by Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp

Almost a generation ago, in 1992 the then emerging global civil society joined the political leadership at Rio de Janeiro in an unprecedented inclusive effort to mobilize the world community to safeguard the earth and one another.

The conference hall where the heads of states met and the camp of tents where the non-governmental organizations interacted were at different locations far away from each other but at the end of the proceedings we met to share our findings.

There were misgivings on both sides. Would governments and citizens be able to rise to the occasion to enact the value change required?

The assembled representatives had not been able to adopt an Earth Charter - a declaration of fundamental ethical principles as a basis for sustainable development was sorely missed. Politicians appealed to us members of civil society. And these words have been engraved in my soul ever since

"Please admonish us, prod us, make our life difficult so that we may garnish our courage to dare take actions that are necessary to care truly for the earth and the world community but may on the short run contravene national self interest"

Thus the civil society Earth Charter drafting process was initiated in the spirit of an emerging planetary consciousness, which expressed itself in the most open and participatory worldwide consultation jointly led by the then established Earth Council and Green Cross.

In this holistic document the indissoluble connections are drawn between

•  Respect and Care for the Community of Life

•  Ecological Integrity

•  Social Economic Justice

•  Democracy, Non-violence and Peace

And the principles are expounded in careful detail.

To give just one example: Under ecological integrity it is stated “Prevent harm as the best method of environmental protection and when knowledge is limited, apply a precautionary approach” – imagine the difference it could have made if BP had applied this principle before drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

The preamble speaks to the heart and the mind with urgency and beauty:

“The choice is ours: form a global partnership to care for the Earth and one another or risk the destruction of ourselves and the diversity of life.”

The Earth Charter faces the challenges with abundant, realistic hope. Now that we are celebrating its tenth anniversary we can be very thankful. It has activated and nourished this emerging global partnership; it has been adopted by so many organizations and countless individuals all over the world. Even some governments, notably Portugal very recently, but still it has a long way to go.

Copenhagen has shown us how much the moral appeal is needed, it revealed that what is hindering the taking of the necessary steps for our healthy future are not the differences of opinion but the mistrust of the motives of the other. In the light of this painful experience the tremendous impetus of the two Charters combined become obvious: to help rebuild trust between governments from the North and the South, between business people and NGOs, the older and younger generations and people of different faiths and schools of thought.

The two Charters together will prove to be a formidable force. The Charter for Compassion will find resonance in the heart of every individual who has been touched by a spiritual spark and when the heart opens everything is possible – while the Earth Charter shows the interconnectedness of the struggle to alleviate poverty and to care for the environment and suggests ways of how this compassion can be put into action. 

What a blessing it was to be able to take part in this extraordinary effort initiated by the visionary Karen Armstrong. Amplify the whisper of truth through words that could catch fire and illuminate – there I found the companionship of brothers and sisters from different traditions who share the belief that we desperately need each other to do what has to be done to heal the world.

And I felt the immense power of synergy at this juncture after the so successful launching of the Charter for Compassion. The Millennium Development Goals moved the world community to put this realization into practice and give it a fixed deadline – 2015, only 5 more years to go.

The Charter for Compassion touches the core of our being with the force of accumulated wisdom and awakens us one by one to our individual responsibility towards the other. We are in the deepest sense reminded of being part of one human body – feeling the hurt when other parts of the body ache.

The Soetendorp Institute


Jacob Soetendorp Institute for Human Values
Van Wijngaerdenstraat 21
2596 TW The Hague
The Netherlands