Archive | June, 2015

Promise Keepers:  The Septuagenarian UN Sharpens its Policy Resolve, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Jun

There are times at UN Headquarters when the winds (head and tail) of policy development and assessment are blowing so hard that you literally have to “hold on to your hat.”  This period in late June, as we have been trying desperately to capture on twitter (@globalactionpw), has been one such time.

Needless to say, not all of the events of relevance to UN policies this past week happened in New York. Terror attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France (not to mention the fallout from Charleston) along with the welcome news that marriage in the US is no longer subject to state prohibition provided the backdrop for a season of promises we have kept and have yet to keep. In these instances, the messaging seemed clear — that we still have much more to do to understand and address terror threats, and that social inclusion can be every bit as important to the quality of our lives as its political and economic counterparts.

And then there were the ceremonies held in New York and San Francisco to honor the 70th anniversary of the signing of the UN charter.  The San Francisco ceremony was much more dramatic, but comments in New York by Amb. Samantha Power and DSG Eliasson also set a “promising” tone. Power took note of the US Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage and affirmed the UN’s ongoing, challenging search for common ground based on what she cited as respect for international law and adherence to various versions of the “golden rule.”

The Deputy Secretary General was equally reflective. Echoing the current negotiations on sustainable development goals (and as someone who claims to carry a copy of the Charter in his pocket), DSG Eliasson affirmed the Charter as a “grand attempt to bring the world we have closer to the world we want.” It should be noted that Eliasson has highlighted in many UN conference rooms the need for diplomats to be more attentive to the many gaps separating our common aspirations and the “road” to implementation along which the UN sometimes wanders without clear direction; aspirations representing promises that we enthusiastically “table” but which are then too often allowed to sit more or less right where we left them.

In the days preceding and following the Charter signing anniversary, the UN has taken up peacebuilding funding and the last, difficult vestiges of colonization; peacekeeping mandate renewals and counter-terrorism strategies; a high-level assessment of climate health; and what promises to be a challenging discussion between the Security Council and ICC Chief Prosecutor Bensouda regarding the discouraging situation in Darfur. In ECOSOC, its High-level political forum is seeking to build broad, robust and reliable stakeholder engagement on sustainable development goals and priorities.  Last Friday in another conference room, the UN Security Council received a scolding of sorts from Syrian activists and rescue workers regarding the Council’s inability to achieve actionable consensus on policies to end barrel bombing, humanitarian blockades and displacement affecting millions.

In these and other contexts, the “table” at the UN is remarkably full now with many occasions and options for policy development representing a mixture of promises made, promises pending and promises deferred – thankfully with mostly high levels of sincere, energetic engagement.  Apparently, for the UN at least, “70” really is the new “50.”

As the UN considers its fidelity and flexibility with respect to all core Charter obligations in this anniversary year, three major programmatic assessments authorized by the Secretary General seek to revise and reaffirm some of the most important of UN promises. Two of these, on peacebuilding architecture and Women, Peace and Security, are forthcoming.  The third report from the peace operations review was recently submitted to the Secretary General by co-facilitators Mr. Jose Ramos-Horta and Ms. Ameerah Haq. We have seen the report as have a wide array of other interested persons, and we commend many of its insights and recommended actions.

We were fortunate to be able to contribute in some small way to the peace operations review via policy that we wrote for discussion and eventual submission by some African partners.   We also were pleased to help lead a project on the future of peace operations resulting in an edited volume from Springer publishers. The volume includes diverse cultural lenses on peacekeeping’s many challenges and offers recommendations that we hope will influence future agendas for both the policy and academic communities.

