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Navroz: The Recurrent Renewal

In Being a World Citizen, Conflict Resolution, Cultural Bridges, Current Events, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa on March 21, 2015 at 10:21 PM


By René Wadlow

“May the soul flourish;

May youth be as the new-grown grain.”

Navroz, usually celebrated on March 21 in Iran and Central Asia, is the “New Day”, the end of the old year with its hardships and deceptions and the start of the New Year to be filled with hope and optimism.

It is a day for spiritual renewal and physical rejuvenation and is usually a time for reciting devotional poetry, presenting food with symbolic meaning to guests, and visits among family and close friends, which coincides with the Spring Equinox, is related to myths focused on the sun and thus symbolizes the connections of humans to nature. In some of the myths, Navroz is considered as symbolizing the first day of creation − thus a time when all can be newly created. It is a day between times − old time has died; new time will start the day after Navroz. In this one-day period without time, all is possible. The seeds are planted for a new birth. Among some who celebrate Navroz, real seeds are planted, usually in seven pots with symbolic meanings of virtues. Their growth is an indication of how these virtues will manifest themselves in the coming year. Among those influenced by Islam and Christianity, Navroz is the day when God will raise the dead for the final judgment and the start of eternal life.

Navroz has an ancient Persian origin, related to Abura Mazda, the high god who was symbolized by the sun and manifested by fire. Navroz is also related to the opposite of fire, that is, water. However water can also be considered not as opposite but as complementary, and thus fire-water can become symbols of harmony. Fire – as light, as an agent of purification, as a manifestation of the basic energy of life − played a large role in Zoroastrian thought and in the teachings of Zarathoustra. Thus we find fire as a central symbol and incorporated into rituals among the Parsis in India, originally of Iranian origin.

From what is today Iran, Zoroastrian beliefs and ritual spread along the “Silk Road” through Central Asia to China, and in the other direction to the Arab world. As much of this area later came under the influence of Islam, elements of Navroz were given Islamic meanings to the extent that some today consider Navroz an “Islamic holiday”. Navroz is also celebrated among the Alawites in Syria, the Baha’i, the Yezidis, and the Kurds, each group adapting Navroz to its spiritual framework.

In Turkey, for many years, Navroz was officially banned as being too related to the Kurds and thus to Kurdish demands for autonomy or an independent Kurdistan. I recall a number of years ago being invited to participate in a non-violent Kurdish protest in Turkey on Navroz to protest the ban. I declined as the idea of going from Geneva to be put in a Turkish jail was not on top of my list of priorities. Fortunately, for the last few years, the ban has been lifted, and Kurds in Turkey can now celebrate openly Navroz.

The celebration of Navroz in the Cental Asian Republics has had an uneven history during the Soviet period and since − ranging from a ban because it was too Islamic, to being promoted as of Zoroastrian origin and thus anti-Islamic, to being “nationalized” as a holiday of national unity. As armed conflicts in Syria, Iraq, “Kurdistan” and Afghanistan and strong tensions in Iran and Central Asia continue, we must hope that 2015 Navroz will purify the old and plant the seeds of a new harmonious regional society.

Prof. René Wadlow is President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

UN Fact-finding Report: The Yazidis of Iraq

In Children's Rights, Conflict Resolution, Current Events, Democracy, Human Rights, International Justice, Middle East & North Africa, Religious Freedom, Solidarity on March 21, 2015 at 9:17 PM


By René Wadlow

On Thursday, March 19, 2015, the United Nations (UN) investigative team on human rights violations in Iraq led by Ms. Suki Nagra raised accusations of genocide and war crimes against the Islamic State (ISIS) citing evidence that ISIS sought to “destroy the Yazidi as a group” − the definition of genocide in the 1948 Genocide Convention which has become a core element of World Law. The fact-finding group of members of the Secretariat of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had been established by a Special Session of the Human Rights Council in September 2014. (See article ‘World Law Advanced by UN Special Session of the Human Rights Council on Human Rights Violations in Iraq’)

The report to the current session of the Human Rights Council included testimony from Yazidi men who had survived massacres by shielding themselves behind the bodies of men who had already been killed. “It was quite clear that attacks against them were not just spontaneous or happened out of the blue; they were clearly orchestrated. Witnesses consistently reported that orders were coming through, by telephone in many cases, about what to do with them. There was a clear chain of command”.  Ms. Nagra reported to the Human Rights Council. (On the Yazidis as a religious community, see the article ‘Iraq: Yazidis’ Genocide?’)

The report also detailed evidence that Yazidi women and girls were abducted and sold into slavery as spoils of war in violation of some of the oldest standards of world law against slavery developed by the League of Nations and continued by the UN. There were also repeated cases of rape. The use of rape as a weapon of war has become of increasing concern to both the UN human rights bodies and to NGOs.

As the Association of World Citizens’ (AWC) written Statement to the Iraq Special Session stressed, “The Association of World Citizens believes that world law as developed by the United Nations applies not only to the governments of Member States but also to individuals and non-governmental organizations. The ISIS has not been recognized as a State and is not a member of the UN. Nevertheless, the Association of World Citizens is convinced that the terms of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief adopted by the General Assembly on 25 November 1981 applies to the ISIS.”

