Inclusive Education for Global Citizenship: UN Conference in Gyeongju, Korea

By Bruce Knotts

The 66th Annual United Nations (UN) Department of Public Information/Non-Governmental Organization (DPI/NGO) Conference was held in Gyeongju, Republic of Korea from May 30 through June 1, 2016. This year’s conference was on Education for Global Citizenship: Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals Together. I attended as Director of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO), and as Chair of the UN DPI/NGO Executive Committee. The UU-UNO had a booth at the conference which displayed our materials and also those of both Japanese and Korean LGBTIQ groups who participated in our activism at the conference. I spoke at several events throughout the conference, including a speech (available to watch online) at the opening of the proceedings, which was very well received.  I also spoke as part of the first roundtable discussion on inclusive education. Later in the conference, the UU-UNO hosted a workshop on inclusive education for LGBTIQ learners, looking at the issues of bullying and discrimination in learning spaces around the world and in Korea. In attendance at the conference was an organized homophobic group of advocates. While our message was very well received by the vast majority of the 5,000 attendees from all over the world (representing over 100 countries), this small core of very homophobic Christians was a challenge. They took many of our materials (in order to destroy them), argued with us at our booth and attended our workshop. They have a reputation of being disruptive, but as our workshop was lived streamed, they acted with civility and kept quiet. We were glad for the support of the Rev. Steve Stearman of Metro Baptist Church in NYC and Ricky Wong of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, both of whom made strong statements in favor of our panelists. Korea is a majority Buddhist nation with a strong and powerful Christian minority. Having strong Christian and Buddhist advocates on our side was very helpful. I also moderated a workshop on global disarmament issues with two Japanese and two Korean panelists who talked about the need for nuclear disarmament and peace on the Korean peninsula. I moderated this panel in my capacity as chair of the UN NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security. This committee was founded in 1970 by UU minister, Rev. Homer Jack. We continue his work for peace, and ending armed violence will the topic of the UU-UNO's 2017 Intergenerational Spring Seminar. The final challenge was in finalizing the conference’s outcome document, the Gyeongju Action Plan. This document was online and over a million people viewed it and gave us input. Before even going to Korea, we debated the document at length in New York and the final discussions were during several sessions at the conference in Korea. We fought hard for inclusive language and the homophobes fought hard for exclusion. The arguments were heated, with some Korean Christians telling us to leave their country, asking why we were even in their country in the first place. We reminded them that we were at a United Nations Conference and invited guests of the Republic of Korean Government. There was also a strong push by these same individuals for inclusion of a model of development called “Saemaul Undong” into global plans. Our LGBTQI allies opposed this on the grounds that this Korean model of development was organized by Park Chung-hee, South Korean president, dictator, and military general who led South Korea from 1961 until his assassination in 1979. While Saemaul Undong did develop rural areas, it did so under very centralized authority with little regard for human rights. The arguments over LGBTIQ inclusion and over Saemaul Undong were the most contentious I’ve ever experienced in my decades of diplomatic work. The result was a strong statement of inclusion within the outcome document: “The importance of universal inclusion, acknowledging that the absence of a particular group or identity in text can lead to the exclusion of that group or identity in policy. We have made a conscious decision not to highlight any particular group or identity to ensure full inclusion and equal treatment of all people – especially those in positions of specific vulnerability and marginalization. It is unacceptable that diverse group memberships and identities have been used to deny the right to learn or otherwise marginalize individuals. In education, as in all things, the basis of non-discrimination is, and ought to be, our common humanity.” Our Korean LGBTIQ allies were disappointed that there was no specific mention of LGBTIQ people, but I was satisfied that this was the best we could get and that it advances the cause of inclusive education. There was also no mention of Saemaul Undong in the outcome document. Finally, the outcome document calls for: “Support enactment by the United Nations for an International Day of Education that would serve as a means to promote education for global citizenship, learning for civic engagement, and literacy for grassroots empowerment.” We are working with the Missions of the Republic of Korea and Canada to get this enacted at the upcoming UN General Assembly.

About the Author

Bruce Knotts

Bruce Knotts is the Director of the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations. He was born and raised in Southern California. He got his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Pepperdine University and his Master’s Degree in International Education from the Monterey Institute of...


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UU-UNO Director Bruce Knotts (far right) speaks at a roundtable discussion at the 66th UN DPI/NGO Conference.

Workshop sponsored by the UU-UNO: "Inclusive Education and SDGs"

Workshop sponsored by the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace, and Security.