Archive | July, 2015

No Time for Child’s Play: The UN Hones its Child Protection Responsibilities, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Jul

This past Friday, the UN held a celebration of the 10th anniversary of UN Security Council resolution 1612 on Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC).

The most direct institutional consequences of resolution 1612 are the Working Group on CAAC originally chaired by France, later by Germany, Mexico and Luxembourg, and now by Malaysia.  In addition, an office for CAAC was established, headed first by Olara Otunnu and now by Leila Zerrougui.  This office has had its share of controversy over 10 years, in part due to its (at the time) groundbreaking relationship to the work of the Council, and in part because of its methods (including listings) to expose states’ willful tolerance or even direct mistreatment of the children under their jurisdiction.

Both the WG and Office for CAAC successfully expanded global interest in the security dimensions of the broader children’s rights outlined in the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The Convention boasts record setting state ratifications. Moreover, virtually all other development, peace and security resolutions now highlight the special care and protection needs of the most vulnerable of persons.  The Convention itself was not without controversy, especially among those who feared the ability of children to assert rights in direct contradiction of parental wishes or who were concerned with an expansion of “compelling state interests” that ostensibly prioritized “the best interests of the child” over the wishes of family members or other guardians.  Nevertheless, the Convention and Resolution 1612 together have done much to address some of the residual “instrumentalizing” of children as mere extensions of adult expectations and needs that still exists within many societies.  In addition, as the UN’s responsibilities to protect civilians have evolved, the special protection needs of children have more readily been identified if not always addressed with sufficient urgency.

At Friday’s celebration, assessments of past practices and expectations regarding future objectives were mixed.   Many speakers representing a broad array of member states and UN agencies, including Ms. Zerrougui herself, highlighted the “architecture” that now exists to help promote CAAC objectives at country level, including national task forces and action plans, and what Luxembourg referred to as the “global horizontal note”. Along with child protection officers in peacekeeping missions and CAAC office efforts to identify and publicly list offending parties – a particular concern in this session for both Myanmar and Israel – this architecture represents elements of an evolving, system-wide commitment to end abuses committed against (and by) youth at the tip of a gun or edge of a blade.

In this instance as in others, child protection is impacted by some of the limitations characterizing our general “protection of civilians” assumptions and strategies.  We sometimes forget, as Morocco reminded event participants, that child soldiers must always be seen as victims (rather than as enemies) regardless of the crimes they were coerced to commit.   Sometimes, though thankfully in rare instances, those mandated to protect children are guilty of adding to their abuse.  Sometimes, efforts of child protection advisors to peacekeeping missions are compromised or overlooked by virtue of overstretched, under-resourced and increasingly coercive operations.  And our lack of a viable preventive strategy too often results in placing response capacities in the field long after such placement is optimal, with implications for the emotional and physical safety of children even more dire than for their guardians.

This lack of prevention goes beyond unhelpful limitations in UN capacity for early warning and mediation.  It also, as we have written previously, involves insufficient regard for effects of trauma of children in conflict zones for which the only viable remedial strategy is one that ensures their absence from such zones.   Calls during this Friday celebration from UNICEF’s Yoka Brandt, the Russian Ambassador and others for more rehabilitation services were welcome, with Brandt reminding the audience that the release of children from armed groups is only the first step in child reintegration and rehabilitation.  Children can be remarkably resilient, but for many of these abducted, brainwashed or otherwise abused children, attaining anything approaching mental health will require a long and treacherous climb.  The abuses inflicted on children will likely be visited upon their own children as well as the communities of which they are a part. There are only so many tools (and funds) at our disposal to redirect that dangerous course once it has been embarked.

On top of all this, we are often slow to adjust to a rapidly shifting security environment with active child recruiters such as ISIL and conflict-motivated migration patterns that blur lines of individual state responsibility.  The shifts to which we must respond are numerous. The representative of UNRWA highlighted the increasing uses of explosive weapons and the devastation these cause to civilian populations.  The representative of UNHCR highlighted the special monitoring and protection challenges that impact children moving across borders with our without their families.  And of course we are now regularly confronting what the French rightly noted as “shocking” instances in Syria and elsewhere where children are essentially being held hostage to conflicts that cannot even be convinced to pause in order to feed and bandage the desperate.

