Impunity and Models of Global Order: A Baha’i Perspective

By Dan Wheatley (Senior Diplomatic Officer of the Office of Public Affairs of the Baha’is of the UK) as reserve for Dr Payam Akhavan


The Baha’i Faith is a religion that has a set of principles and a vision for institutions for an international order that we believe would be sufficient to guarantee peace and protection of human rights. These ideas, enshrined in the sacred texts of the Baha’i religion from the mid 19th century, address the exigencies of the age, including conflict and the persecution of communities. The following is a short distillation of the main points from Baha’i theology and related scholarship.


Let me first define the term impunity: exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action. The charity Medecins Sans Frontieres notes how impunity relates to international law as follows:

“In international law, impunity most often results from the absence of judicial mechanisms that are capable of judging a failure to comply with established rules

Progress Towards Peace: The Baha’i Vision and Pinker’s Thesis:

The Bahá’í faith envisages global peace as inevitable. We see peace as a two stage process. There is a vision of a Most Great Peace, which will be characterisedby more than the end of warbut the drivers of conflict willhave lost their power to catalyse hatred and violence. That seems remote from the world we live in now. But our faith also envisages a Lesser Peace, which the  Baha’ischolar Rod Rastan defined as “a minimalist first step towards world order…a federal world governance system, built upon and sustained by a universal spiritual foundation.” This state of affairs would also include the absence of international armed conflict and the deterrence or punishment of mass violations of human rights by institutions expressing the collective will of humanity. And I am going to say here today, I believe that this evolution in global affairs is attainable in the decades ahead. I do not say it will happen, but I believe that it can.

In 2011, Professor Steven Pinker published a bold thesis in his work “The Better Angels of Our Nature”wherein he claimed that violence had declined massively as a feature of human affairs. There was much trenchant criticism of his work.

Pinker published data, dry facts rather than emotive human stories, that substantiated his case. Using a measurement of the number of battle-deaths per 100,000 of the human population, he showed that whereas 25 lives per 100,000 were lost in 1945, 16 per 100,000 in the 1970s, this declined to 7 per 100,000 by early 21st century.

The view of peace as inevitable is a harder view to convince people of than it was in 2011. Sadly, figures released in June this year by the Peace Research Institute of Oslo shows conflict related deaths are at the highest for 28 years, and these will include battle casualties but also deaths of civilians, which may include actions that some will argue constitute the problem of impunity.

It was clear in 2011 that these trends were not permanent and could be reversed and catastrophically so. I am mindful that for us to gather in the peace and comfort we enjoy today in London whilst human beings continue to die in Yemen, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Mali, Myanmar and Israel and Palestine, that claim can be dismissed as naïve and privileged.

The Long Peace?

Whether we agree or disagree with the thesis of a period of what the historian John Lewis Gaddis defines as “the Long Peace”, an idea which Baha’is may relate to our vision of “A Lesser Peace”, those scholars who measure peace and conflict, including Pinker, Gaddis and others identify several components of what they argue contributes to lower levels of war, and lower levels of genocide and crimes against humanity. Two of these relate directly to what I hope to share from how the Baha’i Faith envisages a practical pathway to a more peaceful world and to end impunity for mass violations of rights:

Firstly, The Humanitarian Revolution: ideas that proposed the abolition of slavery and votes for women but also changes such as the erosion of the moral acceptance of torture, the growing consensus that banned or decreased practices such as duelling, child cruelty from corporal punishment and cruelty to animals.

Secondly, The Rights Revolution: the very institutions we are reflecting on today, the Genocide Convention, the UDHR and the proliferation of international covenants and mechanisms of human rights we have seen in recent history.

We may rightly regard them as insufficient to the violence and suffering of our world, but as the Red Cross and Red Crescent has some access to relieve human suffering in Gaza, Yemen, Ukraine, Ethiopia and other conflicts, we may contrast this with a far greater level of impunity and suffering that was to be found on every battlefield in the world before Henry Dunant’s 1862 “Memory of Solferino and the creation of the Geneva Conventions.  My mother was born in a prisoner of war camp after my grandparents were interned by the regime of Adolf Hitler. Red Cross food and medicine kept her alive. I would not be here today without the advances in humanity the Red Cross brought.

If we read the pages of Memoir of Solferino, an account of a single battle of the wars of Italian unification, published in 1862 by Dunant, we read of soldiers bleeding to death in agony on the battlefield, prisoners being bayonetted, criminal gangs looting the bodies of the dead. Dunant’s work was the foundation for the International Committees of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, and even in the most terrible conflicts in our world today, that agency seeks to protect civilians, and the Geneva Conventions seek to provide some humanitarian principles in times of war.

