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Interfaith Programs

Consultations in Switzerland on a Proposed Interreligious Council at the UN

Geneva and Bern, Switzerland - The Universal Peace Federation's United Nations Office in Geneva convened a series of three consultations during the months of August and September 2010 in Geneva and Bern on the proposal to establish an interreligious council at the UN.

Participants included religious leaders representing Buddhism, Christianity (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism), Hinduism, Islam, and Unificationism; representatives of government missions at the UN; academic institutions; and international NGOs. A representative of the Geneva Interfaith Intercultural Alliance Youth Interreligious Council was also present.

An overview and explanation of the proposal was presented at each consultation by the UPF-UN Office coordinator, with valuable input by other UN representatives and Ambassadors for Peace. It was felt that Geneva could provide a broader perspective on the topic by proposing recommendations of a more decentralized nature, in keeping with the structure of the UN in Geneva.  The structures of the new UN Human Rights Council and the World Council of Churches were both discussed as possible models of an interreligious council, with expert input from members of both.

There was consensus among all that the overall goal is tremendously important and must not be lost; however, a series of incremental gains might be the best course. It was felt to be very encouraging that “interreligious” would be considered means to achieve a purpose, not a purpose in itself. While the United Nations was founded in response to conflict, an interreligious council should be founded as an affirmation of humanity’s potential for peaceful coexistence and its role as caring stewards of the environment.

While the notions of spirituality and ethics are embedded in the UN Charter and other normative documents, they are rarely referred to or applied. Our perception of human value is very crucial to the way we perceive and respond to the needs of others. An interreligious council could help revive those essential aspects, whereby the depth of personal commitment and ownership associated with religion and culture could be harnessed to support the fundamental rights and freedoms that are a pillar of the work of the UN. The question was raised whether anyone had ever given their life for the United Nations. That depth of conviction could possibly be stimulated through the success of an interreligious council.

Function

Could an interreligious council address the real needs in our countries, which are often not fully met by the current UN programs?

What would the work of such a council consist of? Would it be mainly to prevent or reduce bloodshed, or would it focus on long-term confidence-building and support of the development goals? Ideally, it would be both. It is clear that there is a strong negative correlation between conflict and development. Solving, or better preventing, conflict and injustices leaves the door open for full development and prosperity. Historically, the role of religious leaders has been an educational one, integrated into the community life. Church elders, especially in Africa, play a role in bridging tribal differences and promoting communal development. There have been fairly recent examples of this between the cantons in Switzerland and in eastern Europe (for example, the former Yugoslavia).

An interreligious council could be asked by the General Assembly to work on certain issues. It could serve as an advisory committee, perhaps beginning as a mid-level structure that could provide data or “local knowledge” essential to assess the real needs.For instance, religious representatives might very well have access to early warning signals of unrest or, in post-wartime, the need for a reconciliation process. It was noted that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, while not perfect, grew out of the traditions of African indigenous religion.

The mandate could cover a more humanitarian area as well, with religious leaders likely being aware of the needs of vulnerable groups in a timely way before their unrest turns violent. For instance, the General Assembly could turn to this council and ask for insights into why certain Millennium Development Goals are not likely to be met. It has been inferred by governments that states are eager to have access local information; they know there is a gap between resolutions and implementations and look for impartial mediators.

What if this council was to focus on the life-affirming aspects of the UN mandate, which include development, humanitarian programs, trade, disarmament, and education in core values/human rights and responsibilities? Geneva and other cities of Europe host many UN agencies related to these areas: UN Conference on Trade and Development, World Health Organization, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNESCO, and World Food Programme. New York has developed the Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace. But alarm bells go off when UN reform is mentioned. Geneva, as a humanitarian capital—some say the heart of the UN—could possibly pioneer such an innovative structure. The World Council of Churches has laid some groundwork, but it is too exclusive. Nairobi was also mentioned as possible seat of an interreligious council.

The Geneva Interfaith Intercultural Alliance was mentioned as a possible model, to which UPF has contributed the vision and many tools. Its Model UN “Interreligious Council” Program provides opportunities for youth representatives of religions to contribute as delegates to a mock UN body, a youth “Interreligious Council,” with the intention to provide evidence in support of a functioning interreligious council at the UN as well as training future delegates to such a council. Through the five sessions held so far, the wisdom, solidarity, and the will generated through their debates about current issues before the UN shed a very positive light on the possibilities.