Despite these challenges, it appeared to be the will of most diplomats that child protection from armed violence, recruitment and related abuses become even more of a cross-cutting, systemic obligation of the UN system and its member states, an obligation assumed to bind permanent Council members as much as other UN stakeholders. Such insistences were part of what made the early work of Otunnu’s CAAC office such a breath of fresh air from the start.  That the consensus promise has yet to culminate in a consensus strategy for successfully ending abuses of children in conflict zones is a situation that many in the global public (including diplomats) can neither understand nor tolerate for much longer.

As Luxembourg noted, we need to do all we can to ensure that CAAC is much more than a “side event” to the core UN agenda, while avoiding what Belgium referred to as a “creeping cynicism” regarding our ability to fully implement the CAAC mandate. Indeed, a bit of cynicism-invoking sentimentality crept into the celebration in the form of one or two presenters saying things such as, “even if we save one child, our efforts were worth it.”  It was Canada who bluntly noted that ending CAAC violations completely and without reservation can and must be our objective.   To employ an over-used UN phrase, we fully align ourselves with Canada’s statement.

We simply must continue to set the bar high for children in armed conflict.  With all the global problems now tugging at our diplomatic shirt sleeves, it is worrying indeed that so many needlessly damaged children will become adults likely to be still reeling from the gaps between their own emotional capacity and the increasing logistical complexities of modern life.  We have full confidence that Malaysia will keep child protection issues in full view of the Security Council during its peacekeeping mandate renewals and related deliberations.  We urge other diplomats, NGOs and child advocates to keep CAAC issues in front of all relevant UN and government actors to whom they have access.

Decolonization and Self-determination: Sorting out the Rationales

22 Jul

Editor’s Note:  Anh Van Vo, a Vietnamese national, came to GAPW from the University of Pennsylvania.  She is soon to return to Vietnam and then on to resume her studies in Singapore.  Anh came to the UN with diverse policy interests, but soon became captivated with the work of the “C-24” and carefully followed disputes on territories from Western Sahara to the Malvinas/Falklands. Her reflections on the Committee appear below.

This past June, during meetings of the UN Special Committee (C-24) on Decolonization, blame and accusations sprouted from all parties to conflicts over the status of disputed territories. But one particular indictment was brought up time and again by almost every delegation present: the lack of progress and authority from the Special Committee itself. Indeed, more than 50 years have passed since the creation of the Special Committee, and decolonization situations are far from being resolved.

Aside from the usual tension in these meetings, one aspect that deserves attention is the principle of “self-determination.” This notion has served as a guiding principle for the Decolonization committee since its inception, but as I have observed in the meetings, self-determination is simply not sufficient as the primary rationale for the decolonization process.

On the one hand, self-determination is a lofty ideological tool that has proved necessary and useful in untangling situations in territories such as Tokelau and Turks and Caicos Islands, whose situations seem to be quite straightforward. On the other hand, the situations in some other territories such as Falkland Islands, Puerto Rico, and Gibraltar calls into question the uses—and possible misuses—of “self-determination” as the primary rationale for decolonization.

The situation in Falkland Islands shows the importance of resolving key matters regarding the proper rationale for Committee deliberations and decisions. Representatives from the Legislative Assembly of the Falkland Islands, Ms. Phyl Rendell and Mr. Michael Summers, insisted that the people of Falklands wish to remain under British rule, citing a 99.8% favor vote in a 2013 referendum. However, significant numbers of members of the Special Committee did not acknowledge the intended impact of this result. Venezuelan Ambassador Rafael Ramirez questioned the credibility of the referendum, especially as it was conducted by the British government and directed towards British citizens living in Falkland Islands. Ambassador Patriota of Brazil reminded the Committee that the current population of the Falklands was a result of British imperialism and the expulsion of the island’s original inhabitants. Argentina blamed the United Kingdom for framing the situation as one of “self-determination” of island residents, while according to UN resolutions this would be better understood as a straightforward matter of colonization.

