Thinking about humanitarian responsibility


I am currently writing a paper/book chapter on humanitarian responsibility, commenting the UN's Millennium Declaration from a politico-theological perspective. There is lots to comment, but I am currently stuck to thinking and writing about the second article:

We recognize that, in addition to our separate responsibilities to our individual societies, we have a collective responsibility to uphold the principles of human dignity, equality and equity at the global level. As leaders we have a duty therefore to all the world’s people, especially the most vulnerable and, in particular, the children of the world, to whom the future belongs.

The leaders identify two kinds of responsibility here. On the one hand they are responsible to their national "constituency": this one is fairly straightforward. The other kind is trickier: a collective responsibility to uphold human dignity, equality and equity at the global level. How does such a responsibility come about? Is responsibility something we humans must accept as a premise, or rather something we have agreed upon and must now accept on that basis?

The way I look at this we have two options to conceive humanitarian responsibility. We can give human life a "true" meaning, i.e. that human life now is just as precious as it was, say, two thousand years ago. This is the ideal that all the declarations and human rights legislation reflect. If we do not like "true" meaning we have to accept that it is a relative thing: what it means to be human depends on convention, and its meaning can be different in different time and place. Two thousand years ago there were no human rights, so the people then were not human, or they had no rights, or both.

What it boils down to us this: either humanitarian responsibility has an ultimate basis or it does not have such a basis. If we accept true meaning we can do so only from a theistic worldview. If we reject it we must accept the fact that we are no more than what we make of ourselves: biological creatures, who came up with an idea of "humanity". As simple as that.



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