QUNO: Quaker United Nations Office

Quakers/Friends have been active behind the scenes at the United Nations from the beginning, and in the League of Nations before that. Quakers’ global body (FWCC, Friends World Committee for Consultation) has consultative status at the UN, and QUNO was set up in 1948 to work on its behalf with the UN and its agencies.  The small QUNO team (less than 20 all told) is based in Quaker House (New York) or Quaker House (Geneva), the main UN centres.

QUNO staff can attend meetings, and suggest topics for discussion. They can make statements on current issues, respond to consultative documents, and prepare policy proposals. They also engage in quiet diplomacy behind the scenes, bringing protagonists together for off-the–record discussions. The mutual understanding these can generate often helps to find ways forward that are acceptable to all parties. Through various combinations of these activities QUNO has made a difference to several UN policies and protocols, and has influenced the work of a number of UN Commissions and their reports.

QUNO organises its work into broad areas. In 2014 these were defined as justice and prisons, human rights and refugees, peace building and prevention of violent conflict, human impacts of climate change, and food & sustainability. These areas are not independent – for example, work with refugees is likely to involve concern about the violence and/or economic challenges that uprooted the refugees. Nevertheless the areas provide a useful focus, and are redefined from time to time as circumstances change. In 2017 the areas of work are much the same, except that justice and prisons work is now included in the human rights and refugees area. A previous area, now laid down because the work has been picked up by UN agencies, was international trade and development.

Other Quaker agencies undertake work with an international focus, and QUNO collaborates with and complements their work. Some support QUNO with funding. AFSC (American Friends Service Committee) funds QUNO New York, and QPSW (Quaker Peace and Social Witness, UK) provides significant funding to QUNO Geneva. They and others partner with QUNO on particular initiatives. FWCC itself, and QCEA (Quaker Council for European Affairs, based in Brussels) are key partners. QUNO also collaborates with many non-Quaker organisations, wherever aims and values are aligned.

Human rights were a Quaker concern long before the UN came into being – the historic anti-slavery campaign, the education of girls, conscientious objection and women’s suffrage are all examples. When QUNO was established modern forms of these concerns, and new ones, were picked up, such as child soldiers, the human rights of refugees and migrant workers, the rights of indigenous peoples, the plight of women in prison, and the human rights implications for their children. QUNO has sought to influence and support the UN Human Rights bodies (the Council and its successor the Human Rights Commission) through a mix of research, advocacy and quiet diplomacy.

Criminal justice is likewise a longstanding Quaker concern, going back to the very early days when many Friends were imprisoned for their faith.  Much international Quaker work on crime and justice is undertaken with QUNO’s partners, notably QCEA and FWCC. The UN has a Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, set up in 1990. It has met each year since then, in Vienna, and FWCC usually sends delegations. QCEA has produced several policy proposals, which have been fed into this process. Restorative justice, the death penalty, AVP (Alternatives to Violence) and firearms control are some Quaker concerns that have featured. QUNO itself has had a particular focus on women prisoners and their children, and has worked closely with QCEA on this.

QUNO works towards economic justice in several ways. It supports developing countries in their negotiations with more powerful countries, especially in relation to protecting their intellectual property rights with regard to indigenous crops and animal breeds. It has contributed to work on international labour standards, helping to secure fairer treatment for the increasing numbers of migrant workers worldwide. Food security and climate change are ongoing concerns.

Peace and nonviolence permeate all of QUNO’s work, but some of this is focussed on peace itself. Disarmament and control of small arms have been a focus from the beginning. Addressing the underlying causes of conflict has also been central. Quiet discussions between protagonists in the privacy offered by Quaker facilities have sometimes been an important tool in building mutual understanding and achievable ways forward.  Quakers sometimes have a local presence in the countries concerned, and may be engaged with local peace building. Where this is the case, QUNO aims to join up this practical experience with the global policy framework at UN level.