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International Society Holds 34th Annual Conference

Photo by Linda Hsiung

The 34th annual International Society conference was held on 8 April 2024; this year’s theme was “War, Diplomacy, and the Human Rights Dialogue.”

Sister Camille Johnson, Relief Society General President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, started off the conference as the keynote speaker. She spoke about four main points she’s gleaned from Church President Russell M. Nelson on peacemaking: one, the role of the Church is to preach the gospel of peace, which includes commandments and covenants that, if lived, would bring peace to all. Two, as individuals, we are to be peacemakers in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our countries, and in the world. Three, the transforming power of God’s love will change us and empower us to be peacemakers. And fourth, the key to overcoming contention comes from understanding our identity as children of God, children of the covenant, and disciples of Jesus Christ. She said, “With the challenges our world faces, we need each other. Our survival may depend on our willingness to work together, to serve, and to be peacemakers who understand our common identity as children of God. Working together means realizing God is working through his children throughout the world.”

Brett Scharffs of the BYU Law School and Notre Dame’s Paul Perrin spoke next on the panel “Human Dignity: Two Latter-day Saint Perspectives.” They discussed the meaning of human dignity, how it resonates with others, and what it looks like in action. Scharffs explained that, while he avoids creating a specific definition, he’s found that there are three primary conceptual strands of human dignity: status, value, and behavior. Status entails having respect for those in offices or positions that warrant respect; value is recognizing that human beings have intrinsic worth that can’t be earned or erased; and behavior involves having self-respect. In his work, he has noticed that talk of human dignity tends to elevate conversations when discussing issues, and helps people focus on their shared humanity and similarities. Perrin spoke about how human dignity calls people to not only provide for others’ material needs, but to also promote agency and autonomy by helping others reach their own goals, engaging others in dialogue so that they can be seen and heard, and building respectful interactions into humanitarian efforts. He said, “We could achieve all of the objective metrics in the world and still not be successful if we’re not doing it in a way that edifies, uplifts, and respects the human person along the way. I’ve seen a number of programs that, by the objective metrics, were highly successful, but left people behind in the process. My hope for my career, my work and for your work, is that we can engage in reflection as to how we might be doing the work in ways that aren’t necessarily upholding human dignity.”

April Bollard, Bill Bollard, Lyn Burningham, and Michael Frandsen gave presentations on the mission and accomplishments of the Geneva Office for Human Rights Education (GO-HRE). The program provides a curriculum, called Colega, for teaching children in elementary and secondary schools about human rights based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Frandsen said, “As young people grow in this understanding [of human rights], they develop a greater sense for their individual worth, their ability to contribute to the communities and countries where they live, and their corresponding duty to help protect the human rights of others.” Once Go-HRE is approved in a country, the directors work with the countries on implementing the curriculum in schools and providing training for teachers. There are currently four countries that are implementing Colega (Fiji, Ghana, Philippines, and Guatemala), three countries that have Colega pilots underway, and eight countries scheduled for introduction.

The Distinguished Service Award was presented to W. Cole Durham Jr., an emeritus professor of law at the BYU Law School and founding director of BYU Law School’s International Center for Law and Religious Studies. He said, “The ideal of human dignity, which is integrally linked to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, is critical to stabilizing just social orders and as such, is critical to just peace at all levels—global, national, local, family, and individual relations.”

Panelists Elizabeta Kitanovic of the Conference of European Churches and Rachel Miner of Bellwether International spoke on the topic “New Approaches to Peacemaking.” Kitanovic discussed the projects she is working on for the Conference of European Churches as a policy officer for advocacy and dialogue, which includes providing trainings for churches on how to prevent terrorist attacks, improve relations with law enforcement so people feel safe reporting incidents of their religious freedom being violated, and build crisis management into churches. She spoke about the project Pathways to Peace, which has two objectives: bringing academics together from Russian and Ukrainian sides and organizing discussion in creating sustainable peace, and developing a strategy for the protection of the holy sites and worship places in Europe from a political, legal, financial, and security point of view. Rachel Miner introduced ways that people can be “bellwethers”: first, through recognizing personal spheres of influence and finding opportunities for peacemaking; second, through thinking across disciplines and collaborating with people with different expertises; and third, through creating measurable and impactful change wherever possible. She asked, “Are you closed off to peacemaking? Are you closed off to people in your sphere of influence? Are you shut off from having discussions, dialogues, or constructive thoughts, critical thinking about things that make you feel uncomfortable—more importantly, about things you disagree with fundamentally? Can you open your closed spaces? I promise you that you can.”

Next, Medlir Mema of BYU-Idaho and Eric Jensen of the BYU Law School spoke on the panel “Global Security in the Age of AI.” Mema discussed reasons why people should care about the development of AI and what theological implications AI has, such as who God is, moral responsibilities in digital realms, and what role it plays in idolatry. Jensen focused his remarks on how autonomy and autonomous systems, AI, and cyber operations are currently being used and how they can be used to promote peace. For example, cyber capabilities allow people to require governments to be more transparent than they have been, autonomous systems can provide life-saving supplies to those who are not easily reached physically, and AI is able to predict natural disasters such as famine. Jensen said, “Like everything else, it can be twisted to do bad and used for ill purposes, but at its core, the developments that have come through technological developments and through these emerging technologies . . . are, at their core, good technologies and things that we should be, we must be, we have been charged to use for the benefit of the whole world.”

James Patton, president and CEO of The International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD), gave an address about the role of religion in a divided world. He introduced four objectives that ICRD uses in their people-to-people diplomacy efforts to help people better relate to and understand each other: 1) remove religion as a driver of violence, 2) identify and empower religious influencers who already seek alternatives to violence, 3) increase the numbers and networking of religious peacebuilders, and 4) link faith-inspired peacebuilding with other efforts at diplomacy and violence prevention. He said, “If we seek the light of the divine in others despite our differences and disagreements, a blossoming of community will occur that is well beyond our own faith but includes our own faith. The LDS Church, with its inherent inclination to reach out to the world in service, can not only be emblematic of that but take a leadership role with other expressions of faith about the greater importance of external care over doctrinal difference, of mutual compassion over conflict, of God’s healing over human harm. And in that I hope that we might fulfill the measure of our creation.”

Since 1983, the International Society has connected globally engaged professionals from Paraguay to Provo. Their new online directory includes Latter-day Saint professionals and friends with international experience, expertise, and interests and allows people to easily connect from anywhere worldwide. Become an International Society member here to have access to past conference addresses.