Archive | May, 2015

Dancing with the Stars:   The UN Engages Healers, Chroniclers and Keepers of the Peace, Dr. Robert Zuber

31 May

There is an apocryphal story that I have seen variations of in several places wherein children are asked to define a “hero.”  One child apparently responds something to the effect that a “hero is a celebrity who does something real.”

The fact that such a distinction rings as true for many of us as it does says a lot about our modern culture – one defined more by seductive branding than sacrificial substance.

We all need “heroes” in the sense of people willing to respond to crises and inspire our better selves.  What “celebrity” offers instead is distraction from the requirements of personal growth, giving us permission to evade the responsibility and willingness to become what this fractured world needs us all to be, skills and commitments that the UN recognizes it could use in greater measure as well.

Indeed, towards the middle and end of this past week, the UN lifted up three sets of ‘stars,’ people whose names few would recognize but without whose service what DSG Eliasson recently referred to as a “somber global landscape” would be that much more difficult to navigate.

Eliasson’s remarks were part of a Thursday ECOSOC event on “partnerships,” specifically health-related collaborations.  The focus of course was on the still-potent Ebola scare that ravaged three West African countries and produced extraordinary stories of courageous care.  Former US president Clinton also spoke and helped convey the need for a new health care model that incorporates sustained planning for both prevention and recovery.  As had been the case previously during various UN events from the Peacebuilding Commission to the Security Council, the ECOSOC panels looked to both the future and the past, forward to a world with fewer pandemic risks, and back to reflect on those inspiring medical workers who helped us survive the current crisis.

A day earlier, the Security Council under Lithuania’s presidency convened a debate on the protection of journalists in conflict zones.   Here again, the carnage in these zones is often debilitating but the willingness of professional journalists to risk personal safety to bring us images and narratives that can help us prevent further tragedy and ensure sound policy is quite a remarkable human achievement.  There were many welcome suggestions made in the Council as to how to better protect journalists in the field, and even concerns voiced by the Netherlands, South Africa and others that unchecked levels of violence might begin to sap the willingness of journalists to get the stories we so badly need to hear.  But all of this was within an honoring framework recognizing, as Pakistan put it, that media freedom is an “enabling right” on which our other freedoms are based.

And on Friday, the UN organized another annual ceremony to honor fallen peacekeepers, this one even more moving and respectful than the last.   Men and women in full military dress representing all of the UN’s current peacekeeping operations joined with the Secretary General and many senior diplomats to lay a wreath and verbally honor the service of peacekeepers who have risked much and largely performed admirably amidst increasingly complex mandates and unpredictable security environments.

Despite the different contexts, these health workers, journalists and peacekeepers have all chosen paths of greater resistance.  For those of us for whom subway delays and cranky co-workers are among our worst daily setbacks, what do we owe people who willingly take risks that we desperately need them to take but that most of the rest of us would choose to sit out?

The answer varies.  For the health care professionals who risked (and in some cases sacrificed) their own lives to answer the Ebola challenge, the answer seems clear – what former President Clinton referred to as a more serious investment in robust and reliable health infrastructure, but also in ‘rapid response’ mechanisms for pandemic outbreaks and in more reliable resiliency capacity to vulnerable states fearing health-related shocks – in essence honoring the courage by preventing the reoccurrence.

For journalists, while ending impunity for violence against media professionals was rightly encouraged by virtually all Council speakers, it is clear that many journalists will continue to take professional risks so long as their findings are taken seriously by the policy community.   While both are essential, the journalists I have met who work in conflict zones would rather be heeded than protected. They are willing to take risks if the stories they uncover can help save communities from further abuse – asking the “next question” in the hope that policymakers responsible for violence prevention will do likewise.

As for the peacekeepers, there seemed to be an undercurrent suggesting that receiving honor is less important than maintaining integrity and effectiveness.   As the UN wrestles with what seems to be a widening sex abuse scandal in the CAR, I recall earlier conversations with my own military veteran family members who took completely seriously violations of the military code that created disrespect for the uniform and endangered lives.  As peacekeeping operations evolve in logistical complexity in situations where peacekeeper neutrality is giving way to more robust projections of protective force, the last thing UN peacekeepers in the field need – and the last thing the rest of us should tolerate — is festering scandal.

There are times when all of us need to step back and remember the many people whose sometimes life-threatening labors are indispensable to our own futures.   But more than remembrance, there are things we can do, roles we can play, even sacrifices we can make, to respect their service and dignify their craft.  Being in the presence of heroism should inspire more from each of us. Indeed, our admiring ‘dance’ around such heroism is rather suspect if we fail to accept a commensurate responsibility for the heroic – or at least the bold – as we move through the world. To rhetorically admire acts of bravery while ignoring their specific challenges is at best unwise. So too is any avoidance of a commensurate responsibility to balance personal courage in areas such as health, journalism and peacekeeping with bold and effective global policy – something real inspired by something real.

And of course we must all do more to avoid the many pitfalls of celebrity substitutes that always linger in our overly-branded world, substitutes which even our children recognize can reduce specific acts of genuine heroism to mere caricatures of themselves.

Guns and Roses: The UN Delivers Uneven Messaging on Disarmament and Development, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 May

The week just ended did not always bode well for the United Nations in its efforts to find meaningful consensus on core issues affecting the health and sustainability of our planet.

