UN/New York: Tripartite High Level Interfaith Meeting

By: Katherine Marshall

October 1, 2006

I was in New York September 19-21 for various missions, primarily to serve as moderator for a day-long launch meeting for a High Level interfaith Forum within the United Nations system. This note reports briefly on that meeting and its conclusions, with some background as the effort may not be widely known to you and other Bank colleagues. I will report separately, to those most directly concerned, on other New York meetings, which included inter alia a presentation for the UN Ethics Office staff on our work and approach to ethics, a meeting organized by the Cordoba Initiative with Malaysian Prime Minister Badawi, a Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Bolivia's President Evo Morales, meetings with Carnegie on the C-100 education initiative, and the annual Appeal of Conscience dinner which featured awards and speeches by inter alia President Lula. The latter was at the invitation of Count Auletta, benefactor of WFDD, and I was able to discuss WFDD strategy and prospects with him.
The Interfaith Forum: Brief Summary of Meeting The Interfaith Forum meeting was viewed as a first, and on many occasions was referred to as "historic" because it was a formal venturing into the issue of how religious voices could and should be represented at the United Nations. The conference lasted the full day, in three parts: formal opening statements including a keynote address by President Wade of Senegal, a lengthy "Interactive Tripartite Dialogue", and a formal closing stock where the moderators took stock. I was the lead moderator, with my Co-moderators Sister Joan Kirby (Temple of Understanding) and Stein Villumstad (WCRP). The Government of the Philippines was in the lead for the day and opening and closing sessions were chaired by Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alberto G. Romulo. Among UN agencies, UNESCO has taken the lead and helped to convene various meetings over the summer months in preparation for the Launch Conference. (I was invited but could not attend). The Interfaith Forum was preceded by a ministerial meeting which came close to agreement on a formal declaration.

The theme of the day was peace (the meeting coincided with the International Day of Peace) but the concept of human security as involving far more than issues of conflict was woven into the fabric of the event and the discussion thus ranged widely. A common refrain was that if all are not secure, including in their means of livelihood, no-one can be secure in today's world. There was an urgency in tone, and many stated categorically that religiously focused tensions were worsening, that the world "is drenched in violence". As this was a long discussed and rather debated initiative, there was much focus on process: what the Tripartite Forum could and should do in the future and how it might evolve. Underlying all the discussion was a shared concern about religious tensions across the world and particularly those involving Islam. The basic question was whether a formal and continuing group at the United Nations could help advance interfaith understanding, dialogue and action and if so, how.

There were a number of bridges to the Alliance for Civilizations high level working group that is to present its findings to the Secretary General in November. Several speakers were also part of the Alliance for Civilizations group and drew parallels both to objectives and emerging directions for action.

The meeting was carefully constructed as a tripartite event, with the UN meeting hall arranged with representatives of member states in the center section, and UN agency representatives and Religious NGOs respectively on either side. It was seen as following from a similar tripartite event in June 2005 (where I also participated). The discussions rotated carefully among the three groups. Attendance was impressive, especially for the religious groups and that part of the room was always full. The active engagement of the UN agencies was more patchy. Despite the pressures of the UN Assembly which was in progress there were many member state representatives, sometimes at the ministerial level, and some 50 member states are currently actively engaged in the Forum, with the Philippines, Indonesia and most active. There were several hundred participants at all stages.

The formal opening statements included a strongly supportive message from the Secretary General, delivered by Carolyn Mackaskie, Assistant Secretary General for Peacebuilding Support, an equally supportive presentation by Ms. Haya Raschid Al Khalifa, President of the General Assembly, and formal statements by the Chair, Minister Romulo, the leader of the Religious NGO group, Hiro Sakurai, the President of ECOSOC, the representative of UNESCO's director General, Koichiro Matsuura, and the Chairman of the UN Peacebuilding Commission. Presentations are available on the UN website. The dominant theme, including the SG's message, was concern for sharply rising religiously linked tensions, extremism, intolerance, and violence. He pointed to the dangers in articulating differences in terms of identities, rather than opinions (identities are hard to change).

