UN 50: Bahá'ís Commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the United Nations
This article appeared in the 1995-96 edition of The Bahá'í World, pp. 159-170.
The people on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific country of Vanuatu have long lived with a prophecy that one day all the nations of the world would come to the "Laminu nakamal," a traditional dancing area regarded by Tannese as having great customary significance. Early in 1995, several of the Bahá'ís on Tanna expressed their desire to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, and eventually an offer was made by the National Spiritual Assembly of Vanuatu to the country's UN 50th Birthday Organizing Committee. Working with the Pacific Operations Center (EPOC) of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), the Vanuatu Department of Foreign Affairs, and the Tafea Provincial Council, the Bahá'ís began to put together a major event.
His excellency the President of the Marshall Islands Amata Kabua delivering the keynote address to the 'Turning Point for All Nations' seminar held at the Bahá'í International Community's United Nations Offices, October 1995.
Bahá'í Local Spiritual Assemblies from all over the island cooked enough food for 1,000 people, traditional dancers practiced their craft, speeches were written by representatives of EPOC, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the National Spiritual Assembly, and traditional chiefs from all over Tanna were invited to attend. The day before the gathering, which was scheduled for 24 October, the Bahá'í community cleared vegetation at the celebration site, made a pole for the UN flag, and erected shelters for the invited guests. When the day arrived, spectators began to gather under the shade of three enormous banyan trees at the Laminu nakamal. The ceremony began when students marched from their primary school around the celebration site and to the Niko Letan Center, headquarters of the Tanna Island Council of Chiefs. Speeches were interspersed with performances of traditional dances, two of which had never before been performed in public and one choreographed specially in honor of the United Nations. When the UN flag was raised to the sound of a traditional conch shell being blown, the Custom Chief of the Laminu nakamal, pointing out that it was the first time the people on Tanna had seen the flag, asserted that the prophecy was fulfilled. Although events officially ended in the afternoon, many guests remained until sunset simply to gaze at the flag.
The celebration on Vanuatu was one of many events sponsored by Bahá'í communities around the world to commemorate the anniversary, events that bear witness to the widespread and deeply felt commitment among Bahá'ís to the ideals reflected in the United Nations Charter. The optimism about the future of international cooperation that Bahá'ís brought to their commemorations contrasted with the focus on the UN's shortcomings apparent in the steady stream of editorials that appeared when the United Nations reached its 50th birthday. Commentators varied in their levels of patience with the organization, some advocating a complete overhaul of the UN bureaucracy and reevaluation of the organization's aims, particularly citing its nearly $3 billion debt, and others counselling greater support for an institution attempting to achieve so much with relatively little serious financial and moral support. But virtually all the editorials lamented the fact that the UN had not yet lived up to its original aim of eliminating war, and expressed skepticism about its ability to reform enough to meet this and other goals. The Bahá'í community also raised its voice to call for UN reform but did so in the context of a belief in the deep significance of the UN's very formation and appreciation of its achievements thus far.
Bahá'ís view the establishment of the United Nations as an important sign of humanity's ever-increasing acceptance of its global interdependence, so they approached the 50th anniversary with the attitude that the UN's accomplishments are extremely significant given their uniqueness in the broad sweep of history. At the same time, its shortcomings must also be addressed if its great potential is to be realized. The Bahá'í perspective is informed by half a century of involvement with the UN; Bahá'ís were present at the historic San Francisco conference which gave birth to the institution, and since 1948 the Bahá'í International Community has been registered as a nongovernmental organization (NGO), now representing more than five million people from a wide diversity of ethnic, economic, educational, and cultural backgrounds. It secured consultative status, Category II, with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 1970, consultative status with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in 1976, and working relations with the World Health Organization in 1989. It also works with other UN agencies and programs, such as UNIFEM and UNEP and has participated in major UN conferences focusing on paramount issues of the day.