In this instance, the Special Committee got stuck between a rock and a hard place because of its ill-defined use of “self-determination”. According to the UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and People in 1960, self-determination is reserved for “all peoples” who are subjected to “alien subjugation, domination and exploitation”, so that they can “freely [choose] to determine their political status […] and economic, social and cultural development.”[1] This declaration assumes that the “peoples” here are the statistical majority. Nevertheless, the situation in Falkland Islands shows that having the majority of the population agree on their preferred political status does not guarantee that the Special Committee will (or even should) honor their decision. Questions that should be addressed based on the Declaration still go unanswered: Must self-determination only include the views of the “majority” to be valid? Does it have to incorporate the voices or special status of minority or aboriginal people?

Even if we pass over these questions, there is still the glaring fact that self-determination of a people does not in and of itself lend authority or legitimacy to the Committee’s functions. As Syria’s Ambassador Bashar Ja’affari stated, none of the 33 resolutions adopted by consensus on the Falkland Islands by the Committee over the years have been implemented. Another example is Puerto Rico: the Committee passed a resolution last June that urges the United States to speed up a process “that would allow the people of Puerto Rico to fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination”, but there have been 32 previous resolutions like this and the U.S. has acted on none of them, citing mixed voting results from the population and splits within the Puerto Rican political parties themselves. Perhaps one could say that progress has been slow because Falklands is complicated by the issue of sovereignty and Puerto Rico simply just cannot present a united front. But even if one takes those elements away and presents yet another example, Gibraltar—a case that enjoys overwhelming solidarity among its representatives and is at the same time a clear-cut colonization situation, the Committee still has been unable to find a lasting solution in this instance.

The lack of progress and authority spreads doubt to other aspects of the Committee. First, if “self-determination” rather than colonization is the central principle, why are other places not included in the list of non-self-governing territories, such as Tibet, or Chechnya, or Kashmir? Second, although sending missions to territories is one of the mandates of the Decolonization Committee, there has been no visit to either Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands. The frustrations this lack of visit produces culminated when Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, presented a British Airways first-class ticket to the Chair of the Special Committee right in the decolonization meeting, saying that he was willing to pay for the tickets of other committee members as well, in case there had been logistic mishaps that prevented the Committee from visiting Gibraltar. In response to the Chief Minister’s bold move, the Chair thanked him, agreed to meet with him privately, and said, regarding the ticket, “You know I am not going to use that.”

In the end, “self-determination” seems to be neither a sufficient nor particularly effective principle to guide the work of the Special Committee on decolonization. Either it is blocked by an ambiguous dependence on “the majority”, by ideological rifts in the non-self-governing territories, or it is simply ignored, if not by the colonial powers, then by the Committee itself. Indeed, as Gaël Yanno, President of the Congress of New Caledonia, said in these meetings: “Self-determination does not equal independence.” The Committee would do well to revisit its relationship to this important but limited rationale for promoting what would be a welcome end to the legacy of colonization.

[1] U.N. General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV), “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.”

Anh Van Vo, Fellow, GAPW

Taking Turns:  Promoting Elder Rights and Enhancing Inter-Generational Connection, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Jul

ageing-working-group10 (4)

While much of the UN community this past week was riveted on discussions on development financing taking place in Ethiopia, some highly suggestive events were taking place in New York.  Among the most significant of these was the Open Ended Working Group on Ageing, kindly and capably chaired by Argentina’s Mateo Estrémé.

Having been raised largely by elders (Aunts and grandparents) and having served in church communities thankfully punctuated by elders’ helpful presence, it is always heartwarming to see the UN place elder care near the core of their policy interests, whether it is this working group, the permanent forum on indigenous peoples, or in other venues.  In all of these settings there is much to lament regarding how too many elders are faring in this world, but also much to celebrate – so many lives with collected wisdom and skills, lives that remain more vital to community well-being than its younger residents often recognize.

As many readers are already aware, the world is currently grappling with ironic demographic twists – the dramatic “greying” of cultures such as Japan and many parts of Europe coupled with an explosion of young people in the “developing” world, allegedly the largest generation of youth in human history.  Added to this are elders whose life (and work) spans are on the rise as more and more youth worldwide grapple with uncertain economic options and uneven messaging from older leadership.  Apparently, youth participation in social and political life is essential to solving a range of global crises, and yet we elders (or soon to be) refuse to ease our grip on the levers of political and economic control or create viable spaces where the participation of others has real meaning.

That these inconsistencies create distance and even tensions between generations on a regular basis is not surprising.  That we are moving in a direction to create more inter-generational understanding and harmony is an assumption requiring some deeper reflection.

