This was yet another one of those weeks at the UN. Apparently, we now have a cartoon character serving as our collective symbol of women’s empowerment: an athletic, thoroughly Anglo. scantily-dressed figure of some artist’s imagination who ostensibly will inspire and mentor young women and girls more effectively than the many women of high intelligence and character already roaming our hallways and conference rooms.
This week also featured an informal discussion led by PGA Thompson between Secretary-General-elect Guterres and the full membership of the General Assembly. It was a good and reassuring session, even as some states lamented the lost opportunity to select a woman SG. As many of you know, there is still to come the appointment of a Deputy SG, and some with us in the “blue seats” half-jokingly speculated about the possibility of Wonder Woman being tapped for that post as well, noting that while her wardrobe would not be particularly well-suited to Security Council meetings and grand state functions, it might actually be helpful to have a figure at the most senior levels of the UN who could single-handedly enforce Security Council resolutions without resort to punitive sanctions or aerial bombardments.
The PGA also led a more somber discussion later in the week, this time on the unresolved horror in Syria. Special Envoy de Mistura joined the conversation by video, and after painting the grisly scene yet again (Aleppo might well be “gone” by December), welcomed efforts by the General Assembly to seek options for response beyond what the Security Council has been able to successfully muster. Non-Permanent Council members joined the chorus of those many UN states seeking traction on what Uruguay referred to as the “massacre” of Aleppo (and other areas of grave violence) as the Security Council itself appears in too many instances to impede more progress to peace than it promotes.
We’ve been in many such meetings where atrocity crimes and other horrors are laid bare only to then elude the imposition of practical, remedial measures. And there is, of course, no direct pathway leading us from the perception of human misery to effective policy response. Knowing that your own child is in pain may well ratchet up the urgency, but that does not in and of itself suggest the best way forward. This is especially the case in instances as in Syria or Yemen where the causes of the current misery –its backgrounds, stakeholders and motivations – are complexities challenging to sort. Only in the world of comics are ethical situations given to the clarity that makes it possible for super-heroines to spring to effective action, time and time again.
In regards to Syria as elsewhere, the threat of terrorism looms large in virtually any policy discussion. In and out of the Security Council, state leadership often declares terrorists to be akin to “savages” an understandable ascription at some level but not terribly helpful from the standpoint of discerning policy relief. For some states, counter-terror almost takes the form of a righteous crusade, a rhetorical clash of good and evil, a fight to the death between the forces of stability and chaos, the children of light taking on the children of darkness.
Moreover, terrorism is now widely utilized around the UN by member states as a justification for state behavior of all kinds. Russia, for one, justifies its horrific bombing campaign in Aleppo by citing the need to eliminate terrorists, while France defines such bombing (as it did at the GA meeting with de Mistura) as more like a “gift” to terrorists. But France, like most states in and out of the Council, has its own horses in this race for national policy justification, even as it speaks – and rightly so – of the importance of keeping covenant with our values throughout an era of unprecedented non-state threats.
The justifications linked to terrorism can be seen in one of our core issues/values as an office, one which we share with our close associates FIACAT, regarding the abolition of the death penalty. At a side event during this week when so many Human Rights Rapporteurs are in town to meet with General Assembly committees, one of the UN’s newer Rapporteurs, Professor Callamard, took the floor with Norway, Palau and Australia to both advocate for death penalty abolition and to delink abolition from some of its foremost “retentionist excuses,” including and especially its alleged rationalization as “just punishment” for the high crimes of terror.
All speakers at this side event were clear on the inadmissibility of the death penalty regardless of the severity of alleged crimes. Norway’s testimony here was especially compelling, as Ambassador Stener recounted the intense pressure for a time that her state was under to reinstate the death penalty following the horrific and (for Norway) unprecedented violence perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011. She noted that the people of Norway somehow found a way to stay connected to the most fundamental of their values regardless of the horrific circumstances calling them into serious question. Even in those dark hours, she maintained, reinstitution of the death penalty was never considered as a serious option.
But on the same panel, newly-minted Human Rights ASG David Marshall highlighted the disappointing (though not entirely surprising) reality that setbacks on moving towards full abolition of the death penalty (or even a full moratorium) are now mostly attributable to the politics of terrorism response. In too many places, it seems, we are giving way to political expediency and the self-defeating call to vengeance. In too many places, we have convinced ourselves by our own bellicose rhetoric that our “will to punishment” is just. In too many places, we have forgotten that, across the psychological and policy spectrum, violence does indeed beget violence. Too often, we willfully misplace our responsibilities under international law to uphold the basic rights of even the most egregious criminals.
The world that we currently slog through – a world that yearns for more capable, more equitable leadership — is complex in its threats, root causes and potential for meaningful change. We’ll navigate through these tumultuous years, I’m sure, but we’ll need to tap an array of resources within ourselves far beyond the carefully scripted narratives of cartoon heroines if we are to make it safely to the other shore.