Citizens of the World stress the need for world law and certain common values among all the States and peoples of the world. We are one humanity with a shared destiny. The challenge before us requires inclusive ethical values. Such values must be based on a sense of common responsibility for both present and future generations.

Prof. René Wadlow is President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

March 8, 2015: International Women’s Day – Balance of Yin and Yang

In Being a World Citizen, Current Events, Democracy, Human Development, Human Rights, International Justice, Social Rights, Solidarity on March 7, 2015 at 9:48 AM


By René Wadlow

It is only when women start to organize in large numbers that women become a political force, and begin to move towards the possibility of a truly democratic society in which every human being can be brave, responsible, thinking and diligent in the struggle to live at once freely and unselfishly.

March 8 is the International Day of Women and thus a time to analyze the specific role of women in local, national and world society. International Women’s Day was first proposed by Clara Zetlin (1857-1933) at the Second International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen in 1911. Later, she served as a socialist-communist member of the German Parliament during the Weimar Republic which existed from 1920 to 1933 when Hitler came to power.

Zetkin had lived some years in Paris and was active in women’s movements there who were building on the 1889 International Congress for Feminine Works and Institutions held in Paris under the leadership of Ana de Walska. De Walska was part of the circle of young Russian and Polish intellectuals in Paris around Gerard Encausse (1865-1916), a spiritual writer who wrote under the pen name of Papus and edited a journal L’Initiation (1). Papus stressed the need for world peace and was particularly active on the human rights of Armenians.

Clara Zetkin (1857-1933), the initiator of International Women's Day.

Clara Zetkin (1857-1933), the initiator of International Women’s Day.

This turn-of-the-century spiritual milieu was influenced by Indian and Chinese thought. Translations of fundamental Asian philosophical texts were increasingly known in an educated public. ‘Feminine’ and ‘masculine’ were related to the Chinese terms of Yin and Yang − not opposed but in a harmonic balance. Men and women alike have the Yin and Yang psychological characteristics. ‘Feminine’ characteristics or values include intuitive, nurturing, caring, sensitive and relational traits. ‘Masculine’ traits are rational, assertive and analytical.

As individual persons, men and women alike can achieve a state of wholeness, of balance between the Yin and Yang. However, in practice, ‘masculine’ refers to men and ‘feminine’ to women. Thus, some feminists identify the male psyche as the prime cause of the subordination of women around the world. Men are seen as having nearly a genetic coding that leads them to ‘seize’ power, to institutionalize that power through patriarchal societal structures and to buttress that power with masculine values and culture.

Thus Clara Zetkin saw the need to call attention in a forceful way to the role that women as women play in society and the many obstacles which men place in their way. She made her proposal in 1911 and today March 8 is widely observed.

Women, individually and in groups, have played a critical role in the struggle for justice and peace in all societies. However, when real negotiations start to pull a community out from a cycle of violence, women are often relegated to the sidelines. There is a need to organize so that women are at the negotiating table to present their ingenuity, patience and determination.

The emerging world society has been slow to address the problem of injustice to women, because it has lacked a consensus on sex-based inequality as an urgent issue of political justice. The outrages suffered every day by millions of women − domestic violence, child sexual abuse, child marriage, inequality before the law, poverty and lack of dignity − are not uniformly regarded as ignominious and seen as human rights abuses.

Solidarity and organization are crucial elements to create sustainable ways of living in which all categories of people are encouraged to contribute. March 8, 2015 is a reminder of the positive steps taken but also the distance yet to be covered.

Prof. René Wadlow is President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

(1) See the biography by Marie-Sophie André and Christophe Beaufils, Papus.

The Cultural Heritage of Iraq and Syria: “Destroyed by Human Ignorance – Rebuilt by Human Hope”

In Being a World Citizen, Cultural Bridges, Current Events, Human Rights, International Justice, Middle East & North Africa, Religious Freedom, The Search for Peace on March 3, 2015 at 9:25 PM


By René Wadlow

On Friday, February 27, 2015, the United Nations (UN) Security Council condemned “the deliberate destruction of irreplaceable religious and cultural artifacts housed in the Mosul Museum and burning of thousands of books and rare manuscripts from the Mosul Library” and having burned a few days earlier thousands of books from the Mosul, Iraq, University Library. The Mosul Museum which was not yet open to the public had a large number of statues from the pre-Islamic Mesopotamian civilizations as well as statues from the Greek Hellenistic period. The spokesman for the Islamic State (ISIS) faction which carried out the destruction − filmed and posted on the internet by them − maintained that the statues represented gods which had been worshipped while only the true god should receive worship.

This approach to pre-Islamic faiths and their material culture is the same as had led to the destruction of the large Buddha statues in Afghanistan − monuments that attested to the rich culture along the Silk Road.

