Reviving Respect for Nurses and their Caregiving Colleagues, Sarah Sicari

15 May

Editor’s Note: Psychiatric Nurse Sarah Sicari was a former intern in our joint office and was a keen observer of both UN policy and of who and how respect is conveyed for contributions and sacrifices made for others. In this short piece, she calls attention to an important truth about the women and men who continue to serve on the frontlines of medical care, including caring for many thousands still getting COVID-19, still dying alone, in some cases still angry that a disease they might have once dismissed is now calling for their lives. We aren’t banging pots and pans any longer, but the nurses who attend to our fragile health and crumbling sanity still deserve our highest respect. The pandemic may be “over” for some of us, but not for nurses. Their skills and energies are as essential as ever and, in too many instances, continue to be stretched to their breaking point.

This past week was nurse’s week, and there has barely been a whimper of acknowledgement, especially considering the trauma we have faced during the pandemic. Nurses are interesting characters to be sure. I personally have felt a love-hate relationship with the profession since I started, and I started officially on March 2020 as a new graduate nurse. We are either ignored or hailed as angels who are subservient to everyone including our patients; or sometimes we are even seen as fascists who like to have control over our patients (check out any out-of-touch youtuber these days and their opinions on nurses). The thing with nursing is, it is a mixed bag. We are humans who have all experienced immense trauma with COVID 19. It is still hard to say to this day what it was like in March of 2020 and then the following winter wave and then delta and then omicron. It felt like punch after punch after punch with no relief in sight. One article I came across mentioned a nurse who left during the middle of his shift and never came back and was never seen again- perhaps he committed suicide. No one wants to talk about our trauma, and I often wonder why that is? Is it because we are your moms, your sisters, your neighbors, your brothers and fathers? Is it because no one really care what nurses have to say or what we have been through?

During the first wave of COVID the only person who stood with your dying family member was the nurse. Doctors would come in but then were able to quickly leave the room, barking orders at nurses who inevitably stayed at the patient’s bedside for nearly 12 hours straight. As I reflect on nurse’s week, I believe that what I would like to hear and my fellow oddball nurses, would be one of appreciation on a universal and grander scale, from the president to my neighbors. The best way to show appreciation is for all nurse’s student loans to be cancelled. Some of us may have questionable views but that is not all nurses and despite the difference from person and person and the politics, nurses went through an immense trauma that only other nurses can fully appreciate and understand. I stand by my colleagues, and I hope that during this nurse’s week others will stand by them along with me.

Small Fry: States and Stakeholders on the Front Lines to Save Multilateralism, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 May

You hide to protect yourself.  Charlotte Eriksson

She hadn’t chosen the brave life. She’d chosen the small, fearful one.  Ann Brashares

It started small, as such fates often do. Nancy Springer,

With a great passion, you can do so much with your little talent.  Utibe Samuel Mbom

Welcome to our tribe of misfits and outcasts and rebels and dreamers. We are the story-weavers. And we’re all on this ride through the galaxy together.  L.R. Knost

At an earlier point in the lifecycle of Global Action, we were described by a former UN official who shall remain unnamed as “small but mighty.”  The small part has persevered through staff and office changes and a pandemic that forced us to rethink all that we had been doing.   As we resume some vestige of our place of scrutiny inside the UN, on social media, and as an honest broker between communities of policy and practice, the term “mighty” no longer applies, if it ever did.  Our concern now is to do as much as we are able with our “little talent,” our modest capacity and almost non-existent budget.   We weren’t prepared for the changes and choices that the pandemic would prompt.  We weren’t prepared either for that time when the doors of multilateralism would reopen, confronting diplomats and even groups like ours with challenges and outright crises with existential implications for the UN if not for the entire human race.  No longer mighty in any real or imagined sense of that term, there is still work for us to do, a role to play, a fate to help transform for many beyond our modest blog and twitter audiences.

As you surely recognize, the global community at present is absorbed by a needless war waged by a permanent member of the Security Council against a neighbor previously part of its larger “Union.”  While there are places on earth which suffer even more from armed violence and attendant deprivation, the aggression against Ukraine has hit a raw nerve.  Without digression into the specifics of that impact, it is clear that this conflict has implications beyond Ukraine’s borders, including food insecurity for states within and beyond Africa dependent on Ukrainian wheat, national budgets already strained from a global pandemic dipping frantically into the global weapons market, and states close to the conflict zone scrambling to find reassuring security ties which may or may not ultimately reassure.

In addition to the norm-busting atrocity crimes associated with the Ukraine aggression, it is the UN system itself which seems to be teetering on the brink of yet another stern blow to its credibility.   Despite all of the activity around UN Headquarters (especially in the General Assembly) since the first inklings of invasion – from ocean health and international justice to peacebuilding financing and the strengthening of global prohibitions on torture, slavery and violations against children — there have been few moments devoid of an  undercurrent of dread about the future of an organization (especially given its Security Council) which can muster up brave and competent humanitarian response to conflicts which it, time and again, can neither prevent nor resolve in a timely manner. One or more of the larger powers, once more and with unprecedented bravado, has demonstrated that the rules only apply, if they apply at all, to the smaller states, the ones that can be pushed around, the ones who must “hold their noses” in diplomatic terms due to their security and economic ties with the larger states, ties which UN diplomats are rarely authorized to threaten. 

I’m sure this is true for others as well, but in my own case the volume of “suggestions” from friends and colleagues that this might be the time to get out of the UN rather than double down on at least a couple of core UN-related commitments has grown dramatically.   After all, if small states can be maneuvered into relative submission by the security interests of the major global powers, how much easier is it to push our little NGO into a corner where we are free to fight imaginary windmills of global policy without the slightest chance of altering their movements?

For over 20 years through some very lean and uncertain times, we and others  have never accepted banishment to that corner, have never accepted the notion that our size automatically guarantees policy impotence.   And to its credit, the UN system and many of its smaller member states are pushing back as well, are both insisting and demonstrating that a system which guarantees sovereign equality at its core does not have to fold in the face of this latest (and in some ways most severe) challenge to UN Charter values by one of the states once accorded a special responsibility to uphold those values.

You can see evidence of this small state trend all over the UN system.  Barbados through its extraordinary Prime Minister Mia Mottley has helped keep the UN focus on the particular economic and ecological vulnerabilities of small island states.  Liechtenstein has been a consistent force on international justice and recently shepherded a resolution through the General Assembly triggering a GA meeting every time a permanent Security Council member issues a veto in that chamber.   Costa Rica has been a consistent supporter and enabler on issues from gender justice to disarmament. Kenya has been a strong and principled voice in a UN Security Council desperate for its policy clarity.  Fiji and other Pacific states have sounded the alarm on ocean health including existential threats from warming seas and declining fish stocks.  And the current President of the General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid from the Maldives, has taken care to ensure that the GA is involved in all relevant issues — from development finance to pandemic vaccine access and Security Council reform; and that that the voices of a wide range of small states – beyond regional statements and those by groups such as the Non-aligned Movement and The Group of 77 and China – are encouraged, heard and respected.

And the GA president is not isolated in this effort.  Last week, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Singapore convened an event entitled “Small States, Multilateralism and International Law” which highlighted reasons and resources relevant to why multilateralism and international law mean so much to small states and what such states can do to preserve a flawed but indispensable system from the too-frequent ravages of larger states and their leadership.   As Chair of the  Forum of Small States (FOSS), the MFA underscored a range of ways that small states can positively impact multilateral forums, including their insistence on both promise keeping and in promoting stability in matters of economy, ecology and economy upon which such promises can indeed be met.

During this session, some wise and passionate contributions emerged from small states across the globe, including from Jamaica’s Minister of Foreign Affairs who urged all to “push back against isolationism and unilateralism” and to reaffirm International law as our “guard-rail.” Denmark affirmed the role of small states as “true guardians” of the international order and a corrective to a still impactful “might makes right” mentality.   Even China took the floor both to acknowledge that “large states are not particularly popular at present,” and to insist that all must push harder to eliminate the “unfairness and injustice” in the international system. 

But it was the GA president Shahid who provided the main takeaways, for me at least, reminding the audience of his role in upholding the legitimacy of the Assembly in part through assurances that the voices of small and large members in the Hall over which he presides “have the same status,” while insisting that “states can be both small and significant,” empowered and empowering.  Indeed it may turn out that unlocking the full bravery and wisdom of small states will be key to preserving the credibility of a UN which continues to groan under the weight of threats from large states using UN mechanisms in part as a backhanded way to achieve national interests, including those at firm and resolute odds with the values and priorities embedded in the UN Charter.

We know from our own work that the world is filled with “story weavers,” rebels and dreamers who wonder aloud if the structures of global governance we have inherited and done too little to change can be trusted with the immense crises chipping away at our fields and shores, our courts and communities.  Theirs are the stories which we patronize routinely and heed infrequently.  Theirs are the stories emanating from obscure communities and small states, those places which have more to offer to help us restore legitimacy to the institutions which we know we need and which are being undermined, day after day, by one or more of their erstwhile state guarantors. 

We also know from our own experience how easy it is to hide from the responsibility which is ours to discharge, how easy it is to choose the “small and fearful,” thereby burying rather than sharing our assets. We know as well that small is not always beautiful, nor is it always effective.  But in a world dominated by billionaires, predatory economics and weapons merchants – in some instances the very same people – it is the small and determined, the attentive and passionate, who can create conditions for a reset of a global system now teetering in too many instances on the brink of its own invalidity.

During the “Small States” event, several states concluded their remarks with a Star Wars spinoff:  “May the FOSS be with you.”   Indeed, may the FOSS be with all of us, states and peoples willing to share and risk to preserve the full promise of multilateralism from those who seem determined to destroy it.

Trust Deficit: The Future of UN Engagement from a Youthful and Developing Country Perspective, by Jamshid Mohammadi

20 Apr

Editor’s Note: Here is another post from Jamshid Mohammadi who is well through his internship now and has been spending more time inside the UN at youth, environment and peacebuilding events. The premise of this piece is that the UN’s engagement with the Taliban going forward needs to be youth-focused and depoliticized. The Taliban’s denial of educational access by Afghan girls is just one example of how the neglect of Afghan youth at present will seriously impede development and reconciliation in the country.

As a Muslim first and an Afghan second, Ramadan is the most cherished month of the year as Muslim families come together in Iftars to bond, bridge and link with one another, starkly similar to depoliticized form of Robert Putnam’s view of social capital to which I will return towards the end of this post. This year in New York, miles away from family without hopes of early reunion, I bond, bridge and link with colleagues here at Bard Globalization and International Affairs program (BGIA), and sometimes with diplomats and civil society organizations inside the United Nations (UN) with my grounds pass provided by Global Action to Prevent War. Civil society in Afghanistan has had a particularly bumpy road as tyrannical regimes, dictatorships, civil war, foreign imposition and religious radicalism have loomed across Afghanistan. In states facing conflict transition, civil society organizations remain a foundational force to foster norms of trust and reciprocity among an often-highly polarized populace, and to establish a framework of non-violent resistance against tyrannical regimes and their draconian policies.

Under US and NATO imposition, Afghanistan began to cultivate what was in some ways a vibrant civil society after years of armed conflict; yet the country largely failed to establish what Tocqueville described in Democracy in America, as “strong associational ties” among civil society organizations to foster the capacity of that sector to promote norms of reciprocity and trust towards unified social goals. It also largely failed to create Putnam’s version of social capital via a solid platform characterized by shared identity and goals. When I speak of the role of civil society, I include supra-national organizations like the UN positioned alongside state institutions. Despite some obvious limitations in terms of trust-building and state-building, Afghans have legitimized and largely supported the UN’s influence on Afghanistan’s socio-political policies. Take for example the post-Bonn political setting in which UN planning played a central role. It goes without saying that the growing mismatch between the capacities of the state and the needs of the population has made the work carried out now by the UN in Afghanistan of particular importance. Last month, the renewal of the UNAMA mandate for Afghanistan by the Security Council was a critical step towards modifying and even reversing the suppression of Afghans’ basic human rights by the Taliban. Another important segment of this mandate is to enable humanitarian assistance with strong transparency in aid management as the country grapples with a devastating humanitarian crisis. In principle, the current UNAMA configuration is celebrated as was the US-based democratic state in Afghanistan–-strong and proficient on paper, but now with the rise of the Taliban perhaps relatively weaker and more fragile in action. The Afghan people seem largely resigned to live through broken promises from the post-Bonn democracy as well as from the Afghan peace process once again.

As recognized, the work carried out by UN in Afghanistan may be the only mechanism that is currently capable of bridging the gap between the mismatch of service delivery and basic needs of the citizens. However, the attempt at state-building in Afghanistan is as much a collective failure as it is a shared obligation.  The cost of this collective failure is now being paid by the Afghan girls going to high school only to face closed doors; Afghan women empowered to educate themselves but now without jobs or clear avenues for political participation; and many Afghans who sacrificed much on the road to what they hoped would be perpetual peace for their country.

As the UN navigates through a myriad of issues which must be negotiated with the de facto government in Afghanistan, the Taliban continue to suppress Afghans in their attempt to gain international legitimacy regardless of how much political legitimacy is demolished at national level. This part of the post is where I must quote John Adams: “every problem is an opportunity in disguise”. This historic juncture in Afghanistan’s history is likely a point in time to recognize the opportunity lurking in disguise. But what form does this take?

Youth Centric and Depoliticized UN Involvement in Afghanistan Based on a “winning hearts and minds” narrative, a further legitimizing of UN involvement in Afghanistan requires an approach that is both youth-centric and depoliticized. The UN must continue to enable the role of youth in shaping policies in and across Afghanistan. This generation of youth displaced by the rise of the Taliban has nevertheless cultivated strong social capital that revolves around bonding, bridging and linking throughout 20 years of shared struggles, including under the former UN-backed government and the international stakeholders which have been pervasive in Afghanistan. What comes in addition to strong associational ties is empathy for all Afghans equally; Afghans often divided, even at times by the UN, into urban and rural communities. The full inclusion of this generation in UN’s decision-making regarding Afghanistan can potentially generate new political legitimacy as well as sustainability, and this made even more possible as the UN helps stakeholder to see Afghanistan beyond references to global and regional political rivalries, thus depoliticizing involvement in Afghanistan. Much of the UN involvement now seems focused on removing logistical and structural impediments in central regions of Afghanistan whereas Afghan citizens residing in the rural areas remain somewhat deprived of international humanitarian assistance channeled through UN and other international stakeholders. Adopting a youth-centric approach enables UN to connect with rural populations despite such logistical and infrastructural impediments. Connection between young Afghans became evident as they undertook efforts to distribute aid packages to families across the country, even in some rural areas often beyond the reach of the international community and previous government. This knowledge and connection should be included in the UN’s vision for reaching Afghans from all walks of life.

