The UN, SDGs and Human Values:  An Evolving Process

Vita de Waal
an address to the World Goodwill Seminar, UN Headquarters, Geneva. 28 October, 2016


Dear Friends and Colleagues, Dear Travellers on the Path,

 Before starting, I would like to thank Lucis Trust and World Goodwill for organizing this event at the United Nations. and for having invited me to share some insights with you. I look forward to taking you on a brief journey through some areas of the United Nations system, trying to recognise what is being unveiled through its work, and the values that are emerging.

 The United Nations

 My talk will mostly be about the United Nations' work, exploring if values are being brought into our collective consciousness through this work. I am sure that most of you know the first line of the Charter of the United Nations: "We the Peoples of the United Nations determined…" Well, unfortunately, this line is not yet a reality as currently it still is  "We member states of the United Nations determined…" But can we really blame nations? Are nations not the expression of the people they represent, are they not a reflection of their national collective evolution?

 We are told by D.K. in the Alice bailey books that… the forces of reconstruction, set in motion in 1945, are related to the Will aspect of divinity and are channeled into the General Assembly. The Charter of the United Nations acts like a blueprint for Humanity on which all 193 nations are working, as such the UN holds a collective Plan for Humanity.

 Unfortunately, Member States working on such a Plan are far from being united or agreeing on common goals; they have a multitude of political agendas, some reflecting bold new thinking while others are entrenched in outdated positions.  The big challenges are: finding common ground amongst many stakeholders; putting the good of the whole before petty interests of member states; and finding solutions that benefit all. The reality of a united nations is still a distant goal, with nations striving to extricate themselves from self-serving interests so that they may join the family of nations and contribute to forging a new and common destiny for all of humanity.

 If we were to look at the United Nations as a reflection, albeit a very incomplete reflection, of a divine Plan, would we be able to understand where we as humanity are heading today?   Let us attempt to do so.

I have here a table of correspondences using different values though I am in no doubt that we can all come up with many more.

You will also see that sometimes one value changes position depending from which perspective it is being viewed. Those familiar with holograms will not find this concept strange. When having a moment and feeling like doodling, you might want to create your own correspondences relating it to your daily life.

The UN General Assembly

From the table you can see that I positioned the General Assembly (of 193 Nations) where  decisions are adopted and sealed, under the same column as the Hierarchy of the Masters (the Elders of the race), and  the (divinely inspired) Will. The General Assembly provides oversight and embodies the will of the nations, the authority for the work to be undertaken.

While the will to serve is there, external circumstances, such as political posturing, and power struggles hamper the work of externalizing the original purpose for which the United Nations was created. The little wills of nations and of peoples is not yet aligned with that divine purpose that for now is still a distant goal.

In 2009 the GA decided to create an Ad Hoc Working Group on the revitalization of the work of the General Assembly (AHWG) so that the GA may become a true, universal “parliament of nations”.

The UN Security Council

The United Nations came into being in 1945 with one central mission: the maintenance of international peace and security, to make the world a safer place for all. If the conditions for peace are not there, at this collective level, then this will be reflected and felt in the world. The  Security Council is mandated to keep the peace, non-proliferation and peace-building.

Today we are living in a reality where wars and conflicts are increasing and escalating into regional conflicts. We do not even need to believe in reincarnation to state that today we are reaping the consequences of past and present wrong-doings that require individual as well as collective solutions. With images of horror and of suffering flooding into our living rooms, it is important that our love, our compassion is not stemmed by the hold that fear has over people, a fear that restricts and isolates. We often forget in these difficult times that we are responsible for our choices. Do we choose to allow love or fear to rule our lives? Are we being terrorized by our own fears and is the Security Council merely reflecting this? In our moments of silence we might want to reflect where we battle with our own fears and observe without judging where the struggles of power lie within our own being. For in truth, is not the world out there but a mere reflection of our inner world?

It is sad to realise that the Security Council, which had been conceived as an arena of cooperation, has evolved into an arena of confrontation and ideology with an outdated governance structure reflecting a mentality of 'victors' wielding all the power.

Nowhere are such power struggles more obvious than in the Security Council, composed of 15 members of which five have a veto vote.  The Security Council's voting system allows one-third of the Council's members (five Member States) to basically manipulate outcomes and impose decisions on all 193 Member States, especially as under the Charter only the Security Council has the power to make decisions that all 193 Member States are obliged to accept. The Security Council also recommends to the General Assembly the appointment of the Secretary-General and the admission of new Members to the United Nations and, together with the General Assembly, the Security Council elects the judges of the International Court of Justice. The Security Council holds much power and often is too focussed on this power while forgetting that it is mandated to maintain peace, a peace often equated with the energy of Love, e.g. the Prince of Peace, and it is the foundation on which all else is built. Jimi Hendrix's quote is very apt here: "When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace" This reflects to the point the big test of the Security Council.

