Oxford University Seminar Kicks Off Earth Charter UK, Wangari Maathai as Special Guest

On 9-10 February, a special seminar on “The Earth Charter, Past and Future” was held at Exeter College, one of the oldest colleges at Oxford University. The Earth Charter UK Trust was formally launched at this seminar to the music of New Orleans Jazz, and with the powerful symbol of a special tree planting ceremony, whose special guest of honor was Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Earth Charter Commissioner, Wangari Maathai.


The planting of the tree was also the first official contribution of Great Britain to the global United Nations Environment Program “Billion Trees” campaign, which Prof. Maathai has championed. And finally, Prof. Maathai simultaneously kicked off a new lecture series, at Oxford University, sponsored by the Cambridge University-based Center for International Sustainable Development Law (making the series an example

of Oxford-Cambridge institutional collaboration as well).


The tree was also, of course, a tree — a walnut whose purpose also was to replace an historic, 300-year-old tree that had been the oldest and greatest in the Exeter College garden. The old tree had died and had to be removed; the new tree is expected to last for a further 300 years.


The symbolism of this historic tree-planting heightened the feeling that something wonderful had happened at Oxford.


The Earth Charter is on course to have a much higher profile in the UK than it did previously — and to make a contribution to that country’s dynamic movement toward sustainable development — thanks to the work of a group of organizers led by ECI Individual Affiliate Jeffrey Newman. Affiliate status will now shift to the new Earth Charter UK Trust, an organization developed by Jeffrey and colleagues during the course of the last year. Among the several historic firsts on this occasion, the Trust papers were formally signed in the offices of Frances Cairncross, Rector of Exeter College and the first Patron of Earth Charter UK.


The tree-planting and music were the celebratory high points of a seminar that brought together a small number of international Earth Charter leaders with members of the newly-formed Earth Charter UK Trust.


Together this group took a fresh look at the Earth Charter’s past and future — partly with an international focus, and partly with an eye to the Earth Charter’s future in the United Kingdom.


Before describing what happened at the seminar itself, it is worth noting who attended, in addition to Earth Charter Commissioner Wangari Maathai and the new Trustees of Earth Charter UK. Participants and speakers included:



  • Steven Rockefeller, Co-Chair, Earth Charter International Council


  • Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Director General of the World Conservation Union -IUCN and Member, Earth Charter International Council


  • Bianca Jagger, the award-winning human rights campaigner and Advisor to Earth Charter International


  • Alide Roerink, Director of Programs for the Dutch government-sponsored foundation NCDO and an Advisor to Earth Charter International


  • Herbert Girardet, Director of Programs for World Future Council, noted sustainable cities expert, and Advisor to Earth Charter International


  • Ian Goldin, Director, The James Martin School for the 21st Century, Oxford University



  • Tom Benson, Director, World Leadership Corps (a program of the James Martin School, and with whom Earth Charter International has a partnership that involves two WLC Fellows working with the Earth Charter Initiative)


… and about a dozen other active thought-leaders on sustainability, peace, and human rights in the UK.



In addition to the crucial and fruitful work put in by Jeffrey Newman and other UK volunteers, the seminar was made possible by the sponsorship and organizing work of Frances Cairncross, Rector of Exeter College and a former senior editor at The Economist (among many other distinctions); Marie-Claire Condonnier Segger, Director of CISDL and Director of International Affairs for the ministry Natural Resources Canada; and by Earth Charter International.



ECI Executive Director Alan AtKisson and International Youth Coordinator Dominic Stucker attended; and Mirian Vilela, Director of the ECI Center for Education for Sustainable Development at UPEACE, was able to join for the first part as well. (By luck and coincidence, Mirian had come to London for the simultaneous meeting of Global Community Initiatives, an ECI partner and creator of the Earth Charter Community Action Tool, EarthCAT.)


The following is a short summary of this extremely rich and thought-provoking seminar. A more complete report will later be published on this website.



The Authority and Legitimacy of the Earth Charter


Since many in the UK are new to the Charter, the seminar began with a review of the Earth Charter’s sources of authority and its status in terms of international law. Steven Rockefeller briefly reviewed the entire history of the Charter, beginning with the original idea for such a document, which surfaced in concert with the founding of the IUCN in 1948. He traced the evolution of this idea through other international processes and declarations through to the Brundtland Commission and its 1987 call for a “new charter.” The actual drafting of the Earth Charter during the 1990s, through the enormously participatory global consultation process, and its completion and release in the year 2000 was thus the culmination of over fifty years of global reflection on guiding ethics and values for sustainable development.



