Human Rights: the ethical underpinning of globalisation?

Focus on Rights seminar series

Delivered by
Tim Costello, World Vision Australia
22 March 2005 - Adelaide Town Hall

Audio Transcript

Introduction: Elizabeth Ho, Director, The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre

Our international patron Nelson Mandela said

There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere.

The Hawke Centre at the University of South Australia is privileged to be commencing its Focus on Rights series with a speaker who needs little introduction and who has walked the walk and talked the talk on behalf of so many who are not free.

We intend through this series to ask all Australians to consider what rights mean –not as an abstract notion but as an experience. We intend to probe whether Australia should like many other countries consider a Bill of Rights. We will consider issues like the rights of all peoples not to be subjected to chemical warfare, pollution and land mine technologies. And we will seek out well informed perspectives on the world refugee diaspora, human rights and the rule of law.

Closer to home, we have a person in Tim Costello, now Chief Executive of World Vision Australia, whose sense of rights vs. injustice is strongly honed.

Tim’s CV is richly endowed with the evidence of social conscience. From his decision to become a Baptist Minister through to his leadership of the organisation Urban Seed – aiding the urban poor. Between the lines on the page, one recognises a life of service, determination and dedication but with lots of questions and many challenges to the comfortable and the complacent.

He has worked on the hearts and minds of many Australians on tough domestic issues such homelessness, problem gambling, reconciliation and substance abuse and caused us all to understand that our fortunate country needs to lift its game to avoid creating an underclass that never escapes these circumstances.

On the other side of his life, Tim and his wife Merridie have raised a family of three children and he has written several books –something universities always like to see.

Currently, Tim’s passion for justice has compelled him to experience the lives of the poor in the Philippines, the Sudan, Cambodia, Brazil, Indonesia and East Timor. Most recently he has returned from tsunami affected regions to work on our consciences yet again – and the Australian response ,as we know, has been magnificent.

What he saw and felt on these trips has caused him to think deeply about challenging global poverty and tsunami has stimulated this evening’s lecture.

It gives me great pleasure to invite Mr Tim Costello to speak with you.

Tim Costello, CEO, World Vision Australia

Chancellor Klingberg, Professor Lowitja O’Donoghue, Dr Basil Hetzel, Elizabeth Ho,

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the Kaurna people, the ancestral owners of this land on which we meet.
It is an honour and privilege to be invited to share with you some of my experiences following the tragedy of the Asia tsunami of December 26 — both in Asia and Australia.

I trust that the current series of lectures and seminars at the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre focusing on human rights will be a significant part of the national and international debate on our role in the world, our shared humanity and our responsibility to one another.

A wave of destruction

I arrived in Sri Lanka just two days after the catastrophic tsunami levelled village after village across the Indian Ocean. As I travelled with World Vision staff on the road south from the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, we drove past what was left of the Queen of the Sea passenger train on the way to the town of Galle. The train had been crowded, as any traveller on the sub-continent will find familiar, with around 1,500 people packed into the cars returning to Galle for holy Poya (full moon) day.

It was, I believe, the worst rail disaster in history. Yet still such a small story amid the devastation that stretched from Somalia to Aceh.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but after two immense walls of water first ripped the train from the tracks, then hurled it like a toy another 100 metres inland, there were only around 200 survivors found alive.

When I arrived in Galle, home to a once thriving tourist industry and a famed, but now destroyed, cricket ground, I was surrounded by those suffering hunger, whose homes were destroyed, who had lost loved ones, had barely escaped the waves and were suffering a variety of injuries.

Galle was a scene of utter devastation. Bodies were piled everywhere and I saw soldiers hacking off the fingers of dead children before mass burials — so they could keep a small genetic record of those they had covered in the graves.
As is always the case, television captures but a fraction of the scale and sense of any disaster. Journalist after journalist commented that nothing had prepared them for the scale of the tragedy. And I don’t think this line was lightly written onto the cue card. The scenes were like those from a Hollywood disaster movie. And the smell of burning bodies was something that was hard to get out of my clothes – and impossible to forget.

Returning from such utter human desperation and need, I must confess I found it hard to see how Australians and the global community could respond in any way comparable to the need on the ground.

Humanitarian workers must practice a complex psychological balance when returning from scenes of human tragedy and atrocities. Optimism and idealism need to be maintained to carry out the task of meeting the needs of those affected. But a certain realism must temper this in the face of the fact that, at home, the political or moral will is all too often not up to the task of meeting the needs of those who suffer, let alone tackling the economic or political causes of such disasters.
Nevertheless, those who see such events cannot do other than witness to the tragedy; to appeal to whatever concept of common humanity exists, that those of us who have much must not forget those who have been stripped of everything.
As we are all now aware, Australia’s response to the Asia tsunami was of such an extent that, while it would be perverse to suggest that it was in proportion — as if such devastation and loss of life could ever be nullified by any response — it was nevertheless similarly overwhelming and unexpected. And it was also out of all proportion to any other mass humanitarian appeal in our history.

