United Nations Reform: Slow, patient work to make the UN better

Bruce Knotts is Director of the Unitarian Universalist Association United Nations Office. He also serves as Chair of the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace, and Security and Co-Chair of the NGO Committee on Human Rights.


Bruce Knotts addresses participants at an event at UN Headquarters.
Bruce Knotts, Director of UU-UNO

As President and CEO of the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security, I also serve on the NGO Security Council Working Group. This working group meets with the ambassadors of those nations currently serving on the UN Security Council and with high ranking officials and missions working on Security Council issues. The most interesting of these meetings are with the member state ambassadors of the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) group. This group of small and medium sized member states meets at the Swiss mission to the UN to work on improving how the UN Security Council works and increasing transparency in the election of a new UN Secretary General.

In July 2015, the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group proposed a “Code of Conduct regarding Security Council action against genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes,” which calls upon all members of the Security Council (both permanent and elected) to not vote against any credible draft resolution intended to prevent or halt mass atrocities.  As of a meeting I had with the ACT Group on March 22, 2016, 111 member states of the United Nations have signed on to this code of conduct.  Canada and the United States are not among those 111 nations. (more…)

Behind the scenes at COP21

This guest post is by Ahti Tolvanen. Ahti is a UU-UNO Envoy for Lakehead Unitarian Fellowship in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Here he writes about his experience as a participant in the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) international climate change conference in Paris, which took place in December 2015. 


COP21

After the news of the deadly November terrorist attacks in Paris, I was about to cancel my travel plans. This was despite two invitations: one to join Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps at the Climate Summit, the other from a relative who lived in the French capital. She was troubled about how to explain what had happened to her two pre-teen children. I suddenly saw myself as the awkward visitor.

The manhunt was still on for the terrorists involved and public rallies were cancelled by the authorities. The possibilities for networking with other NGOs there seemed diminished and I heard that many people were cancelling their trips.

Then came the message from Stuart Scott, director of United Planet: Faith and Science Initiative. They needed me to research and write media releases for prominent scientists and faith leaders speaking at the Summit. I decided to accept. My years as a journalist put this right up my alley. To refuse, it seemed to me, would be to give in to the terrorists – to open the gates of civilization to barbarians – at a time when it was critical to humanity to have a successful outcome in Paris.

I reconfirmed meetings I had tentatively set up with other contacts including the UUA delegation and friends at the Paris Fellowship, one of the few UUA member groups outside of North America.

Ahti Tolvanen at the le Bourget venue for the COP21 conference.

At the end of the first week of COP21, I flew into Charles de Gaulle airport and once through customs, noticed signs directing me to the trains to the le Bourget conference site. The conference venue was a set of large, prefabricated wooden buildings and an adjoining old airfield hangar. The prefab venue had a temporary appearance about it – like a large circus encampment. I hoped we’d be spared a severe cold spell or windstorm, lest the COP21 be the latest casualty of the climate crisis it was trying to address. (more…)

70th Anniversary of the First UN Resolution to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons

Protesters advocate for the elimination of nuclear weaponsOn January 24th, 1946, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously passed its first resolution, which called for the establishment a commission to monitor nuclear energy around the world, and for the elimination of atomic weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. This January 24th, 2016, we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the first resolution as we continue to advocate for nuclear disarmament.

The Unitarian Universalist Association has been active in seeking nuclear abolition as a part of its respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and for the interdependent web of life. The UUA released a Statement of Conscience in its 2010 General Assembly stating: “We support international efforts to curtail the vast world trade in armaments and call for nuclear disarmament and abolition of other weapons of mass destruction… In an interdependent world, true peace requires the cooperation of all nations and peoples.” The UUA strongly stands against nuclear proliferation and mobilizes cooperation for the abolition of nuclear weapons. In 2014, a number of representatives from varying faith-based organizations signed the Statement of Conscience Concerning Nuclear Weapons. The statement condemned as “inherently immoral” the enormous loss of life and environmental destruction which the use of nuclear weapons would cause, and called for their elimination.

The devastation a nuclear war would cause could have irreversible effects on humanity and nature to the point of threatening the extinction of the human race. The use of nuclear weapons in a region could ensure the death of millions from burns and radiation poisoning, and provoke a global famine putting billions at risk. A global nuclear war would cause severe climate change due to smoke, soot, and nuclear firestorms resulting in a drastic lowering of the global temperature. It would ultimately leave our planet uninhabitable.

The signatories of the 2014 Statement of Conscience Concerning Nuclear Weapons called for action by the United States Government to abolish nuclear testing, weapons, and nuclear armament, urging government officials, for example, to:

  • Seek the commencement of serious multilateral negotiations, aiming at the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, on a mutual and verifiable basis;
  • Reaffirm support for the Non-proliferation Treaty; and
  • Seek ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty,

The 2014 Statement of Conscience declares that the use of nuclear weapons is inherently immoral because of the “horrific and indiscriminate effects it has on civilians and the environment.” There is no moral justification for the continuation of subjecting people and the planet to this extremity of danger. The obliteration of human life and food resources affected by nuclear weapons makes an indefinite delay morally unacceptable.

