A Universal Declaration of Human Purpose

The article below was developed from a speech given by Neemat Frem on May 13, 2017 to the Model United Nations in New York, titled "A Universal Declaration of Human Purpose."

Neemat Frem | (Photo: IDC)

Good morning. It is an honor to be with young leaders from around the world, so full of hope. I see your dreams, feel your energy, salute your passion. But my heart is also in pain. For I come from the burning Middle East, where vast areas are overrun by ignorance, fear, and hatred; where history seems to be a whirlpool of death and despair. There, basic human rights are violated as a matter of course.

Yet I also come to you as the CEO of a multinational corporation, founded and nurtured in the very same Middle East. We are succeeding globally in business, where effectiveness and decisiveness are the way to win, where order and logic are the rules of engagement. How very different the business world is from the tortured world of politics and culture, especially in my beloved Middle East.

Herein lies the paradox: as business and culture expands, it must do so with respect for cherished beliefs and values. At the same time, we must promote a universality of human dignity, rooted in common conceptions of the good, of common humanity, of our common reason and heritage. We must forge a vocabulary, just as a new language is forged when two peoples encounter one another: through a complex, perhaps even strained, encounter with "the other." We must not impose a single, two-dimensional view of reality; we must meet the other where we find him, not drive him into the cave.

Everywhere, as the world grows smaller, many recoil, retreat, and seek out in the confidence in fundamentals of ages past, where certain, simple knowledge could be contained, as if in a box. And yet progress in science and technology should not fill us with absolute certainty or arrogance but, rather, with a profound humility. For with each advancement, we come to understand our very precariousness, our vulnerability, and our deepest longings of interdependence – put simply, our need to love and be loved. And so how can progress and reaction be reconciled?

Only when one apprehends the paradox, approaching the other with humility, may this encounter occur. It means proposing rather than imposing. For you, it means to seek out what is true with humility, and then to defend it with courage.

Student Ambassadors, you must defend what is true.

When you're engulfed in darkness, you must seek the light of truth. You must grow in knowledge and wisdom when confronted by hatred and ignorance. It is in these moments more than ever that you must create beauty and love. And you must in humility be prepared to learn from those with whom you disagree, especially those whose beliefs are marked by apparent simplicity. This is the path to wisdom. And know that to pursue the truth fearlessly will come at a price. It is rare that a person is asked to be a martyr for truth, as Socrates was, but your commitment must be no less than his. Just as he and others in history have overcome hatred and ignorance through a love for truth and wisdom, so today I want to encourage each of you to think about your specific role in building a new civilization. One of higher order and greater awareness!  

You know very well that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerged from the agony of World War II. After twenty-two sessions of the UN General Assembly, the extreme suffering of people prevailed to become a rallying point between different races, ethnicities, nations, creeds, tongues, and ideologies. The esteemed Lebanese philosopher, Charles Malik, was instrumental in developing this charter, as was Eleanor Roosevelt – the former First Lady who became America's Ambassador to the UN and head of the UN Human Rights Commission.  

Dr. Malik drafted the introduction and content of the Declaration, and it was adopted on the December 10, 1948.  The succeeding decades have witnessed an unleashing of human advances never before witnessed by any previous civilization. The speed of scientific innovation is nearly beyond comprehension. The technological and scientific achievements are mind-boggling, in manufacturing, power generation, medicine, telecommunications, and elsewhere.

Yet as science advances, the temptation to make persons subservient to progress becomes very real. It is ever a temptation for mankind and the danger cannot be overstated. We are now confronted with a terrible responsibility. We have become, in a sense, prisoners of our own power. It is your duty then to protect the weak, the vulnerable, the easily exploited.

Our environment also is threatened with real climate change, to the point that clean breathable air is a luxury many people do not have.  Big data is hacked and abused. We have become digits to be manipulated – dehumanized, depersonalized, stripped of our dignity. Powerful, impersonal institutions now wield enormous capacities for destruction.

At the same time, the boundaries between what is acceptable and what is forbidden have been blurred. The person is everywhere regarded as an object, a statistic, a consumer.  All standards for behavior are suddenly precarious, subject to a kind of relativism. We seem to have lost the confidence in the very values that made a declaration of common human dignity possible.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The International Labour Organization, Global, Compact's 10 Principles, UN Sustainable Development Goals – all of these are undermined and threatened by the rapid degradation of values. This is where you are needed. This is the work of your generation. You have an opportunity to make an enormous difference – all the difference!

We're in a place that resembles pre-1948. In a decade or two, when you're raising your families, you'll witness conditions ripen for a new declaration even more profound than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One that raises persons, our communities, and our nations to the cosmic level of human existence – that calls us to a higher purpose, to serve one another. This is the ultimate calling, for it is a calling of selfless love.

The previous Declaration defined the rights of every man and woman and triggered huge advances. But some of these advances have forged deep chasms in our common humanity, our traditional conceptions of reality, and even threaten the basis of civilization. 

Are human rights the ultimate objective? Or do they serve a higher purpose? A purpose which the Declaration failed to define? Perhaps these rights point to a higher order, and imply a profound dignity that inheres in each of us. And perhaps it is the loss of this sense that has led to the weakening of the rights and dignity of all persons.

As our leaders of tomorrow, this is the perfect occasion to entrust you with the quest for a more expansive declaration: A Universal Declaration of Human Purpose.

Be the generation to mandate a major milestone in human progress.

I believe it's possible, less than a century after the human rights charter, for your generation to convene and agree on the real purpose of our existence. On the higher reason the universe brings forth life, intelligent life, and the quest to understand the meaning of our species.

Too often we have reduced science to the material, and so have abolished the sense of mystery and awe. It was this sense of awe that gave rise to religion, and religion to science. But if science cannot provide us with an ultimate sense of meaning, then we must look for the answer beyond the material.

It's a difficult journey to define this purpose. But was it not as difficult the journey of Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. Malek? There is, I believe, an echo in our hearts and minds that reminds us that we can transcend oneself and surpass our own selfishness. It reminds us that we have a duty to love the creator and its creation with all our heart, mind and soul. In each of us lay a vast universe of beauty and potential and mystery beyond our comprehension.

Albert Einstein said, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead — his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms — this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness."

My friends, we must see in each person a mystery as profound as that of the vastness of the cosmos. This awe must lay at the heart of any universal claims about the human person – humility and awe. It is no accident that as we have lost our sense of awe before Cosmos and Creator, we have also ceased to see the distinct beauty in each person.

When you succeed, you will lighten dark corners to dispel the ideologies that are destroying humanity. You will attract people of all faiths.  You will touch all aspects of life: Education, community service, social welfare, family bonds, environment protection, work ethics, politics, and much else. Imagine building peace, not impersonal and abstract, but a peace from the heart that will touch all creation. 

You should be incredibly proud of what you've learned as part of the Model UN Program.  Walk the path of those great men and women before you, who personified the change they sought in others. Amid the suffering you witness, let hope triumph – and find a Universal Declaration of Human Purpose be your unlimited source of inspiration. My generation may not see this, but I have hope that yours will. You must have this confidence as well. Thank you.

Neemat G. Frem is President & CEO of INDEVCO Group, a Lebanese-owned and based multinational manufacturing Group employing over 10,000 people worldwide. He is on the Board of Trustees for In Defense of Christians.

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