“Whether or not the ethical climate in business is higher or lower today, each of us has an opportunity to speak up for higher standards. And for each person willing to voice his conviction, there are others who are willing to follow and be influenced by that kind of leadership”. (RI President Robert A Manchester 1976)
The global reverberations following the unlawful killing a few years ago, of George Floyd in the USA, poses a particular predicament for Rotarians. That is to say, if we do publicly comment on that
unfortunate situation, would we be guilty of contravening Rotary’s policy of political neutrality. If public servants appear to be violating basic human rights and we adopt former RI President Robert
Manchester’s exhortation of speaking up for higher standards, would we be seen to be crossing the line. This article offers a few thoughts on this dilemma, touches upon Rotarians’ implied human rights responsibilities and informs readers of a Petition submitted by the Rotary Club of Norwich St Edmund, England, to the Board of Rotary International (RI) asking for the reinstatement of previously recorded exhortations for Rotarians to make every effort to ensure that peoples basic human rights are protected.

The former RI President, Kalyan Banerjee proffered this question at the RI Convention in New Orleans – Why are we in Rotary ? He answered his own question. “I believe we are here because we care, and because we see both what’s wrong in the world and what is right”. He stressed that we should take a hard look at what needs to be changed and then do our best to change it. In reminding us of his favorite Gandhi quote (you must be the change you wish to see in the world), he declared  “I believe we are in Rotary to change the world – for why else would we be Rotarians ? We are not here to listen to the naysayers, the doom mongers, those who say the world can be no better than it is, so why even try to change ? We are here because we believe in change.”
So, if we believe in certain values, such as the equality of all human beings, fairness in their treatment etc, we should not be afraid to proclaim our beliefs from the rooftops and stand up for them. If we can act in this way, we will influence others with the same leadership skills that Rotarians have used for more than 100 years to uplift the human condition. If we don’t or won’t speak up for higher standards, or condemn practices which are clearly wrong, how can we say that we are true Rotarians. A few years ago, the Walk Free Foundation expressed its concerns about an ongoing situation in Uzbekistan where hundreds of thousands of adults and children were being forced each year under threat of punishment, to pick cotton for no pay over a three month period in the summer.
The Foundation approached me as the Chair of the Rotary Action Group against Slavery for some support on this issue. Needless to say, I agreed to the Foundation’s request. We sent a joint letter to the World Bank asking them to stop funding Uzbekistan until that Government ceased to exploit their own people. This action was not, in my view, a political act but a humanitarian one because its main aim was to help preserve the liberty and human rights of Uzbekistan’s citizens. We were proud to follow the sentiments expressed by former Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon who stated that “It is up to each of us to raise our voice against crimes that deprive countless victims of their liberty, dignity and human rights”.
There are of course other ways in which we Rotarians can demonstrate our support for the work of organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Anti-Slavery International, whose main aims are upholding the principles enshrined in the United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Supporting the work of these organizations is important because they are so few in numbers. They are like mice fighting a herd of elephants. What they often find difficult is mobilizing the funds to extend their work further. This is where we Rotarians can help. If we can mobilize
millions of dollars to almost eradicate the polio virus, we can do the same by providing the necessary funds for these activists to continue protecting individuals wherever justice, fairness, freedom and truth are denied. To be effective partners of these human rights organizations, Rotarians need to be
made aware, not only of our ethical responsibilities which are clearly set out in Part 2 of the Object of Rotary and the 4-Way Test, but also of our humanitarian responsibilities in respect of everyone’s basic human rights. These responsibilities which previously were included in RI’s Code of Policies
and its Manual of Procedure, were stated as follows,
Rotarians should
1)Look beyond national patriotism and share responsibility for the advancement of international understanding, goodwill and peace
2)Resist any tendency to act in terms of national or racial superiority
3)Seek and develop common grounds for agreement with peoples of other lands
4)Defend the rule of law and order to preserve liberty of the individual so that all may enjoy freedom of thought, speech and assembly; freedom from persecution and aggression; and freedom from want and fear
5)Support action directed towards improving standards of living for all peoples, realizing that poverty anywhere endangers prosperity elsewhere
6)Uphold the principles of justice for humankind, realizing that these are fundamental and must be worldwide
7)Strive always to promote peace between nations and be prepared to make personal sacrifices for that ideal
8)Urge and practice a spirit of understanding of every person’s beliefs as a step towards international goodwill, recognizing that there are certain basic moral and spiritual standards that, if practiced, will ensure a richer, fuller life
9)Exercise appropriate caution in conducting activities and programs where international tensions exist between countries. (RCP 8.050.3)
The omission of the above responsibilities does not mean that RI has changed its mind about these obligations because we know that they are implied. However, it would be preferable if these responsibilities in respect of human rights were spelt out in writing so that Rotarians are able to know precisely the extent of their obligations. With that objective in mind, the Rotary Club of
Norwich St Edmund submitted a legal document known as a “Petition” to Evanston in 2020 requesting the RI Board to reinstate at least some of the above responsibilities. The one’s specifically mentioned in the Petition were numbers 4 and 6 above.
In October 2020, the RI Board agreed that the recommendation in the Club’s petition would be considered by a newly appointed Task Force, which would meet regularly to ensure that Rotary’s future principles, policies and actions would take into account issues relating to such matters adversity, equity and inclusion. Sadly, we are still awaiting the reintroduction of those original
human rights responsibilities in Rotary’s Code of Policies.
For each Rotarian, the ethical and basic human rights responsibilities have been the cornerstone of all our actions. It has been for years and it will be in the future. The unlawful killing of George Floyd reminds us now more than ever before that we need a vision and a knowledge of what is happening around us, what is our joint responsibility to humankind, what is fair, what is acceptable, what is the right thing to do. If we firmly believe in certain values, such as the equality of all human beings regardless of colour, race or gender, then we should not be afraid to stand up for them. As Albert Einstein stated “the world Is a dangerous place not because of people who do evil, but
because of good people who look on and do nothing”.
Mark Little
Founder Chair
Rotary Action Group Against Slavery
5th April 2023