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H.M. Jaeger: Considering the Proposal for an Interreligious Council

Comments presented to a Panel Discussion on
“Renewing the Spirit of the United Nations through a Permanent Council of the World’s Religions: Considering the Proposal”
Seminar on Religions Cooperating for Peace, Ottawa, Canada, May 7, 2009

I want to begin with a genealogical comment on the title of the panel. The question of an interreligious council at the UN is arguably not a question of renewing but rather reforming “the spirit of the UN.” In histories of the UN the “spiritual” dimension of the organization is often not acknowledged. Yet, a pervasive sense of a spiritual as well as a practical task of world organization can be traced to the Atlantic Charter of 1941 and many of the speeches at the San Francisco conference in 1945 which led to the founding of the UN.

However, the “spirituality” at the root of the UN was not one that is easily reconciled with the idea of interreligious dialogue. For one thing, it was a secularized spirituality which would have the principles of the UN Charter itself as a new creed. For another, it was a syncretic kind of spirituality; rather than acknowledging and respecting the differences among religions and facilitating dialogue, the syncretic spirituality of the UN metaphorically sought to fuse different religions (including communism, according to some). Hence, the idea of interreligious dialogue (in an interreligious council) constitutes a reform (or transformation) rather than a renewal of “the spirit of the UN” (at least if we take the founding period of the UN as the root of that spirit).

On the proposal of creating an interreligious council itself, my assessment is bifurcated: two (but only two) cheers for the principle, but I have some concerns and reservations about the practical institutionalization of such a council. First, along with other recent initiatives towards interreligious and “intercivilizational” dialogue (e.g., UN designation of 2001 as Year for Dialogue among Civilization, the Spanish-Turkish initiative for an Alliance of Civilizations since 2005, and the current initiative for a UN Decade on Interreligious Cooperation 2011-2020) the establishment of an interreligious council at the UN is a welcome response to political scientist Samuel Huntington’s infamous thesis of the “clash of civilizations.” To the extent that an interreligious council can contribute to a further constructive response to this allegation, it deserves serious consideration.

A second potential benefit of an interreligious council at the UN would be to broaden attention to religion as a subject of and contribution to international cooperation. Attention to religion has arguably been too narrowly focused, in the UN context. Religion has generally only been considered as a first-generation human right, i.e., in terms of the individual freedom of religion stipulated in the UN Charter and in UN human rights documents. What is perhaps needed (as indicated by recent discussions in the UN Human Rights Council, see below) is a greater recognition for the concerns of religions as communities; an understanding of religion not just as a first-generation individual human right but also as a third-generation right of a group or community. Another way of thinking about the contribution of an interreligious council would be in terms of (the new and enlarged understanding of) collective security (propagated in the context of the UN reform of 2005). Along with a number of other dimensions (military, economic, ecological, etc.), collective security certainly also relates to “the minds and hearts” of people (as stated in the preamble of the UNESCO Charter). To the extent, then, that an interreligious council could give expression to religion as a third-generation (as well as a first-generation) human right and help to resolve potential conflicts between first and third-generation human rights as well as promoting religious dialogue as a contribution to peace and security, it would be a welcome development.

However, I withhold my third cheer for an interreligious council because of a number of concerns about (the principles and the likely consequences of) its institutionalization (if this institutionalization is intended on a par with the UN Security Council and/or replacing the Trusteeship Council). Specifically, I have three reservations.

1. A hypothetical interreligious council raises questions of representation (and “representativeness”):

Who would designate the representatives on such a council (national governments, transnational religious communities, etc.)?

What would be the appropriate principle and proportionality of representation (e.g., representation of minority or local religions, representation of religiously divided/pluralistic societies)?

Would non-religious people be represented on such a council?

Why is religion a more salient identity or type of community than other kinds of identities or communities which might be equally deserving of representation on a new UN council (North-South, class, race, ethnicity, gender etc.)?

Perhaps these are practical issues which can be resolved, but they need serious consideration.

2. Questions arise about the very (political) possibility of an interreligious council given that it would require an amendment to the UN Charter. Despite support by about one third of the membership of the UN for the Philippine proposal, a broader consensus (including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) on such a rather significant Charter amendment seems unlikely in light of the difficulties of achieving much lesser institutional changes in the UN reform of 2005 (especially the failed attempt to reform of the UN Security Council despite many proposals and initiatives throughout the 1990s and early 2000s).

3. Questions even arise about the desirability of an interreligious council. Here, one of the few institutional innovations that were adopted as part of the UN reform in 2005, namely the creation of the Human Rights Council (HRC) (as a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly), may offer a cautionary tale. Arguably a similar attempt of giving greater prominence to the “moral” dimension of UN activity as a hypothetical interreligious council, the Human Rights Council demonstrates that one may not get what one wishes for. Rather than eliciting more support for and greater compliance with human rights, the Human Rights Council has become highly politicized, incidentally, in part around the question of weighing religious sensibilities against the freedom of expression (c.f., the affair of the Danish Muhammad cartoons and the recent adoption of a resolution by the Human Rights Council that condemns the defamation of religion as a human rights violation). A similar kind of politicization would appear to be quite possible in a hypothetical interreligious council (especially if the “religious ambassadors” on the council were to be designated by national governments).

Given the problems of representation and politicization, a better alternative to an interreligious council on a par with the UN Security Council would be a lower-profile or different kind of institutionalization of interreligious dialogue and cooperation at the UN either in a more “technical” body (e.g., a functional commission or consultative status under ECOSOC, a program reporting to the General Assembly, or a department in the Secretariat) or in conjunction with various other initiatives of democratizing the UN in the spirit of the preamble’s opening with “We the peoples.” There is a long-standing initiative of conferences for a more democratic UN (CAMDUN) which has generated a number of proposals for a Second, or People’s, Chamber in addition to the UN General Assembly. Similarly, the Commission on Global Governance proposed the creation of a Civil Society Forum as a complement to the General Assembly. Whether one favors the more “practical” or the more “democratic” institutionalization of a religious contribution to global governance depends on what one wants to achieve by interreligious cooperation: is this mostly an issue of helping to solve conflicts at different levels that have a religious dimension (e.g., providing teams of mediators, teaching techniques of conflict resolution) or is it mostly an issue of contributing to a more deliberative (and perhaps more democratic) form of global governance?

Pending any kind of institutionalization of an interreligious council, initiatives for interreligious dialogue should perhaps focus on more local levels rather than on the global level. Global governance including interreligious cooperation happens in many different places, not only at and through the UN.

For more background materials on a proposal for an interreligious council at the UN, click here.