Introducing Bahá'í Principles to United Nations Dialogues and Conferences
Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
The creative interaction of spiritual principles and practical problems can shed new light on difficulties that have proven intractable in traditional frameworks and thus influence the life of society. The challenges of climate change and sustainability are particularly pressing. This paper discusses examples of this process at the international level in UN dialogues and conferences, scientific meetings and interfaith gatherings by the Baha'i International Community and the International Environment Forum.
Issues of sustainable environmental management and climate change have become increasingly prominent on the international agenda, and raise challenging questions for governments, the economy and society as a whole. The Baha'i International Community is the principal mechanism for Baha'i contributions to such international dialogues at the United Nations and elsewhere, often accompanied by representatives of national Baha'i institutions, and on occasion by Baha'i-inspired organizations such as the International Environment Forum and ebbf - Ethical Business Building the Future. This is one topic to which Baha'is have made significant contributions, and can serve as an example for such activities in other fields.
Another purpose of Baha'i-inspired organizations like the International Environment Forum is to provide a place where professionals in a particular discipline can explore together the application of Baha'i principles to the solution of problems they encounter in their professional work. The creative interaction of spiritual principles and practical problems can shed new light on difficulties that have proven intractable in traditional frameworks and thus influence the life of society. This example could inspire professionals in other fields to organize, encourage and accompany each other as they work to find solutions to the challenges they face in the light of Baha'i teachings.
This paper provides an overview of some of the precursors in the environmental field, Baha'i International Community contributions over 40 years at the United Nations and in interfaith dialogues, and some relevant activities of the International Environment Forum.
Richard St.Barbe Baker (1889-1982), a forester and environmentalist originally in the British Colonial service in Kenya, founded Men of the Trees (now the International Tree Foundation), the first global conservation movement, in 1922 to encourage reforestation of degraded lands. Later when he was working on reforestation in Palestine, Shoghi Effendi became the first lifetime member of the organization in 1929. RIchard St.Barbe Baker led the Save the Redwoods campaign in the 1930s, organized World Forestry Charter Gatherings held from 1945 to the 1970s (opened in the early years with messages from Shoghi Effendi), was active in reclaiming the Sahara Desert in the 1950s, and worked to divert a highway to save more redwoods in the 1960s, when the US National Spiritual Assembly sent a letter to the government at the urging of the Universal House of Justice.
Another pair of precursors were Willie Willoya and Vinson Brown, whose 1962 book "Warriors of the Rainbow" about native American prophesies of the unity of the human race and harmony with nature, helped inspire the philosophy of Greenpeace. It is illustrated in the official history of Greenpeace.
The author, already involved in environmental research from the mid-1960s, lectured on the environment and ethics at different high schools in the Washington, D.C. area during the first Earth Day on 22 April 1970, and represented the Baha'i International Community at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972.
Baha'i International Community and the United Nations
Baha'i involvement in intergovernmental action is not new. The International Bahá'í Bureau was established in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1926 to provide representation at the League of Nations. Baha'is were at the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945, and the Bahá'í International Community (BIC) was accredited to the UN in 1948.
The process of contributing to an international dialogue is itself instructive. There is first a conceptual process. This involves consulting and compiling relevant Bahá'í texts, determining their relevance to the problem under discussion, and asking what new light they shed on these problems. Often this means redefining problem in the light of the Teachings. Another step is translating Bahá'í concepts into the relevant language of the technical field and the target audience. Only then is it possible to prepare a coherent text of problem definition and solutions. It is helpful to remember how 'Abdu'l-Baha, in His talks, challenged assumptions, reoriented perspectives, expanded consciousness and focused energies.
There is also an institutional process generally followed by the Baha'i International Community, involving consulting Baha'is with expertise in the field, determining strategic issues for new perspectives, drafting a preliminary text, and obtaining views from Bahá'í, UN and expert perspectives. A draft is then sent for review and approval at the World Centre, and once approved, is issued and circulated as a BIC statement at the appropriate moment. The result is a text that not only responds to a particular event, but also has lasting value and is generally widely appreciated.
