The primary objective of governing institutions at all levels is the advancement of human civilization. This objective is difficult to satisfy without the inspired and intelligent participation of the generality of humankind in the life and affairs of the community.
With a focus on building institutions and creating a community of nations, international bodies have historically remained distant from the minds and hearts of the world’s people. Separated by several layers of government from the international arena and confused by the media’s coverage of international news, the vast majority of people have not yet developed an affinity for institutions like the United Nations. Only those individuals who have had some access to the international arena through channels like organizations of civil society seem able to identify with these institutions.
Paradoxically, international institutions cannot develop into an effective and mature level of government and fulfill their primary objective to advance human civilization, if they do not recognize and nurture their relationship of mutual dependency with the people of the world. Such recognition would set in motion a virtuous cycle of trust and support that would accelerate the transition to a new world order.
The tasks entailed in the development of a global society call for levels of capacity far beyond anything the human race has so far been able to muster. Reaching these levels will require an enormous expansion in access to knowledge on the part of every individual. International institutions will succeed in eliciting and directing the potentialities latent in the peoples of the world to the extent that their exercise of authority is moderated by their obligation to win the confidence, respect, and genuine support of those whose actions they seek to govern and to consult openly and to the fullest extent possible with all those whose interests are affected.
Individuals who become confident and respectful of these institutions will, in turn, demand that their national governments increase their support, both political and economic, for the international order. In turn, the international institutions, with increased influence and power, will be better positioned to undertake further actions to establish a legitimate and effective world order.
Along with the measures for strengthening its structure, the United Nations needs to adopt initiatives that release the latent power in all people to participate in this galvanizing process. To this end, certain themes that accelerate the advancement of the individual and society warrant special consideration. Among them, promoting economic development, protecting human rights, advancing the status of women, and emphasizing moral development are four priorities so closely tied to the advancement of civilization that they must be emphasized as part of the United Nations agenda.
Economic development strategies employed by the United Nations, the World Bank and a number of governments during the last fifty years, however sincerely conceived and executed, have fallen far short of aspirations. In much of the world, the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” has widened and is accelerating with the persistent disparity in income levels. Social problems have not subsided. In fact, crime and disease are not just on the rise; they are also becoming endemic and more difficult to combat.
These failures can be traced to a number of factors. They include a misplaced focus on large-scale projects and bureaucratic over-centralization, unjust terms of international trade, a pervasive corruption that has been allowed to flourish throughout the system, the exclusion of women from the decision-making processes at all levels, a general inability to ensure that resources reach the poor, and the diversion of development resources into military hardware.
A dispassionate examination of these factors betrays a common systematic and fundamental flaw in the current paradigm for economic development: material needs are often addressed without taking into account the spiritual factors and their motivating power.
Development should not become confused with the creation of an unsustainable consumer society. True prosperity encompasses spiritual as well as material well-being. Food, drink, shelter and a degree of material comfort are essential, but human beings cannot and never will find fulfillment in these necessities. Nor is contentment to be found in the somewhat more intangible material attainments such as social recognition or political power. Ultimately, not even intellectual achievement satisfies our deepest needs.
It is in the hunger for something more, something beyond ourselves, that the reality of the human spirit can be properly understood. Although the spiritual side of our nature is obscured by the day-to-day struggle for material attainment, our need for the transcendent cannot long be disregarded. Thus a sustainable development paradigm must address both the spiritual aspirations of human beings and their material needs and desires.
Education is the best investment in economic development. “Man is the supreme Talisman. Lack of a proper education hath, however, deprived him of that which he doth inherently possess,” writes Bahá’u’lláh. “Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.”29 Education, implies more than a process of mastering a narrow body of knowledge or learning a set of life skills. In truth, education, which should be a fundamental imperative of development, must also teach the process for knowledge acquisition, cultivate the powers of intellect and reasoning, and infuse the student with indispensable moral qualities.
It is this comprehensive approach to education that allows people to contribute to the creation of wealth and encourage its just distribution.30
Genuine wealth is created when work is undertaken not simply as a means of earning a livelihood but also as a way to contribute to society. We hold that meaningful work is a basic need of the human soul, as important to the proper development of the individual as nutritious food, clean water and fresh air are to the physical body.
