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UU-UNO Director’s Letter

Bruce Knotts

August 2013

We’ve had an eventful summer here at the UU-UNO! Below, I’m sharing with you a few of the highlights:

 UU-UNO Intern Holly Perchlick

Molly Perchlik: UU-UNO Intern presenting

Food Security, Nutrition and Land Degradation: Climate-Resilient Solutions

On August 6th, 2013, the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, in collaboration with the NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) Committee on Human Rights and the NGO Committee on Sustainable Development, hosted a three hour discussion on climate change and its impact on food security. The discussion was organized and led by Molly Perchlik, a PhD candidate and summer intern at the UU-UNO. The panelists were Professor Marc Levy, who is a UU and the Deputy Director for the International Earth Science Information Network of Columbia Unversity, and George Bouma,  the Co-Director of the UN Development Program (UNDP)-UN Environment Program (UNEP) Poverty- Environment Institute. The panel presentations were excellent and largely in agreement on climate change issues.


Panelists: George Bouma and Marc Levy

Both panelists empasized the need to use all the tools available to ensure the provision of sufficient food for the planet. We also need to mitigate the effects of climate change because rising temperatures severely impact our ability to produce food. The panelists considered both the negative and purportedly positive impacts of climate change. They easily listed the many negative aspects of climate change, but were challenged when it came to providing actual positive aspects. They certainly could see that some areas were getting more rainfall, but these areas were unprepared for heavy rain. This extreme weather causes damaging flooding in areas unhabiutated to high rainfall. Other areas, used to dependable levels of rain and known for growing staple grains, find themselves suffering unexpected periods of drought. In the end, climate change, whatever it brings, harms us all. The room was packed and the discussion was lively. Participants were urged to network and work together to end the human causes of climate change and mitigate its effects. 

This event broke new ground in discussing the linkages between climate change and food production. It established the important link between climate change and human rights.  The UU-UNO has been called the UN's labratory of new ideas and inovative thinking in ways that don't silo issues, but rather connecting important issues together.  As we work to mitigate the effects of climate change, we need to do so in ways which ensure that everyone's human rights are respected and that we take care of all inhabitants of this planet. To read more about this event, please visit our blog post

Russia and the Olympics

From a YouTube video of Russians torturning gay man.

Russia has enacted a draconian anti-homosexual propaganda law, which effectively bans pride events, public affection between people of the same gender and even wearing a rainbow flag. As with all anti-LGBT laws, the effects of the law are far worse than the what is written in the law. In every country where such laws have been enacted, it gives license to beat, torture and kill LGBT people.  This is exactly what is happening in Russia now. 

Russia will host the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February 2014. The International Olympic Committee has raised the issue with the Russian government. The Russian government has responded that LGBT athletes and spectators will not be harassed. In fact, the Russian government claims that its law is not discriminatory at all because it only applies to LGBT propaganda aimed at children. However, this means that if you wear a rainbow flag where a child might see it, you may be arrested and possibly beaten.  When one Russian official said that the law would not apply to the Olympic Games, another insisted that it would, so the situation remains unclear.  

Statements by Russia that it will not apply its anti-LGBT law to the Olympics reminds me of the 1936 Olympics, when the Nazi regime gave orders to suspend its anti-Jewish oppression for the duration of the Olympic Games, so as not to offend the international community. If we don't learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. What can we do? 

Speak up, don't boycott. Support ALL Human Rights Defenders in Russia

There are many suggestions of what we can do, including boycotting the Olympics, which we did during the 1980 Olympics in Moscow in protest over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to no effect. Gallons of vodka, some of it Russian, are being poured out in protest, which is also unlikely to have much effect. Some would like us to organize a march past the Russian Mission to the UN. Organizing marches is not our specialty, and I am unsure sure how effective marches are, but that is something we can get another organization to arrange. We are good at soliciting the best possible speakers and educating the UN community about LGBT issues. That strategy has worked, changing the UN community from apathy to full out support for LGBT rights within a five year period. We have participated in a brainstorming session at the New York LGBT Community Center to discuss strategies. According to IGLHRC (International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission) a consortium of about 40 Russian LGBT organizations ask us to "speak up, but not boycott." They also ask us not to silo LGBT rights. There is another Russian law, which impacts Russian LGBT groups far more than the anti-homosexual propaganda law: the foreign agent law. If an organization accepts money from abroad and it is not registered as a "foreign agent," it will be given a very stiff fine and from thereon labeled a foreign agent. Both the fine and the stigma of being labeled a "foreign agent" have the effect of putting the organization out of business. Other homophobic countries are copying this law. Russian LGBT organizations ask us to protest not just on behalf of Russian LGBT organizations, but on behalf of all human rights defenders in Russia who are under attack by the Russian government. 

Did you know that when the Communist Revolution took power, it decriminalized homosexuality? Then Joseph Stalin recriminalized it. Stalin studied to be a Russian priest before gaining control of the Soviet Union. Today it is the Russian Orthodox Church that is most opposed to equal rights for gays and lesbians. In 1993, Boris Yeltsin decriminalized homosexuality again, and it remains legal to this day. However, the current anti-gay propaganda law and the foreign agent law puts the small, vulnerable LGBT community into the crosshairs of hate groups and is forcing the movement underground. There are now 150 videos on YouTube showing thugs torturing gay Russians, and the Russian police doing nothing. Stay tuned for more news on this issue to come. 

Syria and the UN Veto

The tragedy in Syria is the major preoccupation of the UN these days and this will continue to focus when the UN gets into high gear in September. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon is asking that UN inspectors be allowed the time to complete their investigations and file their report before military action is contemplated. This is very similar to the lead up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when UN inspectors were in Iraq investigating allegations that Iraq possessed waepons of mass destruction and were not allowed to finish their work before military action began.  The UK Parliament has voted to give the UN more time and many in the U.S. Congress have expressed similar views.

