Summer Sale: The UN Shares its High Level Merchandise, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Jul


Sharing your knowledge and experience without trying to sell yourself sends a greater message of engagement and authenticity.  Create Wealth Communities

The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway. Michael Pollan

Don’t burn your bridges until you build better ones.  Matshona Dhliwayo

The weeds keep multiplying in our garden, which is our mind ruled by fear.  Sylvia Browne

On a week that witnessed more bombing of civilian targets in Syria and Yemen, migration-related callousness in the Americas, and an early start to what promises to be a formidable hurricane season, the UN community gathered in large numbers to assess progress (or its lack) on fulfilling our collective obligations to the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The High Level Political Forum (HLPF), convened under the auspices of the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is (for now at least) the place where development progress is assessed at global levels (this year with a focus on goals on children, climate change, peaceful and inclusive societies, partnerships and ending inequalities) but also at national level through a process of Voluntary National Reviews.   In the plenary sessions this week (and next) governments have largely proffered narratives that highlighted actions (allegedly or actually) designed to make their societies – and those others to which they contribute — more equitable, just and resilient to climate impacts.  In some instances having young people deliver those highlights added a dimension of urgency to the proceedings as these are the people who will benefit – or suffer – depending on our collective fidelity to our development promises.

The plenary sessions have been both supplemented and often even inspired by a full schedule of “side events,” most often taking the form of collaborations between (mostly larger) civil society organizations and government missions.  In these settings the deliberations were more focused and sometimes even more thoughtful, often referencing the release of reports from groups seeking both to influence the larger conversation and (at least as important to many groups) put them in position to win new or renewed funding from member states.

Some of these reports added good value, including the annual Spotlight Report assembled annually by the Global Policy Forum, a report by WaterAid that examines deficits in global sanitation (including neglect of sanitation workers), and a report authored by Kavitha Suthanthiraraj, our former international coordinator now with Save the Children Australia, looking at the underinvestment in ending violence against children in the Pacific region.  A fourth report launched this week by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime examined statistics on homicide.  While not officially a side event to the HLPF, this was one of a number of discussions held elsewhere at the UN this week (including a Peacebuilding Commission event on Chad and a Security Council review of communications with peacekeeping stakeholders) that are contributing in their own way to the general pursuit of peaceful and inclusive societies.

The blurring of important development content and salesmanship is something we’ve grown accustomed to in UN headquarters.  NGOs and UN Secretariat offices are constantly on the prowl for funds and not without cause.  Taking care of people can be expensive business and, as with the SDGs as a whole, it is important that promises to constituents made are promises kept.

On the other hand, it is also important that we don’t lose sight of the differences between selling and discerning, the ways in which we accommodate donors (especially government donors) in side events by engaging in a version of what speakers most often do in plenary – sharing the attractive parts of our stories while overlooking the warts and gaps that might create a less-enthusiastic environment for states looking to build their own brands with “bricks” supplied by the groups they choose to fund.

Unsurprisingly, it is precisely the warts and gaps we don’t acknowledge that stand in the way of fulfilling our sustainable development promises.  During the HLPF, but really year round, if you raise a policy issue with a secretariat official or civil society representative, what you will get back most often is a recitation of “what we’re doing about it,” which is fair enough at one level.   But selling and branding aside, what we really need to know is what they’re NOT doing, what they are unable to do, the gaps and deficits that require more than funding, but also require the skills and ideas, the presence and voices of persons worldwide who don’t have a say, who can’t afford to be present in sessions like the HLPF, who must accommodate policy decisions made in places like New York by people who often could often not find their communities on a map, let alone understand their specific circumstances.

As the first week of the HLPF draws to a close, these are our other, albeit-modest insights about the current process and prospects for ensuring sustainable development.

First, we want to acknowledge an insight by Barbara Adams of Global Policy Forum (GPF) at their fine event on “voluntary national reviews,” that what we need to know from states in their voluntary reviews is not only what they are pledged to do more of, but what they must stop doing altogether.   Barbara rightly took issue with the language of “acceleration,” not because we don’t need to move faster on our SDG commitments (we do) but because such acceleration implies that more activity is, in and of itself, the only path to progress.

It isn’t.  As we noted in that same session, if individuals are having problems in their lives, part of the solution is doing things differently, perhaps shifting energy to making life more fruitful for others.  But part of problem solving is putting a stop to destructive patterns, to pull the weeds as it were that impede more healthy growth.  And whether it is ending an addiction to fossil fuels, cutting back on weapons manufacturing, refusing to pawn off our  toxic waste on cash-strapped countries, or transitioning away from unsustainable agriculture, some of what we definitely need to hear from states and other stakeholders are the things they are prepared to stop doing, and stop doing now.

Second, there is a tendency at this HLPF to couple poverty reduction, the promotion of social protection floors, etc. with efforts to end inequalities.   As we also noted at the GPF side event, as critically important as poverty reduction measures are, you can’t build a bridge (including to greater equality) from only one end of a divide.  Such structures will inevitably collapse somewhere near the middle.  The point here is that if we are truly committed to ending inequalities, a high bar to be sure, we must be willing to talk more openly about wealth and its concentrations that increasingly make more and more of us subject to the whims of the super wealthy, virtually ensuring that the circumstances of those living in poverty will improve at a snail’s pace relative to the wealth accumulation of those at the highest ends of the current, vast, economic divide.

Finally, we have noted an uncritical attraction from many HLPF participants to the notion of “partnership,” based in part on the quite-right notion that our pursuit of the SDGs, including those such as hunger and climate on which our performance is far from satisfactory, requires us to do more together.  As Switzerland noted this week during one HLPF plenary session,  we need to “decentralize” efforts on all the SDGs but especially on Goal 16, allowing communities to take more of the lead on implementation. But how do we give pay more than lip service to the many voices seeking to contribute to SDG fulfillment but without the resources to get any sustained attention from delegations, let alone from some of the large NGOs whose gatekeeping around the UN has become legendary?  And do “partnerships” mean anything more than the powerful stroking the interests of others in power?  Can we find a way to affirm the basic equality which we insist upon in the “partners” that support and enrich our personal lives?

