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S.S. Husain: Spirituality and the United Nations

Paper presented at the Third International Symposium on the United States and the United Nations, “Governance and the Challenge of Contemporary Crises,” Washington, D.C., June 18-19, 2002.

“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness. It was the époque of belief. It was the époque of incredulity. It was a season of light. It was a season of darkness. It was the spring of hope. It was the winter of despair. We had everything before us. We had nothing before us. We were all going directly to heaven. We were all going the other way.”

Charles Dickens wrote this over a hundred and fifty years ago in A Tale of Two Cities, alluding to the conditions of humanity in England and Europe at that time. History has its own way of repeating itself. A glance around would indicate that the conditions that Dickens was recording for posterity one and a half centuries ago have in some ways lingered on, or returned to prevail in our lifetime.

These were in the minds of many of the representatives of the fifty-one sovereign states who met in San Francisco over fifty-six years ago to adopt the Charter of the United Nations, the world organization I had the privilege to serve for thirty-three years before joining the Organization of the Islamic Conference as its permanent observer mission to the United Nations in New York.

In April of 1945 the founding fathers of the United Nations were meeting in San Francisco in the wake of a set of attendant evils which had brought suffering and death to millions of human beings. Devastation enveloped many of the oldest and proudest cities of the world. Invention had become the mother of desolation. The effects of the war were not confined to the physical damage in evidence almost everywhere except perhaps in mainland America. They also invaded the domain of homo sapiens, giving rise to uncertainty and moral devastation, both of which combined to prove human frailty and as such effected a warning of dangers still to come.

It is true that in the previous one hundred years humankind had made commendable strides in scientific and technological progress. But in the preceding decade or so a great deal of the discovered knowledge had been channeled toward the development of more and more effective methods of destruction. The discovery of atomic power added a new dimension into human relations. Humanity was now within miserable distance of the power of universal destruction, a sample of which had been brutally tested at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was hardly anything in the immediate power circuit of homo sapiens to support the optimism that it would not be used on a wider scale. The Cold War was in fact setting the stage for it.

In the new panorama of scientific models that was so important for good or for evil, so scarred by physical and moral dangers, the statesmen at San Francisco found themselves confronted not only by the age old problems of peace conferences but also, and perhaps for the first time in all human experience, with a vivid contrast between technological progress and moral degeneration.

Another new factor in human and particularly international relations was the rising tide of discontent among underprivileged people and nations that threatened with disintegration many of the oldest and most stable of political institutions. It was sweeping over the great part of the human race that had suffered and was still suffering from hunger, ignorance, disease, and many forefronts of injustice. The men and women of San Francisco were forced to recognize that the world of their generation was above all else a world of a sort of paradox that was backed with formidable uncertainties and high tensions.

In adopting the charter of the United Nations, and subsequently the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the founding fathers of the world organization endeavored to plug in their best intentions, efforts, and skills, and negotiated and accepted intricate compromises so that they and their succeeding generations would be saved from the scourge of war, which twice in their lifetime had brought untold sorrow to mankind. They realized that with the attainment of peace, the maintenance of peace would not be secured so long as grotesque inequalities and injustice continued to prevail among men and between nations.

Therefore, in addition to the creation of machinery for the prevention of war, the United Nations was provided with policies and instruments designed to improve the social and material conditions of life. The most important of these instruments, besides the Security Council, was the Economic and Social Council.

The most significant statement of policy was the embodiment in Articles 55 and 56 of the charter, by which all member states promised themselves to promote, among other things, higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress. They also promised to find solutions to international economic, social, health, and related problems, to international and local educational cooperation, and to provide universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

Looking back in retrospect over the past fifty-six years since the adoption of the Charter of the United Nations, one sees that in the face of great strides in scientific and technological progress and productivity, the giants of poverty, deprivation, illness, disease, illiteracy, and insecurity still remain at large, promoting inequity, polarization, distrust, and fear among the “haves” and “have-nots.” This is so because the most important element, which would have effectively advocated and promoted peace, harmony, and sharing of gains, was missing.

This was the spiritual or religious element, which, as a colleague remarked, is capable of serving as the last restraint on earthly power and last solace of earthly misery. Its basic teachings, namely that we of the human race are brothers unto one another if only because we are the embodiment of one and the same Holy Spirit into which we eventually return, gives to us a sense of inner belonging, sympathy, compassion, qualities that make us truly human.

Absent from the Charter of the United Nations was the important mandate that would have motivated and reminded the believers of all faiths of their duty toward one another, and toward other nations, and called for policies and programs that would protect and promote the interest of all human beings on earth. Today the need for this is more important than ever before.

As the world looks for direction in the post September 11 period, to address the issue effectively it would be important for the United Nations and other governmental organizations to begin to introduce some forms of spirituality into their mandates and programs. Some, in fact, have already begun to recognize the benefit of doing so. Thus the United Nations, through successive resolutions of the General Assembly, is encouraging the concept of Dialogue among Civilizations, which was initiated by the Organization of the Islamic Conference a couple of years ago.

The World Bank has launched a world faith development dialogue on the basis of the joint recommendations of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Prince Hussein of Jordan, among others, with the objective of associating the spiritual communities and people of ethics with developmental issues.

In the fall of 2000, the General Assembly, as part of the commemoration of the new millennium, convened the largest ever gathering of the world’s spiritual leaders, who, among other things, made recommendations on issues of human security and the eradication of poverty as a matter of priority for people of all faiths all over the world.

Finally, through a joint initiative of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the government of Austria, the General Assembly adopted a historic resolution in May 2001 calling for the protection and preservation of religious sites all over the world. This action taken during the United Nations year of Dialogue among Civilizations bears testimony to the culture of tolerance and respect for religion and for the diversity of religions that by God’s grace is now emerging at the United Nations.

It is gratifying that the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace in its present international symposium on the theme of the United States and the United Nations has taken the initiative to include in the agenda the important topic of interreligious dimensions in peace and security issues. This is particularly important at a time when religion seems to have somewhat receded in societal considerations.

I am reminded of a personal experience a couple of years ago, when during the Christmas holiday period, Christmas carols were being sung over the loudspeaker system of a department store. One store assistant was overheard saying to another, “Fancy bringing religion even into Christmas.” Well, the signals are there. It is a very timely initiative and I feel greatly honored to be given the opportunity to add a few thoughts on the issue.