The Wonder Years:  The UN Seeks Super Powers to Navigate the Current Crises, Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Oct


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.

Crying Wolf:  The UN Hedges its Bets on Crisis Response, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Oct

As most readers of these posts know, we’ve been around the UN for quite some time.  And we find that most of the people who work here, in and out of the diplomatic missions, really do care about making the world a better place.  But there is also a pervasive cynicism afoot in our time, including the belief that crises are sometimes manufactured by elites in order to consolidate their authority.  The view in such instances is that elites put out images of threats to people who are largely powerless to respond themselves and thus must rely on “leadership” they barely trust to determine the policy path forward.

We can tell you from many long hours in diverse UN conference rooms that the wolves are running loose all around the building — on weapons and climate, on oceans and pandemics, on inequalities in economics and politics.  But given what we often experience regarding UN political culture, there are indeed legitimate questions about whether the UN is equipped to handle this collection of sometimes existential threats, to lead with integrity and by example, bringing together the resources and cooperative spirit needed to get the human race over its current, stubborn humps: a tangible sense of urgency on the one hand; a sincere willingness to rethink unreliable strategies and alliances on the other.

From the standpoint of integrity in policy decision making, these past few days at the UN were a mixed blessing at best:

The highlight of the week clearly was the selection of the next UN Secretary-General .  Mr. Guterres is a smart and good man, and we wish him well.   He is also arguably the person we would have gotten regardless of how transparent (or not) the SG selection process was, especially given all of the men who are currently seated around the Security Council oval and whose recommendation for SG was unlikely to be overturned.   Given the large number of singularly qualified women vying for that post, given the volume of gendered discourse permeating virtually all UN conference rooms, and given the broad perception that the UN is in serious need of an administrative “shake down,” the time seemed right to turn the page on what has been a male-dominated leadership post.   Except it wasn’t.

Downstairs from the Council chamber in the First Committee of the General Assembly, discussions focused largely on what to do about the threat posed by nuclear weapons.   Increasingly, as many of you recognize, the international community is gathering behind proposals for a negotiated treaty to “ban” these weapons.   The principle hold-outs, of course, are the current nuclear-armed states, the same states (rightly) grinding their teeth over nuclear weapons in the hands of the DPRK and – potentially — terror groups while (wrongly) spending many billions of dollars modernizing their own arsenals and even exploring their extra-terrestrial deployment.  The “anti-ban” statements made Friday by the US and UK – punctuated by a “fist bump” at the end – signified to onlookers that the nuclear armed states don’t take the threat from these weapons as seriously as much of their rhetoric might otherwise suggest.

While the Security Council was busy negotiating the selection of Mr. Guterres, it was also immersed in a series of security –related discussions “lowlighted” by the October 8 emergency session on Syria during which not one but two different resolutions on the Aleppo violence failed to pass.    In addition, the Council attempted this week to clarify its intent regarding peacekeepers in Central African Republic while receiving an underwhelming briefing on ISIL, including its potential expansion within Yemen.  Despite the horrors inflicted by the repeated bombings of hospitals and other civilian targets, the excruciating and widening famine, and the escalating violence now involving a US warship off its coast, the ISIL briefing was barely the only mention of Yemen this week in chambers.

As with other global crises, the Council seems at times unable to back up urgent rhetoric with practical remedial strategies.  In addition, the Council often seems unwilling to “share the ball,” assuming that if there is going to be a “winning shot,” they are going to be the ones to take it.

One partial exception to these unsettling circumstances was in response to the damage to Haiti caused by Hurricane Matthew.   Here Security Council members were joined by other member states such as Brazil pledging immediate support for victims and urging a delay in plans to draw down the UN’s peacekeeping mission (MINUSTAH) there. During the mostly helpful discussion, there was also some acknowledgment of the UN’s role in initially bringing cholera to the country, the post-Matthew recurrence of which adds another (and needless) dimension to Haiti’s already-massive relief challenges.

And then there is Iraq, where the pathways to freedom from ISIL are simply horrific to behold:  the political and geographic divisions that begat a dictator that begat a US invasion that begat a partial power vacuum that begat a terrorist movement that begat a caliphate that have now necessitated some of the most heartbreaking “liberations” we will have seen in our lifetime.