We must.   Beyond the rhetoric of this HLPF, beyond all the good reports and welcome efforts on development system reform,  we are still largely in “selling mode,” telling the part of the truth about our current efforts that will win the support of those with support to provide but in a manner that is as likely to discourage global constitutents as inspire them.  They know the ways in which conditions are threatened.   They need practical confirmation on a more regular basis that we know this as well.

Some of the HLPF side events have, indeed, offered inspiration.  In addition to the GPF event on “voluntary national reviews” and other events mentioned here, there was an event this week on “Human Rights and the 2030 Development Agenda,” an event noteworthy for both its important cross-cutting perspectives and its commitment to truth-telling.  In addition to a fine address by the president of ECOSOC Inga Rhonda King, a key intervention took the form of reflections on presentations by Craig Mokhiber, director of the New York office of UN Human Rights.  Mokhiber has earned the reputation as a “straight-shooter,” and he didn’t disappoint at this event, urging us to get beyond our limited “technocratic sauce” and embrace this current (and perhaps final) generational opportunity to “get development right.”

Mokhiber and his colleagues have much to contend with within their own spheres as threats to human rights multiply from the bombing of civilian targets to attacks on journalists and the shrinking of civil society space.  But he was still able to recognize and articulate what he called the “development scars” from a misguided paradign which for too long turned a blind eye to elite-only decisionmaking, corrupt governance, grossly unequal access to justice and widespread rights abuses, virtually ensuring that the resulting development will be anything but sustainable. Such “scars” threaten again and again to undermine both trust and skills at community level and an honest and sustained policy enthusiasm at multilateral level.

If there is a preferred outcome to this HLPF, it is that we can turn a blind eye no longer, neither to the many threats remaining to sustainable development nor to the ways in which the half-truths of our development discourse undermine both trust and progress.  In this critical moment for sustainable development progress, we must recover the “engagement and authenticity” that comes from sharing with each other and across sectors the best of our knowledge and expertise more than from selling ourselves.


Risky Business:   Finding the Right Button to Push on Climate Change, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Jul

Monkey on Ice

The second they stopped caring for each other is when they sealed their fate.  Courtney Praski

Anger, confusion, and a willingness to engage in bullying to get one’s way; these are all results of the current hot house climate we find ourselves in.  Diane Kalen-Sukra

Chad could put a solar panel on every roof in the country and yet become a barren desert due to the irresponsible environmental policies of distant foreigners.  Yuval Noah Harari

To save all we must risk all.  Friedrich von Schiller

All choices are fraught with peril, but inaction is the most perilous of all.  Frewin Jones

I’m spending much of this long holiday weekend sitting in front of both a computer and a fan running at full speed.  Though the most severe heat promised over the next two months has not yet come here, this current, muggy iteration is energy-sapping enough.

A quick indulgence of my Weather Channel obsession gives some indication of where we in New York might soon be headed.  From Japan to Western Europe and from India to Australia, devastating heat waves have brought much of life to a standstill.   In Anchorage, Alaska temperatures this week climbed to record levels evoking images of far-away Florida more than of the nearby Arctic.  And in Greenland, so much ice has melted that residents are now assessing the economic opportunities of selling sand to fortify the coastlines of other climate-impacted communities.

And it is not only the heat, but the storms that inevitably follow in its wake.  Already in this summer season we have followed Hurricane Barbara off the Pacific coast of Mexico. And while the Atlantic is relatively quiet so far, forecasters have predicted at least a dozen “named” storms for late summer and fall, with perhaps as many as four of these causing significant damage to places like Haiti and Puerto Rico which have only barely recovered from the destruction of last year’s hurricane season.

As temperatures and sea levels rise, as storms form more frequently and violently, the external risks to “communities of life,” human and other, become more apparent.   What is less obvious, perhaps, is the internal dimensions of risk, finding and acting on the fortitude and courage to match the severity of a deteriorating physical environment with what could only be called a fierce response, a fierceness that is not unlike how parents respond to a gravely sick child, or how neighbors respond to a catastrophic fire or flood.

This is not quite the same as the “panic” recently called for by youth activist Greta Thunberg.  Panic short-circuits a healthy and engaged relationship between our cognitive and emotional faculties.  Panic tends to freeze attention on threats in ways that undermine helpful responses.  It is an emotion well-suited to Hollywood horror films, but not as much to mobilizing the broad and determined public actions – from mass plastics removal and tree planting to ending our fossil fuel addictions – which the current “extinction rebellion” in which Greta is so prominent rightly demands of us.

Like most large institutions, the UN exists largely as a “panic-free zone.”  There is little hand-wringing here, few fiery speeches or raw emotions that might endanger diplomatic relations or resolution negotiations.   Indeed, one piece of consistent feed-back from the many young people with whom we have shared UN space over the years is the surprising lack of emotional content of most UN messaging.  What we collectively seem to be communicating, or hoping to communicate in any event, is that “we’ve got this,” that our strategies and assessments are at levels appropriate to the threats we now face.

Such messaging is not without its truth.  This past week alone, two events highlighted the strengths of UN policy response to the gravest of our current threats.   One of these was a dialogue on “special political missions” convened by Liberia as chair of the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee.  As budgets for UN peacekeeping are being slashed, SPMs are touted as the “one of the most effective tools…to advance preventive diplomacy, conflict prevention and peacebuilding” in partnership with national governments and regional organizations.   For us and for many in the room, the hope is that field-based SPMs can both help keep the peace and provide another pipeline of local knowledge and perspectives on how, as one example, threats from climate change are affecting local residents in real time – the storms and flooding, the droughts and related water emergencies – threats provoking local misery and forcing displacement on a vast scale.

