Site Visit:  The UN Gives Way to its National Owners, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Sep


This week marked the UN’s annual showcase, the opening of the 71st General Assembly under the leadership of Fiji’s Ambassador Thompson.   As always, the week for us is characterized by endless barricades, “secondary” passes to events, standing on street corners waiting for motorcades to pass, and numerous checkpoints – mostly monitored by NYC and UN police who generally deserve high marks for their competence and patience.

This is also the week when UN missions are frantically attempting to accommodate their foreign ministers and heads of state – accommodate but also impress.  Important matters are at stake – from the rights of refugees and sustainable development goals to ensuring climate (and ocean) health, fighting terrorism and selecting the next Secretary-General.  During this week, many pledges were made, including welcome funding for the UN’s peacebuilding architecture, wholly consistent with the widely stated need for greater UN involvement in conflict prevention and mediation.  In addition, states welcome the abundant opportunities for private, bi-lateral meetings to head off conflict, resolve trade disputes, clarify diplomatic misunderstandings, and find common solutions to compelling, cross-border challenges.

Many careers are also on the line as diplomats attempt to demonstrate to national leaders that they have been making progress on issues that matter consistent with their national values and interests.

And NGOs are a part of that demonstration.   At one “side event” after another, NGOs were present in the room, making statements and moderating panels in an attempt to both demonstrate their “expertise” to world leaders and showcase the “wisdom” of states in funding and highlighting their work.    As one might expect, there was an overabundance of some all-too-familiar voices, mostly from large, well-branded, western NGOs whose organizational footprints, in many instances, supersede their social impacts.   That so many familiar voices are recycled over and over during this UN week has a bit less to do with their social or intellectual value – which in some cases is certainly considerable — and a bit more to do with their political value to the governments that support and fund their brand.

There were exceptions of course.  On September 19, Heads of State endorsed the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants in which states commit to “ensure a people-centred, sensitive, humane, dignified, gender-responsive and prompt reception for all persons arriving in our countries.”  The opening event featured a stirring address by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, H.E. Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who boldly scolded leaders who have not done enough to prevent incitement, extremism, and xenophobia – including violations at their own hands.

But for me the highlight was a another address in the GA by Eni Lestari Andayani  Adi from the International Migrants Alliance in Indonesia, who compellingly reminded world leaders of the long years of “invisibility” experienced by so many displaced persons, and cited the dignity-compromising “nightmare” of refugees facing multiple exploitations, including forced breakups of their families.

The following morning, while the well-branded NGOs lined up across the street for their moments in front of the curtain, a small gathering of modest NGOs was meeting at the UN Church Center.  The purpose of this breakfast gathering – organized primarily by Liberato Bautista — was to assess the High Level event on Refugees the day earlier, but also to assess the degree to which NGOs like ours are currently fulfilling the role which we (those in the room at least) felt represents the best of our potential contribution.

Part of that role involves a recovery of the “prophetic” dimensions of NGO existence, calling all members of the UN community — all of us – to honor our promises to global constituents and create a kinder, fairer and more just UN structure that can accommodate the widest range of contributing voices.   This is not entirely a matter of “speaking truth to power,” as one of our “breakfast club” members put it – especially given the limitations of our grasp of “the truth” and of the UN’s institutional power as well.  But it certainly is about being attentive, exposing shallow analysis and unthoughtful policy pursuits, and ensuring that right mix of voices – not necessarily our own voices – is available to make policy better.

Eni was with us for this breakfast, a blessing that allowed us to process the Summit from the vantage point of one of its key participants.  She described in depth the process of bringing her to New York and what it was like being backstage with so many high-profile global leaders.   She seemed honored to have been given the podium at the GA, but also anxious to return to her work in Indonesia and uncertain if any of the benefits of this “honor” would accrue over time to her oft-discouraged constituents.   She took her honor in stride, but also seemed grateful for the possibility that those at our breakfast might remain her allies long after the others had returned to capitals or moved on to other concerns.

Of the many diplomatic “mantras” uttered around UN headquarters, one of the most frequent has to do with a call for more “involvement” by civil society.  Generally speaking it is unclear what this means beyond the desire to raise the profile of the groups with which states feel comfortable and to which they provide funds.   Certainly it is rare that diplomats will invest energy in helping to sort out a viable strategy to improved UN-NGO relations; indeed it is relatively infrequent that diplomats bother to know the names, identities or skills of more than a handful of the NGOs around UN headquarters, let alone the many excellent initiatives – like Eni’s – that exist worldwide.

