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globe logo     Caravan: Newsletter of the Alliance for a Responsible, Plural and United World
Number 8 June 2001

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"Happy People", Wakin

"Is the term Unity at world level achievable? Has not the United Nations shown how disunited it can be? Could we not emphasize the brotherhood of humankind in 'collectives' of varied cultures, leaving the United Nations to struggle with the 'unity' concept?"
Sureshwar D. Sinha (India)

An intercultural and multilingual contribution to the framing of a Charter of the Alliance

Syros Workshop, Greece (30th October - 4th November 2000)
Edith Sizoo (Netherlands)

From Naxos to Syros

In October 1998, the translators of the initial declaration of the Alliance, titled the "Platform1", and a number of resource persons were invited to come together on the island of Naxos in Greece. The purpose was to let them share their difficulties with the cultural interpretation of that text which they encountered when translating it into some twenty -mainly non-Western- languages. Through an in-depth study of the underlying implicit meaning of words, the participants exposed questionable cultural presuppositions which were prevalent in the Platform, as in many international or so-called 'universal' texts.

The difficulties encountered proved to be not only problems of translation, but -- more fundamentally -- differences in views on the relations between human beings, and between the human being and society, nature and the cosmos2.

Consequently, the question came up to what extent a founding text of an international movement would be able to mobilise people from various different cultural and historical contexts if such a text is conceived in one or two international (dominant) languages, i.e. western languages.

How would such a text be able to reverberate in the hearts of millions of people, who long for a dignified life, if it does not reflect the main preoccupations people feel day in day out? Given the diversity of political, economic, social and cultural contexts which our planet harbours, are there preoccupations which people share sufficiently to serve as a basis for a text acceptable to all?

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"Earth Spirituality", King Dodge

The rights and responsibilities of humankind

In February 2000, a first proposal for a Charter of the Alliance was published. Its purpose was to respond to the need for a "third pillar of international life" setting out "the rights and responsibilities of humankind in the face of the challenges of the 21st century". This proposal resulted from a first phase (1994-1998) of consultations in the various continents, conducted by André Levesque.

The authors of the draft for the Proposed Charter (André Levesque, his team, and Pierre Calame) explain that while working on it they gradually came to "structure the proposed Charter around five major relations, linking together correlatives: unity and diversity, myself and others, freedom and responsibility, being and having, moving and unmoving. (See Caravan N°4: Earth Charter dossier)

The five fundamental principals proposed in February 2000

  1. To preserve humankind in its wealth and the planet in its integrity, diversity and unity must be conciliated at every level.

  2. Recognition of others is the foundation of all relationships and all peace.

  3. Acceptance of the constraints entailed by the preservation of the common good is indispensable to the exercise of freedom.

  4. Material development is at the service of human development.

  5. Innovation is not an aim in itself, it is a means to serve human development and the safekeeping of the planet.

Given the cultural difficulties brought to the fore by the Naxos Group, it was proposed to compose an intercultural group which, on the one hand, would submit the proposed draft Charter of the Alliance to an intercultural and multi-lingual 'test', and on the other hand take up the challenge of the recommendation of the Naxos Group.

The number of participants taking part in the process was 23. As some of them grew up with more than one mother tongue, they covered together 25 languages: 10 African languages, 7 Asian languages, 2 languages of the Arab world, 2 South-American languages and 4 European languages. They gathered in November 2000 on the Island of Syros (Greece).

Herebelow are the main question the participants of the Syros group asked themselves with respect to the Charter issued by the Alliance:

  • Conceiving in terms of relations is fruitful. However, as the latter are presented as dual relations, they do not easily link up with non-western cultural and religious world-views which are by nature more holistic, i.e. which consider everything being related to everything.

  • If the 5 principles do not immediately call to mind the most urgent and concrete problems which the majority of human beings on earth experience, then they risk to be of little value as factors stirring people to action.

  • The fundamental problem of "power" in relations between human beings, between citizens and their government, between states, is not sufficiently brought up.

  • The phrasing of the five principles in the proposition for a Charter of February 2000 and the comments do not provide a clear idea about how to make them operational.