In a smaller UN conference room, Switzerland and the UN’s office for Disaster Risk Reduction held a session focused on a review of the 2019 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction.  With remarks from UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, the event underscored the need for broader, more inclusive risk assessments that utilize the best available science and promote institutional and community resilience in the places most likely to be directly affected by climate-related threats.  Most important to us was the expressed view that “risk is complex and systemic, and can no longer be addressed hazard-by-hazard.”  Such systemic risk, as underscored by Swiss Ambassador Lauber, can best (and perhaps only) be managed within multi-lateral frameworks.

But management strategies on climate alone, no matter how clever and science-based they might be, are unlikely to stem this toxic and urgent tide.  Unless we are prepared to explain to our children why “adaptation” is the best our fragile societies are now capable of, we must keep our focus on climate change mitigation, on raising both our level of urgency (not panic) and the fierceness of our individual and collective responses.   We must change more behavior (beginning with our own), fix our broken politics, plant more trees, diversify our agriculture, create opportunities for greater citizen engagement, and tell more of the truth about the distances our clever, modern societies have fallen, and how we keep contributing to the decline.

And we must insist that our leadership embraces in its pronouncements and policies more clear-eyed and action-oriented assessments of the messes we have collectively gotten ourselves into.

This coming week, as many as 2000 academics, journalists and civil society representatives will descend on the UN for the 2019 High Level Political Forum (HLPF), a time to assess levels of progress (and deficiencies) related to our 2030 Development Agenda commitments at both national and international level.  Notwithstanding the deep ecological footprint associated with conducting this assessment, it is critical that we make the best effort we can to move beyond funding requests and organizational mandates, to remind diplomats of the virtual absurdity of sustainable development in a world where seemingly-intractable conflict rages, human rights are gleefully trampled upon, and more and more societies bake to a golden brown under a relentless sun.

Put simply, we need to risk more, to care more, if we are to restore more.   Inaction, or even action that is simply not commensurate with our current challenges, will not get us to a better world by 2030, a world where guns are silent, storms are milder, the displaced have recovered their homes, and panic is no longer an option.  We have a decade left to demonstrate the fierce commitments that can forge a genuinely sustainable path linking the management of climate crisis and its (for now) still-possible mitigation.

Of all the buttons on our policy console, this is the one that now needs to be pushed.

Lonelier Planet: Keeping the Natural World and Each Other at Arms-Length, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Jun

UN Signing

Broken vows are like broken mirrors. They leave those who held to them bleeding and staring at fractured images of themselves. Richard Paul Evans

The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.  F. Scott Fitzgerald

Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.  John Steinbeck

Even for me life had its gleams of sunshine. Charlotte Brontë

We’re all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding.  Rudyard Kipling

As some of you already know, I have often asked younger folks, including interns here, to find and read a newspaper from the day they were born, to get a clearer (and perhaps more empowering) sense of how much has changed on their still-youthful watches — for better and for worse — opportunities seized and neglected, promises fulfilled and ignored, connections strengthened and severed.

My own family had a habit of holding on to old newspapers, especially those with headlines that seemed to convey more than short-term importance.  As a result, I have in my possession (and have added myself) original papers from some of the key moments of my now-longish life, including the assassination of key political figures from Kennedy to King, the Iranian hostage situation that turned the US presidency over to Ronald Reagan in 1980, the multiple successes of the US space program leading to a first-ever moon landing, the shocking images of oil-stained wildlife that led to the early environmental movement, nations arming and disarming, and much more.

Beyond the headlines, the newspapers – some now over 50 years old — reveal the fabric and narrative of life in those times: a different set of consumer choices and sometimes petty political disagreements, of course, and certainly plenty of long-outdated technology, but also events and movements that shaped more than the generation of which they were a part. These would include a vicious war in Vietnam and marches for racial justice on the streets of US cities; the stubborn persistence of colonial rule, of discrimination against Palestinians and of the apartheid system in South Africa; a Cold War that simmered for years and divided us (including at the UN) beyond geographical boundaries; women (primarily but not exclusively in the west) who were starting to bust out the cultural straightjackets that defined those eras.

I am not a sentimental person by nature, but I do appreciate the glimpses into our human habits and complexities as revealed through these newspapers.  That the papers are discolored and badly frayed now is highly symbolic, for our world is a bit like that now – still harboring human possibility but also crumbling at the edges, badly discolored and threatening to disintegrate altogether.  We’ve largely forgotten where we came from, what has connected and distanced us as nations and peoples, the foolishness of those earlier times that has not had nearly enough impact in mitigating the foolishness of these current times.

Inside the UN, we still struggle with echoes of mistakes past, including the last vestiges of colonial rule focused on challenging and contentious issues around the Malvinas (Falklands), Western Sahara, Gibraltar and Puerto Rico. In this same week, the Security Council renewed/expanded robust mandates for MINUSMA in Mali and MONUSCO in DR Congo as well as a 4 month extension on the drawdown of UNAMID in Darfur, all while three permanent members conspire separately to reduce funding for peacekeeping operations.  The General Assembly hosted a moving discussion on anti-Semitism, but with the backdrop of our collective reluctance to bridge divides and end discrimination in a sustainable manner.  A meeting with the chairs of human rights treaty bodies failed to properly acknowledge the creeping disregard for human rights norms and international law obligations that makes the task of these (volunteer) chairs almost unmanageable.  The deadlock in the Security Council over the Iran Nuclear agreement (JCPOA) threatens to unravel remaining compliance levels while fresh violence in Idlib (Syria) in the name of “countering terrorism” is creating new levels of displacement among many already displaced by previous violence.

