The United Nations will hold its 68th annual Civil Society Conference this week in Salt Lake City, a liberal bastion within a conservative state that has often been hostile toward the international organization.
The three-day gathering, which convenes Monday, will mark the first time a major U.N. event has been hosted in the United States outside the United Nations’ headquarters in New York City. It’s expected to bring an estimated 5,000 people to the Salt Palace Convention Center downtown from more than 130 countries around the world.
Conversations will center on the organization’s sustainable goal No. 11, which seeks to make cities “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable by 2030” and to boost access to affordable housing, transportation and green and public spaces. It makes sense to have those discussions in Utah’s capital, said Jackie Biskupski, the mayor of Salt Lake City, where leaders have worked to prioritize sustainability.
“We have not only led our state down a path toward addressing climate change and air quality in the state but we’ve been leading in the country,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune in a recent interview. “We were the 16th city in 2016 to commit to 100% renewable [energy] and actually have our energy partner standing with us in that commitment. And now we’re closing in on several other communities joining us and, in fact, probably by the end of the year we will have more cities in Utah 100% renewable than any other state in the country.”
As part of the conference, the city’s sustainability department will feature in a panel Monday about efforts of local and regional governments, while Biskupski will take part in a panel Tuesday on climate change.
On Monday night at Eccles Theater, artist Sibylle Szaggars Redford will present to delegates her evolving environmental-themed work, “The Way of the Rain — Earth Movements — A Symphony for Ballet presented by Zions Bank.” It features musicians, dancers from Ballet West, singers from the Madeleine Choir School and narration by the artist’s husband, actor Robert Redford.
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Outside Salt Lake City, the presence of the United Nations seems at odds with the views and policy proposals of some state and prominent past religious and civic leaders.
In 2001, LaVerkin, just outside of St. George in southwestern Utah, declared itself a “U.N.-Free Zone.”
Three years later, the Utah House approved a proposal urging Congress to withdraw from the United Nations, arguing that it threatened the sovereignty of U.S. funds and military forces. Among those opposing the resolution, which never made it out of the Senate, was then-state representative Biskupski.
The Legislature in 2013 considered a different proposal related to the agency — this one rejecting the United Nations’ Agenda 21, a nonbinding sustainable development plan the international group had passed two decades earlier. Conservative groups and some Utah lawmakers at the time worried that the intergovernmental body’s proposal promoted socialism and eugenics over private property and liberty.
The resolution, sponsored by Woods Cross Republican Sen. Todd Weiler, made it through the Senate but was never considered by the full House.
Weiler declined to comment on the U.N. conference coming to Utah, noting that he hadn’t been aware it was coming and would be out of town that week.
Several past leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which 90% of the Legislature are members, spoke out against the United Nations.
In a speech at General Conference in 1947, apostle David O. McKay warned that “unless the spirit of Christianity permeates the deliberations of the United Nations, dire tragedies await humanity.”
McKay, who went on to become the church’s ninth president, initially was “suspicious” of the U.N. but grew to support the global organization later in his life, according to historian Matt Bowman, head of Mormon studies at Southern California’s Claremont Graduate University.
Ezra Taft Benson, the church’s 13th president and agriculture secretary under President Dwight Eisenhower, was known for his stance against the United Nations, which he expressed in several speeches.
In an address in California in 1961, he warned that concentrating the powers of government, “delegating American sovereign authority to non-American institutions in the United Nations” and “turning our armed forces over to a U.N. worldwide police force” would not bring global peace.
In more recent years, Utah’s predominant faith has participated and partnered with the United Nations on a number of initiatives in countries across the world.
The church plans to host several of its own events in conjunction with the Civil Society Conference, including a public service project to assemble 375,000 meals for needy children Monday and a private concert Tuesday evening at the church’s Conference Center by The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square for conference attendees.
Sharon Eubank — first counselor in the women’s Relief Society’s General Presidency and director of the faith’s global humanitarian organization, Latter-day Saint Charities — will take part Tuesday in a panel discussion on “civil society monitoring,” while Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé — who oversees the faith’s vast financial, real estate and investment operations — will offer brief remarks Wednesday at the conference’s closing plenary session.
“We are pleased to join with our community in welcoming organizations associated with the United Nations to Salt Lake City," the church said in a statement. "We acknowledge with gratitude the work of these organizations to build understanding and address the most challenging issues faced by the nations and leaders of the world. We look forward to continuing our partnership on humanitarian efforts to relieve suffering and care for those in need.”
Biskupski pointed out that both the church and the state have provided financial backing for the conference, which may not be as controversial because it is not necessarily bringing the direct U.N. leaders and because it provides an opportunity for all Utahns to weigh in on international policy.
"This is really our chance to share our thoughts around these bigger topics and have that become part of an outcome document that goes back to the U.N.,” she said. “I think everyone here understands the value of being able to weigh in on a conversation that goes to the United Nations General Assembly itself.”
Still, she said, the city is preparing in case of any demonstrations, which Biskupski said are “very possible” in light of a number of high-profile protests in recent weeks against the inland port, a controversial development planned for the city’s northwest area.
“No matter what, you have to anticipate that," she said.
A conservative political organization called Defending Utah already is circulating a petition to “tell the U.N. you don’t agree with their agenda for Utah.” On its website, the group alleges the international agency is “targeting” and “indoctrinating” youths, while at the same time “destroying the environment, building a Big Brother total surveillance state, creating worldwide conflict and erasing human rights.”
Defending Utah co-founder Ben McClintock declined to tell The Tribune how many people had signed that petition so far or to offer any comment on the conference, beyond stating that the organization’s website “speaks for itself.”