The Open Ended Working Group rarely engaged these inter-generational issues directly.  While rightly calling attention to some serious problems affecting older persons – increasing incidences of “elder abuse,” discrimination in housing and employment, a crumbling of social safety networks – the key issue impacting the Working Group was a debate on the necessity of creating a stand-alone convention to fully address the rights of older persons.

As anyone who follows UN affairs knows, this desire for a convention is hardly precedent setting.  To help focus policy concern on many themes and constituencies, and to establish a framework of binding attention and mandated response, the UN has adopted many “conventions” or “treaties.”

Do we need such a framework with respect to the elderly?   The Working Group chair, supported by Brazil, other states and most of the participating NGOs, maintained that a convention was needed to address a litany of legitimate “rights gaps.”  Others, especially states of the European Union (perhaps out of fear that they would be asked to pay for convention-related costs) preferred to modify existing human rights arrangements to more adequately accommodate the needs and interests of elders.

We eventually came down on the side of those favoring a convention, but not without caveats.

Certainly we recognize the following: that conventions do focus policy attention, existing human rights instruments have not been adequately modified, and instances of elder abuse and other violations occur with alarming frequency. But there remains some unease about all of this.  A rights based approach is rightfully core to the mission of the UN, but such an approach sometimes comes with a cost – the danger of isolation of rights holders from one another’s legitimate interests, as well as the increased competition for attention that is often felt in its wake.

The specter of elders becoming a rights-based “interest group” alongside other competing rights-based interests is not a place where most elders I have known from many cultures would wish to stand.  Perhaps I have unusual experiences with elderly persons. Perhaps some of my assumptions here are simply unreasonable, though they seem quite consistent with many elders I have known – those whose primary interest is in maintaining value and connection with younger persons from which the caregiving that so many of them have lavishly bestowed could be returned in kind.  Mostly, the elders I know want dignified lives to the end while urging dignity for others.  There is no desire to engage in any contest yielding winners and losers.

From this standpoint, it is legitimate to wonder to what degree a convention of the sort broadly advocated during the Working Group can adequately address what the Holy See and others referred to as our “throw away” culture with its tendency to denigrate the value of its “unproductive” members. Will a convention address the grave loss to our societies once our elderly become truly “invisible,” locked away in apartments or nursing homes, isolated from meaningful social contact, exploited or ignored by all but the rapidly diminishing number of persons worldwide who see elder care as part of their familial and community responsibility?

At the same time, this calls into question what younger generations seek most from their elders?  Surely not another set of economic competitors!   Surely more than bank accounts filled to overflow with their inheritance.   Surely not relationships predicated on keeping youth dependent or forcing them to accept self-interested interpretations of elders’ lives rather than setting them loose to grow and to heal accompanied by all the honesty – about ourselves and the world we have been privileged to manage – that we can share.

In the absence of such sharing and connection-building, I don’t see how this ends well for elders, convention or no.   More elderly claiming rights but not necessarily promoting the rights of others; more elderly pushing aside the responsibility to mentor next generations; more young people unfairly tuning out elders while accusing them of hoarding too much and sharing too little; more older persons scolding youth to take risks that these same persons weren’t willing to take themselves when they were younger. These are thorny issues of trust and connection facing too many of our cultures that the structure of a rights-based convention might help us locate the motivation to address, but is unlikely to resolve.

Thankfully, there were several examples that came across our office this week attesting to the enduring value of older persons who are comfortable in their skin and are able with kindness and attentiveness to help us all chart the best way forward. For instance, two colleagues of ours have launched a website, http://doinggoodsayswho.com  devoted to stories of persons (mostly indigenous in Guatemala) who have been on the receiving end of what is often well-intended but inattentive caregiving.  Connie Newton and Fran Early conducted hundreds of interviews with Guatemalans, NGOs and others on the often ignored cultural implications of humanitarian response, but it is their modest reflections on their own lifetimes of advocacy and service that are of the most enduring value.  They understand and communicate that what we “know” is less important to others than what we have learned, including about how to co-create contexts of dignified assistance to others.

