Archive | August, 2015

Opening the Closet:  The Security Council addresses violence affecting LGBT persons, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Aug

This past week, with peacekeeper abuse in Central African Republic and the first meeting of states parties to the Arms Trade Treaty commanding much attention, it was the Security Council that took pride of place in the UN.

A particularly hopeful development took place on Monday as the US and Chile hosted an Arria Formula event to highlight discrimination and abuse suffered by LGBT persons in diverse cultural contexts, with a particular focus on abuses concocted and perpetrated in Syria and Iraq by ISIL.

As one would anticipate given the speakers, which included persons who had been directly affected by violence and threats of violence merely for their sexual expressions, some of the testimony was gruesome.  Reports were numerous of alleged violators of ISIL’s interpretation of Islamic moral codes being tossed from the roofs of buildings and then stoned to death by onlookers if the fall failed to kill them first.

And while efforts were made (perhaps excessively) to keep the spotlight on ISIL’s abuses, there was also acknowledgement of a deeper problem.  As one speaker put it, if ISIL didn’t get me, my own family would.  LGBT persons continue to experience discrimination in many forms, in many cultures, and with many unwelcome consequences.   DSG Eliasson noted during the event that “there are no exceptions to human rights protections,” regardless of circumstance or, in this instance, preferences.   But some states and communities clearly failed to get this memo as people worldwide continue, as reinforced by a Syrian refugee speaker, to be “terrorized by intolerance.”

Indeed, our capacity for discriminating against others, and for enforcing discriminatory patters through violent means, seems to have no bounds. Too many of us have still not evolved from needing to create hierarchies, to feel superior, to adopt normative frameworks for our own lives and then seek to impose them on others.   The US is often cited (and chided) for its claims of national exceptionalism, but many societies and social movements have tendencies to claim superiority and enforce “in group – out group” discrimination. And as we have seen from Syria to Myanmar and in several African states, these collective (as Lithuania called them) “excuses for gross violence” have grave implications for international peace and security, certainly for our ability to build and maintain stable and peaceful societies.

In listening to the challenging narratives of this Arria Formula, it was good to have those “excuses” called out by Council members, to be reminded by Chile and others that silence on LGBT violence simply emboldens those seeking to perpetrate it.  And while France may have over-reached a bit in using this particular session to invoke International Criminal Court jurisdiction with respect to ISIL, it was reassuring that states seemed to interpret this session as something more than what the US referred to as “an historic step” of bringing the Council together to condemn crimes against LGBT persons.  As France, the US and the other Council members know full well, condemnation has little effect without effective follow up measures.

A few other things occurred to us while listening to the statements:

First, as is too often the case, the Council diminished what was a largely successful incursion by failing to acknowledge other efforts within the UN to call attention to abuses perpetrated against LGBT persons.  While the ISIL abuses are certainly grotesque, they should properly be seen as aberrations of already aberrant behavior by some states and communities, aberrations that should largely remain the province of General Assembly and Human Rights Council, especially once states demonstrate their inability or unwillingness to provide domestic remedies for abuse.   For those wondering if, indeed, there would have been just cause for Council members to cite the LGBT-related efforts of other stakeholders in the UN system, please visit .

Secondly, and we hesitate to make this point again, while it is important to take stock of abuses committed against persons and communities, and there are so many to choose from in this discouraging time, stories of abuse do not in and of themselves suggest a remedial framework.   That such stories can (or at least should) create urgency is beyond doubt, but urgency in what form?   What is the most effective response strategy going forward?  How do we address such abuse within the limitations of the UN Charter, the will of key member states, certainly the requirements of international human rights law?  It is most important, as noted by New Zealand, to put a “human face” on violations, by ISIL or any other abuser.  But faces of pain are the motivation for thoughtful, effective policy, not a stand-in for it.

