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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