Giving Tree:  Growing Spaces for Gratitude and Service, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Nov

I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. Henry David Thoreau

Pride slays thanksgiving but a humble mind is the soil out of which thanks naturally grow. Henry Ward Beecher

What seems insignificant when you have it becomes important when you need it. Franz Grillparzer

My cooking is so bad my kids thought Thanksgiving was to commemorate Pearl Harbor. Phyllis Diller

This is the beginning of Thanksgiving weekend in the US, a time when we are hopefully inspired to – as my grandmother used to say – both “count our blessings” and share more of them with the world around us.

For many years, my Thanksgivings in New York were preoccupied by labors in a Harlem church pantry presided over by two enormously capable women who knew the neighborhood and its diverse “characters,” including the ones who had family plans for the provisions we provided and the ones who were merely hoping for a bit of “resale” cash from those provisions if they could get their hands on them.

I actually don’t miss those Thanksgiving pantries.  Expectations and anxieties were considerably higher than was the case on the other Saturday’s of the year when the pantry was also open.  There was more food to distribute on Thanksgiving but often less grateful hands receiving it and, as the years went on, fewer hands it seems being extended to help us with the distribution chores.  Thanksgiving, it seemed, was characterized by increasingly lower levels of both gratitude and reciprocal service to others.

Yesterday, in another part of Manhattan, Global Action was the beneficiary of a truly lovely event organized for us by our dear friends India Hixon and Olive Osborne.  The event was a fundraiser of sorts, but the “gratitude messaging” was much broader than the financial giving.   Interns and fellows, current and former, described how their UN experiences affected their lives; NGO leaders at the UN talked about how Global Action and others help to develop a narrative on global polity that is more attentive, connected and generous, with minds and hearts focused more on the needs and aspirations of constituents and less on the complex and sometimes myopic politics that characterize UN conference rooms.  We also heard about some of the many amazing initiatives and investments which have germinated just from the people sitting around our Saturday afternoon event space — including Wendy Brawer’s Green Map and Lin Evola’s Peace Angels — projects taking place in many parts of the world and taking many forms that make our own work possible and, more importantly, our world more hopeful.

And we were reminded of something that should be enshrined in every global policymakers work space – that the key element in any policy work is not agreements on language, but practice by human beings.  It is what we as people do with the policy openings made available to us that truly make the difference in our world.   In the absence of “en-action,” what UN-speak refers to as “implementation,” the promises embedded in our often politically-compromised texts will die a slow and largely unheeded death, generating (in ourselves and in others) neither a grateful nor generous spirit, let alone inspiring hope for a healthier and more prosperous future.

Perhaps ironically, the system that we still respect and in which we labor daily behaves at times in a manner that is almost incompatible with any recognizable thanksgiving-themed outcomes.  On Monday, for instance, the Security Council held an Arria-Formula meeting to discuss the situation in Venezuela which, as many know, has been characterized over several long months by mass political turmoil, food insecurity and a growing number of human rights violations, many specifically targeting (and imprisoning) political opponents and the media.

The event was “sponsored” by the US and Italy (current Council president) though it was clear from the outset that the US was the principle organizer of this Arria narrative.  US Ambassador Haley’s assessment of conditions in Venezuela was harsh and unforgiving, not without reason (as was reflected by the other speakers including High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid) but also largely without strategic purpose.

This was clearly not an event to “educate” Council members about a situation that has been evolving (and deteriorating) for some time and that clearly has potential implications for peace and security, including on its neighbor Colombia’s still-fragile peace process. This seemed instead to be more of a politically-charged rally designed less to find solutions with UN frameworks but more to attack the Venezuelan government (low-hanging fruit that this represents at the moment) for the sake of – what exactly?   Was the US advocating for regime change?  For the latest iteration of some external invasion by covert or overt means?   For formal sanction from the Human Rights Council or other UN bodies?

Usually reliable and thoughtful Uruguay reminded delegations that Venezuela does not currently appear on the UN Security Council agenda and thus is not deemed to be a threat to international peace and security. This was, at best, a “besides-the-point” moment given the preventive priorities of SG Guterres and the responsibility of the Council to maintain international peace and security, to get out in front of conflict and not wait to merely (attempt to) pour water on fires that have already done considerable damage.  Moreover, none appeared to be calling for such an agenda expansion; indeed three Council members – China, Russia and Bolivia – spent the time of the Arria holding a separate press briefing with the Venezuela Ambassador, in part to insist that no such addition to the Council agenda was warranted and essentially accusing the US of using the Arria Formula to instigate some variation of a political circus.

France, which has increasingly become the “adult in the room” when it comes to permanent Council member diplomacy, did not minimize Venezuela’s rights violations, but stressed the humanitarian imperative as well as the need for robust mediation efforts from regional and UN sources to help overcome what has become a deepening and abusive political impasse characterized by citizens who, in the words of HC Zeid, have “largely lost confidence in their state.”