A long time ago, a graduate school professor of mine reminded me that we teach others, especially the young, not because we are so wise and talented and kind, but because that is the mandate entrusted to us.   We do it because it is our responsibility, at least for this time.  For those of us with modest NGO brands, even more modest resources, and a bevy of logistical headaches associated with life in New York at the center of global governance, it is perhaps helpful to remind ourselves from time to time that this is the mandate entrusted to us.  When we do it well, when we pay kind attention and set up as many chairs at the policy table as we can put our hands on, we have a better chance to help create genuinely inclusive policy, the benefits of which can “follow home” all of the remarkable Eni’s of our world.

Strangers in the Night: The UN Reaches a Turning Point on Displacement, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Sep


When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison and visit you?’  Matthew 25 (Christian Scriptures)

Early on this Sunday the UN is fairly quiet, but soon many dozens of heads of state will converge on this neighborhood to begin a one-day High Level Summit for Refugees and Migrants.

Over the past few months, we have participated in numerous discussions and meetings focused on measures to address the unprecedented movement of persons – including millions of children – forced from their homes due to a variety of factors, but mostly from the impacts of climate change and from the indiscriminate armed violence from which few in the affected zones ever fully escape.

The policy focus on so many persons on the move – most in situations of considerable vulnerability – has been a necessary and welcome development, and we join with many others who are hopeful that Monday’s Summit can achieve consensus on the role that all states can play – and play together – to share responsibilities and minimize impacts on lives already disrupted beyond imagination.

As one would imagine, however, the long preparatory process leading to Monday has been characterized in part by political compromises and, especially, by the limitations of our collective compassion.

  • With regard to the former, we have noted a strong resistance by some states (mostly citing sovereign interests) to include the vast numbers of “internally displaced” persons in relevant policy resolution language, preferring to focus only on those persons involved in cross-border movements.
  • We have witnessed intense disagreements regarding the prominence given to refugees from Syria to the relative neglect of other significant sources of refugees and displaced, including from South Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan (though the Security Council thankfully did discuss the Afghan displacement this past week).
  • We have reinforced facile distinctions between persons “forced to leave” and others who “chose to leave” sometimes even lumping them all together with “terrorists” or others ostensibly using the “cover” of vast human movements to find less hindered passage to Europe.
  • Despite the heroic sea rescues conducted by the Italian Navy and the extraordinary hospitality provided by Canadians and others, many states have (not so) subtly backed off their initial commitments to the displaced as domestic frustrations rise and voters insists that leaders shut borders to most all of the “strangers” seeking entrance.

And it is on the compassion side of things where our commitments to displaced persons also need a serious adjustment.

Here, it is relatively easy to harken back to earlier times in my life when “strangers” at our doorstep were more likely occasions for service than for fear, when you cooked dinner for who was in the house at that moment, not just for who was in the family.

For better or worse, we don’t live in such an age now.   The problems we confront as this UN Summit unfolds are so vast and intertwined; the media-stoked fears so deep and pervasive.  Despite the urgings of Pope Francis and other religious leaders, despite the fact that so many are on the move towards countries whose weapons and economic policies have contributed to the current mass exodus; despite the images of maimed children that tug at our souls, we continue to roll up our “welcome mats” and insist (not entirely without reason) that political leaders should make no assumptions about what local citizens are prepared to do in response to a problem they themselves did not create and that their leaders have done little or nothing to prepare them for.

Hearts are hard now, seemingly harder than they have been in my lifetime.  But leaders are also less responsible now, more often unwilling to “own” the repercussions of decisions they themselves have made, let alone decisions made by others “on their watch.”

The image of hard-hearted leaders and their constituents from the “developed world” running away from the needs massing at our borders, closing our doors in the faces of strangers running from bombs most likely sold into “service”  by our own governments, is indeed a chilling one. We can only hope and pray that we ourselves will never require the assistance we are busily about denying to others.

Throughout the preparations for this Summit, one of the terms often used by diplomats is “burden sharing.”   The relevance of this term to policy is well-known.   Despite all of the fussing coming from some European leaders and US political candidates, a chart of states providing most of the hosting for Syrian and other refugees headlines several lower and middle-income countries – Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran.  These are states often coping with their own shortages of water, employment opportunities and public services; these are states often enduring their own internal political turmoil.  “Burden sharing” is a compelling and legitimate goal of the Summit – to build capacity of refugees and their host states, and create a regulatory framework that guarantees the safety, security and rights of refugees and, if and when it becomes appropriate, to facilitate their successful return home.

But “burden” has taken on another connotation during this preparatory process – not the burdens of care necessitated by circumstance, but the burdens represented by the people themselves, the “strangers” that keep showing up at the house long after the porch has filled.  These are the strangers who, among other challenges, navigate the violent chaos of Libya so that they can overpay traffickers to pack them into small boats for a life-risking journey to what is often an inhospitable destination.  And then, while coping with their own losses, they have to find the language to explain all of this to their equally traumatized children.

And all the while the rains in their homelands refuse to fall, while the bombs that decimated their communities back home refuse to stop falling.