And then there is the matter of climate, an “emergency” of epic proportions that has yet to be declared as such by most UN member states that have heard the warnings but have been slow to adjust mindsets and policies.  Indeed, at an event this week on “water and disaster risk reduction,” speakers lamented the growing and largely unaddressed threats from rising sea levels and climate extremes — from severe drought to massive storms.  Such extremes threaten coastlines and, in some cases, entire nations, but also impact access to now-scarce fresh water in ways that, as one speaker noted, “constitute a major and growing threat to states.”  A presenter from Japan put it even more bluntly, suggesting that cooperation levels on water, climate and disaster risk/response will tell us much going forward about “whether or not we have become a global community.”

The testimony on all of this is sobering.  It appears that we may have already transitioned from climate mitigation to adaptation, leaving us with the challenge of adjusting to new global circumstances without making matters for planetary life much worse. As our newspapers and “smart” phones have made plain for some time, we are certainly a clever (if not particularly wise or reflective) species, able to build back from disaster and create new technologies to solve problems “on spec” if not always on time.

But cleverness may not be enough. The current dilemma for us is related both to our current isolationist dispositions and to the fact that our own adaptive pace is not reflected in the rest of the natural order.  Animals don’t have the capacity to adjust quickly to disruptions in their food supply.  Plants can’t magically find the means to self-pollinate or self-hydrate.   If indeed we are at or near an adaptive tipping point, we might well find ourselves increasingly alone as we witness a chain reaction of natural extinctions with prospects for global community and solidarity as remote as ever.

Thankfully, there are competent and inspirational voices inside and outside the building where we work every day who understand the degree to which the fraying of our climate  and our normative structures is pulling us further and further apart, leaving us to stare endlessly at our own “fractured images,” encouraging our retreat behind physical walls and into virtual realities, making us unreflective consumers of both endless reassurance and almost intolerable levels of suspicion – about our leadership, yes, but about most of the people and policies that are not in our obvious self-interest.

In one attempt to revive pragmatic hope, the president of the General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, convened an event on Wednesday for which we have long advocated – a “renewal of vows” by UN member states.  The event was reminiscent of the original charter signing in San Francisco almost 75 years ago; indeed the backdrop for this event was a film depicting the original signing.  And much like that first signing,  the PGA invited states, one-by-one, to ascend to an area in front of the podium and reaffirm through signature their commitment to the UN Charter and the values it espouses.

It was a moving event, but the PGA is no fool. There are no “blank stares” in her repertoire.  She sees up close the fraying of institutions and relationships, the retreat from norms and practices that affirm the “common good” to places where an often self-protective and rights-indifferent version of national interest predominates.  But she was also able to point to “echoes of San Francisco” in the 2030 Development Agenda, the Paris Climate Agreement and other multilateral policy measures.  As threats multiply, she maintained, “we must rekindle the spirit of 1945 and our service to the world’s people.”

A collection of state signatures is not going to save us from the self-inflicted loneliness of a world barren of species save for the survivors of wary, fearful and distracted humans.   But it is important for states and stakeholders to recall why a group of (almost all) men once sat in a California city and declared their intent to save us from the scourge of war.  As the PGA noted on Wednesday, these UN’s founders “were not dreamers but pragmatists, well aware of the unacceptable costs of conflict.”

If anything, the costs and consequences of our conflict and related challenges are higher now.  Our weapons are more destructive and seemingly omnipresent.  Our oceans are struggling to hold the life on which we depend.  Our politics are increasingly “seas of misunderstanding,” and our climate is functioning more like a microwave than a thermostat.  Thus the question remains:  Have we or have we not become a global community?   The well-being of millions of species as well as human generations to come will likely depend on how (and how quickly) we respond.

Community Foundation: The UN Slowly Localizes its Conflict Responses, Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Jun

Violence and

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius- and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction. E.F. Schumacher

Extreme violence has a way of preventing us from seeing the interests it serves. Naomi Klein

Evil turned out not to be a grand thing…It was selfishness and carelessness and waste. It was bad luck, incompetence, and stupidity. It was violence divorced from conscience or consequence. It was high ideals and low methods.  Joe Abercrombie

Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them. Flannery O’Connor

The tales of death were in their homes, their playgrounds, their schools; they were in the newspapers that they read; it was a part of the common frenzy — what was a life? It was nothing. It was the least sacred thing in existence and these boys were trained to this cruelty.  Clarence Darrow

During what seemed to be a particularly gloomy week in New York and a particularly hectic week inside the UN, I found myself reflecting on some of the logistical and personal complexities and distractions of life that have consumed so many of the people I know and know about: The people forced to confront their own mortality or caring for others forced to confront the same.  The family livelihoods hanging by a thread, drowning in paperwork and regulations that only the well-off can effectively manage.  The endless drone of advertisers and others attempting to seduce us into purchases and activities we’ve forgotten we can neither handle nor afford.

And these are just some of the problems and stresses facing those of us who are relatively “well-off” in this increasingly unequal world.

More and more, our brains seem victimized by a conspiracy of sorts, a conspiracy too often “divorced from conscience or consequence,” a conspiracy to make our economic and social contexts seem more powerful, more complex and more violent than they need to be. In the name of some combination of status, comfort, thrill-seeking and self-interest, we continue to burden our own lives and make it harder on those who will come after us. We create messes that that we have been resigned in the past to merely mopping up after the fact, but which now gush rather than trickle, “spills” that now threaten to overwhelm both our increasingly distracted brains and the standard institutional capacities we’ve authorized to mitigate unwanted impacts.