Currently, many organizations and bodies affiliated with the United Nations are dedicated to advocating and working for a nuclear-free future, including the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs, non-governmental organizations, and committees. Monitoring the Iran Nuclear Deal and North Korea’s nuclear test on January 6th are vital cases in which the United Nations is working to disarm the world of nuclear weapons. On December 7, 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 70/48, “Humanitarian pledge for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons,” with the support of 139 nations.


Learn more:

 

A Monumental Achievement: Unitarian Universalists at COP21

COP21 panel on equity and INDCs
This UUA co-sponsored panel addressed How Nations Have and Should Consider Equity and Justice in Setting INDCs

Climate change has become a huge focus in the last couple years, politically and socially. Some of us have been working on it much longer, but it’s inspiring to see the commitment spread to more people and gather more support.

Even Beyoncé is involved, having starred in the Global Citizen’s Festival in New York City last summer, which highlighted the effect we all can have on the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

French President Francois Hollande addresses an assembly at COP21.
French President Francois Hollande addresses an assembly at COP21.

This momentum is not without cause, as this past December, the United Nations hosted the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in Paris, France.

Over 38,000 delegates from 196 nations convened in Paris to discuss our collective environmental future.

This gathering aimed to establish better accountability for the many different nations of the world who commit to the goals that they’ve signed on to. The document that concluded COP21, the Paris Agreement, was agreed upon by all 196 nations and is widely considered to be a huge milestone on the road to a sustainable, low-carbon future.

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) was proud to send six credentialed observers to this year’s climate talks through the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO).

UUA representatives Rev. Peggy Clarke, Jan Dash, Lynn Dash, Doris Marlin, Bill McPherson, and David Tucker attended the conference to network, witness, and participate in the conference events. Here is their official statement: (more…)

Odumase-Krobo, Where Every Child is Our Child

By Tatiana Reis (Women’s Rights Initiative) and Daniel Snyder (Climate Justice Initiative)

UU-UNO Program Interns

“I want to be a nurse,” says Grace, the first in her family to reach high school—a monumental task in regions such as Odumase-Krobo in Ghana—explaining the importance of education and the opportunities ahead. Due to high fees and lack of government subsidies, low-income children in Ghana have limited access to education and rely on private assistance.

The Every Child is Our Child (ECOC) program of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) helps children like Grace pursue their aspirations to become nurses, pilots, engineers, doctors, soldiers, bank managers. ECOC provides school uniforms, books, school supplies, shoes and access to basic medical healthcare to children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS.

On November 6, a delegation from the UU-UNO visited Ghana to assess the needs of the schools sponsored by ECOC. The week we spent taught us much about human creativity and finding happiness in harsh circumstances.

Since 2005, the UU-UNO has sponsored 130 children—orphans and children at risk of HIV/AIDS—working towards achieving the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals of universal primary education, fighting HIV/AIDS, reducing hunger and poverty, and promoting gender equality. Of the 130 children currently in the program, 124 attend three basic and middle schools, and six attend high schools.

blog1

With our trip’s packed itinerary ahead of us—places to see, people to meet, medications to take—the one visit that intimidated us most was meeting the Queen Mothers. Serving as unofficial counsel, mediators and facilitators between the community and the government on regarding health care and education, the name alone commands respect. We also wondered about the children—would they welcome us? Would we feel comfortable? Could we ask honest questions and get honest answers? Was a week enough time to start understanding their reality? We were all preparing for an emotional rollercoaster.

Arriving in Accra

The airport in Accra, Ghana, was busy the night we arrived. Nighttime felt ominous, as if the sky wanted to make us aware of its power. In profound contrast, the daytime exploded into vibrant color, making us aware of a complementary power. Ghana is a place of raw, intricate beauty. Dwellings pepper the dramatic, lush landscape; vivid geometric patterns speckle beads and clothing. Life is everywhere.
Our first stop was a meeting with Manye Esther, a Queen Mother who supervises the program. Queen Mothers, designated by appointment or blood, serve as diplomats to local and international leaders. As such, they receive foreign aid and manage the funds from faith-based organizations for the schools. The Queen Mothers Association, an NGO established to formalize their role in the community, receives international aid. Manye Esther works as a principal collaborator on expanding and improving the project.

IMG_3071

 

Manye Esther’s acumen, authority, and warm, inclusive approach taught us more about diplomacy and leadership than any scholarly text ever could. She exudes soft-spoken power and candor. We discussed abortion, contraceptives, and sex education. She explained the importance of values that express solidarity and compassion.