There is much at stake at the UN on Monday.  A genuine commitment to share the burden on services and governance would be welcome, but full effectiveness of any such effort will require us to stop the bombings and other “push” factors, to accept more responsibility for some of the intolerable living conditions that our own policies have wrought, and to find ways to warm our hearts again to the needs of the strangers we are now so often choosing to neglect, the strangers that we ourselves might one day become.

A Discouraging Word:Violence and its Multiple Impacts, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Sep

The only shameful thing about mental illness is the stigma attached to it. — Lindsay Holmes

Last evening, on my way to a birthday party, I stopped by the World Trade Center site.  The powerful “9/11” spotlights were turned on, helicopters circled the area, and many loud banging noises could be heard in the neighborhood. While watching the spectacle, I had striking flashbacks of people jumping out of windows of the old Twin Towers because staying put on melting upper floors had ceased to be an option; also of responders urgently rushing up stairways that ultimately became their graveyards.

But I also thought about the thousands upon thousands of bombs that have fallen since “9/11,” the uncounted masses whose homes and shops will never be rebuilt, whose losses will never be formally commemorated; countless families who have barely known a moment of stability or peace for the past 15 years.

We in the US have been victims; we have created many as well. Violence in too many forms preceded 9/11 and violence in too many forms has defined its wake.

Such diverse forms and manifestations of violence always find a place on the agenda of the UN community: even when we fail to guarantee refugees safe passage; even when efforts to eliminate nuclear tests go up in flames; even when conflicts rage like wildfires that have long-since jumped the control line; even when abuses are committed against civilians by their erstwhile protectors; even when hospitals are bombed with weapons sold by countries that had previously pledged seller’s restraint.

There were many UN events this past week with implications for peace and security, for societies that no longer have to calibrate the staggering costs of violence (including their deep emotional wounds) that threaten every hopeful impulse.  Two for us stood out.

On Tuesday, the General Assembly help what is now an annual debate on the Responsibility to Protect norm for addressing genocide and other atrocity violence, placed on the UN’s agenda at the 2005 World Summit. “R2P” as it is known has attracted significant interest from many UN member states as well as from a handful of “loyalist” NGOs who were well represented at the debate, what one person described (with a hint of irony) as something akin to a “family reunion.”

Despite high regard for the norm and for addressing what Bolivia referred to as the “repugnant” crimes to which the norm points, this discussion brought many fault lines to the fore, based in part on the recognition (as described by Slovenia and others) that 11 years on from the World Summit the world is still facing widespread misery and displacement instigated by state and non-state actors.  The questions (and frustrations) were evident throughout. Brazil wondered about our habitual response to coercive responses that endanger the very persons we are trying to help.   Vanuatu wondered why states sit idly by waiting for the Security Council to act when there is much conflict prevention that even small states can promote.  Spain wondered why the UN’s promises of a “culture of prevention” remain essentially unfulfilled.

And yet amidst the frustrations, there were signs of positive life. Several states (and USG Dieng) called (as we have also been doing for years) for RtoP to find life through a regular, formal General Assembly process that allows states to (as noted by Panama) engage a wider range of stakeholders, but also to examine the political and capacity gaps that impede effective implementation. We also need (as noted by the Netherlands on behalf of the “Group of Friends”) more regular briefings to the Security Council by USG Dieng and (soon) ASG Simonovic, requiring both a more active, determined secretariat and a less “tone deaf” Security Council when it comes to its response to early warnings.

DSG Eliasson confessed during this meeting that when we look around the world, it is hard not to be discouraged. We just can’t go on like this, he implored. Indeed, we cannot.  The longer the violence festers, the longer people are denied relief and justice, the longer we fail to develop (as noted by Rwanda and others) strong institutions to help us face our conflict prevention and protection responsibilities, the longer we attempt to mask the truth about protection promises unkept, the deeper discouragement is likely to become.

Such deep and painful emotions were also the backdrop of a special event sponsored by Palau (with Canada, Belgium and UNDESA) on “Mental Health and Wellbeing at the Heart of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”  Palau’s Ambassador Otto, a trained physician himself, has taken a special interest in SDG 3 which links “mental health and wellbeing” to what some might consider as the “self-inflicted wounds” associated with non-communicable diseases, including narcotics and alcohol addictions.

Amidst the “earth balloons” and children chanting “happy people, happy planet,” there were sober matters to consider. ASG Daniella Bas underscored the particular mental health concerns of disabled persons.  Canada addressed the social isolation characteristic of so much mental illness, but also called attention to the pervasive mental health challenges affecting migrants and refugees.  Micronesia’s newly-installed, Ambassador Chigiyal, called attention to the stigmas that impact care for the mentally ill, citing examples from her own “family focused” country. And many diplomats and practitioners raised the specter of the trauma, including from indiscriminate use of weapons, that we should do more to prevent and for which our capacities for remediation and restoration are still largely deficient.

