Acceptance speech – Theo van Boven

Peace, development and human rights are essentially inter-related, inter-dependent and indivisible.

Let me first of all, also on behalf of my wife who shares this honour with me, express my gratitude to the Right Livelihood Foundation for inviting us to come to Stockholm in order to receive the Honorary Award for 1985. When the news of my selection reached us, this came as a complete and welcome surprise. Having been involved during a large part of my life in efforts to promote human rights, I am very honoured that these efforts have been recognized as in line with the very motives which inspired the creation of the Right Livelihood Foundation. As Jakob von Uexkull, the original sponsor of the Foundation stated: “Right Livelihood is to “live lightly” on the earth entrusted to us, not to use more than our fair share of its resources. It is a call to everyone of us to take personal responsibility for the consequences of our actions on the world and to create a society in which that is practically possible”.

These ideas of a fair share, of personal responsibility, of respect for fellow human beings and for the natural and living environment, are also basic human rights notions. The same ideas find expression in the Charter of the United Nations, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in numerous United Nations documents which seek to promote peace and justice. The United Nations Charter does not project human rights in a narrow and isolated context but in a mutual relationship with the maintenance of international peace and security and the promotion of economic and social cooperation and development. Peace, development and human rights are essentially inter-related, inter-dependent and indivisible.

At this august occasion I will share some thoughts with you and dwell on two issues which will, I hope, attract your attention, viz, (i) the threats to survival and (ii) the third system.

The threats to survival

Right livelihood is a way of life and a vocation. Right livelihood also means accepting and sharing responsibility for the preservation of life on this planet. Humankind as a whole is facing in a unprecedented and dramatic manner the hazards of total destruction. 40 years ago, a few months after the signing of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco, the explosion of atomic bombs over Japan with their immensely devastating effects demonstrated the terrible and fatal dimensions of the atomic age. Today strategies are being designed for the militarization of outer space and we are being warned that we find ourselves at the edge of perhaps the most far-reaching military threshold since the beginning of the atomic age. Precious as the notions of peace and justice may be and will be the keyword now is the very basic notion of survival.

It sometimes occurs to me to wonder – and the reference in the preamble of the United Nations Charter have led me to this thought – how future generations succeeding us (if there will be any) will judge our lifetime, our livelihood, our policies and priorities and the manner we acted as stewards of the world’s human, natural and other resources. If there will be human survival and if objective conditions would exist to reach an overall judgment of the predominant policies and priorities of our times, the verdict by future generations cannot but be harsh. How can it be explained and justified under any standards of justice that huge and ever increasing amounts of resources be allocated to the production of the most destructive conventional and nuclear arms while at the same time some 1 billion people are lacking the most basic needs and struggling daily for their survival. Although it would be too simplistic to assume that everything that could be saved by limiting military expenditure could easily be diverted into development efforts, there is nevertheless such an enormous disproportion as regards allocations of resources aimed at meeting basic human needs in comparison with resources directed at what are supposedly military security interests, that this situation is bound to be judged as a scandal by present and future generations.

In international relations and within many societies the philosophy of survival of the fittest, which is essentially a anti-human rights notion, and the dictates of the strongest are prevailing over the demands of peace and justice for all. The arms race and the aims of development have to be approached in their mutual and competitive relationship. While the frantic race towards nuclear conflagration and the imminent spread of nuclear weapons among nations poses a grave threat to the survival of humankind, this should not obscure the fact that for many millions the most immediate threat to survival is posed by various local, national and international conflicts which rage around the world and by the lack of the most basic needs of existence. As the World Council of Churches stated in 1983 at its sixth Assembly in Vancouver:

“The intersection of East-West and North-South conflicts results in massive injustice, systematic violation of human rights, oppression, homelessness, starvation and death for masses of people. Millions have been rendered stateless, expelled from their homes as refugees and exiles. Even without war, thousands perish daily in nations both rich and poor because of hunger and starvation. Human misery and suffering as a result of various forms of injustice have reached levels unprecedented in modern times”.

This leads once again to the inescapable question of today’s global priorities which appear to be gravely distorted. Against this background the Independent Commission on International Development Issues under the chairmanship of Willy Brandt stated quite aptly: “Our survival depends not only on military balance, but on global cooperation to ensure a sustainable biological environment, and sustainable prosperity based on equitably shared resources. Much of the insecurity in the world is connected with the division between rich and poor countries, grave injustice and mass starvation causing additional instability”.

