QUNO: Supporting Multilateralism

The Quaker United Nations Office, located in New York and Geneva, represents Quakers at the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations. Our nongovernmental organization (NGO) accreditation is under the auspices of Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC). In our work we are responding to the shared leadings of the world family of Friends.

We work on a wide range of topics, including emerging conflicts, disarmament, human rights, intellectual property, and refugee protection. All of our work is bound together by the common thread of seeking to support and enhance international multilateral processes. These involve many participants, and our work recognizes the importance of all participants being heard, and listened to. We are called—as individuals, as communities, as a faith that rejects violence and cherishes inclusiveness—to support the organizations that provide fora for a dialogue between countries.

Friends are called to support multilateralism both for what it is and for what it is not. The multilateral organizations we work with are the systems the international community developed to enable negotiation and to resolve conflicts at all levels without resorting to force. Moreover, the opportunity for a representative, inclusive approach, which multilateral processes offer, appeals to our belief in equality and the equal participation and worth of all voices.

Supporting multilateralism is not something that Friends have been led to only recently. In 1693 William Penn wrote about his belief in the importance of multilateralism in building and maintaining peace. Quakers have worked with the United Nations since it was established. We work with the UN and other intergovernmental organizations such as the World Trade Organization because these are the principal fora in which governments speak to each other face to face.

Supporting multilateralism through the UN does not mean that we endorse everything it does without considering its merit. Supporting the UN in this sense is like giving support to a friend: it requires encouragement, assistance, and criticism, and the ability to identify which of these is the appropriate response in a given situation. We are challenged by the way these bodies succeed in functioning as much as by the way they fail to function. But their reliance on decision-making processes that differ from our own does not mean that we should not engage with them. Testimonies on Peace, Equality, and Justice call for involvement with the institutions that claim these values as their own. They call not only for critique and dismissal if their justice is not just, their equality not equitable, their peace work not peaceful; but also an active engagement to encourage the institution to consider that which it neglects, and to foster dialogue, build consensus, and nurture the processes so that it might fulfill its worthy aims.

A commitment to equality leads us to value inclusiveness. We are led to encourage those organizations in which all parties participate on an equitable basis, but more importantly to work with organizations in which they do not. These organizations require our attention because regions, states, and individuals are rendered voiceless. This could be because the organization has become unbalanced or because parties are ignored, accidentally or on purpose. Perhaps our calling to support multilateralism is clearest when we can see the imperfections of the organizations through which international decision making is achieved, particularly if this leads to unjust results.

Friends are called to answer the needs of organizations that are not running smoothly, of fora that are stagnating because dialogue is not possible, or situations where "agreements" are not freely consented to by all parties. Regardless of the subject of the discussions and political processes, Friends can play a quiet yet important role in supporting them because our beliefs lead us to methods of working that can help to build trust and foster dialogue.

As Friends, we are called not just to pursue specific aims but also to do so in certain ways. While some Friends are led to take direct action and to speak their truth to power loudly, others are called to build "quiet processes and small circles." The methodology of QUNO is as deeply rooted in the faith and practice of Friends as are the issues we work on. A key part of this is the practice of holding informal, off-the-record meetings. This is most often done over lunch, working on the simple idea that sharing a meal helps to break down some of the barriers of formality and distrust that may exist between the participants.

Lunchtime is when the parties are most likely to be available, and when they can attend without having to explain to their colleagues where they are going, which is important to some. The participants include diplomats, UN agency staff, academics, and other NGOs. This is not a "quick fix": it can take several meetings for a sense of trust to grow that will allow the participants to move beyond restating their country or agency’s agreed position and to actually listen to the others present.

Equally, small circles and quiet processes do not mean lack of challenge or that QUNO takes no position: often Quaker House meetings are the most challenging for the participants because they cannot hide behind governmental or institutional positions, and have to be prepared to listen and respond.

An emphasis on inclusiveness does not mean that every meeting we hold is open to all—selectivity of participants may be the only way to ensure that all are heard and to enable an open discussion. It may be that several lunch discussions have to be held on the same topic with different participants in order to make progress. But an emphasis on inclusiveness does mean a willingness to work with all parties.

This can be difficult for others, including Friends, to understand: how can we work with this state or that organization when they are responsible for problems Friends are working to address? The answer is simple in words and more difficult in practice: because no matter how monolithic an institution, government or otherwise, may seem, it is made up of individuals, and our challenge is to find and answer that of God in each of them. In meeting this challenge we are committed to working with all—those who appear powerless and those who appear to hold power. It is as important when working with diplomats and bureaucrats to look beyond these labels as it is when working with people pushed to the edges of society.

Given the increasing animosity of states toward multilateral processes, their impatience, and the emphasis on the use of might—military, political, and economic—outside and inside such organizations, it is crucial that Friends answer this call.

Laurel Townhead

Laurel Townhead is a program assistant for Human Rights and Refugees at the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland.