live long after he's turned to dust. It really will. It may not be adopted for awhile. It may not be supported for awhile, but one day, it will.

One of the remarkable differences about today's world and the world after the Holocaust and after the Second World War, is that the leaders of the United States and of European States and the countries in the east, Japan and many others had experienced the horrors of that War, had recognized that civilization as we knew it had very nearly destroyed itself. But it was not only the War—before that the Depression, before that the inflation and the tragedies of the 1920s, before that the brutality of the Treaty of Versailles, and within 20 years, the First World War.

Now, the leaders of major states who form the United Nations and other international instruments knew that if civilization were to be saved they had to do better, and they knew it out of their personal experience and conviction and belief and faith. Today's leaders certainly don't have that personal experience. I don't believe they have that same idea of necessity, of conviction and determination, which possessed the leaders after World War II, which led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the human rights instruments.

There was question as to what are human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the best definition we're likely to get. It's a statement of principle. With all respect, I don't think it's a legal document; it's a statement of principle; it's a light on the hill.

The legal documents are conventions, of which there are many, designed to give legal force to the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And these are the conventions that relate to economic, political, social rights, the rights of women, the rights of children, the status of refugees, and a number of others. And, they have legal force.

If the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as such doesn't have legal force, a statement of ethical standards wouldn't have either. It would be a statement. It would be another light on the hill. Whether you want to say it's complementary, or part of, or essential for, may not be all that important, but it would be another light on the hill.

There might have been a suggestion—I hope I'm not misinterpreting Kathleen Mahoney, but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Article 29 does talk about responsibilities and Kathleen was saying, yes, responsibilities are very important. She believes in the responsibilities but is concerned about diminishing the progress made in relation to human rights. And, there seemed to me to be a suggestion that, if we could put it all into one document then we might be better off, and there might not be that conflict because it could be drafted in a way that would avoid it.

But it would be dangerous ground indeed to try to amend the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I know a dozen countries in Asia who would all have their own amendments. I think if one opened up the document and sought to amend it, we'd end up with no document because the United States would take one view, Britain would take another, France probably another, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia would have some contrary views. And I don't think they'd be able to reach an agreement in today's world. So, I wouldn't want to take the risk of opening up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As a statement of principle, it's fine.

The implementation of those principles has been adapted over time. Kathleen Mahoney was totally right to say our attitude to certain things, to women for example, has differed markedly over the 50 years. But so has our reaction to it. You accept a principle. What you need to apply that principle, to put it into effect, differs for a whole host of reasons as time passes and, as she pointed out, because attitudes change. We have a broader and a better view today, hopefully, than people had in 1948. We've responded to that. That's built into a special convention, which still derives its authority from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So, I don't think that there's an option to amend.

If one wants to advance an ethical statement, a statement of responsibilities, I really believe that's the only way to move forward.

I would be opposed to moving outside the United Nations because while the United Nations is as good or as bad as the leaders who make up its membership in today's world, people who are there today aren't going to be there forever. Hopefully, the United Nations will. But, Prime Minister Blair won't be. President Bush won't be. Presidents of the European Union won't be. The Prime Minister of Australia won't be. They'll move on.

To make that example hopefully clearer: if it were President Woodrow Wilson instead of President George Bush the Second, if it were President Roosevelt, if it were President Kennedy, if it were any of those three, I believe we would have progress. I believe the continuum of the efforts to establish the world governed by law rather than by power would have been continued over these past half dozen years and since 9/11. It wouldn't have been interrupted. It wouldn't have been cut short, because I think they understood the need for a common humanity, the need to embrace all people, that no matter how powerful a nation, a state may be, it cannot achieve security for itself, or for its own people, or for anyone else by just making a judgment by itself and saying, this is what must be done,; to hell with what anyone else thinks; to hell with what anyone else does; you're with us or you're against us. Roosevelt wouldn't have said that. Woodrow Wilson wouldn't have said that. President Kennedy wouldn't have said that. And I think they would have advanced.

So, if you don't see a possibility of advancing today, why say it's not going to fly? Attitudes can change, and sometimes they can change quite quickly and quite dramatically. Let us say that President Kennedy visited us again, with some of the great language and great speeches and his personality, and his words were some kind of a light on the hill, to many people not just in the United States. If he visits us again, and makes a speech saying, the United States must participate in and lead the United Nations. It is the only way my countrymen, Americans, can be secure. It is the only way we can advance a world governed by law rather than force of arms. And I would engage every leader, every country prepared to participate in their progress to see what reforms are needed to the United Nations, to see what changes must be embraced and to see what steps we can make to advance towards a better world.

I think if you took a poll 24 hours after that speech, you would find world opinion had changed. Somebody who today says, it won't fly, would be amongst the first to say, it'll fly. That's one speech, one man. Maybe you can't see it happening; you can't name the person who might do that. Maybe it won't be the next president or the one after.

If we're involved in public life we need to be optimists. Sometimes so many disillusionments may make us want to become a pessimists. The situation is just too gloomy. Fighting it would be just a waste of time. Why not go off and play golf or go fishing or forget the world in its entirety? But one must be an optimist. And therefore, one must believe that there will be people once again who will lead the world more securely. And they will want as one of the instruments that will help them, a statement on ethical standards, which can be embraced by all people of all religions anywhere in the world. And then they'll be grateful to the InterAction Council because we did some of the homework, some of the groundwork, which might have contributed a little to making their job just a fraction easier than it would have been without it.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.