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Turning Point for All Nations

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Turning Point for All Nations

A Statement of the Bahá’í International Community on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations

“Unification of the whole of mankind is the hall-mark of the stage which human society is now approaching. Unity of family, of tribe, of city-state, and nation have been successively attempted and fully established. World unity is the goal towards which a harassed humanity is striving. Nation-building has come to an end. The anarchy inherent in state sovereignty is moving towards a climax. A world, growing to maturity, must abandon this fetish, recognize the oneness and wholeness of human relationships, and establish once for all the machinery that can best incarnate this fundamental principle of its life.”

Shoghi Effendi, 1936

I. Overview: An Opportunity for Reflection

The 20th Century, one of the most tumultuous periods in human history, has been marked by numerous upheavals, revolutions and radical departures from the past. Ranging from the collapse of the colonial system and the great nineteenth century empires to the rise and fall of broad and disastrous experiments with totalitarianism, fascism and communism, some of these upheavals have been extremely destructive, involving the deaths of millions, the eradication of old lifestyles and traditions, and the collapse of time-honored institutions.

Other movements and trends have been more obviously positive. Scientific discoveries and new social insights have spurred many progressive social, economic and cultural transformations. The way has been cleared for new definitions of human rights and affirmations of personal dignity, expanded opportunities for individual and collective achievement, and bold new avenues for the advancement of human knowledge and consciousness.

These twin processes—the collapse of old institutions on the one hand and the blossoming of new ways of thinking on the other—are evidence of a single trend which has been gaining momentum during the last hundred years: the trend toward ever-increasing interdependence and integration of humanity.

This trend is observable in wide-ranging phenomena, from the fusion of world financial markets, which in turn reflect humanity’s reliance on diverse and interdependent sources of energy, food, raw materials, technology and knowledge, to the construction of globe-girdling systems of communications and transportation. It is reflected in the scientific understanding of the earth’s interconnected biosphere, which has in turn given a new urgency to the need for global coordination. It is manifest, albeit in a destructive way, in the capacities of modern weapons systems, which have gradually increased in power to the point where it is now possible for a handful of men to bring an end to human civilization itself. It is the universal consciousness of this trend—in both its constructive and destructive expressions—that lends such poignancy to the familiar photograph of the earth as a swirling sphere of blue and white against the infinite blackness of space, an image crystallizing the realization that we are a single people, rich in diversity, living in a common homeland.

This trend is reflected, too, in steady efforts by the nations of the world to forge a world political system that can secure for humanity the possibility of peace, justice and prosperity. Twice in this century humanity has attempted to bring about a new international order. Each attempt sought to address the emergent recognition of global interdependence, while nevertheless preserving intact a system which put the sovereignty of the state above all else. In the perspective of the century now ending, the League of Nations, a breakthrough in the concept of collective security, marked a first decisive step toward world order.

The second effort, born from the cataclysm of World War II and based on a Charter drawn up principally by the victors of that conflagration, has for fifty years provided an international forum of last resort, a unique institution standing as a noble symbol for the collective interests of humanity as a whole.

As an international organization, the United Nations has demonstrated humanity’s capacity for united action in health, agriculture, education, environmental protection, and the welfare of children. It has affirmed our collective moral will to build a better future, evinced in the widespread adoption of international human rights Covenants. It has revealed the human race’s deep-seated compassion, evidenced by the devotion of financial and human resources to the assistance of people in distress. And in the all-important realms of peace-building, peace-making and peace-keeping, the United Nations has blazed a bold path toward a future without war.1

Yet the overall goals set out in the Charter of the United Nations have proved elusive. Despite the high hopes of its founders, the establishment of the United Nations some fifty years ago did not usher in an era of peace and prosperity for all.⁠2

Although the United Nations has surely played a role in preventing a third world war, the last half decade has nevertheless been marked by numerous local, national and regional conflicts costing millions of lives. No sooner had improved relations between the superpowers removed the ideological motivation for such conflicts, than long-smoldering ethnic and sectarian passions surfaced as a new source of conflagration. In addition, although the end of the Cold War has reduced the threat of a global, terminal war, there remain instruments and technologies—and to some extent the underlying passions—which could bring about planet-wide destruction.

