Exciting, interesting and transformational are the three words that I would use to describe my time at the Quaker United Nations Office Summer School in Geneva this July. I was glad to be amongst the 25 young people who attended in the course with participants from Palestine, the US, Britain, Australia, India, Kenya, Lesotho, Nepal and Brazil.
This was a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet other young people interested in social change and international relations, meet UN and NGO staff to ask them about their work, and on a more personal level, as a Quaker, to find out how Quaker methods and values work in practice when dealing with complex and difficult issues.
Perhaps one of the foremost worries that I had about going to the QUNO summer school was the other participants – they are selected from stiff competition for places on the programme and all of them had a lot of education, and experience that made me feel apprehensive about what I might contribute to sessions. My worry was allayed in recognising that I was able to contribute vastly to discussions of peacebuilding and militarism, and there was a great benefit to have such a diverse group of participants that everyone was very knowledgeable about at least one of the topics we engaged with.
The programme focussed on learning about key issues that the UN faces such as: Human Rights, the Human Impact of Climate Change, Peacebuilding and Sustainability. We had the opportunity to attend many different UN organisation meetings such as a meeting of the Human Rights Committee, which was working on a draft report. The committee was discussing ‘killer robots’ and the legal implications of such technology. Of course, the programme helped us to learn about not only what the UN works on but rather, how the UN works – or often more to the point – doesn’t work.
One of the most inspiring speakers the participants had the opportunity to talk with and ask questions was Kevin Koh from the OHCHR. Kevin shared our concerns about the UN but asked us to look at the UN in a different way: “The UN is only a mirror, it has no content of its own, it is only a reflection of its member states”.
Despite its stumbling blocks, the UN also does great work in bringing different groups together. One of the most interesting session that we attended was the ninth session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous People. The people speaking were usually Indigenous themselves, from all over the world, sharing their personal stories of the difficulties their communities face.
Despite everything we learned and seen the best thing about the programme was the participants. It was truly a once in a life time opportunity to meet a diverse group of young people who all share in their drive for justice, passion for change, and love for humanity.