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.

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