Law and International Order: Proceedings of the First European Bahá'í Conference on Law and International Order (De Poort, the Netherlands, 8-11 June 1995)
Publisher: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, London, 1996, in association with Tahirih Instituut Educatieve instelling. 212 pages
Review by: Joshua Lincoln
Attempting to review the published proceedings of any conference is usually
a significant challenge because of the breadth of topics treated. Law and
is no exception in this regard. Although the conference's
organizers are to be commended for disseminating these essays to a larger
audience, the absence of an editorial hand makes the volume less accessible to the
reader. The collection also presents a degree of methodological variety: from the
biographical or expository to the analytical, and from the professional to the
academic. The papers by Kiser Barnes (on the law), Udo Schaefer, Christopher
Sprung, and Wendi Momen will be of particular interest to the more academically
inclined reader. Overall, the book is a welcome addition to the slowly-growing
literature in this area. Three main themes emerge from the collection: (1) Bahá'í
lawyers and the notion of service, (2) the nature and purpose of Bahá'í law, and
(3) institutions and governance.
Kiser Barnes, in the first Aziz Navidi Memorial Lecture, offers an examination of the life and service of Dr Navidi, a Knight of Bahá'u'lláh, a staunch legal
defender of the persecuted Bahá'í community of Iran, and a legal representative
at large for both the Custodians (1957-1963) and the Universal House of Justice
during the early years of the Faith in Africa. This biographical sketch should be
of interest to the student of community history, as well as those young people
considering a pursuit of the law. The themes of law and service are further taken
up by Colleen Dawes, who focuses on the legal profession and its prospects.
When combined, the two essays offer a useful conceptual re-calibration vis-à-vis
a profession currently so maligned.
In his essay "The Nature of Bahá'í Law," Barnes examines some special features
of Bahá'í law, and its relation to the scope and purpose of the Bahá'í revelation, while
Udo Schaefer's "Crime and Punishment" flushes out the penal implications of
Bahá'u'lláh's revelation and outlines certain considerations for the future of criminal
law. At a time of stadium-gatherings of "atonement," of extended and highly
controversial celebrity trials, and of fierce debates everywhere over the theory and
means of punishment, this essay is a valuable primer on justice, criminality, and
punishment. The article is particularly helpful in moving beyond the paralysis that
sometimes follows an initial reading of the Most Holy Book (Kitáb-i-Aqdas) on these
questions. In particular, Schaefer clarifies the non-deterministic focus on free will that
must underpin Bahá'í conceptions of punishment. There is a suggestive parallel
lurking here pertaining to the dual role of the collective "ordeals" humanity faces on
its evolutionary path.
In a transition from law to institutions, Pieter van Dijk's essay on human
rights categorizes the rights of the Universal Declaration but emphasises
tolerance as the key value for application between individuals and groups. His
exploration of the tension between universality and relativity concludes with the
need for a margin of difference in the implementation of human rights standards.
In "Bahá'í Institutions and Human Governance," Christopher Sprung delineates
the concept of Bahá'í theonomy - a system based on divine law - through an
appraisal of human governance in relation to the state of the future Bahá'í world
commonwealth. Finally, in an essay on the lesser peace, Wendi Momen outlines
the different interpretations one can give to the march of current history, charts
progress towards the establishment of the lesser peace through indicators found
in the literature of the Faith, and reviews briefly the features of the world
commonwealth of nations. This well-researched essay offers a balanced and
therefore valuable survey as millennium anticipation waxes.
Momen's article offers a useful starting point for suggesting a future
direction for scholarly activity. Scholarship in this area so far has consisted
primarily of textually-based discussions of anticipation or description of "distant"
principled orders or "distant" civilizational stages. Yet such discussions are most
valuable because they set the stage for a different kind of exercise, for a shift
from restatement of the visionary passages in our holy texts to correlation of
those passages with both human thoughts and theories, and the realities of the
world we live in.
Might it not be time to use the clues embedded in those texts to tease out, in
a preliminary and more dialectic fashion, what the tumultuous and unstable
present can tell us about the future? Discussion in this area has occurred mainly
in a kind of closed circuit, in which the writings are applied but the reality of a
messy, transitional, fermenting world is largely held at bay. Does not the
Guardian's notion of correlation (one of the cornerstones of Bahá'í scholarship)
seem to imply a more substantive dialectic between the sacred word and the
world, one in which each element reinforces understanding and insight of the
other? Does not such a vision requires us to be more outward-looking, to burrow
further into events, systemic shifts, and current thinking?
For example, informed by the writings, what lessons can we draw from the
global in vitro experiment that is our planet in the late 20th century? In this sense,
what lessons can we glean from a decade of unprecedented international
peacekeeping as regards the discharge of international order in the future? What
have the Permanent Court of International Justice and the International Court of
Justice, the courts at Nuremberg, Tokyo, Kigali, and the Hague taught us about
the process and substance of criminal justice at the international level? How does
the recent proposal (now being examined at the United Nations) for a permanent
international criminal court measure up to both previous experiments and those
hints that appear in the Bahá'í writings? What details about the structure of an
eventual world parliament can be directly and explicitly taken from our texts, and
what principles or current theories apply to those other questions for which there
are no specific references?
If we truly subscribe to the notions of process, integration, disintegration,
and fermentation, then it is in these processes that can be found preliminary hints
about the direction we are heading. The challenge (and the fun) consists not in
describing the distant future, nor in establishing an estimated time of arrival for
it, but rather in drawing lessons about getting from here to there. In the process,
a deeper appreciation is gained for the worth and collective learning inherent in
this, our collective path. It is to be hoped that future conferences and edited
collections will take up this task.