Support for the UN and practical suggestions for its reform are expressed in a statement issued by the Bahá'í International Community on the occasion of the 50th anniversary. Turning Point for All Nations cites historical evidence for "the trend toward ever-increasing interdependence and integration of humanity" and describes the UN as "a unique institution standing as a noble symbol for the collective interests of humanity as a whole." It also acknowledges that the overall goals of the institution have remained elusive, and it urges world leaders to convene a world summit on global governance to examine how the international political order can be restructured to meet the needs of society as it is currently evolving. The statement suggests a number of specific, immediate courses of action to strengthen the capacity of the UN, but it also calls for a long-term view. "Judged in isolation from the reality in which it operates," the statement reads, "the United Nations will always seem inefficient and ineffective. However, if it is viewed as one element of a large process of development in systems of international order, the bright light of analysis would shift from the UN's shortcomings and failures to shine on its victories and accomplishments. With an evolutionary mindset, the early experience of the United Nations offers us a rich source of learnings about its future role within the international regime."
The release of the Turning Point document and its presentation to a wide variety of people throughout the year and beyond was one element of the Bahá'í community's efforts to assert the significance of the United Nations and to stimulate discussion about its reform. One of the points made in the statement is that "with a focus on building institutions and creating a community of nations, international bodies have historically remained distant from the minds and hearts of the world's people" and "discussions about the future of the international order must involve and excite the generality of humankind." Thus Bahá'í activities on the occasion of the 50th anniversary reached out to world leaders and individual citizens alike.
In June 1995, a series of commemorative activities took place in San Francisco, the site of the original meeting at which the UN Charter was signed. The National Spiritual Assembly of the United States was represented at a meeting addressed by United States' President Bill Clinton, held at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, the location of the original signing. On 25 June an interfaith service was held in Grace Cathedral and attended by President Clinton, United Nations Secretary General Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, HRH Princess Margaret of England, a number of UN ambassadors, and members of the public. The Bahá'í World Choir of Northern California sang a selection of hymns, a Bahá'í read a section from the Parliament of the World's Religions' "Declaration Towards a Global Ethic," and another Bahá'í chanted a prayer. Bahá'ís also attended the United Nations Association's annual convention and a four-day conference called "We the People," held to discuss the present and future role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the UN system.
Other Bahá'í contributions to the San Francisco celebrations included a public meeting called "Bahá'í Call to the Nations: Forum on Global Governance" at which presentations were made on the early years of the UN, the development of the nation-state, and meeting the challenges facing the United Nations; an exhibition entitled "A Vision of World Unity" at the Bahá'í Center; and a ceremony to honor youth who had demonstrated moral and ethical leadership within their communities.
The largest gathering of world leaders ever to take place occurred in New York in October when the UN's anniversary was officially commemorated. The Bahá'í International Community provided a venue for discussion by hosting a seminar called "UN Restructuring: Turning Point for All Nations." His Excellency the President of the Marshall Islands Amata Kabua and Under-Secretary General of the United Nations Gillian Martin Sorensen were among the presenters at the day-long meeting. Also attending were diplomats from Ireland, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States as well as senior staff members of the UN Secretariat and representatives of NGOs. Two papers presented by Bahá'ís were "The Creation of an International Force" and "Establishing a Commission to Explore the Adoption of an International Auxiliary Language."
An element of the official anniversary celebration was a seminar on religious dialogue for spiritual leaders from around the world. One of the invited speakers was the current holder of the Bahá'í Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland, College Park, Dr. Suheil Bushrui. Dr. Bushrui also read a Bahá'í prayer before an audience of 2,000 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.
National and Local Events
The events organized by national and local Bahá'í communities to demonstrate support for the UN and to draw attention to prospects for its improvement varied in scope, as communities large and small found their own unique ways to relate to the issues being faced by this international body. However, a common element of many of these events was the distribution, presentation, or discussion of Turning Point for All Nations.
Prior to the statement's release, an exhibit on its themes was mounted at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. The exhibit opened on 17 August in the presence of 37 diplomats from 29 countries, three Sub-Commission Experts, staff of the UN Center for Human Rights, representatives of NGOs, and high officials of the UN. It was displayed for two weeks.
Dr. Hans von Sponeck, UN Resident Coordinator for India, receives 'Turning Point for All Nations' at a UN 50 commemoration in New Delhi, India, October 1995.