But more than this, we should think harder about what is needed at the level of policy to help stave off the effects of trauma and related illness that impede human and community development.  Beyond addiction, we are moving towards full recognition of mental health impacts from being unable to protect our children from harm or abuse, from having our livelihood disappear, from being betrayed by people in our “inner circle,” from being unable to stop violence that threatens everything in our community of concern. These and other examples point towards two features of a mentally healthful life – trustworthy human connections and the ability to impact events in the world, large and small.  Without meaningful connection and viable agency, life is simply too isolated and unpredictable to sustain mental health.  Too many of us in this world struggle mightily to find protection from harsh winds that we simply cannot control, and too often we struggle alone.

Ambassador Otto’s introductory remarks summed up perhaps the most important insight from this event, reminding us that “the heart is a great enabler.” Indeeed, implementation of all our development commitments and all our preventive and protective responsibilities must be animated by something deeper than the need for clever and well-crafted policy.  We must learn to empathize more actively with lives incapacitated by armed violence; we must do better at preventing and protecting against its devastations.  While doing this, we would do well to place greater emphasis on encouraging more personal connection and social participation as antidotes to the isolation and impotence from which so much discouragement in this world currently proceeds.

The Importance of Importance:   The UN General Assembly Reasserts its Cross-Cutting Value, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Sep


UN Photo

One of the things I marveled at during my months (long ago) as a hospital chaplain in Harford, CT was the ability of emergency room medical staff to perform “triage” on incoming patients.

The principle is simple in the abstract if not in practice:   In a system under constant stress, professionals must be able to distinguish quickly between patients requiring urgent attention and those who can wait a bit – albeit often uncomfortably – for their turn at treatment in the hope that full health can be restored.

This “triage” is hardly confined to hospitals; parents make these judgment calls all the time, sequencing the lives of children so that they get more of what they need when they need it, especially during times of urgency.   And of course many of these judgments point down a life-long road – sealing the relationship linking healthy diets, prompt health care, home reading and other nurturing activities, and the promotion of future self-directed adults able to contribute much to families and communities.

The UN has its own versions of “triage” though the public face of this is largely confined to Security Council meetings where “matters of importance” take place, including assessments and responses to threats that literally leap on to the front pages of our media.  There are, indeed, matters of gravity punctuating the Council agenda – Syria and Yemen are only the most notable – and the Council is learning again about both the potential and limitations of its policy solidarity.  Thankfully, Council members are also spending more time in the field – as we write this, they are in South Sudan – in part in an attempt to better grasp some of the practical consequences of their sometimes inadequate decision making to maintain (or restore) peace and security.

What the Council has most in common with emergency rooms and families is the expectation of relevant potency.   While hardly omnipotent, the decisions of ER doctors and parents are clearly binding within their “areas of jurisdiction.” For its part, the Council is one of the few modalities within the UN that has a mandate to “make states do things” that they might not do otherwise.  While the effectiveness of Council responses has been and should continue to be challenged, the assumption reflected within the Council’s mandate is that if states do not abide by its resolutions, more or less coercive measures may well follow – sanctions, travel bans, peacekeepers or even overtly military operations.

For many people, this coercion is a critical dimension of “importance.”   If we can’t make governments and other entities abide by rules of law and conduct, if we can’t force states to keep their treaty or resolution promises, then “triage” is little more than the creation of a priority list for institutional impotence.   What good, for instance, is it to create (as the UN is seeking to do this week) massive ocean refuges beyond national jurisdiction in an attempt to heal the seas if there is no trusted mechanism of enforcement – if there is no “ocean police” to ensure that fish stocks are not depleted, biodiversity is preserved, plastics and toxins are not carelessly dumped into increasingly compromised waters?

But it is not at all clear to what degree the UN’s use of coercive tools have actually modified the behavior of recalcitrant state and non-state entities.   Moreover, it seems to us, as it now seems to many UN member states, that there are many “soft power” options that have been – and remain – largely underutilized in this institutional space – tools such as mediation and good offices, to be sure, but also what we might call the “power of importance,” the resolve that comes from knowing you are placing priority on the most urgent matters with the most far-reaching consequences.