The General Assembly has proposed debates on Security Council reform that have been blocked, mainly by the 5 permanent member states.  As this blockage is at the very core of the UN's mandate it also hampers the wider call for reform of the UN itself.

The Economic and Social Council, ECOSOC

We know that unresolved problems lead to conflict and one of the main priorities of the United Nations is to “achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” 

The Economic and Social Council, ECOSOC in brief, is the central platform for fostering debate, strengthening cooperation between states, forging consensus on ways forward, and coordinating efforts to achieve internationally agreed goals. ECOSOC is responsible for the follow-up to major UN conferences and summits and can be likened to the main hub of UN activity. It is also a gateway for UN partnership and participation by the rest of the world, offering a unique global meeting point for productive dialogues among policymakers, parliamentarians, academics, foundations, businesses, youth and over 3,200 registered NGOs. Many of the decisions taken at the General Assembly are elaborated and externalised here.

In 1997 ECOSOC created the UN Development Group (UNDG) bringing together into a consortium 32 UN agencies and groups who's activities were previously encroaching on each other. The Sustainable Development Goals come under the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, which is part of this Consortium.

The SDGs in context

The history of the SDGs can be traced to 1972 when governments met in Stockholm, Sweden, for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. In 1983 sustainable development finally included the concept of "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Agenda 21 was an outcome of the 1992 Rio Conference and led to the Millennium Development Goals. Rio+20 was convened in 2012 resulting in the need for measurable targets aimed at promoting sustainable development globally, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs are a set of seventeen ambitious "Global Goals" with 169 targets between them.  Let me name them for you: 1) No Poverty 2) Zero Hunger 3) Good Health and Well-Being 4) Quality Education 5) Gender Equality 6) Clean Water and Sanitation 7) Affordable and Clean Energy 8) Decent Work and economic Growth 9) Industry Innovation and Infrastructure 10) Reduced Inequalities 11) Sustainable Cities and Communities 12) Responsible Consumption and Production 13) Climate Action 14) Life Below Water 15) Life on Land 16) Peace, justice and Strong Institutions 17) Partnerships for (attaining) the Goals.

The 192 Nations that ratified this programme also agreed to explore alternatives to GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as a measure of wealth that takes environmental and social factors into account in an effort to assess and pay for ‘environmental services’ provided by nature, such as carbon sequestration and habitat protection. States also reaffirmed commitments to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admonished that there will be no alternative to the SDGs, as "there can be no Plan B, because there is no Planet B." There was also widespread consensus that progress against any and all of the SDGs will be stalled if empowerment of women and gender equality is not prioritised.

I want to mention one person,Maurice Strong, who was instrumental in putting environment and sustainable development on the UN agenda. His commitment contributed much in introducing ecological values and the notion of sustainability in government practice.

What I personally love in Maurice Strong's example is that one does not need to be a perfect human, nor a particularly holy one. Here we clearly have an individual with his flaws and weaknesses with a focus on what the world needed at that time. What he demonstrated is the importance of seizing the moment (of service) when the opportunity arises and this Maurice Strong did not once, but on different occasions.

Maurice Strong is in many ways a controversial figure because he was a former extractive industry executive. In 1971 he commissioned the world's first "state of the environment" report (by not less than 152 leading experts from 58 countries) on the state of the planet, Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet, in preparation for the first UN meeting on the environment in 1972. The Stockholm Conference established the environment as part of an international development agenda and led to the establishment in 1972 of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) which was the first UN agency to be headquartered in the third world, in Nairobi, Kenya.  To put this into perspective, the world's earliest Green party, the People Party in the UK, came into existence in 1973, changing its name to Ecology Party two years later; while Die Grünen in Germany came into existence in 1980.

In 1988, as head of UNEP, Strong together with the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) convened the first international expert group meeting on climate change that led to the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). Following Strong's role in leading the U.N.’s famine relief program in Africa and various other U.N. advisory assignments, he was appointed Secretary General of the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, best known as the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

This Summit was pivotal and resulted in Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the Statement of Forest Principles, the United Nations United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and it was the start of the Kyoto Protocol.

Human Rights

1992 was also the year that saw the creation of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) though a Commission on Human Rights existed since 1946 and individuals like Eleanor Roosevelt were part of the drafting Committee of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 2006 Kofi Annan elevated the Commission on Human Rights to the Human Rights Council and it moved from ECOSOC to the General Assembly. It is symbolic of growing up and of taking on more responsibility, from the Commission being just one of many activities under ECOSOC to the Council coming under the will aspect of the General Assembly, reflecting the will of nations to incorporate human rights.

