“United Nations too Christian” was the Guardian headline for a story on our report Religious NGOs at The United Nations this January. This slant caught the imagination, and led to news stories around the world. The research to which it refers is from an AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society project that examined the place of religious NGOs in the United Nations in New York and Geneva. But there is more to be said.
Globalization has made global governance issues, which an inter-state institution like the United Nations deals with, more important than ever. Questions about how to reform the UN for the 21st century inevitably increase. It must take fresh account of how it engages religion, not only in relation to individual state members, but also in its complex peace-building system.
Our research was carried out by a team in the Department of Religious Studies and the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. It involved survey analysis of registered ‘consultative status’ NGOs at the United Nations, and fieldwork with NGOs and diplomats in New York and Geneva.
Findings: Religion in a Complex System of Peace-Building
The main research finding was that interest in religious NGOs working at the United Nations has to be contextualized by the place of religion more broadly in the United Nations.
It identified five principle ways religion becomes visible at the United Nations: through in-country state constitutions, UN consultative processes (like the UN Alliance of Civilizations, UNAOC), the special observer work of the Holy See/Vatican (the only state and religion with such a position), groups of states (like The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, OIC) and religious groups working within the NGO civil society network.
We did indeed discover that of the religious groups with NGO representation the majority (over 70%) were Christian. Other religions either do not have such long histories of civil society representation, lack funds, decide to focus resources on in-country work or represent themselves through states. Islam, for example, is not represented as significantly in NGO groups at the UN, but is strongly represented through the OIC states.
Most striking was the “disconnect” between Asian religious groups, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and the central UN agencies. There are very few Hindu and Buddhist NGOs; funding and history are the main reasons for such a discrepancy of representation.
While religious NGOs are found to be relatively small in number (7.29% of the total number of consultative status NGOs), their influence and power can be greater. For example, of the three groups with the highest number of meetings with UN diplomats (weekly meetings) two were religious (Baha’i International and Caritas International).
Recommendations: Awareness, Transparency and Equality
The policy recommendations of the report recognize how significant religious representation is for global peace initiatives. However, such representation is required to follow the aims and ideals of the UN’s mission for peace. Religious groups empower themselves in global governance at the UN by recognizing the UN Declaration of Human Rights and following peace-building initiatives set up through the UN system.
In our report we call for increased understanding of the place of religion in global governance, and the need to be aware of how religions both enhance and constrain justice and human rights. There is, for example, much debate around the tensions between women’s rights and religious freedom.
We also recommend greater awareness of the differences between religious actors at the UN, not least across the north-south divide. Above all, sensitivity to religious minorities remains key.
The report appreciated the place of the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) and its work on religious tolerance. British government money to support such schemes is central, and increasing contributions is key for long-term understanding of religious identities and global security. This must also entail the UN – and the UNAOC – increasing its focus on all religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. In this sense, the report calls upon UN Security Council members to understand the place of religion in international peace and security.
We might note, for example, the significant absence of states with majority representations of religions other than Christian among the permanent members of the Security Council, and the need for invited members to reflect the world’s religious and non-religious diversity. This shows that the complex UN system represents and reflects religious identity in ways far wider than just religious NGOs, but from NGOs to the Security Council we need to understand how religion is a part of the global peace-building vision.
In addition to the existing work of the UN, we recommend that there should be greater reflection on how religion continually informs global peace-building. Indeed, the moral apparatus of peace-building requires such plural vision – a vision beyond the religion-secular division of modern politics. Peace-building work needs greater equality of representation of religions at the UN, and future global governance at the UN cannot afford to ignore diverse religious sensitivities in the search for global peace and security.
Jeremy Carrette is Professor of Religion and Culture and Head of Religious Studies at the University of Kent. He was principal investigator for the AHRC/ESRC project 'Religious NGOs at the United Nations'. His work examines interdisciplinary aspects of the study of religion in the fields of philosophy, psychology and politics.