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Ellie Roberts - December 2012 journal letter

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QUNO, Geneva

Dear Friends,

I have started my work as Programme Assistant for Human Impacts of Climate Change, and my first three months in Geneva have been filled with so many exciting opportunities and experiences I find it hard to know where to begin! As Haifa and I arrived, the UN was preparing for the 21st session of the Human Rights Council and so we fell into a busy few weeks at QUNO. During my first month I flitted between the UN and Quaker House, making a statement to the Human Rights Council in response to a report on the Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, as well as attending several conferences on climate change and migration both here in Geneva and in Vienna.

A highlight of the Council for me was QUNO’s side event on natural resources, conflict and cooperation, where my predecessor, Steven Heywood, presented his report on cooperation over international water resources. Being able to hear the urgent concerns of both diplomats and NGOs first hand, particularly over resource sharing at the community level, was an incredibly inspiring experience and has given me lots to think about as I take Steven’s research forward. QUNO’s work on this area continues to develop in new and exciting ways, bringing together the unique range of expertise on water, land, human rights and peacebuilding that the staff here can offer. Over the last year QUNO has questioned the oft-repeated assumption that climate change and resource scarcity will lead to increased conflict. By testing the validity of predictions that ‘water wars’ will dominate the twenty-first century, we have found that people are in fact more likely to cooperate over water during times of scarcity, with sharing arrangements much more common than violent conflict. However, as I have begun to develop this work over the last few months, I have realised that ‘conflict’ has greater implications than the outbreak of physical violence. Access to natural resources interacts with much wider issues of social injustice and inequality, and it is these often invisible and structural forms of violence that could become more entrenched as climate change poses greater challenges to resource management. As we become more aware of these issues, our approach of working across different programmes and fields makes more and more sense to me.

The other key strand of my work this year will be the international climate negotiations, an area where QUNO continues to work hard in discerning its role. Our core strength, that of bringing people together in off-the-record discussions to create a space for constructive dialogue, seems to be urgently needed, yet the process has become so huge and fragmented that it is difficult to see where we can make a difference. We continue to listen to those who have been part of the climate talks in order to understand where our role could be, but I feel frustrated when I hear how stuck the process is in bureaucracy and disagreement. The international response to climate change has become a nexus for the inequality that defines our global relationships, with states often clinging to or seeking power and wealth rather than working for a solution. Effective and equitable action on climate change requires us to change not only our attitudes towards the earth and each another, but our entire global structure. The current broken system, which forces the world’s poorest to bear the brunt of the North’s affluent life style, whilst polluting the world’s atmosphere to potentially catastrophic levels, is indisputably unsustainable. The Quaker testimonies of peace, justice and simplicity speak to me strongly as I think about these issues; but how do we support these radical changes and facilitate the cooperation that is required between States?

Despite the often overwhelming nature of these questions, we are moving forward in our work here at QUNO. We are currently busy preparing for the next round of climate talks in Qatar, which my colleagues, Jonathan Woolley and Oliver Robertson, will be attending at the end of November. Following on from ideas sparked by a staff discussion, I have also been writing a briefing paper on effective treaty monitoring systems, suggesting ways in which States could be encouraged to meet their commitments under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) by drawing on QUNO’s extensive knowledge of other international processes from the human rights, disarmament and trade systems. We intend to distribute this paper at Qatar, with hopes to contribute towards a constructive debate on improving the current system whilst also conveying QUNO’s willingness to support the process. I am aware of how strongly many Quakers worldwide feel this is an urgent issue for us, and hope to assist in developing QUNO’s work on the negotiations this year, drawing on our broad ranging expertise and discernment skills to develop a strategy for positive engagement with the UNFCCC.

On a more personal note, I am increasingly conscious of my own lifestyle and the impact of the choices I make as a consumer and member of the wealthy North. These choices have consequences for people who remain invisible to me, something I need to keep in mind both in my daily life and my work. Following the first ever virtual Quaker United Nations Committee meeting, for which Haifa and I battled with the technical challenges of gathering fifteen participants for discussion online, I am excited to be part of QUNO as we take measures to limit our own carbon emissions and live more sustainably.

Outside of work, I am thrilled to be living so close to Lake Geneva and surrounded by mountains; the view of Mont Blanc from the end of my road has not yet lost its novelty. Hiking, swimming, cycling, cheese fondue, and the prospect of skiing when the snow falls have all helped me to settle into Geneva, making my first three months here full and fun. As a freshly graduated twenty-one year old, I feel incredibly lucky to have been given this opportunity and whilst I know it’s been said in many a journal letter, I am truly grateful to all the Friends who have made this experience possible.

In Friendship,

Ellie Roberts