We don’t get many compliments in this office (few of us at the UN do) but the kindest remark ever paid to us was by a diplomat who noted, “You folks always show up for the most important discussions.”   For us this year, “showing up” has largely meant following the exhausting itinerary of the president of the 70thGeneral Assembly (PGA), Denmark’s Mogens Lykketoft.  This PGA has run a marathon during his year of service, refocusing and empowering the General Assembly while offering (even insisting upon) tangible support to other key UN functions, including the Financing for Development mandate of the Economic and Social Council  and the peace and security mandate of the Security Council.   He has lent the support of his office (and his personal presence) to a host of issues on the UN agenda that must stay firmly on our collective radar – pandemic threats, the rights and well-being of migrants and refugees, our urgent climate challenges, the political participation and employment of the world’s largest-ever generation of youth, the elevation of peacebuilding skills and architecture, the healing of our oceans, the transparency of the current Secretary-General search and its full inclusion of women candidates, the end to discrimination against disabled persons, indigenous women and far too many others.

We have few if any quibbles with the PGAs triage.   With or without the power of formal coercion, he has focused the attention of the GA on the issues about which we will learn to cooperate more fully or perish more rapidly.

And he saved some of his time and energy to focus on his own office – its needs in relation to the extraordinary expectations now placed upon it. Part of this has involved exposing the hypocrisy of a system that demands more and more of its key leadership without the funding commensurate with those responsibilities.  Lykketoft recognizes the advantages of coming from a wealthy country anxious to subsidize his success.   Other PGAs have not been so lucky.  Others have had to cut corners and make deals, often in ways that sow suspicions.   Plugging the institutional gaps in the system closest to the PGA is both a gift to his able successor (Fiji’s Amb Thompson) and to our collective ability to sustain interest in the most important policy priorities which the PGA and his VPs have energetically highlighted.

This past week the PGA hosted a “culture of peace” event in Trusteeship Council.  It’s a bit of a “mushy” topic, to be sure, but the event did underscore the diverse responsibilities of peacemaking beyond the control of weapons and coercive responses to wrongdoers.  It also gave UN officials and others the opportunity to share some of what drives their commitment to this place and keeps them energized to fulfill its multi-lateral potential.  From Nicaragua’s insistence on poverty reduction priorities and Italy’s call for youth inclusion to Malaysia’s urging of political moderation efforts and Indonesia’s call to find pathways out of “fragility,” many states welcomed this space for the kind of deeper reflection that keeps our policy deliberations on track, the kind of reflection on which good policy triage depends.

Also during this event, Tunisia’s Nobel Laureate Wided Bouchamaoui noted that, despite the slow pace of change, we must keep our focus on the reform that “alters destinies,” a reform that requires humility, the renunciation of despair and a commitment to concrete outcomes. Albania directly referenced Mother Teresa, warning that “we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”  On a similar note, SG special adviser David Nbarro, a key architect of the UN’s Ebola response and now focused on the Sustainable Development Goals, reflected that “human beings can respect themselves better as they learn to respect others better.”

These contributions are not a substitute for good policy, but they reference attributes of the human experience essential to good “triage,” keeping our eyes and energies fixed on matters of urgency in these gravely challenging times. We thank PGA Lykketoft for his year-long lesson on what truly matters.

Attention Deficit Disorder:  The Security Council Struggles to Shove the Genies Back in Their Bottles, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Aug

Space Weapons

“There are cameras nowadays that have been developed to tell the difference between a squirrel and a bomb.” ― George W. Bush

It is becoming more and more common, in this age of breathtaking technology (and the advertising to match) to jump all over each and every new gadget on the assumption (or wishful thinking) that the effect is purely additive and not also subtractive, that the need to overcome what Lewis Mumford once referred to as the “abyss of boredom” can wholly obscure the dangers lurking deep within our own techno-obsessions.

Some of us are even willing to line up on the streets for hours to purchase the latest gadget, proud to show off what others don’t yet possess, but not entirely prepared for the inevitable — when others figure out how to get what we now have.

In matters within (and also beyond) technology, we tend to assume a positive impact from the “new and improved” while remaining willfully oblivious to the “dark sides,” the less positive consequences that we will at some future point have to contend with, and often at a moment of greater urgency or less convenience.  As noted by Henry David Thoreau quite some years before the advent of any of our modern contrivances, we are prone to distraction by our “pretty toys” from the things that truly matter.   He might also have added that if we fail to “practice” attention to those “things that matter,” we will be woefully under-prepared for the times when those “things” spring a metaphorical leak.

These reactions – the need to push the envelope on the acquisition of “bling,” the unwillingness to even acknowledge the potential negative consequences of acquisition, and the lack of attention to what our strategy will be when everyone else has what we have – are hardly confined to the relatively petty realm of personal technology.

A weapons-related version of this conundrum was on display last Tuesday in the UN Security Council.   A debate hosted by the Malaysian Foreign Minister focused on “challenges in addressing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), their means of delivery, and related materials.”  The debate gave proper credit to the efforts of Spain and other states to clarify and fortify our responsibility to secure the most dangerous weapons and hopefully prevent access to such weapons by nefarious regimes and non-state actors.