Back at the UN this past week, Guatemala’s Amb. Rosenthal presided over discussions regarding a Secretary-General mandated review of peacebuilding that was noteworthy for its honest and even courageous assessments.  Rosenthal used the report as backdrop to help “shake up” the peacebuilding establishment, urging more focus on conflict prevention than on rebuilding after conflict has run its course, closer connections to the development community and the Security Council, peace processes that are “enabling rather than imposed.” It was in some ways the epitome of what younger persons should expect from elder statesmen and women – institutional memory deployed in the service of institutional reform, couched in an invitation to the assembled group to make peacebuilding into something more robust, reliable and attentive to what is to come rather than what has been.

Of course, we elders should confess the truth about ourselves as well as our institutions, including the truth that we have not always been the best of global stewards.   Our actions have at times belied our articulated values.  Our need to maintain control has sometimes undermined the sincerity of our invitations to youth participation.   We have tabled too many hopeful suggestions for healing our planet and then walked away from some of them when their degrees of difficulty became apparent.  We have largely forgotten, as Deputy Secretary General Eliasson noted at a recent “global governance” event, that being a “catalyst” for others to lead is a most valuable contribution once our own ‘turn’ at leadership begins to draw to a close.

At the closing session of the Open Ended Working Group on Ageing, Argentina’s Estrémé underscored “the heart and the will” of many to support elder rights. But to truly promote reliable, enduring contexts for elder care, we also need “heart and will” for a significant reboot in cultures that are slowly losing their inter-generational connectivity.  The legitimate rights of older persons can only be enhanced through elderly expressions of kindness, perspective and courage, as well as by a demonstrated commitment to serve as guide and catalyst for youthful aspiration as we enlarge spaces for their participation and eventual leadership.

Bringing Home the Groceries:  The UN Seeks Practical Ways to Honor Mass Atrocity’s Victims, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Jul

Srebrenica

Waking up early on this Saturday morning in New York, twitter was overwhelmed with images such as this one from the BBC – a woman overcome with grief for relatives and neighbors likely killed without much of anyone knowing the specifics of who or how. Perhaps she is also uttering an urgent prayer that conditions that led to the last round of genocidal violence will not recur, such that a woman as herself will not have to sit amidst the dead and wonder about the stories never told, the impunities never ended.

It’s uncertain whether or not such a prayer will be answered.   From news reports, the Srebrenica anniversary has generated ugliness as well as grief, including the ugliness of Serbia’s restrictions on citizens seeking to call attention to the genocide and the still-unfilled promise of reconciliation that the end of the Balkans war once suggested.   Untreated wounds are always the ones that fester.

Of the many positive events at this UN this week on Ebola response and sustainable development commitments, the Security Council’s efforts to agree on a resolution honoring the victims of the Srebrenica massacre was especially discouraging.  As is widely known, the resolution was vetoed by Russia and abstained by four other states.   Russia’s rationale was tied to its belief that the resolution implied unilateral Serbian culpability for the massacre and diminished the suffering that Serbs also experienced during that protracted conflict.

US Ambassador Samantha Power also made one of the more powerful statements of the session, noting that Bosnians had expected to be protected by the UN flag, but were failed by all of us.  In that same vein, DSG Eliasson rightly reflected that atrocity crime prevention and response represents an indispensable,core mandate of the UN which we have “with humility and regret” largely failed to deliver.

Indeed, the Bosnians are not the only victims of contemporary mass violence, not the only ones failed by neighboring states and the international community alike.   Not by a large measure.   One of the twitter commentators from my morning search implored us to please spare her the “never again” mantra.  Indeed, we all need to be spared the endless hand-wringing emanating from policies that have largely failed victims and have not been sufficiently adjusted in order to ensure that hopeful outcomes are that much more likely.

At times, it seem as though we humans are hell-bent on destroying ourselves at the tips of so many guns before our damaged climate threatens our extinction and our environment can no longer support our rapacious lifestyles.  We have proven to be a clever species, the cleverest we know of to date, but wisdom remains painfully elusive.

I do wish that the Russians had not vetoed this resolution, especially after it appears that the UK had at least made an attempt to author a balanced resolution. But the Russians were not the only resolution skeptics, nor did any of that skepticism prevent members from standing together in solidarity in chambers with the victims.  And let us also be clear:  the woman in the graveyard above and countless more like her are unlikely to be healed, let alone placated, by ceremonies and moments of silence and resolutions emanating from the UN.  Anyone who thinks otherwise has never been close enough to genuine, gut-wrenching personal tragedy, the kind that eats away at your soul and drags you back to the dark places you haven’t the energy to escape.