At another meeting later in the day, Zeid (who once represented Jordan on the Security Council with thoughtfulness and diplomatic distinction) lamented the current “culture” of the Council, the inability of those entrusted with global peace and security to apply dignity and respect in their dealings with each other as a precondition for assisting global constituencies longing for stability and seeking relief from violence and its many levels of threat.

The acrimonious Venezuela discussion, coupled with another round of painful (and largely failed) discussions on the renewal of the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism for Syria, left our little group of Council watchers wishing that the chamber could find a way to declare some sort of “time out” for itself.  Such would be an occasion to suspend political considerations and reflect on all those persons around the world who are depending on our good decisions, who want to believe that we still have their best interests at heart, who are even willing to offer morale and practical support towards a more peaceful world so long as that support does not fuel more of the political gamesmanship and excessive, pride-filled policy maneuvering that seeks to pin political blame on everyone and everything – except of course on oneself.

There is a precedent for such a time-out.  In the General Assembly hall this week, a group of diplomats and guests spoke of the power of sport to help bring about healthier more peaceful communities.  In that context, the Republic of Korea Ambassador, whose country will soon host the Winter Olympic Games, floated once again the idea of having a moratorium declared for the period of the games – a time when states would pledge to lay down their arms (or at least point them away from their alleged “enemies”) and reflect on their often-misplaced responsibilities to build a more peaceful and sustainable world that might actually be fit for their own children.

This will likely continue be a tough sell in such divided, mistrustful and fragmented times, but all must do what we can, where we can, to create openings where gratitude and giving can grow and flourish, even within institutions like the UN Security Council whose politics and working methods lead members to sometimes forget who it is that we’re actually working for.

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Herding Cats: The UNSG Leads Wary Constituents Towards Management Reform, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Nov

Only in growth, reform, and change –paradoxically enough — is true security to be found. Anne Morrow Lindbergh

An institution or reform movement that is not selfish must originate in the recognition of some evil that is adding to the sum of human suffering, or diminishing the sum of happiness. Clara Barton

Reform, that we may preserve. Thomas Babington Macaulay

This was one of those intense weeks at the UN during which if I were smart enough to write them — and you were patient enough to read them — there could have been a policy-related post emanating from this office every single day.  It was a week for the Peacebuilding Commission to assess the difficult circumstances in Burundi, for the UN General Assembly Fourth Committee to review the UN’s commitment to Palestinian refugees, for the Security Council Counter-Terror Executive Directorate to discuss rights-based ways for military and police to respond to the challenges of returning Foreign Terror Fighters, and for the entire Security Council to listen to commanders and otherwise honor the role of UNPOL (UN Police)in stabilizing communities, building trust with local constituents, and paving the way for easier transitions from peace operations to UN country teams and local security forces.

The highlight of the week from a public-interest standpoint was probably the Security Council debate focused on the report of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  This was actually the third recent discussion on the report and/or JIM mandate renewal – one previously in the Council that saw Russia veto a proposal to extend the JIM prior to the report’s release and another in the General Assembly’s First Committee that deals specifically with disarmament and weapons of mass destruction.   As the policy lines sharpened this week among Council members and with occasional professional insults hurled at JIM director Mulet, our twitter account literally exploded with commentary, much of it from persons angry or frustrated at what they saw as attempts by (mostly) Russia and Syria to undermine both the methodology and findings of the JIM report, calling its basic integrity and usefulness into question.

Our “for what it’s worth” recommendations in response to this twitter flurry were twofold: to reauthorize the JIM promptly but also to carefully scrutinize its working methods and possible methodological gaps, especially given fresh allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria that will also need to be investigated, hopefully this time with successful on-site inspections.  Given all of the interest in eliminating these weapons and ending blatant violations of the non-proliferation regime, it is essential that these investigations be as “above reproach” as we can get them.

Despite all this impact-filled drama, our preference for a Sunday highlight was a joint Thursday briefing by the president of the General Assembly and the Secretary-General on the SG’s proposals for reform of the UN’s peace and security pillar. The SG’s report on this subject is largely focused on management reform rather than on specific changes to the ways in that the UN conducts its security-related responsibilities.

Following the SG’s opening statement, a number of states came forward with support for reform efforts, specifically lauding the SG’s focus on UN management and his willingness to reorganize across pillars and sectors.  Others cautiously awaited more specifics on proposed changes to the peace and security architecture with some explicitly calling on the president of the General Assembly to exercise oversight of the reform process on behalf of member states.