The participation of the Baha'i International Community in the international debate on the environment goes back more that 40 years, when the BIC was one of 134 non-governmental organizations accredited to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, on 5-16 June 1972. A statement for the occasion, "The Environment and Human Values" was prepared and circulated to all governments, a BIC representative contributed to the consultation, urging collaboration between governments and non-governmental organizations, and a Baha'i stand and display was manned in the global forum of NGOs.
Following a number of other topical UN conferences, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development was held in Rio de Janeiro twenty years later, in June 1992. During a two-year preparatory process with four meetings of the intergovernmental preparatory committee, the BIC was actively involved through its Office of Environment at its UN Office in New York. It presented three statements to the PrepComs: "Environment and Development" (1990), "Earth Charter" (1991) and "International Legislation for Environment and Development" (1991). Baha'is were key partners in the organization of the Global Forum for 1,400 NGOs in Rio, with 17,000 participants. A BIC representative was one of 13 NGO representatives to address the conference plenary with a statement on "Sustainable Development and the Human Spirit". The BIC also donated a beautiful monument to the conference in a city square, to which all the nations were invited to contribute some of their soil of special significance.
For 20 years after the Rio Earth Summit, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development met annually to follow up the commitments made in Rio, and the BIC participated actively in side events and parallel activities, often in collaboration with Baha'i-inspired organizations. On two occasions it prepared formal statements for the CSD: 1993 "World Citizenship: A Global Ethic for Sustainable Development" (1993), and "Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism" (2010).
International Environment Forum
In 1997, Baha'is working in the field of environment organized their own Baha'i-inspired professional organization, the International Environment Forum, with the encouragement and guidance of the Baha'i World Centre. It aims to network and build the capacity of Baha'is and others who share these values to participate in dialogues on the environment and sustainability. It has consulted and collaborated closely with the Baha'i International Community, and often complemented what the BIC has been able to do.
The IEF now has more than 330 members in 60 countries. It was accredited by the UN as a scientific/technological organization to the World Summit on Sustainable Development and Rio+20. In addition to its collaboration with the BIC, it holds annual conferences in different parts of the world on topics relevant to the dialogue between environment, sustainability, ethics and spirituality. It maintains a web site (iefworld.org) as a resource with conference reports and papers, educational materials, compilations of relevant quotations from the Baha'i writings and other scriptures, and news on UN activities and other processes. It produces a monthly newsletter, prepares statements, and partners with other organizations and networks as well as with BIC. It is able to extend the dialogue beyond what the BIC has the capacity to do, and demonstrates that a Baha'i-inspired organization can make credible contributions to scientific processes. Its members contribute to international scientific conferences, research forums and networks, such as the Partnership for Education and research about Responsible Living (PERL) and the Global Research Network on Sustainable Production and Consumption. While its focus is on addressing the challenges the world faces in achieving environmental sustainability, on mentoring young professionals, and on accompanying its members in their own efforts to contribute to relevant dialogues, it has also assisted national Baha'i communities that have felt ready to become involved in these activities.
Participation in dialogues in the 21st century
Ten years after the Earth Summit, the World Summit on Sustainable Development was held in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2002. The BIC prepared a statement "Sustainable Development: The Spiritual Dimension" in 2001 for the preparatory process, and another "Religion and Development at the Crossroads: Convergence or Divergence?" for the summit conference itself. In consultation with two Baha'i-inspired organizations also accredited by the United Nations for the conference, the International Environment Forum and the European Baha'i Business Forum (now ebbf - Ethical Business Building the Future), a range of activities were organized on "Education and Values for Sustainable Development" in the Global Peoples' Forum, a "Dialogue on Indicators of Sustainability" in the Science Forum, on "Multiple Dimensions of Globalization" for the business community, and on "Integrating Science into Local Communities" at the University of Witwatersrand, and two stands were prepared for the NGO forum, one for the BIC and national Baha'i communities represented, the other for the IEF and ebbf.
