Youth Civic Engagement for a Sustainable Tomorrow

UU-UNO interns Audrey Carleton and Jen Caplan at the International Youth Day event at the UN Headquarters in NYC.

UU-UNO interns Audrey Carleton and Jen Caplan at the International Youth Day event at the UN Headquarters in NYC.

On Wednesday, August 12th, the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) interns participated in the United Nations’ International Youth Day. The theme of this year’s event was Youth Civic Engagement, where youth engagement vis a vis the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was both championed and celebrated.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon began the opening session with a call to action for youth worldwide. Referring to the current 15- to 24-year-old demographic as the “SDG generation,” he implored youth to become “torchbearers of sustainable development.” Mr. Ban acknowledged that today’s youth are impacted by all of the new SDGs, speaking about the importance of utilizing them both within and as partners to the UN in advancing these goals to create a better world. (more…)

Climate Change Conference Roundup: Commit2Respond NOW to Mitigate Climate Change

Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office Director Bruce Knotts at Star Island
Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office Director Bruce Knotts at Star Island

I had the privilege of speaking at, leading discussions, and participating in two amazing meetings on Climate Change. The first was the week-long International Affairs Conference on Climate Change on Star Island, NH, featuring several amazing leaders in this field of climate change. The second meeting, “Our Children, Climate, Faith Symposium,” took place the weekend of August 8-9 in Strafford, Vermont.

It is clear from all these speakers and more that participated in the two conferences, that there is much we can do. We need global agreements to lower greenhouse gas emissions, carbon and other pollutants in the atmosphere of our planet.  Learn more at Commit2Respond. (more…)

Potential Government Shut Down Due to Funding Dispute Over Planned Parenthood


Over the past two weeks, two videos have been released showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing the harvesting of fetal tissue after abortions and even negotiating the prices charged for that tissue. Planned Parenthood condemned the scam for deceptively characterizing its handling fees to cover expenses, which are legal, as illegal profiteering.

The release of these videos has stirred a renewed argument from Republican and Conservative parties who are aiming to stop all funding for Planned Parenthood. The argument for defunding is that tax dollars should not go towards an organization that engages in criminal activity. The opposing argument is that Planned Parenthood has not engaged in any criminal activity, nor does it receive federal money for performing abortions.

The videos’ time of release coincides with Congress’ final work on developing the spending budget for the next fiscal year. Conservative members, led by Senator Ted Cruz, are calling this a “line in the sand” issue. They are willing to do whatever it takes to not have this organization be funded, including having the government shut down. However, all Republican members do not support this idea.

Rand Paul, a republican presidential candidate, stated, “”I support any legislation that will defund Planned Parenthood. But I don’t think you start out with your objective to shut down government.” There are several consequences for a government shutdown. The last time the government faced this issue, in fall of 2013, the following occurred:

  • Federal employees were furloughed for a combined total of 6.6 million days – At its peak, about 850,000 individuals per day were furloughed
  • The shutdown cost the Federal government billions of dollars – The payroll cost of furloughed employee salaries alone – that is, the lost productivity of furloughed workers – was $2.0 billion.
  • The shutdown had significant negative effects on the economy – The Council of Economic Advisers has estimated that the combination of the shutdown and debt limit brinksmanship resulted in 120,000 fewer private sector jobs created during the first two weeks of October.
  • The shutdown impacted millions of Americans who rely on critical programs and services – Hundreds of patients were prevented from enrolling in clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health, almost $4 billion in tax refunds were delayed, and critical government-sponsored scientific research was put on hold.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are called by our principles to affirm and promote justice, equality, and compassion, especially for those in our communities who are voiceless and vulnerable. With the UU United Nations Office’s focus on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), the Planned Parenthood debate is an extremely important one.

Defunding Planned Parenthood would leave a lot of women without access to proper healthcare and human rights to their own bodies. Our office is creating a multi-faith coalition to fight for these exact rights. The coalition will focus on advocating for women’s human rights to SRHR, and educating on the benefit this has for society.

While it does not seem likely that Congress will shut down the government this time, it is clear that the funding of Planned Parenthood and their practices are a highly controversial issue. This will be of great importance during the 2016 presidential election.

Women in a Changing Cuba: a discussion with Reverend Dr. Ofelia Ortega Suárez

IMG_0958“Vivir en la esparanza; Live in Hope”. This quote comes from Reverend Dr. Ofelia Ortega Suárez. She spoke at the UN Church Center Friday, July 17, 2015, on the topic of “Women in a Changing Cuba”. You could not ask for a better person to speak on this topic than Dr. Suárez. She was the first woman to be ordained in a reform church in Latin America. Furthermore, she has worked closely with Christian Institute for Gender Studies, as well as been extremely active on the World Council of Churches at the UN. She was able to give some background information on the situation in Cuba, and how it is a growing and changing country.