Finally, we wonder about the use of Council time and energy on these particular ISIL violations, aside from the important matter of highlighting an issue of discrimination that is massive in some states and present in almost all, albeit one that is most likely to be resolved through other UN forums.  If an objective of this Arria Formula was to highlight the breadth and venom of ISIL abuses in Syria and Iraq, we alredy have more than sufficient evidence in hand.  Jordan aptly highlighted the degree to which “ISIL trades in fear,” as Colombia noted that ISIL violence denies core UN Charter provisions.  But for Council members all of this is old news that may have actually diverted a bit of the focus from the specifics (and pervasiveness) of LGBT-related discrimination itself.

For those who think it callous to question any aspect of Council efforts to call attention to this serious pattern of discrimination and abuse affecting LGBT persons, I would refer you to a series of briefings this week in Security Council chambers focused on events in Syria, Central African Republic and South Sudan.   In each instance, the escalating levels of violence, discrimination and displacement reported simply stagger the imagination.   All of these crises are already on the Security Council agenda and all have resisted some or all of its efforts to address the violence and the humanitarian crises in its wake.   Seemingly with each briefing, the vast numbers of reported abused, neglected and forsaken continue to grow.  Frustration with Council responses – rightly or wrongly – increases as well.

Argentina was perhaps the most “vocal” of the states to speak at this Arria Formula, using the opportunity to link LGBT violence to “femicide” and many other discrimination-related abuses that now occur frequently even in times of “peace.” Argentina also, to the amusement of some in the room, urged the Council itself to “come out of the closet.”  Amb. Percival was referring specially to the fact that the Arria meeting was closed to the press – which was actually a concession to the fact that testimony was offered by a gay Iraqi activist who himself faced grave threats of violence at home.

But there is meaning here that might add value going forward.  “Closets,” after all, keep in as well as keep out.  They are useful, even metaphorically, in protecting conversations and behavior from outside scrutiny.  They help preserve the private sphere, important for those “terrorized by intolerance,” but much less so for the governments and multi-lateral agencies seeking to build passion and capacity for addressing broader discrimination-related violence that causes so much misery in our contemporary world.

If this Arria Formula is indeed to become that “historic step,” it needs to be taken in full connection with those addressing intolerance across the UN system and beyond.  The “closet” door must be swung open to provide better access for all capable and relevant stakeholders – not only on LGBT matters but on the many other forms of discrimination and related abuse that seriously impede peace and security progress worldwide.

Police Academy:  The UN Security Council Considers the Needs of the Security Sector, Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Aug

This past Friday, Nigeria led the UN Security Council in a discussion on Security Sector Reform (SSR) that hit almost all the right notes and helped push forward an important agenda that Nigeria itself had initiated during its last tenure (2014) as Security Council president.

The concept note prepared by Nigeria for this meeting was comprehensive in scope and generous in its observations about the need for an “SSR Compact” that cuts across sectors and involves (or should involve) a wide range of national and international actors, including the UN General Assembly and other UN capacities associated with peace operations and sustainable development.  Indeed, Nigeria’s intent was evident from the briefers asked to participate in this debate – from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the UN Development Program, and the office of the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.  Over and over, the point was made that national security institutions must be able to “provide security to the population in an effective and accountable manner,” and that such “peace sustainment” (ASG Titov, DPKO) requires wisdom and political commitment well beyond that which might emanate from the Security Council.

With the exception of a few botched attempts to pronounce the names of the presenters, and given references to the stalled peace process in South Sudan by both Russia and the US, Council member statements were helpful and relevant to both the concept note and the issues of peace and security which can more readily be resolved through reliable, accountable security sector engagements. Presenters and diplomats alike understood well the implications of SSR for the general health of societies, especially those emerging from conflict.   They also recognized the indispensability of a vibrant security sector to the fulfillment of cross-cutting, comprehensive, sustainable development goals (SDGs), including the ability of that sector to control borders (Chad), interdict illicit weapons (Malaysia), help rebuild trust in state legitimacy (Spain and Venezuela), promote “community policing” and other place-based initiatives (US), encourage “parallel adjustments” in prison and judicial systems (Chile), eliminate economic inequalities (China) and support more mediation efforts to resolve violence in its early stages (Jordan).

