Podium: Our obligation to care and share

Hilde Johnson; Norwegian Minister of International Development to the Oslo meeting on Ethical Values in International Relations
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The Independent Culture
GRUB FIRST, then ethics", is a much quoted aphorism of Bertolt Brecht. Ethics may be felt to be a luxury when a man is starving, when the only thing on his mind is the struggle to survive, to feed his family, to keep alive. But this division is artificial, for the provision of food is a core issue in social ethics, since all other functions of human life depend on the ability to find enough to eat.

The freedom to lead a decent life, including freedom from hunger, from avoidable illness, from premature mortality, is dependent on having enough to eat. Hunger is caused by poverty, and poverty is one of the most urgent global ethical challenges facing the world today.

My concern is related to the fact that, in addition to causing hunger, poverty is in many cases one of the main causes of violent conflicts. In other words, poverty may lead to war. And war is the result of lack of ethical values in international relations. Thus any discussion of ethical values must take account of the most urgent challenge for us all: poverty.

Poverty affects a quarter of the world's population. Most of those who are affected are women and children. Poverty constitutes a massive violation of human rights. Poverty threatens the lives of individuals. Enjoying one's human rights does not mean begging for crumbs, but being at the table, taking part, participating, contributing, deciding, and feeling secure.

We must take issue with another factor that is preventing people from being at the table, from feeling secure: corruption. Corruption is stealing from the poorest, and it makes the rich even richer.

We have a moral duty to ensure that fewer of our fellow human beings live under degrading conditions. This is not only a question of our own interests. It is a matter of common interest.

Ethical values can be regarded as something abstract and utopian, and perhaps difficult to grasp. But ethical values also have their place in a debate on international relations. They are essential to all aspects of politics. Ethical values are part of politics. They shape the choices we make, and they constitute the basis for our decisions. Ethics are politics - in principle and in practice - in the field.

Fortunately, there is growing international awareness of the role of ethical values in politics. The discussion today has dealt with these questions, such as which ethical values are common to the international community, and how they matter in international relations.

What could be more fundamental to people's lives than basic ethical values such as human dignity and the rights of the individual human being?

Efforts to promote human development and respect for human rights are rooted in a fundamental belief in human dignity. Each individual has the same inherent worth. The overriding aim of many governments' work is to build a world in which every human being is guaranteed the right to life, to live in peace, and to have his or her basic needs fulfilled.

These are also universal human rights. Because the quest for human development and the pursuit of human rights are one and the same. Because here there is a common platform of ethical values.

My experience of Africa - where I grew up and where I later finished my studies in social anthropology - has convinced me that the dignity of human beings depends not only on civil and political rights, but also on economic, cultural and social rights. And that these rights are dependent on each other.

Some claim that promoting ethical values has a price. No, it does not. At least, not in dollars. Margaret Thatcher once said in a television interview that: "No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions. He had money as well..."

Her point is a good one, but for my part, I do not entirely agree with her. Money does not create good intentions. Being a Good Samaritan is a way of behaving, a way of thinking, an attitude. Being a Good Samaritan is about ethical values, yours and mine. This does not depend on affluence - it depends on our willingness to share, on our sense of responsibility.

At this point in human history we have a real opportunity to use the universality of human rights as a spur to concerted action for peace, justice and human development. To prevent violent conflicts and to fight poverty. Then perhaps "Grub first, then ethics" will no longer apply.

We have a universal platform of ethical values that should lead to globalisation of accountability. Because we all have a moral obligation to care - and to share.