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Global Government Catches the Soul Train

Can a spiritual vision help awaken the United Nations?
by Ross Robertson

Founded in the aftermath of World War II to champion principles of universal peace, freedom, and human rights, the United Nations has been roundly criticized for being ineffective. “Every time there is an ongoing atrocity,” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote on September 25, 2004, regarding the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, “we watch the world community go through the same series of stages: 1) shock and concern, 2) gathering resolve, 3) fruitless negotiation, 4) pathetic inaction, 5) shame and humiliation, 6) steadfast vows to never let this happen again.”

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said that we have yet “to find within ourselves the will to live by the values we proclaim.” Yet as the forces of globalization increasingly complicate social, political, economic, and environmental problems around the world, an even bigger question looms: Is our current value system sufficient to guide the international community? Or is there a need not just for greater resolve but for new values to steer the development of institutions flexible and sophisticated enough to respond to a rapidly changing world?

Recently, a new group has emerged within the official UN system for which values are at the top of the agenda. Part of the Conference of NGOs, the Committee on Spirituality, Values, and Global Concerns (CSVGC) has a distinctive solution to the challenges of globalization—to put spirituality at the helm of global governance. “If we found a way to awaken those at the UN to humanity's pain through a more spiritual UN,” says committee chair Diane Williams, “together we would discover more effective solutions to global concerns.”

To say that spirituality and politics haven't always mixed at the UN would be an understatement. As recently as 2000, it caught heavy flak in the press from the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the late Brother Wayne Teasdale for caving in to pressure from China and denying the Dalai Lama a seat at the landmark Millennium Summit. And up until ten years ago, Dr. Nancy Roof explains, “it was completely unacceptable to use the word 'values,' let alone 'spirituality,' in international circles.” Roof, who edits the global affairs journal Kosmos, helped convene the Values Caucus in 1994 in order to change that. Ever since, this predecessor to the CSVGC has lobbied to frame the UN's treatment of global issues within a context of underlying values, educating decision makers in such new-paradigm thinking as Ken Wilber's Integral philosophy. They've been so successful that Alfredo Sfeir-Younis, former Special Representative of the World Bank to the UN, once called the Values Caucus “the most important group in the United Nations.”

Now, to have finally gained a foothold within the formal UN bureaucracy is perhaps the greatest victory yet for this decade-old movement to bring spirituality to the forefront of international affairs. And though Williams admits that it is hard to define exactly what their new official status will allow, she believes that the CSVGC's acceptance by the Conference of NGOs “shows a new willingness to consider the positive role of spirituality and values in UN efforts. There's some evolutionary force that's saying now is the time for a real transition to happen.”

Aiming to incorporate spirituality “into all areas of the United Nations agenda,” the CSVGC plans to lobby at international conferences, sponsor talks on spiritual dimensions of global public policy, and explore the creation of a permanent spiritual council at the UN. A partial list of subcommittees currently in formation includes Spirituality and Science (to support new research on prayer, intention, healing, and the nature of consciousness); Conscious Education (to work with UNICEF and UNESCO); Ethics and Values (to issue ethical impact statements on UN policies); Spirituality and Business; and Culture of Peace.

Whether this new marriage of state and soul will be capable of shaking up the culture of inertia and postponement that habitually allows situations like that in Darfur to deteriorate into catastrophes remains to be seen. After all, as Roof laments, “It's very hard to make structural changes in the United Nations, because the five nations of the Security Council have absolute veto authority, and they're not going to give their power up. It's a real impasse.” Nevertheless, the CSVGC is optimistic, in part because they feel the weight of history is on their side. “Almost all the former Secretary-Generals grounded their work in spiritual values,” Williams says. “Dag Hammarskj÷ld, for example, is often quoted as having said, 'We can only succeed in achieving world peace if there is a spiritual renaissance on this planet.' And we've come a long way in the last ten years. Who knows what could happen in another ten?”


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