A Lesbian friend (once badly abused and now successfully married) lives by the following wisdom: don’t tell me you love me, just bring home the groceries.  In this instance, the ‘groceries’ represent a system-wide commitment to prevent the violence that we clearly don’t have the tools to address after the fact, at least not without ourselves becoming complicit in patterns of abuse that both diminish our institutional stature and violate key provisions of the UN charter. As the Deputy Secretary-General noted in his Security Council remarks, we need accountability measures in UN system that can honor Srebrenica victims and prevent new crimes.  More likely, until we can demonstrate our consistent ability to prevent such crimes from occurring in the first instance, all our honoring is as straw in the wind.

Mass atrocity violence demonstrates clear potential to undermine other core UN activities designed to promote human rights and good governance, ensure sustainable development, even to reverse the climate crisis that threatens our very existence.   Thus, preventing such violence should be as important to all facets of the UN system as our rhetoric (and our moments of silence) suggest.

Simply put, we need to stop playing politics with prevention.   We need to end once and for all what DSG Eliasson referred to as the “polarizing divisions” in peacekeeping operations and other core UN functions.  We need to move beyond policy gimmicks to dependable preventive architecture. Once the graveyards are filled and the children have lost hope, we have all failed no matter how clever or seemingly robust our too-late-in-the-game protective measures turn out to be.

For governments, delegations and NGOs, this is our watershed moment.  There are so many threats now, all inter-related and many still gathering momentum.   If there ever was a moment to share less rhetoric and bring home more groceries, this is it.

A Climate Conducive to Peace:  The UN Confronts its Exterior and Interior Spaces, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Jul

The unofficial theme of this past week at the UN was ‘climate week,’ from the High Level Political Forum in ECOSOC and a General Assembly High Level event, to numerous side events ranging from Oceans to Migrants and an Arria Formula discussion in the Security Council, led by Malaysia and Spain, focused on climate as a ‘threat multiplier.”

Among the features of this week’s events, in addition to momentum-gathering efforts to counter what the Secretary-General referred to as a “snail’s pace” of urgent UN action on climate health, was the high-level presence of policy leaders from the Small Island Developing States (SIDS).

SIDS political and civil society leadership have long called for urgent measures to stem the tide of an eroding climate, a “tide” that is causing mass flooding, the destruction of fish stocks, the pollution of ocean habitats, even what Kiribati activist Alofa cited in the Security Council as the “great sadness” occasioned by the very real possibility of eventually having to abandon her family home.  As Seychelles noted, the SIDS must be considered as a “special development case,” but many states are coming to realize the degree to which SIDS crises have both been ignored and are increasingly being mirrored in other global regions.  As an Italian Minster warned, climate threats “know no borders, require no visas.”

Despite this growing awareness, progress on firm, remedial measures remains stilted. In the General Assembly, Kiribati’s President Tong cited a “loss of hope” from telling the same story over and over and wondering if anyone is listening.   As noted by Palau Minister Beck in the “One Ocean” event, whether we are prepared or not, the dire predictions of last generations’ climate scientists appear to be coming true.  And as Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Debrum prodded the Council (which had last taken up climate 2 years ago), “what has really changed” in our collective response? The answer echoing through all the week’s events was, clearly not enough.  As DSG Eliasson lamented with a good deal of off-the-cuff passion, “we are not at peace with nature.”  We have not, as Sweden shared in the Arria meeting, done our part to “supplant national red lines with nature’s red lines” nor have we fully grasped, as noted by Poland, the full relationship between the health of oceans and other ecosystems and the success of our development efforts to eradicate poverty once and for all.

And while some states wondered if the Council should be heavily invested in climate issues apart from interactions with ECOSOC and other relevant UN agencies and programs, the peace and security implications of climate were also laid bare.  Lithuania was one of several states which highlighted the degree to which a damaged climate can be a “driver of insecurity.”  And Chile provided its own thoughtful statement that underscored climate’s role in bringing otherwise latent conflicts, especially over water access, into the open.  In this context, Chile wisely reinforced the human rights and gender dimensions to any Security Council or other UN actions designed to counter or even reverse climate-related security threats.