When Turning Point was released in the fall, it was presented formally to Gillian Martin Sorensen, the official in charge of the UN 50th Anniversary Secretariat. On the same day, the statement was also presented to Farida Ayoub, Chief of the NGO Liaison Unit of the United Nations. During the rest of the year, the document was presented by national Bahá'í delegations to numerous officials, including the Prime Minister of Belize, the President of Hungary, the Prime Minister and Speaker of the National Assembly of Togo, and the Foreign Minister of Swaziland. In Mauritius, Turning Point was presented to the President of the Republic during a one-hour program attended by more than 30 dignitaries, including the Ambassador of Madagascar. The U.S. Bahá'í community presented the statement to local and national political leaders.
The National Spiritual Assembly of Swaziland and the UN office in that country cohosted a panel discussion on Turning Point with participants from government ministries and NGOs, during which they gave time for comments from audience members. Likewise in Togo, the statement was introduced to the public during two meetings cosponsored by the National Spiritual Assembly and the United Nations Development Program. The first meeting was attended primarily by ministry officials, university professors, media representatives, and other leaders of thought, and the second meeting was held in a high school for students to explore the issues.
A United Nations building on the Green Line which has separated the northern and southern regions of Cyprus since 1974 was the venue for presentation of Turning Point to the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for Cyprus in October. On the same occasion, copies of the document were shared with the Chairman of the World Federation of UN Associations and local representatives of the Cyprus UNA. The repetition of the words of Bahá'u'lláh, "The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens," by the UN representative was especially poignant at this border, which has divided neighbors and families for more than two decades.
Faculty members from Edith Cowan University, the University of Western Australia, and Curtin University of Technology, all in Western Australia, attended a dinner/reception sponsored by the Bahá'ís of Wannaroo to celebrate the UN's 50th anniversary. Following a keynote address, each of the guests received a copy of The Prosperity of Humankind . In Singapore, leaders of interreligious organizations and civic societies were among the 100 people who took part in a public forum on Turning Point in October. In Tanzania, the readers of the daily newspaper Express learned about the Bahá'í perspective on the UN through an article highlighting points made in the Bahá'í International Community's statement.
An exhibit of posters and materials showing "Achievements of the UN at 50" greeted the 250 people who attended a function in New Delhi, India, to mark the anniversary. The proposals outlined in Turning Point were reviewed by a member of the Continental Board of Counsellors in Asia, Zena Sorabjee, after an inaugural address by former Chief Justice of India, R.S. Pathak and a keynote address by Dr. Hans von Sponeck, Resident Coordinator, UN system in India. At the end of the program, each guest was given a copy of the Bahá'í International Community's statement.
Bahá'ís in Tallin, Estonia, hosted an art exhibit and an international prayer meeting in commemoration of the United Nations' fiftieth anniversary, October 1995.
Awareness of Bahá'í perspectives on issues facing the UN was also spread through press coverage of anniversary events. A celebration organized by the Bahá'í Association for World Peace at the University of the North-West in South Africa made headline news on Bophuthatswana Television, was one of the main items on Mmabatho Television, and was covered in several major newspapers. Photographs showed the 20 Bahá'ís and their 250 guests exchanging ideas on women and world peace, the rights of children, and the future of the UN. The university's 60-member choir filled the gathering with inspiring music. In Bangladesh, three important newspapers published articles on a public meeting sponsored by the Local Spiritual Assembly of Khulna to mark the founding of the UN. Tents on the grounds of the Bahá'í Center were filled with 50 Bahá'ís and 200 guests who listened to speeches and then enjoyed the performance of songs written by Bahá'í youth on the theme of unity and amity among the nations and races of the earth.
The presentation of World Citizenship Awards, a special service at a Bahá'í House of Worship, and an art exhibit were some other types of events that marked the anniversary in various locations. The Awards were established in Brazil by the National Spiritual Assembly and were given to eight international agencies and the two married couples who founded the School of the Nations in Brasilia, where each month teachers work with students on a theme related to spiritual and social virtues such as unity, protection of the environment, and the value of work. The special worship service was held at the Bahá'í House of Worship in Apia, Samoa; 250 people enjoyed the service and then moved to an adjacent building for speeches by a member of the Continental Board of Counsellors in Australasia and the Resident Coordinator of the United Nations Office in Western Samoa. The art exhibit, entitled "Vision of World Peace," was set up in the main entrance of Estonia's Pedagogical University in Tallinn and featured the work of Bahá'ís Nastia and Ksenia Stanishevski.