It was, I believe, a profoundly ethical response to our neighbours in need.

As the appeal gathered strength, I likened the breadth of the response to winning the trifecta. For the first time, individuals, business and the government outperformed even our most ambitious expectations.

Sympathy and solidarity

But not everyone shared my sense of profound optimism over this outpouring.

Those who were perhaps a little more cynical than myself saw the rock concerts, cricket matches and celebrity-studded telethons as an exercise in self-congratulatory back-slapping.

How could, one might paraphrase their questions, a nation which has allowed and even approved of the cruel and degrading treatment of asylum seekers, ignored the incarceration of David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib in the legal mystery of Guantanamo Bay, and probably couldn’t much detail the suffering of those in Sudan, the Congo and northern Uganda, how could these same people be practicing anything other than a rite of national self-congratulation, rather than be acting from genuine compassion?

Of course, this question is as old as time, if not at least dating back to the first rudimentary discussions of human ethics. But to query acts of compassion based on inconsistency can lead to reductio ad absurdum.

In the movie Collateral, Tom Cruise plays, Vincent, a hit man visiting Los Angeles who has five people to kill in a night. He forces Max, a taxi driver played by Jamie Fox, to drive him to each of his destinations.

Max starts to freak out after the first man is killed, and the dialogue is particularly caustic.

Max: Well, who was he?

Vincent: What do you care? Have you ever heard of Rwanda?

Max: Yes, I know Rwanda.

Vincent: Well, tens of thousands killed before sundown. Nobody's killed people that fast since Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Did you bat an eye, Max?

Max: What?

Vincent: Did you join Amnesty International, Oxfam, Save the Whales, Greenpeace, or something? No. I off one fat Angelino and you throw a hissy fit.

Max: Man, I don't know any Rwandans.

Vincent: You don't know the guy in the trunk, either.

These, of course, can be good questions. Were one formulating a consistent ethic of compassion, one might welcome areas where this was not adequately rigorous. However, I have yet to meet someone who has managed to, within their limits, act equally compassionately across all of their human endeavours.

Compassion, like solidarity, comes more from our unique, human responses to varying experiences of suffering and injustice, than a fully worked out ethical worldview.

Don’t misunderstand me, please. Do all you can to ask how you can best respond to the suffering and injustice in the world. But we must not engage in the crude “calculus of suffering”, as Naomi Klein described the debate post-September 11 over whether the outpouring of compassion was disproportionate or, due to the atrocities elsewhere in the world, actually racist. “Surely,” Klein said at the time, “the challenge is to attempt to increase the global reserves of compassion rather than parsimoniously police them”.

The response to the Asian tsunami was, I believe, a profound moral moment in Australian life. A time when the “global reserves of compassion” filled noticeably. And all of us concerned with human rights must steward this compassion with as much care and encouragement as we can.

Those of us within the humanitarian community are inspired and guided by the articles contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And when the global community, intuitively captures the spirit of Article 25, “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family . . and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”, then that is a precious opportunity for us all to move ourselves and our compatriots from compassion to commitment, and from sympathy to solidarity.

Compassion since September 11

There has been much written about the declining social capital in Western societies since September 11. Certainly, in the wake of September 11, Bali and Madrid, a certain level of fear or anxiety was quite simply a natural human response. Yet, this fear of the Other has in some ways been seized upon, in a way Thomas Hobbes would have recognised well, for political issues and in political campaigns.

As Richard Nixon once famously said, quoting Leonardo da Vinci, “People react to fear not love. They don’t teach that in Sunday school, but it’s true.”

Corey Robin, author of Fear: A Political History, commented wistfully on ABC Radio National last year that there “was a time when the President of the United States tried to rally people against living in fear, and created the four freedoms, one of which was the freedom from fear”.

Robin commented that the increased climate of fear has fallen unevenly in his home country.

Arab Americans, Muslim Americans and immigrants who are Arab or Muslim, they have borne the brunt of reduced freedoms, reduced rights. They’re the ones who are being thrown into jail and detained and deported and so forth. Most American citizens who are white middle-class are not experiencing that at all. The worst that those of us who are white Americans have to endure is sometimes a long line at an airport. So it’s not that we’ve sacrificed our freedoms collectively for the sake of our security, it’s that we’ve asked the most vulnerable among us to bear the costs of freedom for all of us, and I think that’s a slight twist on the Hobbesian calculus, but points even more clearly to the injustice of our present situation.

