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The United Nations and Permanent Peace in the 21st Century 

A. K. Merchant


The United Nations’ 50th anniversary in 1995 coincides with a turning point in the life of our planet. The ongoing debate about its future role calls for serious rethinking of the ways the international organization deals with the issues of development, peace and security. The 50th anniversary is therefore a time not only for reflection on the achievements and difficult lessons of the past, but also for charting a course for the next century. ‘The resolution of these problems — crushing poverty amidst vast sections of the developing world, oppression of women and minority groups, intractable political, religious, and ethnic conflicts; and disruption of the global ecosystem, among others — will require unprecedented levels of cooperation and coordination that surpass anything in humanity’s collective experience’,1 and which must go beyond the present adversarial system of conflict resolution. Our present-day system is too costly, too painful, too destructive and too inefficient for a truly civilized people.

‘From the remotest times men have told tales of golden societies — a submerged Atlantis somewhere off the African coast, a lost Lemuria in the depths of the Pacific, an immortal Shangri-la in the heights of the Himalayas, a vanished Eden in the region of four great rivers. . . . This is conjecture, to be sure, conjecture is not useless, for it leads to search. Search leads to knowledge and knowledge in turn breaks down false barriers which the ignorance of former generations has erected.’2 Indeed, ‘an onrushing wind is blowing through the archaic structures of the old Order, felling mighty pillars and clearing the ground for new conceptions of social organization. The call for unity, for a new World Order, is audible from many directions. The change in world society is characterized by a phenomenal speed. A feature of this change is a suddenness, or precipitateness, which appears to be the consequence of some mysterious rampant force. The positive aspects of this change reveal an unaccustomed openness to global concepts, movements towards international and regional collaboration, an inclination of warring parties to opt for peaceful solutions, a search for spiritual values.’3

Baha’is understand many of the complex problems of society to be inevitable features of a historical process that Baha’u’llah, Founder-Prophet of the Baha’i faith, foresaw would come to dominate the twentieth century. His vision of the eventual integration of humankind and the emergence of a global society in which unity in diversity would be the principal characteristic has been confirmed by the events of this century — accelerating as we near its close. Many of our most acute problems can be resolved if we become conscious of this historical process and respond in ways that take proper account of the oneness of humanity — the principle of social organization for the age now dawning in human history. Failure to understand and make the necessary adjustments in how human affairs are administered on this planet only intensifies the degree of suffering that is penetrating communities in virtually every country and region on earth.

Baha’is view the current phase of rapidly changing world conditions in a hopeful way, aware of the anguish created by current chaotic social dislocations but seeing them as part of a long-term process of adjustment, the pain of which can best be alleviated if we become conscious of its nature and direction. The current period of human history is one of these axial periods understood best perhaps in the phrase ‘the coming of age of humanity’.4 The period of relative isolation of various peoples of the world has ended. We have now collectively entered a new world where boundaries, if they exist at all any more, are no longer impenetrable. The interdependence of humanity with all its diversity of cultures, nations, and peoples will continue to increase. Exclusive sovereignties are no longer possible.

From our study of world trends and the forecast of the future of humanity as presented in Baha’i writings over a century5 ago we can discern the following requirements on the part of present-day society for the establishment of a new World Order and permanent peace on earth.

  1. Unity of nations resulting in the outlawing of war before the turn of the century. This will be a crucial achievement, marking a new phase in the sphere of international relations in the twenty-first century. The term used in the Baha’i Writings to describe this process is the ‘Lesser Peace’.

  2. Unity in the political realm with respect to the system of governance based upon the foundations of true justice.

  3. Unity of thought in world undertakings such as exploration of outer space, sharing of scientific knowledge, combating global problems such as terrorism, rampant drug abuse, international crime, etc.

  4. Unity of freedom, i.e. concentration of forces for social reform, especially a judicial system guaranteeing equal political, economic and social opportunity to every man and woman, to every nation and to every race.

  5. Unity of religion and adoption by the majority of humankind of a world religion, thus fulfilling the prophecies enshrined in the utterances of the founders of extant religions.

  6. Unity of races, i.e. all humankind will be regarded as one race. Truly, racism is one of the worst parts of the social malaise afflicting present-day humanity.

  7. Unity of language, i.e., the selection of an auxiliary world language and script — one of the signs of the maturity of the human race.

