The Bahá'í community's promotion of human rights, the advancement of women, social development, and reform processes at the United Nations.
The Bahá'í World 2004??"2005:
published in Bahá'í World
, Vol. 33 (2004-2005)
The United Nations Office of the Bahá’í International Community (BIC) gives voice to the vision and concerns of the worldwide Bahá’í community at the United Nations. With more than 5.5 million members in 191 independent countries and 45 dependent territories, Bahá’ís work for the establishment of a united global community, built on a vision of human oneness and collective security, and are dedicated to the creation of a spiritual, sustainable, and ever-advancing civilization. In its diplomatic efforts, the United Nations Office seeks to assist the international community to translate this vision into reality, by lending spiritual momentum to the global processes driving the world towards peace.
The work of the Bahá’í International Community’s United Nations Office has evolved significantly since it first became involved with intergovernmental processes at the global level. The League of Nations was the first international forum where Bahá’ís were able to promote their vision and the principles they see as underlying peaceful relations among nations—this through the establishment of the International Bahá’í Bureau in Geneva. At this early stage of its diplomatic engagement, the Bahá’í community’s contributions consisted primarily of establishing the independence of the Bahá’í Faith as a world religion and sharing its central tenets of unity and equality with a nascent global community. Following the founding of the United Nations in 1945, recognition of the Bahá’í International Community’s capacity to contribute meaningfully to the organization’s deliberations resulted in the granting of special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (1970), the United Nations Children’s Fund (1976), the United Nations Development Fund for Women (1989), and the establishment of a working relationship with the World Health Organization. The United Nations global conferences of the 1990s provided a further opportunity for a deeper and more direct Bahá’í engagement and contribution to deliberative processes at the global level.
In recent years, the Bahá’í International Community’s United Nations Office has sought to inﬂuence thought and action at the United Nations by bringing its vision and principles directly to bear on the most pressing issues on the organization’s agenda in the form of analysis and comprehensive, concrete proposals for actions and reform. Under the guidance of the Community’s United Nations Office, the capacity of national Bahá’í communities to raise issues with their governmental officials has increased significantly and has thereby supported the work of the Bahá’í International Community at the United Nations.
Reform processes at the United Nations
Throughout its engagement with the United Nations, the Bahá’í International Community’s United Nations Office has consistently added its voice to debates about reforms and changes to the organization. As the calls and proposals for comprehensive UN reform in the face of a dramatically changed global context have reasserted their primacy on the UN agenda, the community has grounded its contributions in the understanding of UN reform as part of an organic, evolutionary course characterized by increasing levels of integration and unity in governance structures and processes.
Over the last year, the twin issues of collective security and socio-economic development have dominated the United Nations agenda, fuelled by Secretary General Kofi Annan’s sweeping reform agenda aimed at making the UN a more responsive, collaborative, and effective organization in addressing the global challenges of the twenty-first century. In the buildup to the September 2005 High-Level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly, which will consider reform proposals and review progress since the 2000 Millennium Summit, the United Nations released four seminal reports dealing with UN–civil society relations, collective security, development, and comprehensive reform respectively.1 The Bahá’í International Community contributed to the deliberative processes surrounding these themes by inviting Bahá’í experts to participate in panel discussions, facilitating civil society contributions to deliberations on UN reform, and submitting concrete recommendations for a more effective United Nations.
One of the Bahá’í International Community’s primary areas of engagement in the UN reform agenda has been in addressing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)—a set of eight quantitative targets based on the major goals agreed upon at the UN conferences of the 1990s, which have been synthesized into a global agenda for development and constitute the organizing framework for UN work in this area.2 In its response to the UN regarding MDGs, the Community’s United Nations Office stressed the importance of universal participation in the development process, the application of knowledge from the fields of science and religion, as well as the need for an earnest re-evaluation of global systems and processes —including governance, trade, and the private sector—that perpetuate the growing extremes of wealth and poverty. During the annual UN Department of Public Information NGO Conference, the Bahá’í International Community’s United Nations Office spearheaded and cosponsored a panel discussion titled “Getting to Yes for the MDGs,” which explored different ways in which nongovernmental organizations could form effective partnerships for the achievement of the MDGs. During the NGO Forum held in preparation for the annual meetings of the Commission on Social Development, the Bahá’í International Community moderated one of the Forum’s main panel discussions, which addressed the continuing relevance of the comprehensive development agenda generated at the World Summit on Social Development in 1995 to the achievement of the MDGs. In Santiago, Chile, regional representatives of the Bahá’í International Community to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) worked closely with the Conference of NGOs (CONGO) in planning the CONGO-ECLAC-sponsored seminar on “Partnerships for a New Era: Achieving the Millennium Development Goals.” The Bahá’í International Community hosted a networking reception on the first evening of the seminar and offered visits to a Bahá’í-inspired project in the community of Las Condes following the seminar.