Otherwise, the debate broke little new ground, inasmuch as the immediacy of the WMD threats were pretty clear – including unsecured nuclear weapons in Turkey, chemical weapons use in Syria, reckless flaunting of nuclear weapons capacity by the DPRK, and biological agents laboratories in too many places.  There were some thoughtful statements of course – including the Secretary-General’s admission of links between emerging technologies and WMD access that need urgent addressing by the international community.  In that light, Vietnam joined with others in citing the “dual use” challenges that potentially cloak the wolves of mass weaponry in sheep’s clothing.  Venezuela lamented that WMD use is not at all “theoretical” but becomes ever more likely as our “secret” weapons programs continue their expansion. Panama smartly noted the grave challenges that come to the fore as our technological progress becomes more “democratic.”

But even more than these statements, the debate also, deliberately or not, reinforced the precarious position in which the Security Council finds itself when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, those already on the books, those subject to modernization, and those in the planning or pre-production phases.  Simply put, states (especially the P-5) don’t come to the Security Council to discuss their weapons modernization, let alone to seek approval for the development of any new weapons technology.   The Security Council has a role only at the point when shiny new weapons systems or deadly biological agents are in danger of falling into nefarious hands, only when the weapons “we alone have” become the weapons that many can acquire.

As with our personal technology, the unchallenged assumption seems to be that technological advance itself is inevitable.  Its shiny new wrinkles – the “lust removed from nature” as Don Delillo once coined it — cannot apparently be resisted by mere mortals and their institutional guardians.   All we can do, it seems, is fuss and fume over the inevitable challenges that occur when our carefully crafted blueprints for a militarized future fall into the hands of the “bad guys.”

As they inevitably will. During the Council debate, Professor Greg Koblentz noted that our collective skill level required to use new technologies is actually decreasing.  What is also decreasing is our courage to ask the next questions, to pause in our weapons-related feeding frenzy long enough to recognize that the genies we release will at some point get mighty ornery, will start hanging out with the “wrong crowd,” will do everything possible to avoid being “bottled up” again.

As it is now, if a new distraction appears on our “smart” phones, we have to follow its allures. If a labor-saving device can eliminate more of our labor force, we have to market it. If a new weapon will give us a temporary edge over our adversaries, including those with whom we refuse to negotiate, we have to build it.  If we can build a camera that can distinguish between a squirrel and a bomb, well “hot dog.” Ain’t we clever?

Even Dogbert from the cartoon strip “Dilbert” understands that much of our modern “advancement” is predicated on “people not asking too many questions.”  We must insist harder than ever that our leadership asks the questions that matter, and then ask them again.  And we must insist on the same for ourselves.

Indeed, if the Security Council cannot compel the major weapons holders and manufacturers (mostly the permanent members) to give a heads up on their short-term, high-tech advantages, then we need to push harder in other spaces.   We simply cannot continue the policy of wringing our hands about threats which in general are predictable and which in specific are knowable.  Or soon will be.

There were news accounts recently of Pokémon GO players literally falling off a cliff while chasing its elusive, virtual species.  Those in control of our WMD responses are urged to study the metaphorical implications of this accident very, very carefully.


Weapons and Wounds: The UN sorts its Conflict and Humanitarian Dependencies, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Aug

Eliasson and WHD

Friday was World Humanitarian Day, honored throughout the UN system.   In New York Deputy Secretary-General Eliasson led a moving tribute to fallen UN staff, whom he honored as “the most committed of the committed,” specifically referencing those killed in an attack in Baghdad over 20 years ago.  There was also an evening spectacular during which governments were urged once again to honor pledges to support humanitarian assistance, pledges that as UN Relief Chief Stephen O’Brien has noted in many Security Council meetings, are far more numerous than their fulfillment. Clearly it is easier to make promises than honor them, for states no less than for the rest of us.

This pledging gap stands in sharp contrast to the unrelenting work of medical and relief personnel in some of the most devastated conflict zones worldwide.   We have been privileged to attend many briefings, in and out of the Security Council, by representatives from the White Helmets in Syria as well as from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) which operates not only in Syria but in Yemen and other unimaginably stressful environments.

While they dig traumatized children from rubble and amputate their irreparably damaged limbs in makeshift medical facilities, the bombs continue to drop, on top of them as well as around them.   The workers themselves have become targets; at the very least the scruples of international law that mandate that warring states avoid civilian targets have lost their sting. More and more, victims have little say in how these conflicts evolve and little to gain once (if) they are finally resolved.  More and more, relief agents like those of MSF face existential threats merely because they have the courage to care.

There is now talk around the UN that the White Helmets are a virtual shoo-in for the next Nobel Peace Prize.