There was even a most welcome acknowledgment by ASG Titov (echoed by the UK) that SSR should be understood as part of our conflict prevention responsibilities rather than an obligation assumed only after state institutions are under siege from terrorists or altogether lying in ruins.  And SRSG Bangura’s idea that “vigilance” regarding commitments to end sexual violence has value in terms of the “professionalization” of SSR is certainly worth a second (and third) look.

Still, despite all of the welcome reflection, the constant referencing to successes in SSR being “as much political as technical” requires a bit of interrogation.

I understand what Council members and briefers intend by this.   They understand that a well-armed, well-trained security sector must remain under effective state control, especially during times of high tension; and that such states must be committed to non-discriminatory application of security sector capacities with full regard for the rights of both the accused and incarcerated.   Council members also understood that a fair and functional security sector can promote state confidence and legitimacy in the same way that an unfair and dysfunctional sector can undermine them.  At the same time, ASG Nakamitsu (UNDP) seemed to warn the Council against being too impatient with SSR, urging members instead to do more to build “political will” for sustained SSR beyond what can reasonably be expected to be accomplished by peace operations or other UN country team components.

But beyond this, I also know that when many global constituents hear the word “political” coming from key UN agencies, especially given all of the security-related controversies currently filling our airwaves, what they are more likely to hear is “politicized.” And “politicized” is anathema to the sustainable trust-building to which Security Council members and their briefers aspire.

As well it should be. We want our security sector to be as professional as possible in the best sense – responsive of course, but respectful also.   Well-equipped of course, but also restrained in the uses to which that equipment is put, even under the most threatening of circumstances. Able to manage security-related crises of course, but also to manage them in a manner that does not violate the fundamental rights of either victims or perpetrators.

Security provision in this best and perhaps more technical sense, is difficult business; even more in societies emerging from conflict where much of a security sector may lie in shambles with spoilers seeking to take advantage amidst the ruins.    But when that “business” becomes unconstrained, when training on the use of force and the rights of citizens has been insufficient or – shall we say – “politicized,” then prospects for abuse and suspicion abound.  Then we are more likely to have the specter of a security sector that defends some interests and not others; that enforces laws in some public sectors and neighborhoods and not in others; that defends the interests of the powerful against the legitimate interests of the weak or marginal; that takes liberties with the very same laws that it is otherwise sworn to uphold.

When it comes to the matter of SSR — urgent for so many aspects of peace transitions, public safety and even social participation – we should remain wary of any implications that might place the political and technical at cross purposes. Rather, we must do all we can to ensure that “political” dimensions do not degenerate into “politicized” applications that only increase the “fear” by women and other citizens that, as noted by Lithuania and other states, a properly engaged, justice-committed security sector should aim to remove.   Simply put, a politicized security sector only makes it more likely that the technical competencies assembled by state security forces will serve discriminatory, unjust ends rather than inspire public confidence.

The Nigerian “Compact” is well-conceived, clearly needed and consistent with ASG Titov and Council members’ admonitions for “balanced,” state-driven, mutually reinforcing SSR.   We urge Nigeria to continue to organize these important discussions throughout the UN system beyond the end of its Security Council service later this year.

Sky King:  Policy and cultural consequences of the chaos circling our planet, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Aug

Space Junk

At the end of July, the European Union hosted an event that was hopeful in content but also a bit jarring for some states regarding process.  A week-long session to push forward Multi-National Negotiations on an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities was held inside the UN with assistance from the Office for Disarmament Affairs.

As articulated by Mr. Jacek Bylica of the European External Action Service, the proposed Space Code of Conduct includes confidence-building measures that cover both civilian and military outer space activities.  The welcome goal is to “prevent space from becoming an area of conflict” in part by providing a voluntary framework to resolve disputes in outer space by peaceful means.

