Seeking a New Angle
In the face of criticism over its humiliating failures to maintain peace in recent international conflicts such as Sierra Leone and Kosovo, and a strongly worded report by an independent panel recommending a fundamental restructuring of the organization, the United Nations is opening its doors to religion in the hope that it might have something to offer.
In response to a call from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, more than 2,000 top religious leaders from all major faiths gathered August 28-31 in New York City for a first-ever Millennium World Peace Summit. The summit’s objectives were twofold: to draw up resolutions on peace, poverty and the environment; and, more importantly, to develop a permanent council of religious leaders to advise the United Nations on preventing and settling disputes.
In spite of efforts by the organizers to present the summit as primarily an exercise in religious reconciliation, it is a politically charged event, from the guest list to the venue to the objectives.
Conference organizers made a point of not inviting the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, to the first two days of the conference because they were held in the UN building, for fear of offending China, although an eight-person delegation was sent by the Dalai.
While emphasizing that the UN was not directly sponsoring the event, the fact that the first two days of meetings were held in UN quarters has placed the conference in the midst of international political controversy. And perhaps more than anything, the objective of forming an official advisory council to the UN makes this a manifestly political conference.
The UN is recognizing that, in the past decade, more than 100 new conflicts have erupted where religious identity has often played a prominent part. Dena Merriam, vice chairman of the summit’s executive council, explained the reasoning behind the first-ever religious summit: “There are limits to what political leaders can do to quell some of the passions [of religious conflicts]. Religious leaders with their moral authority can play a greater role in easing tensions” (Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 28).
In other words, purely political solutions cannot solve religious conflicts. That is why a prime aim of religious leaders at the summit was to develop a partnership with the UN through the creation of an international advisory council to work with the secretary-general.
The UN clearly is working to reinvent itself. The old, purely political approach has proven itself a disappointing failure. Watch for how this opening of the UN to religious influence affects the workings of the organization in the future.