I say let us take this moment of ‘shanti’ Silence, and focus on ‘shanti’ Peace!
A few years ago, I had the honor of interviewing Robin Ludwig, who worked at the United Nations for many years in various capacities, one of which was the Deputy Director of the International Year of Peace in 1986. This interview was featured in “Experiments in Silence” the Journal of The Call-of-the-Time Dialogue.
The conversation was centered on the topic of ‘A Minute of Silence, Bookends in the General Assembly’. The first Peace Day was celebrated in September 1982 on the opening day of the General Assembly. As I reflect on peace, I thought of the Hindi word ‘shanti.’ ‘Shanti’ is silence. ‘Shanti’ is peace.
Over the years, the General Assembly of the United Nations opened and closed its sessions with a moment of silence. In researching the story behind this practice, I learned that the proposal to open and close the General Assembly with a minute of silence was made by the first Secretary-General Trygve Lie. At that time, he had said, “The members of the United Nations represent people belonging to nearly every religion, creed, and philosophical outlook in the world. It is not possible to introduce a public prayer which will satisfy all tenets and give offense to none.”
In 1949 the proposal was adopted and became Rule 62 in the “Methods and Procedures of the General Assembly.” It reads: “Immediately after the opening of the first plenary meeting and immediately preceding the closing of the final plenary meeting of each session of the General Assembly, the President shall invite the representatives to observe one minute of silence dedicated to prayer or meditation.”
After gaining an understanding of the rationale behind formally adopting this practice, the question foremost in my mind was, how does this minute of silence work for the delegates who observe it, and what impact does it have, if any at all, on the process and nature of the discussions that take place? On promoting the ideals of peace and to giving positive evidence of their commitment to peace in all viable ways?
What follows is a conversation with Robin Ludwig on the significance of the minutes of silence, which serve as bookends in the General Assembly.
Q: What prompted the United Nations to begin this practice?
RL: The idea to have a minute of silence in the General Assembly of the United Nations was put forward by the Indian Delegation. It was adopted at the 4th Session of the General Assembly. This idea was born during the Gandhi/Nehru era, when India was an example to the world of spirituality and openness. Some people say that it is the only time when there is silence in the General Assembly.
Q: What in your opinion is the experience of the delegates when this minute of silence is observed?
RL: This practice provides all delegates an opportunity to think about what their presence at the UN means in a broader context. If used for the highest purpose, it offers a good prelude to the discussions. Of course there is always the possibility that some delegates may be thinking of what they will have for lunch, but at least it provides them with an opportunity to reflect on the task before them, on what this body of the UN is supposed to do over the coming months, and on what their individual contribution might be. At the end of the session, each can consider what was accomplished and what he or she contributed. Ultimately it depends on the awareness of the person as to how the minute of silence is used.
Q: What is the experience of the General Assembly as a collective?
RL: I think it creates a space for delegates to remember what they have in common, possibly contributing to a meeting of the minds later, when they are engrossed in their discussions. There is no other place like the UN, where representatives from so many states of the world come together and work on global issues. It is quite powerful to have that many delegates standing together as a collective and observing a shared moment of silence. They are not standing there only as individuals. The delegates are there representing their countries and their people. It may be that this sense of the collective whole standing quietly together could give them a glimpse of what is possible for the world.
Q: What would you tell others who might be considering incorporating silence into public meetings?
RL: What I worry about with these types of procedural actions is that they might become formulaic. There needs to be an effort to make them alive and new each time. A minute of silence is a common theme to which each person brings something different, and it doesn’t hurt to provide that framework and allow for that opportunity. One minute of silence is not a lot of time; it simply creates a pause and gives time for reflection on what one needs to do.”
“In 1981, the United Nations General Assembly, by unanimous vote, adopted Resolution 36/67 establishing the International Day of Peace (IDP) which stated in part, “…to devote a specific time to concentrate the efforts of the United Nations and its Member States, as well as the whole of mankind, to promoting the ideals of peace and to giving positive evidence of their commitment to peace in all viable ways.” The first Peace Day was celebrated in September 1982 on the opening day of the General Assembly.
In 2002 the UN General Assembly officially declared September 21 as the permanent annual date for the International Day of Peace.”
GENERAL ASSEMBLY RESOLUTIONS ON THE INTERNATIONAL DAY OF PEACE
A/RES/36/67 (30 November 1981)
A/RES/55/282 (7 September 2001)
Declaration on a Culture of Peace (1999)