Devoted Friends: glimpses of QUNO Geneva in its 75th year

Adrian Glamorgan, West Australia Regional Meeting and Asia West Pacific Secretary for the Friends World Committee for Consultation

Quaker United Nations Office is now officially 75 years young, with an enduring role for change

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge speaking on the 75th anniversary of Quaker United Nations Office. Photo by Adrian Glamorgan

The old world cottage, Quaker House in Geneva, is not far from more than a dozen international agencies plus the UN Human Rights Council. The tranquil spot can serve as the homespun venue where diplomats are invited together for quiet discussions and wholesome food.

It’s a time to breathe, off the record.







Left: Quaker House, Geneva, home of Geneva Meeting and Quaker United Nations Office. Photo by Adrian Glamorgan





Staff map the diplomatic gaps, and quiet opportunities, and seek out solutions that the diplomats and their countries may not dare to hope for, or discover to their advantage. Interests may converge. But QUNO main task is not just helping to amend clauses, but helping the world community reassess values

At one such meal, a diplomat turned to Laurel Townhead, QUNO Representative for Human Rights and Refugees, and warmly affirmed Friends’ methods, relishing the meal and the opportunity: “If you sit down and you eat together, if you share bread and you share salt, then you’ve reached a different level of communication and contact and understanding.” The gathering of diplomats with refugee-led NGOs seemed to be a success. Laurel explained to me that although she would have liked to have continued to be part of those conversations she’d facilitated at Quaker House “we weren’t needed again because after we’d facilitated one conversation it was possible for the diplomats who were involved with the refugee-led organisations to take that forward on their own…they’d created that space, they shared bread and salt and they could take that forward without us needing to be involved.” QUNO’s long term commitment to work does not need to hold on to any one of its successes, when so much else still needs to be done.

Laurel Townhead, Representative for Human Rights & Refugees, Quaker House, 2023. Photo by Adrian Glamorgan.

Lindsey Fielder Cook, Quaker House Geneva 2023. Photo by Adrian Glamorgan

Lindsey Fielder Cook, QUNO Representative for Climate Change explained about one important meeting in March 2023 involving the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which creates reports on climate science adopted by States; once that report is adopted by states, it creates an accountability, and accordingly is very influential.  “In the approval session, which is about seven days, nonstop sentence by sentence, about two in the morning there was a complete divide in this plenary of over 100 states where one side, primarily less developed, were saying ‘we need this sentence that more money is spent on fossil fuels than on climate action’ and meanwhile another voice, primarily developed countries, were saying ‘we need to clarify that the $100 billion promised has not been given,’ and they were going back and forth and back and forth trying in this sort of political nightmare. And so I put down our buzzer. I was called and I said ‘it is important that both these statements are in this report. Both statements are ethical statements, both statements are true, both statements have a moral call: we need to have them both in here.’  And there was silence in the room and then both those statements for accepted. So it’s almost like trying to come into a space…to move us beyond the politicisation and see the human face in it.”

On that occasion, QUNO brought a silence to proceedings, settling delegates. Silence is something Friends know well, for its granting of insight, unhurried wisdom, and collective peace. So although I had thought much about QUNO’s track record in helping bring about conventions (like the Chemical Weapons Treaty, and Arms Trade Treaty), there is an extra dimension Quakers can offer. For Lindsey, QUNO’s discernment focuses “if there is something that we can contribute, based on what we would morally and ethically wish to offer.”

There are many of those meetings. I asked each of the staff to describe a typical month at QUNO.

Florence Foster, Representative for Peace and Disarmament, summarised everyone’s near-identical response. “I don’t think that’s such a thing at QUNO! The average month normally has a key conference in it somewhere and so it’s a lot of preparing towards that conference, depending if we’re actually going to engage actively, by taking the floor, making statements, or is it influencing from the sidelines: so there might be a lot of one-to-one meetings with delegates around a coffee or lunch to make sure that our messages are passed through, and hopefully owned by a state that might be taking the floor there. It might be that we have side events, public events, where we are organising a panel session with different stakeholders. and it might be that we’re then doing quite a lot of preparation towards that. 

Florence Foster, Representative for Peace & Disarmament, Quaker House 2023. Photo by Adrian Glamorgan.

“There’s a lot of internal reporting that has to happen, either to donors or to our own committee yearly meetings….” There are more iterations. Flo has many skills that interleave her work, mentioning in passing she is trained in mediation. At the right moment, she has been known to produce cakes in the kitchen. The other representatives also have diverse life experiences, qualifications, and life responsibilities; and yet there they seem to have in common the best Friends could hope for: clear minds, kind hearts, and devoted effort.

QUNO Geneva’s newest programme associate for the newest theme, Sustainable and Just Economic Systems, Andrés Naranjo, is passionate about Friends helping transform the rules that have created so much global poverty, and misdirected human values. He acknowledges the current form of globalisation fosters economic interdependence, possibly serving as a mechanism of peace, making war too costly between nations. However, the current system “also has its drawbacks, and one of the major drawbacks of trade and trade policy is the lack of inclusivity of people that are affected and impacted by trade, for example, Indigenous communities, women and children. Trade needs to take into account the injustices, historical between and within member states of the World Trade Organization.”

Andrés Naranjo, Program Associate in Paris for a UN-led meeting to end plastic pollution globally, 2023. Photo: QUNO Facebook.

The World Trade Organization is a relatively new organisation, and QUNO is adapting to its presence as an opportunity for transformation of much more.

QUNO Director in Geneva, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, is keen for what could come from Friends engaging with the WTO. In immediate terms, the current treaty negotiations to bring about a treaty ending plastics pollution by 2050 would be historic. But the question of healing historic and continuing injustices is also a matter close to her heart, and a key theme in the coming World Plenary of Friends in Johannesburg, in August 2024. QUNO is not just about clauses, it is about values and processes Friends have been proclaiming since 1652.

If the spiritual dimension needs to be intrinsic to the methods of QUNO staff, then the Geneva director’s time growing up in apartheid South Africa has much to teach us. A pacifist and longtime Friend, Nozizwe joined the African National Congress in 1979 when it was decidedly illegal to do so. As the South African government grew more extreme, Nozizwe experienced arbitrary detention without trial, which turned into a year in solitary confinement. People dear to her were killed. I am in awe of how such experiences can temper and strengthen the precept of loving that of God in everyone. The Quaker pacifist was elected to parliament, serving as Deputy Defence Minister and Deputy Health Minister, while she upheld the interests of 12% of the population infected by HIV, while trying to deal with a Minister who thought more garlic, not antiviral drugs, was the answer.

When much younger, Nozizwe came to Geneva to speak at the UN, a formative experience. Now she is back with her passion for justice, for the past and continuing wrongs to be recognised and redressed. It is an added bonus that the QUNO director is someone who is recognised by many diplomats in a way that can assist QUNO’s active presence.

In short, my invitation to Friends is to rethink QUNO. Yes, it is a place where much good international work is done. That work is exhausting, and needs our help – campaigning in our own part of the world, in support, as well as finding new ways for your meeting and mine to more deeply fund the offices in Geneva and New York, to extend the work that goes into the morning, and in many forums, and to recognise our own role. Devotion needs practical funds to continue.

For decades – 75 years ­­– QUNO staff have been doing this service with devotion, creating a steady Quaker presence and developing trust and finding openings. Their work builds on what is discerned, and what can be afforded. So far from my home or yours, it turns that those faraway policies and treaties forged in New York and Geneva matter, not just on a global scale, but as they manifest in many corners of the world, including yours and mine. Quaker House in New York and Geneva are about making every corner of the world a better place, and they need our prayerful help, as we need theirs.

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  1. Stephen Hodgkin

    Really interesting, Adrian — thank you (and you take good photographs!). My father had hoped to work at QUNO Geneva in the late 1940s, but it didn’t happen. He’d have been glad to read about how well it’s going still.

  2. Alan Clayton

    Adrian, I think that you are absolutely right about inviting Friends to rethink QUNO. I have for some time been concerned, not quite obsessed, about how Quakers with relatively small numbers can, in the thinking of the American Quaker medical epidemiologist and health care administrator, Charles Schade, best ‘do good well’. That is with reducing numbers and monetary capital, but with abundant social capital, how can our special message to the world be best heard and have the greatest effect? In terms of looking back to see ahead, I wonder whether the vision of Carl Heath, the first chair of the Friends World Committee for Consultation may be of greater relevance than when in he first floated it in the aftermath of World War I. That is his notion of Quaker ‘Embassies’ (later renamed as Quaker International Centres). Quite a number of these were established in Europe, most notably in Germany (Berlin, Frankfurt and Nurnberg), Viennam, Paris, Warsaw, Moscow, Geneva (the precursor of the the present QUNO presence there) and even Shanghai. The International Centres in Germany, staffed by some incredible Quakers like Corder Catchpool and Brenda Bracey, were central to the logistical efforts in organising the Kindertransport. Another contemporary example , Quaker House in Belfast played a major background role (including in hosting behind the scenes negotiations between Republicans and Loyalists) during the ‘Troubles’ which helped usher in the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. Dorothy and I spent quite some time in 2009 living with and exploring the history and experience of Ulster Friends and were amazed at the enormous impact that they were able to achieve, notwithstanding their small numbers. In short, I join your call to support the work of the two QUNO offices (New York and Geneva), but wonder whether it is also time to return to Carl Heath’s vision of a range of Quaker ’embassies’ linked to a Quaker ‘Foreign Office’. His idea was that Quaker ‘ambassadors’ would spend two years in their role. I know that there are resourcing constraints and a whole range of other obstacles, but bodies such as two of the Rowntree trusts (Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust) are doing some very impressive and innovative work in a range of areas of achieving a more just, equal and peaceful world.


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