An Interview with Susan Zipp
Susan Zipp lives in the San Francisco Bay Area yet her passion for international affairs takes her all around the world. Wearing many hats to make the world a better, more peaceful place, she works in affiliation with the United Nations to empower the individual, particular women and children, and develops interactive group networks to address global issues at the local level. In her distinguished career she has been associated with many NGOs and Civil Society Organizations (CSO), including:
- Association of World Citizens
- Communications Coordination Committee for the UN
- Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research
- The Earth Charter
- Global Futures Network [on Facebook]
- Global Peoples Assembly, [see Empower the UN]
For 40 years, Susan has also been practicing Buddhism as a member of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a lay Buddhist organization of 12 million members in 192 countries and territories. Susan considers herself to be a ‘professional student’ and has earned a number of degrees in English and the Humanities, Communication and International Relations.
Quarterly: Susan, I understand your first exposure to the UN occurred when you were very young—setting you on your career path?
Sue: Yes, I believe that the youthful interest we all have influences our life-long direction. In my case,a family friend, a diplomat with the United Nations, took our family on a UN tour when I was seven years old. After walking through the elaborate building he introduced us to then UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold who shook my hand and inspired me to think globally and work for world peace. He encouraged me to “dream big” in life, saying only a small part of our dreams will come true. I vividly remember walking out of the building, seeing all the flags waving in the wind, telling myself I wanted to work here one day.
Quarterly: And now you do, it seems! How did that happen?
Sue: In 1974, I was working with a travel wholesaler helping to create international travel programs and was among a small delegation associated with the U.S. State Department assigned to begin development negotiations with Mainland China and Southeast Asia. During college in the late 1960s I studied world religions and learned about Nichiren Buddhism, and while in Japan I had the opportunity to get first-hand knowledge. I met members of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) and discovered that SGI president Daisaku Ikeda had a global vision for world peace—including support for the UN, and I decided to begin my practice of Buddhism. Concurrently, as I continued my education, I began working with the Association of World Citizens and World Affairs Council, and from there I began networking with many UN NGO to bring the values of the United Nations into communities and everyday people’s lives through outreach programs, individual activism and organizational partnerships.
Quarterly: What’s an NGO?
Sue: An NGO is the acronym for a non-governmental organization, generally associated with the UN. NGOs are groups which advocate or exert themselves on a common organizing principle or interest. For example, the SGI is an NGO. As noted on the SGI website,
“SGI is active in public education with a focus on peace and disarmament, human rights and sustainable development. It has produced resources for awareness-raising on these issues which are often used by SGI groups in partnership with other NGOs.”
Quarterly: There are some Americans who fear and complain that involvement by the U.S. with the UN somehow yields sovereignty, will lead to world government, etc. My belief is that those concerns are basically misplaced. The UN does not control American internal politics or governance. It may urge or recommend international policy choices on a broad scope of issues, but it does not supersede U.S. laws or actions. Do you agree?
Sue: Actually the United States has a very powerful position within the United Nations, including a seat on the Security Council. I agree the fears you mention are misplaced. The ‘Strategy of Fear’ has proven a very effective propagation tool, as most people without realizing it make major decisions based on fear. Post-WW-II saw the United Nations as the only source for international cooperation to maintain world peace and prevent the scourge of war. It embodies the ideals of international democracy and global ethics, addresses the concept of human solidarity, rights and responsibilities, and hosts significant global dialogue. Although imperfect it remains historically significant and allows great potential for the future. And the United Nations General Assembly, representing 193 of the world’s nation-states, can make recommendations but does not have the power of enforcement.
Quarterly: Thanks, Sue. With all your decades of education and involvement, memories of initiatives can blur. Let’s jump ahead to the 1990s. Tell us about the work you did with the UN in the run-up to the 21st century.
Sue: This was an exciting time for the United Nations and the world! In the 1990s, then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan recommended holding a “Decade of Dialogues” where the voices of the people were encouraged to address our shared global concerns for the coming new Millennium. The Rio Summit of 1992 discussed ecological integrity as its first major agenda item. Delegates, global political leaders and highly respected members of the UN community met to discuss the environmental challenges we face as a human race. Although the attendees rejected the Earth Charter with its lofty principles [see details of the Earth Charter here], they approved a milder version known as “Agenda 21”. “Agenda 21” is a voluntary set of structured guidelines for sustainable development in the 21st century. As with all UN goals, there is a 5-year check-in to assist making progress toward the desired outcome, and an evaluation conference after 10-years. All these follow-up conferences reinforced the Agenda 21 guidelines, and although this program has not taken hold in most of the world, it remains active in Europe.
Following this summit the Millennium People’s Assembly Network (MPAN) was born. MPAN elected me to co-chair MPAN’s global movement to bring the voices of the people into dialogues on the fundamental issues of the future–issues that know no geographical boundaries yet affect the entire world’s people. We created People’s Assemblies on every continent, bringing together a global focus on nuclear disarmament, sustainable development, human rights (focusing on women and children), educational equality, global social and economic justice, and peace. The 2000 worldwide Millennium events highlighted these essential issues and spurred the creation of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG).
Quarterly: How did your Buddhism or the SGI relate to your efforts then?
