Human Rights and Duties on the Threshold of the 3rd Millennium

Lesson held by Rita Levi-Montalcini at the University of Trieste during her honorary degree ceremony

Among the most significant events of the European and North-American history of the last two centuries, one should certainly mention the procla­mations of Human Rights. Such declarations were preceded by the solemn statement of the principles of freedom set out in the in the Declaration of Independence of the American colonies from Great Britain, composed on July 4th, 1776 by T. Jefferson.

The second paragraph of this historical document – signed by the representatives of the thirteen American States – formally explain, with the sober eloquence of this great statesman, why the signees felt pushed to produce such a declaration: ‘When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Na­ture and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.’ It is followed by the list of injuries and usurpa­tions committed by the King of Great Britain against the citizens of the American States.

After eleven years, the representatives of the thirteen States met in Philadelphia and wrote – in the so-called Philadelphia Convention doc­ument — the Constitution of the United States of America. In 1789 fol­lowed a list of twelve amendments composing the “Bill of Rights”. Al­ways in 1789 the French Constitutional Committee declared the Rights of Man and Citizen in even stricter terms than the American Declaration. In much more recent times, on December 10th, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly approved a document adopted by the majority of UN Member States. This document, also known as the international Magna Carta, widened the list of rights already included in the previous decla­rations. Article 1 establishes: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’

Article 28 established: ‘Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.’

Neither this Magna Carta, nor the above-mentioned previous docu­ments referred to duties — that were considered as implicit — like the duties the State took towards its citizens, by recognising the accorded rights.

Even if the 1948 document referred for the first time to ‘universal rights’ that applied to the entire population of the globe — i.e. not only to this or that country who signed it — and even if the text was subjected to the approval of the majority of the States that were considered as civil, one can understand, if not justify, the fact that they did not take duties into consideration because of the essentially civic, and not social, nature of such declarations, that were drafted by legislators aiming at passing bills that granted recognised rights to every citizen.

Another reason for duties omission is that, until the mid of the pres­ent century, there were no reasons to worry not only for the survival of mankind, but also for that of all the living beings co-existing on the globe.

With the discovery of nuclear fission and of the huge destruction power of atomic bombs, mankind became aware of this terrible possi­bility. After the danger of an atomic conflagration and its consequences, other threats followed, which were not less important and equally immi­nent, and derived from the uncontrolled population growth; the pertur­bations of the biosphere; the drastic alteration of ecosystems; the alarm­ing increase of criminality; drugs and other destabilising causes, resulting not much from misery, but rather from what has been defined as ‘the exploitation of vice.’

In the last three decades of this century, the extraordinary develop­ment of biology — and especially of genetic engineering and reproductive technology – allowed to directly intervene on the genes of vegetal and animal organisms, as well as to achieve in vitro fertilisation.

These procedures aroused several doubts on the permissibility to vio­late the right of the yet-to-be-born. This type of interventions — as well as other types, raising more generic problems, such as organ implant, abor­tion, euthanasia — required specific regulation. With this goal in mind, the Bioethics Committees were created, so to assist governments in enacting laws that could guarantee such rights.

Even more urgent than the regulation of those rights is considering the duties that are incumbent on mankind in order to face the increasing dangers threatening the very survival of our species and of all other spe­cies, rightfully populating the Earth.

The one responsible for such perturbations — be they actual or just possi­ble — is the most affluent and more technologically developed part of mankind, which represents around 10% of the entire population. Another element to worry about is the exponential growth of human population and die increase of malnutrition-related diseases, and of viral, bacterial and parasitic infections.

Each one of these alarming elements, and – even more rightfully – the whole of them, provoked a now common anxiety and growing concern among the population. The wide public consequently tends to indicate one element or another as the greatest cause of such a disaster, threaten­ing the future and the very survival of our and other species.

Given that environmental problems have a transnational nature, their solution is clearly to be set at international level.

Thanks to the universality of science and of scientific methodology, scientists are the most suited to cross the frontiers between the members of different ethnic groups.