As the Iraqi army prepares to move on liberating Mosul, there are already concerns of a massive humanitarian disaster awaiting us beyond the pale of what we have already seen in Falluja.  At the UN, Iraq’s Ambassador has been visible, acknowledging the profound physical wounds, social dislocations and emotional trauma that are likely to accompany this “liberation” from ISIL’s clutches.   He has also been active in seeking support from the UN and other member states.   In this, the response of the UN Mine Action Service has been particularly noteworthy especially its work to help eliminate short and long-term threats from landmines and the ubiquitous, easy-to-make, improvised explosive devices.

People in Iraq, as elsewhere in the world, have endured multiple sufferings as one faulty policy decision is ostensibly “corrected” by another – decisions seemingly based on political expediency more than on a sense of urgent, attentive compassion – addressing the current crisis but not quite in a manner that anticipates and plans for contingencies, that involves all meaningful stakeholders, that takes account of any past policy deficiencies, and that places potential victims at the very center of our policy planning.

It is possible, indeed essential, for us to have more of this type of policy planning which can build public confidence in the integrity of our leaders and which can help ensure that the cycles of policy errors and consequences that establish the context for so many of our current threats and crises are effectively curtailed.   If Mr. Guterres can inspire more of this planning to effectively (and enduringly) address the wolves currently howling at so many of our doors, his time in office will be time well spent.

Full-Court Press:  Placing the UN’s Accomplishments and Shortcomings in Context, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Oct

We bombard people with sensation. That substitutes for thinking .―Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Those of you who follow the UN (either through us or other sources) know that this hasn’t been the very best of weeks.   We appear to have a new Secretary-General, but it remains to be seen if he can rise above the disappointment of both Eastern Europeans anticipating the selection of one of “their own” and countless others who believed that this was finally the time for the UN to choose from among a bevy of highly qualified female candidates.

In the UN General Assembly Committees meeting this month, teeth were clenched over matters such as the status of Western Sahara and other non-self-governing territories (4th), the human rights responsibilities of counter-terror operations (6th) and the relative merits of a negotiating process in 2017 that might at some point lead to a “Ban Treaty” on nuclear weapons.

We also received disappointing news this week that a suit brought on behalf of the Marshall Islands in the International Court of Justice by a legal team which included our office mate, John Burroughs, was turned away by votes of 8-8 (for the UK) and 9-7 (for both Pakistan and India).  The suit represented an attempt to create legal pressure on nuclear weapons states to fulfill their international nuclear disarmament obligations “in good faith. “  Such pressure, wistfully, must await a different diplomatic opening.

There was some positive news on the climate front as European Union member states held a hopeful event to highlight their ratification of the Paris climate agreement, thus pushing it over the line towards Entry into Force.   But even here, even as the Paris agreement set a record for rapid ratification, optimism and reality managed to distort one other. As president of the General Assembly Thompson (Fiji) noted, this event occurred as Haiti lay in ruins from hurricane Matthew and polar melting affecting coastal and small states accelerates:  a glass struggling to retain its half-portion of fluid.

And then there is Syria, the topic of a rare Saturday session of the Security Council, a session that Russia itself – the current Council president and sponsor of one of two resolutions offered up for vote – referred to as a “spectacle” that would accomplish little and simply waste valuable time.   Russia itself vetoed the alternate proposal on the table – offered chiefly by France and Spain – setting off a bitter exchange that strained Council protocol and featured a “walk out” by 3 permanent members when the Syrian Ambassador began his own Council remarks.  Egypt captured the mood of many left in the room, wondering aloud if anyone in Syria any longer cares what the Council does or doesn’t do.

For those of us who make a point to be present as these and related deliberations take shape, there are several priorities for us – attentiveness to the topic at hand and to subtle shifts in government positions; linking conversations across various meeting rooms to get (and communicate) the full measure of the UN’s engagements on its most important issues; and – perhaps most important –showing interest in how our “bubble” deliberations are perceived by communities far beyond the UN.

This final consideration is critical for us as it seems to be for a growing number of delegations and civil society.   If the reputation of the UN is defined largely by perceptions of policy incompetence, ill will and/or internal branding that raises expectations beyond the capacity and will of the UN system, then there is ultimately little point to our work here.  If the UN Security Council –to cite one example — is turning into a “dialogue of the deaf” then we should be directing our own and others’ energies to places of greater resonance and effectiveness.

We still believe in the UN’s promise though we remain concerned that promises made here are quite more numerous than promises kept.  We also continue to see value in our mandate made more possible by the increasing transparency of the UN system – a mandate related to dissemination and analysis defined in part by what we feel are the best and worst, the most and least hopeful, aspects of UN activity.