Given the SG’s management focus, and perhaps due to constraints of time as well as a reticence to get into too many details on how a post-reform UN would conduct its business, there were several matters of critical importance to peace and security that were barely mentioned during the two-hour briefing:

  • The reform of the Security Council (this was noted in passing by Ambassador Kamau of Kenya but ignored by the remainder of speakers, which included several Council members)
  • The architecture and structure of UN Disarmament Affairs. Indeed, the word “disarmament” was not uttered, neither in a programmatic or management context
  • The potential (and actual) prevention-related functions managed by the UN’s genocide and atrocity prevention mechanisms
  • Full-spectrum motivations for this reform initiative, specifically including funding threats emanating from the US government and other member states; their preferences, more and more, leaning towards earmarked funding rather than pledges for core operations.

What was most welcome from the SG’s remarks is his commitment to enhancing the visibility and functionality of the UN’s peacebuilding architecture, something we have long advocated.  With Guatemala’s Amb. Rosenthal in the room (a primary architect of the UN’s landmark peacebuilding review), the SG made a strong case for why the Peacebuilding Commission and Peacebuilding Fund deserved a broader role in the UN system – beyond its current post-conflict confinements – to hopefully become a significant resource for states seeking guidance on conflict prevention and mediation before facing the prospect of turning up on the agenda of the Security Council.

At this point, I can “feel” many of those who chose to read this thinking, well, this is all well and good for the SG, but what are the takeaways?   I think there are several, but will summarize the following:

  • First, for a range of reasons, the “mood of the room” on Thursday was mostly supportive of the SG’s reform push. Uruguay and Japan, as examples, were two current Security Council members who reinforced the SG’s “mandate for change” and sought ways to support that change without seeking to “micro-manage” it.
  • Second, there is a clear and tangible concern among many member states that the UN is simply not delivering “on the ground” in accordance with expectations that we in this policy space have raised but often failed to meet. In an age of austerity for the UN system, the pressure to deliver “more with less” is being felt across the UN and certainly has “raised the bar” for the current leadership.
  • Third, Morocco’s Ambassador and other officials reminded colleagues that reform of one aspect of the UN system changes – at least in potential – all other aspects of the system. Changes in the management structure and architecture of the UN’s security apparatus – including peace operations — will change institutional dynamics and policy options on gender, counter-terrorism, human rights, children’s issues and other key dimensions of the UN’s multilateral contribution.
  • And fourth, there was some helpful recognition in the room that, to use our own analogy, there is quite a difference between planning a wedding and sustaining a marriage. As Algeria’s Ambassador Boukadoum noted near the end of the session, everyone seems to be in favor of reform until they figure out what they are likely to lose (or have to pay for, or change) as reform commences.   Pakistan picked up this theme urging the SG to initiate thoughtful reform “that does not replicate the ills that it seeks to fix.”  The recognition that a push for reform does not, in itself, guarantee successful (or happily embraced) institutional outcomes was a sobering reminder for delegations. This led to one of the more noteworthy comments of the day, a request by Singapore’s Ambassador for a “framework of assurances” to help member states track reform progress but also to help ensure, as noted by the Ambassador of the Solomon Islands, that we all do everything that we are able in order to “get this reform right.”

On Friday, in another reform-minded session with SG Guterres, ECOSOC President Marie Chatardová noted that where matters of reform are concerned, “the devil is in the details, but also the opportunity.” As Amb. Chatardová knows well, the UN does not control many of the variables that can threaten successful management reforms and those changes that could well add to “the sum of happiness” far beyond Turtle Bay.  And many of the variables the UN does control, it controls only in part – such as the actions of major powers in the Security Council or the rates at which states honor funding commitments to urgent matters such as core UN functions and emergency provisions of assistance.

What this reform push does recognize is that this is a time of trial for the entire UN community.  Can we fix the ills that hinder us without replicating them or creating new problems out of the ashes of the old?  Can we assure states – but more importantly constituents – that reform is more than a concession to budget threats but is actually capable of increasing the general threshold of human well-being and building back what has become significantly compromised confidence in multilateral structures?

Like any marriage, UN reforms will be won or lost in the trenches – in the challenges of day-to-day communication, confidence-building measures, systemic trust and steady reassurances.  The SG on Thursday noted that Algeria had once offered haven to political refugees from his home country of Portugal.  He then shared the hope – jokingly we trust — that the current push for UN reform won’t end up with him scurrying to Algeria seeking a safe haven for himself!

But beyond the humor lies a somber recognition: if this community fails to embrace and sustain the changes that can preserve and enhance our collective service to the global community, more than the SG will eventually find their own professional security “up for grabs. “

Paper Chase: Ensuring the Dignity and Safety of Journalists, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Nov

Newspaper

There are very few people who are going to look into the mirror and say, ‘That person I see is a savage monster;’ instead, they make up some construction that justifies what they do. Noam Chomsky

We don’t go into journalism to be popular. It is our job to seek the truth and put constant pressure on our leaders until we get answers. Helen Thomas

People may expect too much of journalism. Not only do they expect it to be entertaining, they expect it to be true. Lewis H. Lapham

There were so many interesting things taking place at the UN this week that compelled our interest:

