Aletia Dundas, New South Wales Regional Meeting

Aletia DundasWhy go work at the UN?

Before I left for Geneva, a friend asked me why I wanted to work with the United Nations (UN). It’s a good question. The UN is criticized for being too bureaucratic, for being a talk-fest and for achieving very little. And certainly it has its problems. The system of consensus is quite different to the Quaker model, where those with a concern are genuinely listened to and a final statement is agreeable to all. Instead, countries use the power of veto as a tool of control, with the frustrating result that often no decision is made at all. In some meetings, each country will feel the need to comment on the timeliness of the meeting and congratulate the Chair on their recent election, which can leave no time for discussion of substance to take place.

So, why work with such an institution? I came to some clarity on this question when I was in Brussels. The keynote speaker at a Quaker Peace Conference pointed out that we don’t stop engaging with our national governments because they are not exactly the institution we would like them to be. Indeed, he pointed out that it is for this reason that we should engage most vigorously with them. The role of the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) is to engage with the world’s government. By advocating for international positions on human rights, disarmament and fairer trade agreements and facilitating dialogue and understanding between government representatives, we can have an impact on the current system. We can also model the kind of international diplomacy that we would want to see throughout the UN.

The application process

Duncan Wood’s words on tapestry at Quaker House, Geneva

Duncan Wood’s words on tapestry at Quaker House, Geneva

So I had decided that I wanted to work at QUNO. But I still had to go through a few minor hurdles first. I remember the interview for the Programme Assistant position, Peace and Disarmament. It was about ten o’clock at night and I was in my pyjamas with prompt notes surrounding me on the floor! That’s the advantage of telephone interviews for a position overseas – you can be more relaxed and nobody need know that you’re reading what you want to say. But, as with these things, it can sometimes be the element of chance that gets you the job. For me, I think it was my passion for peacebuilding just at the time when the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission was being formed that made them pick me. It seemed like a good fit.


The QUNO Programme Assistants (there were 3 of us the year I was there) were part of a larger team of “Quaker Peace Workers” – all young people whose salaries would be paid for by Quakers in some way or another. We gathered together at Friends House in London for one week, and a second week at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham. In workshops we explored how we would manage any cultural differences, how we would seek to nourish ourselves when times got tough, and formed friendships that would sustain us throughout the months ahead. We met again in March when the daffodils were popping out everywhere, to check in with one another. I thought that this training/induction was something that Quakers in Britain do quite well.

Settling in

We quickly settled into a rhythm at Quaker house, Geneva. Monday morning always began with meeting for worship for staff meeting, which everyone groaned about, but I found nice. This was normally followed by frantic planning by one of us Programme Assistants (PAs) for a lunch hosted that very day. Hosted lunches normally involved diplomats, and some other NGO people, and were a chance for the Programme Managers to negotiate important agreements and for diplomats to talk openly and off the record. These lunches were famous, not just for the food, but because people trusted Quakers enough to come along, knowing that we stood for peace and justice, not for any country or position. For us PAs these lunches meant thoughtful discussions on the shopping list with Madame Helene (the administration manager extraordinaire) which invariably ended in the decision to go with quiche and salad nicoise. Next on the agenda was shopping with Madame Helene at the local mall, followed by donning the apron and simultaneously playing the role of chef, waiter and ultimately, minute taker at the meeting! The best thing about those lunches for us was the leftovers.

Conference on disarmament

Conference on disarmament

Then, when we weren’t hosting lunches, or doing research in the office, we were at the United Nations. With my United Nations (UN) badge hot off the badge-making machine, I was quickly inducted into the process of UN meetings. In my first week, I managed to attend a meeting of the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, a briefing on Cluster Munitions in Lebanon, a planning meeting of the Geneva Process and a meeting of the Non-Governmental Organisations Disarmament Committee. These meetings helped me to understand the relationship that QUNO has with United Nations institutions, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and Government Representatives. One of my first impressions was a sense of how well respected QUNO is, and what an important role this office plays in facilitating dialogue and discussion between such diverse groups.

