Any realistic view of our present global situation must acknowledge that we are experiencing rapid political, social, and environmental deterioration.
Unfortunately, parallels to the storm clouds that gathered before World War II are not without merit, but we must add in digital risks, climate change, and other eco-catastrophes.
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The world is re-arming; xenophobia, extremism and autocratic governance are on the rise, and a growing number of countries, some of them large and powerful in various ways, appear to be setting aside long-held norms that conduced at least to a sense of stability, if not necessarily prosperity. All of these trends were anticipated in the Baha’i writings long ago, as in this warning to the world’s leaders from Baha’u’llah:
Tread ye the path of justice, for this, verily, is the straight path.
Compose your differences, and reduce your armaments, that the burden of your expenditures may be lightened, and that your minds and hearts may be tranquillized. Heal the dissensions that divide you, and ye will no longer be in need of any armaments except what the protection of your cities and territories demandeth. Fear ye God, and take heed not to outstrip the bounds of moderation, and be numbered among the extravagant.
We have learned that you are increasing your outlay every year, and are laying the burden thereof on your subjects. This, verily, is more than they can bear, and is a grievous injustice. Decide justly between men, and be ye the emblems of justice amongst them. This, if ye judge fairly, is the thing that behoveth you, and beseemeth your station.
Today, scientific warnings also signal that ecological catastrophe is already underway. While this might seem to be the worst possible time to propose a major reform of the multilateral system, alternatively it is also the most necessary time given that the system we have is clearly in need of repair.
Governments gathered in New York for a week of summits in September of 2023 – including the Sustainable Development Goals Summit, the Climate Ambition Summit, and the Preparatory Meeting for the 2024 Summit of the Future (SOTF) – issued ambitious political declarations promising a better world by 2030, while barely referring to the failures to implement what has already been agreed among States at the United Nations. There is wide acknowledgement that we need a fundamental transformation in all dimensions of our present society: economic, social, and environmental, but the forces of disintegration and the inertia of outdated assumptions are still overpowering the efforts at integration into a global order based on justice for all.
Imagining a Renewed United Nations
One high-level side event organized by the Global Governance Forum and the Baha’i International Community’s United Nations Office in New York discussed proposals for A Second Charter: Imagining a Renewed United Nations.
Regardless of, perhaps even because of, the negative forces on display at the present moment, the need for new proposals for a functioning international order are essential. As dissatisfied rising generations seek alternatives, we have a duty to not be complacent with the status quo. Opportunities for transformation will come, this is inevitable. The question is whether we will be prepared to meet the moment.
Rather than characterizing such efforts as “Alice in Wonderland”, we would propose that precisely because we are facing global catastrophes on multiple fronts, we have a duty to start thinking about the key elements of a revamped global order.
On Peace and Security, the experts who explored the most essential purpose of the UN noted that the UN was at a cliff edge, with warfare taking on dangerous new forms, arms control failing, increasing violence, assaults on the biosphere, and nuclear war so likely that we should plan for what to do the day after. Mention was made of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, which moved to 90 seconds before midnight in January of 2023, “the closest humanity has even been to Armageddon.” There were references to the war on nature, and the need for the environment to become the fourth pillar of the UN Charter, with an anchor institution for the global environment, recognizing that security includes healthy and productive lives in harmony with nature. While a problem lies with recalcitrant great powers emitting 80 percent of greenhouse gases, solutions can be found among small states with thought leadership, not to mention motivation, to bring change.
Addressing Sustainable Futures, the event noted setbacks in poverty reduction brought about by Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine, widening income disparities – which undermine the basis of democracy and sow political instability in many parts of the world. The event focused on the urgent need to address planetary boundaries, and on climate change management, with the recognition that the UN is too disconnected from the grassroots. Science and technology should be used for human security and well-being, not just profit. Since all of these problems are interrelated, the UN should think in terms of dimensions rather than pillars.
Continuing failures have disillusioned the youth about their futures. They need to be offered hope and institutions worthy of their trust. All of this requires rapid action on urgent issues addressing the global good, concurrent with efforts at longer-term Charter reform.
With reference to UN Charter Reform, our capacity to diagnose the various crises is commendable, but we are less able to undertake reforms that provide lasting solutions to ongoing problems, and our prescriptions for what to do seem at times timid and not backed by the required political will. The UN Charter does not represent sovereign equality but the dominance of the victors of WWII, with a faint voice for the South, provisions never applied, and the veto used without justification. This undermines the moral credibility and operational effectiveness of the organization, while increasingly sidelining it as power and decision-making shift to other centers. However, in a fragmented world, it is hard to see where agreement on change would be possible, and, barring a global calamity nobody wishes to see, a gradual, iterative approach may be needed. The Summit of the Future and the use of Article 109 on Charter revision might open doors to reform as proposed in the Second Charter initiative.
The Future Will Be Different
While governments and experts work on the challenges of the present hour, all must take ownership of the legacy we will pass to the future.
Rising generations will inherit what we leave behind. Today youth live a profound dichotomy: inherently hopeful, seeking justice, galvanized to take action but also often disillusioned, depressed, victims of climate anxiety, justified by what they see around them and experience themselves.
Political leadership in the world continues to be male-dominated, with 89 percent of heads of government or state among the UN’s 193 members being men; allowing alternative forms of leadership, traditionally associated with women, to languish. We perpetuate cycles of violence to the detriment of all humanity. As discrimination ceases and women are given full opportunities at all levels, these cycles will change, ushering in an era of greater opportunities for all. Meanwhile, governments fail to deliver on peoples’ needs while inequality increases. There is massive corruption from concentrated wealth and vested interests. Failures of democracy push many youths to accept the vain promises of autocrats, populists, and demagogues.
More fundamentally, the world faces a vacuum of values. The dominant materialistic paradigm, regardless of ideologies, denies our true human potential, depicting us as self-interested consumers for the economic system to exploit and discard. Nothing is said about what can emerge as we refine our characters and acquire higher virtues, and our social role in building cohesive communities and advancing civilization in all its dimensions and diversity.
To turn the corner, we need to offer something positive to communities, and especially to younger generations, that they can believe in and channel their energies to accomplish. Words are not enough; actions are necessary, even if in small steps at first. We need to give them reasons to hope, such as the proposal for a second UN Charter. The Summit of the Future and its promised Pact for the Future should provide some momentum as we go forward. Now is the time for creative ideas, for practical proposals to work around the roadblocks, for visions of the better world that can emerge as we unite our forces and move forward. We need to define actions that can start now.
The challenge, then, is to build a union of constructive forces to create a momentum for breakthroughs. This can inspire us all to resist the negative forces that surround us and the self-serving commercial interests that try to trap us. Youth, in particular, will then be able to prepare themselves for constructive careers, to engage in social action wherever they live, and to take part in positive discourses on the better future we can build together.
A few days after UN General Assembly week, in a podcast interview, Andrew Strauss, Dean of the Law School at the University of Dayton remarked about an “emerging spiritual sensibility” in the world at large, awakening outside the boundaries of the institutional structures of traditional organized religions.
He thought that some practical institutional reform initiative — a campaign for a global parliament, a review of the UN Charter ”representing a holistic planetary consciousness sensitive to the practical urgency of human unity” – could be successfully tapped into and that “the unlocked power could be potentially explosive.” “Perhaps, it is not too much to hope then, that the transformative aftershocks from that explosion could come to provide an antidote to the world-wide spread of ethno-nationalist-authoritarianism,” he concluded.
May the efforts explored during the recent week of UN Summits become an important step forward in pursuit of creative ways to bridge our governance gap and establish a more solid basis for sustainable peace and development.