I am quite aware that the laws of morality count very little for those who defend the laws of force. But I am also convinced that the laws of force which are at the basis of patterns of domination and policies of deterrence are, apart from being morally condemnable and ethically unjust, not capable of safeguarding peace and security in the long run. There are eminent scientists who, in good conscience and in a spirit of right livelihood, put to themselves and to the world pertinent questions about the implications of their research for humanity and for the natural and biological environment. These questions touch upon issues of fundamental existence and survival. There are leading economists who, also guided by a sense of responsibility and by profound notions of right livelihood, are questioning the priorities which are dictated by rampant militarism and by uncontrolled demands of the military-industrial complex. They have offered schemes for conversion of military expenditure to civilian production which would serve the rights and interests of the peoples of both developed and developing countries. There are conscientious lawyers who seek to give normative content to right livelihood, basing themselves on the right to peace and the right to development as foundations for a new social and human order at national and international levels. In this respect it may be recalled that a body of legal experts from all parts of the world, entrusted in the framework of the United Nations with the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted about a year ago by consensus in connection with its interpretative comments on the right to life the following statement: “The production, testing, possession, deployment and use of nuclear weapons should be prohibited and recognized as crimes against humanity”. Lawyers, philosophers and theologians have in the past developed doctrines of a “just war”, a concept often abused and now largely written off as legally unacceptable and to be substituted by the concept of a “just peace”. New emphasis and a new orientation is being directed at what a “just peace” means and what it requires. It is definitely not the peace of a graveyard.

The third system

In would be erroneous if the global and structural issues facing us today would lead us to abandon our responsibilities as individual human beings so as to indulge ourselves in an attitude of “laisser faire, laisser aller”. Such an attitude would be fatalistic for two reasons. First, it would assume that the management of the welfare and interests of humankind could suitably be left to institutions and mechanisms which are controlled by the established political and economic powers. I for one am not confident that the major powers which dominate national and international society are always mindful of the best interests of the people. In fact, a wealth of arguments and examples can be adduced to corroborate this view. The second reason why we cannot afford to be ruled out as responsible human beings is that, in spite of global and structural conditions which affect the community of nations and large sectors of humankind, work on the grass roots level does count and does have an impact on relationships between human beings and may constitute a sign of hope and encouragement.

It is from this perspective that we see evolving what by the International Foundation for Development Alternatives (IFDA) has been aptly denominated as “the third system”. This third system is of a different nature than the first and second systems which are constituted respectively by the inter-state and inter-governmental structures and by a network of transnational corporations. The first and second systems represent political, economic and military powers and often go hand in hand. The third system is envisaged to serve the rights and interests of individuals and peoples, in particular the underprivileged, the deprived, the persecuted, the people having no voice. The third system could also be seen as a system of right livelihood, as a system of solidarity and concern that takes at heart the common standards of achievement enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in other documents of the United Nations setting out principles and programmes for a new human and social order at national and international levels. In the third system we find groups and organizations that defend the human factor and advocate a peoples oriented approach instead of relying on domination by power, strategies of deterrence and the laws of force. This system has no fixed structure but can be considered as a broad movement emanating from the grass roots of society. It comprises among others, religious workers, trade union people, workers in the field of education and development and all those who are active in promoting and defending the rights of the deprived and who work for their liberation and self-determination and for a more just society. Peace movements, environmental activists and numerous groups and organizations that expose violations of human rights belong to this movement, as well as women’s organizations and defenders of the rights of minorities and of indigenous populations.

Having worked for a considerable period of my life with the United Nations, which is predominantly an inter-governmental system of cooperation, I have always considered the non-governmental organizations and private groups as indispensable partners of the World Organization for the proper carrying out of its responsibilities. I have always tried to open up channels of communication between the United Nations and these non-governmental partners in order to maximize the impact of the peoples interests. This was of course not always appreciated by governmental circles. These experiences convinced me very strongly that all efforts are needed to strengthen what we call the third system. In recent years, after my departure from the United Nations, I got involved in some of these efforts which I will mention very briefly in order to illustrate the operation of the third system. Thus, the European Human Rights Foundation is supporting through modest grants a large number of specific human rights projects and actions, preferably of an innovative nature and with impact on the grass roots, in many parts of the world. International Alert, a Standing International Forum on Group Conflict, Development and Human Rights, seeks to draw attention on problems of group conflict which seriously affects human rights, inhibit development and result in mass killings and even genocide and aims to focus on such emergency situations as prevailing in Sri Lanka and Uganda. The International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa has as its primary objectives to provide aid for the legal defence of victims of unjust legislation and oppressive and arbitrary procedures in South Africa and Namibia as well as to support their families and dependants. The International Commission of Humanitarian Inquiry into the conditions of displaced persons in Afghanistan identifies and assesses the needs of people lacking the assistance of the official inter-governmental community and relying for their survival on humanitarian aid by non-governmental agencies and groups.