  • a strong effort in the General Assembly by Cuba to compel the US to finally and fully lift its economic, commercial and financial blockade of the island;
  • an all-too-rare briefing in the Security Council by the UN’s Refugee Chief Grandi during which he inquired with some frustration, “Are we unable to broker peace?” He reminded the Council that peace and security constitute the deepest longings of most refugees;
  • a spirited discussion in the General Assembly’s Third Committee featuring the president of the Human Rights Council, Guatemala’s Ambassador Maza Martelli, focused in part on the still-considerable divide separating UN human rights policy development in New York and Geneva;
  • a fine ending to France’s October Security Council presidency in the form of a full-member debate on our responsibilities to children in situations of armed conflict including this presidential statement;
  • a tense discussion in the General Assembly’s First Committee regarding the contents and implications of the recently-released, Joint Investigative Mechanism report on chemical weapons use in Syria.

But we as an office remain inescapably drawn to discussions and presentations on media, and we were particularly grateful for the side event on Thursday sponsored by Greece and UNESCO on the topic, “Ending Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.”

Part of this discussion was focused on implementing the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, with special attention given to the special health and safety risks of women journalists, especially those working in conflict-affected areas.   While women journalists make up a still-small percentage of total victims, their numbers in the profession are rising faster than their “welcome,” with many reporting threats based on their gender as well as their investigative work, and many accusing authorities from diverse parts of the world of continuing to “dismiss” what they (and many of the rest of us) believe are fully legitimate, personal security concerns.

What is always disconcertng to us during these discussions is how few attacks on journalists result in proper investigations let alone prosecutions.  UNESCO’s report World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development cites data supporting the discouraging conclusion that ”impunity has remained the predominant trend with few perpetrators of the killings brought to justice.”  As UNESCO’s La Rue put it during the UN side event, “every unpunished crime is an invitation to more.” The UN’s “Group of Friends” on the Safety of Journalists, including four current Security Council members among its 19 participating states, understands the urgency of breathing protection and honor into this increasingly dangerous and unduly tarnished profession.

But beyond the courage of the journalists who risk so much for the sake of their important investigations, especially in zones of conflict, there are many disturbing metrics regarding the health of the media sector as a whole and the implication of that declining health for promoting safety for journalists and ending impunity for violations against them.   As it turns out, where journalists are concerned, levels of honor and violence are more closely intertwined than we might otherwise wish to acknowledge.

It is no news to anyone reading this post that the media landscape continues to evolve in ways that are in part about shifting “markets” and in part about some other discouraging shifts regarding the people we’ve become and the societies we’ve created.  The days of “Extra, Extra, Read all About it” have long given way to a complex, subjective and often ideologically-constituted media landscape that contributes to current levels of social fragmentation more than ameliorates their disintegrative impacts.

We are passing through an an age that breeds media alternatives far faster than it encourages reflection on media roles and responsibilities; an age where cell phone cameras have turned so many into amateur “paparazzi” ready to exploit and humiliate every conceivable human foible and compromise what little remains of our personal privacy; where media “professionals” chase scandal for ratings and seem more interested in “taking people down” than in helping leaders  be effective in the jobs for which they have been entrusted; where more and more of those leaders, in turn, judge the “legitimacy” of journalists based on how much official “spin” they are eager to ingest.

It is also an age characterized by copious quantities of suspicion, even cynicism, about the potential of humans to co-exist in respectful tones.  Everyone, we are now led to believe, is simply “grinding an axe.”  All have an agenda, usually we suspect for personal gain and well beyond that which is immediately accessible.  In addition, everyone has “something to hide;” one or more juicy tidbits from past or present that could be valuable to others in their own desire to successfully “manipulate outcomes.”

We even now “use” select aspects of the media to keep us from having to face the challenges that we so badly need journalists to keep us informed about.   Indeed, it now seems highly plausible to be a major consumer of media and hardly ever have to confront a story or opinion that contradicts our values or biases.  And when media’s challenges somehow manage to break through all of the obstacles we have placed in front of them, appearing clearly enough in the mirror that is set before us, our tendency more and more is to smash the glass because we can’t cope with what we see.  We would rather have glass fragments on the floor than respond thoughtfully to an image that reflects a path to professional growth and character development, let alone to a healthier and more sustainable planet.

This is where “fake news” becomes such a toxic moniker.  What is “fake” is what does not tell me what I want to hear, what does not reflect my slanted, self-serving views of reality, what does not put me in the uncritical, positive light that I so “clearly” deserve.

I recall at the UN a couple of years ago an Ambassador from a European country commenting at a side event about how difficult it can be to read assessments from journalists indicating that he is not quite as policy savvy and virtuous as he would like to think.  But as a leader of state he also understood the value of broadly-educated, committed journalistic professionals who can shine a light on his successes and limitations, remind him of his previously stated commitments and promises, and explore the difficult choices of leadership that might better have been made differently.  Despite having things “pointed out” in public that he would have been happy to resolve (or not) privately, he understood and honored the value of this professional scrutiny to the health of his society, even if at times such scrutiny is obsessive, or one-sided, or bereft of its proper context.

