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A. Stuckelberger: The UN Agenda and Interreligious Initiatives

The aim of this article is to briefly present and analyze a decade of new developments in the area of religion at the United Nations and related agencies. By bringing together the different recent initiatives of this new 21st century, it is possible not only to concretely demonstrate this shift of paradigm, but also to see what has been achieved or not and why this convergence between religions and the United Nations is chaotic. The described facts are based on the experience or commitment of the author in most of the initiatives presented. It is an attempt to show where we stand today, where the obstacles are, where are the windows of opportunity for a transformation of the United Nations.

Until this century, religions have played a key role in the governance of a population’s beliefs, values, and moral behaviors even in the presence of strong political governance. The fact that the United Nations has not included the different religions and faiths in either an agency or official UN body shows the ongoing concern about the separation of church and state. There is distress regarding the increased role religion is playing in the forging of public policy.

The historical fact that on one hand there is evidence of abuse of power in the name of religion from religious governance, and on the other hand that the consistent conflicts between religions have made for a large proportion of reasons to go to war, have left a large majority of the UN governance suspicious of joining forces with religions.

Triggered partly by the threat of religion-inspired violence following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, and also by an increasing recognition of the power of religious belief to inspire social action, the UN and its agencies launched a number of initiatives that involve ever closer-collaboration with world religious communities.

Such initiatives include:

1. Fighting discrimination against freedom of religion with resolutions such as No. 719 condemning "defamation of religion" as a human rights violation at the Human Rights Council, which appoints a rare permanent independent position of a Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief. This Rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council. The mandate holder has been invited to identify existing and emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief and present recommendations on ways and means to overcome such obstacles.

2. Bringing religious leaders to the negotiating table to find a common voice for peace. The most remarkable event took place in August 2000 with the Millennium Peace Summit for Religious and Spiritual Leaders, which opened the first day at the United Nations with speeches by many UN dignitaries and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.


A Global Initiative for Peace was signed by many religious leaders in 2000 at the Millennium Peace Summit in New York. The event proved controversial for several reasons, principal among which was the exclusion of the Dalai Lama. Even the logo [left] created for the event provoked a lot of polemic among UN officials.

Later initiatives associated with the Millennium Summit included: building a World Council of Religious and Spiritual Leaders based on regional or national councils; short-term initiatives in Geneva during 2000 and 2001 with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, International Labor Organization, and the World Economic Forum concluding Statement in Davos in 2001; a Peace Initiative for Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders in Geneva in 2002; and the World Peace Youth Summit in Nairobi in 2003.

3. Combating issues linked to the Millennium Development Goals or the UN Agenda by involving religious leaders, such as

World Health Organization: health issues such as with mental health (either as partners or with attempts to create a Network of Religious Leaders for Mental Health)

UNAIDS: Religions and faith-based organizations against HIV/AIDS (through engaging religious leaders and faith-based organizations in UNAIDS Summits or documents)

UN Development Programme: A new collaboration/partnership with the Alliance of Religions and Conservation to better involve world religions in addressing climate change and specifically to help religions develop concrete programs of action to slow global warming

UN Population Fund: The “Culture Matters” review. A first report was published in 2004; then an updated version in 2008 offered a series of case studies from the Fund’s efforts to work with “communities and faith-based organizations.” It concluded, among other things, that partnerships with “religious and faith-based organizations” can help “reach some of the most vulnerable and marginalized communities” in development efforts.

4. Attempting to bring religions together for interreligious and intercultural dialogue, mainly with UNESCO (i.e., in Africa the first meeting took place in Abuja in 2003)

5. Creating more permanent initiatives such as an initiative started in 2008 by a coalition of interfaith organizations, including Religions for Peace and the United Religions Initiative, to make 2011–2020 a “UN Decade for Inter-religious and Intercultural Dialogue, Understanding, and Cooperation for Peace.”

The UN Alliance of Civilizations

Established in 2005 at the initiative of the governments of Spain and Turkey, the Alliance of Civilizations aims to unite common values in religions, to improve understanding and cooperative relations mostly among Western and Islamic nations and peoples, and “to help counter the forces that fuel polarization and extremism.” Its High-level Group released a 2006 report with recommendations on how to improve interreligious and intercultural understanding worldwide as well as an implementation plan.

Since then, the Alliance has organized two major forums — in Madrid in January 2008 and in Istanbul in April 2009 — and launched practical initiatives centered in the areas of media and education.

The Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace

Founded in 2006, the Tripartite Forum is an open-ended consultative group composed of representatives of UN Member States, the United Nations system, and non-governmental organizations that aims to foster mutual respect, tolerance, and friendship among peoples, cultures, and religions.

The International Year of Rapprochement of Cultures

In December 2007, the General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring 2010 the Year of Rapprochement of Cultures and recommended that appropriate events be organized on interreligious and intercultural dialogue, including, among others, a high-level dialogue and/or informal interactive hearings with civil society.

