Guest Author - Rebecca Graf
In order to understand how important religion is in UN missions, one has to agree that a region’s culture plays a major part the day to day operations of the region including that of society and government as well as the interactions with the world around the region. The dictionary defines culture as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.” (1) Religion is part of the culture. The degree of its importance can vary from region to region which makes it even more important to understand a region’s culture including religion when dealing with them. That means the United Nations has to take religion into consideration.
When getting involved in peacekeeping operations (PKOs), the UN desires to “contain international conflicts and to facilitate their settlement by peaceful means.” (2) That peace has to involve working “effectively within the system’s culture” to ensure cooperation and civil interactions. (3) When UN workers enter a situation without having proper training in the “local culture, customs, institutions and laws” the chances of successful “peacekeeping and peacebuilding” greatly diminishes. (4) It just takes one unintentional insult about religion or any other cultural custom to escalate a situation into a world war. In order to integrate into the society and accomplish the peacekeeping goal, the UN works find that “thorough knowledge and understanding of the society, culture” and traditions are vital. (51) Within UN missions, it is extremely important to understand religion and where it plays in the conflict, if at all. Any UN mission that is executed without this knowledge is doomed to failure.
The UN looks to protect human rights. In that process, they encounter many refugees who are in that situation due to religious reasons. The decision to help refugees has to involve understanding religion as that they are fleeing for their lives due to “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” (6) The UN strives to give international protection to these people. In doing so, religion cannot be ignored due to the fact that many nations persecute based on religious beliefs. Iran is one country that does not hesitate to arrest and punish those that change from Islam to any religion and for those other religions to evangelize to Muslims. In 2009 a man was arrested in Iran and sentenced to death based on “charges of apostasy and evangelism” in a trial that UN commentators said did not follow the process of the law. (7) Eventually, Iran relented and released the man but not after threatening to hang him if he did no renounce Christianity. (8)
If the UN is to be involved in international protection of human rights, religion will play a part and needs to be understood before addressing the situation or going into negotiate peace.
(1) “Culture,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/culture.
(2) Sunil Ram, The History of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations during the Cold War: 1945 to 1987, 2008, 3.
(3) Handbook on United Nations Multidimensional Peacekeeping Operations, United Nations, December 2003, 16.
(4) Ibid, 35.
(5) Ibid, 51.
(6) Ibid, 169.
(7) “UN experts voice concern over situation of religious minorities in Iran,” UN News Centre, September 20, 2012, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=42938&Cr=religion&Cr1=#.UG1781HbAqI.