The “Conference on Disarmament” was terrible. It was made up of most of the countries in the UN, and met in a glorious building whose walls were decorated by Spanish style depictions of old wars and reconciliations. I remember my first visit to the Conference. My boss, also called David, casually informed me that they hadn’t made a decision in over six years, but that I should take notes today, just in case anything should happen. It was a bit deflating, because sure enough, once I had adjusted the earpiece to English and settled into the rhythm of the translation, it was clear that nothing was still happening, apart from longwinded greetings and formalities.

In September 2006 I attended the 7th Meeting of States Parties (7MSP) to the Mine Ban Treaty. This meeting was a chance for countries to report to one another what they had been doing about the clearing landmine areas and supporting landmine survivors. It was also where countries that had recently signed the treaty were congratulated. It was inspiring to see the impact that this treaty has had on reducing the number of landmines throughout the world. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, an achievement that inspired other lobbying groups such as those who were working towards an Arms Trade Treaty.

QUNO Geneva’s Peace and Disarmament Programme has not only been working on disarmament issues. The QUNO offices in Geneva and New York have also been monitoring the new UN Peacebuilding Commission.  The aim of this Commission is to provide strategic, long-term planning and funding in post-conflict environments. QUNO has been busy working with other organisations to ensure that civil society organisations are represented in this process. It is important that the knowledge and experience of those engaged in peacebuilding work on the ground in post conflict situations is fully utilised.

QUNO hosted a workshop at Quaker House to consider the role that Geneva-based civil society organisations might play in the work of the UN Peacebuilding Commission. Participants represented a range of organisations involved in peacebuilding work.  We asked participants to “map” how their organisations’ work fits into the structure of the Peacebuilding Commission. As a result, participants were pleased to discover that their work includes everything from high level mediation to civilian accompaniment, as well as development and human rights work.

In order to consider broader issues of Quakers and peacebuilding, I represented QUNO in Brussels. The Quaker Centre for European Affairs (QCEA) hosted a Conference entitled “Peacebuilding – what is the role of Europe?” and I facilitated a couple of workshops on QUNO’s role in the UN Peacebuilding Commission. Some interesting discussion followed. It was useful to get Quaker feedback on the work that we are doing, and also to gain a clearer picture of future directions.

Despite the excitement of a trip to Brussels, it was nice to return to the quiet and cosy apartment that I had come to call home

Springtime reflections on Nuclear Disarmament

Broken Chair

Broken Chair

In the first few weeks of April 2007, the blossoms began to fill the trees, and daffodils were emerging, as if from nowhere. Birds were singing as they busily made their nests. Spring had arrived. This time of year always makes me feel cheerful, and full of hope and I associate hope, spring and flowers with orange shirts, flares and the anti-nuclear rallies of my childhood. While these are now distant memories, nuclear weapons, sadly, are not. The previous month I had attended a meeting on “Challenges to International Security and the Non-Proliferation Regime on the Eve of the Next Review Cycle of the NPT[1]”. This meeting confirmed for me that now, more than ever, countries needed to put aside their differences to find agreement on the main points of the NPT: non-proliferation of the non-nuclear weapons states, disarmament of the nuclear weapons states, and agreement around the “peaceful” production of nuclear energy. It seems that there is a stalemate, or a “crisis of trust” as one commentator put it, despite the progress made by regional groupings in implementing nuclear-weapons-free zones.

Despite this stalemate, there was a sense of hope when the Conference on Disarmament (CD) re-commenced in Spring. They were actually talking about agreement on a Programme of Work that might result in new international negotiations and agreements, so the mood was positive. While states discuss possible agenda items such as the “Prevention of an arms race in outer space”, and “Transparency in armaments”, these issues were made real by contemporary issues such as China’s anti-satellite test in outer space in January that year.

The process of building peace seems at times an insurmountable challenge. But as I left the Palais des Nations that week, it was not only the sight of daffodils popping out of the ground that gave me renewed hope. Towering above me was the “Broken Chair”, a startling symbol of the international community’s commitment to repair the devastating impacts of conflict and war. Originally built as a reminder of the commitment to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, the chair has just recently been re-instated outside Geneva’s UN Building and encourages me to keep faith in the multilateral processes of peace and disarmament.



[1] The 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)

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