The UN this week took up a myriad of mostly-familiar, conflict-related messes from the Gaza and Afghanistan to Idlib (Syria) and the Central African Republic.  All of these conflicts have “spilled over” for some time and represent places where UN and regional efforts to quell the violence have so far been only minimally successful.  In sitting through these sessions and their seemingly endless “speechifying” (to quote the Dominican Republic), our thoughts extended to the people who have known little but conflict and violence in their lives, including the children who may not have experienced life on a consistent basis other than with homes, schools and medical facilities reduced to rubble, and with burials and explosions more prevalent than play dates.  How have all these conflict-related stresses affected their brains? How have they impeded their collective capacity to contribute one day to building that elusive “sustainable peace” that we talk about endlessly in UN settings?  How do we ramp up urgency to meet current security challenges given the diminished capacity that our violence, our distractions, our damaged politics and economics have inflicted on so many, young and old alike, worldwide?

Perhaps the best response to these problems in our recent hearing was articulated this week by the South Sudanese monitor and activist, Merekaje Lorna Nanjia, one of the speakers at an event on Security Sector Reform (SSR): Local Participation and Ownership of Reform Efforts, organized by South Africa on behalf of the Security Council Working Group on Conflict Prevention and Resolution in Africa.  Nanjia urged the designers of SSR programs to “learn from their mistakes,” including their frequent insistence that Reform is only focused on “hard” security matters involving combatants and not also about the skills and capacities that more directly impact that ability of communities to cope with the threats and consequences of violence.  She was one of several voices this week advocating for more attention to how violence diminishes human health and social possibility in myriad local settings.  She reminded the audience that in promoting security, the value of social “inclusiveness” can hardly be overemphasized.  And perhaps most important, she called for “demilitarization” that is in part about disarming those who create conditions of violence, but also in part about healing the minds of those for whom militarism has become the default standard for organizing daily life.

Slowly, thankfully, the UN is coming around to recognize that the damage inflicted on communities from armed violence is both pervasive and deep-rooted, and that effective SSR must accommodate the “mindset of citizens who have already had too much contact with militarized communities and instances of armed violence,” persons who have already had their capacities diminished and perhaps even their brains rewired through habitual trauma inflicted largely through the instruments of human conflict.

Ms. Nanjia was perhaps the most engaging speaker this week to raise the need for inclusive community involvement in security sector reform and conflict prevention initiatives.   But there were other recent clues that we are becoming more systemically successful at carving spaces in our own brains for more thoughtful and people-centered responses to our security-related responsibilities.  From the UN’s Rule of Law Unit urging both public dissemination of “basic information” about security and peace processes and more local agreements that can improve security in the shorter term, to the Former Ambassador of Fiji’s statement in the Treaty Body on the Law of the Sea advocating for greater attention to the “precautionary principle” in policy, there is a growing consensus regarding what one speaker noted at an African Refugees event this week, that we must learn to more effectively “tap into what makes us human.”

From discussions by force commanders on reshaping (and gender-mainstreaming) UN peacekeeping priorities to reflections on a Security Council resolution highlighting the needs of persons with disabilities in conflict situations, the UN this week demonstrated that it is slowly coming on board with the notion that the negative impacts of armed violence do not end when the guns are silenced; and that many of the assets to prevent violence, address its cerebral inflexibilities, and restore genuine hope for communities, are embedded in large measure within communities themselves.  As Poland explained in the session on the Council resolution which it co-sponsored, “persons with disabilities are often forgotten in times of peace and are even more likely to be ignored during times of conflict.” Given this resolution there is now a framework for change on a human scale, as Poland noted, change that local communities and stakeholders are generally best suited to make.

This represents an important insight and the pace of its acceptance must accelerate.  We simply cannot afford more security policy that ignores community, more security sector “reforms” that impede local participation, more violence that blocks out hope and possibility in local settings for the many who suffer its consequences.  In this “frenzied” moment of our collective history when human cruelty seems to be finding its new level,  we need the courage to take a collective deep breath, examine the “low methods” that too often accompany our high ideals, assess the interests that this current age largely services, and find new impetus for change within the communities that know best both their own people and what can most effectively heal their physical and emotional wounds.

Major Dad:  Sharing the Burdens beyond the Weapons, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Jun

Fist Bump

Do you really believe that your child is an idiot?  Because you said it, she now believes it.  Dan Pearce

Once, at the hardware store, Brooks had shown me how to use a drill. I’d made a tiny hole that went deep. The place for my father was like that.  Elizabeth Berg

We are not bonded to our fathers’ fate, but rather called to build on their trespasses or triumphs for a better future.  Cristina Marrero

A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.  Marilynne Robinson

That was the first time, months after his birth, I felt like Sam’s father. In a chair I never wanted, holding the child I desperately did. Aaron Gouveia

I’ve come home from another journey at the cusp of Father’s Day, a bittersweet remembrance for many (including those facing a first Day without a father), a time to recall both triumphs and trespasses, words that stung and words that healed, teachable moments and pedagogical awkwardness, the “hole” that for some was small and deep, for others broader and more shallow.

Pedagogical awkwardness was certainly on order for me and my brood of brothers.  We were idiots, it seemed, not absorbing what we were taught and generally not wanting the lesson to continue.   There was plenty to learn, to be sure, certainly from a dad who seemingly could fix anything and who did so routinely and without asking for family and neighbors alike.  But the lessons were often pitched a bit too harsh; it wasn’t always palatable to play the idiot within those pedagogical moments, to be little more than the conduit for disconnects that could have been more fruitful than the mutually-incomprehensible annoyances they mostly became.

But there are times looking back when we see things that weren’t clear when we were younger, the learning that we thought we missed out on but actually bored deep inside us, making us the persons we are, for better and for worse.  I did learn things from my father that turned out to be of great benefit in my later life – to hit a baseball and catch a football, to plant vegetables and catch fish.