Beginning with its own “Geneva Declaration on Interreligious Cooperation” as an outcome of the first session, the youth delegates of various religions demonstrated that the voices of religion in concord resonate very well with the work of the UN. One session prepared a study on the role of religion in conflict prevention, mediation, and peacebuilding, tapping into an incredible wealth of often undocumented successes of religion contributing to these issues. It would be very useful to compile and make available documentation of the process and frequency with which religion has provided solutions to conflict. It was noted that a similar unawareness existed in the case of women’s influence in peacebuilding, but now that the will and resources have been provided, these statistics are being studied.

Covenant/Charter

What would be the criteria for membership? A covenant or charter would be important not only as a guideline for the work of the council but also in setting standards for membership. It was considered most important that delegates be able to demonstrate their personal integrity and commitment to world peace and development above and beyond their duties to their own faith communities. A colleague of theologian Hans Kung spoke of attempts by him and others to concisely define the essential and common values of the religious traditions. We were reminded of the research that went into the draft of a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, which has been discussed but not adopted by the UN. Would it not be advisable to build on what has been already done and consolidate our efforts? It was suggested that Dr. Kung be kept informed of this project.

The charter would have to answer the question of what is religion. How can the combined moral authority of all religions be consolidated and focused into an implementation-oriented agenda? The UN usually tracks quantifiable needs, and religion can learn from that focus. Religion can bring to the fore essentials such as compassion, sacrifice, ideals, solidarity, motivation, and good will. It was noted that most people involved in UN work personally hold these qualities in great esteem in their private lives but may experience a disconnect from them while carrying out their tasks. An interreligious council where these aspects of life are given priority and addressed freely might exert a beneficial influence on people in other UN bodies. Many agreed that they have witnessed the way that attitudes can change and evolve, sometimes rapidly.

It was felt that there should be no discussion of dogma within such a council. Upholding a tradition of broadly-accepted values and inclusive language would be very important for the debates, recommendations, and outcomes of the council. Ideally, decisions should be reached by consensus. Also for that reason it would be advisable that delegates have a broad understanding of and experience with religions and cultures other than their own. The book World Scripture: An Anthology of Sacred Texts, produced at the request of UPF Founder Rev. Sun Myung Moon, was recommended as an excellent resource for preliminary research on values and virtues common to religious traditions.

Structure and representation

Government representatives in the discussions reminded everyone that UN reform is usually slow and painstaking. Yet, the opposite is also possible, it was mentioned. Many participants present were involved in the institution-building process of the Human Rights Council here in Geneva, where all had to be completed in one year and it was done within that time frame. There was a discussion about the Advisory Committee of the Human Rights Council (formerly called the “Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights” of the Human Rights Commission) as a possible model. This think tank’s purpose is to ensure that the best possible expertise is made available to the Human Rights Council. Its 18 members are elected by states and by regions; however, they represent their area of expertise and not their government’s views. They are mandated to give advice on thematic issues and give implementation-oriented recommendations. An example of a recent mandate was to review the draft “Declaration on human rights education and learning,” which was being tabled at the Council. This included defining the term “human rights education,” agreeing on indicators, and giving practical advice on means of monitoring global progress.

The question was asked about criteria for religious bodies becoming members of the World Council of Churches. Both theological and demographic criteria are considered. Reference was also made to the House of Lords in Great Britain and even some aspects of the European Union’s structure. Also mentioned was the Swiss Council of Religions, which aspires to be a trusted partner of the government, but only includes three faith groups.

How to include those religious traditions, possibly small, local, or unrecognized, who have gained local expertise in the area of conflict resolution, reconciliation, human development, etc.? How to ensure that people would identify this council as a real “voice of and for the people,” possibly bridging the gap felt currently by many in developing countries toward the United Nations? For example, many people in Africa do not relate to the UN as theirs but consider it a top-heavy network that seeks to impose western culture on them. It was stated that a council of religious leaders having an influence on the UN agenda could help to bridge that gap, if there were a broad enough representation within it. If the council wishes to be implementation-oriented, both the hotbeds of conflict and the seats of local development are to be found in local tribal, ethnic, and religious communities.