With respect to social issues, likewise, grave problems persist. While new levels of consensus have been reached on global programs to promote health, sustainable development and human rights, the situation on the ground in many areas has deteriorated. The alarming spread of militant racialism and religious fanaticism, the cancerous growth of materialism, the epidemic rise of crime and organized criminality, the widespread increase in mindless violence, the ever-deepening disparity between rich and poor, the continuing inequities faced by women, the intergenerational damage caused by the pervasive break-down of family life, the immoral excesses of unbridled capitalism and the growth of political corruption—all speak to this point. At least a billion live in abject poverty and more than a third of the world’s people are illiterate.3

As the twin processes of collapse and renewal carry the world toward some sort of culmination, the 50th anniversary of the United Nations offers a timely opportunity to pause and reflect on how humanity may collectively face its future. Indeed, there has emerged of late a wide range of useful proposals for strengthening the United Nations and improving its capacity to coordinate the responses of nations to these challenges.

These proposals fall roughly into three categories. One group addresses primarily bureaucratic, administrative and financial problems within the United Nations system. Another group comprises those that suggest reconfiguring bodies like the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council and the Bretton Woods economic institutions. Still others propose to undertake changes in the United Nations political structure, calling, for example, for an expansion of the Security Council and/or a reconsideration of the United Nations Charter itself.4

Most of these works are constructive; some are also provocative. Among them, one of the most balanced and thoughtful is the report of the Commission on Global Governance, entitled, Our Global Neighborhood, which argues for the widespread adoption of new values, as well as structural reforms in the United Nations system.5

It is in the spirit of contributing to the ongoing discussion and consultation on this issue of paramount importance that the Bahá’í International Community has been moved to share its views.

Our perspective is based on three initial propositions. First, discussions about the future of the United Nations need to take place within the broad context of the evolution of the international order and its direction. The United Nations has co-evolved with other great institutions of the late twentieth century. It is in the aggregate that these institutions will define—and themselves be shaped by—the evolution of the international order. Therefore, the mission, role, operating principles and even activities of the United Nations should be examined only in the light of how they fit within the broader objective of the international order.

Second, since the body of humankind is one and indivisible, each member of the human race is born into the world as a trust of the whole. This relationship between the individual and the collective constitutes the moral foundation of most of the human rights which the instruments of the United Nations are attempting to define. It also serves to define an overriding purpose for the international order in establishing and preserving the rights of the individual.

Third, the discussions about the future of the international order must involve and excite the generality of humankind. This discussion is so important that it cannot be confined to leaders—be they in government, business, the academic community, religion, or organizations of civil society. On the contrary, this conversation must engage women and men at the grassroots level. Broad participation will make the process self-reinforcing by raising awareness of world citizenship and increase support for an expanded international order.

II. Recognizing the Historical Context:

A Call to World Leaders

The Bahá’í International Community regards the current world confusion and the calamitous condition of human affairs as a natural phase in an organic process leading ultimately and irresistibly to the unification of the human race in a single social order whose boundaries are those of the planet.

The human race, as a distinct, organic unit, has passed through evolutionary stages analogous to the stages of infancy and childhood in the lives of its individual members, and is now in the culminating period of its turbulent adolescence approaching its long-awaited coming of age.6 The process of global integration, already a reality in the realms of business, finance, and communications, is beginning to materialize in the political arena.

Historically, this process has been accelerated by sudden and catastrophic events. It was the devastation of World Wars I and II that gave birth to the League of Nations and the United Nations, respectively. Whether future accomplishments are also to be reached after similarly unimaginable horrors or embraced through an act of consultative will, is the choice before all who inhabit the earth. Failure to take decisive action would be unconscionably irresponsible.

Since sovereignty currently resides with the nation-state, the task of determining the exact architecture of the emerging international order is an obligation that rests with heads of state and with governments. We urge leaders at all levels to take a deliberate role in supporting a convocation of world leaders before the turn of this century to consider how the international order might be redefined and restructured to meet the challenges facing the world. As some have suggested, this gathering might be called the World Summit on Global Governance.7

This proposed Summit might build on the experience gained from the series of highly successful United Nations conferences in the early 1990s. These conferences, which have included the World Summit for Children in 1990, the Earth Summit in 1992, the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, the World Summit for Social Development in 1995 and the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, have established a new methodology for global deliberations on critical issues.