We would welcome such a well-deserved honoring.  And yet, there is an uneasy feeling within us and many others, in part due to the fact that, as MSF stated as part of its distancing from the Istanbul World Humanitarian Summit, not nearly enough attention is being paid to the grave sacrifices and often needless dangers that diverse first responders to tragedy must now endure.

But it is more than that; indeed there is a growing sense that conflict and relief have become too dependent on one another, are too intertwined in their operations and expectations, that relief efforts are less about cultivating what one commentator recently referred to as “a shared humanity” and more about setting up bureaucracies that spend vast sums without also critiquing the system that breeds violence, drought and dangerous climate events on a formerly unimaginable scale.

Too many of the large relief agencies, it seems, are quite willing to be seen as the “benign face” of an otherwise ugly pursuit, with massive fundraising and resulting “interventions” based on tales of misery that they can and should do more to cut off at the source.  It is not by accident that the first “core responsibility” listed by the UN Secretary General in his “One humanity: shared responsibility” is “political leadership to prevent and end conflicts.” This is leadership that all of us, including the institutional beneficiaries of what Simone Lucatello of Instituto Mora and others frequently refer to as “humanitarianism,” must insist upon with greater urgency.

As many other colleagues worldwide such as Kenya’s Paul Okumu have commented, we are now at the point when we need more activists and fewer NGOs, more people devoted to stronger communities and fewer devoted to large-scale institutional maintenance.  Moreover, we need both activists and NGOs who are willing to confront the architects of violence and environmental destruction with the ultimate futility of humanitarian efforts.  We simply cannot bandage the mistakes of global policymakers.   We can’t make it “good enough” so that governments don’t have to feel so badly about initiating yet another round of deadly conflict, another license to ruin what precious little remains of our formerly climate-healthy and biodiverse planet.

The agonizing work of the White Helmets gives them a unique perspective here.  Should they win the Peace Prize, and even if they don’t, they have both the savvy and the gravitas to remind the rest of us that humanitarians do not keep the peace, do not stop arms transfers, do not negotiate political settlements to disputes. Unless that message is steadily and convincingly conveyed –- with conviction and without regard for funding impacts and branding opportunities — we will continue in a cycle where large NGOs continue to be paid handsomely in a mostly futile effort to clean up after messes that, in many more than a few instances, should never have happened in the first place.

Two other events this week highlighted for us the ways in which we believe “humanitarianism” needs to evolve.  First, we watched with interest as a majority of states attending the Open Ended Working Group on Nuclear Disarmament in Geneva — as reported by Reaching Critical Will and others — indicated their support for negotiations in the UNGA First Committee towards a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.  The justification for this initiative is largely a humanitarian one – modern nuclear weapons are so powerful, so devastating in their effects that any humanitarian system we could envision would be inadequate to respond.   If the human tragedy of Yemen is beyond our capacity to manage, and it currently seems to be, the consequences from nuclear explosions can barely be fathomed.

And then there was a long, insight-filled Skype call that we were honored to have this week with a room filled with young women activists mostly from Cameroon.   They asked many questions about what the UN does and why we do things the way we do them here; why we don’t reach out more, listen more, use more examples from their lives and fewer from our own?  And then it was time for my question:  “If you could make one change in the lives of the women you know, what would that change be?”

One by one, they came to the front to share their hopes: more women in politics and other places where laws and norms are developed; more girls at higher levels of education; an end to subordinations based on income, law or tradition; increased access to financing and other public goods.  And finally, there was a plea for the lowering of barriers that separate women from each other and from their better selves.   Their quest for that elusive ”shared humanity” within peaceful, inclusive communities, settings that demonstrate capacity and skill regarding resilience to conflict and climate threats, requires each of them to change and grow as well.

These are the lessons we seek to promote: that humanitarian response is ultimately inadequate to prevent, end or recover from modern conflict and that communities and their leadership can play a more central role in responding to local victims while ensuring fewer victims in the first instance.

The humanitarian community already has many burdens to navigate, but we urge adding another one – the decoupling of what have become the “strange bedfellows” of conflict and humanitarian assistance.  Together, we must continue to address human need but do so in a way that does not enable political leaders to postpone or push aside their conflict-related responsibilities.  We cannot allow committed energy from humanitarians to be used to make the onset or continuation of conflict any more palatable.

School Daze:  The UN Struggles to Identify Education that Matters, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Aug


It’s mid-August in New York, and I and many other have struggled this weekend with indoor “sleeping” temperatures hovering around 90 degrees.   I’m also dealing with massive amounts of dust, willingly blown in all directions by my strategically placed fans, complements of a construction project next door.

For many young people, August heat portends the immanent start of another school year.  For some of these youth (including me decades ago) school is a place of boredom and even conflict. For other young people (and virtually all of their parents) the return to school is a return to normalcy – the prospects both of intellectual challenge and a re-emerging, viable, family routine.