Eerily, Robin may well have been commenting on the Australian situation, where the government has deprived the rights of asylum seekers, not so much as a result of the assumed illegal acts, but as a message to those who might follow in their footsteps.

Article 14 of the Convention mentions that “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

And one wonders whether the “right to seek” has been as undermined as the “right to enjoy asylum from persecution”.
However, those social commentators who said that, in response to global crises and uncertainty, Australians had become more inwardly focused and xenophobic, missed an important movement in the soul of Australians.

World Vision is well placed to comment, as the nation’s largest charitable organisation, receiving around half of all private Australian donations for overseas aid. Any significant change in the public’s response to World Vision’s cause is likely to be a good barometer of change in the public mood. And the change has been significant.

Around 300,000 Australians now make regular monthly contributions towards World Vision’s work around the world. Remarkably, over 100,000 or 40% of these people made a commitment to do so in the two years following the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Is this simply reflective of an increase in charitable giving overall? The facts say ‘no’. In 2001, giving to domestic charities increased by 6.5%. In the same period, giving to address global poverty increased by a staggering 15%.

Furthermore, independent public opinion tracking research commissioned by World Vision shows that the proportion of Australians who agree with statements such as “Charities can make a long term difference in the lives of the poor” and “Everyday people like me can change the lives of poor people overseas” has increased dramatically. These figures rose by up to 26% from 2000 to 2004. And I believe that after the Asia tsunami, the figure will be even higher.

What these figures appear to suggest, and the response to the tsunami perhaps confirms, is that we feel more connected, not less, to the rest of humanity. We seem to sense that the fabric of civilisation is delicate, and when it tears, it can affect us all in some way. Social capital – those levels of trust, compassion, self-sacrifice and connection in the community – can in fact rise, when everything tells us they should be falling. While history will tell us that social capital, the stuff of civil society, can disintegrate in times of economic and political stress, it can also well up in such periods, as part, perhaps, of a human defence mechanism, or simply as a product of our innate hope and optimism.

Strengthening solidarity

According to research carried out by Reuters, in the first six weeks following the tsunami, there were more media references to the disaster than the “top ten forgotten emergencies” in the previous year, as Reuters described them. Think about it – combine all the media references to Sudan, northern Uganda, West Africa, the DRC, Chechnya, Haiti, the HIV/Aids crisis, Nepal, Columbia and all infectious diseases. Add them all up and they still didn’t get the coverage of the tsunami in just six weeks.

Now I understand there will be at least two ways of looking at this. We can treat this social capital as a fixed resource. Just as a financial resource, once spent, diminishes. Perhaps compassion is the same. There is only so much to go around, and those who are victims of these “Top Ten Forgotten Crises”, will suffer from the diminished reserves.

But let’s think about whether this is an adequate way of measuring such a thing as compassion. Consider love, for instance. The more I love my wife doesn’t mean I have less for my children. Or trust. I won’t say to a friend who wants to borrow my car, “Sorry, mate, my trust is all in use with my family this week. Can’t help you.”

Compassion, similarly, while not infinite, is not a fixed resource like funds in a bank. In fact, the more love, trust and compassion that is well spent, the more of it there is to go around.

In responding so generously and in overwhelming numbers, the Australian public has invested their compassion with the aid community as a ‘sacred trust’, to effectively and efficiently respond to such great humanitarian need. And if the international community gets the tsunami response right – it will create a new opportunity, a new era in which we have the ‘moral imagination’ and possibly the ‘political will’ to respond to poverty and suffering beyond our shores.

Nelson Mandela, International Patron of the Hawke Centre, spoke recently at an anti-poverty rally in London’s Trafalgar Square.

“Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural”, he said. “It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity; it is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”

With such trust invested in Australia’s response to this current disaster, if we get things wrong we will forfeit this tide of goodwill and squander a precious opportunity. And let us not forget that those who will suffer the most will be the world’s poor.

Today their suffering is every bit as extraordinary as the toll the tsunami wreaked.

It takes less than 4 days for the same number of children who died in the tsunami to die because of poverty. Every day 29,000 under-fives die from largely preventable diseases, resulting in 10.6 million deaths a year.

Yet if we get this right we can build on the public goodwill and increase the public’s concern for the plight of the world’s poor. For the first time in history, we have the opportunity to halve global poverty through the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

Thus far, our actual commitment has not lived up to the promise that both the Australian Government and international community made in 2000. The tsunami put the needs of some of the world’s poorest people on the public agenda. We must not lose this momentum when the stakes are so high.