“I’m here on this Earth to help girls in need,” she said. “It’s my call to life, it’s why I live, to improve their lives.”

Although she went blind from an infection years ago, her vision of a better future for the girls she nurtures compels her ever forward. She expresses gratitude for collaboration and partnership, making everyone involved feel important.

Her accomplishments do not manifest as plaques of recognition on the walls of her meeting room; they are seen in the respectful eyes and admiring gestures of those around her.

We held hands for a long time: a spiritual experience that will stay with us forever.

blog3

The Schools and Students

Visiting several schools over the following two days shifted our notions about an effective schools’ facilities and organization. Potent learning can take many forms, even in precarious settings. We met students and teachers, powerful beyond measure, who viewed education as a mission and a privilege, an opportunity not taken for granted.

The sweltering heat unsettled and surprised us, but the children’s cascade of smiles bathed our souls and restored our energy.

The teenage girls were polite, welcoming and shy. We had an all too brief 15 minutes to meet each pair of students; although our interviews were fluid, time constraints impeded conversational elaboration, with some answers limited to “yes, please” and others difficult to summarize. Our paper and pens also seemed to lend an unwanted air of gravity.

Every student expressed gratitude for ECOC’s support, sharing how the program has impacted their lives. Some revealed anxiety about an uncertain future, seeking assurance that the program will continue for years to come.

blog4

We had the students share their stories through short essays. A girl named Mary wrote about a fear of harassment during her long daily walk to school, wishing for a safer learning environment.

Then we met Grace, a high school senior who wants to travel the world and study nursing. College fees in Ghana are steep and the UU-UNO hopes to sponsor her too.

When we asked her what made her strive for an education in a country where education for young women isn’t often supported, she said something incredible:

“I want to finish school because in my family, there are only two girls,” she said. “My older sister put other things first and then it was my turn to choose. But I didn’t want those things. I wanted to show my family and friends that education is just as valuable as anything else. I want to change things. So that’s why I’m here.”

Photo taken by Allison Hess

Like Manye Esther, Grace knows she has a purpose and is pursuing her dreams. She believes nothing can stop her from achieving what she wants.

Our week in Ghana was unforgettable. Although the community we visited endures food insecurity, crime, and unemployment, poverty-alleviation programs that provide access to education and health care greatly improve the chances for youth to build bright futures.

Above all, it was invaluable soul education. There is no stronger testament to the power of the interconnected web of existence than to live in community with partners, to hear their hopes and fears, and to see firsthand the impact of programs like ECOC. We saw it for ourselves.

Your gifts put our faith into action. Please consider making a generous donation to the Every Child is Our Child Program. With your support, we can help more children in Ghana receive the education and medical attention they need to fulfill their true potential.

Uniting to end violence and discrimination against LGBTQI people around the world

By Justin Hashimoto
UU-United Nations Office LGBTQ Human Rights Program Intern

Kevin-Jennings-One-Teacher-in-10-in-the-New-Millennium1-440x294

“My only sin against God is not accepting the person he made me to be for so long”

Garth Zimmerman, a retired teacher from Appleton, Wisconsin, shares his moving account of “coming out at fifty” in the third anthology of Kevin Jennings illuminating book “One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium,” published by Beacon Press.

Mr. Jennings, founder of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), compiled a series of essays shared by LGBTQI educators from across the United States and around the world. The contributors to this anthology speak on their unique experiences as LGBTQI educators, the progress that’s been made, and the challenges that remain.

We recently had the opportunity to interview Mr. Jennings on the development of this book: (more…)

Global Drug Policy – Is a War on Drugs What We Need?

In April 2016 there will be a UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on global drug policy; the first such conference in 18 years.  This has been promoted by many Latin American countries and other supporting nations that are dissatisfied with the militarized and punitive policies on drugs.  Leading the effort is Portugal which has effectively decriminalized drug use, opting for treatment options over criminal justice to deal with issues relating to drugs.  Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference (SDPC) plans to hold side-events during this UNGASS and the UU-UNO hopes to be involved as well.  The Special Session will take place around the same time as the UU-UNO’s annual Intergenerational Spring Seminar which this year will focus on economic inequality and Black Lives Matter, and we hope to include SDPC leaders at the seminar.

Samuel DeWitt Proctor ConferenceIn anticipation of the April 2016 UNGASS, I represented the UUA at a meeting of the SDPC at the Open Society offices from October 6-7, 2015 in Washington, D.C. which dealt with state, national, and global drug policies.  The last global drug policies were established at the UNGASS conference in 1998, which called for a “drug free world.”  However, drugs have always been part of society and always will be. Furthermore, the militarized, criminalized, and punishment-oriented “War on Drugs” hasn’t worked. (more…)

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

PPOSBC_Logo

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.
Rdiy3UhY

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.