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Conclusions of the 2002 Social Cohesion Forum

by Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni, Director General of Social Cohesion, Council of Europe

In conclusion I would like to highlight a number of major contributions that have been made over these two days of discussion of social responsibility in a globalising world:

First of all, it is important to stress the context in which this debate is taking place. There are now over 1 100 million people living on under $1 per day, and AIDS and malnutrition are taking a terrible toll of human lives. The high-speed economic globalisation over the last 20 years has been of little benefit to the poorest populations and has been accompanied by soaring inequalities between and within countries. Insecurity and exclusion are hitting an increasing number of people not only in southern and eastern but also in western countries.

This faces us all, first and foremost as citizens but also as representatives of governments, trade unions, business sectors, international organisations or voluntary associations, with the challenge of our social responsibility vis--vis these dramatic social phenomena.

I feel that our discussions have highlighted a number of focal points on which we could work in order to establish a common foundation for an ethical code for sustainable development.

1. First of all, the need to broaden the debate on social responsibility, going beyond mere corporate social responsibility, although the latter remains essential. "No social responsibility without ethics" has been the refrain. This means that we must agree on a set of common values.

2. This first point shows us the need to adopt an integrated approach within which the economic sphere should not be all-powerful, independent from all the other fields (political, social and cultural) but should be an integral part of a much broader complex characterised by strong interdependence.

3. Secondly, many speakers have stressed the need to see things in the long term. Social responsibility must be taken as a long-term phenomenon, taking account of the effects of our present action on social cohesion, our eco-systems and the living and working conditions of future generations.

4. But there is a spatial dimension in addition to this temporal aspect. Social responsibility cannot stop at the company door or at the European borders. It must be expressed at the global level, otherwise we risk intensifying fragmentation in the world and the corresponding tensions.

5. The dynamic nature of social responsibility means that there can be no one fixed framework, but one which is constantly changing, adapting to developments in the world and in specific contexts. However, while flexibility is to be aspired to in the globalising economy, it must be stressed that some fundamental values, such as democracy and respect for the basic human and social rights, must remain unassailable in all circumstances.

6. Another important point is that the new framework for social responsibility cannot start from nothing: it must be based on a set of existing reference points such as national legislations, the basic ILO conventions, the Council of Europe's Social Charter, and many more texts besides. It is vital to note here that the public authorities cannot remain on the sidelines of social responsibility, even if they must encourage a redistribution of roles and responsibilities. History has shown that markets are not self-regulating but need an external regulating authority in order to operate smoothly. In the new emerging governance structures the State still has a vital role to play in ensuring a type of social and economic regulation oriented towards the well-being of world populations.

7. As we have heard, social responsibility entails the question of the emergence or reinforcement of new partnerships comprising the various public and private actors - not only traditional actors such as governments and the social partners but also, increasingly, the various organisations representing civil society, which are playing a growing role in our communities.

8. This encapsulates the question of the requisite new structures and of global governance. This challenge facing us in the early 21st century can only be taken up by all the different actors if they effect the corresponding institutional innovations. However, this process must be preceded by a wide-ranging democratic debate on social options, embracing all the actors. The Council of Europe could play a major role in this endeavour, as a forum for consultation that would foster the emergence of a set of common values.

9. Another very important point that emerged is that social responsibility is only meaningful (or credible) if it comprises not only supervisory criteria and tools but also punitive mechanisms. The creation of a "label" system could greatly help to operationalise the concept of social responsibility.

10. Lastly, where Europe's social responsibility in the world is concerned, it is important to promote the European social model not because it is universal in character (although its fundamental values are indeed universal) but because it provides evidence that retaining strong social regulation is not inconsistent with high economic performance, which makes it a manifestation of the plurality of possible approaches in a globalised world.