Because of the spiritually damaging nature of dependency, schemes which focus solely on redistributing material wealth are doomed to failure in the long run. Distribution of wealth must be approached in an efficient and equitable manner. In fact, it must be intimately integrated with the process of wealth creation.
The plan of action formulated at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development incorporated a wide range of views from civil society and a set of principles not unlike those articulated in this statement. Unfortunately, however, little has been done by member states to implement the measures described in the plan.
If the objectives of Agenda 21 are to be addressed and satisfied, an expanded effort, different in nature but comparable in scale and commitment to the Marshall Plan for the redevelopment of post-war Europe, might be necessary. In this case, the Bretton Woods institutions would be called upon to mount a pronounced campaign to expedite national implementation efforts. A mandate of this nature can result only from a conference, similar to the first Bretton Woods meetings fifty years ago, dedicated to a wholesale re-examination of these institutions. The purpose of this re-examination would be to make available to the people of the world sufficient resources so that they could implement local initiatives. Moreover, the conference could also expand its agenda to address deeper issues of global economic security through the redefinition of existing institutions or the creation of new structures.31
Over the five decades since the United Nations was founded, an understanding has emerged that human rights must be recognized and protected internationally if peace, social progress and economic prosperity are to be established.
The foundation for international agreement on the nature of human rights is the all-important Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and elaborated in two international covenants—the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights. In addition, some 75 other conventions and declarations identify and promote the rights of women and children, the right to freedom of worship, and the right to development, to name but a few.
Human rights enforcement at the international level needs to be handled in a manner similar to the treatment of military aggression under a collective security regime. The violation of human rights in one state must be considered the concern of all, and enforcement mechanisms must provide for a unified response on the part of the entire international community. The question of when and how to intervene to protect human rights is more difficult to answer. Vigorous enforcement will require a high degree of global consensus on what constitutes a flagrant and willful violation.
Important steps toward global consensus were taken during the process leading up to the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, which affirmed unequivocally that human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent, and ended the long-standing debate about the relative importance of civil and political rights as compared to social, economic and cultural rights.32 Conference resolutions also confirmed that human rights must be applied irrespective of differences of racial background, ethnic origin, religious belief or national identity. They encompass the equality of women and men; they include for all individuals worldwide the same rights to freedom of investigation, information and religious practice; and they embody the right of everyone to basic necessities such as food, shelter, and health care.33 Beyond the need to build consensus and strengthen enforcement of human rights, it is important to establish a greater understanding that to each right is attached a corresponding responsibility.
The right to be recognized as a person before the law, for example, implies the responsibility to obey the law—and to make both the laws and the legal system more just. Likewise, in the socio-economic realm, the right to marry carries with it the responsibility to support the family unit, to educate one’s children and to treat all family members with respect.34 The right to work cannot be divorced from the responsibility to perform one’s duties to the best of one’s ability. In the broadest sense, the notion of “universal” human rights implies a responsibility to humanity as a whole.
Ultimately, while it is up to the individual to fulfill the responsibility in each such area, it is up to international institutions to protect the related human right. We propose three measures for immediate action.
The United Nations machinery for the monitoring, implementation and follow-up of government compliance with international covenants is inadequate. The Centre for Human Rights consists of a very small professional staff struggling to support efforts to monitor the compliance by countries of all treaties they have ratified.
Since ratifying the international conventions on human rights creates an obligation for member states, albeit not a practically enforceable one, the Secretary-General and all bodies of the UN might consider every opportunity to encourage member states to act on this issue. In fact, a demanding timeline for universal ratification may be an inspiring goal to be set by the General Assembly.
Since the mandate of the human rights monitoring agencies is of a very serious nature, the UN needs to be particularly mindful of perceptions created by the structure and processes of these agencies and equally deliberate in acting to resolve compromising situations.
