June 2024

A Deeper Dive: Challenges and Opportunities Facing the UN, and the Role of Quakers

Working at the UN, it’s easy to feel discouraged. Over recent years, staff of the Quaker UN Offices in Geneva and New York have had front-row seats watching repeated instances when powerful countries have ignored basic tenets of international law and not lived up to their commitments under the UN Charter. At a recent meeting of the Quaker UN Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, we were asked to reflect on the current state of the UN, including the challenges and opportunities facing the institution. 

UN Representative Laurel Townhead grounded the analysis of both offices, noting the shared efforts of Quakers in Geneva and New York to “work with the UN to uphold the dignity and worth of every person so that peace can flourish.” With this shared vision as a departure point, staff in both offices outlined the serious challenges facing the UN, including several significant protracted global crises – from climate change to the ongoing impact of the recent Covid-19 pandemic to food insecurity and massive inequalities – that demand UN attention. These crises are unfolding in a context mired by deep divisions and competition between major powers that hinder cooperation. Notably, violent conflicts, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the crisis in Gaza, have revealed the willingness of powerful states to ignore commitments under international law  

In the case of Ukraine, Russian actions have violated Article 2(4) of the UN Charter which requires that UN member states not use “force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”. Their use of the veto has prevented the UN Security Council from responding to the crisis, and two resolutions in the UN General Assembly demanding Russian withdrawal have been ignored.  

Likewise, in the case of Gaza, the United States has used its veto to block multiple resolutions calling for a cease-fire within the UN Security Council. In March 2024, the US shifted tactics and abstained on a UN Security Council resolution, but then asserted that the resolution was non-binding, allowing it to avoid meaningful follow-up to enforce the demands of the resolution for a cease-fire and unconditional release of hostages. 

Both instances have undermined the legitimacy of the UN. In the case of the crisis in Gaza, the institution has also suffered a very human cost with attacks on UN personnel producing the largest number of fatalities of UN aid workers at any time in UN history. 

This context has led many to ask whether the UN, formed in response to massive destruction during the Second World War, is still “fit for purpose” and whether it will survive. Indeed, the report by the UN Secretary-General titled Our Common Agenda, and the upcoming Summit of the Future that will be held in New York in September, focus precisely on these difficult questions. 

At the same time, QUNO staff noted the long history of Quaker support for multilateralism as an approach to peace and justice. For Quakers, the opening words of the UN Charter resonate with Quaker faith and practice, emphasising the need to save “succeeding generations from the scourge of war”, reaffirming “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person” and promoting “social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” 

Grounded in the connection between the principles of the UN and Quaker values, we noted the strengths and the potential inherent in the institution. This includes its ability and potential to evolve and change over time. For instance, the recently established Permanent Forum on People of African Descent came to adopt Portuguese as a working language in response to demands from Portuguese-speaking people of African descent. This demonstrates an instance when the UN was able to adapt and take a step to become more inclusive moving beyond its six official working languages. 

Staff also lifted up the sources of strength, creativity, and possibility embodied by individuals working within the institution. All QUNO Representatives, whether working in Geneva or New York, could point to instances when individual diplomats or UN staff members were willing to stretch the bounds of their mandates to explore creative new solutions. 

Amidst the challenging and uncertain context, we noted that today there is ever greater clarity that global coordination is necessary given the interconnectedness of the world we live in. Staff appreciated the strong voice and leadership role of small and middle-sized nations. This has been reflected in a variety of initiatives such as efforts at UN Security Council reform led by Lichtenstein, and the adoption of the High Seas Treaty, a product of tireless efforts by Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS).  

Finally, we celebrated the increasing willingness to acknowledge and examine the legacies of colonialism and racism. These are reflected in the creation of the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, the establishment of the Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in Law Enforcement and the ongoing work of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

While staff in both offices agreed on the serious flaws and power imbalances built into the UN system, we noted that the long-standing reputation of Quaker work and our unique working methods enable us to challenge and push beyond inequalities that are inherent in the system. This happens when we provide safe spaces for conversations to take place that otherwise wouldn’t happen and when we lift up the insights and perspectives of those who are most harshly affected by today’s crises. Through work in Geneva and New York, we provide bridges for the UN to interact with everyday people, whether they are migrants seeking safety, mediators or academics pushing for peaceful settlement of a dispute, young people wanting to shape decisions that will govern their futures, or those from countries bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. 

Staff acknowledged that it is easy to feel discouraged and frustrated given the many obstacles that prevent the multilateral system from carrying out the commitments laid out in the UN Charter. At the same time, the joint reflection provided a welcome opportunity to surface sources of hope in the UN system and to celebrate the strengths and simple gifts that Quaker approaches bring to the UN at this moment in time. We were glad to remember the words of former QUNO Geneva Director Duncan Wood, who highlighted the important role of Quakers in “demonstrating the spiritual dimension of international relations”. We recognise that with the myriad of challenges facing the UN today, the call to Quaker work at the UN is more important than ever.

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