Since President George W. Bush’s challenge to the United Nations on September 12, 2002, a day after the first anniversary of 9/11, to "disarm Iraq by force or do nothing and face catastrophe," the months that followed were at once frenetic, hopeful, and despairing. The majority on the Security Council was faced with two tasks that most believed could determine the fate of the Council. First, the Council had to be seen to enforce its own resolutions through the effective disarmament of Iraq; and second, it had to prevent a preemptive United States-led war on a member state that the overwhelming majority of nations believed was unnecessary and damaging to the UN Charter. The start of the war cut short the inspections then underway, but the Security Council had succeeded in steadfastly refusing to grant authority for the use of force and had engaged the world in serious deliberations for over eight months. In so doing, the Council had honored its commitments under the Charter even as it found itself sidelined during the war and threatened with further denigration of its authority in the postconflict period.
The UN, particularly the Security Council, has emerged deeply wounded, still split by a majority resistant to U.S. dominance of its affairs and to a U.S. seemingly determined to have its way on all issues of consequence.
A watershed event or dam burst? It is too soon to predict the demise of an organization whose irrelevance has been predicted so many times in the past—only to rebound when next needed.
The staff at the Quaker United Nations Office have struggled mightily during these months to respond to the challenge of Iraq while at the same time maintaining progress on our other long-term commitments: reducing the illicit trade in small arms, increasing awareness about approaches to preventing violent conflict, drawing attention to the issue of water scarcity as a future source of war, and advocating for the ambitious Millennium Development Goals so critical to the alleviation of global poverty. Over the past five years, QUNO-NY has worked diligently to discern the focus of its work. After much worship and strategic planning, we have settled on two goals: the prevention of violent conflict, and nonviolent alternatives to military intervention. We have moved all of our work —economic, environmental, and human rights—to relate to these goals.
Along with our sister office in Geneva, QUNO in New York follows events and issues at the UN, the World Trade Organization, the International Labor Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. For a combined program staff of ten, this is quite an undertaking. Both offices are credentialed at the UN as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) through Friends World Committee for Consultation, with the New York office administered by American Friends Service Committee and the Geneva office by Quaker Peace and Social Witness in the United Kingdom. QUNO in New York has two facilities: a small office at 777 UN Plaza across the street from the UN, and Quaker House, an inconspicuous brownstone row house on 48th Street in Manhattan, not far away.
We are inspired in our work on behalf of Friends by the words of William Penn that "True godliness doesn’t turn [us] out of the world, but enables [us] to live better in it, and excites [our] endeavors to mend it." At QUNO, we seek to mend the brokenness in the human community, of which war is the most extreme expression, by bringing what one of our Geneva colleagues calls "grease, heat, and light" into our interactions with diplomats, secretariat staff, and other NGOs working at the UN.
Just as sticky car doors, squeaky windows, and engines all need some form of lubricant to keep them running smoothly, we provide grease through our facilitation of discussions—often in the privacy of Quaker House—of difficult issues that block constructive deliberations within the UN. The art of facilitation makes easier the direct, frank sharing of views and real needs that moves beyond impasse and bolsters the political will to solve problems creatively.
When issues are deeply entangled, or when a great deal of information needs to be worked through on an issue, QUNO staff will develop and hold a larger residential meeting. These gatherings have been held around the world, but one of our favorite spots and a favorite of diplomats and UN staff is Mohonk Mountain House in New York State. It is close enough to UN headquarters to be reached in a morning, but far enough that diplomats are out of the public eye. We encourage them to bring their families (at their own expense) as it is harder to demonize someone who has a two-year-old at every meal and who you see as a parent.
Examples of facilitation include the decades-long work of Friends in Washington and at the UN through the 1970s and 1980s that led to the enactment of the Convention on the Law of the Seas. More recently, QUNO played an important role in facilitating discussions over an eight-year period that led to the establishment of a Permanent UN Forum on Forests. One participating am-bassador at the final QUNO colloquium held in Canada said, "We’ve just created a home for the forests in the UN," an exciting and fulfilling moment.
Recently, QUNO was asked on the spur of the moment to host a luncheon at Quaker House to help distrustful and increasingly deadlocked negotiators of a process leading up to the follow-up after a half decade on the World Summit on Social Develop-ment, called the WSSD +5—"just social, to get to know each other better with no business!" They arrived for lunch on a scorching day, and Quaker House had no air conditioning then. They proceeded to talk first about the chairman’s intimate knowledge of Italian film, but then they moved quickly to talking about some of the most sensitive issues before them. The result, we were told later in the day, was to unstick the negotiations by getting some unaddressed concerns out on the table in a more trusting environment.