A key to the success of these deliberations has been the substantive participation by organizations of civil society. Painstaking negotiations among government delegations about changes in the world’s political, social and economic structures have been informed and shaped by the vigorous involvement of these organizations, which tend to reflect the needs and concerns of people at the grass roots. It is also significant that in each case, the gathering of world leaders, in the presence of civil society and the global media, gave the stamp of legitimacy and consensus to the processes of the conference.

In preparing for the proposed Summit, world leaders would be wise to heed these lessons, to reach out to as wide a circle as possible and to secure the goodwill and support of the world’s peoples.

Some fear that international political institutions inevitably evolve toward excessive centralization and constitute an unwarranted layer of bureaucracy. It needs to be explicitly and forcefully stated that any new structures for global governance must, as a matter of both principle and practicality, ensure that the responsibility for decision-making remains at appropriate levels.8

Striking the right balance may not always be easy. On the one hand, genuine development and real progress can be achieved only by people themselves, acting individually and collectively, in response to the specific concerns and needs of their time and place. It can be argued that the decentralization of governance is the sine qua non of development.9 On the other hand, the international order clearly requires a degree of global direction and coordination.

Therefore, in accordance with the principles of decentralization outlined above, international institutions should be given the authority to act only on issues of international concern where states cannot act on their own or to intervene for the preservation of the rights of peoples and member states. All other matters should be relegated to national and local institutions.10

Furthermore, in devising a specific framework for the future international order, leaders should survey a broad range of approaches to governance. Rather than being modeled after any single one of the recognized systems of government, the solution may embody, reconcile and assimilate within its framework such wholesome elements as are to be found in each one of them.

For example, one of the time-tested models of governance that may accommodate the world’s diversity within a unified framework is the federal system. Federalism has proved effective in decentralizing authority and decision-making in large, complex, and heterogeneous states, while maintaining a degree of overall unity and stability. Another model worth examining is the commonwealth, which at the global level would place the interest of the whole ahead of the interest of any individual nation.

Extraordinary care must be taken in designing the architecture of the international order so that it does not over time degenerate into any form of despotism, of oligarchy, or of demagogy corrupting the life and machinery of the constituent political institutions.

In 1955, during the first decade review of the UN charter, the Bahá’í International Community offered a statement to the United Nations, based on ideas articulated nearly a century before by Bahá’u’lláh. “The Bahá’í concept of world order is defined in these terms: A world Super-State in whose favor all the nations of the world will have ceded every claim to make war, certain rights to impose taxation and all rights to maintain armaments, except for the purposes of maintaining internal order within their respective dominions. This State will have to include an International Executive adequate to enforce supreme and unchallengeable authority on every recalcitrant member of the Commonwealth; a World Parliament whose members are elected by the peoples in their respective countries and whose election is confirmed by their respective governments; a Supreme Tribunal whose judgment has a binding effect even in cases where the parties concerned have not voluntarily agreed to submit their case to its consideration.”11

While we believe this formulation of a world government is at once the ultimate safeguard and the inevitable destiny of humankind, we do recognize that it represents a long-term picture of a global society. Given the pressing nature of the current state of affairs, the world requires bold, practical and actionable strategies that go beyond inspiring visions of the future. Nevertheless, by focusing on a compelling concept, a clear and consistent direction for evolutionary change emerges from the mire of contradictory views and doctrines.

III. Defining a Role for the UN Within the Emerging International Order

The United Nations was the centerpiece of the international system created by the victors of World War II and, during the long decades of ideological conflict between the East and the West, it served as a forum for international dialogue. Over the years, its activities have expanded to include not only international standard-setting and promotion of social and economic development but also peacekeeping operations on several continents.

Over the same period, the political reality of our world has experienced a dramatic transformation. At the time of the UN’s inception, there were some fifty independent states. That number has grown to exceed 185. At the close of World War II, governments were the main actors on the global scene. Today, the growing influence of organizations of civil society and of multinational corporations has created a much more intricate political landscape.