Some public attention has been focused on aid agencies such as World Vision. Yet we are not alone. Governments such as our own – which has committed $1 billion in aid and loans to Indonesia – are also in the spotlight.

In the media environment now, there is certainly the risk that any sign of problems will be seized upon and used to undermine the goodwill Australians have shown.

This is the first challenge for the humanitarian community: to maximise our experience in relief and reconstruction and then to tell that story to Australians.

The second challenge is to move the sympathy we have shown to a neighbourly solidarity. Studies on charitable giving in Australia and the US point to the role civic and intellectual involvement builds connections between one another locally, but also grows a greater sense of responsibility to those we don’t know, whether at home or overseas. In fact, some research suggests that membership of voluntary association has a greater impact on household income than educational attainment.

Ethics and Globalisation

A number of years ago, at a conference at Victor Harbour, I spoke at a gathering of Heads of State and Commonwealth agencies on the impact of globalisation. I talked of what is, I believe, our naïve trust in the hidden hand of global capital to guide us to a better future. As I sketched out the poverty of a view of our life which contains only states, markets and consumers.

At the end of my address, many of these heads of agencies confessed a similar feeling of unease about where they were taking Australia, or where it was being taken under their watch. They mourned a loss of meaning, trust and loyalty, within their workplaces and the rest of society. But what surprised me was that they felt powerless to stop it.

So often it is the poor who are told of the inevitability of globalisation. And I marvelled how the powerful can feel so powerless in the face of this global tide.

But in the face of this sense of disempowerment, there surprisingly is no decline in involvement in organisations which seek to share wealth and opportunities, protect one another’s rights and work towards the common good. According to the United Nations, civil society groups have grown 40-fold since the turn of last century.

Internationally, the non profit sector is worth one trillion dollars, and there are 700,000 such organisations in Australia alone. The UN recognises 37,000 specifically civil society organisations across the globe, and gave 3,500 accreditation to the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development.

This profound movement towards harnessing voices and resources from outside the realm of governments and officialdom reflects a profound growth in NGOs, “the third sector”, as some call it. As Robert Putnam discovered in the field of local government in Italy, the best predictor of governmental success was the strength and density of a region’s civic associations.

On the global stage, I would suggest that not only are strong local associations important, but absolutely necessary will be those global humanitarian organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the aid and development community to guard the Universal Declaration against the by-products of globalisation – individualism, selfishness and materialism.

Michael Edwards of the Ford Foundation in New York and Indian economist Gita Sen set out somewhat of a manifesto in their paper, “NGOs, Social Change and the Transformation of Human Relationships”. The authors believe that “the long term health and welfare of the planet and its social fabric on which all our futures depend” is in serious risk if simply left to the forces of globalising capitalism.

Edwards and Sen see the idolatry of competition as undermining our ability to share and cooperate. “We cannot,” they say, “compete ourselves towards a cooperative future”. One can imagine some economists pooh-poohing the questioning of this particular orthodoxy. However, it is worth asking why economists, when mentioning Adam Smith’s phrase, “enlightened self-interest”, so often neglect to mention the work which underscored it, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

The “enlightened” part of Smith’s enlightened self-interest required a certain morality to ensure competition didn’t corrupt ones soul, to use a religious metaphor quite apt for Smith’s time but which may sound curious today. One means of corruption of our moral sentiments was, according to Smith, “to admire the rich and the great, and to despise or neglect persons of poor and mean condition”.

The hedge fund billionaire George Soros sees the rise of individualism and our disconnection from many of our social and community connections as similarly corroding. In his The Crisis of Capitalism, he warned against the repercussions of this atomisation of the individual. Reflecting on business in the 1950s, which depended on the slow building of relationships, today he observed that it has become “transactional”, a series of one-off encounters. “From the point of view of the individual,” he wrote, “it is not necessary to be morally upright to be successful: indeed it can be a hindrance . . . [and] when expediency becomes established as the social norm, society becomes unstable”.

But back to Edwards and Sen. They maintain that if the deficit in social, economic and political rights is to be breached, a “fundamental shift in values” is required. But to “be sustainable that shift must be freely-chosen [and] that choice is more likely to be made by human beings who have experienced a transformation of the heart”.

And while such phrases as “transformation of the heart” can seem a little woolly, soft -- even religious -- deep down anyone studying those movements which changed the lives of the poor and persecuted, can’t fail to recognise that personal or inner change, and social or outer change, are inseparably linked.