Sue: Buddhism is at the core of my work and. In my UN-related projects I integrate ethics and integrity by using SGI principles such as the structure of discussion meetings, where respectful small group dialogues and shared experiences deepen and expand the understanding of principles being addressed, the empowerment of each individual to realize their personal mission, and the focus on the interdependence of all life, are all qualities that have proven effective with international development. Not coincidentally, around this time, the SGI sponsored the Quiet Revolution, A 30-minute film featuring three dramatic case studies of how individuals in India, Slovakia and Kenya have contributed to solving local environmental problems. The Earth Council produced the film in collaboration with the UN.
Daisaku Ikeda visited San Francisco in 1993, and during his visit he addressed the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco and the upcoming UN-50 celebrations scheduled world-wide in 1995. UN-50 was a launching pad for civil society involvement with the UN. My personal UN activity gained tremendous momentum, working hard on prep-conferences for the UN General Assembly.
President Ikeda’s Peace Proposals to the United Nations have always encouraged me. I was especially moved by his 1996 Proposal, “Toward the Third Millennium: The Challenge of Global Citizenship” and decided to bring this to the public’s attention. While working in the Netherlands I organized and produced their first International Conference on World Citizenship in collaboration with the World Federalists Movement and SGI-Netherlands. This event took place on January 26, 1997 at SGI-Netherlands in Zeist. Over 150 people from more than 38 countries attended the program of speakers
In 1999, the 100th anniversary of The Hague Appeal for Peace brought together over 10,000 people globally. While MPAN hosted many programs I wanted to ensure the SGI’s participation at this important event. I collaborated with colleagues at SGI Tokyo, SGI-Netherlands, and the SGI-Geneva and New York UN Liaison offices to ensure full participation and support. I helped arrange for the SGI to have a strong presence with a speakers program, main floor literature/meeting booth, and publicity to attract participants. The SGI European General Director was the keynote speaker to an overflowing audience.
I believe it was as a result of these efforts that I was invited to the February 2000 SGI Headquarters Leaders Meeting in Tokyo with President Ikeda. His office also arranged for me to meet with the SGI Department of Peace director to discuss the future role of SGI with the UN Millennium Agenda.
Quarterly: Over time, the organizations you have worked with have evolved, expanded and even changed their names. I understand that the Millennium People’s Assembly transformed into the Global People’s Assembly in 2000.
Sue: Yes, these changes are a natural function reflecting the progress made and also allow fresh energy to emerge. After we reached the year 2000, the Samoan government held an international conference to inaugurate the Global People’s Assembly (GPA). The GPA elected me co-chair along with the late Dr. Rashmi Mayur, a high-level advisor to the UN. The GPA built on MPANs legacy and later expanded to join with the European vision for a Global Parliamentarian Assembly, bringing both political representatives and individuals to form localassemblies to officially represent the people’s voices in global decision making.
Quarterly: So what has the 21st century meant for you and the UN?
Sue: The first dozen-plus years of the new Millennium saw many groups working to fulfill the MDG. As president of the United Nations Association-San Francisco we pursued many global initiatives, as well as initiating the first UNA-USA Women’s Committee and Young Professionals for Global Change (YPIC). To celebrate the UN’s 65th anniversary I created, organized and produced a three-day international event. Our program “Peace, Human Rights and Justice: Achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals” ran from October 22-24, 2010 in San Francisco. The first two days of activities included a walking tour of Muir Woods to UN Grove, art, music and exhibits, an Intergenerational Model UN, and an evening gala symphony concert and reception featuring the “Ode To Joy”. On the final day, in honor of UN Day, we co-hosted the events with SGI-USA at the SGI-USA San Francisco Culture Center and Ikeda Auditorium. Plenary keynote speakers included David Krieger (nuclear disarmament), Ramu Damodaran (UN Academic Impact educational program), and Dr. Kumudini Mayur (Global Futures Network, health, ethics and the environment), representing the UN, America, India and Europe. Moderated panels and dialogues elaborated on the keynote topics.
Quarterly: Wow! Wish we could have been there. So what is coming up next?
Sue: The annual UN Department of Public Information (DPI)/NGO conference will be at the United Nations headquarters in New York from August 27-30, 2014. The UN and related non-governmental organizations (NGO) and civil society organizations (CSO) will meet to discuss pending and current global issues. Since it is apparent that the lofty Millennium Development Goals [see list below] will not be fulfilled by the 2015 deadline, members will continue to focus on the MDGs as well as the culture of war, environment degradation, economic discrepancies, and the next steps needed to improve our world to benefit the quality of life for all.
In September, following the DPI/NGO Conference will be the annual Opening Ceremonies of the General Assembly and the Annual Meeting of Heads of State and Security Council meetings. The world will be watching these events closely as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the world’s diplomatic leader, navigates the complex personalities and dynamic situations that affect us all.
Quarterly: Thank you very much, Sue!
Susan Zipp is preparing for the upcoming UN DPI/NGO Annual Conference by spending the last weeks of summer listening to the CD of the book, “To My Dear Friends in America” by Daisaku Ikeda.
UN Millennium Development Goals:
- Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger
- Achieve Universal Primary Education
- Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
- Reduce Child Mortality
- Improve Maternal Health
- Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Other Diseases
- Ensure Environmental Sustainability
- Develop a Global Partnership for Development