The United Nations’ Annual Adventure

29 Sep

It is the Sunday after a long week of Heads of State, Foreign Ministers and a wide variety of other stakeholders all seeking to keep the UN on a positive, hopeful, practical trajectory, despite a myriad of global crises.

Side events on issues from the situation in Central African Republic to the abolition of child marriages occupied the attention of diplomats and select non-governmental representatives.   And then there was a most dramatic climate march as well as a media worthy presentation by Emma Watson on the need to encourage more male ‘champions’ for women’s rights.

The opening of the General Assembly corresponded with the re-opening of the General Assembly building.   While we have come to appreciate the North Lawn Building greatly, most participants in last week’s events seemed to enjoy the upgraded amenities of the new GA space, not to mention the reopening of the basement café. Guards and other UN personnel generally did a fine job of getting people in and out of meeting rooms and on and off crowded elevators.

It is not yet apparent how many compelling, new commitments were made this week by leaders.  There were, of course, some interesting ideas floated by civil society and governments – ideas that in our view still require more urgent scrutiny to minimize the possibility of unintended consequences.  We have already written about our cautions elsewhere on this blog with regard to both ‘veto restraint’ and the inclusion of a ‘peace objective’ within the post-2015 development goals.

There were many other things that happened this week that piqued our interest and even conveyed glimmers of hope that we can actually move confidently and urgently towards a holistic engagement of strategies to address some stubborn global emergencies.

  • At an event focused on nuclear disarmament, Brazil, Costa Rica and others properly highlighted the need for more investment in Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zones. At the same time, Chile called for the “delegitimizing” of nuclear weapons doctrines.
  • At another event focused on the death penalty, we were encouraged that so few states sought to defend their use of capital punishment. The President of Switzerland and Prime Minister of Italy made strong and convincing presentations exposing the fallacies of the death penalty.  At this same meeting, the office of the new High Commissioner for Human Rights launched the fine resource, “Moving away from the Death Penalty.”
  • In the Security Council, a US-led, co-sponsored resolution on foreign fighters passed unanimously, but Argentina’s president also noted the increasingly complex nature of terrorism and wondered aloud whether the Council’s responses are keeping pace.
  • In another Council meeting focused on ISIS, Luxembourg joined with other states in reminding members that (France’s reference to the ‘throat cutters’ notwithstanding) we are not going to solve deeper problems in the region through the application of threatening rhetoric and military power. In a similar vein, Rwanda described the ‘unbearable consequences’ that occur when the Council fails to use all available tools to maintain peace and security.
  • At an event on the role of education in the prevention of genocide, states noted the need to educate adults as well as children about the dangers of hate speech and other incitements to violence. Spain in particular spoke about the need to address conflict at its roots and noted its own, sustained advocacy work on behalf of more mediation resources.  For his part, USG Adama Dieng underscored the urgent responsibility to prevent incitement rather than waiting to address its consequences after the fact.
  • At a breakfast discussion focused on Women and Land, Ethiopia noted that land rights are tied to other rights and urged adoption of a holistic gender framework.  This sentiment was echoed by UN Women and other states in attendance.  It was also affirmed that land ownership by women lifts their general status in a variety of helpful ways.
  • At a ministerial event on Peace and Capable Institutions hosted by G7+ states, South Sudan highlighted the profound negative impacts of armed violence on fulfillment of development objectives, but wondered aloud about the wisdom of having a stand-alone ‘peace goal’ in the SDGs rather than, as others including the Prime Minister of Timor-Leste noted, a broader, more inclusive recognition in all SDGs of the importance of peaceful societies to development.
  • At a Sustainable Land Management event, New Zealand and others highlighted the degree to which restoration of damaged land constitutes a viable peace and security concern. During the same discussion, Germany highlighted some hopeful restoration initiatives while depicting hunger as one of the great “scandals” of our time.

There was so much more of note both within and beyond our hearing, of course: more hopeful statements, more missed opportunities, more rhetoric divorced from viable implementation strategies, more reminders of the connected, multi-dimensional crises that define our time.

All of this made up the past week at the UN, a highly political space that is often most effective at creating global norms to support change enacted at national and local levels.  It is at times like this when the need to simultaneously honor and demystify UN processes becomes apparent.  There are so many critical issues, including climate change, child soldiers and gender violence, that would have far less traction globally were it not for the UN’s sustained involvement.  On the other hand, the ‘talk shop’ reputation of the UN is only enhanced as a week’s worth of traffic-clogging motorcades and massive security bills result in modest outcomes as likely to disappoint public hopes as to inspire them.

As the barricades come down, the working-level diplomats resume their pride of place at UN headquarters.   Now is the time to take the most compelling suggestions from this week and turn them into strong resolutions that can leverage meaningful change.  We’ll be there to observe and reflect.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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