All these efforts which serve as examples and illustrations of the many ways in which the third system operates, have in common that they seek to strengthen, to substitute or to redress where official systems of government, administration and protection are inadequate, deficient or unjust. In many instances it is crucial that, as a first step and for the sake of raising awareness and concern, barriers of silence be broken, patterns of injustice be identified and facts become known about the affected people. In this respect the role of the media and of investigative journalism can hardly be overestimated. However, the third system should not solely consist of crying voices in the wilderness – important as such voices may be – but also develop mechanisms of pressure, influence and cooperation with organizations and institutions that may exercise leverage. The third system cannot operate effectively by remaining totally aloof as regards the power interests embodied in the first and second systems. The International Foundation for Development Alternatives (IFDA) elaborated a few years ago on the basis of its “Third System Project” a blueprint for mechanisms of implementation which I consider very helpful and realistic. Central in this scheme is the notion of accountability and the establishment of mechanisms to enforce accountability. It was stated by IFDA: “The principle of accountability is an expansion of the rights of human beings, as individuals (human rights) and as societies (people’s rights). It is an active concept. It calls for citizens to challenge, with courage and militancy, a power structure alienated from them. It is an instrument of democracy”. Much more could be and was said on this score, but let us retain for present purposes that the methods of critical dialogue and challenge are key elements in the relationships of the third system with the established powers.

What conclusions can be drawn from this for the United Nations. There are at present strong ideological currents and powerful governmental policies that move away from multilateral cooperation and consider the United Nations irrelevant or at best of marginal importance. In recent months a great deal was said and written about the United Nations on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the World Organization. I will not repeat all the arguments put forward to assess the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the United Nations, but I wish only to stress that from the perspective of the third system the United Nations, in spite of its serious shortcomings, carries great potentialities and deserves our strong support. In this respect I may highlight two factors which make the United Nations of crucial importance for devising and implementing third system strategies. First and foremost, we should never overlook that United Nations has elaborated over the years a large body of international standards as well as programmes for international action and cooperation in such areas as human rights, the elimination of racial and sexual discrimination, arms control and disarmament, environment, development, the habitat, population and in many other fields affecting the human condition. These standards and these programmes for action and cooperation can usefully serve as important tools in the hands of the actors of the third system in as much as they can be invoked to measure the compliance by national and international authorities.They can also be invoked to challenge the authorities and to hold them accountable. The conventions signed and ratified by Member States as well as the declarations and programmes of action adopted and proclaimed by the United Nations constitute a frame of reference for the actors of the third system and they give international legitimacy to these actors in so far as the latter utilize the tools made available by the United Nations. I would therefore submit that in any strategy of the third system effective use should be made of the standards and programmes elaborated by the United Nations.

The third system may also use the United Nations in another way, both for its own benefit and for the benefit of the World Organization. It can make through the United Nations an input and an impact by launching ideas, by making suggestions and proposals, by transmitting information, by expressing concerns and, as the case may be, by activities of exposure. The United Nations provides, also for the nongovernmental sector, a platform and channel of communication as well as a forum for cooperation and dialogue. I am of course keenly aware of the various obstacles of a political nature which the actors of the third system encounter when they seek to utilize the United Nations. But I have also witnessed that solid expertise, dedication and perseverance pay off in the long run and have widened the potentials that are available to the actors of the third system in United Nations fora. The third system is not necessarily a means to substitute the official system. The third system is not incompatible with the official system but is a complementary mechanism. It is dynamic and multi-coloured; it is people oriented and inspired by principles of solidarity. It is nourished and also legitimized by the values enshrined in great documents on human rights and fundamental freedoms.

It was a pleasure and a privilege to present to you some concerns and some ideas which are often in my mind and come close to my heart. They are, I think, not unrelated to the conceptof right livelihood and I hope we can carry forward our work and our vocation under conditions of life which hold good prospects for present and succeeding generations.

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