The United Nations

Workshop Number 4

Led by Erik Hummels

I. The Value of the UN

In the ‘Meeting of the 1990s’, NGOs had a separate conference which had a significant impact on the world. The NGOs heard about each other's work, developed the Land Mine Treaty, and promoted the “Decade of Non Violence”.

NGO's influence the UN in more subtle ways as well. For example, when the UN makes a ‘PR’ statement that sounds good to the people of the world, the NGOs can give specifics that belie the statement

“If you have little hope, decide what needs to be changed and how to change it. You never know what happens to the seed you plant.” Cosimo Tomaselli, Rosa Packard, and John Randall are UN representatives and are learning how to politic at the UN. Peace caucuses, religious values caucuses, and human rights caucuses can be formed around issues. Rosa told how she raised the question of conscientious objector status at a UN meeting, and afterward four people approached sought her. Now she knows who to have lunch with to form a caucus on this issue.

We have to work with what is there. The UN is slow (moving at glacier pace, in Marion Franz' words), but what other means do we have? People in the United States may be less hopeful in the power of the UN than other countries because the US is reluctant to agree with the UN decisions. In the US, the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, followed by legislation. Trailing in third place are treaties and statutes. UN decisions fall into the latter category, and are not recognized in US courts. It is important to be mindful, however, that many other countries are deeply affected by the decisions of the UN. The Supreme Court of the Netherlands, for example, is obliged to follow international law. A suggestion was made that the UN could require international laws to be supreme in order to retain membership.

The World Trade Organization is another important organization. We can oppose the policies and practices that promote injustice while at the same time attempting to work within the intricacies.

Summary: Some are skeptical about the power of the UN but others see it as a working ground within limitations. Some believe “We are in the beginning stages of getting nations to abolish war. 500 years from now there may be significant progress.”

II. Conscientious Objection

The UN requires country reports on conscientious objection. The reports are accessible through the internet. (Three good websites are:;; and Also, a publication, “A Conscientious Objector's Guide to the Human Rights System”, by Emily Miles is available from the Quaker UN office in Geneva.

Workshop participants were polled as to their understanding of CO status in the laws of their nation.

Netherlands: CO status written into law in 1917.

Norway: CO status written into law since the beginning of the 20th century. (The state paid a representative to attend the 8th International Conference on War Tax Resistance and the Peace Tax Fund)

Germany: CO status written into the constitution in 1948 (The Church paid a representative to attend this conference. 10% of a German worker's taxes support Churches recognized by the State. Churches therefore have a lot of money).

Nigeria: Nigeria is a military state. CO status is not a recognized issue.

Russia: CO status written into the constitution (article 59) in 1993, but this is not supported by law as yet. Generally, people are unaware of the possibility. COs must apply to military personnel who tend not to deal with it but to keep it quiet. Currently, a draft of a law requires civil alternative service to be performed by COs for four years, while military service is required for only two years. Russia right now is in a state of military hysteria because the bombing of Yugoslavia showed the world that the US can do anything it pleases regardless of law or agreements.

United Kingdom: has no constitution. International law must be passed into British law. There is currently no CO status in law, but there is also no requirement to serve in the military. This does not negate the need for CO status in law, however, because the inability of enlisted military personnel to continue in the military due to conscientious objection needs the support of law.

Belgium: also no requirement to serve in the military and no recognition of CO status in law. (See comment in UK note above).

Argentina: for the past five or six years, there is also no requirement to serve in the military and no recognition of CO status in the law. (See comment in UK note above). Prior to this change, military service was compulsory and the military could jail anyone who refused.

III. Possible Changes in the UN this Millennium:

A. Veto power by the Security Council is being discussed.

Eliminating the veto power may require the elimination of the Security Council. Although the press focuses on the Security Council, more of the work of the UN is done by other UN departments.

B. The issue of nuclear weapons was raised in the International Court of Justice, and Conscientious Objection to Military Taxation (COMT) may also be raised there, perhaps by New Zealand.

by Judith Felker