Attempting to sum up such recommendations in light of the SG’s report is (too) risky business.  GAPW would however seek to reinforce the following as integral to keeping the lofty and essential promises of peace operations:

  • First, we appreciate the report’s emphasis on prevention and mediation capabilities, recognizing that peace operations that arrive too late or are mis-utilized as a substitute for robust diplomatic engagement are more likely to endanger peacekeepers, risk mandate failures, and gravely disappoint civilians in need of protection. The best way to honor UN Charter promises to constituents in conflict zones is to prevent conflict from flaring/expanding in the first instance. This requires more than the Security Council, more than DPKO; it requires full-spectrum response from a wide variety of UN and regional stakeholders who understand that conflict prevention is a system-wide responsibility requiring high-end, system-wide expertise.
  • We also appreciate the report’s willingness to highlight the “widening gap” between what is expected of peacekeepers and their capacity and skill to deliver. We would however note the tendency in both SC mandates and in contributions such as those by the C-34 Special Committee, to overload peacekeepers with tasks that only seem to grow in number and complexity. Narrowing this gap “from the middle” will require both additional training and mandate restraint.  Peace operations cannot be expected to do difficult work often under the most challenging physical and logistical conditions while asked to undertake tasks – from training local law enforcement to restoring good governance – that would challenge the competency of the most accomplished professionals in those fields. This expanding menu of responsibilities also threatens energy and ability for civilian protection, a non-negotiable mandate for many of us.
  • We appreciate the report’s endorsement of a rapid response mechanism for peace operations based in part on the recognition that the “United Nations is often too slow to engage with emerging crises.” Such a mechanism, such as the UNEPS proposal with which we have worked for years, could be a cost effective means of getting needed capacity in the field at the earliest stages of a conflict to both help stabilize dangerous situations and buy time for diplomacy and other complementary measures– much like the outcomes expected of an emergency vehicle attached to a competent hospital.  The value of such a capacity, in our view, is less about “reinforcement and new mission start-up” and more about skillfully obviating the need for expensive, large-scale peace operations in the first instance.  The more attention and protection are available from the start of a potential conflict, the better any country’s longer-term prognosis is likely to be.
  • Finally, as we have written previously, the shocks to the reputation of the UN’s peace and security architecture from unaddressed violations of abuse by UN personnel must not be allowed to fester.  The failure to address abuses forthrightly invites further abuses, but also undermines faith in the UN system and places peacekeepers and other members of UN country teams in danger.  As was clear during an emotional honoring ceremony for fallen peacekeepers at UN Headquarters in May, threats to the physical safety of peacekeepers are numerous. The addition of scandal to vast operational challenges and (founded or unfounded) accusations of abandoned impartiality is simply more than peace operations should have to bear.

In peace operations as in other areas of UN practice, this 70th anniversary is indeed a time to bring the world we have closer to the world we want: a world that has achieved climate health and full social inclusion; a world that practices fairness and ensures equality of participation; a world with fewer countries to rebuild thanks to a more robust diplomatic, preventive and protective architecture; a world where rogue plastics no longer choke ocean species now threatened with extinction; a world in which the entitlements of elites give way to a more nuanced, compassion-based social responsibility; a world where children can be children without having to assume excessive burdens of responsibility that should still be ours for a world far too often in “shock” from one crisis or another.

Peace operations are an essential part of that larger promise, key to the UN’s core mission that people still want to believe in and that we still need to improve as part of honoring that confidence. We recall important recommendations from the Year 2000 “Brahimi Report” that have yet to be implemented fifteen years later.  We urge that the best of this new crop of recommendations can find operational pathways much sooner.

Fatherhood, Care-giving and its Caveats, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Jun

For those of you who have endured years of my Father’s Day commentary, this might seem like an outlier message.  Bear with me, if you can stand to do so, as I attempt to blend a tribute to fathers with a bit of what I hope at least will seem like relevant policy analysis.  You can let me know if you approve of the results – with caveats of course.

Like many of words we use, misuse and overuse, “caveat” has a range of meanings, but mostly related to declarations or even warnings of stipulations or conditions that might impact our commitments; or alternatively it refers to “limitations,” as in ways in which what is presented to us as sufficient ‘truth’ is more accurately a restrictive (sometimes dramatically so) viewpoint on a situation or incident that begs for a more comprehensive and thoughtful lens.

