Human Rights

Baha'i communities worldwide gearing up for human rights education campaign

In Brief: 

As reflected by US Bahá'í community efforts to promote CEDAW, Bahá'í communities around the world have long been active in promoting human rights. Many are planning activities in support of this year's 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

WASHINGTON - One of the particular features of the United States Constitution is that all international treaties must be ratified by a two-thirds majority of the US Senate - a legislative body composed of two representatives from each of this country's 50 states.

This makes it sometimes difficult for even the most deserving of pacts to win approval, even if it has widespread support among lawmakers. As students of history will recall, even though it was US President Woodrow Wilson who essentially proposed the League of Nations some 80 years ago, the US Senate refused to approve America's membership in it.

The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a highly principled international accord that has already been adopted by more than 160 countries, is still awaiting ratification in the United States.

A broad coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the United States has recently stepped up a long-standing campaign to press for ratification of CEDAW, which, as its title implies, seeks to end discrimination against women worldwide. Among them is the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States, which has played a distinctive role in the latest round of activity.

By using the Internet, as well as other media of communication, the Assembly - a democratically elected governing council that administers the affairs of the Bahá'í community at the national level - has asked its members to write letters to their Senators, urging ratification of CEDAW.

What makes this effort noteworthy is the fact that there are active local Bahá'í communities in every state in the country. As a result, the Assembly is able to call on a well-established grassroots organization in place where other members of the NGO coalition that supports CEDAW are sometimes not as heavily represented.

A "Special Capacity"

"There are Bahá'ís in more than 7,000 localities in the United States, representing every race, culture and ethnic origin," said Kit Cosby, the Assembly's Washington-based coordinator for external affairs. "In this sense, we have a special capacity for local outreach, and we are able legitimately to make contact with Senators, in whatever state they represent, to make the case for CEDAW."

This effort by the US Bahá'ís reflects the determination of the worldwide Bahá'í community to engage in the general effort to promote human rights and especially human rights education - an effort which is being accelerated in view of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948, the Declaration is a simple yet elegant document that recognizes, in its own words, that "the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." It defines not only basic civil and political rights, such as freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, but also basic economic, social, and cultural rights, such as the right to work and the right to education.

The United Nations, various governments, and numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are planning observances of the anniversary of the Declaration in 1998, a year which also falls in year four of the UN's Decade for Human Rights Education (1994-2004). Bahá'ís hope to be at the forefront of such activities.

In October, for example, the Community's United Nations Office sent out to Bahá'í national communities around the world a special package of information on human rights. The package is designed to assist communities as they become further involved in promoting human rights education in their countries.

"The worldwide Bahá'í community has historically been a strong supporter of UN human rights programs and activities," said Nikoo Mahboubian, a representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the United Nations. "One of our principal aims with this new effort is to contribute to the global human rights education process by drawing attention to the connection between respect for human rights and the emergence of world peace."

Ms. Mahboubian said that as early as 1947, the Community issued a major statement in support of the Declaration. Since then, she said, Bahá'í communities worldwide have been involved in numerous efforts to promote human rights. Among other activities, they have worked for the ratification of various human rights conventions, helped to disseminate (and translate) human rights documents, and organized various observations of Human Rights Day.

Gearing Up Worldwide

In anticipation of the coming year, many national Bahá'í communities have recently stepped up activities:

  • In Turkey, the Bahá'í community helped to organize a conference for NGOs to discuss the Decade. Sponsored by the Women's Caucus of NGOs in Turkey, of which the Bahá'í community is a member, the 8 December 1997 conference brought together a wide range of speakers including Mrs. Sema Piskinsut, a Member of Parliament and president of the Government's Human Rights Commission.
  • In Norway, the Bahá'í community has joined with other NGOs to plan a countrywide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the UDHR. With the support of the Norwegian Foreign Department, the group is planning an international conference in Oslo next August, titled "The Oslo Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Accepting the Challenge: Building a Coalition to Protect Universal Freedom of Religion or Belief."
  • In Brazil, the Bahá'í community cosponsored a major human rights conference last September. Organized by the Brazilian Bar Association, the "First International Conference on Human Rights" was held in Brasília and saw the attendance of more than 1,000 people. Other sponsors included the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Brazilian Ministries of Justice and of Foreign Affairs.
  • In Canada, the Bahá'ís are planning a campaign to develop special audio-visual and print materials in support of the 50th anniversary of the UDHR. "We hope to bring about a deeper awareness that we are truly one human family, that each individual is born into the world as a trust of the whole and that the violation of the rights of any member of the family is a violation of everyone's humanity," said Gerald Filson, the community's director of external affairs.
  • In the United States, the Bahá'í community has been invited by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute to become a member of the steering committee of a national campaign to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is significant because it is the first time that humanity has embraced a single code of behavior to which all nations are accountable.” 

— Jeffery Huffines, UN representative of the United States Bahá'í Community

"The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is significant because it is the first time that humanity has embraced a single code of behavior to which all nations are accountable, which is itself a precursor to the establishment of the oneness of humanity - a goal Bahá'ís embrace as the purpose of human existence," said Jeffery Huffines, the US community's representative to the United Nations.

In the campaign to ratify CEDAW, the US Bahá'í Assembly is co-chair with Amnesty International USA. According to Ms. Cosby, they hope to win the support of at least 75 US Senators by 8 March 1998, which is International Women's Day.

"The Women's Convention is a tool that women around the world are using in the struggle against the effects of discrimination, such as violence against women, poverty, lack of legal status, and so on," said Ms. Cosby. "The Bahá'ís of the United States - because they are so widely spread and yet possess a strong consciousness of the importance of women's rights - find themselves in a unique position to push this important treaty forward."