Archive | April, 2015

Geopolitical X-Games: Extreme Measures to Stifle Extremist Recruitment, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Apr

This week two major UN events highlighted the scourge of extremist violence and offered testimony to the roles that youth, religious leaders and others can play in reducing threats from terror groups, including threats related to recruitment.

In the General Assembly, a two-day discussion brought to the UN a group of diverse religious leaders to reflect on ways that communities of faith can have more of an impact on bringing terrorism to heel.  Such discussions, featuring presentations mostly by men of middle age, seemed largely devoted to “rescuing” the essence of “true religion” from the falsehoods promulgated by terrorists.  As a former theologian in training, I found it interesting how ‘above the fray’ many of the presentations stayed. Apparently many religious leaders have misplaced an important truth, especially valuable in the context of encouraging youth participation in peacemaking and related activities, that we as a people are judged less by what we profess and more by what we practice.

In the Security Council, the Crown Prince of Jordan (the only speaker under 30 all morning long) led an intense discussion on ways of responding to the growing problem of youth recruitment by terrorists such as ISIL.  The chamber was unusually full; delegations had much to contribute, some of it highliy substantive and practical, some borderline hysterical, some quite sober in its assessments. In the balance between “push and pull” factors leading to recruitment, a number of delegations jointed UN Alliance of Civilizations in highlighting under-employment as a trigger for youth violence. Lebanon noted that youth are both targeted and targeting others. Chile wisely urged efforts to close development and gender gaps as ways to establish credability and build confidence.

It was a bit sad at times, as noted by one of our valued NGO colleagues, to hear youth portrayed as they were in these discussions. For some delegations and even religious leaders in the GA, youth seemed to be depicted as a vulnerable and volatile presence who didn’t know what was best for them and certainly didn’t appreciate all the blessings of home. We apparently need youth to help us combat messages of extremism, but don’t always accord them the respect they deserve, the autonomy of opinions still unformed, but certainly worth a hearing. “Respect” in this instance does not mean deference, nor a cavalier passing on of responsibilities to new generations that we cannot find ways to handle in our own.  It does mean a bit more of what psychologists refer to as ‘de-centering,’ seeing the world through the eyes of young people who, as noted by outgoing New Zealand Ambassador McLay, cannot be expected to trust our “modern state” policies and social structures at face value.

At both events, the Secretary-General was thoughtful and emotionally engaged. Clearly for him, as for many diplomats and non-governmental leaders, there is much at stake in providing what was often referred to as a believable “counter narrative” to the alleged attractions of terrorist groups.  From my perch, his major contributions to both the GA and SC discussions were twofold:  First the insistence that youth not be problematized when it comes to terrorist recruitment.  His statement that youth represent “potential not peril” has been given wide media play, but it represents a positive, helpful perspective. Increasingly over the years, the UN has been host to thousands of smart, aware, committed youth who, as the SG put it, “seek to fight injustice, not people.” This is the image that needs wider play.

The SG also made an important statement in both venues, that extremism is not confined to regions under terrorist control. Indeed, one of the most powerful images of the SG in the General Assembly was the one that drew straight lines connecting discrimination, extremism, and the commission of atrocities. Extremism, he noted is not confined by geographic boundaries, culture or religion.  We are not like ISIL to be sure, but neither are any of our societies exempt from the “push factors’ (noted by Indonesia and others) of unemployment, limited educational opportunity, violence, a lack of inclusion (Nordics) and, yes, discrimination that help to create the vulnerabilities that many delegations seemed to fear.

A recent, extreme example of extremist inclinations came in the form of a now widely known article by Sun (UK) columnist Katie Hopkins on 17 April, demonstrating yet again that vicious attacks on the ‘other’ are not confined to the terrorists. Hopkins described migrants as “a plague of feral humans,” compared them to “a novovirus” and said some British towns were “festering sores, plagued by swarms of migrants and asylum seekers shelling out benefits like Monopoly money.”

I would suspect that most of the religious leaders participating in the General Assembly debate would want to redefine this ‘shelling out’ as “compassion.”

I don’t want to make too much of the ramblings of a few bigots — we have our share in the US as well.  But in our anxiety to address terror threats with “all hands on deck,” it is important to young people that we acknowledge the limitations of our own cultures, our many strivings and achievements of course, but also our unfulfilled promises.  Youth are often more affected by our hypocrisies than our failures. They are disinclined to accept judgments that ‘all is well’ in their societies of origin when their intensive social media reminds them of all the problems they seemed destined to inherit from adults who aren’t nearly honest enough with them.