“Caveats” in both senses have long been a part of the UN’s nomenclature, used by states to contextualize their investments of funding and personnel, and by NGOs and policy experts to assess the “missing elements” in what might otherwise be helpful analysis of security, development or social issues.

The conditions/stipulations aspect of “caveats” was on display Wednesday in the UN Security Council where members were given candid and thoughtful briefings by Force Commanders on the state-of-play in peacekeeping operations.   In our view, these briefings are not held frequently enough to accomplish what Nigeria noted were more flexible adjustments to what at times could be seen as peacekeeping mandates with eroding relevance.  Briefings are also not held often enough to allow some of the women who were in uniform in Council chambers to share assessments and experiences through their own, still-too-often-ignored perspectives.

One notable feature of this briefing was the practice by some troop contributing countries to issue “caveats” to full and unconditional participation in peacekeeping operations. These contributors, in essence, maintain the right to identify “conditions” based on judgments of operations that needlessly jeopardize the well-being of seconded troops; conditions which would therefore exempt such troops from obeying to the letter relevant orders of Force Commanders.

The need for such caveats, as noted by New Zealand (which has recently revoked its own), relates in part to the perception of some states that UN peacekeeping operations are burdened by mandates the complexity of which overwhelms training and capacity in the field, thus exacerbating relevant security threats.   But as other states and commanders noted, if caveats are warranted, there is a proper time and place for them.  Such stipulations should be stated as early in the process as possible.  Moreover, caveats must remain flexible enough to accommodate shifting circumstances, including successful UN efforts to address field concerns.  In other words, reasonable caveats should not be posed as last-minute, categorical demands but as timely and flexible responses to conditions that are not yet sufficient to warrant unconditional assent.

The UN will continue to grapple with the challenges of caveats in peacekeeping operations. Like that or not, we can all at least acknowledge that, in some form or other, we have our own caveats; we all have “conditions” for things, even important things like marriage and family.  Some of those conditions even apply to our erstwhile caregivers, specifically regarding the ways in which we want to be cared for — and ways we don’t — that are independent of others’ need to “care” for us.   Many of us have overwhelmed others, and been overwhelmed ourselves, in caregiving scenarios that were much more about the one setting the terms of care than about the one receiving the caring attention.  Not all “caring” feels like caring and such feelings are not always unwarranted: a bit like the security assessments of UN member states, the conditions for and benefits of caregiving are to a significant extent in the eyes (and hearts) of its recipients.

Beyond conditions, there is the scenario of “caveats” as limitations. Last Tuesday at the UN, Chelsea Clinton headlined an event co-sponsored by MenCare Advocacy and @UNFPA at which a report was released entitled “State of the World’s Fathers.”  The full report can be accessed at

This latest iteration of our “state of the world,” which I must say I was a bit reluctant at first to pick up, painted a generally positive (if limited) assessment of the status (and potential benefits) of fathers as caregivers, a role important for childless men (such as myself) to assume as well.  My reluctance was related in part to the increasing tendency within UN (and other) circles to assume generic caregiving deficits on the part of men (based on restrictive definitions as much as on male sloth) along with the notion that the value of fathers lies primarily in their willingness to be engaged, as the report puts it, “in ways that women want.”  Given that the report fails to highlight let alone enumerate the manifold outcomes and contexts of “caregiving,” the report seems to “patronize” male caring capacity more than explore, encourage and even celebrate its diverse manifestations.

The report utilizes as its one, relevant lens for caregiving, father interactions with young children and domestic chores, citing (quite rightly) that worldwide such men spend less time at these responsibilities than women do.  This is a gap that most fathers I know (across many cultures) both fully acknowledge and have done something to address, in some limited instances a lot to address.

