February 20, 2023
NEW DELHI – The Common Agenda that stemmed from the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations Organization identified the following 12 action goals: (1) Leave no one behind; (2) Protect our planet; (3) Promote peace and prevent conflicts; (4) Abide by international law and ensure justice; (5) Place women and girls at the centre; (6) Build trust; (7) Improve digital cooperation; (8) Upgrade the United Nations; (9) Ensure sustainable financing; (10) Boost partnership; (11) Listen to and work with the youth, and (12) Be prepared.
These are all laudable commitments and the past two years since that commemoration have shown how serious or neglectful the member-states of the United Nations have been in taking forward their promises. The primary question to be resolved for concerned citizens like us is how the present world, with its entrenched pattern of conflicts, and worldderanging tensions can change to a world in which harmony and cooperation will prevail. This year’s theme for International Day of Social Justice demands urgent attention. How successful have been our efforts in “overcoming barriers and unleashing opportunities” in the light of the 12 pledges in the UN Common Agenda listed above.
As for our country, on the one hand there is a daily dose of positivity – “India is moving forward in every field” – and on the other hand there are strong undercurrents and voices lamenting that the enormity of challenges are too daunting to be resolved by plain rhetoric. The multi-pronged crises that countries are facing, not just India alone, I believe are a foretaste for humanity of the convulsions that are latent on the face of this planet.
Its inhabitants whether they live in democracies or under dictatorships, be they capitalists or wage earners, whether Christians or Jews, Jains or Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, atheists or agnostics, white or coloured, are all consciously or unconsciously trapped in a vortex of global upheaval. For example, Sustainable Goal 16 of Agenda 2030 advocates “peaceful and inclusive societies,” as well as “social justice.” However, since it does not mention how to deal with the worldwide wars, state sponsored conflicts, manufacture and exporting of weapons to nations around the globe, it becomes impossible to fulfil. Here is the inherent contradiction between idealism and reality of our human situation.
From the perspective of the Bahá’í Faith, humanity has strayed too far and suffered too great a decline to be redeemed through the unaided efforts of the best among its recognized decision-makers and statesmen – however disinterested their motives, however concerted their action, however unsparing their zeal and devotion to its cause. No scheme which the calculations of the highest statesmanship may yet devise; no doctrine which the most distinguished exponents of economic theory may hope to advance; no principle which the most ardent of moralists may strive to inculcate, can provide, in the last resort, adequate foundation upon which the future of a distracted world can be built.
The futility of humans in the face of current global conflicts and catastrophes should not be blamed on their intellect, but rather on the improper channeling of emotions and moral aspirations. Only by aligning ourselves to the operations of the Cosmic Force, the transcendental aspect of which is the human urge towards an invisible realm, towards the ultimate Reality, that unknowable essence of essences called God, invoked in umpteen ways in every known language and dialect, can save us from the slough of impending extinction.
In light of what I have stated let us reflect on this year’s international day of social justice and the United Nations’ record against the classic “realist” interpretation of international relations, suggesting that while its failures can often be attributed to the realpolitik of competition between nation states, many of its greatest successes have occurred when the “idealist” vision of diplomacy shines through.
It would not be wrong to say in surprising ways the UN overcame the structural limitations that were imposed on it at its creation, as well as the political restrictions imposed by events like the Cold War. Take for example, the relative position of the Security Council versus other UN branches. At first glance it appears that the General Assembly would function like a global entity empowered to enforce its decisions. A closer reading of its functions, powers and procedures show the General Assembly to be far from the “political centre of gravity.”
Instead, the UN Charter clearly establishes the much smaller and less representative Security Council as the organization’s controlling entity. Its five permanent members, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, each have the power through the so-called “veto” to block virtually any decision at the United Nations. The reason is quite obvious, the resolutions of the General Assembly while carrying an important symbolic weight, are not binding on the member states. How shall we ever overcome this barrier is too complex a matter to be discussed over here.
Nevertheless, the General Assembly with other branches of the UN, such as the Secretariat, have in fact carved out significant and important roles. Let me cite a few instances. Peacekeeping, in which domain India has contributed immensely, is authorized by the Security Council but is generally operated by the Secretariat – and often initiated through the “good offices” of the Secretary General. How often we have seen the blue-helmeted soldiers patrolling a cease-fire zone, distributing food to displaced villagers, and guarding election centres.
When it works well, and there are a good number of examples, UN peacekeeping activity is truly one of the highest expressions of our common humanity, and proof that countries can work in harmony.
The adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is another significant contribution in the realm of national and international human rights in the past seventy-five years, more than in any comparable period of recorded history. Another most notable accomplishment is the impact of UNICEF, which was created in 1953, merely as an emergency administering body to handle the humanitarian crisis faced by children in the aftermath of World War II. Today it is globally recognized and supported by governments, private foundations, local efforts, and even airliners who are keen to show their support for good causes.
The contribution of United Nations Environment Program is equally valuable in the amount of awareness, the umpteen number of advocacy groups it has inspired to launch small and large projects in addressing the ecological crises caused by global warming, loss of biodiversity, tackling natural disasters, inter alia. A particularly important document that is often mentioned in the discourses on climate change and global warming is the Earth Charter adopted in 1992 at Rio de Janeiro.
Many far-reaching changes are an absolute must if the United Nations, as a work in progress, has to evolve and transform existing power relationships and worsening bilateral relations among the big powers of the world. Over 150 years ago, Baha’u’llah clearly outlined the need for new international institutions capable of establishing the universal peace that has been long promised by poets and prophets. In particular, he spoke of a “new World Order,” which would include institutions such as a “vast” and “all embracing assemblage of men” that would “lay the foundations of the world’s Great Peace.”
Although the UN is governed by an anarchic system of sovereign nations-states, and hampered by structural limitations, I strongly believe that through positive collaboration among its member states it is possible on scales undreamt-of in past ages, to open unparalleled prospects for humankind. Failure to resolve present-day intractable differences and hegemonic attitudes risks consequences far more catastrophic than what we are already experiencing. Therefore, overcoming these barriers is our only hope for unleashing the vast opportunities for social justice.
(The writer is an independent researcher and social worker serving a number of institutions and non-governmental organizations in the country. Views expressed are personal.)