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Civilization and its Discontents – The Price of Human Dignity

Prince El Hassan bin Talal
NEW YORK, USA: View of the conference room of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Almost as far back as the historical records tell, wars have been waged in the name of “civilization”. Conquests endeavored under the double aegis of colonialism and imperialism have been justified with references to “civilization,” but what of the term? I am reminded on this occasion of a lecture delivered in 1940 by the English philosopher, historian, and archaeologist Robin George Collingwood. Collingwood spoke of three elements of civilization, economic, social, and legal, which when combined, as Brett Bowden writes, give rise to “socio-political civilization, or a group or a collective’s capacity to organize and govern itself under a system of laws.”

The great potentiality of the pandemic to usher in an age of justice, reason, and rectitude appears to have been forsaken.

Civilization has not been doing very well as an organizing principle lately. The great potentiality of the pandemic to usher in an age of justice, reason, and rectitude appears to have been forsaken. “The civilized pursuit of wealth,” which is predicated both on the just and fair exchange of labor, goods, and services remains abhorrently absent, even in the face of rising inequalities and the accelerating but irreversible changes to Earth’s climate. “The idea of joint action,” a defining feature of any community, not least a community that purports to be international and one that does hold so much power, wilts when confronted with the realities of climate change, of the swelling numbers of the forcibly displaced, and of the globe’s many frozen conflicts. And “a society governed by law,” today’s so-called rules-based international order, constrains neither great, nor middle, nor small powers. One only need to ask Ukrainians, Palestinians, Iraqis, Libyans, Yemenis, Kashmiris, Afghans, or others to find out. 

In The Melian Dialogue, Thucydides writes that Athenian envoys sent to Melos justified Athens decision to invade and conquer the small island state, which, though a vassal of Sparta, had declined to join the war against Athens, by laying claim to a justice perverted. The envoys, as is well known, are recorded to have said, “We both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where there is equal power to enforce it, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” Regrettably, throughout the course of human history, there have been few other observations on the conduct of relations that have applied as frequently, as generally, and as accurately as that maxim has. At present, however, a palimpsest of geopolitical fault lines threatens a world order made fragile by the many, many hangovers of history. Yesterday’s isms – imperialism, colonialism, racism, and protectionism – and today’s isms – populism, ethno-nationalism, chauvinism, and sectarianism – cannot and must not be allowed to be brought together to undermine the rules-based international order, admittedly, one in need of peaceful revision, for there will be a price too great to pay.

Voluntary and equitable avenues for political, economic, and legal integration do allow justice to take root.

It appears to have fallen to Ambassador Martin Kimani, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, to best encapsulate the wisdom in allowing a society’s governing laws to govern. Speaking in front of the Security Council on February 22, 2022, Kimani recalled the birth of several dozens of states as empires receded. “Our borders were not of our own drawing, they were drawn in the distant, colonial metropoles of London, Paris, and Lisbon, with no regard to the ancient nations that they cleaved apart,” Kimani remarked. Emphasizing that choosing “to pursue states on the basis of ethnic, religious, or racial homogeneity” at independence would have meant that “we would still be waging blood wars these many decades later,” Kimani powerfully noted that “we chose to follow the rules […] of the United Nations Charter not because our borders satisfied us, but because we wanted something greater, forged in peace.” Agreeing to settle for borders need not mean the end of great nations: Voluntary and equitable avenues for political, economic, and legal integration do allow justice to take root.

When in 1988 and just as the Cold War was coming to an end, the late Sadruddin Aga Khan and I, as well as numerous other right-minded men and women, shepherded the Report of the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues through to publication, the feeling was that progress in the in the field of human dignity is progress in “a field where ideological differences, North-South problems, and East-West rivalries can be transcended.” After all, the United Nations General Assembly had in 1981 adopted by consensus a resolution relating to a New International Humanitarian Order in which it recognized “the importance of further improving a comprehensive international framework [that] takes fully into account existing instruments relating to humanitarian questions as well as the need for addressing those aspects [that] are not yet adequately covered.” We have never, as we are today, been so close to, yet so far from “winning the human race,” as the report, incidentally, was titled.

The time has come for a redefining of the conduct of our relations – of our relations with one another, whether as individuals, corporations, or nation-states...

Decades earlier, at the San Francisco event marking the establishment of the United Nations, the Chairman of the Delegation of Mexico, the late Ezequiel Padilla, had the following to say on the nascent United Nations Charter, “The Charter is not only an instrument of security against the horrors of war. It is also, for the peoples who have been fighting to uphold the principles of human dignity, an instrument of well-being and happiness against the horrors of peace without hope, in which men would be subjected to humiliating privations and injustices.” Padilla had also remarked: “In this Charter are gathered all the hopes for human solidarity. Henceforth, no nation need any longer be isolated in silence and darkness, in the indifference or complicity of the rest of the world. We are now met at the Forum of universal conscience.”  Haunting words, given the state of the world today. The time has come for a redefining of the conduct of our relations – of our relations with one another, whether as individuals, corporations, or nation-states, and of our relations with our planet, Earth.

It has now been 75 years since the founding of the United Nations and some thirty years since the end of the Cold War, and it is now evident that neither unipolarity, nor bipolarity, nor multipolarity can guarantee security, peace, or welfare. It is also evident that an international system of rules and laws built around the granting of “assurances to powerful states that the rules won’t matter if they break them,” as Samuel Moyn writes in The Washington Post, represents the greatest, gravest threat to global security and peace. What has also become evident is that we cannot be selective in our solidarity, compassion, and care. Human life is human life. Insecurity anywhere is a threat to security everywhere; a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. On display today is not a clash of civilizations, but the discontents of civilization. The price of human dignity is, however, a price worth paying.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.

About the Author

Prince El Hassan bin Talal

Prince El Hassan bin Talal

His Royal Highness of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
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The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more