It is useful for this report to identify caring gaps and to suggest remedial options in the (still too many) situations where remediation is warranted. But it is surely a bit disingenuous to create some essentialist equivalence between “caregiving” and time spent with young children and ironing boards.  Caregiving is of course very much about those things, including for fathers; but it is also about vocational and life mentoring, about getting up at 2AM during a thunderstorm to patch an elderly neighbor’s leaky roof, about inspiring people through classrooms and religious institutions, about offering assistance to a lonely traveler, about making personal sacrifices to enhance the educational prospects of family members, about holding the hands of people suffering from grief or tragedy, about being reliable to others and faithful to our word, about adjusting ourselves to the new conditions (caveats, if you will) of evolving young lives rather than forcing youth to become imperfect replicas of our imperfect selves.

There is so much more that could be listed here.   Caregiving by fathers and others is incredibly multi-faceted.   It requires a flexibility and fairness of spirit.  It involves an ability to process kindly and attentively the (sometimes maddening) demands and limitations of others, including of course, partners and children.

Many of the fathers I know do these and any number of related things.   They might wish to have more time with their children – or to assist the children of others – but they are often doing things that bring value and benefit to the home, and also to the world, our world, the world that any children they have sired are soon destined to inherit.  If preparing and guiding people, young and old, to face and cope with challenges in these messy times cannot be fully acknowledged as “caregiving,” I’m at a loss to understand its meaning. If providing materially (and hopefully emotionally) secure contexts for growth and challenge is not “caregiving,” regardless of whether it corresponds neatly to what some others might “want,” then we need urgently to find new terms to honor this service.

As most of us can attest from our own life experiences, father doesn’t always know best.   But just as clearly, many fathers and their male surrogates do much to help children and others prepare for hopeful, thoughtful, independent participation in a complex, rapidly shifting and too-often unsettling world.  The specifics of this caring might at times seem out of context and rather “old-school,” and those specifics might well include too many baseball practices and too few dirty diapers. Still the reliability of this caregiving and the willingness to work through the many stages and caveats of others’ lives are essential to positive growth and development.  I am personally and extraordinarily grateful to the many fathers in my own contexts and around the world who, through their actions and values, stay this challenging course.

Profit and Loss: States Parties Rethink Contributions to Civil Society, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Jun

Global Action is privileged to be part of several online ‘communities’ linking diverse NGOs, UN policymakers and place-based civil society organizations serving constituents around the world.   Such involvements on our part help us to keep track of developments impacting diverse communities, but also to remind us of responsibilities we have to help build local capacity and link that capacity to relevant policy discussions taking place in the international community.

Thus we were quickly made aware of shockwaves this past week when it was announced that Finland would significantly cut back on assistance to civil society organizations within its own borders as well as in areas of the world where it had previously made significant and helpful investment.  This decision was a blow to those who feel – rightly I might add – that Finland’s national identity is bound up with its capacity to share its abundance beyond its pay grade.   At the UN, Finland was an early supporter of UN peacekeeping and has consistently provided leadership disproportionate to its size in areas such as international law, the global arms trade and, perhaps somewhat ironically given recent policy shifts, international development cooperation.

Finland’s decision was not, however, a stand-alone incident involving a single country but is part of a larger trend within and beyond Europe.   Across the board, even as diplomats and NGOs seek to develop and endorse funding guidelines for post-2015 sustainable development goals, the donor terrain is shifting dramatically.   For a variety of reasons, commitments to end inequalities and promote peaceful, inclusive societies are being crowded out by institutional branding of one form or another.  Corporations are shifting their “giving” programs to serve the interests of advertising.   Private foundations are simply turning over funds to well-branded, existing grantees rather than keeping their funding commitments on the cutting edges of social change.  States at the UN are reassessing commitments to “general operating” funding in favor of direct grants to support programs and capacity within the UN that align more closely with the “national interest.”  And in the US (and likely elsewhere), what can be a toxic “noblesse oblige” has given way to an even-more-toxic narcissistic competition to see who can most effectively ‘game’ the system, reap its vast rewards, and brand the results.