World Bank: World Faith and Development Dialogue

An interesting initiative of the World Bank, an independent specialized agency of the UN and a member and observer in many UN bodies, is worth mentioning here:

The World Faith and Development Dialogue (WFDD) was created to bridge between the worlds of faith-based and mainstream development with support from the World Bank. After three preparatory meetings with faith and development leaders since 1998, the WFDD was established in 2000 by James D. Wolfensohn, former World Bank President, and Lord George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury.

WFDD supports dialogue and fosters research on religion and development. The different meetings and research produced mentioned the recognition of the large gap existing between faith and development worlds in many developing countries. Since then different types of Development Dialogues on Values and Ethics took place with faith-based organizations.

World Economic Forum and Religions

Since 2001, where the first Concluding Statement of the Meeting of Religious Leaders was presented at the closing ceremony, each year the World Economic Forum (WEF) has been engaged in involving religion and global issues at Davos or in parallel meetings in other parts of the world, in various faith communities in interfaith dialogue. One of the most remarkable was the West-Islam Dialogue, a dynamic community of business, political, religious, media, and opinion leaders engaged in dialogue to promote understanding across different segments of society in the West and Muslim world. The WEF, in addition to organizing dialogues, committed to the realization of different joint projects, awards, and most recently, to the production of an Annual Report on the State of Dialogue.

The collaboration with the Harvard Divinity School, for example, revealed the gap in the common vision of religions as well as the mutual need for “merging” knowledge between religions and other world partners with global agenda, such as religion/globalization, religion/economy, and religion/technology.

Is the UN Agenda Compatible with the Interreligious Agenda?

1. Religion matters, but…: Religion is high on the global agenda but is not part of the United Nations. The claim that religion would inevitably decline with modernity — the core of the secularization thesis — has been proved wrong. Today’s global challenges of war and peace, democracy and human rights, and economic and social development all have an important religious dimension. The UN’s timid attempt to include religious and spiritual leaders in their community work has been scarce; religion is not taken systematically into consideration because of the fear of political conflicts, in particular due to the fact that some states are explicitly or implicitly religious states and others have separated religion and state affairs. Another obstacle is that for the administrative UN policy, religions and their organizations are considered as NGOs, which is hardly acceptable for many religious leaders.

Faith is often part of the problem; tensions among religious communities can impede international cooperation, political stability, social cohesion, and economic growth. But it is also potentially part of the solution: these communities are often among the most important forces mobilizing around core values such as human dignity, solidarity, and social responsibility.

2. Need for knowledge transfer and translation between religions and world governance: The experience and reports show the clear need to learn from each other and join forces: the initiatives and different collaborations between the United Nations and international organizations have proven that collaboration is possible, but the gaps between the religious and non-religious stakeholders of global governance are so wide that the conflict of actions and interests can create more harm than good to the population until common knowledge transfers among all parties converge in the same direction.

3. Beyond dialogue: dialogue between religions is not enough…: Dialogue between religions is important but not enough. Mere dialoguing often results in shared monologues that reinforce the position of each party rather than identify common values and ways to work together. Therefore, initiatives that strengthen cooperation of religions and faith-based organizations for a common action reinforce a constructive dialogue and result in peace and fruitful actions for the benefit of all.

4. UN agenda and the religious agenda for peace and human rights: where are women? The UN’s agenda is sometimes clearly in conflict with the religious agenda, which makes it very difficult to establish a global coherent and peaceful agenda. For example, many issues of human rights pose a problem to religions: the fact that a human being has the power of self-determination of his/her life or death is for many religions incompatible with their dogma.

Another field which religions for the moment find incompatible is the issue of women’s rights versus religious rights; the need to revisit history and equality between men’s and women’s rights will be a prerequisite for the evolution of humanity and harmonious global governance. In this perspective, a future contribution will speak of the “Woman Mapping Peace project” developed with the Committee on the Status of Women working group on Development Education and the University of Geneva to bring together and document statistically and qualitatively the work done by women in the world.


The UN’s global governance can only help to bring a meta-perspective on the human behavior towards religious containment and go beyond the concept of separation to bring religions to speak in one voice with different languages. This common agenda and spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is without a doubt peace. Keeping this common goal in mind, it is evident that all actors are important for the success of current and future peace initiatives at the United Nations. Let us not forget that peace is the founding principle and guiding force for which the United Nations was created. Let us not forget that on October 24, 1945 the UN Charter was officially recognized and the United Nations came into being. The Preamble of the Charter of the United Nations begins:

We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to affirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in 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.

Astrid Stuckelburger, Ph.D., is a representative of two academic non-governmental organizations at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. She serves as the Coordinator in Geneva of the UN Millennium Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders and is also Co-founder of the Spiritual Caucus @ United Nations Geneva and of the UN NGO Committee for Spirituality, Values and Global Concerns.