As climate change emerged as an important issue, the BIC and IEF naturally became involved. An essay on "Climate Change and its Ethical Challenges" was published in "The Baha'i World 2005-2006". In 2007, the BIC with IEF and other co-sponsors organized an official side event at the Commission on Sustainable Development on "The Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change" with a panel of distinguished speakers before a packed room. For the climate change negotiations in 2008, the BIC prepared a statement on "Seizing the Opportunity: Redefining the Challenge of Climate Change", and in 2009 it invited other organizations to sign "Moral and Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change: Appeal to the World's Leaders". In response to a request from UNDP and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, it prepared a BIC Plan of Action on Climate Change presented with those of other religions to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in November 2009, and at the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, it organized a parallel event on "Moral and Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change" at the Klimaforum, while the International Environment Forum participated in the Climate Sustainability Platform and other events. The IEF also held its annual conferences in Oxford in 2006, in Toronto in 2007, and in Hobart in 2011, on themes related to climate change in support of national action.
An IEF member was selected to co-chair the UNEP Major Groups and Stakeholders Advisory Group on International Environmental Governance (http://agieg.iefworld.org/) in 2010-2012, consisting of 15 experts from the UN major groups and regions. The AGIEG prepared inputs for the UNEP ministerial process and Governing Council, and for Rio+20, on rethinking the structure of governance; innovation and the social dimension for the green economy; the ethics of sustainability; the role of civil society; local governance; integration of sustainability everywhere; the special needs of developing countries; science and decision making; and governance beyond national sovereignty (http://agieg.iefworld.org/node/59).
The biggest recent UN event was the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. For the first time, electronic media provided a channel for widespread consultation, and the UN invited inputs to the conference process, to which the IEF contributed five proposals on "Preparing for Environmental Migration", "Principles and Indicators for a Green Economy", "Ethical Support to Policy-making", "Science and Technology for Community Empowerment", and "Youth Need Reasons to Hope from Rio+20". After considering the inadequate attention given to the issue of excessive wealth, which let to a statement in 2011 on "Initial considerations regarding the elimination of the extremes of poverty and wealth" presented at the UN Commission on Social Development, the BIC prepared a statement for Rio+20 on "Sustaining Societies: Towards a New 'We'". The BIC organized a side event on "Elimination of Extremes of Wealth and Poverty". An IEF proposal on the need for international management of migration was selected for discussion in the Sustainable Development Dialogues at the conference, and its members presented papers at the ICSU Science Forum and the Global Research Forum on Sustainable Consumption and Production. At the Peoples' Summit, the Baha'i Community had a stand, and IEF and ebbf organized events, while BIC participated in the Indigenous Peoples' Forum. IEF member Erasmus Vinkhuyzen, at 7 months the youngest registered representative at the conference, had a full page of coverage in the leading Rio newspaper as the representative of future generations.
After Rio, contributions were invited to the Post-2015 dialogues following up the conference with proposal for the post-2015 development agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals proposed at Rio. Again, the IEF made contributions, and the final report in September 2013 of the Global Consultation on Environmental Sustainability in the Post-2015 Development Agenda led by UNDP and UNEP, titled "Breaking Down the Silos: Integrating Environmental Sustainability in the Post-2015 Agenda". singled out one IEF contribution in a separate box in the report:
"In the interest of fairness and equity, governments need to agree on an international regulatory framework that would establish minimum social and environmental standards, ensure that corporations pay their fair share of taxes, prevent companies becoming so large that they have a monopoly position and are more powerful than governments, or too big to fail." (Contribution to the e-discussion on the role of the private sector and markets by Arthur Lyon Dahl, President, International Environment Forum, Switzerland).
There will certainly be new opportunities for Baha'i-inspired contributions in the future. A High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development will be held every 4 years at the level of heads of state and government, with the first on 24 September 2013. An annual ministerial session will be held for 8 days as part of ECOSOC, with regional preparations and national reports. Sustainable Development Goals are presently being drafted, and a Global Sustainable Development Report is to be prepared.