Just as hot water can thaw a frozen pipe, we bring heat through individual and corporate witness to issues. One of the most common descriptions by diplomats of QUNO’s work is that we are taken seriously because we approach discussions as a neutral party, but we do not interpret neutrality as indifference. We see it as being "passionately attached to all sides." Nor do we agree with everyone all the time—on the contrary, we hold firmly to the testimonies of Friends and they inform our thought on all issues. Still, we listen to everyone and encourage all to have their say, particularly those whose voices are often softer than others.
Diplomats seem generally to appreciate that our motive is to help them address their problems more than to advance our own agenda on an issue. They know we do this work out of a deep sense of the importance of addressing the world’s problems, a deep caring for the people who make it happen, and that we are always clear on our position when asked—which is quite often. Recently a UN official said: "What was remarkable about the Quaker organization was their unobtrusiveness, their desire to allow the dynamics of the meeting to take place, leading to a good result without trying to impose their own beliefs on those who are there. There was a certain transparency and an integrity about that process."
Examples of heat include bringing a small group of expatriate Hutu and Tutsi leaders together after the Rwandan genocide for a daylong facilitated exchange. Tension in the room at Quaker House was palpable, yet amazingly, at the end of the day, one of the Hutu leaders said, "You know, this is the first time in four years we’ve talked face to face. I can see your eyes and you can see mine and we have been talking to each other as human beings. We must not let this die." Another time Amanda Romero, a human rights activist based in Bogotá, Colombia and AFSC Quaker International Affairs Representative (QIAR), spoke on the human rights situation in Colombia to a room filled with diplomats, including the Colombian ambassador, and other activists. Amanda Romero spoke frankly and honestly about her experiences and the experiences of others. The reaction to her comments was quick and severe—some even suggested she was not a real Colombian to promote such lies outside the country. We stated that our goal was not so much to reach agreement—differences in experiences were too wide for that—but to achieve some understanding as part of a continuing discussion that ultimately would benefit all.
Nonetheless, the ambassador left the meeting at its close in great haste and apparent anger. While we had not intended to confront the ambassador, we were glad to have facilitated an exchange of words about hard things that might not otherwise have happened. We quickly followed up that incident with phone calls and soon after worked supportively with staff of that mission on the issue of small arms trade—which they chaired. We do not always expect a smooth result, but we always try to be fair to all concerned.
"It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness," holds deep truth. The light of a candle pushes back the darkness and allows us to see; moreover, the act of lighting the candle is in itself a way of banishing the darkness, moving from inertia to action. QUNO has been a leader in many issues before the UN, introducing ideas and providing a space for joint thinking about problems beyond traditional give-and-take negotiating.
Over the past few years, QUNO has begun to undertake its own research to develop new information and raise the level of the discourse on an issue. Our recent work on the experiences of girl child soldiers is an example of this. While much has been said about boys and young men in conflict situations and demobilization at war’s end, little attention has been given to the experiences of adolescent women or children who often face a myriad of different obstacles to reintegration. Both QUNO offices, in collaboration with Dr. Von Keairns of Pittsburgh (Pa.) Meeting as principal investigator, undertook a study to get the story of girls’ lives and their demobilization and reintegration needs in their own words. This is the first study of its kind; the executive summary was released in October 2002 and the country-specific studies in the summer of 2003.
In another research project, a QUNO staff member is following a leading to lift up the issue of fresh water as a potential source of conflict and war in the century ahead. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has suggested water might be the major cause of war in coming years. We approached the issue differently—not so much looking at war as the occasion of conflict and violence, but at water as a potential source of cooperation. Through meetings at Quaker House and at UN headquarters, we have brought together research findings that confirm what we had suspected: that transboundary water disputes have been resolved cooperatively far more often than through violence and offer impressive models for the successful resolution of other difficult or even explosive issues. It turns conventional wisdom in the UN upside down and has opened the way for fresh thinking about, and beyond, water issues.
QUNO staff are also working on a literature review/interview book on the potential relationship between poverty and violent conflict. This work is being done in collaboration with Dr. Michael Snarr of Wilmington College in Ohio and should be ready in 2004.
In all this work we seek to bring "grease, heat, and light" to the task of mending the world’s brokenness. The watershed events that led up to war in Iraq, we believe, may yet move us toward the vision so ably described by Kofi Annan just months before 9/11/01 and the responses to it dampened so much of the world’s confidence that peaceful goals are attainable. Kofi Annan spoke then of the currents he sensed building worldwide and advocated the need for peacebuilding and for the prevention of violent conflict.
Single-cause explanations of armed conflict were "too simplistic." He argued, "An awareness of growing dangers in the new century might help us consider fundamental changes in our relations with groups beyond our own and accept the mutual benefit that can be gained through political accommodation, respect for the diversity and the active promotion of social justice. . . .It might enable us to at last move beyond the ancient habits of blaming, dehumanizing, repressing, and attacking ‘the other side.’" We at QUNO hope to continue our work with this eloquent and prescient appeal in our hearts for fresh approaches to solving global problems.