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Haifa Rashed - December 2012 journal letter

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QUNO, Geneva

Dear Friends,

I am almost three months into my position as Human Rights and Refugees Programme Assistant at the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO). It seems a very long time ago that I and the other Peaceworkers were on our inspirational and educational training with Quaker Peace & Social Witness (QPSW) in London and Woodbrooke.

Since starting at QUNO I have attended many meetings, side events and receptions in and around the United Nations (UN). The Human Rights Programme covers a broad range of themes and I have enjoyed the variety of these events and particularly enjoyed talking to different people, which means that one moment I find myself speaking to a Pakistani Bishop, concerned about how Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are used in practice against other faith communities, the next I am speaking with a teenager about her experience of immigration detention in Israel. About half of those I talk to are familiar with the Quakers, the other half having the usual impression of porridge oats and austerity. I am all-too-aware of my 30 second window to give the right impression (sometimes in French!) and of the enormous responsibility of representing the Quakers to those who have no prior knowledge of us. That said I have been impressed by the amount of people who have heard of QUNO and at the high esteem in which we are held.

My first month was spent in and around the Human Rights Council’s 21st session. My favourite moments from the session were undoubtedly when human rights activists were present and engaging with the UN human rights processes. This included listening to a Bahraini activist speak in the Council session despite having allegedly received death threats from his own government and watching a lively music and drama-filled side event by children who had been held in immigration detention.

Since I have arrived I have been struck by the unique role that QUNO has to play within the UN bubble. We are a very small number of staff working on a very wide range of issues, but in a markedly different way to other non-governmental Organisations (NGOs). For example, the famous off the record lunch meetings are an unusual opportunity for different parties to meet as equals away from the sometimes stifling and cynical corridors of the UN (at least in my view), to ask questions and interact on a human level. Since my joining we in the Human Rights programme have already hosted four different lunches on a variety of topics. My training week in London was filled with meeting representatives from a variety of NGOs who all have contributed to QUNO’s work over the years. I began to comprehend quite how many Friends in the UK are working in related fields and it also helped me understand just how important this network of national experts and contacts is to QUNO’s work at the international level.

I recently went to Brussels for the final conference for the COPING project, which is a three year EU funded research project on the mental health of children of prisoners that QUNO has been involved in alongside a consortium of nine other NGOs and academic institutions across Europe. Whilst I am joining at the very end of the project, I am enjoying participating in the process of making recommendations from the research findings as well as disseminating the results in and around the UN.

One of my highlights so far has been seeing Turkey give their first ever report to the Human Rights Committee relating to their obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The issue of Conscientious Objection to Military Service featured strongly, with this and other issues raised by NGOs and Turkish human rights activists in a prior meeting with the Committee, being subsequently put to the State by individual Committee members. Whilst the topic of the lack of recognition of Conscientious Objectors (and their subsequent imprisonment and exclusion from access to government services) has often been raised at the European Court of Human Rights, due to the language barrier and lack of general knowledge about UN processes, many lawyers and NGOs in Turkey have not been aware of the Human Rights Committee as another method with which they can hold their government to account under its international legal obligations. For me it seemed that it is all very well having these processes take place here in Geneva, but actually disseminating the advocacy tools and information to local actors is a major challenge. Fortunately the Human Rights Committee sessions are now broadcast on the web in the language of the country concerned by the NGO ‘CCPR Centre’.

Outside of work, Ellie and I have been making the most of life in and around Geneva, including swimming in the lake, visiting thermal baths, wine tasting in local vineyards, popping to France for a visit and the ritual balking at the cost of living compared to the UK. We have also joined Geneva Monthly Meeting’s ‘Social Concerns Committee’ which proposes organisations to be the recipients of grants or monthly collections.

If you have any questions or comments please do not hesitate to contact me. To follow what I and the other QPSW Peaceworkers in Geneva, London and Burundi are doing on our year placement, please visit and sign up to receive updates from our blog and do spread the word!

In friendship,

Haifa