Seeing the United Nations at work

This story appears in the Notes from the Field feature series. View the full series.

by Christian E. Ruehling

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After spending five and a half months teaching English to young adults at a technical/vocational school in Dilla, Ethiopia, it was time to make the trip north to Geneva to begin the second part of my volunteer mission.

I arrived in early September to the human rights office of the Institute Internazionale Maria Austrice (IIMA). Granted Special Consultative Status by the U.N. Economic and Social Council since 2008, IIMA's mission is to create and promote a network between the Institute of the FMAs (Daughters of Mary Help of Christians) and the United Nations, its bodies and mechanisms for the protection and promotion of human rights, with a focus on the right to education for all. The office is headed by the formidable Sr. MariaGrazia Caputo, and I was joined by four other volunteers to promote IIMA's objectives at the United Nations.

As was the case in Dilla, I lived with a community of Salesian Sisters in Veyrier, which is a small Genevieve suburb located five minutes from the Swiss-French border.

Taking advantage of good weather on our first weekend together, the other IIMA volunteers and I set off on a morning hike up Mont Salève, which is located on the other side of the border. At the top, we were rewarded with a panoramic view of Geneva as well as firsthand views of paragliders jumping off the mountain.

We also took advantage of unseasonably warm weather to walk around Lake Geneva and the old city center. Geneva has some interesting attractions for both locals and tourists, such as the Jet d'Eau, a fountain on Lake Geneva. Geneva's public transportation system also includes small boats that we used to crisscross from one side of the lake to the other. We toured the old city center, where St. Peter's Cathedral and the Reformation Wall are located: Geneva is well-known for its Protestant roots.

Our role at IIMA was to attend human rights sessions at the U.N., write reports and update IIMA's online blog. We spent the first week learning about the U.N. system through various training and orientation sessions that included speakers with extensive knowledge about the inner workings of the U.N. in Geneva, especially the Human Rights Council.

We took our first trip to the U.N.'s Palais des Nations to pick up our official NGO badges. Since there were no official U.N. sessions taking place, we took the opportunity to tour the U.N. building complex. The areas of main interest included: the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room, where the Human Rights Council holds its sessions (former Room XX); the U.N. Library; and the Serpent Bar, where the exchange of ideas and information takes place over a beautiful backdrop of the U.N. complex grounds and Lake Geneva. The trip ended with a short tour of Palais Wilson, which houses the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Both the Palais des Nations and Palais Wilson were buildings I would eventually frequent to attend sessions pertaining to the Human Rights Council and other U.N. treaty bodies.

It was important for us to get this orientation right away because the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council started on our second week, and it was scheduled to take place until the end of September. The three-week session gave us the opportunity to experience firsthand how member states, nongovernmental organizations and other international actors collaborate to promote and safeguard human rights.

More importantly, we were able to provide our own contributions through the activities conducted by IIMA. The IIMA office submitted two statements during the Human Rights Council session, including an oral statement that I delivered on the topic of unaccompanied migrant children. These children risk their lives to seek better livelihoods, but it is important that they continue to have access to primary and secondary education in the countries that host them. IIMA's advocacy officer also participated in a panel discussion concerning youth empowerment, and we updated the IIMA blog on important topics covered during the Human Rights Council session.

The IIMA office, in addition to its role in representing the sisters and their activities at the U.N., provides training sessions to FMA provincial leaders and youth pastoral leaders as well as VIDES collaborators.

We were joined in September by FMA leaders from different communities such as Portugal, India, Philippines, Cambodia, Ireland and Thailand. The sisters came to attend sessions at the U.N. as well as to learn about how they can promote international human rights concepts in their home communities. Working side by side with them, I really appreciated all the hard work they do, especially working with children and youth to ensure that they also enjoy their human rights.

For the remainder of our time, members of the IIMA office attended other sessions related to U.N. treaty bodies, such as the Committee on the Rights of the Child; the Committee Against Torture; the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; and others.

In October and November was the Universal Periodic Review, a state-driven process in which member states present the steps they have taken to fulfill their human rights obligations and commitments, assessing both positive developments and identifying challenges in staying committed to their human rights obligations. Attending the review sessions gave us a good perspective on the human rights practices and standards of other countries.

Attending these sessions provided me with the opportunity to see the hard work that many people do to promote human rights. NGOs and other civil-society organizations are granted access to attend these sessions and provide input for member states to consider. So while the U.N. is ultimately beholden to the wishes and actions of member state governments, it still takes into account input from civil society, which is an important process and tool to ensure checks and balances with the actions of governments.

It is delicate balance between state interests, civil-society activism, and U.N. mediation, but it is necessary for the system to work.

While it may seem that the actions and decisions made at these U.N. sessions in Geneva or New York are far away from the common citizen, it is important to know what happens in these sessions. These actions ultimately do affect our day-to-day lives, and we should be aware that there are individuals and groups out there fighting to promote our human rights.

[Christian E. Ruehling was a volunteer missioner for VIDES+USA from January 2016 to December 2016.]