The UN’s focus on mechanisms to promote global security through a broader understanding of collective security and the development of UN working methods better suited to today’s global threats, provided yet another opportunity for substantive input from the Bahá’í International Community. In its response to the Secretary-General’s report outlining proposals for UN reform, the Bahá’í International Community supported the UN’s comprehensive approach to collective security and reiterated the Bahá’í vision of a system of collective security within a framework of global federation, in whose favor all nations of the world will have ceded claims to make war. The BIC’s United Nations Office, along with 12 other NGOs, participated in a meeting with Allan Rock, Canadian Ambassador to the UN, to discuss NGO responses to the report.
In addition to comments on the proposed agenda for UN reform, the UN invited ngos to submit issues that they deemed important for discussion and that were not already on the agenda at the High- Level Summit in September. In response, the Bahá’í International Community stressed the importance of recognizing the individual’s freedom to hold religious belief of his or her choosing and the concomitant freedom to change one’s religion or belief. In its statement to the un, the Bahá’í International Community stated, “Until all people are free to openly practice and share their beliefs within the parameters of equally applied laws, as well as change their religion or belief system, development and peace will prove elusive.” On a related theme, the Bahá’í International Community called on the UN to address religious extremism as a major obstacle to peace and well-being, noting, “Hesitancy to acknowledge and forcefully condemn the religious extremism motivating terrorist acts weakens the effectiveness of the UN’s efforts to bring an end to international terrorism.”
The promotion of human rights continued to be a focal point for the Bahá’í International Community’s United Nations Office, guided by the belief in the inherent dignity and noble nature of the individual as well as the equality of all human beings as the prerequisite for a just, prosperous, and sustainable world. This year, the Bahá’í International Community held the chair of the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion, Conscience, and Belief (Geneva) and continued its active participation in the NGO Committee Against Racism and Racial Discrimination, the NGO Committee on Human Rights, and the Special Committee of International ngos on Human Rights (Geneva).
Within its broader work on human rights, the Bahá’í International Community endeavored to protect the rights of Bahá’ís around the world to practice their own faith, addressing in particular a continuing pattern of persecution of the Bahá’í community in Iran. The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran, making specific mention of the situation of Bahá’ís. The Community’s United Nations Offices worked closely with external affairs representatives from Canada and other parts of the world to make this possible. This year’s meetings of the Commission on Human Rights, however, failed even to consider a resolution on human rights in Iran. “In view of the sharp increase of human rights violations against the Bahá’í community of Iran, it is nothing less than shocking that the Commission on Human Rights has for the third year in a row failed to renew international monitoring of the situation,” said Bani Dugal, Principal Representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations, in a press release. For three years, while the Commission has not presented a resolution on Iran, the situation has deteriorated, marked by a resumption of violent attacks approaching the levels of persecution experienced 20 years ago.
The Bahá’í International Community took the opportunity to submit its recommendations for strengthening the United Nations human rights machinery in response to a request from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to the NGO community for suggestions as to how the Office can more effectively discharge its mandate. In terms of structural and functional reforms, the Bahá’í International Community’s United Nations Office called for a strengthened field presence at the country level, increase in the Office’s budgetary resources, and continued levels of substantive engagement with the ngo community. Beyond these reforms, however, it stressed that “the legitimacy of the United Nations human rights machinery can be restored only through an unwavering adherence to the highest principles of justice, including those elaborated in the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Advancement of women
The work of the Bahá’í International Community towards the advancement of women, one of its core programmatic areas, continued with full vigor, developing external affairs capacity and raising the profile of the Community’s engagement in this issue. As chair of the NGO Committee on the Status of Women (NGO-CSW), the Bahá’í International Community’s Principal Representative played a pivotal role in orchestrating the participation of nearly 600 nongovernmental organizations from all over the world at this year’s Commission on the Status of Women. The Community’s United Nations Office provided office space for NGO-CSW staff, facilitating the coordination of this record-breaking level of civil society participation and effectively coordinating the work of nine dedicated volunteers. The diversity of NGOs, represented by more than 2,700 civil society participants, brought women’s perspectives and experience to bear on the issues before the Commission and evidenced the strength, increase, and level of organization of women’s advocacy networks worldwide. At this year’s meeting, 191 UN member states reaffirmed their commitment to the ambitious goals articulated 10 years ago at the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, and acknowledged gender equality as a prerequisite for meeting the Millennium Development Goals. Bahá’í advocacy in this area continued to stress the pivotal role of men and boys both in advancing the rights of women and in reaping the benefits of a greater equality. As stated by Abdu’l-Baha, “As long as women are prevented from attaining their highest possibilities, so long will men be unable to achieve the greatness which might be theirs.”
