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G. Reyes: Comments on the Proposal for an Interreligious Council at the UN

It is my intention to give a legal opinion and perspective on the establishment in the United Nations organization of an interreligious council. I plan to address this issue from a United Nations perspective, including legal and political elements, so as to enrich the discussion regarding not only religious and national state concerns, but also those coming from the Charter resolutions and decisions of the UN which must be considered crucial for the future of this proposal.

Our cultural, religious, civilizational, and ethical identities and values are fundamental and deeply relevant to understanding the global situation. After the tragic 9/11 events, all the world’s heads of state recognize that government and religious leaders are to be included along with the UN in the search for a solution to the world’s most critical issues, such as poverty, discrimination, war, hate, violence, and HIV. One reason for establishing an interreligious council in the world’s most important political and governmental forum, the United Nations, is to support and implement this great and historical institution’s capacities to address and resolve the root causes of conflict and to assist in the search for solutions to critical worldwide problems.

2001 was declared a year for “Dialogue among Civilizations” by the UN,[i] with the main objective of generating understanding among all the world’s civilizations that peace among all will only be reached through a constructive dialogue and cooperation. Dialogue among cultures and civilizations goes beyond mere tolerance and understanding. Cultural diversity impacts countries, governments, and religions and dialogue suggests new worldwide political systems where people of all religions and cultures may work together as one whole family without division, hatred, or violence. And undoubtedly this goal has to be reached by different ways, but one essential way, in my point of view, is through the United Nations.

The preamble of the UN Charter opens the door slightly in the direction of an interreligious council, for it calls people “to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security.” Through an interreligious council, such a union of strength can be fully achieved.

In this same direction, Article 1 of the UN Charter sets forth as one of the UN’s purposes to “achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of a social, cultural or humanitarian character and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction of race, sex, language or religion.” Thus, an interreligious council will help the UN fulfill its Charter because various international problems can be solved through cooperation among states, NGOs, and religions. Furthermore, to assemble representatives of all religions in pursuit of peace and security is an acceptable and commendable approach, under the statutes of the UN, to resolve the problems the world and its leaders are facing.

Now, Article 7 of the UN Charter determines that “subsidiary organs as may be found necessary may be established in accordance with the UN Charter.” The UN member states, through the General Assembly Resolutions, can then decide when, how, and why to create new subsidiary organs, such as an interreligious council.

Furthermore, Article 13 of the Charter affirms that part of the UN’s function is “promoting international cooperation in the political field and encouraging the progressive development of international law and its codification; and promoting international cooperation in the economic, social, cultural, educational, and health fields, and assisting in the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”

The process of creating such a council requires a General Assembly Resolution. There can be a vote on resolutions, but usually the General Assembly approves them by consensus, without voting. Months before the regular session of the General Assembly, agenda items are proposed by a member state, the Secretary-General of the UN, or an organ of the UN. This is followed by thorough studies and recommendations submitted to the Assembly.

Now, regarding agenda items, Article 14 of the Rules and Procedures of the General Assembly establishes that “any member or principal organ of the UN or the Secretary General may, at least thirty days before the date fixed for the opening of a regular session, request the inclusion of supplementary items in the agenda.” And also, according to Article 20 of the same statute, “any item proposed for inclusion in the agenda shall be accompanied by an explanatory memorandum and by basic documents or by a draft resolution.” A member state submits a written request for a new item to be included in the agenda, and the other member states have the right to oppose the inclusion of the item, to deny it, or to modify it.

If it is important to create such a council, one or more member states will have to push the resolution forward. Thus, the first step is to decide whether to call for creating an interreligious council. Second, a UN delegation will need to submit a resolution to be included in the agenda at the next General Assembly. Third, the supportive documents need to be created. Fourth, support will need to be sought from delegations from the different continents and regions of the world.

Now let me give you my perspective on the positive and negative prospects for this initiative, taking into consideration the UN Charter and especially the traditions inside the UN. The General Assembly tends to approve or disapprove resolutions and decisions based on current UN practices. Most of the ways the UN General Assembly operates are not written down on paper but have become accepted as tradition.

Suppose a certain group of people inside the Secretariat opposes the initiative to create a new interreligious subsidiary organ inside the UN. There are some UN delegations who may fear that this initiative could affect their power and control inside the UN, and others constantly deny such initiatives. A second consideration is the budgetary constraints of the UN, because the creation of such a council would require a large amount of money that the UN does not have. To give you a clue about budget constraints, the UN does not provide water for participants in its meetings, in order to reduce expenses. What would be the budgetary requirements of a proposed interreligious council? Third, the idea that this proposal comes from an NGO is not viewed favorably by some UN delegations who are concerned about any increasing power exercised by NGOs.

To conclude, I will offer some positive perspectives.

First, there is a majority consensus inside the UN that action has to be taken to create a culture of peace through a dialogue among civilizations.[ii] The leadership and cooperation among religious and political leaders is essential to achieving a world of peace. Thus, creating an interreligious council inside the UN can be seen as a positive step to reach this goal.

From a legal point of view, this initiative has to come from one of the UN delegations, but this does not mean that an NGO cannot work with the delegation to introduce the initiative in the UN.

It will also be very important to obtain support for the initiative from the so-called the “Big Five” countries—the US, the European Union, China, Russia, and France. With their support a consensus will be reached, I guarantee you.

Finally, let me say the momentum here is very positive. The UN lives off momentums, and it is time for this momentum to create such a council, because we are still living with the events of 9/11 and developments in Iraq and the Middle East.

[i] UN General Assembly Resolution A/53/22 proclaimed 2001 as the year of Dialogue among Civilizations.

[ii] For example, in 2005, the governments of Spain and Turkey spearheaded the Alliance of Civilizations to galvanize international action against extremism through the forging of international, intercultural and interreligious dialogue and cooperation. The Alliance places a particular emphasis on defusing tensions between the Western and Islamic worlds. Its offices are based at the UN headquarters in New York.