And by the way, his country has one of the lowest rates of violence against journalists in the world.

In its aforementioned report, UNESCO highlights both the right to share information and opinion and the right to seek such for oneself.  These rights are important, of course, but are only part of the social contract in which professional journalists can continue to play an important role in informing democratic participation and inspiring better behavior in our leadership.   While most of us are busy “sharing” information and (especially) opinion through our personal devices, we have not outgrown the need for the expertise of professionally skilled journalists who can thoroughly investigate matters of public interest that have been deliberately hidden from view and then communicate the results with fairness and balance (and perhaps even a smidge of humility).

Journalists are not perfect in their craft, nor are any of the rest of us who seek to keep  leaders and institutions honest and point the way forward.  But journalists deserve honor and protection; indeed the first of these in some ways seems essential to achieving the second.  We urge the “Friends” group and other UN entities to continue to defend the dignity and safety of this now-maligned, but still-essential craft.

Study Hall:  Opening Policy to a Wider Range of Women’s Aspirations

29 Oct

Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less. Susan B. Anthony

Women, like men, should try to do the impossible. And when they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others. Amelia Earhart

There will never be a new world order until women are a part of it. Alice Paul

Under the leadership of France this past Friday, the Security Council debated once again the merits and deficiencies of its Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda (based on SCR 1325) now in its 17th year.  As in the past, the debate included more women’s perspectives than is normally the case around the oval, where the US is now the only reliable women’s voice to be heard at many Council meetings, albeit supplemented on occasion by female diplomats from Ethiopia, France and Sweden.

If our twitter feed is any indication, this debate gets at least as much attention from the UN policy community than any other.  In the presence of a large group of WPS advocates, one diplomat after another takes the floor to plead for attention to various aspects of this still-unattained agenda – from the persistence of gender-based violence employed as a tactic of war to the impediments still blocking pathways to participation by women in all aspects of political life (including media) and, more directly germane to SCR 1325, in all peace, mediation and conflict prevention processes.

Thematic Council discussions such as this one create different levels of obligation for UN member states.  Unlike country-specific crises that dominate much of the Council’s agenda, obligations under the rubric of Women, Peace and Security are equally binding on Council members themselves.   There is no “standing above the law” in these instances as the five Permanent Council members are as responsible for national implementation of “1325” as any other member state. There is no threat of veto to hide behind during this discussion, no implied perch of moral superiority from which to judge the behavior of other states.

No, we are all in this together, playing by the same rulebook, seeking a similar relief. And yet by many yardsticks that we respect, our rhetoric on “1325” over 17 years continues to exceed our progress.   Yes we have Security Council debates, UN Women and National Action Plans; yes we have seen women squeeze through some archaic professional barriers to find their rightful places in our hierarchies; yes we have seen women taking highly visible leadership at the UN on matters such as the sustainable development goals and on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons; yes we have raised the costs for sexual abuse by peacekeepers and other UN staff; yes we have exposed some habitually abusive men within and beyond our overly hormonal entertainment industry; yes women can drive a car (more or less) in Saudi Arabia.

All good as we know; and all insufficient as we also know.   As the quotations at the beginning of this post attest, women (and some men as well) have been immersed in the gender equality struggle for a long time.  Alarmingly, we are now in what appears to be a time of situational retrenchment, unwelcome movement which is being (intentionally or inadvertently) stoked in part by a defiant national leader accused of serial acts of abuse all of which have summarily (even publicly) been dismissed as  “lies.”

Global Action has had a longstanding though not entirely untroubled relationship with the WPS agenda.  We were an early voice for the full integration of women in disarmament affairs as well as in efforts to prevent, identify and prosecute atrocity crimes. Moreover, we have been a longstanding supporter of Women in International Security in its New York and West Coast (US) Chapters, a group which seeks to give voice to the growing number of women who offer security policy and protection to communities far beyond our elite policy centers.  An overwhelming percentage of Global Action’s staff, interns and fellows have been women. And we have openly mourned the abuse of women by peacekeepers and other “protective capacities” as well as called attention to what seems to us to be the willful disregard of remarkable resumes and experiences by more and more women whom we most pointedly need — not only in our leadership but in those many challenging interfaces where decisions by our political leaders simply miss-read their intended beneficiaries, in part because we don’t have enough skilled and compassionate people asking the right questions at local levels.

But as we have noted often, being a woman is not a skill set, but rather an opportunity to see the world differently and organize – also in a different voice —  our responses to structures and behaviors that offend, including of course the structures from which we benefit and the behaviors for which we are directly responsible.  Our relationship with this WPS work is “not untroubled,” in part because it still seems too much about us, our policy clichés and institutional reputations, our bureaucratic limitations and shortcomings of political will, our sometimes too-facile ascription of our own gendered dramas as somehow instructive for others.  We work at the UN in densely political space, a place where apologies and thoughtfulness are painfully rare, where so many believe they could achieve their own “stardom” if not for the malevolence or indifference of other (allegedly almost entirely male) rights deniers and their institutionalized coercions.