As France noted in the Council, it is important to convince youth of the republic’s “relevance” to their lives.  But with so many cultures drowning in celebrity materialism and community indifference, there should be no deceiving ourselves about the degree of difficulty associated with this task.   Nigeria’s call to ‘shield’ youth from narratives of terror is much easier said than done as is Egypt’s call to ‘dry up’ funding sources for youth recruitment. Poland rightly rejected the notion that youth recruitment discussions were in any way related to a “clash of civilizations.’   Such discussions might, however, be related more to a ‘clash of generations.’

Venezuela urged us in the Council to see youth as a “barometer” of our political health and future.  At that same debate, Qatar maintained during the Council debate that ignoring youth is akin to ignoring history.  It’s certainly akin to ignoring skills and attitudes we will require in the future to overcome climate crisis, inequity and other discouragements. As Austria reminded delegations, young people are so rarely heard by decisionmakers, which sows suspicion.  As we seek to prevent terror recruitment and, as Pakistan noted, help direct the energy of youth to peaceful, productive ends, suspicion is the one thing we can most do without.

Literacy Beyond Literacy: A Civil Society Engagement, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Apr

Editor’s Note:  These remarks were given at the Leonard Tourne Gallery in New York City, run by longtime friends of our office, which recently featured the art of Christel Ibsen who graciously arranged for this discussion. 

Global Action is pleased to follow Faye Lippitt, director of the organization Literacy is for Everyone (LIFE). As noted on the LIFE website ( “Literacy goes beyond an individual’s ability to read, write and communicate well – it encompasses an individual’s capacity to use these essential skills to shape the course of his or her own life.”

This sentiment was echoed by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, also quoted on the LIFE site, who I was privileged to meet on two occasions. Freire maintained that literacy involves both “reading the word and reading the world.”  Faye helps people to read the word.  Global Action encourages people to read the world, helping them connect effectively with others across lines of religion and ethnicity, protect their own rights while cherishing the rights of others, and find the most appropriate resources and other support as they face life’s emergencies, including grave illness, unemployment, drought and violent abuse.

The configuration of this “other” literacy changes from place to place. In Central America, literacy means in part learning how to petition the government for a voice in national development priorities.  In Central Africa it means in part learning how to develop civil society that can communicate effectively with funding sources and engage global policy advocates.   In Central Europe it means in part learning how to open the hearts of neighbors to the many migrants who risked their lives in the hope of saving themselves from numbing poverty and terrorist violence.

Global Action assists with these and many other “literacies.” We recognize that all of our tasks in the world have a primary vocabulary to master as well as skills to practice.  For us, the focus of literacy must remain relevant to what people are trying to accomplish for themselves, their families, their communities.  Literacy even has a special relevance as we (with others) try to get governments to open themselves to different ways of solving some very difficult and complex political and social problems, including problems related to the proliferation of illicit weapons.

The world is indeed becoming much more complex and stressful.  There is more for us to do and we seem to have less and less control over the economic, political and environmental factors that both threaten and shape our choices and actions.  In trying to cope and make meaningful change, all of us have so much more to learn, so much we need to practice, so many vocabularies of which we need to gain some working knowledge.  The burdens of literacy are ever-greater.

Sometimes we have to return to basic principles. I spent this morning, as I spend many mornings, in the Security Council.  Today the Crown Prince of Jordan joined with many Foreign Ministers to discuss how to keep young people from being recruited into extremist groups. Some of diplomats talked about how vulnerable young people need to read more about human rights to appreciate better their own advantages and responsibilities but also to understand and highlight the twisted values and priorities of the terrorists.  For others, a different kind of light went on.  Why would suchy a young person want to read about human rights if they have limited skill in reading or any real hope for having their own rights respected?

There is indeed a basic literacy, LIFE’s literacy, which forms the basis for the many other “literacies” that allow us to appreciate art and beauty, participate fully in our political systems, bring abusers and other criminals to justice, even cope with the frustrations of airlines and cell phone companies.   All of these literacies help to create a world of greater competence and trust, a world that our young people can better believe in.

As Faye helped me to understand, Global Action is also in the literacy business, a literacy pointing towards a robust engagement with social and political life based on a prior literacy of the word.