Human rights are commonly understood as being fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply for being a human and which apply to everybody. They are also categorized as generations: first generation rights (where protection is of life itself and the right of political participation); second-generation rights refer to economic, social and cultural rights (that which is directly related to our daily needs, to stay alive); and third-generation rights are solidarity rights (collective rights related to the environment, to peace and related to the rights of future generations)

It is important to mention that sometimes it is Member States that set the pace as has been the case with the African Charter on Human Rights and Peoples' Rights, the Banjul Charter, that was ratified by all but one African states and came into effect in 1986. This Charter recognises group rights to a degree not matched by any European or Inter-American regional human rights instruments. In this sense it is more advanced, more inclusive as it recognises individual rights, collective or group rights and third-generation human rights. This Charter not only awards rights to individuals and peoples, but also includes duties incumbent upon them, e.g. harmony in the family, service to the whole, solidarity, cultural values, the moral and well-being of society. 

But states are also setting new standards that transcend even third generation rights! In 2000 animals, plants and other organisms had their rights to dignity recognised by the Constitution of Switzerland(art. 120), though the implications of this disposition are still not very clear.

in 2008 Ecuador became the first country in the world to codify the Rights of Nature into its Constitution. Articles 10 and 71–74 recognize the inalienable rights of ecosystems to exist and flourish, gives people the authority to petition on the behalf of ecosystems, and requires the government to remedy violations of these rights. The articles set out a rights-based system that recognizes Nature, or Pachamama, as a right-bearing entity that holds value in itself, apart from human use. The ecosystem itself can be named as the defendant.

In 2010 Bolivia passed the world's first law granting all nature equal rights to humans. It sets forth a legal and ethical vision of the rights of the natural world. The law defines Mother Earth as "...the dynamic living system formed by the indivisible community of all life systems and living beings whom are interrelated, interdependent, and complementary, which share a common destiny" adding that "Mother Earth is considered sacred in the worldview of Indigenous peoples and nations. In this approach human beings and their communities are considered a part of Mother Earth, by being integrated in "Life systems, complex and dynamic communities of plants, animals, micro-organisms and other beings in their environment, in which human communities and the rest of nature interact as a functional unit, under the influence of climatic, physiographic and geologic factors, as well as the productive practices and cultural diversity of Bolivians of both genders, and the world views of Indigenous nations and peoples, intercultural communities and the Afro-Bolivians". This definition can be seen as a more inclusive definition of ecosystems because it explicitly includes the social, cultural and economic dimensions of human communities.

In 2012 New Zealand's Whanganui River was legally declared a person with standing (via guardians) to bring legal actions to protect its interests.

We are seeing here that rights for nature could not have entered into constitutions (which represent a collective) unless enough members of the human family had invoked and were ready for such an expansion of responsibility. New values are now embedded within our unconscious and will be challenging our value systems, not just some values.

We can see that the next tests are already unfolding: responsibility for ecosystems so that we and other non-human living beings with whom we share this planet can also thrive; changes in how we feed ourselves and how we treat animals, changes in how we grow food and treat the soil and water, a drip-drip of continuous small changes.

The above examples had already happened at state level, but it was only in 2012 that the Human Rights Council (HRC) created a Special Procedures mandate on the Environment, and Resolution A/HRC/33/L.18 on a Declaration on a Right to Peace was adopted less than a month ago. Both can be considered third generation rights and show an expansion of responsibilities at the UN.

But through the HRC we can also glimpse that "We the Peoples" is becoming more of a reality. A/HRC/33/L.28 is a Resolution on equal participation in political and public affairs where the Council urges all States to ensure the full, effective and equal participation of all citizens in political and public affairs, and … to prepare concise and action-oriented draft guidelines as a set of orientations for States on the effective implementation of the right to participate in public affairs.  Such participation in public affairs is also called participative democracy...

The SDGs' "Leave No One Behind" is also a wish to care for the other, to be inclusive.

One last point: it is important to remember that values change over time and values expand. Values are linked to a sense of responsibility. We are told by H. P. B. that the sense of responsibility is one of the first indications of egoic control, and as more and more of the human family come under egoic influence, conditions will be bettered slowly and steadily in every department of life.

Response-ability means being able to respond, being ready, something is being heard, something is being envisioned. As such the united nations are indeed responding to the call to help externalize that Plan that was entrusted to it.

I close by thanking you for our time together and wish you a lovely and meaningful stay in Geneva.