On Thursday, the co-chairs of Intergovernmental Negotiations on the Post-2015 Development Agenda – Ambassadors Kamau and Donoghue — were subject to some serious blow-back on their efforts to prepare a document on Sustainable Development Goals that would be fit for inspection by Heads of State when they come to New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly in September.  The co-chairs attempt was to lightly edit the outcome document, eliminating un-clarities and even blank spaces where data should have been inserted, such that heads of state could concentrate on endorsing obligations rather than searching for missing text.

Nevertheless, one by one, the G-77 and China, the African Group, CARICOM, the Arab Group and others urged the co-chairs to accept and pass along to the President of the General Assembly the negotiated consensus document intact, even with its obvious flaws.   For this majority of states, reopening agreed text means also reopening opportunities for the large powers to manipulate outcomes and meanings.  The related discussion within Conference Room 4 on the use of “vulnerable groups” was valid at one level – it is important in our deliberations and the actions they set in motion to avoid the stigmas of group labeling  – but this concern was interpreted by many in the room as also an issue of trust more than content.

This (largely rhetorical) lack of trust, even in a process overseen by such highly respected diplomats, was evident in other areas of UN activity.  For instance, in the UN Security Council, the current president (Lithuania) struggled to gain support for a far-reaching resolution on small arms that incorporated some important dimensions (including robust gender perspectives) to help address the scourge of illicit weapons. Lithuania made the strongest possible case for why the UN system needs to place more emphasis on addressing illicit arms flows and the massive community-level violence that follows from any collective failures in this area.

The resolution that Lithuania championed certainly made progress in sharpening our understanding of the deep dysfunction caused by so many weapons in the ‘wrong hands,’ and in its suggestions for how to strengthen arms embargoes and work more effectively with other UN agencies. But this process was also bogged down in controversy – related to the unwillingness of the US and others to allow the resolution to explicitly reference “non-state actors” in its prohibitions – that caused an extraordinary number of Council members to abstain during the vote.  There was also, at least from our viewpoint, confusion among some Council members as to whether our remedial strategies are up to the global challenges posed by illicit small arms. This confusion was evidenced in part by excessive referencing to the Arms Trade Treaty, a limited process that is not yet ready for prime time and that, at its best, will restrict the intended destinations of manufactured arms without impacting either their quantity or their lethal potential.  Other referenced response options, including marking, tracing and stockpile management commonly associated with the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms, are equally valuable and equally works in progress.

The US, which in the minds of some shed its ‘shadow’ oversight of UN weapons-related architecture this week — preferring instead to point aggressive fingers at states that it felt tried to ‘sabotage’ progress – made clear that the small arms resolution is a significant, if tentative step forward. What the US did not mention, and caused others to wonder about, is that the P-3 role in the resolution controversy might be an effort to assert a “right” to arm non-state groups serving national interests based on distinctions between terrorists and “legitimate” opposition forces.  Trust issues perhaps emanating from such an alleged “right” motivated some Council members to question (unfairly) the legitimacy of the resolution itself, but certainly motivated a critique of Council working methods that left, once again, some members shaking their heads while the P-3 questioned the flexibility and good faith of all but themselves.

Finally it was not until late in the evening of May 22 when delegates completed the task of tossing flowers on the grave of the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Amidst various accusations from Canada, the UK and other states about which delegations ‘wrecked’ the conference, it had been clear for some days that the ‘wreck’ had already occurred.   The tentative hope for a Middle East WMD Free Zone, the avalanche of energy around the allegedly ‘new’ humanitarian initiative, the unprecedented Marshall Islands lawsuit, none of this had power to overcome legacies of bad faith that have long since blocked meaningful progress towards fulfillment of the NPT’s disarmament pillar.    Even if Egypt and the US had been able to suspend their spitting fight long enough to agree to some sort of deal that both shed light on Israel’s nuclear arsenal and preserved the US’s pride of place as facilitator of the Zone process, the lack of progress on disarmament would have placated few of the diplomats and even fewer NGO participants.  The absence of both urgency and flexibility by at least a few key states cast a dark shadow over the UN system that no amount of finger-pointing by Nuclear Weapons States or their NAM counterparts could hope to lift.

The ‘step by step’ approach advocated by the P-3 could be useful inasmuch as it creates the prospect of feedback loops to help assess progress, to ensure that we don’t stubbornly adhere to a policy that has been found to undermine the very goals it seeks to achieve. But in a UN context, step-by-step is more often a formula for institutional and diplomatic inertia, a systemic failure to match urgency with initiative.   We should avoid as much as we are able recklessness in our movements, but global events compel us to move.  Global citizens beg us to move. Apparently, Paper Smart misplaced that memo.

When we as a collective body cannot figure out how to push forward on urgent matters threatening the planet, the odds are that mixed motives are in play.   They were in play as the post-2015 negotiating sessions moved forward on a final text.  They were in play as Lithuania tried to ‘herd cats’ towards an agreement on small arms that generated some suspicion but avoided direct opposition.  They were certainly in play in the NPT as states – especially the P-5 — once again asserted the primacy of their own security interests over the increasingly clear and compelling disarmament interests of the global public.

The lessons for the week are as mixed as the outcomes.   Despite the fussing, the GA president will get a set of development goals and objectives to present to heads of state.  Moreover, the process will come attached to metrics and mechanisms for assessment and funding that can help us honor commitments made to end poverty, heal the planet, unleash the talents of women and indigenous people, and much more.

On small arms, Lithuania’s resolution adds good value, specifically in its gender referencing, more effective sanctions,and unusually warm and supportive regard for the parts of the UN system already tasked with many important activities related to small arms flows.   What role the heavily-referenced Arms Trade Treaty will play remains to be seen, though delegations are urged to revisit some of its intrinsic limitations – some significant– that will require a great deal of complementary work from other disarmament stakeholders if we are indeed serious about controlling arms flows.

On nuclear weapons, despite the contention of some states and NGOs of a “humanitarian tidal wave” that will overcome the objections of stiff-necked nuclear weapons powers, we are still in need of combined and multiple strategies that not only link legal, political, moral and humanitarian advocates but that create venues for discourse that are broad and kind, and that help widen circles of concern far beyond what the nuclear disarmament field has achieved to date.  We have our doubts about these possibilities, but also trust many of the diplomats and NGOs seeking to ensure security based on the least possible levels of armament.

What is probably not in doubt, however, is that a week of sometimes head-scratching objections, half-measures and outright disrespect has not raised levels of public endearment regarding the UN system.  We wasted vast quantities of time, energy and money of diplomats and NGOs; we insulted the honor and dignity of our political friends and opponents; we failed to match the urgency of our analysis with commensurate remedial measures.

We all need a bit of rest and then return to the UN ‘armed’ with more roses and fewer weapons, ready to do better than “mixed messaging” to persons facing security threats and development deficits who need more from us than we have so far been able to provide.

Boat People:  The Security Council Considers Options for Safe Passage, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 May

On Monday May 11, the Security Council under the leadership of its current president Lithuania convened a briefing in chambers that managed to set a tone different from what some of us had feared prior to taking our seats.

Several Council members – including the UK and other members of both the SC and the European Union — had apparently been discussing a resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, that would allow – in a manner still unspecified as of this writing – the boarding and/or destruction of vessels accused of smuggling migrants across the Mediterranean.

This resolution-in-waiting apparently has many measures still to be worked out, including the degree to which the ‘recognized’ government of Libya needs to be consulted, what protocols need to be established to guarantee that those boarding boats under whatever circumstances have their safety and security protected, etc.   It was also clear from conversations beyond the Council chamber that the European Union has been contemplating some type of ‘boarding policy’ with or without Council approval.

Certainly those working on security at UN headquarters understand both the challenge and responsibility of the large number of men, women and children who brave a long sea journey in substandard craft in an attempt to escape the grave humanitarian and security crises affecting Libya and at least some of its neighbors.  Italy has rightly won praise from the international community for its efforts to rescue damaged craft that have threatened even more mass casualties, but Italy is not the only destination for these overloaded boats. Moreover, concern has been expressed that ‘terror groups’ might well be profiting from what is deemed to be a lucrative trade focused on people who have some access to funds and feel that they have little choice if they are to protect their families from what seems to be endless violence in the post-Gaddafi era.  As more than one UN official has noted recently, no one would choose to subject their families to such a voyage if there were other, viable options to escape the misery and violence.

Behind this crisis is a robust, system-wide effort, led by the High Commissioners of Human Rights and Refugees, to highlight the plight of migrants and their humanitarian and human rights interests.   We have been to more UN events focused on migrants in the past two years than in the decade previously.  It is now widely recognized that migrants and internally displaced – on the move due to armed violence, water shortages, climate-related changes or other factors – represent a grave peace and security concern.  But more than that, such displaced persons – largely women and children – have humanitarian and human rights expectations that the international community is morally and legally bound to honor.  People don’t forfeit human rights protection simply because conditions force them on to boats to seek refuge elsewhere – this is true whether those boats are operated by smugglers in Libya or Carnival Cruise Lines.

Indeed, the Council briefing seemed to be an ample confirmation that the work of OHCHR and other key UN players to ‘institutionalize’ a growing concern for migrants has taken root.   The EU’s Frederica Mogherini, while soliciting support from the African Union and UN Security Council to “disrupt human trafficking networks,” took a careful and balanced tone in her remarks, noting the need to “do more to address root causes that push people to take dangerous risks.” She also called for a “unity government” in Libya, an aspiration which the Council has recently addressed on several occasions with full awareness of its high degree of difficulty.

Other briefers were a bit clearer than Ms. Mogherini in their articulation of the international community’s responsibility to protect the Libyan boat people.  For instance, SRSG Peter Sutherland –without citing the proposed resolution directly – called for “root solutions to root problems” that do not further isolate asylum seekers in poverty and violence.   He described trafficking allegations as largely a matter for law enforcement and urged the EU to work towards more “resettlement destinations,” “more visa options” for asylum seekers and, as noted, more law enforcement capacity in situations calling for such a response.

Mostly supporting this line of argument, the African Union’s Ambassador Tete António cited the many push factors – including armed violence, drug trafficking and chronic unemployment — that cause people to seek out the tiny spaces on these boats in the first place.  He also noted that much of the migration in North Africa is within region rather than outside of it, perhaps in part due to the high costs (as well as risks) of a sea voyage.  He urged the Council to embrace a larger picture of migrant needs and rights beyond the immediate and limited concern of boat trafficking in persons.

While none of the briefers took up the alleged value of a potential militarized operation in Libyan territorial waters nor the challenges and potential mis-steps of such operations in open waters, one came away from this briefing with a clear sense that numerous reservations existed both regarding militarized response and with regard to a single minded policy focus that cannot possibly, as Sutherland rightly noted, solve the migrant problem alone.