Today several million people from virtually every race, culture, class and nation on earth are unitedly working for the speedy realization of the above objectives, the most important of which is the establishment of the oneness and wholeness of the human race. ‘A new life,’ Baha’u’llah proclaims, ‘is in this age, stirring within all the peoples of the earth; and yet none hath discovered its cause, or perceived its motive. . . . The well-being of mankind,’ He declares, ‘its peace and security are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.’ ‘So powerful is the light of unity,’ is His further testimony, ‘that it can illuminate the whole earth. . . . This goal excelleth every other goal, and this aspiration is the monarch of all aspirations.’6

In recent years much progress has been made in conflict resolution and management. I would like to cite the following examples given by Judge Dorothy W. Nelson of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. She writes:

In [1965] in ‘Acca, Israel, I attended a hearing conducted by three Greek Orthodox priests in long black robes and long white beards. Court was conducted in a quonset hut with paint peeling from the walls, furnished only with a plain wooden table and chairs. A wife was suing her husband for divorce. As her lawyer rose to his feet holding a handful of papers from which to plead her case, he was waved gently aside by the presiding priest, who turned to the wife and asked her to tell her own story. She explained that for five years of marriage she had shared a house with her mother-in-law. The older woman, too old to climb stairs, occupied the ground floor, and the wife lived upstairs. Since there was only one entrance to the house she had to enter through her mother-in-law’s living quarters to get to her own, and her mother-in-law continually questioned her about her activities and offered unsolicited advice. She loved her husband, she said, but the situation was intolerable.

The wife sat down and the presiding priest, waving aside the husband’s lawyer as he had the wife’s, asked to hear the husband’s side of the case. The husband said that he loved his wife but also his mother. As a Christian he felt responsibility for both, but he was a poor man and could not afford two households.

The three priests retired by stepping into the dusty street outside and returned five minutes later with their judgment. The husband was to build a ladder. When the wife wanted to avoid her mother-in-law, she could climb the ladder directly to her second floor window.

The practice of conflict resolution is as old as human civilization. From the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, to Homer’s account of the Trojan War in the Iliad, to Thucydides’ historical analysis of the war between Athens and Sparta, accounts of conflict across time have captured the interest of poets and scholars. We have moved from a primitive system of a clash of strength, brute force against brute force, to a clash of wills in an adversary system where vested interest is pitted against vested interest. Like the primitive system, the conflict continues until there is a winner and a loser.

A second example given by Judge Nelson is that of ‘the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty blocked out at Camp David in 1978. Israel had occupied the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula since the Six-Day War of 1967. When Egypt and Israel began to negotiate a peace, they had incompatible positions: Israel wanted some part of the Sinai for security reasons, and Egypt, on the other hand, insisted that every inch of the Sinai be returned to Egypt which had enjoyed sovereignty over it since the time of the Pharaohs. Looking to their interests instead of their positions, it was possible to develop a solution. The plan agreed upon was to return the Sinai to complete Egyptian sovereignty but to demilitarize large areas of the Sinai, thus assuring Israeli security. By looking behind opposed positions for the motivating interests, an alternative position was found which met the interests of both Egypt and Israel.’7

Going one step further, the late Professor Edward Azar, former Director of the Centre for International Development and Conflict Management, made an important contribution to conflict studies by suggesting that it is "needs" not "interests" which are at the heart of protracted social conflict.8

Professor Jerold S. Auerbach explains other drawbacks of the adversary system now prevalent almost everywhere in the world in his book, Justice Without Law, when he describes it as

a chilling, Hobbesian version of human nature. It accentuates hostility, not trust. Selfishness supplants generosity. Truth is shaded by dissembling. Once an adversarial framework is in place, it supports competitive aggression to the exclusion of reciprocity and empathy.9

A report from the Department of Justice, Government of the United States, adds:

The search for new ways of managing our differences can be seen as signalling a shift in public values. With increasing awareness that "we are all in this world together," traditional win-lose, adversarial processes may be personally and socially less satisfactory than more participative, collaborative problem solving that reconciles the interests of all involved parties.10

There is a height of human experience where the instinct for combat sinks back into the inner spirit and finds rest. That height is our human future, if we take the mysterious step of conscious faith. The test is that of sincerity. The Baha’i Faith provides a comprehensive synthesis for bringing about a new cycle of human progress and endurance. What Baha’u’llah, its founder, has sought to accomplish is [to provide] the means for bringing about the promised Golden Age of humanity. Without the motivation of purpose to give meaning and usefulness to our experiences of life, we are bereft of hope and happiness.