We believe it would be prudent to explore during the nomination process the qualifications of member states in visible positions and to exclude from election to membership on the Commission on Human Rights and other monitoring agencies, any member states that have not yet ratified the international conventions. While these member states would still be able to fully participate in deliberations, it would protect the United Nations from a potentially embarrassing and compromising situation.
We also believe that a single exception is warranted to the above rule. Member states, not under the scrutiny of the UN, that have sufficient protection for fundamental human rights within their constitutions, but which have not been able to complete the ratification process because of internal political reasons, should not be barred from election to visible positions.
Finally, it also seems prudent for member states that have ratified the international conventions but are under scrutiny for gross human rights violations to be disqualified from election to the offices of conferences and other meetings of the Commission on Human Rights. This will prevent a widespread perception of the proceedings as a mockery.
The creation of a peaceful and sustainable world civilization will be impossible without the full participation of women in every arena of human activity.35 While this proposition is increasingly supported, there is a marked difference between intellectual acceptance and its implementation.
It is time for the institutions of the world, composed mainly of men, to use their influence to promote the systematic inclusion of women, not out of condescension or presumed self-sacrifice but as an act motivated by the belief that the contributions of women are required for society to progress.36 Only as the contributions of women are valued will they be sought out and woven into the fabric of society. The result will be a more peaceful, balanced, just and prosperous civilization.37
The obvious biological differences between the sexes need not be a cause for inequality or disunity. Rather, they are an aspect of complementarity. If the role of women as mothers is properly valued, their work in nurturing and educating children will be respected and properly rewarded. It should also be acknowledged that the child-bearing role does not diminish one’s aptitude for leadership, or undermine one’s intellectual, scientific or creative capacity. Indeed, it may be an enhancement.
We believe progress on a few critical fronts would have the greatest impact on the advancement of women. We share the following perspectives which are foundational to the recommendations which follow.
First and foremost, violence against women and girls, one of the most blatant and widespread abuses of human rights, must be eradicated. Violence has been a fact of life for many women throughout the world, regardless of race, class, or educational background. In many societies, traditional beliefs that women are inferior or a burden make them easy targets of anger and frustration. Even strong legal remedies and enforcement mechanisms will have little effect until they are supported by a transformation in the attitudes of men. Women will not be safe until a new social conscience takes hold, one which will make the mere expression of condescending attitudes towards women, let alone any form of physical violence, a cause for deep shame.
Second, the family remains the basic building block of society and behaviors observed and learned there will be projected onto interactions at all other levels of society. Therefore, the members of the institution of the family must be transformed so that the principle of equality of women and men is internalized. Further, if the bonds of love and unity cement family relationships, the impact will reach beyond its borders and affect society as a whole.
Third, while the overall goal of any society must be to educate all its members, at this stage in human history the greatest need is to educate women and girls.38 For over twenty years, studies have consistently documented that, of all possible investments, educating women and girls pays the highest overall dividends in terms of social development, the eradication of poverty and the advancement of community.39
Fourth, the global dialogue on the role of men and women must promote recognition of the intrinsic complementarity of the two sexes. For the differences between them are a natural assertion of the necessity of women and men to work together to bring to fruition their potentialities for advancing civilization, no less than for perpetuating the human race. Such differences are inherent in the interactive character of their common humanity. This dialogue needs to consider the historical forces which have led to the oppression of women and examine the new social, political and spiritual realities which are today transforming our civilization.
As a starting point for this dialogue we offer this analogy from the Bahá’í Writings: “The world of humanity has two wings—one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible.”40 In addition, we support the following three specific measures.
As with the international conventions on human rights, the Secretary-General and all bodies of the UN should consider every opportunity to encourage member states to proceed with ratification of conventions and protocols that protect women’s rights and seek their advancement.
The Forward-Looking Strategies declaration adopted at the Nairobi conference was highly bold and imaginative, yet its implementation was rather ineffective.41 We believe that a lesson should be learned from this unfortunate experience and deliberate plans be put into place to ensure that the Platform of Action emerging from the Beijing conference does not meet a similar fate.
We propose that a monitoring system be established to prepare status reports on the implementation of adopted measures and to make presentations to the General Assembly annually, highlighting the top twenty and bottom twenty member states in terms of compliance.