On the occasion of the award of this prestigious honorary degree at the University of Trieste, I suggest something inspired to me by several pub­lications and by some speeches with the neurobiologist Roger Sperry, i.e. to issue a Magna Carta of Human Duties based on the sacredness of life.

This Carta of Human Duties is absolutely not to be opposed to the Carta of Human Rights. It simply aims at facing, most urgently, the dan­gers threatening the globe, the biosphere and all living species. ‘We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive’,

Albert Einstein said. In another occasion he better explained this concept: ‘We appeal, as human beings to human beings: remember your humanity and forget the rest.’

Preparing this new Manifesto will require the cooperation of philoso­phers, sociologists, theologians, humanists and scientists, all united by the common goal of opposing the chaos provoked by the breaking of what Monod called the ‘alliance between man and the universe’- much like it happened in drafting other declarations and bills of rights, which repre­sented, in critical periods of the history of mankind, the foundations for an understanding well beyond geographical and psychological barriers.

Sperry suggests that this Carta or system of values be based on uni­versal axioms, as it was done for Euclidian geometry. He also suggests the first of these axioms, i.e. nature’s Great Project. Such a four-dimensioned design, including the forces that move the universe and shape the evolu­tion within our biosphere – and also created Man – is intrinsically good. It must be protected and preserved, rather than being degraded and de­stroyed. This axiom — which cannot be objected, neither on a religious/ philosophical ground, nor on a scientific one — is accompanied by the imperative to direct mankind’s efforts to protect such an heritage not only for the good of mankind itself, but also for that of the other species that are an essential part of this ‘Great Project.’

Both humanistic culture and spiritual and religious experiences are in­cluded in this system expressing — not so differently — Schweitzer’s princi­ple of ‘reverence for life.’

Therefore, on the threshold of the 3rd Millennium, scientists claim their right to intervene in a field that in the past was considered to be exclusively reserved to philosophers and theologians, i.e. the field of values. The scien­tists’ contribution in this area could be much greater than the universal and undisputed recognition given as to knowledge about inorganic matter and life, and its applications.

‘The upshot of all this’ wrote Sperry ‘would in effect promote science into a higher social role above that of the provision of better things for better living – or the prediction, control, and understanding of natural phenomena. Science on these terms becomes a source and arbiter of a system of values and beliefs at the highest level — man’s best channel for gaining an intimate understanding and relation with those forces that con­trol the universe and created man.’

The necessity of scientists’ contribution derives from the fact that stop­ping the technological development is unconceivable, because this would also lead to an end of developed countries (that would not be able to help the less fortunate). Such development, however, must not exploit the entire system until exhausting the planet on the basis of the so-called ‘develop­ment limit.’ This is why science must seek other methods and approaches.

Believing that composing a Bill of Duties suffice to solve the huge problem mankind is called to face nowadays would be a utopia. Nonethe­less scientists, duly supported by rulers, must develop this project.

It should be stressed that the elaboration of a Magna Carta of Duties is not substantially different from that of other documents that have been recently proposed in different occasions and locations, such as Stockholm, Nairobi, Helsinki. There are, however, two differences:

  • in setting the entire document framework on the concept of duties, and not just on that of rights;
  • in focusing on the importance for new generations to rightfully par­ticipate to the implementation of those new programmes.

The city of Trieste is an ideal location to realise such a project, because it is situated at a meeting point of several cultures. Besides, the city proved to have a strong awareness in facing problems at international level, by hosting the International Centre for Theoretical Physics and in offering its chair to the great scientist Abdus Salam, Nobel Prize for Physics.

I wish to express my deepest gratitude to the Rector, professor Giacomo Borruso, to having offered me the opportunity to focus the entire scientific and humanist community’s attention on the necessity to urgently draft such a document and to spread it among the cultural, religious and politi­cal society as well as everywhere people have close at their heart the desti­ny of our and other species – living today on the edge between salvation and destruction.

Rita Levi-Montalcini