The NGO Committee on the Status of Women played a key role in coordinating the contribution of NGOs to the work of the Commission. As chair of the NGO Committee, Ms. Dugal organized a Consultation Day for NGOs, reviewing the commitments in the Beijing Platform for Action and assessing progress towards the realization of these commitments over the last 10 years. These were supplemented with daily briefings for NGOs. In an effort to recognize individuals’ achievements in the area of the advancement of women, the Committee hosted a reception for more than 300 representatives of member states, at which it presented Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, with a “Person of Distinction Award.” During the Commission, Ms. Dugal, as Chair of the Committee, was invited to speak at a High-Level Round Table commemorating the 25th anniversary of the CEDAW by the General Assembly as well as at a panel commemorating 30 years of UN efforts to promote gender equality. In her speeches, she acknowledged the momentum and levels of transnational collaboration generated by international conferences but noted the disconnect that exists today between implementation and ideals. She said, “States can no longer be permitted to shirk from their responsibilities on the pretext of domestic jurisdiction or cultural relativism . . . The full equality of men and women . . . is a prerequisite for the attainment of the very ends the UN was created to serve.”
In January 2005, the Bahá’í International Community’s Principal Representative to the United Nations was invited to speak on the subject of women’s role in conﬂict prevention, conﬂict resolution, and peace building at a conference on gender mainstreaming and the Millennium Development Goals. The conference was held in Islamabad, Pakistan, and was co-sponsored by the Pakistani Prime Minister’s Office and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. As honorary guest speaker, Ms. Dugal emphasized the importance of keeping women central to the peace process, including full participation in decision making and implementation during post-conﬂict reconstruction, peace-building, and peacekeeping processes.
With the presence of a new representative in the area of Social Development, the Bahá’í International Community’s work in this area expanded markedly during the year in review and was further strengthened by the contributions of invited Bahá’í experts.
As a member of the Executive Committee of NGOs for Social Development (with more than 40 member NGOs), Bahiyyih Chaffers took the lead role in managing the process of committee administration. In this capacity, the Community’s United Nations Office worked closely with the Mission of South Africa to the United Nations, the Chair of this year’s Commission on Social Development, to ensure comprehensive NGO participation in the Commission and assisted in organizing a Civil Society Forum preceding the Commission. As a result of this positive relationship, the NGO Forum during the Commission was able to take place at the UN itself, thereby raising the profile of the NGO presence.
The focus of this year’s Commission on Social Development was to review progress made since the groundbreaking World Summit on Social Development in 1995, at which 115 world leaders forged a plan for a comprehensive, “people-centered development,” pledging to focus international development efforts on overcoming poverty, fostering employment, and social integration. Many gathered for this year’s meeting expressed concern that Copenhagen’s comprehensive vision of development had been overshadowed by narrower concepts of development and that issues of global security had displaced social justice on the global agenda. In the end, member states issued a declaration upholding the main principles adopted in the Copenhagen Declaration and affirmed that the Millennium Development Goals are “crucial to a coherent, people-centered approach to development.”
During the Commission, Dr. Haleh Arbab Correa, representing the Colombia-based Foundation for the Application and Teaching of the Sciences (FUNAEC), was invited on behalf of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs to participate, alongside ambassadors and ministers, in the High-Level Round Table focused on the promotion of full employment. In her comments, Dr. Correa emphasized the role that moral education plays in the construction of a new world. She highlighted the importance of understanding education as an holistic process that goes beyond the training of skills to include development of attitudes and concepts—such as service to humanity—that should be taken into consideration in promoting employment. Dr. Correa spoke again at an event, co-organized by the Bahá’í International Community and the Subcommittee on the Eradication of Poverty, titled, “Participation Works: International Success Stories in the Fight Against Poverty.” Describing the philosophy behind FUNAEC, a Bahá’í-inspired organization working in socioeconomic development, Dr. Correa spoke of the role that science and religion play in development and stressed that “people should not be looked at as problems” but rather as protagonists who, with proper education, can take charge of their own and their community’s development.
In order to expand its participation, and contribution to un events, the Bahá’í International Community has increasingly called on experts within the worldwide Bahá’í community, those with specialized knowledge relevant to particular UN-identified themes or events. This year, Dr. Stephen Gonzales, a law professor and leading American expert in conﬂict resolution, was invited to attend and observe the proceedings of the recently formed United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (pfii). The 16-member Permanent Forum, established in 2000, is an advisory body and subsidiary organ of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, with a mandate to discuss indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health, and human rights. It is a unique body within the un system, representing a transnational cultural community rather than a member state. Given the history of Bahá’ís’ involvement in community development work with indigenous populations, the annual meetings of the pfii present a important opportunity to learn more about the central issues of concern from indigenous people themselves.