There is much value to be gained from such an activity. Where weapons are concerned, the UN is often accused of lagging far behind the negotiating curve, restricting weapons, as it were, that no state still covets, while turning a mostly blind eye to weapons innovations that are soon to dramatically change the security landscape.  The militarization of space would certainly qualify as a security “game changer,” though the proposed Space Code suggests no outright prohibitions against space weaponry, nor does it presume to propose standards that are “legally binding” in any relevant sense.  That states are attentive to some of the negative implications of the misuse of space while seeking to create the means for resolving space disputes is to be commended, though there are clearly urgent security-related dimensions of space use that such a Code is not yet prepared to address.

The trick moving forward is, as a number of states have brought out, to find the best means to merge the EU Code with relevant General Assembly measures, especially with regard to resolution 65/68 (which directly references the EU Code); as well as to any potential discussions that might take place in the Conference on Disarmament about “preventing an arms race in outer space.”  In this instance as in others, “doing the right thing” means doing it the “right way.”  Despite discouragement regarding how the UN copes with weapons challenges which has led to more efforts to pursue disarmament agreements outside of UN conference rooms, the EU surely recognizes that the path towards full, enthusiastic state negotiations on a Code of Conduct requires ongoing, supportive engagement with all relevant UN processes.

Listening to a good bit of the Code of Conduct discussion, my mind wandered in another direction.  It seemed as though the “space: beyond the outer reaches of our planetary biosphere was being described in these meetings as one might describe a messy apartment – clutter that impacts functionality and even breeds dangers.   But an apartment is a “home” as well as a locus of functionality as much as the sky beyond the clouds has psychic and cultural meaning beyond being a storage facility for communications equipment, spy satellites and abandoned spacecraft.

In this city (New York) where “quality time” with the sky is elusive at best, we live with the psychological consequences of restrictive urban vistas–specifically the tendency to behave as though we are the center of the universe rather than a spec in cosmic vastness.  To gaze skyward is to remind ourselves that our personal compromises and petty grievances are simply that – the growing proclivity to turn something casually important into major human drama.  There are satisfactory psychological explanations for this tendency, but the failure to see a larger picture is more a function of our limitations of habit than of psychic capacity.   We too often “practice petty” in our daily urban interactions, and thus the resulting social structures to which we contribute encourage more pettiness than is in our best and healthiest interest.

The ability to see a bigger picture and keeping that picture in focus as we attend to the concrete needs of persons and communities, should be a prerequisite for diplomatic and NGO service in multi-lateral frameworks.  That we so often mistake our particular aesthetic and moral preferences for universal interests represents a failure of our education and our politics.   We have been trained to pursue narrow self-interests not global ones, or even worse to equate narrow policy interests with universal consensus.  We have been trained to micro-manage outcomes rather than explore their many possibilities.  We have habituated ourselves to stare at the sidewalk (or into smaller and smaller digital spaces) rather than seek vistas where we can still gaze into the incomparably vast (though at this point apparently shrinking) cosmos. Hopefully we can continue to find places for gazing can both re-calibrate our often intensely limited contexts, and maybe even increase our commitment to keeping space free of deadly weapons and other needless junk.

This last point illustrates another, more ominous reason to gaze skyward now, as our windows into eternity are littered with debris and danger – debris from all the matter we have launched into space that both enables and threatens this digital age, and danger from all of the “dual use” and single-focus devices that spy and coordinate attacks on our “enemies.”  Space might well be, as the Star Trek introduction puts it, “the final frontier.”  But more and more that “frontier” is brimming with both space junk and deployed (and projected) weapons systems, systems that will forever alter traditional security equations and that threaten to fundamentally change what remains of our positive, healthful and even romantic relationship to sky.

As one who has thrived on relatively unimpeded galaxy views from Oklahoma to South Africa, I mourn the ongoing encasing of our planet in more and more dangerous junk. Indeed, that old television phrase “look out below” will never have more relevance than at the point when we master the ability to rain destruction from the heavens on the unsuspecting, merely at the push of a button.  This newest level of militarized abstraction will inevitably increase levels of public insecurity, perhaps dramatically so. It will surely also compromise the wonder and benefits of gazing into the heavens, a source of awe and inspiration for so many millions over so many centuries.

