Religion, NGOs and the United Nations

Visible and Invisible Actors in Power

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Jeremy Carrette, Hugh Miall
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , March
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Religion, NGOs and the United Nations: Visible and Invisible Actors in Power is a collection of nine essays that locate religion and faith leadership in the complicated international system of global governance and social justice. This book opens with an explanation of the method of study, a mixed design of concepts from the humanities and social science—especially religious studies, sociology, and political science. Contributing authors use quantitative indicators and qualitative research, such as interviews and case studies, to inquire into the impacts of religious commitments in advocacy, consensus building, and policy-making at the United Nations [UN]. Two chapters give an insightful overview of the processes and procedures of interlocking institutions, member countries, subsidiary agencies, and an alphabet soup of programs. Issues of representation, accountability, and influence are explored in the concluding chapters focused on Islam, Catholicism, and Eastern traditions.

The United Nations is a convoluted arena including such entities as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank Group, the World Trade Organization, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and others. Players engage according to a defined typology. American realists place state competition over interests in a cooperative rivalry for gains. English realists include other partners with interests other than the international society of states. Pluralists observe multiple power centers. Postmodernists see the UN as a tool of colonialism and deep structures of oppression concealed beneath its emblematic engagements and symbolic gestures.

Co-editor Jeremy Carrette writes, "Achieving any objective in the UN requires complex levels of formal and informal arrangements" (9). A non-governmental organization [NGO] can lobby and persuade within the discussions and debate at the United Nations. Co-editor Hugh Miall adds, "To be effective, NGOs need to be well-informed, well-resourced, and professional, and to engage with the UN on its own terms" (37). NGOs participate according to strict protocol in meetings of the subsidiary councils such as the Human Rights Council as well as in the drafting of UN resolutions. NGOs are not simply representatives of communities of interest, but transnational actors with influence and access to global decision-makers and power-players. Accredited NGOs can legitimize activists seeking support for various causes. Informal diplomacy and communication are explicitly recommended, and the public never sees the private coalitions formed at the Serpentine Cafe or the Quaker House lunches in Geneva.

Five chapters examine religious NGOs as a state partner in human rights, development, and peacebuilding. Specifically, these chapters explore how many and what type, what position in the religious-secular debate, and what influence religious NGOs have in diplomacy and political agendas. Evelyn Bush writes, "'Religion' can manifest in multiple components of formal organizations, such as their names, missions, activities, goals, modes of expression, membership or employment criteria, institutional origins, or the identity of populations they serve" (41). The authors show a problem of definition and measuring impact of R[eligious]NGOs, including variations in missions, program objectives, levels of funding, number of workers, and relationship with UN members. There are variations in visibility and activity, and also differing opinions of value among these diplomats. Invisibility is an asset, given that state officials tend to be suspicious of and refuse to engage with religion or discuss issues in religious terms.

Nevertheless, there are religious interests in many issues and powerful communities of interest and associations inspired by religious language. In 1993, the Parliament of World's Religions articulated a new moral vision for the world in the Declaration for a Global Ethic. The Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders in 2000 gave birth to both the World Council of Religious Leaders and Interagency Task Force on Engaging Faith-Based Organizations. In 2004, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 59/23 on the promotion of interreligious dialogue as well as Resolution 59/142 on the promotion of religious and cultural understanding, harmony and cooperation. A Group of Friends funded by a Voluntary Trust founded the Alliance of Civilizations in 2005. A Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace was sponsored in 2006 followed by a "High-level Dialogue and Informal Interactive Hearing with Civil Society on Interreligious and Intercultural Understanding" in 2007, and the International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures in 2010. The Decade of Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation for Peace was opposed by the European Union, but some progress was made in the launch of World Interfaith Harmony Week in 2011 as well as in the United Nations Eeducation, Scientific and Cultural Organziation [UNESCO] programme on the Culture of Peace in 2012.

Postmodernists critique the language of interfaith as a legacy of Protestant theology and European imperialism. In contrast to Western secularism—which asserts the sovereignty of the state and the primacy of individual conscience—Islam makes less of a distinction between spiritual and temporal authority, and expects its religious leaders to guide state practices. Islamic actors organized as a permanent delegation of fifty-seven member states are perceived as the most influential religious group at the United Nations. Another unique actor is the Catholic Church, which has played a key role in international affairs for over 1,000 years. As permanent observer with exceptional status supported by a resolution of the US Congress, the Holy See works toward justice and dignity for humankind.

This book is well organized, with insights about codes of conduct and social norms at the UN, and reveals the potential and limits of RNGOs as political actors. There is a missed opportunity in mentioning the neglected study of "universal ethics and spiritual discourse" at the UN, while simultaneously dismissing conspiracies of world government and universal religion. Alice Bailey is highlighted for her globalist ideals and spiritual perspective, but the Internet is littered with misinterpretation and suspicion of "New Age" groups—like the United Religions Initiative and the Temple of Understanding—that work toward goals first publicized in her books. A footnote asserts that such paranoid opinions are ridiculous, but this is intellectually inadequate and stigmatizes legitimate inquiry. First, such fearful assumptions are widespread and persuasive to many people in a similar way as the term “fake news,” so it would be wise to understand how and why such claims are accepted. Second, Bailey married a high-ranking Freemason and lived at Old Krotona in Hollywood as a member of an elite secret society serving a hidden plot. She clearly envisioned the UN in the fulfillment of prophecies between 1975 and 2025. This topic alone requires more serious attention from scholars interested in religion at the United Nations.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Horn is a public scholar.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeremy Carrette is professor of philosophy, religion and culture at the University of Kent, UK.

Hugh Miall is emeritus professor in politics and international relations at the University of Kent, UK.


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