President Wade gave an interesting and quite provocative keynote address, focusing on Islamic/Christian dialogue and understanding (he highlighted an upcoming meeting in Senegal in 2008 as a critical venue). He referred to the large gulf separating the Islamic World and the need for strong and positive action to bridge it. He took considerable pride in presenting Senegal as a model of true interfaith respect and engagement.

The Interactive Dialogue took up most of the day and was carefully structured as a rotating set of interventions among the three groups (Member States, UN Agencies, and religious groups). The interventions echoed many similar themes, above all the need to take religion far more seriously in a wide range of policy and action, and the critical nature of the current moment in world history, with what were widely seen as rising religiously linked tensions. The statements tended to be quite formal and dialogue did take place but was rather stilted with almost all questions coming from the religious group representatives.

The concluding session focused on my summary as moderator (attached) and a brief concluding comment by Minister Romulo. Also attached are the agenda and a background note on the Tripartite Forum.

Some Background on the Tripartite Interfaith Forum The role of religion, very broadly, and of religious institutions within the United Nations System has been a rather knotty subject of discussion for some years. The Tripartite Forum is thus part of a long standing process of seeking a more effective voice for religion writ large in the United Nations system. The Forum as presently conceived is "under the mantle of the UN" but not formally part of it. it is seen as flexible, informal, and seeking to build consensus, It involves a consultative process. There is at present no financing involved.

At present, religious institutions and faith-based NGOs (note that they are generally quite different in organization and approach) participate in the UN system as part of the civil society mechanism. Groups are thus accredited and participate in meetings that are open to civil society. Among the thousand plus civil society organizations currently accredited, some 110 count themselves as religious NGOs or institutions. There is the important exception of the Holy See which is a permanent observer and thus participates as part of the member states. They form a group which has a leader (who spoke at the opening), but not much structure or organization at present.

A wide range of ideas have been put forward to bring a stronger religious voice in the United Nations proper. Examples include the United Religions Initiative (URI), created in conjunction with the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations, with a notion of a parallel organization (Nations and Religions) but with no explicit notion of joining forces. The huge Millennium Peace Summit of Religious Leaders in 2000, on the eve of the Millennium General Assembly, involved thousands of religious leaders and people and had behind it the notion of establishing a permanent Religious Council advising the Secretary General, but that effort became mired in a wide range of political struggles and the Council is in no way currently affiliated with the United Nations. An initiative, propelled above all by Chilean Gerardo Gonzalez has worked for some years to establish a Religious Council as an integral part of the United Nations (in its most ambitious form the idea is seen as leading to something akin to a Security Council involving religious leaders but there are many generally far more modest variants). Various resolutions to work towards a more formal institutional framework for engaging faith institutions have been introduced, inter alia by the Philippines, and when John Danforth was US Ambassador to the United Nations he also advanced the idea. But the effort has been difficult and encountered many obstacles. Thus the launch of the Tripartite interfaith Forum represents something of an achievement. Next steps, however, remain to be determined.

I have considerable background materials about the issues of religious organizations operate within the United Nations system, including an interesting if somewhat dated study by the Park Ridge center (which focused above all on tensions around reproductive health rights as coloring the issue top to bottom) and a Ph D thesis on the topic by Josef Boehle (University of Birmingham, UK). As preparation for the Conference a distillation of a wide range of UN documents touching on religion was prepared and illustrated the rather fragmented approaches to the issues. Most touch on issues of religious liberty and on efforts to eliminate all forms of discrimination based on religion. Let me know if you would like further information.

The Bank? With some exceptions, the issues discussed are not of direct and primary concern to the World Bank, and the World Bank was discussed fairly fleetingly. Three fairly obvious exceptions: first, that the Bank is indeed deeply concerned with issues of peace and above all post conflict reconstruction and thus in discussions about peace and security; the faith and interfaith dimension is increasingly seen as a vital part of these processes; second, the focus on engaging faith institutions and communities more directly in poverty work and the MDGs more explicitly; and third, the fact that the Bank's work on interfaith dialogue around development issues is seen as significant and rather path-breaking. Tensions continue to run quite high and for some the Bank is a lightening rod. My recommendation is to continue to engage with the Tripartite Forum as it offers an interesting potential area for engagement where there remain significant gaps in understanding and collaboration.
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UN/New York: Tripartite High Level Interfaith Meeting