Despite the growing complexity in its mission, the United Nations system has retained more or less the same structure that was designed for a new international organization some fifty years ago. It is not surprising then that the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary has stimulated a new dialogue about its ability to meet the political realities of the 21st Century. Unfortunately, in this dialogue, criticism has far outweighed praise.

Most criticisms of the operations of the United Nations are based on comparisons with the operations of the leading organizations in the private sector or on measurements relative to inflated initial expectations. Although some specific comparisons may be useful in increasing the efficiency of the United Nations more general exercises of this kind are essentially unfair. The United Nations lacks not only the clear authority, but also the requisite resources to act effectively in most instances. Accusations of the UN’s failure are in fact indictments of the member states themselves.

Judged in isolation from the reality within which it operates, the United Nations will always seem inefficient and ineffective. However, if it is viewed as one element of a larger process of development in systems of international order, the bright light of analysis would shift from the UN’s shortcomings and failures to shine on its victories and accomplishments. To those with an evolutionary mindset, the early experience of the United Nations offers us a rich source of learning about its future role within the international regime.

An evolutionary mindset implies the ability to envision an institution over a long time frame perceiving its inherent potential for development, identifying the fundamental principles governing its growth, formulating high-impact strategies for short-term implementation, and even anticipating radical discontinuities along its path.

Studying the United Nations from this perspective unveils significant opportunities to strengthen the current system without the wholesale restructuring of its principal institutions or the intensive re-engineering of its core processes. In fact, we submit that no proposal for UN reform can produce high impact unless its recommendations are internally consistent and direct the UN along a projected evolutionary path toward a distinctive and relevant role within the future international order.

We believe the combination of recommendations described herein meets these conditions and that their adoption would represent a measured but significant step toward building a more just world order.12

A. Resuscitating the General Assembly

The foundation for any system of governance is the rule of law and the primary institution for promulgating law is the legislature. While the authority of local and national legislatures is generally respected, regional and international legislative bodies have been the subject of fear and suspicion.

In addition, the United Nations General Assembly has been a target of attack for its ineffectiveness. Although some of the accusations hurled against it are unfounded, there are at least two shortcomings that hamper the ability of the General Assembly to have impact.

First, the current arrangement gives undue weight to state sovereignty, resulting in a curious mix of anarchy and conservatism. In a reformed United Nations, the legislative branch and its voting structure will need to represent more accurately the people of the world as well as nation-states.13

Second, General Assembly resolutions are not binding unless they are separately ratified as a treaty by each member state. If the current system, which places state sovereignty above all other concerns, is to give way to a system which can address the interests of a single and interdependent humanity, the resolutions of the General Assembly—within a limited domain of issues—must gradually come to possess the force of law with provisions for both enforcement and sanctions.

These two shortcomings are closely linked inasmuch as the majority of the world’s people, suspicious and fearful of world government, are unlikely to submit to an international institution unless it is itself more genuinely representative.14

Nevertheless, in the short term, five practical measures are possible to strengthen the General Assembly, enhance its reputation and align it with a longer term direction.

1. Raising minimum requirements for membership

The minimum standards for conduct by a government towards its people have been well established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international covenants, collectively referred to as the International Bill of Human Rights.

Without an unshakable commitment to regular and periodic elections with universal participation by secret ballot, to freedom of expression and to other such human rights, a member state stands in the way of the active and intelligent participation of the vast majority of its population in the affairs of its own communities.

We propose that there should be consequences for member states that violate these standards. Similarly, nations seeking recognition should be denied membership until they openly espouse these standards or make recognizable efforts to move in that direction.

2. Appointing a commission to study borders and frontiers

Outstanding irredentist claims continue to be a major source of conflict and war, highlighting the critical need for general agreements on national boundaries. Such treaties can only be arrived at after consideration of the arbitrary manner in which many nation-states were originally defined and of all outstanding claims of nations and ethnic groups.

Rather than relegating such claims to the World Court, we believe it would be best to establish a special International Commission to research all claims affecting international boundaries and then, after careful consideration, to make recommendations for action.15 The results would serve as an early warning system for growing tension among civil or ethnic groups and assessment of threats in situations benefiting from early preventive diplomacy.