A few of these shifts are somewhat understandable, inasmuch as donors have often wondered (even aloud) why they should continue to support organizations and structures that fail to produce even minimal results (UN Disarmament sometimes comes to mind). And funding commitments in whatever form are not “matrimonial” in nature but come with timelines and most often expectations of transition.  Here in New York, we have been blessed with enough supporters (none of them governments) to stay just barely above the line of basic solvency, but there are few guarantees going forward.  The only true guarantees are related to how badly we want to do this work and how creatively we can forge global partnerships to preserve some small and hopefully effective spaces at the policy table.

On the other hand, one of the things we have witnessed (and at times assisted) in various communities around the “developing” world is the enormous energies that local civil society organizations have invested in ‘getting up to code’ with their largely northern donors.   Despite sometimes horrific infrastructure limitations, as well as the many local needs which continually beg to be addressed, we know of many civil society organizations that have painstakingly adopted technology and procedures to meet the increasingly burdensome expectations of these donors.   To have made those infrastructure commitments and then to have the funding to sustain those commitments unilaterally dismantled is a particularly discouraging irony that should seriously grieve those of us working in more comfortable circumstances.

One of the responsibilities now for NGOs in the north is to find ways to respond to this creeping disregard for the non-governmental, non-corporate side of civic life. Indeed, one of the groups with which we regularly conspire is drafting a letter to the Finnish government, citing the “political” dimensions of its funding decision and asking for reconsideration.  It is important to remind governments and other donors that their sometimes cavalier and self-referential relationship to funding can have a traumatic impact on human lives.

But this is about more than money, and those of us facing threats to our budgets will also need do a bit more of our own discernment. We must think about our ongoing responsibilities to promote equity for the planet’s marginalized, but also more deeply discern our own relationship to money and to the institutions that provide it (and increasingly it appears skeptical of providing it).

The Finnish government has not suddenly become our adversary. Other states that have decided to reposition their global contributions have not necessarily become so either.  From Financing for Development (SDGs) and obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty to Ocean ecology restoration and the prosecutorial work of the International Criminal Court, we are rarely in UN conference rooms where requests for funding are not being made by one state (or NGO) or another.  Politics notwithstanding, states are under pressure to preserve multi-lateral space and fulfill ambitious commitments such as the SDGs, all while ensuring constituents back home that funds expended on international development and other key concerns also serve a national interest.  This is not an easy soup to bring to table under the best of economic conditions – and these are surely not that for most.

As civil society, our task is also multiple.   We must remind governments of what they are doing – and losing – as they “recalibrate” their funding commitments.  We must find ways to strengthen our commitments to diverse communities of social practice while rethinking our own relationship to money and its sources.   And finally, as funds are available, we need to make sure that we take no more than our share and accomplish as much with what we take as humanly possible.

A long time ago, a friend reminded me that “money changes everything, and only occasionally for the better.”  With full respect for those around the world with a different relationship to the funding community than we have here in our little New York office, there is a lesson here that we would all do well to consider.   Resources are not self-authorizing but need our very best efforts to ensure their fair, transparent and effective application. Thankfully, where funding is concerned, we have what it takes to ensure the “better” change.

A Field Worth Playing On:   The UN recalibrates its laws and its leadership, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Jun

Last Friday at the UN, as the Security Council held another unsettling briefing on Ukraine and as a Meeting of Government Experts sought common ground on technical aspects related to the elimination of illicit flows of small arms and light weapons, a rule-of-law lecture took place that highlighted the increasing value and robustness of leadership emanating from smaller states.

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the UN membership of the Principality of Liechtenstein, HSH Hereditary Prince Alois made a presentation at UN headquarters that did what we would urge many states to do under similar circumstances – share why the decision to commit to multi-lateral engagement through the UN was a sound one.  The Prince cited difficulties in getting traction in the UN as a small state but also highlighted their national interest in the strong, accountable rule-of-law which the Prince rightly noted “is a prerequisite for a level playing field and the sovereign equality of all states.”

While the Prince did note some distinct national interests in matters such as the International Criminal Court and in reform of the UN Security Council, he avoided mention of other policy interests including in Women, Peace and Security activities at UN headquarters, areas where his government has displayed visible and welcome leadership.