Several options were discussed:

1)     All religions wishing a seat would first have to accept the terms of the interreligious council charter. It wouldn’t necessarily allocate one vote per state, but possibly a certain number of delegates per regional grouping. It should also take into consideration, for instance, that Muslims in Jordan may have different concerns than those in Indonesia. The size of the religious communities would figure importantly, but consideration would be given to successes in the field. A certain number of seats could be assigned to smaller communities, with rotating membership. Regarding individual delegates, being a leader in a religious community wouldn’t be sufficient as a criterion for membership. Delegates would have to present personal credentials that meet the criteria of the council’s standard as specialists in fields of peace and development, which are the mandates of the UN.

2)     One unique idea was to promote the voice of religious values in the council and not the religions themselves. In other words, delegates would be nominated because of the core values that they embody. For example, if he were still with us, Mahatma Gandhi would be recommended not as a Hindu but for his leadership and lifestyle of nonviolent resistance to injustice that could contribute to the work of the interreligious council.

3)Another proposal was to establish a small group of advisors who would work directly with the UN Secretary-General. They could be convened as specific difficult situations arose in which their advice and their positions might be very helpful. Such a group could be set up relatively quickly, since the Secretary-General can select advisors as part of his function as Secretary-General. Such an advisory group could demonstrate the very practical ways that religion can influence positive change, prevent or resolve conflict, promote social development and cohesion, etc. Provided that the advisors are well selected, constructive outcomes could serve as precedents to fuel longer-term institutional changes necessary to create a council.

Conclusion

The final place in history for the United Nations, whose purpose was defined in the Preamble of the founding document as:

  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
  • to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
  • to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

… remains to be seen. Studied well, the UN Charter is much more than just a political or business agenda that muscle and competition can drive to the goals. It can be seen as a sacred and spiritual covenant that must be claimed and brought to life. It is evident to most members of the human family (and all present at the consultations) that both religion and politics (the realm of spiritual or internal development and the realm of external development) are complementary and indispensable in achieving their common goals of peace, dignity, justice, and shared prosperity. As rather covertly mandated in that founding document, they must advance together. Now six decades into the process and with much still to be done toward accomplishing the founding vision, it seems a very appropriate time to be open to the benefits of this proposed partnership.

RELATED INFORMATION

Partial list of participants

Dr. Gary Domingo, Minister for Disarmament and Humanitarian Affairs, Mission of Philippines to the in Geneva

Mr. Jean-Pierre Engel (Buddhist name: Lama Ngawang Rigdzin)

Mrs. Carolyn Handschin, Director, UPF-UN Office-Geneva; Co-founder and Coordinator of Youth Interfaith, Program, Global Interfaith Intercultural Alliance

Mr. Heiner Handschin, Secretary General, Universal Peace Federation, Europe II; Co-Founder and Secretary General, Geneva Interfaith Intercultural Alliance

Professor Adrian Holderegger, Department of Ethics and Moral Theology, University of Fribourg, Geneva

Mrs. Ruth Kobia, theologian, NGO UN representative, wife of Dr. Samuel Kobia (former General Secretary of the World Council of Churches)

Ms. Chantal Komagata, Secretary General UPF-Switzerland; UTS Interfaith Seminary, New York

Dr. John M’Biti, theologian, former President of the World Council of Churches College

Dr William McComish, Dean Emeritus, St. Peter’s Cathedral, Geneva; President, Geneva Spiritual Appeal

Mr. Kamapradipta Osnono, First Secretary, Human Rights, Interfaith and Cultural Dialogue, Senior Media, Mission of Indonesia to the UN in Geneva

Ms. Anisha Pabari, Delegate, Model UN Interreligious Council; university student in international relations

Ms. Liselotte Perrottet, former President, Women’s Federation for World Peace-Europe; advisor on religious affairs

Mr. Michel Reymond, Continuing Education Department, University of Geneva

Dr. Ibrahim Salah, President, Network of Islamic Associations in Switzerland

Mr. Rado Stanchev, Student in theology at the University of Geneva

Mr. Alan & Ms. Brigitte Sillitoe, UN representative for UPF

Mr. Michelot Yogombaye, Inspector General of Administration in Chad; Founder and Director, Medias d’échange communautaire, FM-Dialogues

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