Perhaps this was the plan by current president Lithuania all along – create a briefing event that was much more about the rights and needs of previously neglected seafaring migrants than it was about stifling the economic benefits of their escape crafts’ recruiters and pilots. In either instance, the briefing seemed kinder and more humane than the controversial resolution that formed its backdrop.  Let us hope that the lives of often-desperate boat people are not put further at risk by ill-considered policy priorities designed principally to block income streams of alleged traffickers.

No Culture Left Behind: Ensuring Indigenous Rights ‘take root’ in the UN’s post-2015 Development Agenda  

12 May

Editor’s Note:   This piece by GAPW’s Human Rights Fellow, Karin Perro, explores the growing sustaiinability, human rights and climate implications for the health of indigenous communities. In many UN commissions and conference rooms, including the current Forum on Forests, respect for indigenous rights is growing in promience as are the worldviews that ground indigenous communities. As Perro makes clear, no successful post-2015 development strategy can neglect the aspirations and contributions of indigenous peoples.

As winter relinquished its final hold on UN Headquarters, springtime’s colorful cherry blossoms and tulip buds vied for attention with the vibrant hues and textures of traditional native attire embellishing UN corridors. The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues kicked off on April 20, 2015 under the capable leadership of Australian Chair Megan Davis, who began the fourteenth session urging full participation of indigenous representatives in shaping the Forum’s agenda.

In his introductory statement DSG Jan Eliasson eloquently set the Forum’s tone, calling for a collective embrace of indigenous peoples’ visions and aspirations while reaffirming the UN commitment to indigenous rights, including the right to health, education, land, and self-determination. Imploring a global ‘peace negotiation with nature’ and respect for all living things, Eliasson invoked (for many) indigenous spiritualism as embodied by an inviolate ‘Mother Earth’, and emphasized the need for safeguarding the world’s environmental health that is so vital to both indigenous community and global development.

The right to ancestral lands was a tenuous thread woven throughout the Forum proceedings, with significant indigenous clamoring for ‘free, prior, and informed consent’ in matters of land rights and development initiatives. And rightly so – depletion of land fertility, dumping of radioactive waste, deforestation, and contamination of waters by extractive industrial processes are all byproducts of multinational corporations’ circumvention of prior and informed consent mandates, too often with state complicity and ineffective regulation enforcement.

There are, of course, other social and environment forces at play that adversely impact indigenous land rights and usage, beyond the prescience or control of well-meaning governance bodies or human agency. Natural disasters, climate change, and soil and water defamation due in part to illicit crop cultivation leave indigenous people dispossessed of land and land-dependent livelihoods, reduces tourism revenues, and decimates traditional medicine and food resources. As the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Issues noted, indigenous peoples compromise 5% of global population but 15% of the world’s poor.   Eradicating indigenous poverty, hunger and malnutrition can only be attained if proactive measures are funded and enforced to protect vulnerable lands, forests, oceans and coastlines and halt all forms of environmental degradation.

Increasingly the UN has recognized the undeniable connection between natural resources, environmental health and sustainable development. This is good news for indigenous communities that rely on local natural resources for subsistence and food security. However, potentially irreversible environmental consequences lead many disaffected indigenous youth to abandon traditional practices and seek alternative employment beyond ancestral territories.  Assimilation erodes the link to cultural identity and knowledge, as limited opportunities for traditional livelihoods encourage youth migration to urban centers. Once there, pervasive discrimination and inadequate education create barriers for entry into the mainstream workforce.

Consequently, the damage inflicted upon the collective indigenous psyche is staggering.  According to cited research reports, rights curtailments and the continued denial of self-determination has led to an alarming acceleration in youth self-harm, suicides, and alcohol abuse. Substandard or scant mental healthcare facilities are often ill equipped to provide culturally sensitive care, treatment or support.  As a result, indigenous youth representatives expressed feeling disaffected, disempowered and ‘spiritually broken’.  Hopelessness now thrives where once pride and dignity proliferated, rooted in a spiritual connection to nature that engendered vibrant culture diversity and a richness of cultural heritage.

For many, past injustices still inflict fresh wounds and reopen unhealed scars. Proud indigenous representatives condemned the persistent remnants of colonialism, casting an uneasy (and in some corners unwelcome) spotlight on the insidious legacy of Western dominance, born from arrogance and greed, and fed on ignorance and fear. Treaty violations, unfulfilled promises, contested spaces, political exclusion, and cultural genocide remain stubbornly resistant to the implementation of fair and equitable policies. Where fragile incipient democracies struggle for survival, dormant seeds of dissention now sprout and propagate largely unimpeded, supplanting rule of law and strong governance. Many of the world’s indigenous are now perilously caught in the chaotic interstice between regional armed conflicts and nationalism, xenophobia and ethnic cleansing, forcing their displacement and threatening their cultural existence.

In spite of the identifiable commonalities within the global community of indigenous peoples, there are also substantial distinctions among and between groups that preclude a one-size-fits-all policy approach.   The Forum’s kaleidoscopic cultural display often reflected the diverse – and often divergent – grievances expressed by indigenous participants. If too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth, will too many diverse indigenous issues on the Forum’s platter undermine their fully realized inclusion in the upcoming post-2015 sustainable development goals?

For indigenous activist leaders seeking commonality of causes within the indigenous movement as a means of pooling resources for greater political leverage, a force-fitting of group-specific goals into overarching umbrella targets may inadvertently create policy vacuums for already isolated or less vocal indigenous groups. Many smaller indigenous communities already have societal burdens too great to shoulder without also having to contend with the ‘double-whammy’ of additional marginalization within an already marginalized community.