In that light, there was a small event hosted this week by Ireland that highlighted some of our concerns regarding the dissemination aspects of our work.   At this side event, devoted to the question, “Do we live in an age of misinformation,” media representatives from inside and outside the UN discussed the ways in which the current media climate impacts public perceptions of migrants and refugees now on the move in record-shattering numbers.  Ireland’s Ambassador Donoghue shared his concern about media accounts that raise the bar on prejudice rather than on understanding.   A social media expert from CNN offered opaque linkages between the media we come to “trust” and the media which merely validates opinions and values that we already hold, in too many instances to the denigration and/or stereotyping of others.

It is important for us as an office to remember three things here:  First while increased transparency at the UN is welcome, it is no substitute for accountability.   While we are grateful to sit in the meetings that we do, we are well aware that, for the most part, we are staring through an ever-larger picture window at a meal that we ourselves are not allowed to eat.   Much like our professional journalist colleagues, we must struggle to find the gaps – often evident only after many visits to many different conference rooms – that allow us to make meaningful contributions to state and UN accountability.  We need to do more than cite UN intent; we and other must help ensure that intent is actionable.

The second is that those in positions of authority who perceive a problem “on their watch” have some remedial responsibility relative to it.  If it is the case that social media — and specifically the way in which it is used by corporate media – contributes to ever-more, like-minded “ghettos” where people only hear what they want to hear, then it is the responsibility of media companies to help figure out how to address this shortcoming.  To raise a legitimate concern in a UN conference room and then throw metaphorical hands in the air as though we are powerless to address that concern seems a bit disingenuous. After all, the point of knowing is only partially about validation or control; it must also be about possibility and change.

The third lesson has to do with assumptions of bias on the part of media professionals but also garden-variety bloggers such as ourselves.  There is certainly ample bias to examine; however as many media professionals recognize (even if they refuse to acknowledge it publicly), bias is only partially about the things we say about the things we choose to cover.  It is also about what we choose to cover in the first place and the “contexts” we establish for the claims we subsequently make. And these latter “choices” now trend too often towards the sensational, the scandalous.  We are well along to becoming “ambulance chasers” of breaking “news,” which itself represents a bias of monumental proportions.

The UN community can surely do much to counter misinformation on complex global challenges such as global migration, including its own role in moving this community of nations forward in ways that would be virtually impossible if the UN itself did not exist.  But people deserve more, need more than “half stories” and official spin.  They deserve instead a fair and full accounting of UN practices, practices beyond the celebratory, beyond the sensational, even beyond the gravely disappointing; practices that hold the promise of a more stable, peaceful world, but mostly for now (as we have seen this week at the UN) only incompletely.

During the Irish media event, a speaker from Syria spoke of the need to “humanize” migrants, to see and communicate migration in its full complexity beyond stereotypes and “challenges” posed to host communities.   This embrace of complexity is sound advice for every stakeholder in UN coverage and for our communication with diverse constituencies. Following that advice will require more –from those who produce UN-related content and from those who consume it.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place:  UN Legal Obligations and their Operational Inconsistencies, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Oct


There are many weeks when global affairs seem to be operating on parallel (and largely un-complementary) tracks.   For instance, the Security Council this week took up the horrific matter of hospital bombings in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.   Despite the existence of settled “hard” humanitarian law and relevant Security Council resolutions, hospitals continue to be targets of heavy bombing, medical supplies are in ever-shorter supply, and medical staff from Médecins Sans Frontières and other organizations now speak openly of dying at their posts, resigned to the reality that “hard” law in the international arena is insufficient to motivate the “hard” choices that are now needed to stop the bombing and open reliable pathways to healing and relief.

In South Africa this week, states and experts met under the aegis of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  Endorsed by virtually all UN member states, this meeting of CITES was devoted to discussions on “how best to integrate law enforcement, development, environmental and social approaches to combating illegal wildlife trade,” trafficking that rivals narcotics, weapons and persons as major sources of illicit revenue.  There are aspects of this general pursuit that make us uneasy – specifically the overused notion that we are “saving” species that our lifestyle choices and pervasive economic inequalities have endangered in the first place.  Still, CITES underscoring of the criminal aspects of wildlife trafficking –reinforced by the presence in South Africa of officials from INTERPOL and the UN Office of Drugs and Crime – may lead to some (but perhaps only temporary) relief for highly stressed species teetering on the brink of extinction.

