By Lyndsay Farrall, Hobart Meeting.

This year’s Backhouse Lecture given by David Atwood, who recently retired as Director of the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) in Geneva, is an excellent introduction to the work of QUNO. It provided David Atwood with an opportunity to reflect on his sixteen years as a staff member of QUNO and to provide the reader with insights as to how Friends can live out their testimonies in relating to the United Nations, today’s most complex international organisation.

This Backhouse Lecture manages to cover a wide array of matters with which QUNO has been concerned over the last two decades. It also provides numerous examples of how the QUNO staff has been able to influence the outcomes of important issues relating to peace and social justice. For someone like me, who has only managed to catch glimpses of this Quaker work, it is a reminder of how significant that work can be.

Did you know that QUNO has been heavily involved (often behind the scenes) in:

  • an international treaty to ban the use of child soldiers;
  • the international treaty to ban the use of landmines;
  • the establishment of the UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects ;
  • the continuation of work to establish Conscientious Objector status in countries around the world;
  • helping Burundi Quakers in their work with the UN Peace Building Commission (PBC) in post conflict Burundi;
  • the establishment of a regime whereby the World Trade Organisation enabled cheaper generic anti-AIDS medicines to be available in countries in Africa;
  • the establishment of protocols for the treatment of the infant children of imprisoned women;
  • the establishment of The Geneva Forum, whose main objective is to support the work necessary for arms control and disarmament (see;

and these among many other matters.

Much of the work of QUNO detailed by David Atwood is driven by our peace testimony. It conscientiously supports “building the institutions of peace”. He describes QUNO’s involvement with the issue of “micro-disarmament”, the attempt to limit the production and trade of “small” arms and “light” weapons, which in the last 50 years have been responsible for many more deaths than “heavy” armaments and weapons of mass destruction. QUNO has been involved in research on this topic as well as facilitating co-operation with and between other civic organisations and the UN.

He helps us understand the dilemmas associated with being an organisation committed to peace but having to work for the amelioration of violence as well as its complete elimination. QUNO’s work in support of the control of small arms was based on research to establish the actual extent of the production and use of small arms and the number of deaths and injuries resulting from that use. Supporting the development of the UN’s Programme of Action to limit the use of small arms is taking a significant step in trying to reduce casualties. The goal of eliminating small arms altogether is probably utopian.

In a similar way, the UN’s adoption of the “Responsibility to Protect” principle raises dilemmas for Friends. We can recognize that the intervention of armed forces in support of humanitarian goals, for example, the prevention of genocide, is something that many might support, but we also know that our peace testimony asks that we seek non-violent solutions to conflict. David Atwood directs our attention to the need for Friends to become engaged in discussing this and other similar dilemmas.

David Atwood conveys well the dilemmas of working for a Quaker organisation. On the one hand Friends expect each Friend to explore their own spirituality and to follow their own conscience. On the other, Quaker work is based on the well accepted testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and service. So working in a Quaker organisation implies working out what your own conscience tells you about your responsibilities in the organisation, but at the same time your personal thinking and behaviour are expected to conform to those of the Quaker community (or perhaps more accurately, how you, as a Friend working in a Quaker organisation, think they should so conform.)

He points out that QUNO work also involves working for social justice and human rights as well as peace making and peace building in a world which is still basically divided into nation-states. Bringing the representatives of nations with different views together in an environment where they can discuss matters “off the record” has proved to be a successful way in which QUNO can assist in bringing progress to seemingly intractable problems.

The lecture also provides us with challenges at our own local or Yearly Meeting level. We need to keep ourselves well-informed about the work of the two QUNO offices in Geneva and New York, both in order to show our strong support (including financial support) for the work but also to provide input into setting the priorities for QUNO work.

In this context it is pleasing to note that one of the minutes from the FWCC Triennial in Dublin in 2007 requesting coordinated Quaker action on climate change is on the QUNO agenda. Our concern for this matter has been confirmed at recent meetings of Australia Yearly Meeting and at meetings of the Asia West Pacific Section of FWCC.

This account of QUNO work provides strong evidence of its substantial importance in the continuous task of building “institutions of peace” at the global level. It provides inspiration and hope for all of us who work for peace in our own communities and it challenges us to provide continued support for the work of our representatives in Geneva and New York.

Download David Atwood’s Backhouse Lecture from here at a cost of $5.00


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