Reflections on Quaker United Nations Summer School 2019

For the past two weeks I have spent time in the company of 25 incredible young people, learning more about Quaker work at the international level and witnessing the United Nations in action at the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) in Geneva. The experience provided overwhelming moments, inspiration and joy as difficult topics were explored and friendships developed.

The summer school began near Lac Léman on a hot Sunday evening at the Geneva Hostel. People arrived by bus, train and plane from different parts of the world, including Australia, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Burundi, Canada, the United States and Great Britain. We were greeted by Rihannon our ‘house mumma’ who looked after us during the trip and the QUNO programme assistants; Cassidy, Luca and Justine.

The group’s experience of Quakerism varied, some had grown up in Quaker families or had attended Quaker schools while others had only discovered Quakerism through the application process. During the first full day we visited Quaker House which would be our base for the duration of our stay and learnt a little about how the Quaker values of peace, integrity, community, equality and sustainability are woven into the work at QUNO. The Geneva office focuses on four key concerns for Quakers worldwide; the Human Impacts of Climate Change, Sustainable and Just Economic Systems, Peace and Disarmament and Human Rights and Refugees. The team work with these topics in different ways including compiling research and publishing reports, submitting statements during official negotiations, partnering with like minded organisations and holding side events.

One way the spirit of Quakerism is brought into the international sphere is through ‘off the record’ quiet diplomacy dinners held at Quaker House. The purpose of these facilitated gatherings is to bring together diverse actors including state representatives, NGOs, civil society and affected individuals to discuss a particular issue while sharing a meal together. The event usually starts with an opening question which seeks to touch the ‘person behind the business card’ and speak to the common humanity in the room. Time is then given for all parties to speak once. Following this introduction, conversation may flow more freely, though emphasis is put on suspending thought and allowing time for silent reflection. During the summer school we had the opportunity to practice a Quiet Diplomacy Lunch around the theme of the climate crisis. While the session was highly emotive, I found that the silence helped me to focus more clearly on what others said and I felt that the reflective atmosphere allowed me to reach clarity on my own thoughts.

Through panel discussions and group exercises we were able to go deeper into all four of QUNO Geneva’s focus areas. For example, in order to understand the challenges involved in transforming the economy to be more just and sustainable, we played a trade game where we competed with each other for resources and tools. From the beginning the resources were divided unequally and it was up to us to decide how to negotiate. The highly charged experience made me realise how easy it is to get swept up in what appears to be the ‘goal’ I.e. making as much money or products as possible without reflecting on the term-long consequences of those actions. The game also illustrated the complexity of finding solutions as a whole while maintaining the interests of individual groups.

In addition to these activities, we were given many opportunities to engage with United Nations operations. This included observing the 41st session of the Human Rights Council at the Palais des Nations, taking part in a model UN role playing game around the topic of climate change, visiting the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and meeting diplomat Ramy Reda from Egypt and Ambassador Khan from Fiji.. We also gained insight into the workings of organisations which partner with the UN through site visits or panel discussions. These included visiting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) and The World Trade Organisation (WTO), as well as meeting representatives from the Red Cross and Medicin Sans Frontieres. The programme also included an excellent panel focusing on women working within the UN ecosystem.

Perhaps the most impactful experience for me was attending the 12th Session on the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP). EMRIP provides the Human Rights Council with expert advice on the rights of indigenous peoples and holds an annual session in which indigenous peoples, states, organisations and civil society have the opportunity to make statements. During the session we observed, I was struck by a statement from Nemonte Nenquimo from the Waorani Tribe in the Amazon Rainforest, Ecuador. Nemonte spoke of the threat Waorani people face by the presence of state-supported oil companies in their territories. Despite recently winning a court case against the oil companies, the Waorani people’s right to consultation and self-determination is still being violated. Nemonte finished her statement by saying:

“The state is not complying with its obligations – our lands are not for sale. Our lands are part of our lives. We will die if oil companies enter into our lands. That is the final thing I have to say with all my heart and soul.”

The statement reminded me of the threat posed by fossil fuel industries, not only to the climate but to the communities protecting these resources. I hope that the UN Human Rights Council hears the Waorani peoples statement clearly and takes concrete action to protect their rights and land.

In addition to the hugely inspiring programme one of the elements that I will take away from this experience is the sense of community. Our group was rich in diversity, expert knowledge and curiosity. Everyone brought a different strength to the table and I felt amazed by both the analytical skill and sensitivity of the group. However, one thing I personally struggled with was my sense of worth within such an impressive group of people. This feeling was echoed by several other participants and as a result, during the second week the QUNO team decided to hold an impromptu sharing session where they opened up about times they had felt like an imposter in their career.  I found their honesty moving and it enabled me to see how insecurity affects us all in different ways.

I am hugely grateful to the organisers and my fellow participants for this experience which has filled me with inspiration for the future and a renewed determination to ‘let my life speak’ for my values. The problems facing the world are immense but if we act now with love and courage I believe there is still time.

The first image is an illustration I painted on the final day of the summer school as part of a visioning exercise. The words written over the paint are taken from my notes.

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