That said, aligning indigenous interests with other rights-based groups, particularly those having garnered significant visibility and influence, could prove useful in gaining an indigenous foothold in the pre-September 2015 scramble to endorse a set of SDGs. Indigenous solidarity may well increase pressure in international forums to comply with their general demands, but pressuring of regional and national institutions will still be crucial in promoting singular or specific needs-based targets unique to discrete indigenous communities.

To the outside observer, there was a noticeable (if unsurprising) unwillingness to acknowledge the competing needs of coexisting, non-indigenous groups suffering from the same (or similar) inequities that require redress in both developing and developed states. Impoverished indigenous and non-indigenous populations often compete for the same limited financial aid, social programs, and government resources.  State obligations to uphold the respective rights of all citizens often lead to internal conflicts of interest that can be difficult to reconcile.Moving forward will require clear targets and enforceable monitoring, and transparency mechanisms. Also troublesome is state non-compliance with UNDRIP and other non-binding international instruments. The UN system suffers from inadequate mechanisms to enforce what is ultimately a state responsibility to its people, including state duty to consult with indigenous peoples on policies and legislature that directly impact their maintenance of traditions and cultural heritage.

The UN is (arguably) at its best when providing aspirational goals and normative frameworks and (it is hoped) creating concrete policy guidelines; less so in their implementation and financing of those goals and frameworks. As reiterated in the Forum, indigenous rights are human rights. Civil society and private sector stakeholders, in unison with governmental agencies and institutions, will ultimately be tasked with implementinguniversal development goals. To date, scant mention has been given to indigenous concerns in the post-2015 SDGs.  If we truly envision an inclusive human rights based development agenda, we must ensure indigenous issues are fully addressed by member state governments. States must be held accountable for inclusion of indigenous people in data aggregations to formulate more inclusive national action plans that provide fair redress to legitimate grievances and close socio-economic gaps.  For its part, the UN and other international governing bodies must fully integrate indigenous rights within the human rights based SDG framework.  Only through a conscious (and conscientious) cultivation of fair and equitable policies will indigenous societies be allowed to re-establish their cultural roots and assure their survival.

 Karin Perro, Human Rights Fellow, GAPW

Scarf Face: A Mothers Day Reflection, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 May

Among the many odd and exotic things hanging in my apartment is a folk painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, part of her face covered by a red scarf.

People who see the painting generally find it intriguing but also see in it a revolutionary theme – including a somewhat odd blending of deep Roman Catholic devotion and Zapatista political fervor.

The painting in its entirety represents for me a liberation moment of a different and perhaps less overtly political sort, a juxtaposition of themes that allows this rendition of the Virgin Mother – an image that is greatly exalted, overly ritualized and highly circumscribed within a male religious hierarchy – to breathe and embrace some needed complexity.

The scarf signifies for me, not an attempt to hide something, but rather a gesture of resistance to an unfair and overly-scripted world, even as the Virgin Mother behind the scarf signifies (at least to most of her devotees) deep piety and spiritual predictability.  Many of us ‘honor’ the Virgin but don’t necessarily learn much from beholding her countenance, nor can we emulate her path to any significant degree.  For starters, any teenager who comes home and announces a forthcoming virgin birth would set a Guinness record for the longest “grounding” ever, alongside a visit to the psychiatrist and heavy doses of anti-psychotics.

Indeed, eliminating teenage pregnancy (by whatever means) is now high on the agenda of many women’s rights advocates and health professionals.  Generally it is better for children to have mothers who know and understand themselves a bit better.  It is also critical for girls to have time to explore personal and career options and find their own meaningful connections in the world before deciding to take on (alone or with a partner) the ultimate full –time job, managing an infant. After all, unlike the Virgin of Guadalupe, few women have access to “angels” tending to their every need and making the early years of child nurture a relatively painless affair.

There is currently a clever ad in the NYC subway that goes something like this:   “I can’t believe how little room a baby takes up, said no one, ever.”  The ad is trying to sell storage space but the message (inadvertently or otherwise) goes beyond salesmanship. The physical “room” that children occupy is often shocking to new parents, but this pales alongside the vast emotional spaces that children fill.  Especially for most mothers, there is little space of any sort that is not also and even primarily overwhelmed by progeny.

For all of the anxiety that can accompany motherhood, all of the unsolicited advice one is forced to endure, all of the social rules that dictate educational and health priorities, it is terribly important to find ways to convey to our children that there is more – far more – than one way to be successful in the world as a woman or a man.  We can experience deep connections with growing children without indulging the related need to control (and limit) their adult outcomes.

Mothers sometimes still fall into what might be thought of as a “Guadalupe trap” – predictably attentive and self-sacrificing, ‘helping’ even when no help has been requested, projecting a moral purity that is as much image as substance, allowing their role in the lives of loved ones to become ritualized and too often taken for granted.

For me, the scarf is a reminder that we all – mothers and others – are more complex than our caricatures and the needs that others heap on us. Too many of us have neglected hopes and longings that shouyld be helping shape the parents we seek to become.  At the same time, mothers (including those who seek to attend to their children’s every need) recognize that this complex and sometimes crazy, painful world bears the potential to undermine virtually every facet of our actions and influences as parents.

