Book review: Snakes and Ladders

Sep 27, 2012 | News

By Rene Wadlow
Thursday, September 27, 2012, 9:14am

Book review: Snakes and Ladders

The symbolic start of the Fellowship of Reconciliation was in 1914, on the eve of the First World War. Henry Hodgkin, a British member of the Religious Society of Friends and a former missionary doctor to China, and Friedrich Siegmund-Schultz, German Lutheran pastor at Potsdam and a chaplain to the Kaiser, having participated in Constance [Konstanz], Germany [on the border of Switzerland] in a conference of the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches, parted saying, “We are one in Christ and can never be at war.”

Hodgkins started organizing British Quakers for peace and reconciliation work, and in 1915 Hodgkin went to the United States to start the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), drawing especially on his Quaker contacts. While Quakers have always been active in FOR, they have also created specifically Quaker institutions working for peace such as the two Quaker U.N.Offices — the New York office being the responsibility of theAmerican Friends Service Committee and the Geneva U.N.Office that of the Quaker Peace and Social Witness of the Britain Yearly Meeting.

In this Swarthmore lecture, given at the Britain Yearly Meeting, Rachel Brett analyzes the human rights approach of the Geneva Quaker U.N. Office (QUNO) in which she has played a key role since the early 1990s. As FOR faces many of the same issues of what situations to focus upon and how to deal with government representatives, including those who violate human rights, this lecture, expanded into a book on Quaker approaches, is useful.

The title refers to what was originally an Indian board game in which if a player lands on a ladder, it provides a boast, while landing on the head of a snake slides the player back down the board. This is symbolic of the unpredictable element in working with political human rights bodies at the UN, combined with the importance of constant effort. As Rachel Brett writes:

[U]nless we continue to “go round the board” we abdicate our responsibility to try to move forward, or at the worst, maintain the status quo and resist regression. Much the same is true of Quaker work at the United Nations in general: being willing to start again in face of setbacks and being available to take advantage of the ladders when we find them, but above all having clarity of vision, creativity in finding different approaches, and persistence.

She quotes a statement from Duncan Wood, the long-time representative, on how one does advocacy.

Quakers continue to believe in the power of the Spirit manifested in human lives. They do not believe that humanity is in the grip of vast, impersonal forces beyond its control; they do believe that our problems can and will be overcome by dedicated men and women. Generations of experience in acting on this have taught Friends to listen quietly and patiently, to speak frankly without giving offence, to be impartial, conscientious, and discreet, thus winning the trust and confidence of others.

Since the late 1970s, when the U.N. human rights secretariat moved from New York to Geneva, non-governmental representatives have played an ever-increasing role in U.N. human rights efforts, in pushing new issues such as torture and the right to education, and in dealing with specific country situations. There has been close working relations among NGO representatives and members of the U.N.secretariat. Secretariat members are often well-informed specialists, but they can take few public initiatives. Most NGO representatives are “generalists” having to deal with a wide range of issues and situations on which there is sometimes very little written documentation, such as the tribes of the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh on which the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) took the lead.

Quakers have had a representative office in Geneva since the League of Nations days — the Quakers and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom being the only two permanent NGOs in Geneva then working on League issues. The consultative status which the U.N. Charter gives NGOs did not exist in the League Covenant, and so NGO efforts in the League days were more informal but largely of the same nature as today.

The Quakers re-established an office in Geneva shortly after the end of the Second World War with usually a three-part focus: disarmament and conflict resolution, human rights and different aspects of the broad field of  development, Geneva being home to both the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development and the independent but powerful World Trade Organization. At different times, refugee issues have also been a focus. David Atwood in a recent publication has given an overview of the QUNOwork on disarmament and arms control.

For the first two decades after the Second World War, the Quaker office was in a modern office building at some distance from the UN and the Specialized Agencies. Then in the early 1970s, the Quakers bought a three-storied private house and garden close to the U.N., a framework for the lunches for diplomats that Rachel Britt describes in detail as well as a place for an informal cup of tea or strategy sessions such as those organized in the late 1970s during the Law of the Sea negotiations.

Ever since James Naylor in 1656 with his spiritual enthusiasm concerning the indwelling Christ was imprisoned for blasphemy, Quakers have sought to put limits on the ways the “leading of the Spirit” is given a corporate blessing and becomes a “concern.” Traditionally, an individual tests his leading through the formal structures of the Quaker bodies to ensure that it is a true leading rather than an enthusiasm or just a good idea.  If endorsed, the concern may be acted upon individually and/or corporately. Such a policy means that reactions to specific challenges or opportunities or new subjects is rather difficult to undertake. As Rachel Brett writes, “Our methods of work are often misunderstood, particularly by other non-governmental organizations working on human rights issues. They tend to think we should take a public stand against the human rights abuses committed by one government or another, and we often get lobbied to do so.”