There is surely more to this WPS story than makes itself known in UN conference rooms. Earlier this week, I was privileged to see an exhibition of photography by Lu Nan, an artist of stunning vision and compassion for his artistic subjects.   Part of his mounted trilogy  was focused on “everyday life” on the Tibetan plateau.  The “stars” of his photographs were men and (primarily) women, families across generations who went about their many labors (including labors of love and care) with what Nan referred to as “unstudied poise.”

Lu Nan is not one given to sentimentalizing his subjects, but he has found a way to enter the worlds of people who have every reason to keep him at arm’s length, people like the wind-swept women of Tibet who somehow find ways for themselves and their communities to lead something approaching what Nan honored as “lives of peace and transcendence.”

I’m not given much to sentimentalizing either, but while looking at the weathered faces of these older women and their extended families, I wondered who was watching their backs?   Who was advocating for their meaningful participation in a wider social and political life?  Who was honoring them for guiding the horses pulling their plows, for planting and harvesting amidst the ceaseless plateau winds, for convincing their children and grandchildren (perhaps especially the girls) that the cycles governing their lives have things to teach others, that their “fate” is not principally in the hands of state authorities, nor of first-world bureaucrats and our clever resolutions.

While it may not be literally true in all settings and circumstances — as mentioned this week by Swedish Foreign Minister Wallström — that “more women means more peace,” it is surely the case that the “poise” of women in so many contexts and settings worldwide is considerable, integral to “lives of peace,” and still mostly “unstudied.”   While we fuss in places like New York with our ambitions and our status; while we do what we can to balance our leadership teams, address security threats from state and non-state actors, and end predatory practices by our erstwhile protectors; while we make passionate speeches at the UN in part to brandish our gendered bona fides and in part to cover up our gendered policy limitations; there is still so much for us to learn from others, still so much inspiration “out there” to help us become a better version of ourselves.

We don’t have as many answers here at the UN as we sometimes like to think. With this in mind, It isn’t at all clear to me that we are paying close enough attention to the wind-carved faces of the women behind the plow, the women who daily make the case for “peace and transcendence” to their extended families and communities.  We need to look again.

 

 

Land of Promise:  The UN Takes Stock of an Underestimated Continent, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Oct

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Where a woman rules, streams run uphill.  Ethiopian proverb

Do not let what you cannot do tear from your hands what you can.  Ashanti proverb

I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself.  Nelson Mandela

There is always something new out of Africa. Pliny the Elder

This was “Africa Week” at the UN, a time for this entire community to stake stock of our debts to African peoples but also to celebrate the many ways in which Africans are truly developing and then implementing home-grown solutions to their own problems.

Despite the many responsibilities associated with the six General Assembly Committees that meet all this month, most all UN hands were “on deck” for all or part of this week long assessment of the roads that African states have tread and what they might still become.  This included as well the UN Security Council, which bears the brunt of responsibility for resolving conflicts from South Sudan (on which it met this past week) and Mali to Nigeria and now Cameroon. The Council is currently in the Sahel region (today in Mali) on mission to assess the status of the P-5 Sahel Force which it authorized and which is intended to bring stability to a region threatened by a “cocktail” whose ingredients include insurgency, climate stresses and food insecurity.

The stated goals for Africa week, “an integrated, prosperous, people-centered and peaceful Africa” draws heavily on the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda as well as Africa’s own Agenda 2063.  These goals were articulated in a thoughtful manner throughout the week, avoiding clichés and “quick wins” in favor of clear sighted examinations of what African states and their peoples need and what stands in the way of their progress.    Part of that discussion is related to finance, not only to the preservation of essential remittances, but to the ways in which states can better protect their own natural resources from exploitation and increase sources of domestic revenue, including through reducing “tax avoidance and profit shifting.”

Beyond finance, the week highlighted a variety of challenges, including forced migration patterns exacerbated by climate-related drought and multiple iterations of armed violence.   There were also important discussions on creating more opportunities for affordable credit and “decent work” — in many instances highlighting the degree to which the African labor force is now both robust and youthful  — as well as on the challenges in harnessing Africa’s unprecedented “demographic dividend.”

The implications of this “dividend” go well beyond employment. Over the years at Global Action, I have been blessed to visit and work in most every region on the continent, including Egypt in the north, South Africa in the south, Senegal in the west, Kenya in the east, Cameroon in the center.   And while all of these countries have much cultural and ecological diversity to commend, one of the things they seem to have in common is young people who are anxiously and even impatiently prepared to assume mantles of economic and political leadership.   There is a “leadership dividend” across Africa as well, people who hope to soon turn their aspirations into higher offices, people who refuse to choose between integration and sovereignty, between economic development and environmental protection, between reliable governance and local participation. These are people with the fresh ideas about how Africa might be and are prepared to make the changes needed to ensure that the goals enumerated in the UN’s Africa Week are more than just another set of multilateral promises.

