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.

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