What, then, are some preconceived perceptions and expectations that we need to overcome to design a more accurate and effective response to looming uncertainties in Afghanistan and other countries with similar religious and cultural contexts? In many fragile country cases like mine, external perceptions and expectations can be alienating to local populations, and certainly to governments with fundamental challenges related to political representation. Taking a combined youth-centric and depoliticized approach is an option I recommend because it serves as a counter-weight to illegitimate states and better connects with civil society organizations and diverse citizens in general. The case of Afghanistan is no exception to this. As the Taliban consolidate power despite a lack of political legitimacy, the UN must go well beyond conventional mechanisms to address the challenges facing Afghans. I began with a mention of Putnam’s theory of social capital and come to it now as I discuss unconventional efforts to establish more effective UN engagement in Afghanistan. In South Asia, Hindu nationalist party of Modi is consolidating power at the cost of Muslims, the Pakistani deep state and security establishment has deepened control over civilian leadership, and the Taliban are imposing tyrannical policies to sustain their totalitarian reign. Against all this stands Civil Society organizations, more and more of which are run by younger people, taking stands and (and taking risks) against oppression and using creative means to promoting international norms and principles advocated by United Nations.

Counterbalancing unconventional policies of oppressive states requires unconventional UN engagement. Thus arguing, the UN must develop and promote robust policies to navigate around the challenges of tyrannical regimes and hybrid democracies to connect with and build a stronger civil society. Civil society in Afghanistan, for example, lacks support to craft a unified front against growing control by the Taliban. It lacks what Tocqueville described in Democracy in America, strong associational ties among the populace, especially one as heterogeneous as with Afghans, which is an impediment to establishing a unified stance against Taliban’s oppressive policies. Deborah Lyons, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan and Head of UNAMA, is doing an outstanding job in reflecting ground-realities of Afghanistan. Many Afghan youth generally agree with what she has to say because she reflects what so many of us also perceive and expect, including a country that is doing much better than at present at educating and integrating all sectors of its youth. 

In order to build a stronger civil society and modify government excesses, the UN must continue to do its best to understand the Taliban as they are. As an Afghan, I hate to see prospects of another armed conflict in Afghanistan, so I have a natural inclination to hope for a changed, reformed Taliban. The UN seems to hope for the same, though in both instances more than hope is needed. Deborah Lyons, for example, could do more to challenge Taliban policies that suppress civil society and reverse promises of amnesty. The approach I vouch for here seeks an equal division of attention toward all current challenges to basic human rights. For example, as much as I want to uphold the importance of girls in school for the sake of the long-term prosperity and equality of Afghanistan, I vouch for equal attention to the Taliban’s broken promises of amnesty and to issues such as the ongoing suppression of local journalists.

True Grit:  Salvaging the Essence of a Holy Season, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Apr
See the source image

The smallest part of your brain is where something holy resides. Sneha Subramanian Kanta

For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life. William Blake

Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. Henri J.M. Nouwen

What is divinity, if not an everyday sense of kindness!  Abhijit Naskar

Joy is finding the holy in the small and the sacred in the everyday. Mary Davis Holt

Nature was the great ecclesiastical room. It held the power of divine spirit—the wind, the fragrance, the desire, the relief, the majesty of blessed existence.  Steven James Taylor

Listening moves us closer, it helps us become more whole, more healthy, more holy. Margaret J. Wheatley

I am trying on this April morning to discern the meaning of this erstwhile “holy” season, a time when all three Abrahamic faiths are encouraging their followers to reflect on the sorrow we have endured but also the sorrow we have inflicted, to reflect on the faith we proclaim but also the faith we sully through our own inability or unwillingness to uphold the professing and practicing to which this period points.

Clearly plenty of folks haven’t gotten any of the collective messages of this season.  We know of the violence we continue to inflict on each other from the New York Subway System to the streets of Bucha. We continue to spread disinformation about each other and even about the faith traditions we presume to represent.   We do not use this season to erase dividing lines so much as to thicken them, to give them existential importance beyond what any shred of evidence can support.  We have failed in our commitment to listening, failed in our efforts to uphold dignified and compassionate spaces for the changes we all would do well to make, failed to honor the nature that holds much of the divine spirit, failed to subject our religious convictions to any historical reference points which do not condone crusades and other manifestations of self-righteous, even idolatrous vindictiveness.

As you can no doubt tell, I’m not feeling the holiness in this holy time, not in myself to be sure, but also not in the social institutions and fellow religious travelers who now defile the redemptive journey with their lips dripping with anger and their weapons ever at the ready, convinced as none of us should ever be of the righteousness of their causes.   

But what is that holiness exactly?  Where are the goalposts of a healthy faith declared and practiced?  I’m not certain that I can answer that question any longer out of my own experience.   I suspect that any holiness worthy of the name is not principally about the consistency of our theological propositions nor the intensity of our religious fervor.  It is certainly not about manufacturing a faith that merely replicates and consoles our prejudices nor about emotions which engage others as a hungry bear engages an open refrigerator, ready to gorge rather than commune.

I wonder if it is even about being “holy” at all though we all have a duty, I believe, to walk that long and dusty road of faith.  After all, isn’t holiness primarily the province of the divine, like a fire that we can approach for warmth but are ill advised to touch?  We need to be better people, as this season reminds us, and there are resources of faith that can help to push as down the road.  But those same resources warn against our own tendency to presumptuousness, our own self-proclaimed righteous intent, an intent which almost by definition seems clearer to the self-proclaimers than it will ever seem to those beyond their orbit.

Let me also be clear here:  In a time of profound and pervasive disinformation, I understand the need of people to find and embrace something akin to “truth,” even as that “truth” is reduced to sound bites shrinking its connectivity, its ability to evoke wonder or kindness, its attention to diverse personal and cultural contexts.  I also understand the anxiety that people experience as officials retreat behind bureaucracies and leaders invest energy in efforts designed to take advantage of the power vested in them to serve some private interests while tossing a few, random crumbs in the direction of the many others. To the recipients of such crumbs, the system surely seems unfair and even “rigged,” and not in the directions, rightly or wrongly, to which they might have once felt entitled. 

It is important from time to time to remind ourselves that our most dystopian conspiracies contain at least a few kernels of reality, as does the almost nihilistic distrust of institutions and their officialdom characteristic of this age. 

And so in this climate of grievance, distrust and conspiracy, how do we even speak of holiness let alone pursue it?  How can we maneuver through these erstwhile holy seasons when our guideposts have been damaged or discredited, when our lives are surrounded by overly-toxic levels of acrimony and ugliness, when our media moguls and government officials mislead us so often they’ve forgotten that this is what they’re actually doing?

It takes true grit to stay on the path that so many of us seem to have wandered from.  It takes grit to care for the small and intricate things in the natural world that others ignore at best and destroy at worst.  It takes grit to respond with kindness when others are defiant, are acting out or giving in to addictions of all flavors and varieties.  It takes grit to create space for sustainable change in ourselves and others.  It takes grit to highlight, preserve and share the diminutive and sacred in the everyday.  It takes grit to allow the small part of the brain through which the “still, small voice” of divinity is ostensibly channeled to block out the distractions and clutter which we accumulate in the rest of our mind, a situation akin to the room in our homes into which everything is thrown and little is retrieved.

As it turns out, the pursuit of the holy is hard, both demanding and largely unattainable though clearly also a potential blessing to many. And if this piece is to make any claim on us, it is to use this precious time to connect to those small and beautiful  spaces which still punctuate our world;  those acts of kindness and healing that can turn the toxic into the empathic; those reminders which we don’t heed enough to “delight in life” including and especially the biodiverse abundance that still somehow surrounds us, the remnants of an even greater abundance that we have yet to subdue or destroy.

And so there may still be a path to some measure of holiness in this difficult time, a path that requires much but offers more, a path without reach or end, but one that places us, if only for a short while, in touch with the precious of the everyday, which reminds us of the values of attentiveness, care and kindness in a world of predation, violence and inequality determined to deny the validity of these other, surely more sacred truths.  