Those movements against slavery and apartheid, to which Nelson Mandela made a comparison, required social movements motivated by more than sympathy and compassion, however important these virtues are. They required a change of heart to see such people as deeply connected to us as humans; they depended on a sense of solidarity.

I have often spoken of the Universal Declaration as a secular creed. It guides all of us within the humanitarian community and, while none of us can act to defend every Article with the same strength, we are nevertheless empowered by its whole and guided by certain Articles, depending on our specific task or mission.

I speak of it as a creed because such guiding principles, deeply felt, provide the wellspring from the heart to tackle the great challenges of the 21st century such as the end of poverty, oppression and exploitation.

Edwards and Sen see NGOs as “unlikely vehicles for the direct transformation of the individual”. But they comment on “the best traditions of the sector, like selfless service among volunteers and the courage to undertake the seemingly-impossible” as sometimes generating “experiences that come close to the spiritual realm”.

I wouldn’t want to take this too far, as psychologists and sociologists might make more of this concept of the spiritual realm than was intended. But what I would like to emphasise is that civil society organisations, as vehicles of such vast quantities of trust, compassion, sympathy and solidarity, must not only take seriously their roles as guardians of such virtues, but also take note of their increasingly important role as engines of trust, compassion, sympathy and solidarity.

To be a self styled “engine” probably sounds like too much chutzpah by half. But I use this phrase to make the very serious point that those threads which knit a compassionate and just society together are easily broken. While we live in a representative democracy here in Australia, we would make a very serious error in thinking that those votes we cast every couple of years in local, state and federal elections can adequately represent our deepest hopes and dreams of a good society and a just world. Such dreams, as is so often the case, must be shared within those networks of trust and compassion in which we live. And such networks may well increasingly include humanitarian organisations, which are explicitly values based, not based in the partisan world of political compromise.

As a final thought, can I suggest that any of you who have felt some sense of resonance with this message, download or get a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hang it by your computer, your bed. Frame it and ask if you can put it up in your workplace. Imagine, for a minute, that no decision by an organisation or body in which you were associated, did not refer to it in any decision that they made – as to whether any part of that decision would negatively impact on someone’s human decency, their inalienable rights. And if your conscience allows you, treat it for a while as a religious creed, a charter for humanity that you are upheld to protect. Not as some personal moral creed that applies only to you, but as a Charter for Humanity that we all have some responsibility in protecting. Imagine what difference that will make to your consumer choices, your career choice and your lifestyle choices. What difference would it make?

Thank you


Tim Costello, one of the nation’s leading campaigners on social justice issues, commenced as Chief Executive of World Vision Australia in March 2004. In July, Tim was awarded ‘Victorian of the Year 2004’, by the Victoria Day Award for Public and Community Service.

After studying law and education at Monash University and obtaining his Masters in Theology at the Melbourne College of Divinity, Tim was ordained a Baptist Minister in 1986. He established a vibrant and socially active ministry at St Kilda Baptist Church between 1986 –1994 and was elected Mayor of St Kilda in 1993.

In 1995 Tim was appointed Minister of Collins Street Baptist Church and Executive Director of Urban Seed, a Christian not-for-profit organisation that provides outreach services and hospitality to the urban poor. He held this position until his move to World Vision.

Tim is recognised for articulating the social conscience of many Australians on tough domestic issues such urban poverty, homelessness, problem gambling, reconciliation and substance abuse. For nine years he was the spokesperson for the Interchurch Gambling Taskforce and a member of the National Advisory Body on Gambling. He is the former national president of the Baptist Union of Australia. Currently Tim is Chairman of the National Australia Bank external Stakeholder forum, a member of the AMP Sustainable Funds Committee, the Aid Advisory Council and the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation.

Tim’s passion for justice has compelled him to experience the lives of the poor in the Philippines, Sudan, Cambodia, Brazil, Indonesia and East Timor. What he saw and felt on these trips compelled him to challenge global poverty in the name of his fellow Australians.

He has also written several books including : Streets of Hope: Finding God in St Kilda; Tips from a Travelling Soul Searcher and Wanna Bet? Winners and Losers in Gambling’s Luck Myth, which was co-written by Royce Millar.

Tim and his wife of 25 years, Merridie have three adult children, Claire, Elliot and Martin.

Additional web sites of interest

While the views presented by speakers within The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre public program are their own and are not necessarily those of either the University of South Australia, or The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre, they are presented in the interest of open debate and discussion in the community and reflect our themes of: Strengthening our Democracy - Valuing our Diversity - Building our Future. The Hawke Centre reserves the right to change their program at any time without notice.