ayam nijaparoveti gananam laghuchetasam

udaracaritanam tu vasudhaivakutumbakam

(The Upanishads)11

It is the small-minded who trivialize this world by their preoccupation with many kinds of divisions and demarcations which separate the peoples of the world. Those who are generous of spirit and have a larger vision regard the whole world as one family.’ (Trans. by Dr L.M. Singhvi)

‘The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens,’ Baha’u’llah declared over a century ago.


A statement of the Baha’i International Community entitled Turning Point for All Nations, released on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, states: ‘As the twin processes of collapse and renewal carry the world toward some sort of culmination, the 50th anniversary of the United Nations offers a timely opportunity to pause and reflect on how humanity may collectively face its future’.12 The statement continues to outline three basic guidelines:

First, discussions about the future of the United Nations need to take place within the broad context of the evolution of the international order and its direction. The United Nations has co-evolved with other great institutions of the late twentieth century. It is in the aggregate that these institutions will define — and themselves be shaped by — the evolution of the international order. Therefore, the mission, role, operating principles and even activities of the United Nations should be examined only in the light of how they fit within the broader objective of the international order.

Second, since the body of humankind is one and indivisible, each member of the human race is born into the world as a trust of the whole. This relationship between the individual and the collective constitutes the moral foundation of the human rights which the instruments of the United Nations are attempting to define. It also serves to define an overriding purpose for the international order in establishing and preserving the rights of the individual.

Third, the discussions about the future of the international order must involve and excite the generality of humankind. This discussion is so important that it cannot be confined to leaders — be they in government, business, the academic community, religion, or organizations of civil society. On the contrary, this conversation must engage women and men at the grassroots level. Broad participation will make the process self-reinforcing by raising awareness of world citizenship and increase support for an expanded international order.

As part of its contribution to the ongoing discussion on the restructuring of the United Nations, the statement among other things proposes the appointment of a commission to study borders and frontiers; to limit the use of the veto power in the UN Security Council to a limited number of issues; to investigate the possibility of adopting a single international currency; to explore the possibility of introducing a universal auxiliary language and a common script; and to create an International Force. There is also a call for a convocation of world leaders before the end of the twentieth century ‘to consider how the international order might be redefined and restructured to meet the challenges facing the world’.


1. Unity and Consultation: Foundations of Sustainable Development, a statement of the Baha’i International Community, New York, 1994, p.1.

2. Marsella, Elena Maria, The Quest for Eden, Philosophical Library, New York, N.Y. 10016, 1966, p.1 and p.12.

3. ‘Ridvan Message 1992’, a statement of the Universal House of Justice, The Baha’i World 1992-93, Baha’i World Centre, Haifa, 1993, p. 26.

4. Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas — The Most Holy Book, Baha’i Publishing Trust, New Delhi, 1993, para 189, p. 88.

5. Khursheed, Anjam, The Seven Candles of Unity, Baha’i Publishing Trust, London, U.K., 1991, pp.164-65.

6. Baha’u’llah, quoted in Call to the Nations, a selection from the writings of Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i World Centre, Haifa, 1977, p. 53.

7. Nelson, W. Dorothy, Alternative Forms of Conflict Resolution — A Pathway to Peace. The Second Annual Baha’i Lecture, the Baha’i Chair for World Peace, University of Maryland, 1996, pp.10-11 and pp.15-16.

8. Azar, Edward E., ‘Peace Amidst Development’, International Interactions, 6, No. 2, 1974.

9. Auerbach, Jerold S., Justice Without Law?, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1983, p.1.

10. U.S.Department of Justice, Paths to Justice: Major Public Policy Issues of Dispute Resolution, Report of the Ad Hoc Panel on Dispute Resolution and Public Policy, January 1984, pp.7-8.

11. I have been unable to locate the exact reference to context of this ancient Indian tradition. My source is Sambhuti — My Quest in the Fulfilment of Hinduism, by S.P. Raman, Baha’i Publishing Trust, New Delhi, 1986, p.1.

12. Turning Point for All Nations, a statement of the Baha’i International Community issued on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations, New York, 1995.


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