It seems clear that there have been chemical weapon attacks in Syria and the evidence seems to point at the Syrian government. Everyone agrees that this is a serious violation of international law, some of it dating back to the aftermath of WWI. UN Security Council action is stymied by the vetoes of Russia and perhaps also China. In meetings I've attended, there has been talk of suspending the veto in humanitarian crisis situations. UN Security Council ambassadors agreed to discuss the topic, but there is little chance of The United States, United Kingdom, France, China and Russia, giving up the veto. Even those nations who want to become permanent members of the UN Security Council (Brazil, Germany, South Africa and India) want the veto for themselves and are unwilling to seriously consider suspension of veto powers. Most careful observers of the UN agree that the use of veto is the single strongest impediment to the UN taking effective action and the most often cited reason for unilateral military action, which seems a likelihood for the near future. 

Small Arms

(These observations come from an off the record discussion I had with several diplomats at a Mission to the UN of a member state on the UN Security Council.  Therefore, I will be vague as to the origins of this information.)

As the President and CEO of the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security, I have asked the UN community to focus on small arms in addition to weapons of mass destruction. (Note: This committee and the Disarmament Times it publishes were founded by UU Rev. Homer Jack in the 1970s). In fact, I believe that small arms are weapons of mass destruction. I came to this conclusion from my long-term, personal experience of on-the-ground observations of the civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire. I expect the UN Security Council to take up the issue of small arms in this year's session.

As with Syria above, the major obstacle to effective action on small arms is that the P5 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) are themselves the biggest producers and exporters of small arms. First and foremost, other states want existing rules on the trade in small arms to be more effectively enforced and additional measures to be added. They have told me that they are confident they can maneuver the P5 to agree to better enforcement and more effective limits on the small arms trade

Human Rights

(The following observations come from off the record conversations with high-ranking UN officials.  For this reason, I request your indulgence in allowing me to be vague about my sources of information.)


This year's UN session will discuss several serious conflicts and human rights issues. There will be considerable attention paid to the worsening situation of women around the world who are increasingly bearing the brunt of conflicts, climate change and economic crises. There will be several meetings during this year's session on women. 


As mentioned above, the worsening crisis in Syria will take up much of the UN's time. The conflict has produced sexual and gender-based violence and the world's worst contemporary refugee crisis. Please read our report from our blog page. This report has been submitted to the Committee on the Status of Women for resolutions on their 58th Session. Please note that the report was written by UU-UNO summer intern Russell Hathaway, and that the opinions expressed in the report may not necessarily reflect the opinions of the UU-UNO or the UUA. 


A situation in Myanmar exists that is not well-known globally and UN officials are asking the international community to pay more serious attention these violations of human rights. A nationalist Buddhist monk in Myanmar, U Wirathu, has been accused of provoking violence against Myanmar's Muslim minority. U Wirathu denies provoking this violence. Regardless of the roots, the violence is real and massive. UN officials fear that member states which are primarily interested in pursuing economic interests in Myanmar are not putting sufficient pressure on authorities to stop the violence.  

U Wirathu

Other areas of concern include the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, Egypt and Tanzania. UN officials give the President of Tanzania high marks for raising the subject of religious tensions in his country at a meeting of the African Union. The Tanzanian President should be lauded for acknowledging the problem, making efforts to deal with the issue and asking for international support. 

Gender Reassignment Surgery in Iran

Be Like Others Film Poster

The UU-UNO sponsored another event in its groundbreaking series of panel discussions on topics which are inadequately understood at the UN. This panel cited the credit Iran gets for funding gender reassignment surgery. Such surgery removes external genitalia in stage one and reconstructs genitalia of the opposite gender in stage two.  However, in digging deeper, we discovered that while promising to pay, the Iranian government often does not do so. Surgeries are often poorly done and incomplete (removing genitalia without proceeding to the next step of constructing new genitalia of the opposite gender). Iranians are denied the option to lead a transgender life without surgery.  Furthermore, gay men and women wil often opt for the surgery in order to escape the death penalty for homosexuality. Once the surgery is completed, people find few options to live other than prostitution. Nobody will hire them and families often abandon their transgender relatives. Shia Islam, as practiced in Iran, allows for temporary marriages. Sometimes these marriages can last only an hour, which permits sexual relations within the law. For additional information on this event, please visit our blog post

Panelists Hossein Alizadeh and Mitra Rastegar, Moderator Kelsy Weymouth-Little

Indigenous Rights

The UN will host a major meeting on the topic of Indigenous Rights late next year. Prior to that meeting, the UU-UNO will host its annual Spring Seminar on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which we hope will influence the later UN meeting. We will discuss the Doctrine of Discovery, issues of land ownership, extractive industries, climate change (all as they apply to indigenous peoples around the world) and look at what these ancient cultures have to teach us about how to better live on this planet and utilize resources in ways that do not cause climate change. (Note: The Doctrine of Discovery was promulgated by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 and was used by all the colonial powers to take both the land and those people on the land for the crown (or government) of the "Christian and civilizing nation").  This doctrine remains in force in Canada in that indigenous peoples' land is considered as belonging to the "Crown" and in the USA as belonging to the Government, rather than as being the property of the indigenous peoples whose land it was before the colonial powers took it.)  Stay tuned for additional information on our annual Spring Seminar on our website. If you are interested in being a part of the 2014 Spring Seminar Planning Committee, please submit a leadership application and return it to unitednations@uua.org by September 15th. 

If you have questions or concerns, please write us at unitednations@uua.org.

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