In order to establish a genuine community of nations in the long run, it will be necessary to settle finally all disputes over borders. This research would serve that end.

3. Searching for new financial arrangements

Primarily triggered by the unwillingness of some member states to remit their general assessments on time, compounded by the absence of authority to collect any interest accrued because of that delay, and further aggravated by the bureaucratic inefficiencies in parts of its operations, the annual budget shortfall pressures the UN into a crisis management mentality.

Voluntary payments from member states will never be a reliable approach to finance an international institution. Vigorous approaches to revenue generation must be devised to enable the smooth functioning of the UN machinery. We propose the immediate appointment of an expert Task Force to begin a rigorous search for solutions.

In studying alternatives, the Task Force should be mindful of several fundamental principles. First, there should be no assessments without representation. Second, in the interest of fairness and justice, assessments should be graduated. Third, mechanisms for encouraging voluntary contributions by individuals and communities should not be overlooked.16

4. Making a commitment to a universal auxiliary language and a common script

The United Nations, which currently uses six official languages, would derive substantial benefit from either choosing a single existing language or creating a new one to be used as an auxiliary language in all its fora. Such a step has long been advocated by many groups, from the Esperantists to the Bahá’í International Community itself.17 In addition to saving money and simplifying bureaucratic procedures, such a move would go far toward promoting a spirit of unity.

We propose the appointment of a high-level Commission, with members from various regions and drawn from relevant fields, including linguistics, economics, the social sciences, education and the media, to begin careful study on the matter of an international auxiliary language and the adoption of a common script.

We foresee that eventually, the world cannot but adopt a single, universally agreed-upon auxiliary language and script to be taught in schools worldwide, as a supplement to the language or languages of each country. The objective would be to facilitate the transition to a global society through better communication among nations, reduction of administrative costs for businesses, governments and others involved in global enterprise, and a general fostering of more cordial relations between all members of the human family.18

This proposal should be read narrowly. It does not in any way envision the decline of any living language or culture.

5. Investigating the possibility of a single international currency

The need to promote the adoption of a global currency as a vital element in the integration of the global economy is self-evident. Among other benefits, economists believe that a single currency will curb unproductive speculation and unpredictable market swings, promote a leveling of incomes and prices worldwide, and thereby result in significant savings.19

The possibility of savings will not lead to action unless there is an overwhelming body of evidence addressing the relevant concerns and doubts of skeptics, accompanied by a credible implementation plan. We propose the appointment of a Commission consisting of the most accomplished government leaders, academics and professionals to begin immediate exploration into the economic benefits and the political costs of a single currency and to hypothesize about an effective implementation approach.

B. Developing a Meaningful Executive Function

At the international level, the single most important executive function is the enforcement of a collective security pact.20

Collective security implies a binding covenant among nations to act in concert against threats to the collective. The effectiveness of the covenant depends on the degree to which members commit themselves to the collective good, even if motivated by a sense of enlightened self-interest.

Within the United Nations, the enforcement role is largely carried out by the Security Council, with other functions of the executive being shared with the Secretariat. Both are hampered in fulfilling their mandated roles. The Security Council suffers from an inability to take decisive action. The Secretariat is pressured by the complex demands of the member states.

In the short term, four practical measures are possible to strengthen the executive function within the United Nations.

1. Limiting the exercise of the veto power

The original intention of the UN Charter in conferring veto power on the five Permanent Members was to prevent the Security Council from authorizing military actions against a Permanent Member or requiring the use of its forces against its will.21 In fact, beginning with the Cold War, the veto power has been exercised repeatedly for reasons that have to do with regional or national security.

In its 1955 submission on UN reform, the Bahá’í International Community argued for the gradual elimination of the concepts of “permanent membership” and “veto power” as confidence in the Security Council would build. Today, forty years later, we reaffirm that position. However, we also propose that, as a transitionary step, measures be introduced to curb the exercise of the veto power to reflect the original intention of the Charter.

