Quakers’ annual lecture to focus on human rights

By agency reporter
January 31, 2012

Quaker human rights lawyer, Rachel Brett, will deliver the one hundred and fifth Swarthmore Lecture in London in May 2012, on Quaker work for human rights at the United Nations. This work has brought real change for many, including conscientious objectors and women in prison and the outlawing of the use of child soldiers.

In the Swarthmore Lecture and in the accompanying book, Rachel Brett will draw on her experience of more than twenty years’ working for the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO). She is QUNO Geneva’s Representative for Human Rights and Refugees.

She says human rights work at the UN is a series of breakthroughs and setbacks, just like the game of snakes and ladders, hence the title of the book: Snakes and Ladders: A personal exploration of Quaker work on Human Rights at the United Nations.

“If the work can prevent one more child from being forced to be a soldier, or one more mother from being separated from her baby by unnecessary imprisonment, or one more person from being imprisoned as a conscientious objector, then it is worth it,” says Rachel Brett.

The book sets out why and how Quakers work at the UN. The Quaker belief of seeing God, or the capacity for good, in everyone is the foundation for the work and the challenge is to maintain that insight and to keep looking for the excluded, marginalised and disliked.

QUNO is recognised as a valuable place where informal but crucial talks can take place that lead to real change, where government representatives, UN and international staff, experts and non-governmental organisations can listen to and learn from each other. The strength of QUNO’s work lies in its steadfast persistence and thorough understanding. “We’re in it for the long term where others run a two or three-year campaign”, says Rachel Brett.

She continued: “My own experience and observation convinces me that Quakers have made a significant contribution in the human rights and refugee fields at the UN, and through the UN, have helped to change attitudes, create new understandings, develop new standards and, through these processes, helped to make concrete and measurable changes in government policies and practices and in people’s lives”.

Rachel Brett first started work at QUNO Geneva in 1976 as an administrative assistant. Between 1978 and 1993 she worked at QUNO New York and gained a degree in law and a Masters degree in International Human Rights law. She returned to Geneva in 1993 and has been there since.

The Quakers United Nations Office works at the UN in Geneva and New York to address Quaker concerns at an international level. QUNO has “general consultative status” with the UN, enabling it to make formal representations to UN institutions on a range of issues. Staffing of QUNO Geneva is largely funded by Quakers in Britain.

The Swarthmore Lectureship, established in 1907, is under the care of Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre trustees. The lectureship provides for both the publication of a book and for the delivery of a public lecture, to be delivered this year at Friends House in London on 26 May 2012.


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