Global Governance: A Process Not An Event – League of Nations to ICC

For Baha’is, the path towards ending impunity for mass crimes against humanity, for ending conflict, are part of a process that proceeds in synergy with another, that of the collective maturation of the human race. We believe that humanity stands at the threshold of collective maturity. The period immediately before adulthood is adolescence, this can be characterised by episodes of turbulence, poor decision-making and conflict. Abul Baha, the son of the Founder of the Baha’i Faith, writes of this process is a humanity  that“must now become imbued with new virtues and powers, new moral standards, new capacities…”New moral standards and new capacities that must necessarily flow into the laws and institutions of the world we wish to build.

Baha’i Proposals for International Institutions to Curtail Impunity and New Drivers for Justice

We gather here to reflect on new standards that were proclaimed in the UDHR and the Genocide Convention 75 years ago. The hard reality is that within a few years of the launch of these concepts, proposals for better mechanisms for peace and human rights were frozen in the ether of the Cold War.

The period of comparative springtime in international relations after 1989, cooled severely in 2014 and since 2022, it is winter again. But just as summer ends, so does winter. We must look to a new spring time in human affairs.

Time precludes a deeper discussion on the operations of the institutions in the Hague, but having campaigned on the Rome Treaty for the ICC, it was evident from the inception that only those states who were willing to submit to the jurisdiction of the court would be subjected to its investigations, unless a majority within the Security Council were willing to empower the Prosecutor to investigate an individual from a state that has not ratified the treaty. The single example of former Sudanese President Bashir may be the exception that proves the rule.

The Baha’i Writings offer a vision for both more effective global institutions, but also the processes and values that can lead humanity to a world where impunity for genocide and war crimes can finally be curtailed.

One of the Prosecutors at Nuremberg was a young American lawyer, Benjamin Ferencz. He maintained the belief in a permanent court for mass crimes and in 1998 as a veteran professor of law, he lived to see the creation of the International Criminal Court. So there is a court in the Hague, and many will rightly ask why actions of mass violence and persecution are not investigated by the Prosecutor in the Hague.

It was in this hopeful period in the 1990s that the Baha’i International Community published “Turning Point for All Nations”, including a series of recommendations for better institutions of global governance. Since the creation of the ICC, progress has stalled, we must admit that. Yet, the correct response to inertia is effort. In 2018 three Baha’i thinkers and activists, Augusto Claros-Lopes, Arthur and Dahl and Maja Groff were the recipients of the New Shape Prize for their proposal on ““Global Governance and the Emergence of Global Institutions for the 21st Century.”Baha’is continue to think, reflect, consult and act in support of better global governance.

Pessimism over the lack of progress across the period from 1948 can be overstated. The 1960s and the 1970s saw principles of the UDHR incorporated into a series of international legal instruments, notably the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  Progress on ending impunity for genocide, however, was stalled. The victorious allies of WW2 put a number of political and military leaders from Germany and Japan on trial at Nuremberg and Tokyo, acquitted some, imprisoned some, hanged some, and then the ideal of an international court for mass crimes disappeared from the political discourse of major political centres.

UDHR and Genocide Convention at 75

Across this week we recall the names of some of the pioneers of human rights; names such as Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, the scholars whose conceptual work attempted to outlaw genocide and crimes against humanity. In his recent book “East West Street” Phillipe Sands reminds us that both men were members of a Jewish minority in the city of Lviv, now part of Ukraine. Their interest in human rights was fired not just by awareness of anti-Semitic pogroms across Europe, but by the deaths of some 1.5 million Armenians in what many regard as a text book example of a genocide.

After the war Lauterpacht was on his way to a meeting, when a cousin arrived to greet him. This person informed that they were the only two survivors of their entire family from the Holocaust. After a moment to grieve for the loss of his entire family, Lauterpacht went to his meeting, at the Nuremberg tribunal, where some, if only too few of those responsible for the mass crimes of that period faced a reckoning.

The Baha’i Writings affirm that “Justice is the Best Beloved” in the sight of God and that “the well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”

Our social media feed and news digests, filled with daily proof of human suffering and continuing violence, may impel us to believe the world is as bad, or even worse than it has ever been. I can only offer that if we invest the time to review the scholarship and the data, there is a strong case to argue that humanity had made meaningful progress in reducing the levels of violence and human rights abuse over a century, but that this hopeful trend may now be regressing towards revanchist claims and renewed war and suffering.

Yes, we need international treaties, we need courts, we need economic and strategic resources to enable the maintenance of peace and justice in our world, but more than all, we need to recognise our common humanity in each other and redouble our efforts to the hard incremental collective task of building an international system that will replace the law of force with the force of law.