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Issue Date:  February 27, 2004

The United Nations headquarters in New York
-- Archive photos
Religious orders speak for the voiceless at the U.N.

Growing number of congregations share international expertise with world policymakers

New York

For 20 years Franciscan Sr. Florence Deacon ran the Model United Nations program at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, where she is a professor of history. Often she would ask herself: “If I could have the ear of a diplomat, what would I tell him?”

Since coming to the United Nations to represent her order in 2001, Deacon has had many opportunities to speak one on one with diplomats and some of the world’s top policymakers. A unique opportunity arose last summer in Geneva when she was invited to a breakfast meeting hosted by the U.N. Economic and Social Council. Deacon was seated with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte, and ministers of development from the European Community, Finland and some African nations.

Their conversation focused on ways to eradicate absolute poverty and hunger. As one of its eight development goals to be achieved by 2015 (see accompanying story), the United Nations wants to cut by half the number of people -- currently a quarter of the human race -- who live on less than $1 a day.

What Deacon told the leading policymakers at her table is what she had heard from the grass roots -- messages from those who work on behalf of students, orphans, the hungry, homeless, street children and those living with AIDS and other diseases in the 125 nations in which Franciscans are active.

Bringing the voices of the least visible of the earth’s inhabitants to the briefing rooms of its power brokers is Deacon’s chief work as director of the New York office of Franciscans International, a nongovernmental organization that represents at the United Nations some 1.2 million men and women worldwide who are vowed and secular Franciscans in the First, Second and Third Orders. Once when Deacon had just returned from Colombia, a U.S. expert on Latin America seated next to her in the U.N. cafeteria confided: “You have seen things I’ve never seen. You’ve been places I’ve never been to.”

Deacon is one of some 40 Catholic nuns, priests and brothers who represent their global religious congregations and the people they serve worldwide. Their U.N. work is in the capacity of representatives of nongovernmental organizations accredited to the U.N. Department of Public Information or to the Economic and Social Council. Public information affiliates share in the information resources of the United Nations and its agencies, while representatives accredited to the Economic and Social Council become advisers for the world body’s humanitarian work.

More than 20 congregations are accredited at the United Nations; 13 have consultative status to the Economic and Social Council. Most have been accredited since 1995.

International expertise

When the United Nations was founded in 1946, only 41 nongovernmental organizations -- called NGOs -- were recognized. That number has swelled to 1,400 organizations with the Department of Public Information and the 2,100 organizations with the Economic and Social Council today -- of which religious organizations remain but a tiny fraction. The burgeoning of the nongovernmental organization movement has happened as the result of 12 years of U.N. conferences -- on children, the environment, human rights, population, women, development, food, human habitats and racism.

As an accredited member of the U.N. Economic and Social Council, Franciscans International and several other religious groups share their international expertise and experience through written interventions or statements delivered to the council’s working groups, commissions and committees. These documents are often seen by members of the General Assembly and by leading U.N. agencies.

Last year Franciscans International submitted a statement to the Com-mission for Social Development on the social responsibility of the private sector and another to the Commission on the Status of Women on women’s human rights and the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls.

Some might question what consecrated religious women and men know about the trafficking in women and girls, about female slavery, prostitution, female feticide and genital mutilation. But reading the joint statement by Franciscans, Presentation, Good Shepherd, Maryknoll, Medical Missionary and School Sisters of Notre Dame, as well as the Elizabeth Seton Federation, it is clear that these women religious have had direct contact with thousands of victims of abuse.

“A Sister of Charity from India knew exactly what needed to be done to combat trafficking,” Deacon said. The Indian nun proposed a series of community-level vigilance programs to prevent the kidnapping of girls for the international sex trade.

Describing a typical week at the United Nations, many of the 22 religious who spoke to NCR painted a picture of intense work in an atmosphere of continuous learning and constant interacting. “You never do something alone,” said Sacred Heart Sr. Cecile Meijer, an international law expert with a background in human rights, humanitarian affairs, refugees and internally displaced persons and in peace and security issues. The Dutch nun, a member of the U.S. province, worked in Washington for the War Crimes Research Office at American University’s Washington College of Law before moving to the United Nations in September.