Steven noted that the authority of the Charter is rooted in at least four things:


The historical evolution of these ideas, as described above;

    2. The drafting process, which has often been called the most open and participatory consultation process ever to be associated with an international declaration, and which helped to integrated the principles and insights of science, ethics, religion, international law, and the wisdom of indigenous peoples;



The grounding of the document in international law (more on this below); and



    4. The Endorsement process, which has involved over 2,500 organizations and institutions making public declarations of commitment and support, as well as many thousands of individuals and numerous heads of state.




Marie-Claire Cordonnier Segger then expanded on the theme of the Earth Charter and International Law, noting that while it is common to think of the Charter as a document as a “soft law” instrument aspiring to lead to more binding commitments, it is equally accurate to see the Charter as a document summarizing key aspects of what is already international “hard law” in the form of binding agreements and treaties. These range from international norms that are considered inviolable (even though they are violated, such as prohibitions against torture) to multilateral agreements such as the Convention on Biodiversity or the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Marie-Claire, a noted expert on international legal issues, made a strong parallel between the Earth Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which itself has taken decades to implement in the form of international norms, agreements, and legal decisions (and still has far to go).


It was clear by the end of this session that the Earth Charter stands on very firm ground indeed, and also has the potential for much future growth and development as an authoritative reference document on the ethics of sustainable development.


The Earth Charter’s International Strategy


Alan AtKisson, ECI’s Executive Director, then described briefly the history of the Earth Charter Initiative in strategic terms, from the enormous outreach efforts of the drafting process, to the Endorsement campaign that was especially important in the lead-up the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, to the 2005 celebration of “Earth Charter +5” and the launch of a Third Phase of strategic development focused on “The Earth Charter in Action.” He described the extremely broad and diverse movement that has grown up around the Earth Charter, known collectively as the “Earth Charter Initiative,” with its differentiated qualities and prospects in countries all around the world where Earth Charter International has Affiliates, both individual and nstitutional (formerly “Focal Points”).


For this new Phase, he noted, the strategic work of Earth Charter International can be summarized as being guided by the Earth Charter itself, and in particular the closing words of the Preamble:


Therefore, together in hope we affirm the following interdependent principles for a sustainable way of life as a common standard by which the conduct of all individuals, organizations, businesses, governments, and transnational institutions is to be guided and assessed.



The phrase “guided and assessed” describe the principle uses of the Earth Charter: as a reference that can guide decision-making through education and training on its integrated ethical vision; and as an instrument that help people and organizations assess their progress in making that vision real.



All of ECI’s programs — ranging from sectoral initiatives in business or education or with youth, to cross-cutting projects like the emerging “Lighthouse and Beacon” recognition program — are being designed to support education and training that can guide and inspire ethical decision-making for sustainable development, and to assess and acknowledge progress.


The Meaning of Endorsement


One of the special themes of this seminar was a review of the concept of Endorsement. ECI is in the process of redeveloping its Endorsement program, and has introduced the new concept of “Engaged Endorsement” — Endorsement that includes a specific commitment to take additional actions that reflect Earth Charter values, and that help to spread awareness of the Charter itself.


The need for new clarity on the expectations accompanying Endorsement has grown, especially as ECI begins to engage companies and national government actors in dialogue about possible formal Endorsement or recognition. The Earth Charter, while it has received many high-level institutional endorsements and supportive statements from heads of state and other government bodies, has not yet been formally endorsed by a

major multi-national corporation, or by a sovereign nation-state. As people representing these actors begin to ask questions about the meaning of the Charter, and the obligations entailed in endorsing it, ECI must be ready with good answers.


But an examination of Endorsement was also of critical importance to Earth Charter UK at a local level, as it frames its strategy for outreach. Jeffrey Newman noted that for him, the concept of “Engaged Endorsement” was already central to their strategic thinking, in terms of both individuals and organizations.


Alan AtKisson had prepared a short essay on the past and future meaning of Endorsement, as well as Engaged Endorsement, and Steven Rockefeller offered a presentation that summarized the history of the Endorsement campaign. Marie-Claire Cordonnier Segger clarified what the law had to say about Endorsement, particularly when it came to dealing with “persistent objectors” to provisions of the Charter and to the Charter itself (which has often come in the way of international-level endorsement). She also noted that the Earth Charter Initiative already had available to it several strategies for moving the Earth Charter from soft law to hard law status — for example, by having the Charter  referenced in multi-lateral or bilateral agreements among countries.

This could be accomplished, to cite one possibility, by having the Earth Charter referenced in an agreement among countries for cooperation in a field such as Education for Sustainable Development. Such agreements may not be equivalent to Endorsement by nations in formal terms, but they imply it, and move the Charter onto still-firmer legal ground.