And to use and care for guns

I haven’t cleaned or fired a gun in many years, but the echo of weapons respected but not feared has stayed with me.  Now, I and my UN colleagues are more concerned with the policy surrounding our weapons-saturated world than with their maintenance and uses, but there has been value in being able to connect with persons in the security sector – military and police, peacekeepers and guardsman – for whom weapons in some form are as indispensable to their work as a laptop computer is to mine.  And not only to connect, but to make the sector inclusive of women and others, and to make good use of the platform from which we can remind the sector that “security” is increasingly more complex (and more urgent as well) than weapons and their threats alone.

This past week, during a period at the UN defined by Kuwait’s fine Security Council presidency and important treaty bodies on oceans and persons with disabilities, I was honored to be overseas, acting as “copilot” for a course in small arms and light weapons conducted by Roman Hunger who now works with NATO but was once a fixture in the UN, including in the office of the President of the General Assembly.   The course was held at a NATO facility in the German Alps and brought together a group of 27 military officers and diplomats from 20 or so countries.   It also brought together officials from the UN, NATO, the OSCE and the European Union to comment on agreements to manage the arms trade and threats of weapons diversion, and included as well technical experts on weapons destruction, landmine removal, stockpile management and other practical skills.  And, while there were only four women participants in this particular course, there was a welcome NATO focus on Women, Peace and Security, reminding officers of their/our responsibility to make safe and secure spaces for women that they might finally bring to the security sector the full complement of their skills and vision.

As regular readers of this space could well imagine, the role of Global Action in this setting was intended to move the room a bit beyond the “tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it” mode that understandably characterizes much of the discourse of persons in uniform.   I talked about our need to be better “promise keepers” when it comes to the international agreements we craft and the commitments we publicly espouse.  I talked about the many stakeholders at work in the security field – including NGOs like mine seemingly in eternal “doggie paddle” mode – organizations that identify and address a range of security threats that are related to our seemingly unquenchable thirst for weapons procurement, but are more broadly related to issues like climate change and economic inequalities.   I talked a bit about the need for restraint in security matters, especially when we are unsure – as we often are – that armed violence in any form won’t simply make matters worse.  And with Roman Hunger in the lead, we discussed the government corruption that leads to weapons diversion or to the accumulation of new weapons that waste precious resources and, in some instances, represent “gifts” that national militaries have not themselves determined a compelling need for.

There was plenty more from us over the week, mostly filling around the primary task of introducing officers and diplomats to the current “state of play” on small arms and light weapons, the weapons we produce in huge quantities that intimidate households and communities, the weapons favored by non-state actors seeking to sow discord in societies, the weapons we procure without a firm grasp of how we will manage the armaments they’ve replaced over what is often a longer lifespan than our own careers.

Fortunately, as the week progressed, participants used the afternoon discussions (what NATO calls “syndicates”) to raise and debate some of the issues both within and adjacent to the small arms and light weapons field.   These (mostly) men thought harder than they might generally about how to ensure a respectful place for women in uniform.   They applied some nuance to the threats that they are duty bound to defend against, threats that come in different shapes now, threats that harbor no recognizable artillery or air assets.  They even interrogated their own views of human nature/potential beyond the cynical (and at times even dystopian) worldviews that still come just a bit too easily to men (and women also) in uniform.  They located the keys to open their minds without compromising their duty.

A few even brought their children along for a bit of holiday, basking in the refreshing air and copious ice cream parlors in the nearby village.  I hope that someday these children will one day come to appreciate how hard it had once been for parents and all of us to protect them in this weapons-riddled, plastics-inundated time of rising seas and falling trust, of corrupt governance and our equally-corrupted sense of honor. I also hope that while they are being raised and protected, while they are being taught and nurtured by the people who have literally incarnated and magnified their spirit, their fathers will never forget how “desperate” they have been to hold these children close.

I wish I could have had conversations like this with my own father, conversations about the world and its blessings, its possibilities and threats, the duties he accepted and laid down, sharing beyond the guns and sports and fishing gear that kept us connected in real time by an often-thin thread.  We certainly could have used a family-friendly version of the NATO “syndicate.” But the interactions we managed to have also served me well even though I wasn’t as open to the learning as I could have been.  Our communications flaws could not be laid at his doorstep alone. They never can be.

To all those “Major Dad” types who are stretching to connect with their children while worrying about our threat-saturated world, please allow something nice to happen to you today.   Maybe an ice cream in a mountain town, or maybe a conversation with someone younger about our current, uneasy state of affairs; perhaps even to share what might still be done to overcome the violent distractions that sap our resolve to create a more “triumphant” future, one that can keep both our fragile planet and its human aspirations buoyant.

Happy Father’s Day

Cosmetic Surgery: The Council’s Strategy for Changing Itself, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Jun

Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.  George Bernard Shaw

I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples. Mother Teresa

When people are ready to, they change. They never do it before then, and sometimes they die before they get around to it.  Andy Warhol

What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it.  If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.  Maya Angelou

This past week under the leadership of Kuwait as both president of the Security Council for June and Chair of the Council’s Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions, the Council held a discussion focused on its Working Methods.

Though I can’t convince my interns of its entertainment value, this discussion is among my favorites, eliciting innovative joint statements (which should be more the norm) and a bevy of states coming to remind the Council that they are obliged represent the interests of the full membership, not merely the interests of the “club” and certainly not merely the national interests of a few permanent members.

Moreover, they come to remind the Council of the limitations of their resolutions to maintain international peace and security, the degree to which such resolutions are often more about what the Council’s culture can “tolerate” than about what the people urgently need.  As we have noted in other contexts, resolutions from this Council (and other parts of the UN system) put members “on the record” but less often “on the clock.”

The briefers for this debate were fine – two affiliated organizations present as much for their funding and program relationships with Council members as their working insight – but they did share effectively on the role that elected members can play in pushing Council reforms, on the value (and cost) of Council “missions” to conflict-affected areas, and on the need for greater fairness and transparency regarding the listing (and de-listing) of persons and entities under the Council’s various sanctions regimes.