The Concept Note for this Africa Week highlighted two particular challenges for this new generation of African leader.  The first of these is “integration” of a continent divided by deserts and jungles, but also by culture and language, even at times by levels of openness to continent-wide initiatives focused on security, trade and other matters essential to sustainable development.  Despite positive efforts by the African Union on security and sub-regional entities such as the Southern African Development Community on African trade, optimal levels of integration remain impeded by a series of issues that have long resisted resolution, including providing dependable access by land-locked countries to seaports in neighboring states and creating a more reliable transportation network linking those states.   In this regard, the ambitious (and costly) proposal floated this week for an Integrated High Speed Train Network is welcome, especially by persons who have long struggled to move themselves (and their agricultural products and other commodities) around Africa’s vast spaces.

And then there is the security (threatened by both insugencies and excessive state responses) on which all intra-and inter-state development depends.  On numerous occasions, reference was made this week to the African Union initiative Silencing the Guns by 2020, with outcomes considered by many (rightly in our view) as essential to a sustainable future.  Many African states are now awash in weapons both licit and illicit.  And as the AU’s “Silencing” report notes, “the continent has hosted, and continues to be home to, a number of deadly conflicts that jeopardize human, national and international security and defy efforts to resolve them.”  Such conflicts involve state and non-state actors, and often draw on sources of weapons located far from the scenes of the violence.   The “fuel” for these conflicts often takes the form of governance that is unfair or even unjust; food, water and health insecurities that force families into heartbreaking choices; exploitative employment in sectors such as extraction that provide little economic relief and poison local ecosystems;  and rights violations that keep so many women, youth and indigenous persons locked into senseless, disempowering social roles.

The “leadership dividend” which we have seen first-hand in many African regions seems capable of both drying up access to weapons and healing many of the social and economic causes that cause people to reach for weapons in the first instance.  This “dividend” must remain at the center of any UN discussions on African issues and capacities going forward.

The World Economic Forum noted this week the strong possibility that by the year 2100 one third of all people on earth will reside in Africa.   Assuming that we don’t bomb or melt ourselves into extinction before then, this is a staggering statistic, one that will impact every aspect of African governance, security, economy and ecology.   The “strongly intertwined challenges” that currently characterize areas such as the Lake Chad Basin, the Horn of Africa, and the Central African states will evolve in unforeseen ways across the continent, calling for gender and culture-balanced leadership that can inspire hands and hearts that “know what they can do” and commit to doing it.

For the rest of us — during Africa Week and every other week – we must do what we can and all that we can to ensure that Africa has every opportunity to be at peace and, as Mandela noted, to be at peace with itself.

 

 

What about Us?: The Children We Need, the Children We’ve Ignored, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Oct

Puerto Rico

Those who have virtue always in their mouths, and neglect it in practice, are like a harp, which emits a sound pleasing to others, while itself is insensible of the music. Diogenes

When the human race neglects its weaker members, when the family neglects its weakest one – it’s the first blow in a suicidal movement. Maya Angelou

Last evening, I sat in a Harlem church, in a row filled with former members of my now-closed parish, and listened to the wonderful East Coast Inspirational Singers led by the equally remarkable (and former music director at my parish) John Stanley.

The music was both deafening and completely on key.   The audience was active and engaged, soaking in the music and the message, waving and shouting both their approval and their conviction that something continues to go terribly wrong in our world, something that they have at least a bit of resources and the will-power to help fix.

The “something” in this particular instance is the slow pace of response to the hurricane-related needs of the people of Puerto Rico (and other Caribbean communities).   This concert was meant to inspire donations to augment what many felt has been a pattern of government neglect, leaders taking credit for responses that have left most families still in the dark, children without schools to attend, health deficits made worse as residents consume contaminated water in the absence of any cleaner alternatives.

Some of these Harlem folks brought their children along, in some cases to fortify the impression that people still care about others down on their luck and that the plight of children living within and far beyond Harlem is deserving of more attention by others.  The concert raised almost $3000 out of pockets that I know in some cases to be mostly empty.  No one imagined that this gesture would be sufficient, would substitute for the oft-lacking determination by government agencies to fulfill their commitments to their own people.  But they had to do something.  And they did.

And they also painfully understood that if the message to the children brought to that concert was one of agency and concern, what message must the children of Puerto Rico take away from a crisis that has both profoundly disrupted their lives and possibly also confirmed their worst fears about how much (or little) they are valued by others?

Such questions gnawed at much of the UN all week as well. The “Third Committee” of the General Assembly heard from special rapporteurs about the often-heartbreaking circumstances endured by children in diverse global regions, especially the children displaced by violence, storms or drought, children on the move with or without their families, sometimes falling victim to traffickers eager to sell them off to sexual predators or even to harvest their organs.