A Public Event with Stirring Words, Rich Soil, and Soaring Melodies


At mid-day on Saturday, February 10, the Seminar changed character and became a much more public event. Wangari Maathai’s arrival created a wonderful additional lift in the room, especially as she spoke movingly of her long dedication to “this wonderful document,” and the need to work continously to put its principles into practice. In her public lecture, she noted how important it was that the Earth Charter UK was being launched at “this historic institution of global significance, Oxford University.” She made a special plea to reach out to religious congregations, since they are already so engaged with universal values, and encourage them to do more to support the common vision of the Earth Charter.



Attendees at her inaugural lecture for the series sponsored by the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law were also treated to stirring words by the new director of the IUCN, Julia Marton-Lefèvre, on the Charter’s extraordinary capacity to bridge worlds. Her own career has practically been an example of that: having now served as the director of four different global institutions, spanning topics from science to peace to environment to the development of young leaders, she has seen the Earth Charter be endorsed and progressively more embraced in each of those settings. She noted that it was time to strengthen the Charter’s bridge-building capacities and to make the concept of endorsement more meaningful in an action sense.



As part of the inauguration of the public lecture series, Marie-Claire Cordonnier Segger and her colleagues from the CISDL sketched out both the general framework of international law that exists to support and guide action toward sustainable development, as well as the origins of this seminar: a conversation with the Queen of England. Apparently her Majesty had remarked to Marie-Claire on the importance of honoring international commitments. Part of the purpose in starting the lecture series with the Earth Charter is its use as an inspirational and normative instrument to strengthen both popular and political support for such observance, through public education and action/implementation programs.



Although she had not been on the original program, because her ability to attend had been uncertain until late in the organizing, Bianca Jagger was also invited to speak by meeting host Frances Cairncross. Bianca delivered a warm and empassioned speech about the imperative to see environmental care and human rights as inextricably intertwined, and how this aspect of the Charter had so attracted her to its vision. A member of the World Future Council, which promotes policies and solutions and speaks out on behalf of future generations’ well-being, Bianca enjoined Earth Charter International not to allow corporate and other institutions to simply “wrap the Earth Charter around themselves” without a serious and genuine commitment to taking actions in accordance with the Earth Charter’s ethical principles.



After these excellent speeches, the assembly moved out to the grounds of Exeter College, where it was joined by many of the college’s students, and was ceremoniously and joyfully led around the grounds — as well as in and out of the grounds of several neighboring Oxford colleges — by one of Britain‘s most celebrated dixieland jazz bands and a man with a whistle, who was carrying a pink umbrella. The “dancing march” carried us to the site of the old tree, where more warm words were spoken, and Wangari Maathai put the first spade of dirt onto the newly planted babwalnut tree. “Very good soil!” she declared. She was followed by Steven Rockefeller, honored for serving as Chair of the Earth Charter Drafting Committee, and by Julia Marton-Lefèvre, in honor of her new leadership challenge as head of the IUCN.



The assembly then moved into the hallowed dining hall of Exeter College, built in the 1600s, where, after the usual heated buzz of conversation, Frances Cairncross was formally installed as the first Patron of Earth Charter UK.


Strategy Going Forward – the UK and Elsewhere


When these delightful ceremonies were over, the seminar group of about twenty persons retired to the Rector’s quarters to conclude its formal work. The seminar took advantage of the presence of so many influential thinkers and Earth Charter advisors to consider a few questions of strategic priority. How important, for example, is the process of Earth Charter Endorsement going forward?


The consensus that appeared to emerge from this group was that Endorsement continued to be quite important, especially to continue building the Earth Charter’s international legitimacy as a soft law instrument. Continued growth in the citation of the Earth Charter, whether through formal Endorsement or through other statements of legal recognition, will help move its overarching vision from soft law through to hard law status (as well as laying the groundwork for other formal binding agreements such as the UN might facilitate). But the group also noted that the process of engagement was equally or more important, with Endorsement being an important part of that process.



Participants reflected on the need to build a “climate of opinion” in support of the Earth Charter, for example by establishing its relevance and importance to the emerging central global issue of climate change. The engagement of important opinion-leaders and public figures was also underscored, as well as the need for “Earth Charter Champions” — well-known people who could speak out in support of the Earth Charter, as well as committed leaders of successful projects that reflect the Earth Charter’s vision and values in action. Helping people move from engagement, to commitment, to becoming a true champion of the Earth Charter vision emerged as the “critical path” for growing the Earth Charter Initiative globally.



Closing words offered by the seminar hosts underscored the importance of integrating understanding and commitment with regard to the Earth

Charter; of continuing to review the Charter itself both appreciatively and critically (with an eye to future amendment if necessary); and of the great friendship and hope that grows among those who engage with the Charter as one of its greatest impacts.



Earth Charter UK is now officially under way, and all of us in the Earth Charter community internationally welcome this new national institution, and look forward to collaborating with them and to supporting their success.