All of this discussion – in the Council, in ECOSOC and the General Assembly, in some extraordinary side events – was welcome if perhaps a bit late in the game.  But all of it also pointed to another ‘climate’ dimension, the climate we have created within our diplomatic and UN walls, a climate that equally needs attention and even healing if we expect the global public – and especially younger generations – to trust our ‘strategic sincerity’ to manage this planet-threatening  crisis.

Why indeed, many wonder, is it taking so long for the international community to respond to what is such an obvious external threat, risking an overheated and contaminated bequest to future generations of which we should be at least alarmed and probably also ashamed?  We have our own analysis, but many of the answers lie in the words of the diplomats whom themselves are authors and products of an interior version of our ‘climate’ challenge.

Part of this struggle of internal climate is related to the habits, some helpful some destructive, that we dutifully cultivate but rarely interrogate.  In ECOSOC it was Romania’s MP Borbely who noted how the most “beautiful” sustainability plans are undermined by our “stubborn mindsets.”    South Africa chimed in at the same event, noting our collective consumer culture that has gotten “out of hand,” a habit that is difficult to break but which must somehow be tamed if we are to convince skeptical publics that UN climate policy can truly inspire altered behaviors on the scale needed.

Then there are the other messages we send, often incidentally, that undermine public confidence in our internal climate and the decisions that proceed from it.  For instance, in a discussion in the Security Council this week on Darfur and the International Criminal Court, as is protocol in such matters, the Sudanese Ambassador was given the final word, attacking the professionalism of Prosecutor Bensouda and allowing those who were witness to the statement to come away thinking that the Sudan government was a victim of a witch hunt rather than a perpetrator of abuse on a mass scale.  As is their habit, the Council members had already spoken.  None came to the defense of Bensouda’s mandate amidst the Sudanese assault, and protocol granted no permission for her to come to her own.

The next day in the Council’s monthly ‘wrap up” session the UK’s Ambassador Rycroft called attention to another sometimes dispiriting aspect of our institutional habit – the endless reading by officials of policy statements, largely in impersonal and dispassionate tones. His concern seemed to be in part with presentations that are repetitive, abstract, do not respond directly to other state positions and are, as New Zealand noted during the same meeting, a means of “scoring points” rather than solving problems in places like Yemen, Syria or Palestine. Such failures of political resolve, as Malaysia noted, undermine confidence in a fundamental responsibility of the UN system, and this confidence is eroded further as states address in monotone while onlookers seek some passion.  As someone new around the Council table Amb. Rycroft’s statement suggested, perhaps against hope, that Council members can communicate a more personal, caring and even urgent engagement in their dealings with each other and with respect to the billions of people living at the edge of our policy decisions.

The sometimes tired, habitual  and even mean-spirited messages that can be experienced in many UN meeting rooms may seem unrelated to climate policy, but such messages can collectively undermine public confidence in our ability to adjust institutional habits in constructive ways to fit the world’s urgent circumstances. If we at the UN — people of education and privilege — cannot (will not) shift the energy of the structures and protocols of our institutions and their (in this instance) climate-related decisionmaking, there is little reason to believe that the more modestly situated will be able and willing to do so.  Especially on climate, it is discouraging at best to see stakeholders fussing over ice cream that is seconds away from melting on the floor.

Back at the General Assembly event, the Secretary-General virtually begged delegations to “quicken your pace and raise your ambitions.”   That an existential threat such as climate change would require such a plea is perhaps more telling than the plea itself.   We understand full well that science-generated data sets alone do not drive policy, let alone its consensus.   But the circumstances to which this data points will require all of us one day to answer for any and all vestiges of our stubborn neglect.   By not changing our messaging and (more importantly) our policy content on climate, we risk being roundly scorned in our absence by another generation that will be forced to cope with a crisis that may no longer be able to be resolved.

In that same General Assembly event, President Tong of Kiribati expressed his longing, one day soon, to be able to say to the world’s children “you don’t need to worry anymore” about climate health.  Getting to this ‘peace of mind’ (not to mention ‘peace with nature’) will take more compassion from all of us, as Elder HE Mary Robinson explained during a recent side event; but also an institutional commitment to “prioritize the most vulnerable and least responsible.”  In other words, we must commit more to encouraging that hopeful combination of less change in our external climate, and more change in our internal one.