  • The 5 principles are formulated in sentences which require rereading several times over in order to understand the sense and implications. It would be preferable to restrict oneself to simple notions which provoke a whole series of positive connotations and to link these to each other. In fact, if one agrees on the content of the notions retained, one can "transpose" them in different languages in forms which are culturally adequate.

  • The approach adopted by the authors of the text is homocentric (it is the human being that manages the future and the planet) which is not everywhere understood or accepted. Hence the pertinence of a multicultural Charter, not "translated", but transposed in other languages and adapted to different cultural and linguistic contexts.

"Responsibility", "plurality, "solidarity" and "unity"

To name a movement, to give its basic text a title, is an act of great importance: it is a symbolic act that endows it with meaning. How do the concepts "responsibility", plurality", solidarity" and "unity" echo when translated in African, Asian and Latin-American languages? The adjectives chosen do they correspond with the deep-seated aspirations of the people everywhere on the planet? Do they trigger off a feeling of being obliged to bring about transformations in the years to come? In short, are they mobilizing ... ... everywhere?

Reactions from different countries show that anyone of the ethical principles chosen by the Alliance in order to distinguish itself through its name is, in certain instances -- culturally speaking -- self-evident, and in other ones not making much sense. In both instances they are not particularly mobilizing.

After a good many discussions the Syros group has asked itself why, in fact, these ethical principles were chosen and not other ones? And what is more: is it really desirable to refer to a movement by ethical principles? Rather than preaching morality, would it not be better to find a title that would immediately call to mind the main objectives of the Alliance, its dream, its utopian view?

The basic question the Alliance asks itself is: how to meet the challenges in front of which humanity finds itself on the threshold of the 21st century? On basis of which common guiding principles can the people of the earth act together, despite their diversity? How to mobilise them?

A new holistic and integrated paradigm

Before they tackled the question what unites the people of the earth, participants of the Syros group tried first to detect which guiding principles for the proper functioning of society are the most dominating ones in their own respective contexts.

The main preoccupations brought forward by the participants and forming, for them, "the challenges of the 21st century", are obviously strongly related to the specific economic, social and political situations in their respective contexts. Where for the majority the bare minimum to survive is not assured, one insists on an equitable sharing of the resources of the earth, on economic security being guaranteed. Likewise, where freedom of political expression is hardly existing, democracy and civil rights are stressed. And where one feels oneself always hindered in the exercise of one's national freedom, questioning the domination of external forces is considered an important challenge. Along those lines one can find common interests and challenges in African, Asian and Latin-American countries.

However, since civilizations distinguish themselves above all by their specific cultural and religious interpretations of life and of relations between the human being and her/his environment, principles guiding efforts to respond to those common interests and challenges can differ. Consequently, while the "mainstream" in the Western world is still thinking in homocentric terms of engineering, asserting that the human being can and must plan, manage and control her/his destiny, nature and the course of events, the draft text for a Charter coming from India stresses a "new spirituality, a new holistic and integrated paradigm, a new global dharma, or cosmic law." And while African participants find the notion of "tolerance" too weak and bring out the importance of solidarity understood as mutual obligation and as interdependence, the notions of tolerance and harmony are considered essential in Malaysia. For Thai Buddhists the moral notion of detachment from desires and earthly goods is an important guiding principle, while in the Chinese context the quest for affluence is perfectly acceptable just as re-enchanting the world and feasting is in South America.

Discussions of the guiding principles in the different contexts, their cultural nuances, their implications for social practices and their pertinence to what is going on at global level, have led the Syros group to the conclusion that what underlies all preoccupations and all principles, what is also most fundamentally in danger, what, consequently would have to be the main concern of a Charter, is the entitlement to life itself.

Life is not created by the human being. (S)he participates in it, (s)he shares it not only with other human beings, but also with other forms of life. Life is the "sacred energy" which links everything to everything "from the tiniest sub-atomic particle of the earth to the most distant and massive star." "Earth, our home, a most beautiful planet, is a living eco-system which supports myriad life forms. We, as conscious and intelligent human beings, are the children of this eco-system. As it nourishes and sustains us, it is our responsibility to nurture and protect it." (Draft Charter from South Asia, see Caravan N°4: South Asian Yearnings)

A principle that unites: entitlement to life

The concern of the Charter of the Alliance would, therefore, have to go further than an "Earth Charter". That "third pillar of international life" would have to focus on what surpasses the environmental issues and all sorts of economic, social and political questions related to it. Certainly, the latter are of great importance and must be addressed, even urgently, but they arise from the main issue which is the heart of all the other ones: respect for life itself. From that respect follows a personal and collective responsibility for a durable life of our earth and all that lives on it as well as for a dignified life of all human beings.