2. Institutionalizing ad hoc military arrangements

To support the peacekeeping operations of the United Nations, and to add credibility to resolutions of the Security Council, an International Force should be created.22 Its loyalty to the UN and its independence from national considerations must be assured. The command and control of such a fully armed Force would reside with the Secretary-General under the authority of the Security Council. Its finances, however, would be determined by the General Assembly. In constructing such a force, the Secretary-General would seek to draw competent personnel from all regions of the world.

If properly implemented, this Force would also provide a sense of security that might encourage steps toward global disarmament, thereby making possible an outright ban on all weapons of mass destruction.23 Furthermore, in line with the principle of collective security, it would become gradually understood that states need only maintain armaments sufficient for their own defense and the maintenance of internal order.

As an immediate step toward the establishment of this Force, the present system of ad hoc arrangements could be institutionalized to establish core regional forces for rapid deployment during a crisis.

3. Applying the notion of collective security to other problems of the global commons

Although originally conceived within the context of a threat of military aggression, the principle of collective security, some argue, may now be applied in an expansive manner to all threats which, although apparently local in nature, are actually the result of the complex breakdown of the present-day global order. These threats include but are not limited to international drug trafficking, food security, and the emergence of new global pandemics.24

We believe this issue would have to be included on the agenda of the proposed Global Summit. However, it is unlikely that expansive formulations of collective security would preclude the fundamental cause of military aggression.

4. Retaining successful UN institutions with independent executive function

Some of the more independent organizations within the UN family, such as the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the Universal Postal Union, the International Telegraph and Communications Union, the International Labor Organization, and the World Health Organization, have enjoyed conspicuous success with focused but important areas of international concern.

Generally, these organizations already have their own executive function. Their independence should be retained and reinforced as part of the international executive.25

C. A Strengthened World Court

In any system of governance, a strong judicial function is necessary to moderate the powers of the other branches and to enunciate, promulgate, protect and deliver justice. The drive to create just societies has been among the fundamental forces in history26—and without doubt no lasting world civilization can be founded unless it is firmly grounded in the principle of justice.

Justice is the one power that can translate the dawning consciousness of humanity’s oneness into a collective will through which the necessary structures of global community life can be confidently erected. An age that sees the people of the world increasingly gaining access to information of every kind and to a diversity of ideas will find justice asserting itself as the ruling principle of successful social organization.

At the individual level, justice is that faculty of the human soul that enables each person to distinguish truth from falsehood. In the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh avers, justice is “the best beloved of all things” since it permits each individual to see with his own eyes rather than the eyes of others, to know through his own knowledge rather than the knowledge of his neighbor or his group.

At the group level, a concern for justice is the indispensable compass in collective decision-making, because it is the only means by which unity of thought and action can be achieved. Far from encouraging the punitive spirit that has often masqueraded under its name in past ages, justice is the practical expression of awareness that, in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process.

Such a conception of justice will be gradually reinforced by the realization that in an interdependent world, the interests of the individual and society are inextricably intertwined. In this context, justice is a thread that must be woven into the consideration of every interaction, whether in the family, the neighborhood, or at the global level.

We see in the current United Nations system the foundation for a strengthened World Court. Established in 1945 as the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice is characterized by many positive elements. The current system for the selection of judges, for example, seeks to create a judicial panel which is representative of a wide range of peoples, regions, and judicial systems.27

The Court’s primary shortcoming is that it lacks the authority to issue legally binding decisions, except in those cases where states have chosen in advance to be bound by its decisions. Without jurisdiction, the Court is powerless to administer justice.28 In time, the decisions of the World Court may become binding and enforceable upon all states; however, in the short term, the World Court might be strengthened through two other measures.

1. Extending the court’s jurisdiction

Currently, the Court’s jurisdiction is limited to a few categories of cases, and only nations have standing to bring an action. We propose that in addition to member states, other organs of the United Nations should be given the right to bring cases before the Court.

2. Coordinating the thematic courts

The World Court should act as an umbrella for existing and new thematic courts, that arbitrate and adjudicate international cases within specific thematic domains.

Early components of a unified system can already be found in the specialized courts for arbitration of such matters as commerce and transportation, and in the proposals for such bodies as an International Criminal Court and a Chamber for Environmental Matters. Other issue areas that might need to be addressed under such a system would include courts for international terrorism and drug trafficking.

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