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The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 286.
Baha’u’llah taught that an equal standard of human rights must be recognized and adopted. In the estimation of God all men are equal; there is no distinction or preferment for any soul in the dominion of His justice and equity. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 181.
(The following article is adapted from the keynote speech of Professor Payam Akhavan at the Opening Ceremony of the McGill University Model United Nations on 22 January 2015, in Montreal, Canada.)
Much has changed in the world since during the past decade, but what remains the same is the vital importance of the United Nations, and the imperative necessity of a global forum where world leaders can deliberate, practice diplomacy and find solutions for the serious challenges confronting humankind.
Winston Churchill famously said that “diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.” The American celebrity Will Rogers put it differently in the 1930s: “Diplomacy” he said “is the art of saying ‘Nice doggie’ until you can find a rock.”
However we choose to define diplomacy, we can all agree that debate and dialogue are preferable to war and violence.
Today, the world we witness reflects its leadership, or rather, the failure of its leadership. Hatred, war, terrorism, genocide, greed, poverty, disease, hunger, the poisoning of our planet, all these afflictions, all these causes of human suffering, they are merely a mirror reflecting the choices made by those that wield power.
I began my career with the United Nations while still in my twenties. Going from the university to a war zone was a rude awakening. It is one thing to talk about ideals in the classroom, and yet another to see the reality of human suffering. I had graduated from Harvard Law School confident that I had all the answers. I believed in the mission of the UN. I believed in human rights. I knew everything there was to know about international law.
With the outbreak of the Yugoslav war in 1991, I was among the first on the ground. I was an idealistic human rights investigator, ready to bear witness to the horrors of “ethnic cleansing” and genocide. I remember the excitement of putting on my blue United Nations helmet for the first time, of flying the white UN helicopters and cargo planes to Vukovar and Sarajevo, of dodging bombs and bullets and living on the edge. But none of my academic qualifications, no amount of professional self-confidence, had prepared me for the horrible scenes that I would witness in the years that followed.
I saw beautiful cities reduced to rubble, homeless families wandering in the winter cold in search of food and shelter, the unspeakable pain of the survivors of rape and torture in the concentration camps, and of course, the unforgettable images of weeping mothers looking for their children in mass graves. It was a profoundly humbling experience, to go from theoretical learning and professional ambition, to feeling the intimate reality of those the UN was built to protect. And then to go from the Bosnian villages where I saw families that had been burnt alive, to the meetings of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, where diplomatic euphemism and carefully worded resolutions sanitized unpleasant realities and created the illusion of progress.
The worst was in 1994 when, despite repeated warnings that a genocide was about to happen, the world abandoned the people of Rwanda. Instead of protecting civilians, the UN withdrew its peacekeepers, knowing the terrible fate that awaited those left behind. While diplomats justified their cynical policies with sophisticated terminology, almost a million civilians were exterminated.
My dear friend Esther Mujawayo panicked as news arrived that many of her loved ones had been murdered. Without anyone to help her, she began running frantically through Kigali, to see how she could save the lives of her three little girls. She saw European soldiers who had been sent to evacuate the expatriates, and their pets. She saw them picking up dogs and cats and placing them in the army trucks that would take the diplomats and aid workers to the airport where they would fly to Europe.
In a moment of utter desperation, she gave her infant daughter to one of the soldiers. She begged him to take her little girl to Europe and place her for adoption with a good family. It was the act of a desperate mother, trying to save at least one of her children against the prospect of impending death.
The soldier refused to take her little girl. He explained that he was under instructions to only evacuate expatriates. As Esther told this story, her eyes filled with tears, and she said: “The life of a European dog was more important than the life of my little girl.”
There is something so vivid, so stark, in the contrast between Esther’s story, and the empty deliberations and resolutions the UN was adopting at the time. It makes a mockery of smug leaders that remember the Holocaust and say “never again”, while allowing such radical evil to unfold before our very eyes. Only when we have this intimate glimpse of suffering can we begin to appreciate the meaning of true leadership. Only after we understand the contrast between declarations of lofty principles among the powerful, and the grim reality of the downtrodden, can we can begin to have an honest conversation about the future of the UN and the promise of world governance.
We cannot reduce human suffering to statistics, solemn statements, and superficial sentimentality. Victims are not statistics. Behind every victim, there is a name. Behind every victim, there is a story. There is a mother and father, a brother and sister, a best friend and work colleague. Behind every victim is a universe of emotions and relations, ripped apart by violence, forever destroyed.
When we sit and deliberate on world problems in the corridors of power, and we talk about those problems in antiseptic politically correct language, and legalistic terminology, and bureaucratic procedures, we create a self-contained universe. We blind ourselves to the contradiction between our virtuous self-image, and our lack of commitment; the contradiction between our willingness to pay lip-service to morality, and our unwillingness to pay a price for it.