Let us use this short time to reset and recover, to remind ourselves of a life that still beckons, one worthy of the holy messaging conveyed during this seasonal moment.  What we know for certain is that the bombs and floods, the famines and abuses, will all be demanding our attention at the end of our holy sojourn.

Attitude Adjustment: Our Unquenched Thirst for Grievance, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Apr

The recitation of grievances was strange balm.   Regina O’Melveny

Every grievance you hold hides a little more of the light of the world from your eyes until the darkness becomes overwhelming. Donna Goddard

When we make grievance our traveling companion, it blocks out light, it distorts our perspective, it consumes our hearts until there is nothing left.  Merida Johns

People haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. Eric Hoffer

Poetry is about the grief. Politics is about the grievance. Robert Frost

As you might have noticed, and for which you are perhaps grateful after all, I haven’t been posting much recently.   This hasn’t been a Lenten (or Ramadan) lull so much as a time of diverse and largely connected activity where ideas for writing routinely pop into my head but don’t stay there long enough to find their reflection in print.

There have been some noteworthy things happening around us in addition to the war and pestilence that forever remind us of our essential impotence, the limitation of our collective ability to define the path forward let alone to walk that path with resolve and integrity. 

Indeed, this holy season has not been a fallow time for us.  We have been able to return to the General Assembly Hall for in-person meetings, a strange feeling after 2+ years of endless (and at times pointless) online monitoring.  On our return, it is even clearer that the current President, Abdulla Shahid of Maldives, appears to be the right person for this moment, insisting on a functional, attentive, promise-oriented “presidency of hope” in which the Assembly is better able to assume responsibilities for issues from vaccine equity and the digital divide to international justice and peace (the latter of which is urgently relevant given the relative dysfunctionalities of the Security Council). 

Beyond meetings, we have given consultative advice on issues from the “peaceful uses” of nuclear energy to the care of persons with disabilities in Ukraine, many of which have been caused by war.  We have welcomed new young people into the UN orbit, including Jamshid Mohammadi from Afghanistan now practicing his first Ramadan devotions in the US.  And we have invested in projects designed to strengthen the presence of women — especially women of color — in the tech sector.

In addition to the specific engagements of ourselves and others, we remain mindful of the psychological toll that pandemic effects have taken on many millions – the uncertain futures, the food and fiscal insecurity, the children who have lost connections to schooling and peer relationships, the “social distancing” which has morphed for many into the loss of confidence that human relations can still be successfully navigated, that the isolation crafted by a virus in association with our own personal “ issues” may well have created human divides that could well be impossible to fully overcome.

One of the issues that has come to the fore in recent years, and which the pandemic only seems to have made worse, is that of grievance.  This “strange balm” is one which I have indulged at times in my life, most always in an unseemly manner, unseemly because I allowed it to figuratively blot out the sun, making what was happening to me into some sort of grotesque barometer of the moral character of the universe.  Those times when I made grievance my “traveling companion” virtually ensured that I was on a long road to nowhere, ignoring that the “meaning” I was seeking was less about what I had taken or what had been denied from me and more about what I had to contribute, to whom and with whom those contributions might more liberally flow.

I grew up with many people angry or frustrated, and not without cause, given the economic crumbs which were routinely tossed in their direction, the marginally attentive government services, the policing and courts which reinforced cultural biases, the schools which offered little beyond local replication.  These were often people who had also made personal sacrifices to protect a country which they now see ruled by persons who either ridicule their life choices or exploit their passions with a bevy of half-truths and unfounded assumptions.

But this phase of grievance feels different, something akin to a black hole which absorbs all matter around it and then transforms that matter into some fact-free realm full of anger, yes, but also of conspiracy and a generalized hatred of those who, it is assumed, hated them first.  What is missing from this aggrieved moment in our collective history is some sense of perspective, even some measure of gratitude, an acknowledgement that the world is filled with unanticipated challenges that we who indulge the grievance of the moment are unlikely to help others meet, or even meet ourselves.  

To be fair, the pandemic has generally speaking not drawn us closer in any web of mutual responsibility.  The wealthy have gotten wealthier, largely on the watches of those who found themselves lacking either sustainable employment or trustworthy child-care.  A story this week emerged about Russian Oligarchs apparently moved to tears at the thought that their private planes would be denied landing rights in select global capitals.  This is the essence of grievance, or so it seems – the absence of any perspective, let alone gratitude for the privileges we do enjoy, including the privilege of making it with dignity through this challenging world which advertises much but continues to deliver in a grossly uneven manner. 

I had a dream the other night that seemed to capture, albeit through my own twisted subconscious, the essence of a world to which we should all be inclined to contribute.  In this dream, I was trapped in a hole filled with water and largely sealed in concrete.  My lifeline was a single straw protruding above the surface, through which I was able to sustain some semblance of breath.   Above me, people were working to remove the concrete such that my rescue might commence. Despite experiencing some unusually dire circumstances, I was neither alone nor abandoned.

Aside from the claustrophobia which would normally have consumed me in conscious life, and without delving too deeply into the symbolic meaning which the dream communicated, three related things occurred to me upon waking.  First and most obvious is the fragility of life as we know it, the vast number of people (and other life forms) whose very existence is hanging, as it were, at the end of a breathing straw.  But there were others present in the dream as well, others who were helping to free me from the most perilous of my circumstances, who were clearly devoted to rescue and restoration for other than themselves.

The last thing occurring to me about this dream is that despite how easy it would have been to simply pull the straw, how tempting it could be to take advantage of this opportunity to sever me once and for all from my singular lifeline, even as options for rescue began to take realistic shape.  

That temptation was not taken and thus it struck me upon waking as a counter-narrative to our current obsession with our garden-variety grievance, the unsubstantiated beliefs we harbor regarding the actions and motives of others trying to “do us in,” our dystopian sensibilities projecting a belief that, aside from an occasional superhero, the world is nothing but turmoil and deceit, nothing but lies and the illegitimate power built on their edifice, nothing but the death wishes that some of us have for others and, more often than we might admit , for ourselves as well.

During his aforementioned “presidency of hope,” the president of the General Assembly has called attention to our deficits of fairness, generosity and in promise-keeping, let alone our timidity in establishing conditions for a sustainable peace.  He knows that getting to this finish line is in part about our poetry and in part about our politics, in part about our ability to grieve our world of pain and uncertainty while keeping our grievances in perspective, in part about moving past both grief and grievance while placing more of our gifts and treasure in the service of others.

There are millions of people in this world whose very lives are dependent on some thin, metaphorical breathing straw. We are running out of time to help free them, once and for all, from such a perilous and traumatic condition.

Opportunity Beyond Uncertainty and Action Beyond Words: Reflections of an Afghan Student, Jamshid Mohammadi

27 Mar

Editor’s Note: Jamshid came to us this spring via Kandahar, Kabul and the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program. While Jamshid is not the first Afghan intern we have had over the years, he is most likely the first intern from any source to have escaped from his home country prior to his tenure with us. As the UN continues to open up after two years of COVID restrictions, he is already experiencing the richness and frustration of UN policy environments. Jamshid is not the last young person to experience grave uncertainty due to conflict and political turmoil. We need to do more to accompany their difficult journeys.

One global trend today is a mismatch between what fragile governments can provide and what the citizens expect or rather need. Take the de facto state in Afghanistan as an example, where the cause of a growing mismatch is well beyond the ability of the state to resolve due to wide-ranging factors including but not limited to a lack of political will. As in other regions, a void has been created in Afghanistan and subsequently filled mostly with uncertainty which could ultimately be either disruptive or constructive depending on the models we adopt and the frameworks we construct around this uncertainty.

I grapple with a similar uncertainty on an individual level. I experience a growing mismatch between what I envisioned 2022 would look like what it is like today. I had assumed, as a Fulbright Semi-Finalist and a U.S. Embassy in Kabul alumnus, that my higher education was destined to be in the United States. I also assumed that I would go back to Afghanistan and tell the tales of Central Park to my friends who are obsessed with the “Friends” series, an American TV Show popular among young Afghan adults.

My country and I are facing many of the same questions: what lies beyond uncertainty and what lies beyond words (or beyond “work” as in meetings at the UN and elsewhere to discuss Afghanistan compared to taking actions that can make larger and more lasting differences)? As is the case with Afghanistan, my own growing mismatch is at some level caused by myself and our own people, and at some level caused by outsiders.

As a kid who went to high school in Kandahar, Afghanistan, I had to work so hard to be able to debate global issues with my fellow exchange students who came from Europe, the Americas and Eastern Asia to join the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program where I now study. My country had gone through so much in order to rise from having almost no functioning institutions to having a recognized state apparatus, albeit corrupt and largely ineffective. For my own part, I admit that I could do better and work harder, and my country also acknowledges that some elite Afghans could do better and do more to finally end the longstanding suffering of the Afghan people. Surely I should not have missed my classes to sometimes join soccer matches to satisfy my personal desires. Corrupt elites (often with dual citizenship) do as I did but on a much larger scale, prioritizing personal gains over the national interest.

I want to ask those who are reading this personal post alongside Dr. Zuber’s thoughtful pieces: is it now unfair of my country or myself for that matter to seek a more stable, less uncertain life?

As I unpack my things here in New York and plan for my future, I still see commonalities between my country and me. I see opportunity beyond uncertainty, but to make that happen I need to go beyond planning. Some perhaps disagree, but I believe that there is also opportunity beyond uncertainty for Afghanistan. But to grasp that opportunity, we must go beyond meetings and discussions of issues affecting Afghanistan and risk more specific, tangible actions on the ground.

As a sovereign actor, the burden of my future falls solely on me. However, there are obvious impediments to realizing opportunity in the case of Afghanistan, including an international structure designed and based largely on neoliberal ideals that can compromise and even undermine the sovereignty of fragile states by large global powers or even by supra-national organizations such as the UN, IMF and World Bank.  For Afghanistan the involvement of large states and institutions has been a mixed blessing, a source of assistance but also a collective burden.

We must remind ourselves that the quantity of assistance to Afghanistan is not as important as effective aid management.  We must also do more for ourselves, to open educational opportunity for all and ensure that our economy and politics are fully inclusive.  In this regard, the recent reversal by the Taliban of a decision to allow girls in school is a major setback for the future of Afghanistan.  And yet there is hope that the recent, welcome renewal of the UNAMA mandate, including its human rights monitoring, will help ensure that the Taliban will keep its promises and meet its international obligations.

Rightly focused now on the situation in Ukraine, the international community must also strive to maintain its practical attention on other conflict settings. When it fails to do so, this implies that ending such conflicts is merely a means for protecting strategic interests rather than ending human suffering. My internship at Global Action to Prevent War and Armed conflict, providing me the opportunity to write and reflect alongside Dr. Robert Zuber, has given me a chance to scrutinize UN meetings on Afghanistan but also to keep appraised of other conflict settings in global regions where opportunity is being compromised.  

To keep Afghan opportunity in focus, the United Nations ought to reform much of its policies toward Afghanistan. For me, beyond uncertainty is the opportunity to go to a decent graduate school and use this time to prepare to contribute to a more stable and inclusive Afghanistan. For UN and other international partners, the goal must be to enable a viable pathway towards a self-sustaining Afghanistan: The opportunity to put modern labor forces together with the agricultural base of Afghan communities to gradually develop a self-sustaining economy.  The opportunity to democratize Afghanistan by integrating inclusive governance models which already exist which align with the realities of Afghanistan. The opportunity to pressure the de facto authorities to, among other things, respect the promise of general amnesty, uphold the rights of all, open schools to girls, and end corrupt practices, trafficking and threats from terror groups. 

There is so much more to be done.  I am grateful for this opportunity to prepare to help my country turn the current period of uncertainty into a longer period of opportunity. 


Sudan: Between Coups, Resistance and Repression, by Moshibudi Motimele

20 Mar

Editor’s Note: We were pleased to be part of a recent seminar on Sudan organized by our good colleague, Hussein Solomon of South Africa. Sudan is one of the places which is experiencing a multitude of challenges emanating from the October coup and climate-related threats to agriculture and water; from refugees coming from Tigray and unresolved justice for victims of violence in Darfur; and much more. We and others have been reminding the international community that, alongside the gravity of events in Ukraine, other sites of conflict, injustice and deprivation must remain in global focus, from Afghanistan to El Salvador, from Yemen to Sudan. We are most grateful for this summary of proceedings by Moshibudi Motimele in support of our ongoing accompaniment of Sudan.

On the 15th March 2022, the Politics and Governance Department at the University of the Free State hosted a virtual seminar titled, ‘Sudan: Between Coups, Resistance and Repression’. The panel of speakers included Eiman Seifeldin, a human rights and women and children’s rights activist and Environmental Sciences lecturer; Mutassim Ali, a lawyer and former director of the African Refugee Development Centre; Dr. Sheldon Gellar, an Africa Democracy and Development Consultant Researcher and Dr. Robert Zuber, Director of the UN-based Global Action to Prevent War and Armed Conflict. The purpose of the webinar was to keep attention on the plight of the Sudanese people, particularly after the latest military coup of October 25, 2021, which has resulted in worsening socio-economic conditions and human rights abuses in the country.

Origins of Current Conflict

The roots of the current conflict were identified as the political and cultural dominance of one ethnicity, continued military rule, genocide, economic instability, and widespread civilian strife. Since Sudanese independence in 1956, the country has been marked by much contestation between those who support the imposition of Islamic law  and military leadership and those who are fighting for civil rule and a more secular state. The first Prime Minister of independent Sudan, Ismail al-Azhari, was removed by a military coup de tat in 1969. Subsequently military coups have occurred consistently in Sudan including in 1971, 1989 and most recently on the 25 October 2021.

Eiman Seifeldin highlighted the fact that the continuous military coups have been characterized by high levels of sexual violence and the use of rape as a weapon to subdue both Sudanese men and women. This has resulted in a large part of the people’s revolution being led and supported by women who find that their bodies continue to be used as sites of violence and repression. Seifeldin almost made reference to the March 14th rape of an 18-year-old student in Khartoum by officers of the military force which is just the most recent incident in the systematic use of sexual violence as a method of suppressing participation in protests.

In particular, the 2019 Revolution was identified as being a key moment in Sudan’s history where revolts were organized by grassroots groups, social organisations and the general public, not the military or political parties as had been the case previously. Responding to dissatisfaction with the continued torture and brutal imprisonment of civilians alongside widespread economic challenges such as extreme hunger, government corruption and unemployment, the Sudanese people were able to end the almost 30-year rule of former President Omar al-Bashir. This resulted in the birth of the transitional period through the signing in of a Constitutional hybrid government with civil groups and military groups.

Crisis of National Identity

According to Mutassim Ali, the root cause of Sudanese suffering is a crisis of national identity that has persisted since independence. The lack of racial and cultural homogeneity within Sudan has meant that the imposition of Arab cultural identity and Islamic law results in continuous protests and revolt that have generated genocides and human rights abuses. He identifies more than 35 attempted coups and insurgencies in areas such as Darfur, South Sudan and the Nuba mountains with very short-lived moments of quasi-democracy in between. Therefore, for Sudanese civilians, violence and instability has marked their daily lives.

It is also important to bear in mind that throughout these epochs of violence and suffering, civilian groups have exhausted all tools to resist the government peacefully. Therefore, the use of more violent strategies should be read within the context of increasing desperation to end military rule which does not hesitate to mete out violence against suspected dissenters and innocent civilians. The revolt that began in December 2018 can be seen as the end point of an accumulative revolution that united many factions of the Sudanese people who have been involved in a more fragmented longer trajectory of resistance against the government. Although this revolution achieved success through the removal of al-Bashir, the cost of activism in Sudan is deadly with many losing lives to all the de facto regimes.

In addition, the subsequent military regimes that have ruled over Sudan, for many represent a continuation of the Bashir time of rule as many of the military leaders guilty of current crimes were part of Bashir’s government. They insist to remain a part of the current regime, at all costs, because they fear the accountability that they will be forced to take for human rights abuses if they are ousted from government. This has an impact on the legitimacy possible for current power-sharing deals with many civilians rightly refusing to accept any form of military rule particularly by those complicit in long histories of violation and repression.

External factors constraining the impact of Revolution

Dr Sheldon Gellar questioned why it is that the revolution had lasted so long when 80% of the population is united against military rule. The predominant external factors that he identified were the political and financial support that Sudanese military leaders receive from particularly Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In exchange for access to and control of gold mines as well as the protection of human trafficking routes, these foreign governments and transnational actors are willing to turn a blind eye to internal brutality and strife.  Not forgetting as well all the Sudanese mercenaries that continue to be deployed in Yemen and Libya. He notes that the Bashir government was a recipient of up to seven billion dollars from Sunni Arab states including Qatar and Turkey through their shared connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. None of these states, then, have openly condemned the coups and military rule. Instead, they all make statements in which they highlight the fact that they support dialogue, a dialogue which is based on capitulation.

Russia, through the Wagner Group, has been complicit in assisting the Sudanese government in shutting down resistance to the tyrannous regime. This has included the use of Russian planes to kill people. Furthermore, through the Wagner Group, Russia has been responsible for much instability in the region including in Mali and the Central African Republic. At the root of Russian declarations of support is the consideration of Russian interests and strategic relationships, not a concern for the Sudanese people. On the other spectrum, China can be seen to have supported the military government politically by abstaining to condemn them publicly. The same can be said for the African Union, South Africa and Chad who have been seen to subtly support the military regimes by refusing condemnation. This is extremely unfortunate considering the West’s failure to deliver on its promises to protect the Sudanese people from Jihadists and to deliver basic services. However, there is hope to be taken from the continent as well. Burkina Faso, which has an extremely poor economy, has managed to successfully remove a dictator peacefully. As with civilian groups in Sudan, organisation has predominantly been non-violent.

In the West, though many states have openly criticized military rule in Sudan, this criticism has not been followed through with the imposition of real sanctions. The threat of sanctions is often made and international and American aid is reduced but this does not have much impact. Mostly, because Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have millions of dollars to give to cover this shortfall and don’t require any socio-political guarantees with regards to civilians and human rights in exchange. In essence, there are no actual consequences for continued military coups in Sudan. The orchestrators of these coups lose nothing and are not held accountable.

Concluding remarks – “Justice is not the sacrifice at the alter of stability”

All of the speakers agreed that the crisis in Sudan has occupied less and less of the international imagination and global media attention in recent times despite conditions worsening consistently. The current conflict in Ukraine and its monopolization of global indignation and concern has left very little space for recognition and intervention into urgent crisis in Sudan, and other countries in the region. For the millions of Sudanese civilians, the goal is a just and democratic system of governance where open contestation is permitted. The international community, however, has seemed to priorities stability which has continuously meant acknowledging perpetrators of extreme violence as legitimate sharers of government. Civilian groups in Sudan are clear, they will not acknowledge any agreement that allows military leadership to remain in power as legitimate. Furthermore, a transitional government cannot be successful without peace. The military leadership in Sudan has been equally clear, it has no intention in allowing the transition process to end in democratic elections and the legitimation of a democratic government. This lack of security and trust has created an extremely fragile state of affairs in Sudan which has dire consequences for not only the Sudanese people but the entire Sahelian area which includes Mali, Niger, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso and Chad.

The international community has largely failed the Sudanese people on multiple fronts. They have failed to: renew and effectively implement economic sanctions, successfully bring many military generals to account in the International Criminal Court (ICC) including those who remain in governance today, effectively implement the arms embargo which continues to be breached without consequence and to assist with the operationalization of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Therefore, in essence there is no international community that is in solidarity with Sudan in a substantive matter. The West’s prime material concerns with power, wealth and hedonism has meant that it is not willing to make the necessary sacrifices to force Sudanese militants to relinquish power.

As the June 3rd deadline of UNITAMS draws closer, it’s clear that the future of a possibly democratic Sudan remains in the hands of the Sudanese people who continue to display an unwavering commitment to secular civilian rule. The solutions and proposals that can adequately deal with the complexities of the crisis in Sudan can only emerge from those who live the reality of that crisis daily. Fundamentally there needs to be a respect for one another regardless of ethnic and religious affiliation as well as the political will to build a real movement towards democracy.

Attention Deficits: Moments of Decision for the Global Community, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Mar

Sand was dribbling out of the bag of her attention, faster and faster. Sarah Blake

Let us not focus on the chink in the canvas of the darkness but look at the light piercing through it. Erik Pevernagie

Where your attention goes, your time goes. Idowu Koyenikan,

A single moment with that empty spot causes excruciating pain. That’s why we run from distraction to distraction—and from attachment to attachment. Yasmin Mogahed

It seems as if people were worn out on the way to great thoughts and can never enjoy them because they are too tired. George Eliot

If our state were really happy, we should not need to take our minds off it in order to make ourselves happy.  Blaise Pascal

You understand absolutely nothing about modern civilization unless you first admit that it is a universal conspiracy against all interior life.  Georges Bernanos

I’m sitting in my living room early on a chilly Sunday morning having already woven a tapestry of distraction even before the sun rises on this first day of daylight savings.   I make coffee; I arrange the compost to take to the Farmer’s Market; I check the sports scores and the late-winter weather; I write short notes to some people whom I have neglected or to whom I have been unresponsive; I check my bank-balance to remind myself yet again of the perils of not having a salary; I obsess over what it will be like to re-enter UN headquarters after a two-year absence.   The sand of my attention has been steadily “dribbling out of the bag” and the sun hasn’t even graced the horizon yet. It’s not a pretty picture.

But of course, given our work in the world, my computer is open to the latest from Ukraine, a conflict which for a variety of reasons has sucked the oxygen out of the wider range of conflicts and controversies to which we attempt to focus policy attention.  From Afghanistan and Sudan to Myanmar and Yemen, so much of the conflict and climate-impacted misery facing millions in our fragile global community receives scant attention now as the Russian invasion moves into a third week and the justifications for the civilian-targeted violence are becoming increasingly absurd, calculated distractions rather than honest suggestions for resetting regional security arrangements.

The Russian invasion has been anything but surgical.  Russian troops seem largely unmotivated, resistance has been much more formidable than expected, and Russian leadership is clearly in over its head, a worrisome development given Russia’s “on alert” nuclear arsenal and its position as one of the primary guardians of a Charter-based order which it now flaunts with presumptions of impunity.   Russia is hardly the only large power which has used its coercion and position to expand its geopolitical influence, often in the face of massive international opposition, but that such unilateral coercive measures of choice continue to be rationalized is a testament to how fragile our vaunted “rules-based international order” has often been and remains until the present.

Consistent with other large-power disruptions to the prevailing global order, Russia has responded to the current tsunami of opposition with statements within and beyond the Security Council which continue to place the blame for its own actions on the actions of others – from NATO expansionism to allegations of biological weapons labs developed by the US and the presumed revival of Nazism within Ukraine itself.  Much of this blaming of course is also a strategy to create distraction – an attempt to confine discussions to the topic of who broke the proverbial dishes in the kitchen while ignoring the larger reality that one of the parties to the dishes dispute had no business being in the kitchen in the first instance.

And there is another factor here for those of us who spend much of our time discerning and assessing threats to the peace beyond Euro-centric theaters of conflict, assessing both particularities and commonalities of conflict and deprivation, but also the will and capacity of the international community to effect lasting relief, our propensity for making more promises than we honor, including the promise to remain seized of threats to peace and security whether or not they come to dominate the front pages of western media and their global colleagues. 

For while a needless war in Ukraine rages, so do manifold and even existential threats from climate change and biodiversity loss.  So do grave challenges to the millions worldwide who have had their lives and livelihoods turned upside down by unwelcome regime change in states from Afghanistan to Sudan.   So do impediments to health from vaccine inequity and fresh water supplies which are increasingly tainted and inaccessible. So do the development of weapons systems which allow us to kill many at a distance with only limited strands of accountability.

We in the policy world have many promises to global constituents over many years, promises to prevent conflict and promote development, promises to improve governance and narrow economic and social inequalities, promises to promote respect for rights and laws in tandem with those we seek to serve.

These promises require sustained interest and attention from the international community, indeed from all of us in policy, attention even more important in light of the current conflict in Ukraine.  Many of us are tired to be sure, tired of crises of choice, tired of having multi-lateral efficacy betrayed by narrow, partisan national interests.  But the stakes are high now, higher than they have been in some time, especially so for those legions of weary conflict victims in all global regions.  As we begin to assess the carnage multiplying now in Ukraine, we will also be tasked with assessing damage, yet again, to the UN’s battered reputation as its large powers refuse to play by the rules they liberally compel for others.  It is time for us to deepen attachments, but to broaden them also; to chide those who refuse to honor their responsibilities and to find and share the glimmers of light piercing still through these dark times.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has rightly set off many, well-worn alarm bells, including the bell which tolls for the looming threat to any pretense of shared commitments by states to a cleaner, safer, more peaceful, more equitable world.   When the erstwhile, Charter-mandated guardians of multilateralism demonstrate that national interest is still the primary catalyst for national action, the fear is that additional smaller states will also choose to line up to challenge international law obligations once they are confident of escaping consequences from ignoring Charter values.

To our mind, the one thing the UN needs to be discussing now is how to broker a cease fire in Ukraine followed by the swift withdrawal of Russian forces; and then to discern how best to repair this latest rupture to the shroud of credibility still covering parts of our multilateral system, a rupture with grave implications for the millions living with violence, rights abuses and food insecurity in conflict settings within and far beyond Ukraine.

All the rest, all of the recrimination and phony rationalizations, all of that is mere distraction.  We can’t afford the indulgence.

Lost and Found: A Reflection on Exile, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 Feb
See related image detail

Even if exile is spent in the most beautiful city in the world, Brunetti realized, it is still exile. Donna Leon

The exile is a ball hurled high into the air.  Salman Rushdie

The words I write are not only mine, but a contemplation on the loss, grief and hope of those I care for. Elia Po

Everyone must come out of his exile in his own way.  Martin Buber

It’s a kindness that the mind can go where it wishes. Publius Ovidius Naso

All writers are exiles wherever they live and their work is a lifelong journey towards the lost land. Janet Frame

I leave with tears blurring all that I see.  Euripides

I had planned to write my next piece on the phenomenon of UN exile, specifically the implications of a two-year + banishment we and many others have endured from UN Headquarters.  The roots of such exile have been both clear and not – the need to enact pandemic restrictions being the most obvious and understandable one, but also the unstated desire of some UN member state to be free of the annoying interventions of groups like ours – even in our current hibernated state – a desire which has kept doors closed to the in-person engagements which we and others had thrived on in the past.

And no, advocacy by screen is no substitute.  We have long commented on the Security Council meetings we were privileged to sit in on over many years – that watching the Council is like watching a sumptuous meal unfold that you are allowed to behold but not to consume.  In the absence of personal engagements, meaningful access is more and more reserved for groups with big brands, big budgets or big needs. We can’t even begin to complement the work of the big brands on screens and we certainly don’t ever want to be in the way of voices seeking to be heard from communities ravaged by poverty, by famine, by pandemic, by violence, communities whose frequent exiles from familiar homes and farms constitutes another layer of grief, another blow to stability, another instance of feeling like a ball thrown high in the air with no clear sense of where it might land and what awaits once it does.

The tears of such exile make what we have experienced around the UN much more of a petty annoyance than an existential threat.  Indeed, it seems tone deaf even to mention our erstwhile plight as people in places like Afghanistan and Ukraine fight for their lives, their dignity, their autonomy.   Such fights, regrettably, force many to take to a more uncertain road than I will ever walk, one that often turns out to have as many dangers along the route as at its starting point, one that leads perhaps to greater safety and predictability, perhaps to another land as “lost” as the one they left. 

And whether lost or not, the journey often takes exiles far from home, far from whatever comforts emanate from familiar people and places, far from any certainty that a return to those familiar spaces will ever be possible.  Even if exiles find places of beauty and excitement, even if the places they are fortunate enough to land in offer a different possibility than where they came from (as we are reminded now by the presence of Jamshid Mohammadi of Kadahar Afghanistan, who will soon be posting in this space), it is still exile.  There is still loss, still things to grieve, still loved ones back home who face challenges now largely unimaginable, and which are now beyond helping reach, still people back home choking back tears, hoping beyond hope that the expressive faces of their loved ones will one day be returned to them.

This is the exile that must matter above all, the millions now on the move escaping armed invasion and climate emergencies, escaping collapsing economies and threats from hate speech, hoping to find spaces free from violence and predation where children can go to safe schools, visit a proper health clinic, and eat more than once a day. 

But our own exile has consequences also, the consequences of being further marginalized by a system which is in fresh danger of its own collapse of sorts – a collapse brought about by sinking levels of public trust, rising levels of diplomatic inflexibility, a long chain of broken financial commitments to ameliorate human suffering, and a two-tiered system of international order wherein the established guardians of that order are the ones which feel most entitled to violate its core provisions.

The UN, as we have noted often, does a remarkable job of highlighting and even addressing challenges from ocean health to vaccine equity.  Moreover, it has mobilized vast resources to help people survive emergency conditions due to famine and displacement.  What it has not done as well is to shrink inequalities, including those related to the entitlements some large and powerful states have used – and continue to use — to justify clear and obvious violations of the UN Charter and international law. 

When any person or institution stands in exile from the values in which it is ostensibly grounded, such as in the case of the UN, trust and confidence erode among constituents most directly affected, and policy is reduced to “work arounds” regarding the insistences and manipulations of the most powerful. 

We have a role, as with many others, in assessing and communicating internal threats to a system whose structural flaws have rarely been so exposed as in the present.  And while we have no power to speak of, we do have a certain authority born of years of attentive regard for what the UN does, what it claims to do, and what has proven time and again to be beyond its remit.

But that authority requires personal engagement if it is to have any chance of connecting to mechanisms of effective change.  Hurling critiques across vast and barren zoom spaces is no more likely to enable that change than screaming at immigration officials is likely to help exiles gain safe passage.  We must be determined, but also maintain a personal touch, also demonstrate some compassion for those who make and implement policy under sometimes severe limitations, who also must face up to the things they cannot fix no matter how hard they might want to do so. At the same time, we have a duty to insist that promises made to constituents are promises kept, that doors which we have pledged to keep open are kept ajar, all while ensuring that we never deign, not for a single moment, to equate our own institutional inconveniences with the deep heartache of exile experienced by so many millions in this damaged and war-torn world.

As the late, great Martin Buber noted above, all must come out of exile in their own way, on paths hopefully accompanied by determined and compassionate others.  As the bombs continue to fall in Ukraine and Yemen and economic options evaporate in settings from Afghanistan to the Sahel, we must continue to accompany those well-trod paths, continue to do more to ensure softer, safer, less-traumatic landings for the uprooted. For us and for many around UN Headquarters, advocacy for such landings is sure to be more effective with a personal, physical presence. 

Play Time: Games We Should Renounce, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Feb

Morals were nothing but things to be manipulated with. They were tools you could use against others, and weapons others could use against you. Rebecca Schaeffer

Yet I now ask of you—are you marauders or are you servants? Do you give power to others, or do you hoard it?  Robert Jackson Bennett

What I learned in this tragedy was the eternal lesson of good people going bad.  Steven Ramirez

Pens, swords, sticks—weapons shoved into our fists as soon as we’re old enough to grasp them. Hafsah Faizal

The phrase ‘ninth graders with machine guns’ isn’t exactly followed by ‘have a nice day’. Michael Grant

Many years ago, I was an adherent (albeit temporary) of the field of “transactional analysis” made popular by Eric Berne.  His book “Games People Play,” described the numerous games in which people indulge in order to get from others what they might well not be able to acquire otherwise if they were committed to “playing it straight.”

Some of the gamesmanship Berne highlighted, as in a game of poker, is largely about pulling off the bluff, of making others believe that you “hold a better hand” than you actually have and thereby compelling decisions which largely benefit the person at the other end of the table more than the one making them themselves. 

This “game” is hardly news to those of us who navigate this overly competitive world, a world in which we try to “sell” our talents and experiences often well beyond what the facts and/or testimony of others might otherwise suggest, projecting power and/or authority that we might not actually possess based on credentials which in the best instances represent a massaging of what we have any right to publicly claim and at their worst are mere fantasy projections of what we “wish” we had achieved (or were in a position to achieve) more than an actual, frank assessment of capabilities and consequences.

This “game” is an oldie but goodie, but it was not my favorite of Berne’s litany of gamesmanship dysfunction.  That title would have to go to the one known as, “Now I’ve got you, you son of a bitch.”  This is the game by which we stalk our adversaries until we “catch” them in words or deeds, catch them so as to justify our original decision to hold them to often-highly unflattering assessments.  This game is not at all about being fair to others but of ensnaring them in “traps” of our own creation.  The point in bringing this game up here is not to justify wrongdoing of word or deed, but to highlight the tendency of those many who play this game to reduce a person’s “footprint” in the world to those acts or ideas which justify our own unseemly judgements about them, even our hostilities towards them.

The attraction of this game shouldn’t surprise anyone either.  Indeed, the “now I’ve got you” mode is pervasive in our time, a mega-offering of what some now refer to as “cancel culture” in which the cancelling is largely about “catching” rather than about healing, or reconciliation, or even what some theologians refer to as “amendment of life.”  The idea isn’t so much to invent accusation, though that sometimes happens as well, so much as to feed the accusations we have already lodged against others with allegedly “fresh” evidence of their malevolent intent.

The fact of the matter, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, is that this so-called “cancel culture” is merely one tip of a much more imposing, threatening iceberg: that of “weaponizing,” the willingness to turn ideas, objects, career positions and much more into the means for criticizing, mocking or otherwise attacking others whom we generally know only enough about to know that we can’t stomach their ideas or practices. Such weaponization takes numerous and expanding forms as our ideological bubbles harden and our information sources “about the world” become more relentlessly self-selected and self-confirming.  Most everything in our midst now represents some occasion to attack or defend.  We are so much more prone now than even in Berne’s time to “lie in wait” for our competitors or opponents to “slip up” in word or deed such that we might in turn intimidate them, harass them, sue them, or plaster mocking accusations all over social media with little if any regard for context.

Or without any regard for the ways in which, as Reinhold Niebuhr was famously quoted, “the evils against which we contend are often the fruits of illusions similar to our own.”  Evidence of this chunk of wisdom is hard to find in people who are determined to “catch” their adversaries in speech or actions which might well be toxic but are also, generally speaking, not unrelated to the speech and actions of those doing the accusing.  This aspect of the “gotcha game,” of “seeing the speck in the eyes of others but not the plank in our own is a most unfortunate characteristic of our time, an often-reckless consequence of our obsession with the mis-steps of perceived adversaries and competitors coupled with a healthy set of blinders regarding the many (and preventable) ways in which we also betray, also deceive, also mock and condemn without due cause, also fail to honor promises and obligations, also fail to negotiate with others “in good faith.”

This posture is both pervasive and counter-productive, ramping up our levels of suspicion about each other and our “motives” for all sorts of things, even with regard to matters as simple as compliments or small acts of kindness. Everyone, we seem to be increasingly convinced, has got an angle, a hidden motive.  No one plays it straight.  None are uncorrupted by power and money. None can be trusted to present and “own” more than a piece of truth, some even less than that. 

It does not take a saint or a genius to see how such a pervasive attitude could so easily undermine our efforts to build trust (what the UN now most often refers to as “solidarity”) or to disarm at least some of the growing array of ideas, objects, affiliations and technologies which many are now more prone to horde and weaponize than to share and ensure just access.   

This point came to light this week at a UN discussion hosted by the Group of Friends of Mediation and its chairs from Finland and Turkey.   The event featured USG DiCarlo explaining how the UN has been fortifying its non-coercive tools and capacities to prevent and resolve conflict.  In addition to what the UN refers to as “special political missions,” DiCarlo spoke of the importance of UN mediation resources which are inclusive, accessible and backed by commitments to the “primacy of politics” by all member states but especially the major powers.

But the issue here is more than about providing the resource but also about seeking it out and heeding its conclusions.  In a world that is inclined to weaponize far more than with weapons themselves – food, sex, justice, health care, even diplomacy itself are all candidates – it can be difficult to find those softer spots where mediation can do its best work.   As many of you already know, for a case to proceed at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, the parties to the case must consent to compulsory jurisdiction.  That is, they must agree to accept the verdict regardless of whether or not it is favorable to their national interests.  But something beyond mere consent is required here if mediation is to have a desired effect, if it is to be viewed as an honest, trusted service on the path to peace rather than as tool for partisan political interests or even conspiracy theories under the guise of “frank and open dialogue.”

This was communicated effectively at the “Friends” event by the former Foreign Minister of Finland, Alexander Stubb, who lamented that in our time the “lines between war and peace have been blurred.”  Everything now, he warned, seems to be a candidate for weaponization, including information, elections, even climate threats. In such an environment, how can we know when mediation is more apt to resolve than inflame?  How can we move forward in convincing states and other conflict parties of the “logic” of mediation and related tools, that it isn’t necessary to resort to military measures in order to resolve conflict and address conflict threats, and that effective mediation offers more sustainable pathways to healing and reconciliation than missiles and IEDs ever could?  How do we demonstrate the benefits of mediation resources when so many of us, even global leadership, are consumed with the game of “getting” others rather than ensuring a softer time and space to sort out our common messes?

It is clear to me, if only me, that the sphere of disarmament for which we have advocated over decades must again be expanded – beyond military hardware and weaponry to all of the pieces of our social fabric that we are now willing to deploy against others with whom we disagree or who threaten our power or position.  Our “game” of turning common objects and basic needs into common threats levied against adversaries real and perceived, of applying self-serving glosses to our judgements about those we seek to trip up rather than to steady, is one that we simply cannot win. The world is endangered now by numerous challenges the alleviation of which will require more from all of us, and more from us together.

It is high time to put this “got you” game back in the box from whence it came.