The UN’s Annual Presidential Party

1 Oct

Sitting across the street from the North Lawn Building at UN Headquarters on a Sunday morning, the neighborhood looks a bit like what I imagine to be a night club at 5AM.   While there are still speeches to be heard and events on migration and other matters to be attended, the limousines have mostly left the streets.  The barricades have largely been dismantled.  The tent through which passed many heads of state and foreign ministers is being carted off.   Tourists are milling around as though anticipating access to spaces that had been shut off from them.

All in all, despite some exhausted security guards and some frayed tempers (including my own) it was a pretty good week.   Iranian president Rouhani’s speech at the High Level event on nuclear disarmament energized discussions with the US that may result in a more cautious and transparent approach to any nuclear ambitions that Iran might have been harboring.  On Syria, Security Council resolution 2118 offers hope for the timely elimination of one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons. It also gives the now splintering opposition some reasonable expectation of a resolution to the conflict that does more than preserve a deadly and destabilizing status quo.

Also, there was abundant energy around the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and, more specifically, a new round of post-2015 goals that are currently being developed.   These events gave opportunity for many segments of the UN leadership and other stakeholders to affirm their commitment to both fulfilling existing development obligations and broadening those obligations after 2015 to benefit more of the world’s population.

Invitations to the many events taking place this week were generously bestowed and our office was fortunate to be able to take advantage of many of those.   The following comments are mostly my own, though they do reflect colleagues’ assessment of some of the other events that we were privileged to attend.

Aside from the infectious enthusiasm in evidence around post-2015 development goals, the human rights-oriented events were perhaps the most satisfying in part because of the willingness of high level speakers to move the discussion beyond narrow disciplinary confines and towards a more complementary human security framework.   Of special note was UN special representative Mary Robinson’s efforts to highlight climate change as a major concern for the human rights community, and USG Adama Dieng’s efforts (with the governments of Belgium and Ghana) to highlight the integrity of elections – beyond ‘free and fair’ – as an important step to keep states from lapsing into conditions ripe for mass atrocity violence.  There were also important discussions held on issues germane to gender justice including an acknowledgment of the broad range of agencies and governments now taking up a gender lens on human security.

By comparison, disarmament remains a bit of a ‘dismal science,’ and there were several events that captured high level attention but might not result in high level attainment.   The High Level event on nuclear disarmament, ably organized by Roman Hunger and the office of the president of the General Assembly, resulted in many sincere speeches by heads of delegations, but covered little new ground.   One of the problems with nuclear disarmament discourse is the degree to which it still remains locked in conceptual silos that keep the issue isolated from a host of development, human rights, small arms and gender considerations to which it is linked and from which it should be drawing (and to which it should be contributing) more support.   We do, indeed, want a world ‘free of nuclear weapons.’   We also want a world free of poverty, discrimination, environmental degradation, gender-based violence, species extinction and much more.   The small numbers of NGOs who gathered in the Trusteeship Council to listen to the nuclear weapons speeches gave evidence that most advocates with access to the Conference Building were content to invest their energy elsewhere.

On small arms and arms trade, the news was a bit better.   The ATT high level event was also conducted in a considerably less than full room with ample celebratory language (especially given that the US earlier in the day signed the treaty) but fewer reminders of the long slog that lies ahead, not only before the treaty enters into force, but in making this particular treaty relevant to efforts to end diverted transfers and, in a larger context, eliminate violence from illicit weapons.   We were also surprised that there were so few references to the UN Trust Facility Supporting Cooperation on Arms Regulation (UNSCAR), a most welcome program underwritten by Australia and Germany to help build capacity support for ATT implementation.

Additionally, in the Security Council, Australia’s leadership was essential to passing resolution 2177, the first time in five years that the Council has taken up the issue of illicit small arms.   Generally speaking, we are skeptical of Council efforts to remain seized of yet another issue as we don’t believe that the degree of the Council’s legislative effectiveness on such issues (not to mention its willingness to ‘play’ collaboratively with other relevant UN stakeholders) has been sufficiently established.  Moreover, the resolution seems to place considerable burden on already overstretched peacekeeping operations to enforce arms embargoes, a move that we can’t imagine was taken based on wild enthusiasm emanating from DPKO.  We hope that the Council will also remain seized of these serious limitations as the resolution moves forward towards implementation.

But the biggest ‘take away’ for me in all these meetings was less about policy and more about psychology. This is the time of year when most of us here at headquarters are reminded of how little we matter in the grand scheme of things.   Governments from capitals run this show, none nearly at the level of the US, but all of them more than the diplomats who populate the missions and certainly more than the NGOs who gather around the gates clamoring for admission to events over which we have virtually no say.  This ought to be a humbling business each and every day, but it is especially hard to escape this feeling during this ‘presidential party’ season at the UN.

Of course, being humble doesn’t mean being silent about what we wish to see beyond what we have seen. Back when I used to attend parties, I took some advantage of the context to let sides of my personality, even my ideas, escape the confines of my emotional habits and need for control.    While the events we attended at the UN last week are probably too ‘public’ for leaders to speak with full frankness and take policy risks that might not play well back home, it would be helpful if at least we could hear more about where government leaders think we’re headed as a global community as well as the priorities of states going forward. Perhaps most importantly, we would all do well to hear more about the concrete and specific contributions that states — all states —  are willing to make to help the ‘world we want’ become the ‘world we have.’

 Dr. Robert Zuber

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