In that sense, raising children will always be risky business.   Parents may be able to control the contents of the television shows their children watch, but the often unsettling state of global affairs does not respond to prompts from our remote devices.  For many adults in the making, it’s not easy out there.  The moment one challenge is laid to rest another takes its place.   I have had several young people at the UN, men and women, say to me something to the effect that “no one really prepared us to be adults.” To the extent that this reflects reality (and I’m not entirely sure it does) I can only urge that we reconsider a slight tinkering in how we do our parenting business.  Our collective goal here should be strength and engagement, not bewilderment and dependency.

Indeed, the world needs children who grow up to be passionate, reflective and flexible adults, grown up people with multiple skills and a certain distance from gender caricatures and restrictions masked as “honoring.”   In the case of girls and their mothers, this is not a recommendation designed to add burdens, but rather to add complexity.   My sense of feminism, perhaps a bit outdated, is that it is a movement to free gender from its pervasive and phony stereotypes, to allow people to decide for themselves what makes their lives meaningful to themselves and others.   It is about encouraging the flexibility of an incarnate spirit, not substituting a new, socially acceptable straightjacket for an old, worn-out one.

Especially on this day, mothers, wear your scarves proudly.   Show off your complexity.  Be skeptical of ritual honoring and its easy pathways.   Your daughters (and likely sons as well) will appreciate the space you help provide to develop the flexibility, skills and emotional resilience that this next phase of social and global affairs will surely require of them.

Freudian Slip:  The UN Once Again Considers the Benefits of Psychology, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 May

Editor’s Note:  Appreciation goes to Karin Perro and Lia Petridis Maiello for helping with this (for me) difficult topic.

During the past frenetic week of activity, there was a “psychiatric” common thread to many UN discussions and deliberations.  To describe this unusual focus and our own stake in it will require a bit of context.

Despite the emotional needs of so many in New York City and the number of persons here seeking some sort of therapeutic relief, psychology as a public good seems to have fallen on lean times. Severe personality disorders are on the rise, but seem to evoke more scientific and pharmaceutical interest than compassion from service providers.  Too many of us seem to be more stressed, more fragile, more disconnected from community life (at least the life outside our smart phones) without proper ties of support. At the same time we seem less interested in changing ourselves than in getting others (or circumstances) to change instead.  Too often we leave many of our deepest dreams and profound longings to more or less explore themselves.

Some of this disconnect can be laid at the feet of the psychological profession itself, one that is costly to engage and, at times, indifferent to the social and economic determinants of individual suffering. Some professionals have even crossed ethical and legal lines as noted in a recent story in Al Jazeera about contributions made by trained psychologists to US government torture strategies. These “contributions” are hardly confined to the US but they all sow suspicion of a field that could contribute more to help us all cope and that surely should remain above such ethical compromises.

There are consequences to all of these disconnects and compromises.  In the “developed” world as well as in much of the rest of it, we have ‘graduated’ it seems, from the age of reason to the age of advertising.  What is true is what we can convince others is true.  We seek affinity more than truth, including seeking endless reassurances from friends and professionals alike.  Mindfulness, self-examination, genuine connection – these seem more and more to have become quaint artifacts of a bygone time, though historians would note that there has probably never been a time when these attributes were truly ascendant.

It is in this uneven and sometimes perplexing context that the recent policy interest in psychological needs and skills across many UN conference rooms was particularly welcome.  It seemed as though the “anchor” for such interest was the annual “Psychology Day” event co-sponsored by Palau and El Salvador. Specifically, this event sought to explore how the field of psychology might better contribute to the fulfillment of post-2015 development goals. Of special concern to the speakers was the assumed potential of the psychology profession to help us overcome “inequality,” which is itself a major impediment to SDG implementation as noted frequently within various UN forums. As Palau’s Ambassador Otto noted, “the world we want,” a world in part of greater equality, must address mental as well as physical limitations, especially with reference to the world’s children and other vulnerable persons.

Perhaps the clearest case for psychology’s positive contribution to UN policy came from El Salvador’s Ambassador Zamora who quite rightly noted the urgent need for psychological services to address a wide range of trauma, including from torture and natural disaster.   With images of the unimaginable Nepal devastation and frustrating Baltimore unrest in the minds of most everyone at the UN, trauma itself could well have been the theme of the week.  The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples focused on youth suicide, a tragedy born of discrimination and humiliation that is both heartbreaking and correctable.  Ukraine co-sponsored two recent events, one on human rights violations against Crimean Tatars, and another on the long term effects of Chernobyl, both of which have major implications for trauma and its aftermath.  UNESCO and the Committee on Information sponsored a discussion on violence and harassment that undermine journalists and other media professionals. The US and Republic of Korea co-sponsored a raucous event on human rights violations in North Korea (DPRK) featuring three voices from the vast, uncounted abused in that country. The Security Council wrestled with chaos in Yemen and Libya and the Peacebuilding Commission struggled with possible constitutional violations and resulting street violence in Burundi.

Even delegates seeking nuclear disarmament at the NPT review conference expressed deep sadness over the Nepal earthquake, many of whom then went on to note the equally unfathomable humanitarian consequences – of the maimed and traumatized — from an exploding nuclear weapon.   Trauma seemed to be following diplomats and NGOs around the UN campus.

Human beings are remarkably resilient, but all of the above references highlight events and circumstances with potentially grave, long-term psychological impacts, especially with respect to children and youth.  Many of these effects will present themselves only after long periods of gestation, with clear potential to threaten the future ability of those victimized to raise families, hold a job, avoid addiction, and contribute to their communities.   Surely the diminished capacity of global citizens in a time of great social challenges warrants significant professional attention.