Thus the QUNO approach has been basically to choose broad subject areas that are part of a well-recognized Quaker tradition and to focus on its modern application within the U.N. context. There has been a long-standing Quaker concern with the nature of prisons and the need for prison reform based on the idea that despite being prisoners, prisoners should be treated as human beings.  This led to efforts to remove the mentally ill from prisons, to treat children offenders differently from adults, to abolish the death penalty, and to prevent the use of torture. All these issues have been raised in the U.N. in different ways, and Quakers could call on their traditions to play an important role without mentioning the countries where there were abuses since the list would have been long.

The same Quaker tradition could be called upon for the long-drawn-out effort to have recognized conscientious objection to military service as a human right based on freedom of belief. Many early C.O.’s were Quakers so they could speak from personal experience. Today, when most C.O.’s in prison are Jehovah’s Witnesses with a rather different base for objection, the Quaker U.N. Office follows the issue closely and presents the U.N. with detailed reports.

It is on the issue of children used in combat — “child soldiers “— that Rachel Brett and the Quaker U.N.Office has had the most “high profile” impact. (The Quaker U.N. Office has usually had three senior staff members, one for disarmament, one for human rights, and one for development, with usually each having a “program assistant” — a recent university graduate coming for one year. So when we speak of the Quaker U.N. Office efforts on a topic, we are speaking of one person with a young assistant who will “learn the ropes” and then move on to paid employment elsewhere.)

The issue of child soldiers began with a focus on the use of young graduates of military academies (basically secondary schools) who could join the army upon graduation in such countries as the United Kingdom and the United States. “Too young to vote or to get a legal drink but not too young to be in the army.” However, neither the U.K. nor the U.S. Army depend on “child soldiers.” In Africa we have seen the start of “child soldiers” as a core element of armed militias — the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda being a good, but, alas, not a unique example.

There was a ten-year, one-month-per-year, drafting process of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was finally adopted in 1989 and gave a legal basis for concern for young people used in militias, usually anti-government groups in Africa but also used by the LTTE in Sri Lanka and by different minority militias in Burma.

There was a three-pronged focus to deal with the issue in:

  1. the Commission on Human Rights and the U.N. Secretariat, which led to the U.N. Secretary General creating a new post of Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict;
  2. the independent negotiations for the creation of the International Criminal Court, where finally the use of child soldiers can be considered as crimes; and
  3. the International Labour Organization which had a convention against forced labor and was becoming increasingly concerned about child labor.

Each institution has its own way of working and its own rules concerning dealing with NGOs. One has to know how each institutions works, create contacts with diplomats in each and know what a government’s position is. Often a government does not know what its representatives are doing or pushing in different forums.

As Rachel Brett notes

Some of QUNO’s work is providing “good ideas.” Because of the longevity and commitment, and the quiet listening and analysing of what is going on, QUNO is sometimes in a position to provide not only analysis but proposals. Many of these are quite technical, and so do not garner a lot of attention or interest outside “Geneva circles” … Often we propose ideas or actions, and never know — or only discover later — that these have been taken up. … One of the reasons why QUNO is heard and listened to is that we have built credibility by the work we do on specific issues. Others know that the issues on which we work are well-grounded, not trendy, not superficial, and so people respect it, even if they do not agree. … QUNO’s perceived lack of political alignment, together with its recognised expertise and trustworthiness, has also led to its advice and assistance being sought by many delegations from different regions.

It is always difficult to evaluate the contributions of NGOs to the UN processes. By and large, no NGOworks totally alone. There are always others who “join the band,” who have different contacts and different ways of working. In the end, only government representatives vote, and they will rarely say “we voted for this resolution written by an NGO representative.” I think that we can agree with Rachel Brett in her conclusion in looking back at QUNO efforts:

We have been involved in identifying issues and putting them on the international agenda, creating new international standards and processes to address them, and seeing real changes as a result.  This does not mean that the problems are solved — there are still child soldiers, there are still countries in which conscientious objection to military service is not recognised and in which too many women are sent to prison — but in many instances, QUNO has created tools which are being and continue to be used to keep trying to improve the situation.

[Snakes and Ladders: A Personal Exploration of Quaker Work on Human Rights at the United Nations by Rachel Brett, Quaker Books, 2012, 105 pages., $4.00 digital version for Kindle subscribers.]

Rene Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens.