QUNO Reflects on 75 Years of the United Nations
In the midst of the global crises of 2020, the events of 1945 seem long ago and far away. Yet that year, 75 years ago, saw the final actions in the most destructive conflict the world has known, including the liberation of the concentration camps in Europe and the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And in June 1945, world leaders—driven by the urgency of “never again”—came together in San Francisco, Calif., to sign the Charter of the United Nations (UN), stating as their purpose: “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.” Quakers around the world were deeply involved in humanitarian work and advocacy during the war and in its immediate aftermath. Two years later, in 1947, Friends were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for those efforts; the honor was accepted by American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and its counterpart in Britain and Ireland, Friends Service Council, on behalf of the global Friends community.
The Quaker offices at the United Nations were also established in 1947. The following year, Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) was among the first nongovernmental organizations to be granted “consultative status” with the UN, a status needed to attend and participate in UN discussions and activities. This status would then be instrumental to Quaker work, providing the entry point for Friends to access and influence global policy.
The UN remains a critical focus for Quaker work on issues of international peace and justice. The UN is a focal point for major debates about the nature, priorities, and effectiveness of peacemaking and peacebuilding, and is the place where global standards and practices are set. As an institution, it plays a significant and direct coordinating role in many of the regions and countries that are impacted by violence, injustice, and exclusion. For over seven decades, Friends have accompanied the UN as a central expression of our shared hopes for a better world.
The Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) in New York is under the care of AFSC and FWCC. Being free from national interests helps us serve the global human interest: peaceful, just, and inclusive societies for all. QUNO staff work every day with policy makers, quietly listening, facilitating, and advocating. Quaker House—where we bring together UN diplomats, staff, and nongovernmental partners to connect and discuss—provides a unique setting and protected environment for challenging conversations. Our meetings are often smaller, off-the-record, and designed to build relationships and trust. We create nonpartisan settings and prioritize the sharing of experience over theory or dogma in order to find ways for messages to be heard. We talk to all stakeholders because time and again we have seen connection overcome conflict. This quiet diplomacy often happens behind the scenes, but, occasionally, glimpses of its impact are made public, as in 2013, when the QUNO offices were named by Action on Armed Violence as one of the most influential global actors in the reduction of armed violence.
Another success for peace came in 2015, when the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), incorporating 169 targets for wiping out poverty, eliminating inequality, promoting sustainability, building peaceful and inclusive societies, and tackling climate change. For four years, QUNO worked to ensure that the goal of promoting peaceful and inclusive societies was included in the final version—in particular, under what became Goal 16, the peace goal. An approach that we used consistently was to appeal to basic human experience—that violence is a significant dimension of human suffering, as much a part of the lives of the poorest as poverty and hunger. Connecting to both fundamental values and direct experience, this framing cut through much of the political noise around the peace issues and changed the discussion from whether peace would be included to how it should be addressed.
The eventual outcome—achieved in partnership with a dedicated group of diplomats, UN officials, and civil society colleagues, building on input from an unprecedented number of consultations with communities around the world—was a high-level commitment from all governments to foster “peaceful, just and inclusive societies” as part of their development efforts, and a series of goals and targets throughout the SDGs that provide practical steps that can be taken to achieve that end. The 2030 Agenda, and the SDGs themselves, now provides the framing for the development priorities of governments, development and aid agencies, donors, international financial institutions, and the UN systems for years to come—and peace is a central part of that framing.
QUNO in New York has recently undergone a period of reflection as part of a process to refresh its long-term strategy. In listening deeply to the experiences of our partners in communities affected by violence, injustice, and exclusion, and in looking at the history and lessons learned from four centuries of Quakers in the world, it became clear that the things Friends do well in social action actually have their roots in Quaker spiritual practice.
Above all, the way in which we do the work matters greatly: we believe working methods are just as important as programmatic objectives, that the how is as important as the what, and that the means are indeed the ends in the making. If we are to effectively advocate for peace, justice, and inclusion, then it is incumbent on us to act peacefully, justly, and inclusively ourselves.
Seventy-five years ago, the United Nations was founded out of the clear and present need for international collaboration to address global challenges. Now, in the face of pandemic, environmental destruction and climate crisis, rapid technological change, increasing displacement, growing inequality, and rising violence, it seems again essential that we find a way to work together, despite our differences, for a world where “mercy and truth are met together” (Psalm 85:10).
Correction: The print version (and an older version of this webpage) incorrectly identified the photo as QUNO’s office. It is instead the nearby Quaker House, where QUNO brings UN diplomats, staff, and nongovernmental partners to connect and discuss.