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U.N. call: people over profits

We have to choose between a global market driven only by calculations of short-term profit and one that has a human face.” These words by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan express the single greatest challenge to the community of nations in our time. Wars and weapons will still be part of the equation, as will crime and punishment and a litany of other dilemmas; but how we live humanely together in the next millennium will depend most on how we slice the pie that is the common good.

Annan chose a glittering Swiss gathering of the world’s rich and politically powerful to throw down the gauntlet of fairness and kindness without which, he warned, the future of rich and poor will become equally problematic.

The world of freewheeling global capitalism needs to examine its conscience, Annan in effect told the World Economic Forum. In this he echoed Pope John Paul II’s frequent calls for a new evaluation of social priorities based first and always on the dignity of the human person. In practice this high but vague principle becomes a call for a retreat from the kind of greed we euphemistically call maximization of profits, the kind that marked Reaganomics and Thatcherism and the go-for-the-gusto individualism that has spawned alienation and emptiness at home and poverty abroad.

Annan’s was no shot in the dark. Other speakers echoed his position. Said President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to the same meeting: “In the emerging world there is a bitter sentiment of injustice, a sense that there must be something wrong with a system that wipes out years of hard-won development because of changes in market sentiment.”

This could be a crucial moment in modern history. When the Cold War ended and the talk turned to a new world order, the United Nations was the logical engine to move the nations to peace, prosperity and equality. Not all nations got the same start in life. Many had and some still have terrible histories of oppression and exploitation. It made sense that we ourselves, all of us, the United Nations, would, in the euphoria of post-communism, aspire to that common good that could benefit everyone and leave no one out in the cold.

This hope has not been fulfilled. The United Nations has not found its feet as peacekeeper, though the world would be more awful without its many peacekeeping forces and interventions. The United Nations has been timid, has allowed itself to be pushed around by various superpowers and the conflicting interests of member nations. It desperately needs some significant success on which it can climb to other, higher achievements. Secretary Annan has shown signs he might be the leader to make this happen, most notably when he inserted himself as peace broker between the United States and Iraq last year.

Whether Annan and the United Nations will climb to eventual success depends, more than anything, on the United States, which has the clout to make or break the international body.

This appeal to the consciences of nations and corporations offers America a great opportunity to salute and respond. The call is no fuzzy utopian sentiment. Human rights are not abstractions. Annan listed such practices as collective bargaining, freedom of association and an end to discrimination in hiring. This is about real life, including the good life so many of us enjoy, which may be threatened tomorrow if the common good is not held aloft as an ideal to fight for.

Annan had the courage to warn the world that unless those human rights are protected, “I fear we may find it increasingly difficult to make a persuasive case for the open global market.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 12, 1999