And yet there was also a sense, echoed by Brazil and other states, that there is potential for danger here – allowing the important but sometimes cosmetic concerns associated with working methods to obscure the desire among much of the membership for deeper reform of a Council which does not and has not for some time represented current geo-political realities.  Some of this push for reform is related to the unrepresentative permanent Council membership, some to the power imbalances within the Council itself, imbalances that sometimes result in resolutions not properly responsive to member concerns or with implementation undermined by the very powers that promoted the resolutions in the first instance.

With this in mind, one shift that we have long advocated is related to Mexico’s intervention this past Thursday, that we give greater consideration to the creation of new “platforms” to allow a wider range of stakeholder views on ways to assess and address current peace and security threats.  In our experience, such conversations happen now throughout UN headquarters consistent with the “human security” framework pushed forward by Japan and others which we also advocate.  However, these conversations are often disconnected and involve input mostly from the “usual suspects,” especially on the NGO side of the aisle.  Given the multitude of recognized security threats as well as the broad swath of states and stakeholders impacted by security decisions taken (or dismissed) around the Council oval, we must ensure that relevant and available vantage points and expertise are integrated into all phases of security policy to the greatest degree possible.

Our own assumptions going into this debate were based in part on prior connection with working methods issues at the UN:   First, it does indeed matter how we do our business in the world as much as what that business is.   It matters how we get from A to B, in part because our values are embedded as much in our practical actions as our stated objectives.  “We are what we practice,” should be enshrined over every UN conference room, not to disparage norms and values (we would be the last ones to do so) but to reinforce the need to better align the values we espouse and the values which our practical priorities – indeed our working methods – suggest. Needless to say, there is room for improvement here.

Another assumption is that people and institutions tend to make the changes they are comfortable with more than the changes that are needed.  In both personal and institutional life there is often a form of “bargaining” that takes place – we’ll “give in” on a few points of contention in order to avoid having to make changes at larger levels. “Cosmetic” changes are not always to the detriment of more fundamental ones, but this “bargaining” does most often push fundamental reckonings to the “back burner,” indeed often off the cooking stove entirely.  It is a danger to which we must remain attentive.

The third assumption is that, while the Security Council is right to want to maintain significant control over its methods of work, both in the open chamber and in consultations –in order to retain as France noted during the debate, the “flexibility” to respond to threats to international peace and security by the best means possible — those many stakeholders with a compelling  interest in Council decisions are also right to demand a certain level of honorable predictability in Council behavior.   Non-Council members and other Council watchers have noted the many instances where “provisional rules of procedure” and other concessions to flexibility have been exploited by Council members (mostly permanent members) to make claims that are consistent mostly with national interests and only barely with global ones.

And this leads to our 4th assumption – that Council members speak too often in “national capacity” and not often enough as members of a deliberative and legislating body that they have a duty to help manage.   We do understand at least some the limitations impacting elected members, especially members from small states that have a “right” to Council membership but little demonstrated diplomatic robustness to hold the permanent members and larger states to task for dropping the ball (or failing to properly share it) on peace and security.  Indeed, the five members elected on Friday by the General Assembly – Tunisia, Vietnam, Niger, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Estonia – are as likely to have their interests dismissed by the larger powers as they are to hold these powers to account.  If these new members can prioritize open lines of communication with the General Assembly and other core UN bodies, including insisting on an annual report from the Council to the GA which, as India and Cuba advocated on Thursday, contains analysis well beyond a “laundry list” of “statistical markers” of activity, then they will have created the “ripples” from which real change can happen. .

And to reiterate, these states can also help effect a transition to a security system in which the Council plays a pivotal but not exclusive role, a system which understands the security implications of a wide range of policy matters – from food and water scarcity and pandemics to corruption and ocean degradation – taken up by diverse UN entities which, as Argentina smartly noted, the Council can engage more effectively “without absorbing their work.”  It is these matters which create openings for the rest of the membership, openings that the General Assembly and Peacebuilding Commission have already seized in part, openings that allow the general membership, in turn, to engage the Council more effectively “without absorbing its work.”

It is both tempting and foolish to dismiss the Council itself as a relic of a bygone era. At the same time, it would be imprudent to dismiss the Council’s structural flaws, from excessive threats of the veto and endless prepared statements in “national capacity” that stake no new policy terrain to the willingness of certain permanent members to publicly flaunt the international law they are pledged to uphold.

As Liechtenstein (a major proponent of the ACT Code of Conduct) urged on Thursday, it is important for member states to do more than come to the Council chamber and vent frustrations over the slow pace of Council reform and the even-slower pace of peace in places such as Syria, DR Congo and Palestine.   States must be willing to take more “ownership” of peace and security concerns, including more responsibility for the failures in this realm that continue to damage global respect for multilateralism.    Where security is concerned, member states must collectively renounce the tendency to beg the Security Council for their “allowance,” and do more to earn their own income.

Change is easy for virtually no one, but in UN contexts we can and must do more to prepare this system for changes that are more than cosmetic, more than creating facile markers of efficiency, more than setting up a larger window to view a “meal” in the Council chamber that we are duly prohibited from eating.   The changes we need now are cultural as much as procedural, specifically the willingness of the Council to work and play better with others, and especially (as recently noted by Iran and other states) to adhere more rigorously to the laws and principles to which it holds (or at least seeks to hold) other UN members accountable.

It is true, as noted above by Andy Warhol, that many of us will die before embarking on the path of change that others have long advocated for us. But we can’t allow more people to die waiting for the Security Council to embrace the changes – cosmetic and deeper – that will help restore global confidence in its decisions. If there was a takeaway from this week’s working methods discussion for me, if was the sense that the Council is slowly preparing itself – and being prepared – to make these life-and credibility-saving changes, in part based on the realization that the security threats we face at present simply cannot be managed by the Council acting alone.


