Baha'is offer decision-making model at UN commission

February 16, 2010
Ming H. Chong of Singapore read a summary of the Baha'i statement at the 48th session of the U.N. Commission for Social Development. The statement was titled "Transforming Collective Deliberations: Valuing Unity and Justice." Mr. Chong is pictured outside the United Nations Building in New York.

UNITED NATIONS, United States — A new model of decision-making among peoples of different cultures would contribute to integration "at this time of transition to a new social order," according to a new Baha'i statement.

The statement was prepared for the 48th United Nations Commission for Social Development, which concluded on 12 February. The commission is the chief UN body charged with following up on the World Summit on Social Development held in 1995 in Copenhagen, where world leaders outlined principles that would characterize a new "society for all." These principles included respect for diversity and participation of all people.

The Baha'i International Community said in its statement that it was offering its experience in the method of consultation used by Baha'i communities around the world – a key component in creating unity among people.

The consultative process, the Baha'i statement said, rests on the understanding that all human beings are essentially noble – "they possess reason and conscience as well as capacities for inquiry, understanding, compassion, and service to the common good."

Mr. Ming H. Chong of Singapore, a delegate to the commission who presented a summary of the Baha'i statement, said afterward that understanding the nobility of all humans prevents people from dismissing others as needy rather than being in charge of their own development.

"If you start with (this) understanding, then you have a different perspective, one that avoids labels like 'marginalized' and 'poor,'" he said. He explained that he was a child of immigrants to Singapore and had learned that such labels create the wrong impression of entire groups of people.

"Language shapes the way we think," he said. "It creates mental pictures of how we see the world. Some of these mental pictures are not always positive – those that dehumanize migrants, for example."

The Baha'i statement to the UN commission suggested that the human body can serve as a model for comparing the integration of the world's cultures and peoples. "Within this organism, millions of cells, with extraordinary diversity of form and function, collaborate to make human existence possible. Every least cell has its part to play in maintaining a healthy body," the statement said.

This image can be used to envision the world's peoples as one human family and understand how each culture plays a part in the functioning of the whole, Mr. Chong explained.

In consultation as practiced in Baha'i communities, great value is placed on the diversity of perspectives and contributions that individuals bring to the discussion.

"Actively soliciting views from those traditionally excluded from decision-making not only increases the pool of intellectual resources but also fosters the trust, inclusion, and mutual commitment needed for collective action," the Baha'i statement said.

A key feature of Baha'i consultation is that ideas belong to the group rather than to individuals.

"Detachment from one's positions and opinions regarding the matter under discussion is imperative – once an idea has been shared, it is no longer associated with the individual who expressed it, but becomes a resource for the group to adopt, modify, or discard," the statement said.

A diversity of opinions, however, is not sufficient – it "does not provide communities with a means to bridge differences or to resolve social tensions," it continued.

"In consultation, the value of diversity is inextricably linked to the goal of unity. This is not an idealized unity, but one that acknowledges differences and strives to transcend them through a process of principled deliberation," the statement said. "It is unity in diversity."

The Baha'i International Community participated in or cosponsored several other activities during the Commission for Social Development, which ran from 3 February to12 February. Among other things, Baha'is sponsored a panel discussion on freedom of religion or belief, offered a presentation on "Child Participation for Social Integration" featuring the New York-based Children's Theater Company, and contributed to NGO consultations leading to a Civil Society Declaration to the Commission.

The panel discussion – titled "Freedom of religion or belief: A forgotten pillar of social integration?" – was held at Baha'i offices on 5 February. It featured presentations by Brian Grim, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; Dr. Anupam Ray of the mission of India to the UN; John Mosoti of the mission of Kenya to UN; and Azza Karam, a senior researcher with the United Nations Population Fund.

Participants discussed how freedom of religion contributes to social integration, focusing in part on the success of multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies like India and Kenya in achieving relative harmony.

"To the extent that efforts towards social integration will reflect the diverse voices and aspirations of the world's people, governments will need to tackle one of the most challenging and neglected issues of our time – ensuring every individual's freedom of conscience, religion or belief," said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Baha'i International Community to the UN, who introduced the discussion.