The Sacred Heart Society aims to integrate the work of the United Nations into the curriculum of their students in 45 countries. “My dream is to be in touch with our sisters and to get their interests and their experiences represented here and to have what going’s on at the U.N. reflected in our schools,” said Sacred Heart Sr. Joan Kirby, who represented the international society of 3,500 sisters during the lengthy process to gain accreditation at the United Nations.

During the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kirby received a letter from a Spanish Sacred Heart nun based there. “She begged me to get the word out” to members of their order about the massacres “so that we could raise the consciousness of our students,” Kirby said. Women and children were the main victims in the war there that destroyed villages and took tens of thousands of lives.

Underside of globalization

Whether in the Third World or the First World, students need to see “the underside of what globalization’s effect has had on the poor. Colonialism has created false boundaries that lead to war. Economic globalization is the new form of that colonialism,” Kirby said.

In September Kirby will direct the annual conference that brings representatives of nongovernmental organizations affiliated with the Department of Public Information from around the world to the United Nations. Some 3,000 representatives are expected.

As a representative for the Dominican Leadership Conference, Sr. Eileen Gannon has worked on issues involving Iraq and Israel because the Dominicans have members in those countries. At a meeting last year between the NGO Working Group on Iraq and the Security Council, she delivered a paper incorporating information received directly from Iraqi Dominicans.

Sisters in Africa have asked Gannon to focus on HIV/AIDS, while Dominican friars have asked her to pay attention to the trafficking issue.

For Sr. Joan Burke, educating the membership of her order, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, has been her priority during a year and a half at the United Nations, where the congregation gained consultative status with the Economic and Social Council in 2002. Burke, who worked 20 years in Africa, said she intends to help Notre Dame sisters “become an articulate channel and mouthpiece for our own concerns about the human family and an advocate for those we serve -- especially the poor.”

Burke educates by sending reports twice a month via the Internet or the mail. In one of her postings she included a report on a preparatory meeting for the U.N. World Summit on the Information Society, the first phase of which was held in December in Geneva. The second phase will be held in Tunis in 2005. Neither the United Nations nor the Notre Dame community wants to see “the wiring of the world through the Internet to be one more occasion for locking out the poor,” she said.

Many religious share a commitment to U.N. reform and restructuring, noting that the composition of the 192-member world body still reflects the geopolitics of 1945. The veto power given to the five Allied victors of World War II makes it difficult to reach agreement on resolutions and thus to gather the political will to make the structural changes that many view as necessary to ensure a better world for all humankind.

The sisters emphasized that they represented only their orders and not the United States or the Vatican. Religious at the United Nations gave high praise to Bishop Celestino Migliore, who heads the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the U.N. According to Deacon, at a meeting with representatives of religious NGOs last year, Migliore told them he realized that not all of them would be working on “right to life” issues. “He understood we couldn’t do everything,” Deacon said.

Still, religious NGOs have found ways to address such topics. Francis-cans International was able to make a “pro-life statement” by strongly supporting the education of girls within the context of the NGO Commission on Population and Development, Deacon said.

Youth concerns

Youth concerns remain high on the agendas of many religious NGOs. Not only do they try to communicate what happens at the parliament of nations to students whom they teach, some also provide internships.

Sr. Anele Heiges
-- Patricia Lefevere

Dominican Sr. Anele Heiges teaches theology and contemporary issues at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. She threads the work of the United Nations into her courses and brings students to the headquarters, immersing them in its “liberating education and convening of people,” she told NCR.

Heiges represents the International Public Policy Institute and serves as its vice president. The global NGO, headquartered in Newark, N.J., promotes human rights, education and the formation of young world leaders.

Currently Heiges has two such leaders on her board, a Trinidadian woman who founded a company to aid the homeless and unemployed in New Jersey, and a Haitian who runs a radio station for Haitians in Brooklyn. The nun wants to build a global alumni of individuals who are committed to changing the world.

When asked to define her role as an NGO representative, Heiges borrowed a phrase from theologian and environmentalist Passionist Fr. Thomas Berry. “We [religious NGOs] are ‘cosmic conduits,’ ” she said. She believes religious can be highly effective in the world body, because “we conduct ourselves well, we’re thoughtful and we’ve learned the art of having strategic conversations. People value our input, because we listen, we follow through, we don’t waste people’s time.”