The process of integrating human beings into larger and larger groups, although influenced by culture and geography, has been driven largely by religion, the most powerful agent for changing human attitudes and behavior. By religion, however, we mean the essential foundation or reality of religion, not the dogmas and blind imitations which have gradually encrusted it and which are the cause of its decline and effacement.
In the words of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá “Material civilization is like the body. No matter how infinitely graceful, elegant and beautiful it may be, it is dead. Divine civilization is like the spirit, and the body gets its life from the spirit.… Without the spirit the world of mankind is lifeless.”42
The concept of promoting specific morals or values may be controversial, especially in this age of humanistic relativism. Nevertheless, we firmly believe there exists a common set of values that have been obscured from recognition by those who exaggerate minor differences in religious or cultural practice for political purposes.43 These foundation virtues, taught by all spiritual communities, constitute a basic framework for moral development.
Reflection on the commonalties inherent in the great religious and moral systems of the world reveals that each one espouses unity, cooperation and harmony among people, establishes guidelines for responsible behavior and supports the development of virtues which are the foundation for trust-based and principled interactions.44
We advocate a universal campaign to promote moral development. Simply put, this campaign should encourage and assist local initiatives all over the world to incorporate a moral dimension into the education of children. It may necessitate the holding of conferences, the publication of relevant materials and many other supportive activities, all of which represent a solid investment in a future generation.
This campaign for moral development may begin with a few simple precepts. For example, rectitude of conduct, trustworthiness, and honesty are the foundation for stability and progress; altruism should guide all human endeavor, such that sincerity and respect for the rights of others become an integral part of every individual’s actions; service to humanity is the true source of happiness, honor and meaning in life.
We also believe the campaign will be successful only to the extent that the force of religion is relied upon in the effort. The doctrine of the separation of church and state should not be used as a shield to block this salutary influence. Specifically, religious communities will have to be drawn in as collaborative partners in this important initiative.
As it proceeds, this campaign will accelerate a process of individual empowerment that will transform the way in which people, regardless of economic class, social standing, or ethnic, racial or religious background, interact with their society.
“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.”45
Over a century ago, Bahá’u’lláh taught that there is but one God, that there is only one human race, and that all the world’s religions represent stages in the revelation of God’s will and purpose for humanity. Bahá’u’lláh announced the arrival of the time, foretold in all of the world’s scriptures, when humanity would at last witness the uniting of all peoples into a peaceful and integrated society.
He said that human destiny lies not merely in the creation of a materially prosperous society, but also in the construction of a global civilization where individuals are encouraged to act as moral beings who understand their true nature and are able to progress toward a greater fulfillment that no degree of material bounty alone can provide.
Bahá’u’lláh was also among the first to invoke the phrase “new world order” to describe the momentous changes in the political, social and religious life of the world. “The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing Order appeareth to be lamentably defective,” He wrote. “Soon will the present-day order be rolled up and a new one spread out in its stead.”46
To this end, He laid a charge on the leaders and members of society alike. “It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.”47
Above all else, leaders for the next generation must be motivated by a sincere desire to serve the entire community and must understand that leadership is a responsibility; not a path to privilege. For too long, leadership has been understood, by both leaders and followers, as the assertion of control over others. Indeed, this age demands a new definition of leadership and a new type of leader.48
This is especially true in the international arena. In order to establish a sense of trust, win the confidence, and inculcate a fond affinity in the hearts of the world’s people for institutions of the international order, these leaders will have to reflect on their own actions.
Through an unblemished record of personal integrity, they must help restore confidence and trust in government. They must embody the characteristics of honesty, humility and sincerity of purpose in seeking the truth of a situation. They must be committed to and guided by principles, thereby acting in the best long-term interests of humanity as a whole.
“Let your vision be world-embracing, rather than confined to your own selves,” Bahá’u’lláh wrote. “Do not busy yourselves in your own concerns; let your thoughts be fixed upon that which will rehabilitate the fortunes of mankind and sanctify the hearts and souls of men.”49