Tragically, for many around the world, school remains mostly a distant vision.  For Syrian refugee children, for earthquake survivors in remote regions of Nepal, for children dodging bombs in Yemen or insurgents in the DRC, school represents the faint hope of stability and possibility; the yet unfulfilled promise of inclusive and peaceful societies in which their contributions —including their engagement with civic responsibilities — are valued and encouraged.

Last Monday, the UN held a discussion on Indigenous People’s Right to Education in recognition of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.   There was much of value in this session, including an admonition by ASG Thomas Gass to decouple indigenous education from any “backhanded” assimilation narratives. Also noteworthy was the UNPFII Chair Álvaro Pop’s reminder that indigenous education must maintain as its core objectives the dismantling of remaining colonial vestiges in order to create “better local democracies.”

But for the three of us in the room from Global Action, the “star” presenter was Ms. Karla Jessen Williamson, an Inuit from Greenland now teaching in Canada.  It was Williamson who most clearly defined the challenge with “schooling” from the standpoint of indigenous culture – that the higher up the educational chain indigenous youth go, the further they tend to get from indigenous linguistic and thought forms.  Others on the panels lamented the linguistic and other local losses that are absorbed when indigenous youth travel long distances to educational institutions, only to struggle at times with both the training methods themselves and the values embodied in those institutions.

Williamson additionally highlighted educational benefits including skills for “self-governance” of Arctic peoples and the respect they should rightly demand from “down south” governments, but these were raised with softer edges.   As with other speakers, she honored the “suffering” of those ancestors who made it possible for her (and others) to speak in a place like the UN.  She also expressed her educational preference for “inner imagination,” a preference which she did not have the opportunity explain at length but one which clearly sees education at its best as the full and dynamic expression of a whole culture more than a specialized, highly-cognitive pursuit within a distinct social institution.  It suggests an education that is about the contexts through which we can grow and change, that upholds the values of honoring and appreciating, and is not only about the worldly tasks that define our budding careers.

In indigenous cultures and beyond, school and learning are not synonymous and it is unhelpful to see them as such.  Many personal and institutional roles carry an educational responsibility, albeit one not tied so tightly to career and employment options.  People “learn” about the world through diverse sources, many persons, institutions and agents of culture.  When a comprehensive social pedagogy is undermined, when “school” becomes the sole arbiter of what a culture transmits to the young, when adults abdicate responsibility for education to specialized (and increasingly expensive) institutions,  more than “inner imagination” is in jeopardy.

As the primary institution of global governance, the UN has its own “teaching” responsibility, sadly much of which takes the form of campaigning and branding, trying to “sell” political agendas rather than helping people understand more about the current state of the world and their responsibilities in it.   We throw around words like “empowerment” as though we have any clarity about its criteria – how we know it when we see it, how that generic (and overused) term can possibly have any relevance outside of the specific political and social contexts in which people find themselves.

Moreover, we too often address young people as though they are our “saviors” more than our successors, leading them to believe, in the name of (rightly) encouraging youth participation, that they are already perfectly formed, already prepared to take us places the rest of us ostensibly can’t take ourselves, already able to confront grave planetary challenges on their own merits, already “sufficient” to life in all its (increasingly) virtual and non-virtual elements.

Even in the august Security Council, security policies are sometimes promoted as though it could not possibly be otherwise, policies that are willfully detached from the consequences of their precursors– successful and often not — and that try to equate the political interests of one or more states with resolutions to address the interests of those suffering a wide variety of conflict-related abuses.  Here as well the point seems too often to be how to “convince,” not how to enlighten or reflect. Neither teaching nor leading, it seems.

The UN is primarily political culture, and so it isn’t surprising when discernment yields to political considerations.   But when such discernment devolves into outright hyperbole, into a denial of complex realities we should well be clever enough to grasp, few will get what they need to flourish in learning; our inner lives will suffer; general levels of trust in the veracity of our foremost institutions will shrink.  People will listen less often, in part because of our collective authenticity deficit.

During a UN youth event on Friday devoted to “sustainable consumption” and poverty reduction, ASG Thomas Gass in his own modest manner attempted to get the audience to be more mindful of the “ethical” compromises and sacrifices represented by the clothing we purchase, the food we waste, the phones we clutch as though our very lives depended on them. However, in the back of the conference room where I was seated, young people were busy on those very same phones, snapping pictures for their Instagram accounts, planning their weekends, texting like the world was about to come to an end, doing only what many kids now routinely do.

Their energy and confidence can both be infectious, but there is still so much for them to learn – about the world and its current challenges, about gadgets and their limitations, about the deep and sometimes scary wonders of their “inner imagination.”   This is education by diverse stakeholders and cultures that the UN would do well to assume a larger role in ensuring.  This is education the potential of which schools themselves can only partially fulfill.