Bahá'í commitment to the United Nations was recognized when Bahá'ís were invited by others to take part in UN anniversary gatherings. For example, the Bahá'í community of the Netherlands was asked to send a representative to the country's official celebration, held in the Knights' Hall in The Hague and attended by Queen Beatrix. The secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of Costa Rica spoke at an ecumenical gathering organized by the Ministry of External Relations and attended by two former presidents of Costa Rica, current vice presidents, and members of the diplomatic corps.
Bahá'ís also cosponsored Washington, D.C.'s largest UN 50 commemorative event and contributed two workshops: "Moral, Ethical, and Spiritual Values and the UN" and "Religious NGOs and the UN." This national gathering on the United States and the UN, organized by the United Nations Association and cosponsored by more than 100 organizations, was attended by more than 400 people from 35 states.
Some Bahá'í communities marked the anniversary with activities aimed to engage young people in the issues being faced by the UN. The Bahá'í community of Costa Rica sponsored an essay contest, and winners participated in the 50th anniversary celebrations in San Francisco. In India, the Bahá'í District Teaching Committee of Kannur organized a speech competition on the theme "One World: My Concept" in which students from seven of the district's twelve colleges took part. "The Bahá'í Faith and Education" was the theme of a Bahá'í booth at a UN 50 exhibition held in Hong Kong in October.
Bahá'ís also contributed to a program organized by the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) for the children attending schools sponsored by members of the Association of NGOs working with ECLAC. Ten students from Colegio Bahá'í Nur and the school's headmistress participated, and six Mapuche Indians travelled 700 miles from their home in Labranza, Chile, to the site of the event in Santiago to perform music and dance for the children.
Two Bahá'í youth dramatically demonstrated their understanding of UN issues and willingness to take action. Thirteen-year-old Jordan Melic of Singapore worked on an article that was selected for publication in A World in Our Hands, a book produced by Peace Child International and Paintbrush Diplomacy for the 50th anniversary. Then he applied and was chosen to be one of 24 editors of the volume, which includes pieces on the history of the UN and views for its future written by young people between nine and twenty. In June 1995, Jordan was the only editor to be flown to the United States for the official presentation of the book. In the U.S., he gave a 30-minute talk at the World Trade Center in New York to an audience of 200 distinguished guests, and he presented A World in Our Hands to Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali at the Hearst Theater in San Francisco, where the UN Charter had been signed 50 years earlier. After Jordan spoke the words, "The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens," Dr. Boutros-Ghali asked him to inscribe them in his copy of the book.
Mariana Eghrari of Brazil, also thirteen, was invited by the organization Peaceways to represent the children of her country at the World Conference of Children in San Francisco, organized as part of the 50th anniversary events. The 150 participating children prepared a document called Keeping the Promise Report about the main challenges facing the children of the world. Mariana was among 15 of these children selected to travel to Geneva to present the document to UN officials and to consult with them.
In one International Herald Tribune editorial (27 June 1995) about the UN at 50, some of the institution's accomplishments are listed: "Agencies of the United Nations have eradicated diseases (completely, in the case of smallpox), countered famine, housed 30 million refugees, probably halved child mortality and taught millions to read and write. Politically, the United Nations has sped decolonization, provided a forum for poor but populous new members and spotlighted, if selectively, human rights offenders." The Bahá'í International Community document Turning Point for All Nations likewise notes the UN's achievements: "As an international organization, the United Nations has demonstrated humanity's capacity for united action in health, agriculture, education, environmental protection, and the welfare of children. It has affirmed our collective moral will to build a better future, evinced in the widespread adoption of international human rights Covenants. It has revealed the human race's deep-seated compassion, evidenced by the devotion of financial and human resources to the assistance of people in distress."
The Herald Tribune article, like many other editorials, goes on to cite the UN's shortcomings, particularly its inability thus far to prevent wars between and within member states. The Bahá'í International Community agrees that the UN has a long way to go to fulfill its potential, but it remains confident that solutions to its organizational and financial problems can be found if discussions about its future take into account the broader, evolving international order and if they involve and excite the generality of humanity. Viewed in historical context, this grand experiment to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war...and reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be attained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom" has been a singular success, if only for what its proponents have believed to be possible. The Bahá'í community commemorated the UN's anniversary by doing its part to bring these dreams closer to reality.