BIC and Interfaith Activities
A complementary dimension of the Baha'i International Community participation in intergovernmental events has been its involvement with Baha'i-inspired organizations and individual Baha'is in interfaith activities on the environment, nature conservation and climate change, among others.
This dialogue began already at the 1972 Stockholm Conference where an informal meeting was held among faith-based organizations. In 1986, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) invited the five major religions to Assisi, Italy, the city of St. Francis, to form a network on Religions and Conservation. The BIC issued "A Bahá'í Perspective on Nature and the Environment" on this occasion. The next year the BIC became the sixth religion to join the Network (later Alliance) on Religions and Conservation (ARC), and presented the "Bahá'í Statement on Nature". After a preparatory meeting in Japan, in 1995 the WWF and ARC organized a Summit on Religions and Conservation at Windsor Castle, attended by religious leaders from around the world including Ruhiyyih Khanum, with a BIC statement on "Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Bahá'í Faith". This led to the World Bank organizing a World Faiths and Development Dialogue at Lambeth Palace, London, 18-19 February 1998, where the BIC presented "Valuing Spirituality in Development" proposing principles for spiritually-based indicators of development.
UNDP and ARC invited all the major religions to prepare Action Plans for Climate Change, which were presented to the UN Secretary-General at a ceremony at Windsor Castle in November 2009, including the "Baha'i International Community Plan of Action on Climate Change". One proposal from this meeting led to the formation of the Green Pilgrimage Network in 2011, with the BIC again issuing a supporting statement "Green Pilgrimage Network".
The cumulative list of Baha'i International Community statements on
environment and sustainable development is impressive, and will certainly
1972 (UNCHE, Stockholm) The Environment and Human Values
1986 (WWF, Assisi) A Bahá'í Perspective on Nature and the Environment
1987 (WWF) The Bahá'í Statement on Nature
1990 (UNCED PrepCom) Environment and Development
1991 (UNCED PrepComs):
- Earth Charter
- International Legislation for Environment and Development
- Women and Men: Partnership for a Healthy Planet
1992 (UNCED, Rio de Janeiro) Sustainable Development and the Human Spirit
1993 (CSD1) World Citizenship: A Global Ethic for Sustainable Development
1995 (WWF/ARC, Windsor) Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Bahá'í Faith
1995 (Social Summit, Copenhagen) The Prosperity of Humankind
1996 (Habitat II, Istanbul) Sustainable Communities in an Integrating World
1998 Valuing Spirituality in Development
1999 Who Is Writing the Future? Reflections on the Twentieth Century
2001 Science, Religion and Development: Some Initial Considerations
2001 (WSSD PrepCom) Sustainable Development: The Spiritual Dimension
2002 (WSSD, Johannesburg) Religion and Development at the Crossroads: Convergence or Divergence?
2005 The Search for Values in an Age of Transition
2008 Eradicating Poverty: Moving Forward As One
2008 (COP14, Posnan) Seizing the Opportunity: Redefining the Challenge of Climate Change
2009 (COP15, Copenhagen) Moral and Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change: Appeal to the World's Leaders
2009 (PNUD/ARC, Windsor) Bahá'í International Community's Seven-Year Plan of Action on Climate Change
2010 (CSD18) Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism
2011 Initial considerations regarding the elimination of the extremes of poverty and wealth
2011 Green Pilgrimage Network
2012 (Rio+20) Sustaining Societies: Towards a New 'We'
2012 Empowerment as a Mechanism for Social Transformation
There is increasing recognition of the global need for fundamental change. We seem to be approaching climate change tipping points, extremes of wealth and poverty are increasing, we are producing a generation without hope, and the gap between scientific urgency and political realism has never been wider. Fundamental systems change is necessary to transition to a sustainable society. There will obviously be a need for dialogue on the environment and sustainability for a long time to come. Bahá'í principles can make a significant contribution to this dialogue, as they can to many others. Perhaps this example will inspire professionals in other fields to collaborate in their efforts to address the many problems that the world is facing.
Last updated 7 August 2014