Few if any of the deep wounds from the many trauma-inflicting events in our recent history can be treated with ointment and plastic surgery.   As resilient as we might be, we also scar easily and sometimes profoundly.  Without proper emotional care, the toxins of trauma can leak into many areas of life, including the areas we most need to nurture and protect in order to maintain reasonable prospects for sustainable meaning and fulfillment in our lives.

With all the trauma currently inflicted by torturers, insurgencies, earthquakes, reactor failures, and melting ice flows, all with particular implications for young people and vulnerable populations, the “leakage” is likely to be severe and its effects long-lasting if cannot provide more sustained emotional support – while doing all that we can to close the faucets through which so much misery currently flows.

In addition to the “no-brainer” need for more trauma response, there is at least one other major contribution that psychology can make to the work of the UN.   At his or her best, a skilled counselor or therapist must pay close attention to the client but must also be able to scrutinize the client’s narrative – because the narrative represents in certain key ways the inability of the client to cope successfully with pain and longing – even trauma.  Shifting the narrative, attentively and kindly, is part of shifting priorities.  It is also part of exposing fallacies in our cherished ‘sense of things,’ the rationales we provide for our behavior and our life circumstances that sometimes seem more about deflecting responsibility and manipulating outcomes than truly understanding the circumstance in which we find ourselves.

This skill set – attentiveness combined with a healthy, engaged skepticism to help scrutinize the most obvious policy explanations (or policy pronouncements) is something that the UN could use more of.

One dimension warranting suspicion might well be the increasing tendency inside the UN to substitute affect for sound policy.  An example of this was last Friday’s “media summit” wherein a full conference room was solicited to the task of ‘bringing the message of the SDGs to 7 million persons.”  The objective was public “ownership” of the goals, certainly most worthwhile, but the audience was almost discouraged by the event leaders from giving too much scrutiny to the goals or their viability, not to mention the major political and fiscal challenges that remain before and after the General Assembly convenes in September. The goal here was to ‘sell’ the product, not worry too much about the product’s contents.

In a somewhat similar vein, the US/Republic of Korea event on human rights violations in the DPRK, held in the shadow of the NPT Review, folded stories of victims into a framework that seemed to suggest a clear and immanent policy response.  The behavior of DPRK representatives attempting to derail the presentations of victims was reprehensible, and it certainly is important to have our UN bubble punctuated from time to time by the testimony of the abused.  Nevertheless, there simply is no easy pathway from victim’s testimony to consensus policy, certainly not in this UN, this Security Council.  The organizers had to know, even if the speakers and audience might not, that the urgency underscoring this event was as likely to raise expectations as generate fresh, consensus- based policy options

This generalized raising of public expectations in the absence of careful analysis or clear, remedial policy options would not qualify as a slip in any “Freudian” sense, but this disconnect bears potentially serious implications for public trust in the UN system.  I learned through many years in a Harlem parish that, as hard as we tried to overcome poverty and addiction in that place, we had to be sure to avoid adding the burdens of unfulfilled expectations and promises not kept to the burdens of simply being poor.  People needed (and deserved) clarity and discernment, not salesmanship.

This applies equally and especially to the abused and traumatized.  While enlisting their desperately needed guidance in addressing trauma, psychologists also can, at their best, help us sort out the implications and responsibilities of the expectations we create from policies and campaigns that sound better than they are. This “sorting” can do much to help us build a more honest, discerning, reliable and responsive policy community.

Some Immanent Risks at the 2015 NPT Review Conference

5 May

Editor’s Note:  The following piece from Angela Trang Hoai Thi Nguyen represents her initial impressions of the NPT Treaty Review at UN Headquarters.  Angela is of Vietnamese lineage, was raised in Norway, and is a master’s student of Annie Herro, a longtime associate of our office who teaches at the University of Sydney. It is always good for us (and hopefully for others as well) to see UN processes through the eyes of younger people in our office who are seeking their own place in this work. 

Well-thought and rational decision-making entails inter alia reducing as much risk as possible in order to reach the most optimal outcome. But as I have observed in the opening sessions of the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (NPT), global decision-makers have, unfortunately, increased and reinforced the risks that could threaten the future of the NPT. With virtually no exception, member states reiterated their commitments to the elimination of nuclear weapons to achieve a nuclear-free world. However, the apparent emptiness of some of the promises given cannot be ignored. The question is whether those empty words are an outcome of so many multilateral deadlocks and disappointments or if this is intentional political rhetoric. If it is the latter then we can sensibly talk about a deliberate creation of risk factors impeding progress to achieving the objectives of NPT. If the former is true, the frustration creates disadvantages for NPT as it strives to become (as noted by DSG Eliasson and others) a “critical public good.”

Although all states emphasized commitments to building on efforts toward disarmament, the prevention of proliferation, and the general strengthening of the NPT regime, there appears to be little flexibility in their positions. Thus, the first week of NPT Review Conference did not seem particularly promising to me despite the high rhetoric, as equally high risks create both a vacuum and impediments to the realization of NPT objectives.

The risks exist in many forms. First, a mutually reinforcing mistrust derives from the need by some states to impose a nuclear security regime on the current state of global insecurity. Nuclear-weapon states continue to retain an effective (at least) minimum nuclear deterrent for as long as (these states say) the global security situation makes it necessary. Ironically, the necessity of being in possession of nuclear weapons to maintain global security only intensifies the security dilemma, in which actions by a state intended to heighten its security lead other states to respond with similar measures, creating more tensions and insecurity. Thus, while nuclear-weapon states claim nuclear deterrence is a means to maintain international security, it is recognized by the majority that it is rather the opposite.