The discussion began by providing some background on the history of Cuba, then engaged in focusing on the issues surrounding Cuban women. Listed below are some major points shared during the conversation.

  • Unfavorable demographics: Since people are living longer, and having fewer children, there is a growing population. This means that there are fewer people in the workforce, as well as fewer people to take care of the elderly.
  • Migration: A lot of young women are leaving the country, which leaves this population lacking.
  • The Glass Ceiling: As an issue that women all over the world face, the glass ceiling can be described as, ‘unseen, yet unbreakable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements.’
  • A Disadvantage in the Church Setting: They are often kept from holding positions, and being ordained: a topic that Dr. Suárez is clearly well versed in.

Following the lecture and discussion, a question and answer portion began. Many of the questions shared are written below.

  • Question: What does Cuba do to address issues with Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights?

Answer: There is preventative work done within the country in regards to AIDS- they have officially stopped the transference of AIDS from women to their children. They have also partnered with UNICEF to help with children development. Finally, they have done a lot of work to take care of people with disabilities.

  •  Question: How does a patriarchal society negatively affect men?

Answer: Dr. Suárez’s church has been teaching that expectations of masculinity oppress men. They use Jesus as an example of masculinity that embraces tenderness and love. She cited that they are not aiming for a matriarchal society, but instead a community of people that work together.

  • Question: How can you use your religious background to educate on SRHR?

Answer: There is an issue with a high abortion rate in their country. They choose to combat this issue with education on family planning, in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies. She also discussed domestic violence, and that through giving women education, they can work and support themselves in order to escape a bad situation.

When asked what she learned from the revolution, she responded, “dignity. The ability to look at someone else and say, you are, but I am. Ubunto: I am because you are.” Reverend Dr. Ofelia Ortega Suárez is truly an inspirational woman. She works to better the society in which she lives, and embodies the idea that women empowerment needs to be a priority in any society that wishes to progress.

Human Rights Roundtable: Civil Society Engages with Permanent Mission of China for the First Time

On Thursday, July 2nd, the Non-Governmental Organization’s (NGO) Committee on Human Rights hosted a roundtable discussion with the Permanent Mission of People’s Republic of China to the United Nations. With the help of keynote guest speaker Yao Shaojun, counsellor of the Chinese Permanent Mission, representatives from various NGOs engaged in constructive dialogue with the Chinese Mission, as a first step of many in a developing relationship between the Chinese mission and civil society.

Counsellor Shaojun has an extensive history of defending human rights at the UN.  In keeping with these values, Shaojun introduced himself at the roundtable by stating the importance China, as a nation, and its position on human rights. Shaojun also urged that NGOs play a key role in mobilizing human rights issues at the UN. We were excited by this opportunity to work with him because our Unitarian Universalist faith urges us to fight for universal human rights, in keeping with the view of Counsellor Shaojun.

Representatives of UN NGOs brought up queries ranging from the freedom to form social groups in China, and the hardships NGOs in many countries face in prioritizing human rights, without consultative status at the UN. Other topics discussed include Chinese NGO presence at the UN, and LGBT rights activism in China and at the UN.

Shaojun highlighted the pillars of development that China has undertaken over the past several decades. The Chinese Permanent Mission has created initiatives to develop its Economic, Social, Cultural, Environmental, and Political sectors. Through these actions, the People’s Republic of China hopes to embody civil society into its mission to the UN as well as inviting Chinese NGOs to be accredited at the UN.

Thank you to Counsellor Shaojun and the Chinese Permanent Mission for joining us in a conversation with civil society. We look forward to work with him and furthering our human rights activism at the UN.

To support our continued access to the highest levels of the United Nations and to the Canadian and American governments, please donate generously to the UU-UNO.

Emergency Burma Meeting – Raising Awareness About Violence Against Religious and Ethnic Burmese Minorities

Blog Photo FINALOn June 2nd, the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office co-sponsored the meeting, ‘Burma Refugee Emergency Roundtable: Democracy or Demonizations?’ with Burma Task Force USA and the Amnesty International United Nations Office.

Stakeholders such as Amnesty International, Open Society Foundation Burma Project, American Jewish World Service, the United States Permanent Mission to the United Nations, and Physicians for Human Rights attended the meeting, discussing the human rights violations of Non-Buddhist religious and ethnic minorities in Burma.

In particular, thousands of Rohingya, a Muslim group in Burma, are being exiled and forced to military patrolled displacement camps because they are not Buddhists. Philanthropist George Soros compared the plight of the Rohingya people in Burma to his experiences in the Nazi-created ghettos of Budapest, Hungary in a short film clip presented at the meeting.

In recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of every person, regardless of religious or ethnic background, we cannot stand idly by while the Rohingya face these injustices daily. (more…)

Peace and Planet Mobilization and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Conference

The 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (NPT Rev Con) took place at the UN from April 27th to May 22nd. Though the NPT is a legally binding treaty that calls on nations that possess nuclear weapons to negotiate “in good faith” toward the goal of total disarmament, the officially recognized nuclear weapons states, also known as the P5, have shown little inclination to move in that direction. Worryingly, the recent crisis in Ukraine has both led to increased nuclear saber rattling and also stymied what was already halting Russian-American co-operation on disarmament issues.

On the eve of the Review Conference, I attended the Peace and Planet Conference and Rally. The Peace and Planet movement is a collection of organizations that stand for causes including disarmament, peace, and sustainable growth all gathered under an anti-nuclear umbrella.

Daniel Ellsberg, best known for leaking the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War told of how the nuclear warfare contingency plans drawn up by the US military during the Cold War called for the deaths of 275 million people, from the nuclear explosions alone, with radioactive fallout killing tens of millions more. He reminded the audience that nuclear weapons today have far more destructive power than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hibakusha Sumiteru Taniguchi told of the unimaginable suffering he experienced during after the bombing of Nagasaki. Setsuko Thurlow, a Hibakusha who lived through the bombing of Hiroshima previewed the remarks she gave at the NPT Conference itself. She criticized the nuclear powers for their continued stalling and prevaricating on the issue of making good faith efforts for disarmament. (more…)

From the Director: Women’s Rights and Human Rights: The Path to Full Participation, April 28th Breakfast

Chelsea ClintonOver the past twelve months, I’ve found myself a regular invitee at the Council on Foreign Relations here in New York City. Richard Haass is the Director. I met him from time to time when I was an American Diplomat in Kenya and Sudan.

On April 28th I was invited to a breakfast with Chelsea Clinton, Vice Chair of the Clinton Foundation, Geeta Rao Gupta, Deputy Executive Director, UNICEF and Juju Gupta, Co-anchor, ABC News “Nightline.”

While in the West, we have become accustomed to seeing women attain ever greater roles of responsibility, the fact remains in the United States, women earn $0.77 for every $1 earned by a man and in much of the rest of the world women’s health and education are neglected.


Warning of ’empathy gap,’ Ban urges faith leaders to speak up against injustice and brutality

UN Secretary General with Faith Leaders at the April 22, 2015 Session of the UN General Assembly

A recent UN press release informed us that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged faith leaders gathered in the General Assembly on April 22, 2015 to stand up for the collective good and amplify their voices in support of moderation and mutual understanding. He warned against an “empathy gap” that causes people to turn their eyes from injustice and numbing them to atrocities.

“At a time when we are seeing so much division and hatred, I wanted to bring people together under the banner of the United Nations to explore how best to respond,” the Secretary-General said on the second day of a gathering at Headquarters in New York of leaders representing diverse faiths, including Islam, Judaism, Christianity, as well as ministers, academics, and spiritual teachers.

Mr. Ban said that he was deeply concerned as today communities rushed to point out an affront against themselves, but ignored or dismissed the legitimate grievances of others. “I am worried that a certain numbness and helplessness may be setting in as people witness atrocity after atrocity,” he said.

“Religion does not cause violence, people do,” the Secretary-General continued. “Today we turn to what you as men and women can and must do in this vital endeavour,” he told the High-Level Assembly meeting on Promoting Tolerance and Reconciliation, Fostering Peaceful, Inclusive Societies and Countering Violent Extremism.

“The dignity and worth of the human person, the equal rights of men and women, tolerance and living together in harmony…these principles are our bedrock and they are what this organization defends,” he emphasized. (more…)

2015 Spring Seminar Recap

For the last 48 years, the Unitarian-Universalist United Nations Office has hosted annual Spring Seminars on pressing social, economic, and political issues. Participants in these seminars learn about a topic and are also asked to consider their own connections to the issue and develop the capacity to take action on behalf of meaningful change. This year’s seminar, “International Criminal Justice: From Punitive to Restorative,” detailed the myriad flaws of the punitive model of criminal justice and called on all attendees to work for a more just system. In this post we hope to share some of what we learned and experienced during the seminar.

UU-UNO Director Bruce Knotts opened the seminar with a stirring invocation of the memory of Unitarian-Universalist civil rights martyr Viola Liuzzo, who was killed while fighting for equal voting rights by members of the Klu Klux Klan. America no longer has laws that take away rights on an explicitly racial basis, but it does have a criminal justice system that in more ways than one emulates the infamous Jim Crow system of oppression. By remembering the strength and courage of those who have fought for civil rights, while drawing upon our own conviction and determination we can help make the “New Jim Crow” history.

UU-UNO Director Bruce Knotts kicks off the seminar