At the same time, the rapporteurs also reminded states of their near-universal commitments to preserve the rights and dignity of children, to do everything in their power to ensure that next generations are capable and enabled to manage complex future challenges, including doing a better job of preventing the conflicts that continue to ravage prospects for future generations.

Beyond the 3rd Committee, the UN honored the International Day of the Girl Child with a quite upbeat Wednesday afternoon event featuring UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed.    The theme of the event, “Empowering girls—before, during, and after crises,” was an important reminder of both the many skills of girls and the responsibilities of states. And yet, as with so many UN events, this one was also of no particular comfort to Caribbean children struggling with their families and communities to adjust to circumstances that they could not foresee and with no insurance agents standing ready to offer assistance like the ones they (when the power was still on) have seen on TV.  Nor is it of comfort to the girls who have reportedly been sold into marriage by Yemeni parents who see no other way to get their children away from the bombing and cholera to which they have daily been subjected.

The Security Council had its own engagements with the often-unsettling circumstances of the world’s children.   On Friday afternoon, the Council in an Arria Formula format welcomed back former SG Kofi Annan to discuss recommendations for addressing violence and discrimination against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority still to be found streaming into neighboring Bangladesh.   Calls by Council members to end violence committed by the Myanmar military, to address documentation and citizenship concerns of the Rohingya, and to conduct an official mission to Rakhine state (as suggested by Ukraine) were all most welcome, but again were surely of no comfort to the children fearfully separated from families, desperate for food and shelter, and struggling to shake off the horrific effects of the traumatic violence to which they have already been witness.

Earlier that day, with logistical and program support from Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch and others, the Council held still another Arria Formula event, this time focused on the grave (and seemingly growing) problem of attacks on schools by state and non-state military forces, including the forced dislodging of students and teachers such that schools might become “zones of occupation” for armed combatants.

The highlight of this event for many in the room was the address by Joy Bishara, one of the Chibok Girls who managed to leap to safety after Boko Haram attacked the school and herded girls on to a get-away truck.  Joy is now a student in Florida (thanks to the intervention of a US Congresswoman) and shared her story in a clear and determined manner, evoking some emotional responses from Council members who lauded her courage and pledged to do more to keep this from happening to others.  One concrete outcome from all this “pledging” (we hope) is for more Council members to formally endorse the Safe Schools Declaration to prevent armed violence from compromising educational facilities and impeding student access to those facilities.

This was my second time listening to Joy (with her Chibok friend Lydia) and, while her talks were meant to share a story rather than critique a process, I was struck by the trust deficits that permeated much of that story — at least between the lines.  Where were the school guards on the night of the attack?  Where was the government security sector as the girls were being carted away?  Where was the international community as the rest of Joy’s classmates remained in a dismal captivity month after month?  Joy spoke of running for help after jumping from the truck and then “not trusting” those who offered it.   I’m guessing that her deficits of trust will turn out to be more pervasive than those directed at a Nigerian boy with a motor scooter in the middle of that night.

Returning to Saturday’s Harlem concert, one highlight of the event was a Gospel selection familiar to me and others, the key line being “what about us?”  What about those promises, those commitments?  What about those international resolutions and treaties, those constitutional protections and national implementing agencies? What about those state services missing in action? What about all that?

There might be no determination quite like that displayed by people of modest means and solid values who know the consequences first hand of our collective failure to ensure safe and productive passage for children.  Many of the older folks at this concert had lived through the ravages of crack cocaine and broken down schools, of sub-standard health care options and a hands-off attitude by police and other public servants.  They had shielded children not their own from bullies and bullets, but mostly from the creeping fear that they might not be worthy of empowerment, of a chance to have a voice and make a difference, even of the possibility of trusting the public institutions that rhetorically purport to have their best interests at heart.

This damage to the physical and emotional well-being of children has the potential to undermine our common future every bit as much as “competing” existential threats, including those related to weapons and climate.   We can and must do more at community and policy levels to reverse the “slow suicidal movement” wherein we pass on our unresolved crises to a new generation, too many of whom have already had their hopes and dreams senselessly impaired.

What about us?

Another Eyewitness Account of Deteriorating Conditions in Cameroon

8 Oct

“The crisis has been converted into a huge money making machine for the men in uniform. They organize random arrests and each arrested person seeking his or liberty pays between 25000 and 500000 francs including in some cases sexual favors. It’s sad and urgent.

The national and international community must stop talking and take action now.
Tomorrow may be too late.

Each arrest and killing is not weakening voices or determination but is fast radicalizing thousands and recruiting more into the struggle.

Today a large number of youths on their way to church from Mike 16 in Buea were intercepted, some ask to sit in the mud and others taken to where we do not know.

These are confirmed eye witness accounts.”