Future Shock: Returning What We’ve Stolen from Children, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Jun

Stolen 3

Misfortune threshes our souls as a flail threshes wheat, and the lightest parts of ourselves are scattered to the wind.  Danielle Teller

In increments both measurable and not, our childhood is stolen from us, not always in one momentous event but often in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss. John Irving

He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.  Cormac McCarthy

I hate that I stopped believing in things I didn’t even know were matters of belief, like justice and fairness. Or honesty. Or the promises people make to each other. Sue Halpern

My hearts ached with a pain I could not describe. I wondered if I were dying. I felt not sadness. I felt pity. For myself. For us all. We were children no longer. And we never would be again.  K. A. Applegate

This past Friday near the UN, John Burroughs kindly lent us his office patio for what has in the past year become a bit of a custom for us – welcoming a gathering of interns from the organizations with whom we once shared office space and with whom we still work.

Amidst the refreshments in a welcoming space shrouded in green just a few minutes walk from the UN, this gathering is pitched as an opportunity to make some acquaintances and perhaps even friends, but also to ponder “what just happened” at a UN which doesn’t always make the best first impression (or second for that matter) but which challenges our minds, hearts and patience literally by the hour.

This week, various members of our patio group took on policy options in diverse UN conference rooms – from peacekeeping in Somalia and the impact of plundered natural resources on international peace and security to the endless challenge associate with financing for development and the ability of UN managers to take a firm stand on sexual exploitation and abuse. Some also attended an extraordinary event this week hosted by Norway and Jordan focused on violence from “right wing terrorism,” and the often-shocking levels of weaponry and internet space enabling this largely unchecked threat.

All of this is important at multiple policy levels and was occasionally quite eye-opening for the interns.  And some of these experiences were raised during our patio time.   But the interesting parts were less about what the UN was doing and more about how it was doing it, the impressions that these people, some of whom had been in the building less than a week, felt initially about their presence in this center of global governance. Was it different than they imagined?  And did this “difference” make them more or less hopeful for the future of the planet?

For many it WAS different than they imagined in several ways, small and large: being relegated to the far reaches of conference rooms; having to enter the main building with the tourists rather than with the officials; watching diplomats reading prepared statements that had most all passion and urgency wrung out of them; a lack of apologies for policy mis-steps or even acknowledgements of mistakes made or valid points made by others; long meetings that resulted neither in specific actions nor even in a consensus to act that would be more about the promise of change than the promise of lunch.

No, the UN does not seem to make these interns particularly more hopeful about their future, at least not at this early stage of their engagement. Of course, what they conclude now will modify over time. They will become better “adjusted” to the way the UN does its business, the subtleties of diplomacy and diplomatic language that often result in meaningful (if not always timely or sufficient) movement on pressing global issues.

Hopefully, they will also cultivate their own means of feed-back to the UN system of which they are now a part,  a system that continues to grant access and privilege, albeit at times grudgingly, to young people who have (like myself and most of the rest of us) not “earned” it in any substantive sense.  We are where we are, not because we are so intelligent, or brave, or wise, or determined, but because (as I like to say) we’ve collectively been around so long they’ve mostly forgotten we don’t completely belong.

But belong we still do and, like it or not, the system of which we are now a part has done little to confront state leadership that, as the remarkable youth “messenger” Greta Thunberg says often, has literally “stolen our childhood,”  has refused to make the changes drastically or quickly enough to stave off the longer-term prospect of a climate-related extinction, let along the poverty, discrimination and violence that jeopardize millions of children in the shorter term.  The faces of too many of today’s children – locked in cages, trapped under rubble, suffering in the harvest fields, at risk of violence while simply seeking water or firewood – are not the faces around our patio table.  Ours are the faces of privilege, faces with “adult” opportunities to add voice to policy at its global center, to insist (if only they will) that the damage done to those who will co-inherit a planet drowning in plastic and mistrust, melting away our ice caps and eroding our resolve to promote justice and honor our promises, can and must come to a stop.  We can’t afford to further jeopardize those who might well ascend to leadership in societies now pushing away from each other, erecting more barriers than we can dismantle and calling very much into question the cooperative spirit that is our best hope for change.

Of all the UN-related voices that come to us through twitter, email and other online sources, perhaps my favorite comes courtesy of Marta Santos Pais, the Special Representative on Violence against Children.  Despite the enormity of her assigned duties, despite the willingness of too much of the international community to use children’s lives as geo-political pawns which are then justified in the name of dubious ethnic “supremacies” or of erstwhile larger global visions that turn out to be merely mean and petty, Pais soldiers on.  And she does so while regularly sharing the most hopeful photos of children from diverse and often challenged backgrounds, children mostly seen smiling, holding hands and sharing portions of the “lighter side” of themselves, children waving their arms playfully from the classrooms that offer them another way forward, children peering longingly or quizzically into the camera lens as though ready to whisper to anyone close enough to hear, “we need a chance too.”

Indeed they do.  We live in a time which (wrongly in my view) seeks to extend childhood for the mostly-privileged almost into middle-age — putting off the “pity” associated with an inevitable and largely irreversible casting aside of childish ways — while our policies impose bewildering amounts of pain and deprivation on other children that they will do well to heal, even in part.   In looking around the patio table at the remarkable people assembled there, I recognize in them some of what I don’t recognize often enough in their peers (or my own for that matter) – the willingness to take a deep and hopeful breath, to accept the responsibility associated with their training and privilege, to renounce residual vestiges of cynicism even as unresolved shocks to our future multiply, and to find common cause with those (like Greta) younger than themselves who are (and not without cause) quickly losing patience with the rest of us.

It is past time to acknowledge what our greed and indifference have been stealing from our children and pledge to return to them what was implicitly promised when we brought them into this world.