There have been iconoclastic movements in the past, especially among Muslims and early Protestants holding that the spiritual world cannot (and thus should not) be represented in forms. All forms lead to confusing the specific form with the spiritual formless energy behind it. The iconoclastic reasoning can be defended, but not the destruction of objects which represented other philosophies, cultures and levels of understanding. (1)

As if to drive home to the least philosophical in the area, the ISIS also attacked Assyrian Christian villages in the area; villages were emptied, persons taken as hostages and younger women forced into slavery. The Assyrian Christians are among the oldest of the Christian communities; some speak Aramaic, the language spoken at the time of Jesus.

The shameless destruction by ISIS members of historical treasures Iraq will never be able to get back.

The shameless destruction by ISIS members of historical treasures Iraq will never be able to get back.

There are world laws against slavery going back to the abolitionist movements of the 1800s and made universal by conventions of the League of Nations and the UN. These conventions are rarely cited except in discussions of the current trafficking of persons as a “modern form of slavery”. Now ISIS has given us examples of slavery in its old forms, nearly to the point of caricature. We need to dust off these conventions and see that they are applied.

Syria and Iraq are home to some of the world’s first cities, a complex and unique meeting of states, empires and faiths. The protection of works of art and cultural heritage is a newer aspect of world law in which UNESCO is playing a leading role. Until the filming and posting of the destruction in Mosul, the looting of museums in Apamea, Aleppo and Raqqa as well as numerous archaeological sites had been known to specialists but had not gained wide public attention. Most of the looted objects were not destroyed but sold on a parallel international art market to fill the ISIS coffers. There is a need to develop global awareness and to campaign against this illicit trade in looted Syrian and Iraqi artifacts which first pass through the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan before ending in the hands of dealers and small auction houses who also profit from the theft.

The protection of cultural heritage owes much to the vision and energy of the Russian artist Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947). Roerich’s desire to make known the artistic achievements of the past through archaeology, coupled with the need to preserve the landmarks of the past from destruction, led to his work for the Banner of Peace to preserve art and architecture in time of war. Roerich had seen the destruction brought by the First World War and the civil war which followed the 1917 Russian Revolution. He worked with French international lawyers to draft a treaty by which museums, churches and buildings of value would be preserved in time of war through the use of a symbol − three red circles representing past, present and future − a practice inspired by the red cross to protect medical personnel in times of conflict.

In the areas it has conquered, ISIS has established formal slavery, including for girls as sex slaves.

In the areas it has conquered, ISIS has established formal slavery, including for girls as sex slaves. (C) CNN

Roerich mobilized artists and intellectuals in the 1920s for the establishment of this Banner of Peace. Henry A. Wallace, the United States Secretary of Agriculture and later Vice-President, was an admirer of Roerich and helped to have an official treaty introducing the Banner of Peace − the Roerich Peace Pact − signed at the White House on April 15, 1935 by 21 States in a Pan-American Union ceremony. At the signing, Henry Wallace on behalf of the USA said “At no time has such an ideal been more needed. It is high time for the idealists who make the reality of tomorrow, to rally around such a symbol of international cultural unity. It is time that we appeal to that appreciation of beauty, science, education which runs across all national boundaries to strengthen all that we hold dear in our particular governments and customs. Its acceptance signifies the approach of a time when those who truly love their own nation will appreciate in addition the unique contribution of other nations and also do reverence to that common spiritual enterprise which draws together in one fellowship all artists, scientists, educators and truly religious of whatever faith.”

As Nicholas Roerich said in a presentation of his Pact “The world is striving toward peace in many ways and everyone realizes in his heart that this constructive work is a true prophesy of the New Era. We deplore the loss of the libraries of Louvain and Oviedo and the irreplaceable beauty of the Cathedral of Reims. We remember the beautiful treasures of private collections which were lost during world calamities. But we do not want to inscribe on these deeds any words of hatred. Let us simply say: Destroyed by human ignorance − rebuilt by human hope.”

After the Second World War, UNESCO has continued these efforts, and there have been additional conventions on the protection of cultural and educational bodies in times of conflict, in particular the Hague Convention of May 1954, though no universal symbol as proposed by Nicholas Roerich has been developed.

In 2001 Afghanistan's Taleban militia, an "early version" of ISIS, blew up the magnificent Buddha statues of Bamiyan, thinking this would help them strengthen their implacable grip on the country. This most unwise move only hastened their downfall.

In 2001 Afghanistan’s Taleban militia, an “early version” of ISIS, blew up the magnificent Buddha statues of Bamiyan, thinking this would help them strengthen their implacable grip on the country. This most unwise move only hastened their downfall. (C) RAWA

As too often, governments and people react after events rather than affirm from a deeper level of consciousness. Now, we have seen mindless but deliberate destruction of both art and people. Let us not inscribe on these deeds any words of hatred, but let us work unitedly and creatively to establish a just peace.

Prof. René Wadlow is President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

(1) A good overview of iconoclastic movements in the non-Muslim world see: Alain Besancon, L’Image interdite. Une histoire intellectuelle de l’iconoclasme (Paris: Gallimard, 1994, 722pp.)

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