Perplexingly, almost as soon as the NPT Review Conference opened, an NPT side event hosted by one of the leading nuclear-weapon states sought to address the “need” for further modernization of nuclear weapons and the will to do exactly that. The unavoidable obsession and blindness of the security dilemma that was played out, whereby narrowly defined national security interests jeopardize international security, creates potential grave dangers and threats. Modernization does not contribute to building trust and predictability, but fuels an undesirable Cold War mentality that we thought we had put behind us. As long as nuclear weapons exist, there is no real safety. No amount of rationalizing can change this.

Given these strange events, not only does the NPT conference risk empty promises and short-sighted interests, it also risks the marginalizing of (mostly) men and women of principle striving to realize their full NPT obligations. Although, unilateral disarmament is out of question, it is a simple matter to strive to uphold one’s part of an agreed deal, especially one as important as Article VI of NPT. While the status quo is clearly unsustainable, NPT nuclear weapons states continue to insist that other parties to keep the binding obligation of non-proliferation, while they themselves refuse to see their part of the equally fundamental responsibility to eliminate weapons and achieve a nuclear-free world. Desiring change requires that all parties make an effort to assess the performance of others, but more importantly to change themselves. This requires the qualities including persistence and self-discipline, which remain in short supply in regards to the achievement of the objectives of NPT. Additionally, as being principled seems impossibly challenging for some states at this stage, it is probably utterly senseless to ask instead for true generosity of policy and spirit, another quality much appreciated as it creates attractive role models that could contribute much to a world of peace and security.

In conjunction with the NPT Review Conference, a side event on eliminating “Hair-Trigger Launch Readiness” highlighted a report by Global Zero Commission on reducing the unintentional risks of use of nuclear weapons. In many ways, the event was a wake-up call reminding all of the unimaginable dangers that can occur when our nuclear security technologies (and their ‘high alert” status) go very wrong. Gen. Cartwright recommended particular restraint during moments of high stress and short timelines, as there is almost no room for good and rational decision-making. Moreover, the potential for a false alarm in a nuclear high alert system remains ever present. Given the risks of miscalculation that could lead to a nuclear launch, the grave humanitarian consequences that would follow from our follies and limitations should be more than enough to remove incentives for a reckless response. The danger that nuclear weapons can put an end to the human race makes the threat or use of nuclear weapons a crime against humanity. Thus, it is a moral imperative that the international community no longer allows senseless measures associated with “deterrence,” such as high alert weapons status, to be employed.

Regarding humanitarian consequences, we are also at risk of reaching a cross roads. A crucial test case is North Korea (DPRK), where its inhumane governance, highly related to its objective to invest in nuclear programs, represents a crime against humanity. As time passes, starvation and repression continue to take lives and cause other grave physical and psychological sufferings. Member states must bear in mind the consequences of the UN’s unsuccessful engagement with the DPRK which only perpetuates grave violations of human rights. Although there are risks related to any Security Council action, it is important that the world not stay quiet. The best outcome would be for the DPRK  to return to the NPT and come into full compliance with both the treaty and their obligations under international human rights law.  Balancing risks and violations in the DPRK context represents a grave global challenge.

The NPT process faces several challenges of non-compliance. In the Middle East, there are at least two nuclear weapons-related issues that remain to be resolved. First, although a framework agreement with Iran has been reached, which in many ways signals a positive achievement towards fulfilling the goals of the NPT, key parameters of the deal are far from settled and hard work remains to be done. The devil is in the details, and transparency and verification will be essential to any final agreement. Secondly, Israel remains outside the NPT and continues to undermine the possibility of a WMD-free Zone with its undeclared weapons of mass destruction. The risks of non-cooperation and non-compliance are therefore most worrisome in regards to regional efforts to end proliferation and build a nuclear-free world. Moreover, although, peaceful use of nuclear energy as guaranteed by the NPT help to address serious global challenges including Ebola, cancer, and food safety, it is important to have solid verification mechanisms in place to identify cases of misuse and proliferation. Our threshold must be able to balance and identify rightful use and any non-compliant intentions.

In order to reduce some of the risks created by short-term strategic interests, insecurity, miscalculations, non-compliance and other NPT-related matters with implications for international peace and security, it is necessary to state something very obvious:  the objective of the universality of nonproliferation and disarmament cannot be achieved if all states do not abide by their commitments. As Deputy Secretary General Eliasson underscored, the process for NPT fulfillment has clearly stalled. We must therefore rebuild it on stable, common ground, reinforcing shared interests for the public good. Dialogue and cooperation are key to achieving the three pillars of NPT; thus, we must use every possible communications channel and create trust-building conditions for strategic stability and predictability.

Additionally, there is a need to push our collective ambitions. A Middle East free of nuclear weapons and WMD seems highly ambitious at this moment, but as John Kerry stated, ambitious goals are always the ones worth pursuing. Then, I believe the next phase of this ambition is to create accountability mechanisms to eliminate impunity for states in non-compliance, whether understood as breach of the treaty or inaction, accountable for their policies. As world state leaders should be greatly ambitious, their nuclear goals and standards must also be set at a high level. Only then can we remove risks to the NPT and reinforce the responsibility that lies with each member state in creating a world free of nuclear weapons.

Angela Trang Hoai Thi Nguyen