Indeed, the key to any successful meeting or process at the UN is quality leadership – the kind that both takes risk and builds consensus, that highlights needs in the international community for which it is then willing to take some significant responsibility – convening and prodding rather than pointing figures and expecting solutions to come from elsewhere.

This kind of leadership has recently been in evidence in many UN forums – especially in the post-2015 sustainable development (SDG) negotiations where Kenya’s Kamau and Ireland’s Donoghue (and Hungary’s Kőrösi previously) navigated a challenging process that has produced an historic ‘zero draft.’  That draft has elicited some criticism but also represents a significant improvement over the prior MDGs and has a good chance of passing muster with Heads of State at the UN in September.  The draft also incorporates noteworthy interventions from many small states, including the Small Island Developing States, which will ensure among other things that climate health has a prominent place in SDG implementation.

Beyond the SDGs, this past couple of days alone has seen an important initiative by Lithuania and Malaysia pushing for Security Council responses to challenging cease fire violations in Ukraine, a site of dismay and sadness for the entire UN system.  At the same time, we note Moldova’s successful stewardship of the Meeting of Government Experts, a technical process related to ending the trafficking in small arms which took place amidst significant leadership changes in UN Disarmament Affairs and followed two frustrating and time consuming events related to armaments: the UN Disarmament Commission and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review.

What all of this leadership has in common is that it emanated from what at another time in the UN’s history might be considered ‘unlikely sources.’  Smaller states have always attempted to champion issues of global importance, but for most of the UN’s history these states have operated in the background as big power interests dominated the stage. Now these smaller states not only sit often in the chair’s seat, but do much inside and outside the Security Council to establish a fully functional global agenda in each of the UN’s core policy pillars.

Some of this agenda is related less to issues and more to structures and working methods.   Currently there are serious (and not so serious) proposals cascading through the halls and conference rooms of the UN to change the way the Security Council does its business, the UN system chooses its leadership, and more.  Part of what underlies these concerns is the quite sensible need to find ways to get permanent Council members to play by the same rules that they insist on for other states.  In these efforts, small and medium sized states are playing a growing, welcome role.

We believe completely that one path to UN reform is lies in the vigorous leadership of major UN processes by officials from smaller states.   This includes non-permanent Security Council members who are slowly eroding the assumptions and prerogatives of the veto-wielding states, not through their military or economic power but through their wise, vocal and even courage engagement with the opportunities provided by Council working methods and the UN charter.  The more good sense the non-permanent members communicate, the more resolve they show on policy, indeed even the more enthusiasm they show for the value and future expansion of multi-lateral contexts, the better our planet will be.  As we are seeing, commitment, wisdom and tenacity from smaller states can begin to wear down power imbalances in the UN system perhaps even more successfully in the long run than attempted charter revisions or the formation of new blocks of states at times as intransigent in their interests as the ‘privileged’ states they seek to counter.

This leveling is critical to the health of the UN system.  But it must be attained less by attempting to drag down the larger powers and more by smaller states stepping up and allowing their leadership and (to the extent they are available) commitment of resources to serve as their “balancing card. “  It also means promoting rule-of-law as the essential leveler, rules and standards that can coax more transparency and accountability from large states –including permanent Council members – than any single option currently available to us.

The “inequalities” that formed the basis for much discussion of post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals have their echo in other parts of the system as well.  Not only inequalities within states but also between states.   But it is never enough to lament the imbalances.   We all must — NGOs as well — be willing to pay our “dues” by increasing our practical interest in a UN system that is still desperately needed and still not fulfilling expectations.

Liechtenstein is one of the small states that have, individually and collectively, made positive contributions to multilateralism in large measure through its interest in rule-of-law.   If this system is ever going to truly balance — and it may not survive unless that happens – more states need to join efforts at rule-of-law based institutional reform.  Such states must also be willing to take leadership in areas of their greatest interests while affirming publicly the benefits to governments and peoples of UN-based multilateral arrangements.