Conditions and Elements:  The Disarmament Commission holds its NPT Dress Rehearsal, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Apr

There were some really hopeful discussions in the UN this week on ocean health, Education for All, and Financing for Development.  But the most hopeful image of all was surely in the Security Council where, for the first time, an Arab Woman sat as Council president.   The topic was Mali, not at this point a poster-child for Council competence.   Nevertheless, seeing Ambassador Kawar  in the president’s chair is a clear and persuasive sign that remaining gender impediments to leadership on peace and security are steadily eroding.

Downstairs from Council chambers the UN’s Disarmament Commission was concluding general debate and moving on to the (mostly closed) working groups.   After much fussing about the agenda, the Commission retreated to familiar formulations – a Group on Nuclear Disarmament and another Group on Confidence Building Measures in Conventional Weapons – a formula which is in keeping with the DC’s deliberative mandate, but one which has not resulted in concrete recommendations to the General Assembly since well before the advent of cell phones.

Working Group 1, kindly and competently presided over by Kazakhstan’s Ambassador Abdrakhmanov, inherited a room that had experienced some clear divisions during general debate. Many of these disagreements were extensions of geo-political tensions, highlighted by Ukraine and Georgia’s condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the further “erosion of confidence” in the UN security system which that annexation caused.  Several Latin American countries derided the notion that Venezuela could possibly be a “security threat” to the US, a country with a military many times the size of the combined Latin American forces.   Israel (and its own arsenal of nuclear weapons) was cited as a major impediment to progress on a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone.  And the DPRK responded to criticism of its nuclear ambitions from several fronts while insisting that its motive for acquiring such weapons had less to do with “prestige” and more to do with direct security threats allegedly emanating from Seoul and Washington.

None of these disagreements are likely to fade away completely, if at all, before the NPT review begins later in April.  Nor will disagreements disappear regarding the policies that ought to be pursued in order to bring about a long-anticipated world free of the WMD which, as many delegations noted, threaten security more than guarantee it.   And as more and more states feel confident asserting their security preferences, individually and through regional coalitions, disagreements on security priorities and tactics will need to be resolved through honest negotiation rather than major power bullying.

One of the interesting sub-themes in the early days of the DC focused on the matter of “conditions” and “elements.”   At first glance, these would seem to have much in common, but a closer look reveals some discomforting differences.   States attending Working Group 1 that refer to “elements” generally are seeking clarity on concrete measures to bring about outcomes such as verifiable, irreversible nuclear disarmament – most often cited through development of a Nuclear Weapons Convention.  The objective is clear; the issue is about which building blocks – and in which order – should states pursue in order to bring about the desired outcome.   While there are different lenses through which the unacceptability of nuclear weapons are viewed –legal, moral, humanitarian – the key element is that there is ‘good faith’ validation of the ultimate objective.   While there remains much to discuss regarding tactics and their priorities, the objective itself must remain firmly planted in security consciousness.

“Conditions” suggest something different.   There is conventional wisdom in its use, as we can learn from any negotiating or counseling session.   In our rights-based cultures, “conditions” are too often held hostage to unilateral demands — demanding things from others to which we feel entitled without any commensurate contributions to the fulfillment of what we want. In other words, we too rarely assume any responsibility for helping to facilitate others’ fulfillment of their promises.   This ‘logic’ is in keeping with assumptions of rights-based entitlement but is problematic for sound human (or organizational) relations.   Demands unaccompanied by expressions of support, after all, are rarely endearing.

In the case of nuclear disarmament the case for “conditions” often rings hollow.   Commitments to disarmament are not of the nature of our more conventional promises but are largely embedded in legal instruments that, however many quibbles we might (and do) have with their formulation, represent an obligation that, until it is formally altered or withdrawn, is grounded in solemn, binding assumptions

If these disarmament commitments cannot be fulfilled — and we think they can be — the only viable reasons would be a failure of one or more of the agreed elements, not because “conditions” just don’t seem quite right to honor a solemn promise.  Making the world safe for disarmament is “conditions” language.   Making the world safe through disarmament is “elements” language.

I can help another to fulfill their obligations, assuming those obligations are made in good faith.  But I am not responsible to convince someone that their binding commitments are, well, binding.   This would be a complete misreading of “conditions,” insofar as they refer to externally imposed assessments of circumstance which were not present at the time the original “promise” was transacted.