In the climate arena, India has declared its imminent intent to ratify the Paris Climate Agreement, bringing another major carbon producer into the fold, and thereby bringing us that much closer to entry-into-force.  But prior to entry of this “harder” obligation, Costa Rica joined Iceland in demonstrating the technical capability and political will to power their countries with 100% renewable energy.  Small states, yes, and boasting an abundance of geo-thermal and other energy advantages to tap; but states also demonstrating that it is possible to take “softer” obligations and turn them into hopeful options for a planet melting faster than our “hard” agreements have to date contemplated.

But here there are also “parallel track” events that came to our attention this week and that make us wonder if the “memos” on climate that send out from the UN are finding their way to the appropriate state and corporate desks:  including the pursuit of licenses to mine the floors of oceans already shedding biodiversity and harboring vast islands of plastic ; the rapid destruction of habitat and mass poaching of wildlife in African states; mining interests from El Salvador to the Philippines that needlessly threaten precious local water supplies and undermine local economies;  a decision by state ministers to spend vast sums on the UK’s Hinkley Point Nuclear Power plant rather than increase investment in renewable energy options;  the exposing of California’s mass refining of oil purchased from sources in the Amazon.   And these are only a sample of this week’s (for us) “head-scratching” acts of climate defiance.

We wonder:  What are we not seeing?   Is such behavior a deliberate flaunting of existing regulations?  Is it a matter of making all the profit available before more “serious” regulations take effect?   Is it just a matter of economic addictions that lie beyond the reach of governments and their treaties?

Our colleagues at Global Policy Forum (GPF) have recently published a study in which they call for a “hard law” treaty to enforce human rights obligations on transnational corporations.  Such a treaty would replace the voluntary UN Guiding Principles adopted in 2011, principles that have proven a bit too easy to redefine and circumnavigate.  At the same time, and despite the many recognized limitations in our collective application of so-called “hard law” obligations, objections to a ‘treaty process” have been considerable, especially noteworthy from the US and European Union.

The authors of this report appear to have more faith than we do in the innate compliance effectiveness of “hard” treaty law.  Nevertheless, they are right to note that many corporations are now seeking guidance on human rights obligations — and not because they aim to avoid them.  But most want to comply on a level playing field, and “hard law” obligations — especially if that law provides for investigative and oversight mechanisms –are the “levelers” that many corporate entities are thankfully now desiring.

Moreover, a treaty of the sort envisioned by GPF could have benefits to states struggling to reign in the behavior of corporate entities dismissive of “host” domestic law and largely lacking oversight from the countries where they are legally registered.  It is easier to hold entities accountable, or to seek assistance on enforcing compliance, when the obligations in question are both clear and (to the extent possible) uniformly binding.  In a state such as El Salvador, purely “voluntary” obligations are rarely subject to binding international legal review.  Moreover, the state itself might well lack the power or will to enforce domestic laws governing corporate conduct.  Reinforcement in the form of “hard” international law might spell the difference between corporate attentiveness to local rights interests and the total disregard of such interests.

But the success of “hard law” requires more than specified, non-voluntary obligations.  Success requires enforcement and, more than that, the will to enforce.  More often than not, it is “will” that is lacking.   Even in the Security Council, ostensibly the seat of the UN’s most robust binding obligations, enforcement is at a premium.  Indeed many Council meetings are punctuated by states imploring – sometimes bitterly – for the Council to honor its own binding resolutions – “honor” in the sense of ensuring its own internal compliance but also “honor” in the sense of enforcing previously negotiated obligations.

As we have seen in many areas of international law, treaties can have considerable value in affirming core international norms and raising levels of compliance, especially treaties which are accompanied by compliance-enriching mechanisms in the form of treaty bodies.   But in a world characterized by diverse existential threats and numerous instances of willful discounting of such threats, we must be careful not to put all our eggs in the treaty basket.  There is other key work to accomplish– as relevant to “soft” law as “hard” – including continued vigilance regarding the impacts of reckless corporate choices (and government enabling of those choices) on options for rights-based, peaceful, inclusive, sustainable living.

We at the UN rightly talk a lot about the need for more “prevention,” especially in the areas of armed conflict and severe human rights crimes.   But “prevention” related to our diverse international obligations – as in what “prevents” us from achieving full respect for human rights and other life- affirming goals — is prevention that we must do more to counteract.  Given the crises that dominate our media and clog our in-boxes, our collective responsibilities seem clear – more vigilance, more thoughtfulness, more collaborative activity, more active and persuasive engagement with diverse corporate and state authorities. For civil society, these responsibilities persevere regardless of how “hard” or “soft” the regulations might be that we now find at our disposal.

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.