Augustinian Fr. Jesus Guzman is interested in seeing that the work of the United Nations be widely known among youth. Guzman, a Mexican with long experience in Latin America, represents his confreres at the United Nations. When a special Mass was celebrated in 1998 at Holy Family Church, which is three blocks north of the U.N. tower, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, students from Marymount College in North Andover, Mass., and Villanova University in Philadelphia filled the church. Augustinians run both institutions.

Each year in May and September, students at Marymount and Washing-ton Theological Union can sign up for the Augustinians’ intensive two-week course that views the work of the United Nations through the lens of Catholic social teaching. Students taking the course at the United Nations in September also attend the annual conference of NGOs accredited with the U.N. Department of Public Information.

Healing presence

Having a presence at the United Nations, “represents a real commitment on the part of our communities,” said School Sister of Notre Dame Ann Scholz. That commitment includes health care, help with living and operational expenses and, for some, a salary.

Religious women outnumber religious men seven to one at the United Nations. Many nuns have doubled up with other congregations. “Some of us work out of our rooms; some share an office, some have paid staff. Each one is different,” said Deacon, who said she is constantly fundraising. She shares an apartment with two interns and rents space in a building in which seven other religious NGOs have offices.

Jane Blewett, a lay associate and the first NGO representative of the Medical Mission Sisters, said that the summits of the ’90s showed the earth is but one human community.

The United Nations does not use such language, she noted. It has its own “U.N.-ese”: words like “interdependence, sustainable development and global interaction.” But “we are not fooled,” Blewett said: “The Spirit hovers in its halls to make all things new.”

St. Joseph Sr. Mary Legge planned to retire when she was asked by her congregation to do NGO work. “I love the U.N. I have always loved it,” she told NCR. She finds her work coincides with the charism of St. Joseph nuns. “We strive to be a healing presence in the world.”

Patricia Lefevere, a longtime contributor to NCR, lives in New Jersey.

Millennium goals set global agenda

When asked what their key goals are as religious women and men representing their congregations at the United Nations, their answer is unanimous: All support the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by 2015.

All the world’s heads of state agreed to the common global agenda in 2000. The goals are:

  • Halve extreme poverty and hunger.
  • Achieve universal primary education.
  • Empower women and promote equality between women and men.
  • Reduce under-5 mortality by two-thirds
  • Reduce maternal mortality by three quarters.
  • Reverse the spread of diseases, especially HIV/AIDS and malaria.
  • Ensure environmental sustainability.
  • Create a global partnership for development, with targets for aid, trade and debt relief.

Sr. Joan Burke, who represents the Notre Dame de Namur sisters, said the goals are similar to those for which Notre Dame sisters have been laboring since the founding of their congregation. “They offer us now an opportunity to see our efforts in a larger context, and renew our sense of solidarity with the global community.”

Sr. Mary Theresa Plante
-- Patricia Lefevere

Franciscan Sr. Mary Theresa Plante, who is part of Franciscans International, said that it is no longer a question of caring for the sick or educating the poor as religious orders have done for centuries: “I think rather we have to look at why these people still don’t have the necessities of life after so many hundreds of years.” The nun puts part of the blame on transnational corporations and institutions like the World Trade Organization that affect people’s lives at the local level.

Progress toward the goals is uneven and slow. Although India has made great strides in education within the last decade and will have 95 percent of its children in school by 2005, there are still 113 million youngsters in the world who do not attend school. Similarly, two-thirds of the world’s illiterates are women and 80 percent of its refugees are women and children.

In a news brief to Notre Dame sisters, Burke noted that industrialized nations had pledged to work toward committing the equivalent of .7 percent of their gross national product to development assistance in order to realize the millennium goals. So far only the Netherlands and the Scandinavian states have complied.

In contrast, Burke cited the percentage of official development assistance from Belgium (.42 percent), France (.36), the United Kingdom (.3), Japan (.23), Italy (.2), and the United States (.12).

The sum that economists estimate is needed to achieve the goals is $50 billion.

-- Patricia Lefevere

National Catholic Reporter, February 27, 2004

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