ACU: 'Ethics must shape global future'

September 5, 2003

David Jobbins and John O'Leary report on the Association of Commonwealth Universities conference in Belfast.

Former United Nations human-rights commissioner Mary Robinson told the ACU conference that preparing students to be responsible citizens was critical given the heightened impact of global communications, technology and market forces.

Ms Robinson, a former Irish president who heads the Ethical Globalisation Initiative, told the conference that the resulting transformation of the concept of citizenship went to the heart of the university's role in promoting respect for human rights.

"Students themselves are also beginning to recognise that there is a need for a renewed focus within the curriculum on issues of ethics and responsible citizenship.

"What has been encouraging for me is the growing awareness that professional courses are desperately in need of grounding in ethics and values, in the 'skills of freedom'."

She asked the conference: "In a global age, is it enough to teach law, if we are not also concerned with questions of global justice? When different cultural perspectives and interpretations of religious beliefs are locked in ideological battle, is it enough to value the study of philosophy, if it is not informed by current ethical considerations in our divided world?

"At the start of a new century, is it enough to have amassed more knowledge than at any previous time in human history, without also giving proper attention to how that knowledge will be disseminated and used by and for others, particularly those who have been most excluded from the potential benefits of the technology and knowledge revolutions?"

She called for human rights to permeate all university activity. Human rights had been the sole domain of a small but committed group of lawyers, activists and academics, she said.

"I would urge you to give thought to the further utility of human rights not only as an expression of shared values, or as international legal standards, but as policy-making tools that could assist those charged with making complex legal decisions about global issues - whether in the areas of trade, development, the environment, security or public health, to name but a few."

Efforts to take human rights out of a purely academic environment into other fields had been more rhetoric than reality, lacking conceptual clarity, practical impact and academic rigour, she said.

"I believe ACU members can play an important role in the application of human-rights approaches within other policy frameworks."

Ms Robinson shared the platform with senator George Mitchell, architect of the Good Friday Agreement and chancellor of Queen's University, where the conference was held.

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