Buddhism in International Relations: Socially Engaged Buddhism at the UN

Buddhism in International Relations: Socially Engaged Buddhism at the UN

This series on Buddhism and international relations by Durgesh Kasbekar is a modified series from an essay “Buddhism in International Relations” by the same author. International relations and global politics are often absent from reflections about Buddhism in academia. This series aims to provide a small corrective and highlight how Buddhism affects and is affected by international relations in the contemporary world.

In Part Four, we look at Socially Engaged Buddhism at the UN, which has long been a weak spot in international Buddhist diplomacy. However, Kasbekar suggests a way forward that will increase Buddhist influence internationally over the long term.

Durgesh Kasbekar is an Executive Committee member of the Religion in International Relations Section, International Studies Association (ISA). The views expressed by the author are personal and do not reflect those of the ISA or Buddhistdoor Global

The Fifth Tier – Socially Engaged Buddhism at the UN for global welfare

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Religion and Society Programme in the United Kingdom (UK) conducted a comprehensive study of religious actors at the UN from 2009 to 2013. The study, “Religious NGOs and the United Nations”, was the first interdisciplinary study of religion involving field studies and interviews at the UN and in 2017 resulted in the publication of a book titled Religion, NGOs and the United Nations: Visible and Invisible Actors in Power (Carrette 2017). The study pointed out that compared to Christian organizations; Buddhist organizations registered at the UN are miniscule in number. In addition, religions other than Christianity and Islam have scant influence at the UN and the study called on the need for inclusive and participatory representation from Eastern religions at the UN (Carrette primarily focuses on Buddhism and Hinduism but also briefly refers to Jainism and Confucianism). This is perhaps the first evidence presented that the UN is disconnected from East Asian and Indic religions and shows a need for greater representation of religious worldviews at the UN (Carrette and Miall 2017, p. 17).

The Carrette and Miall study can be perceived as a culmination of efforts initiated in the early 1980s by then Assistant Secretary General Robert Muller (often referred to as the “Philosopher” and the “Prophet of Hope” of the UN (Robert Muller.org, n.d.)). Muller wrote two books on the topic: New Genesis: Shaping a Global Spirituality (1982) and My Testament of the UN (1992) – both of which focus on a transcendent global spirituality.

It would be reasonable to hope and harbour optimism that countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia may consider coming together to form an inter-governmental agency where in minority religions can vote at the UN and obtain Permanent Observer status. Permanent Observer status and the right to vote at the UN is available to Islam (through the Organization of Islamic Co-Operation) and Christianity (the Vatican) but not to other religions.

A solely Buddhist country grouping will lead to the exclusion of key Hindu majority countries of India and Nepal where the Buddha was born, achieved enlightenment, preached, and achieved nirvana. Both India and Nepal have crucial pilgrimage areas in the Buddhist belief. Second, a solely Hindu country grouping of India, Nepal and Mauritius will be too small to achieve Permanent Observer status at the UN. Third, almost all countries in South Asia, South East Asia and East Asia have indigenous religions and traditions, which intricately entwine with Buddhism and Hinduism. It would be unfair to exclude them and doing so would once again perpetuate the religious majoritarianism that this OEAIFR seeks to address.  The proposed organization name Organization of East Asian, Indic and Folk Religions and acronym OEAIFR, has neither religious, nor country-specific names and therefore indicates openness to all countries with East Asian, Indic, and Folk religions.

Forming such a body will enable intrinsic religious, cultural, and spiritual traditions of its Member States to offer new interpretations to the UN goals of human rights, environmental sustainability, social justice, gender empowerment, poverty alleviation, and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples. In a landmark achievement, Bhutan successfully convinced the UN to accept the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and publish UN GNH World Reports annually since April 2012. Participating OEAIFR countries with far more resources at their disposal can open a new paradigm of diplomacy and co-operation across the Indo-Pacific, South Asia, East Asia, and the UN. Although there will be other East Asian, Indic, and Folk religions in the picture, the formation of OEAIFR can not only open a new chapter in the field of Buddhism in IR but also contribute to the field of UN studies.


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