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One of UNESCO's most important roles is to serve as a forum for reflection on global issues.  As an international organization with an ethical mission, UNESCO has particular concern for the ethical core of the major questions confronting humanity.   If the people of the world are to find ways to address these questions co-operatively, we need to find common ground in shared values.  UNESCO has therefore built a role for itself as an intellectual forum that brings together people from around the world for free, in-depth reflection on critical issues in its fields of competence.

We encounter several of these questions in the other sheets of this kit.  How can we ensure equitable access to relevant, high quality, lifelong education for all?  What can we do to protect cultural diversity in an age of global telecommunications, and why is it important to do so?

How do we decide what should be "out of bounds" for research in biology and human genetics'?  How can we reconcile the right of free expression with the need to protect children from images of violence in the media?  Who should determine the priorities for scientific research, and on the basis of which social objectives?

During the 1990s, UNESCO has launched three major commissions on urgent global issues.   The International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century, chaired by Jacques Delors, brought together a group of fifteen eminent figures from a variety of cultural and professional backgrounds around the world.  Its mandate was to study and reflect on the challenges facing education and to formulate suggestions and recommendations that could serve as an agenda for renewal of education systems.  Many of the Commission's recommendations went to the heart of current debates on education here in Canada.   For example, the final report, Learning: The Treasure Within, points out that top-down reform of an education system has little chance of success.  "Choosing a type of education means choosing a type of society," the Commissioners concluded.  Hence, reform must be built on the broadest possible democratic consensus, particularly involving parents, teachers, students, and public officials (see Sheet 6).

The World Commission on Culture and Development, chaired by Javier Perez de Cuellar, called for the recognition of a common set of shared principles that would allow cultural diversity to flourish.   A system of global ethics, it said in its report, Our Creative Diversity, must rest on certain pillars:


In 1997, the UNESCO General Conference created the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST).   The creation of this new commission reflects the increasing importance of ethical reflection in the light of the cultural and social effects of the rapid development of scientific knowledge and technology.  In summary, its mandate is:

Mrs. Vidgis Finnbogadottir, former Head of State of the Republic of Iceland, chairs the Commission, and prominent independent figures from different regions of the world and from various scientific disciplines compose its membership.  It has a consultative rather than a prescriptive function.  It will establish dialogue between scientific communities, intellectuals, public and private decision-makers, and citizens.  It has a mandate to establish working groups on specific subjects, particularly on energy, the use of freshwater resources, and the information society.   Let us look briefly at some of the issues in these three areas alone.

Energy production and consumption pose major problems, whether in connection with the management of real and perceived risks, or with the anticipation of problems relating to the use of the various sources of energy.  There are two kinds of problems in this field: quantitative problems, which have to do mainly with energy consumption and the estimation of'energy reserves, and qualitative - and hence ethical - problems relating to the use and conversion of energy.  A number of major ethical questions are likely to be raised in connection with the equity and broad balance to be maintained in the distribution, production and consumption of energy and the management of energy reserves; the evaluation of the risk factors involved in developing new technologies for energy production; and forward planning in view of the necessity to weigh up present and future needs.  In the field of energy, ethics becomes a form of risk management aimed at providing the most effective possible protection for human beings.

The question of renewable water sources is extremely serious.  Water is Fare, the world's population is increasing, the climatic environment is unfavourable and soils more and more fragile in a number of regions.  Water is often wasted and its ill-controlled use exposes fragile land to barrenness; yet its availability is vital to the quality of life and hence the stability of societies.  The question is to know whether the planet can tolerate the present rhythm of exploitation of fresh water resources.  A further consideration is that of equity of access to water resources and to their supply, and another is the matter of their salubrity since they suffer from various forms of pollution, both in countries with severe shortages and in those with abundant supplies.  Water, a life-giving source, is also an economic asset that must be so managed as not to become a source of conflict or imbalance between or within countries.

Technological progress, the globalization of information, the proliferation of information sources and competition between them may help to sustain democratic governance, but are nevertheless instrumental in making societies more fragile.  It is necessary to examine the social impact of this development, of the flow of information both in writing and via images and of the preponderance of the latter, and the attendant ethical issues.

As with the other commissions, the main working method of the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology is to hold hearings in all regions of the world and to invite presentations from a broad range of organizations and individuals.   The first session, held in Oslo, Norway, from 28 to 30 April 1999, gives a flavour of the work it will undertake over the months to come.  Three round table discussions, open to the public, began the dialogue on ethics and energy, ethics and freshwater resources, and protection of the rights and freedoms of scientists.  There was also an exchange of views on ethics and the information society.  The Oslo session was a prelude to UNESCO's World Conference on Science, which focuses on ethical issues in the relationship between science and society (see Sheet c

UNESCO's role in promoting reflection is distinct from its normative role.  The aim is not to develop standards, codes of conduct, or moral do's and don'ts.  It is to serve as a forum that brings together politicians, thinkers, public officials, and people from civil society, in complete freedom, to exchange experience and opinions, to identify options, and to find long term directions rather than the usual short-term "fixes".  It aims to help the international community get a better grasp of the changes occurring in the world and to devise innovative strategies to meet new challenges.  It fulfils this role though a number of forums in addition to the international commissions mentioned here, such as the International Bioethics Committee and the Philosophy Forum, which organizes a pluridisciplinary meeting on a different topic each year.

TAKE A MOMENT to put yourself in this picture.  Are you conscious of the major debates going on internationally?   Do you  have a point of view to share on these issues?  How can you get involved – through your school, university, or professional association, for example – in this important process of reflection?


International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century, Learning:  The 7reasure Within.  Paris: UNESCO, 1996. Delors Report:

Canadian Commission for UNESCO, "Learning together throughout our lives" Study kit.

World Commission on Culture and Development, Our Creative Diversi!y.  Paris: UNESCO, 1995,

Web site of the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST)

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Last update:  02 Nov 2002