For those who fail to see the distinction outlined here,   I urge you to conduct an experiment in the form of a conversation to explore “conditions” for the fulfillment of basic (and mostly public) obligations to your spouse.    (Please let me know how that conversation goes.)  Generally, couples can help each other fulfill commitments, but only in cases where there is demonstrated good faith regarding the objectives of the commitments themselves.

It is clear from the Disarmament Commission general debate and Working Groups that there are many weapons-related issues that require serious deliberative input from delegations, from verification protocols (as suggested by the US) to Brazil’s encouragement to employ existing disarmament machinery in a more serious and creative way.   Nigeria referenced the “choice instruments of destabilization” represented by illicit small arms.  Spain highlighted increasing dangers from “explosive weapons” and promoted a “code of conduct” for outer space.  Austria and others sought the closing of legal gaps on disarmament as well as more communication with UNIDIR and other outside experts.  There were even calls for more disarmament education.

In this context, we would also do well to take more seriously Chile’s assertion of the “indivisibility” of security, affirming the linkages among various weapons-related interests, but also the implications of poverty, refugees and a deteriorating climate on our security options. This might now be beyond the purview of the DC, but these linkages are essential to a security system that inspires public trust and provides additional motivation and urgency for delegations in many realms of UN security activity. In this context, Nepal’s call to place disarmament at the center of foreign policy could be an important integrating factor, as they understand both the risks of weapons and the multiple elements that need to be mobilized and organized effectively in order to promote genuinely peaceful and inclusive societies.

The DC is running out of time to be much more than a dress rehearsal for what seem to be sobering expectations of the upcoming NPT.  Skepticism and even disinterest, as noted by Vietnam and others, has taken over too much public and diplomatic perception of our disarmament machinery.  There is trust to build, both within and beyond the NPT states, but also with the larger policy community and its public.

Cuba made reference this week to the “mushroom cloud” that would spark “genocide” on an unprecedented scale.  It is time for the DC to both recommend and embrace “elements” towards a legally binding and fully verifiable end to such a genocidal threat.   On grounds of urgency and trust building, “conditions” for ending the threat of “mushroom cloud” are simply not sufficiently relevant.

Fair and Balanced: Shifting Canons of Expertise in Disarmament Affairs, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Apr

After a fairly lengthy hiatus, disarmament is returning to center stage at the UN.

Delegations have been at work making logistical sense of Arms Trade Treaty implementation (a potentially useful process but not about disarmament per se). Now they return to issues and processes that can hopefully have a more direct impact on the vast quantities of illicit weapons that proliferate amongst the world’s hotspots, and that continue to undermine development priorities and threaten escalations of violence by both governments and insurgencies.

As many diplomats recognize, there are virtually no conflicts occurring anywhere on this planet that are not encouraged and/or exacerbated by the readily available supply of lethal weapons, arms that mostly defy efforts to regulate them, especially in those states that no longer enjoy the broad trust of their people.  The trafficking of (mostly secondhand) weapons is surely at least as pressing a matter for states as the diversion of newly minted weapons from the major arms manufacturers.  Drastic reductions in arms production would, of course, be highly beneficial to eliminating trafficking and diversion alike.

So what is to be done about all this?   Current options don’t always inspire hope. For instance, the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament has been stalemated for years and has even lost the interest of Reaching Critical Will, a primary monitor of CD developments.   Here in New York, the Disarmament Commission opening in a few short hours has some diplomats reaching for the antacid bottles as they struggle to overcome weapons-related trust issues while mastering their deliberative mandate. The NPT Review Conference will begin at month’s end with delegations and NGOs already downplaying its potential significance, and this despite the news that a framework agreement has been reached between the P5+1 and Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear program.   Apparently, a ‘victory’ on nuclear non-proliferation is insufficient to generate enthusiasm from those same negotiating states on the much weightier (and arguably more urgent) matter of nuclear disarmament.   In this light we applaud the efforts of the New Agenda Coalition and others to keep our focus squarely on eliminating the weapons in our own arsenals that we work so hard to deny to others.

Despite the ossified structures, discouraging sessions and one-sided diplomatic investments, there were two small breakthrough moments this past week in the disarmament community that bear noting.  One of these came on Friday at a preparatory meeting chaired by Moldova’s Amb. Lupan for the June Meeting of Government Experts (MGE2) that brings diplomats and others together to tackle technical challenges associated with implementation of the UN Programme of Action (UNPoA) on Small Arms and Light Weapons.

