In 1945, when the UN was founded it gave a war-weary world a vision of what was possible in the arena of international cooperation and set a new standard by which to guide diverse peoples and nations towards a peaceful coexistence. In spite of this revolutionary vision, almost 70 years later we find we are still struggling with many of the questions that existed before and after WWII. But underlying these questions – and the many others surrounding our efforts to live together on the planet – is an even more foundational question that must be addressed before we can make any sustained progress. Namely, what fundamental values need to guide relationships between and within nations in order to secure a peaceful and prosperous future for everyone?
(i) Interconnected nature of our challenges and our prosperity.
Whether the issue is poverty, the proliferation of weapons, the role of women, HIV/AIDS, global trade, religion, environmental sustainability, the well-being of children, corruption, or the rights of minority populations – it is clear that none of the problems facing humanity can be adequately addressed in isolation.
The blurring of national boundaries in the face of global crises has shown, beyond a doubt, that the body of humankind represents one organic whole. The establishment of the United Nations and other transnational bodies – such as the World Trade Organisation, the International Criminal Court, the African Union and the European Union – are all part of an growing awareness that we need to learn to work together if we are all to be safe and to prosper.
One of the issues encountered by these developments surrounds the definition of state sovereignty – a cornerstone of the modern system of international relations and a foundational principle of the United Nations Charter. What are the limits of traditional notions of sovereignty? What responsibilities do States have towards their citizens and towards each other? How should such responsibilities be enforced? Although uneven and fraught with setbacks, the emergent institutions, movements, and discourse show an increasing drive towards unity in world affairs and a desire to solve the problems this new paradigm throws up.
A first step in understanding why, notwithstanding these moves towards cooperation, we still have serious problems even today brings us to look objectively at the legal standards, political and economic theories, values and religious formulae we espouse and see if these really promote the welfare of humankind. Which of our values are capable of guiding the nations and peoples of the world out of the chaos of competing interests and ideologies towards a world community capable of inculcating the principles of justice and equity at all levels of human society?
The question of values and their inextricable link to systems of religion and belief has emerged on the world stage as a subject of consuming global importance. The widespread view of religion as an irrelevant and obstructionist voice in the international public sphere is neither practical nor helpful in solving the pressing issues of our times.
It cannot be denied that religions have – and still are – manipulated and used for the accomplishment of narrow ends. Yet, it is often forgotten that the periods of greatest advancement in human civilisation have been those where both faith and reason were permitted to work together, drawing on the resources of the totality of human insight and experience.
For example, during the height of Muslim civilization, sciences, philosophy, and the arts flourished; a vibrant culture of learning propelled the human imagination to new heights, providing, among others, the mathematical basis for many of today’s technological innovations. Among humanity’s diverse civilizations, religion has provided the framework for new moral codes and legal standards, which have transformed vast regions of the globe from brutish and often anarchical systems to more sophisticated forms of governance.
The existing debate about religion in the public sphere, however, has been driven by the voices and actions of extremes on both sides – those who impose their religious ideology by force versus those who deny any place for expressions of faith or belief in the public sphere. Yet neither extreme is representative of the majority of humankind and neither promotes a sustainable peace.
At this juncture of our evolution as a global community, the search for shared values – beyond the clash of extremes – is paramount for effective action. If we only concentrate on material considerations and fail to appreciate the degree to which religious, ideological, and cultural variables shape diplomacy and decision-making, we will find ourselves in trouble. To avoid this and move beyond a community of nations bound by primarily economic relationships to one with shared responsibilities for one another’s well-being and security, the question of values must take a central place in deliberations.
While the United Nations has repeatedly emphasized the need for multilateralism, such efforts alone, while a step in the right direction, will not provide a sufficient basis for community building between nations; collaboration alone does not confer legitimacy or ensure benevolent outcomes for the greater good. In order to fulfill the promises of the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent treaties and resolutions, we can no longer be content with a passive tolerance of each other’s worldviews; what is required is an active search for those common values and moral principles which will lift up the condition of every woman, man, and child, regardless of race, class, religion or political opinion.
The emerging global order, and the processes of globalisation that define it, must be founded on the principle of the oneness of humankind. This principle provides the practical basis for the organisation of relationships between all states and nations. The increasingly apparent interconnectedness of development, security and human rights on a global scale confirms that peace and prosperity are indivisible – that no sustainable benefit can be conferred on a nation or community if the welfare of the nations as a whole is ignored or neglected.
The principle of the oneness of humankind does not seek to undermine national autonomy or suppress the cultural and intellectual diversity of the peoples and nations of the world. Rather, it seeks to broaden the basis of the existing foundations of society by calling for a wider loyalty.
“A world community in which all economic barriers will have been permanently demolished and the interdependence of capital and labour definitely recognized; in which the clamor of religious fanaticism and strife will have been forever stilled; in which the flame of racial animosity will have been finally extinguished; in which a single code of international law – the product of the considered judgment of the world’s federated representatives – shall have as its sanction the instant and coercive intervention of the combined forces of the federated units; and finally a world community in which the fury of a capricious and militant nationalism will have been transmuted into an abiding consciousness of world citizenship…” Shoghi Effendi, “The Goal of a New World Order” , The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1991).
(Photograph courtesy of Earl Redman)