Such a concern would do away with the homocentric spirit of earlier drafts of basic texts for the Alliance (which was the most important criticism expressed by non-western allies with respect to the Platform of the Alliance and the proposition for a Charter of February 2000).

A Charter that sets out from this vision would be "universal" in the real sense of the word: it touches on all that exists in the world, the visible as well as the invisible. It defends something that is beyond human understanding and human engineering, but never too big to be intensely experienced deep in oneself.

It follows from the observations of the participants of the Syros group that this basic principle carries within itself with respect to human relations the need to create and leave space to the other as well as a sense of co-responsibility for her/his blossoming. The magnitude of that space and the sharing out of that responsibility will vary from one context to another, but are everywhere an integral part of the entitlement to life.

A possible common ground would be the roots of a tree

It is from this vision that the principles chosen at Syros and the instruments selected to implement them ensue -- Dignity, Solidarity, Diversity, Equality, Peace, Responsibility -- as a possible common ground, a content, which can be 'transposed' into different languages in culturally adequate forms3. To make the idea clear, the following image was used: this common ground would be the roots of a tree, like a Banyan Tree or a banana tree, which produces a number of trunks in different languages which contain the application of the proposed guiding principles in a culturally adapted way.

Next steps

The participants of the Syros group are perfectly aware of the fact that their contribution is only one among the many contributions emanating from the various 'colleges', thematic workshops and continental groups in the Alliance.

Their proposal to form a drafting committee for a final proposal for a Charter of the Alliance has been taken up by the co-ordinator of the World Assembly of the Alliance in Lille, Pierre Calame. This committee will make an in-depth analysis of all the comments and all the proposals of the various groups within the Alliance in order to formulate a text which takes into account all the headwork done by the allies. This final proposal will be submitted to the World Assembly of the Alliance in December 2001.

"These notions form a part of our tradition to show solidarity and to respect people who are different from us. But those who had been received as friends proved to be cunning people, who slowly reduced our people to a state of slavery, transformed our countries into colonies, exploited and plundered our riches, imposed their cultures and religions... Africans long to rediscover themselves. That is where their priority lies."

"Through the texts a cry from the South calls out against every form of oppression, against domination of the Western model based on the egoistic pursuit of profit, against consumerism, against cultural invasion.

Théophile Amouzou (Togo)

1 The Platform is available at: International Facilitation Team of the Alliance, c/o. FPH, 38 rue Saint Sabin, 75011 Paris, France.
2 Naxos meeting report has been published in the book "What words do not say", E. Sizoo, 1999, Paris, Editions Charles Léopold Mayer.
3 The text of the Charter proposed by the group of Syros can be obtained from: Cultures network, 174, rue Joseph II, 1000 Brussels, Belgium - E-mail:

Participants to the process (Syros Group): Luis Carlos ARBOLEDA, Bolivia; Aurélien ATIDEGLA, Benin; Nicholas ANASTASSOPOULOS, Greece; Vanda CHALYVOPOULOU, Greece; CHAN Ngai Weng, Malaisya; Aurauco CHIHUAILAF, Chile/France; Valmir DE SOUZA, Brazil; Hamidou DIALLO, Senegal; Jarlath D'SOUZA, Bangladesh; Hamilton FARIA, Brazil; Youssoupha GUEYE, Senegal; Théophile AMOUZOU, Togo; Mohammed MOUKALED, Lebanon; Dieudonné N'KOUM, Cameroon; Makarand PARANJAPE, India; Sureshwar D. SINHA, India; Djamila TELLIA, Algeria/France; Larry THOMPSON, United States; Gerald WANJOHI, Kenya; ZHAO Yi Feng, China; Yolanda ZIAKA, Greece. Coordinator: Edith SIZOO, Netherlands; Observer: Catherine GUERNIER, France; Secretariat and local arrangements: Nicole FRAEYS; Yolanda & Vassilis ZIAKA

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