On this occasion, much discussion had to do with ways to include (or not) industry representatives and civil society in MGE2.  Most of the delegations that weighed in supported broad participation with the European Union offering its support in the context of seeking assurances that delegations will have access to the most current issues and technologies on arms control.  Amb. Lupan suggested that industry make their inputs directly through their state representatives.  Iran noted the ‘political’ nature of much of the global business community and Russia wondered aloud about the need for civil society participation at a technical gathering like MGE2, but agreed to ‘compromise’ on that position.   In the end, we got a mixture of broad support (which we appreciate) and some lingering suspicion (which we mostly understand).

But there was another dimension to this discussion beyond participation, and this about the nature of ‘expertise’ itself.   We have high regard for the UNGA First Committee delegates, one of our most fruitful institutional exchanges.  But when states such as Japan remind delegates of the highly technical nature of marking, tracing, stockpile management and other PoA related activities, it begs the question as to which of us in that conference room has what it takes to contribute to those kind of conversations at a level demanded by those objectives?   Certainly GAPW is not equipped to do so.

This matter of balancing expertise and participation came up as well in the (sparsely attended) Mine Action Week events sponsored by UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS)  which were filled with stories of extraordinary local courage as well as promptings by diplomats to make mine removal an occasion for more development of and engagement within diverse communities.    When it comes to mine removal activities, who exactly are the ‘experts’ here?  Who understands best the social contexts, terrain and even the mindset of those seeking to consolidate ‘high stakes’ territorial gains through the deployment of landmines?  Indeed, Japan as a major funder of UNMAS called for a ‘bottom up’ approach to policy and practice on landmines that honors the “expertise” of those who are actually succeeding in this enormously challenging but hopeful task.  For those used to disarmament discussions that end in despair over structure, language and political will, the metrics pertaining to removed mines, treaty ratifying states, and available local expertise were all quite gratifying.

Interestingly, calls for honoring the knowledge base of local persons without insisting on a bevy of technical diplomas echoed across the UN this week.  In ECOSOC’s integration segment, for instance, several speakers cautioned against fueling our obsession with multiple school credentials for which there is increasingly little need or relevance.   At the same time, speakers called on governments and businesses to look again at segments of the population whose political and vocational participation has long been compromised, a theme that resonated during Friday’s session on “Employment: The Autism Advantage.”

In the case of the UNPoA, this (to our mind at least) important rethinking of our degree and expertise mania is no excuse to undermine proficient interventions on complex matters such as weapons destruction, marking and diversion.  It is however a call to guarantee that the selection process for those making such interventions is both broad and fair.   Ensuring breadth of expertise is critical, especially given the range of persons now who have on-the-ground experience with tasks — such as stockpile management — that the PoA seeks to encourage.   In this light, it was encouraging that Switzerland, Mexico, and others recognized the challenges of a “rapidly evolving” field of small arms control and are seeking diverse and evolving expertise commensurate with those challenges.

In our view, we must encourage commitments for ensuring that expertise in an MGE (or any other disarmament format) pay homage to the diverse backgrounds and experiences of experts.   Too often, when ‘civil society’ participation in invoked, a familiar set of stakeholders comes to mind, stakeholders whose expertise is both considerable and far less than fully inclusive, stakeholders who (to their credit) often have done much to build a stable of local experts whose testimony we then tend to discount. Especially in the area of small arms control, there are many people and organizations, beyond the heavily branded northern groups, who would have much to offer these expert meetings.   The insistence of Guyana, Jamaica and even South Africa that funds should be provided to make this happen was both important and most appreciated.

Once upon a time, men attempted to justify gender-specific canons of expertise on the grounds that ‘we just can’t find enough qualified women.’   Now, anyone making such a claim would be saying much more about their own personal limitations than about objective conditions.   In the same way, the assumption that heavily branded policy groups have some monopoly on PoA-related expertise says more about our conventional (and sometimes self-interested) calculations of the ‘expert’ than it does about the availability of relevant, appropriate skills sets emanating from all global regions.

In this “rapidly evolving” arms control and disarmament scenario, we won’t always know what we need until we need it.   Allowing the canons and backgrounds of our expert pool to evolve as well will help ensure that the disarmament-related needs we will come to identify can be quickly, accurately and fairly addressed.