At this year’s meetings of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, the Bahá’í International Community played an active role in facilitating the involvement of faith communities in the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD). Coinciding with its international launch, the Bahá’í International Community’s United Nations Offices hosted a consultation to explore the contributions of faith communities to the aims of the Decade. Peter Adriance, External Affairs Representative of the United States Bahá’í community and co-chair of the Faith Sector team of DESD, led the meeting. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had identified faith communities as important partners in carrying out the aims of the Decade and supported the meeting by advertising it on the UNESCO Website. The Bahá’í International Community co-sponsored two more events during the Commission, which further explored the contributions of faith communities and served to raise the profile and shape a vision of faith community involvement in the Decade.
The Bahá’í International Community continued to follow the work of the World Summit on the Information Society, which launched its first phase in Geneva, Switzerland, in December 2003. In the Declaration of Principles, 175 member states pledged to “build a people-centered, inclusive, and development-oriented Information Society,” where all can “create, access, utilize, and share information and knowledge.” In light of the promotion of the principles of the oneness of humankind and its physical incarnation in global systems of communication and administration, the role of information and communications technologies—particularly issues of equitable access—are paramount. In this year’s Second Preparatory Committee meetings leading up to the Second Summit in November 2005, Bahiyyih Chaffers, representing the Bahá’í International Community’s United Nations Office, became an active member of the NGO Working Group on Working Methods, which met daily to generate ideas for effective and efficient methods of NGO participation in the conference process.
This year, the Bahá’í International Community’s Principal Representative to the United Nations was invited, as a leader within her religious community, to participate in the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. This marked the first year that the Bahá’í International Community was represented at this high-level forum. The annual meetings of the World Economic Forum bring together inﬂuential leaders from government (including heads of state), business, academia, nongovernmental organizations, media, religion, and the arts to debate challenging issues on the global agenda, identify emerging risks and trends, and search for ways to address them. This year, under the theme “Taking Responsibility for Tough Choices,” participants focused on issues of poverty, climate change, equitable globalization, and good governance. Since the first meeting in 1970, the annual meeting’s participant base and focus have grown from a strictly market-driven agenda to encompass a growing diversity of actors and issues shaping the global economic, social, and environmental situation. It is particularly noteworthy that against the backdrop of a traditionally capitalist and market-driven agenda, the perspectives of religious leaders were given a hearing. Ms. Dugal, one of only three female religious representatives invited to attend, spoke on panels dealing with global governance, gender equality, and values in leadership. She also took part in a cultural event designed to celebrate religious and cultural diversity, titled a “Celebration of Faith.” All four events provided a rich opportunity to introduce concepts from the Bahá’í writings and bring these ideas to bear on the challenging issues before the global community.
The Bahá’í International Community also continued its active involvement in the World Faiths Development Dialogue, which began in 1998 as an initiative of James D. Wolfensohn, former President of the World Bank, and Lord Carey, then Archbishop of Canterbury, with the aim of facilitating a dialogue on poverty and development between religious leaders and international development institutions. This year, at the fourth meeting of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, Matthew Weinberg represented the Bahá’í International Community before some 60 senior religious, policy, and political leaders from around the globe, who gathered to discuss the future direction of the Dialogue initiative and to map out possible areas for concrete collaboration. In his remarks, the Bahá’í representative emphasized that individuals and communities must be regarded as “active protagonists in tracing their own path of development, in creating and applying knowledge—knowledge that not only enhances material welfare but also deepens human solidarity.” The Bahá’í International Community offered its experience of facilitating a policy dialogue on the intersection of science, religion, and development, which has proven useful in understanding how spiritual perspectives can strengthen the theory, practice, and assessment of development.
1 The four reports include: We the Peoples: Civil Society, the UN and Global Governance, Panel of Eminent Persons on UN–Civil Society Relationships (June 2004); A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, Report of the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change, December 2004); Investing in Development: A Practical Guide to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals, Millennium Project Report to the Secretary-General (January 2005); In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All, Report of the Secretary-General (March 2005).
2 The eight Millennium Development Goals are: eradication of poverty, achievement of universal primary education, promotion of gender equality, reduction of child mortality, improvement in maternal health, combating HIV/aids, ensuring environmental sustainability, and developing a global partnership for development.
3 For more information on the BIC’s involvement in this initiative, see The Bahá’í World 1998–99 (Haifa: World Centre Publications, 2000), pp. 145–150.