The Search for Values in an Age of Transition

Editor's note: The following Perspective editorial is adapted from “The Search for Values in an Age of Transition,” issued recently by the Bahá'í International Community for the 60th anniversary of the United Nations. The full statement is at:

In 1945, the founding of the United Nations 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. Sixty years later, the questions that fuelled the San Francisco Conference assert themselves anew: Why have the current systems of governance failed to provide for the security, prosperity, and well-being of the world's people?

The challenges facing the international community are numerous: Weak states have erupted in conflict, lawlessness, and massive refugee flows; the advancement of men and boys at the expense of women and girls has sorely limited the creative and material capacities of communities to develop; the neglect of cultural and religious minorities has intensified ancient prejudices setting peoples and nations against one another; an unbridled nationalism has trampled the rights and opportunities of citizens in other nations; and narrow economic agendas exalting material prosperity have often suffocated the social and moral development required for the equitable and beneficent use of wealth.

Such crises have laid bare the limits of traditional approaches to governance and put before the UN the inescapable question of values: which 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?

Significantly, 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. A growing number of leaders and deliberative bodies acknowledge that the full impact of religion-related variables on governance, diplomacy, human rights, development, notions of justice, and collective security must be better understood.

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 public debate about religion, however, has been driven by extremists on both sides — those who impose their religious ideology by force, whose most visible expression is terrorism — and those who deny any place for expressions of faith or belief in the public sphere. Neither is representative of the majority view, 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. A concern with exclusively material considerations will fail to appreciate the degree to which religious, ideological, and cultural variables shape diplomacy and decision-making. In an effort to 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, be articulated and made explicit.

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 globalization that define it, must be founded on the principle of the oneness of humankind. This principle, accepted and affirmed as a common understanding, provides the practical basis for the organization 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 greater aspiration than any that has animated the human race. Indeed, it provides the moral impetus needed to remold the institutions of governance in a manner consistent with the needs of an ever-changing world.

We recommend the following towards a more just and effective United Nations:

Human Rights and the Rule of Law — The grave threats posed by religious extremism, intolerance, and discrimination require the United Nations to address this issue openly and earnestly. We call on the UN to affirm unequivocally an individual's right to change his or her religion.

The Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, bolstered by the requisite moral, intellectual, and material resources, must now become the standard-bearer in the field of human rights. Further, as one of the most effective instruments for the protection of human rights, Special Procedures should receive adequate budgetary and administrative support.

Development — While the search for a scientific and technologically modern society is a central goal of human development, it must base its educational, economic, political, and cultural structures on the concept of the spiritual nature of the human being and not only on his or her material needs.

The capacity of people to participate in the generation and application of knowledge is an essential component of human development. Priority must be given to education, and the UN should consider that in terms of economic investment, the education of girls may well yield the highest return of all investments available in developing countries.

The rich countries of the world have a moral obligation to remove export and trade distorting measures that bar the entry of countries struggling to participate in the global market. The Monterrey Consensus, which recognizes the importance of a ‘more open, rule-based, non-discriminatory and equitable' system of trade, is a step in the right direction.

  Democracy — The exercise of democracy will succeed to the extent that it is governed by the moral principles that are in harmony with the evolving interests of a rapidly maturing human race. These include: trustworthiness and integrity needed to win the respect and support of the governed; transparency; consultation with those affected by decisions being arrived at; objective assessment of needs and aspirations of communities being served; and the appropriate use of scientific and moral resources.

Collective Security — Based on the understanding that in our interconnected world, a threat to one is a threat to all, the Bahá'í Faith envisions a system of collective security within a framework of a global federation, in which national borders have been conclusively defined and in whose favor all the nations of the world will have willingly ceded all rights to maintain armaments except for purposes of maintaining internal order.

To address the democracy deficit and relentless politicization of the Security Council, the United Nations must move towards adopting a procedure for eventually eliminating permanent membership and veto power. Alongside procedural reforms, a critical change in attitude and conduct is needed. Member States must recognize that in holding seats on the Security Council, they have a solemn moral and legal obligation to act as trustees for the entire community of nations, not as advocates of their national interests.

We agree with the Secretary-General's characterization of terrorism as any action “intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a Government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.” Moreover, it is imperative that problems such as terrorism be consistently addressed within the context of other issues that disrupt and destabilize society.

Steps should be taken to increase the participation of women at all levels of decision-making in conflict resolution and peace processes, locally, nationally, and internationally.

The task of establishing a peaceful world is now in the hands of the leaders of the nations of the world. Their challenge is to restore the trust and confidence of their citizens in themselves, their government, and the institutions of the international order through a record of personal integrity, sincerity of purpose, and unwavering commitment to the highest principles of justice and the imperatives of a world hungering for unity. The great peace long envisioned by the peoples and nations of the world is well within our grasp.