Dog Days:  The UN Catches its Breath as Global Challenges Fill its August Calendar, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Aug

For those of you who follow US baseball, the “Dog Days of August” represents that time when (now mostly overpaid) players are on the field virtually every day, in the hot sun, with no prospect of time off, let alone occasions for mountain hikes or naps by the pool.  It is a time when tempers are short, thoughtfulness is largely absent and trust in humanity (let alone in umpires) is at a premium.

A UN version of “dog days” might refer to this current time between the energy-draining but successful adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals outcome document and the frenzy that is sure to characterize the September opening of the 70th UN General Assembly.

Despite a relentless (and sometimes frustrating) workload this year and given the longing that some might have for family picnics and time at the beach to read something other than policy briefs, the UN is still very much open for business. Nigeria’s August presidency of the Security Council promises to keep diplomats in their seats as events in Mali, Central African Republic (CAR), Yemen and elsewhere require vigilance, the recent resolution to investigate culpability for chlorine and other chemical weapons use in Syria seeks operational clarity, and important work continues on establishing more trusting relations with regional security mechanisms.

Outside the Council, the UN has been wrestling this week with ways to integrate (and provide full access to) global geospatial data, a key element in assessing shifts in land use patterns, waterfront erosion, climate patters and other matters essential to successful implementation of the recently-adopted Sustainable Development Goals.  Attacks on UN peacekeepers by “spoilers,” murky elections in some host states, and unresolved scandals involving soldiers who are duty bound to protect civilians provide ample fodder for consultations and response planning.   And annual events dedicated to youth and indigenous people are reminders to all of us that equal rights to health care, education and other necessities remain elusive for millions, and that the legitimate needs and goals of future generations are still being compromised by too many short-term decisions made by the current generation of authorities.

And for many, thoughts in August turn to Japan and the annual ritual surrounding those whose lives were ended now 70 years ago in a flash – two flashes actually – from nuclear explosions authored by US authorities. As the surviving Hibakusha and their direct testimony depart this world, we are left with endless arguments about the necessity of weapons use as a means of ending WWII.  More importantly perhaps to current and future generations, we are also left with nuclear stockpiles that are decreasing in size at a snail’s pace while having their capacities modernized at a rapid one.

GAPW closely follows the work of groups such as the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and thus we leave most of the policy advocacy on these weapons to them.  But given that UN headquarters failed to hold a ceremony on Hiroshima Day for the first time in recent memory, and that Nagasaki day falls (today) on a Sunday, a few comments from our own security policy vantage point seems appropriate.

After 70 years of production, threatening gestures and now deliberate, expensive modernization, nuclear weapons remain for most possessor states an addictive element of their national security doctrines. Like alcoholics recovering from a drinking binge and pledging never to drink again, there is episodically bold talk among nuclear weapons possessors of “getting to zero,” of eliminating these weapons once and for all.  And yet, disarmament structures and treaties designed to facilitate elimination are routinely ignored or even deliberately undermined.  Moreover, modernization processes for nuclear weapons are underway (as far as we know) in all current national arsenals, with a price tag according to some reports significantly exceeding a trillion dollars.

Here is a trillion dollar tip:  States don’t modernize weapons if they plan to rid themselves of them.

As many nuclear weapons activists worldwide have noted repeatedly, the consequences of detonation of such massive weapons would be enough to permanently disrupt, if not existentially threaten, life as we know it.  Such detonations would be sufficiently destructive such that survivors might well envy the dead; that the “dog days” following such blasts would make most survivors long for anything approaching normalcy or basic sufficiency, even those hot, sticky, low-energy August days around UN headquarters. Despite the “humanitarian consequences” aptly described over several generations, we continue to play with this nuclear fire, keeping the nuclear threat at or near the top of a deadly list of self-inflicted “wounds” which much of our species seems unwilling to heal, let alone bind.

And here is another trillion dollar tip:   The almost inconceivable amount of money that we waste on nuclear and other weapons systems continues to rob future generations of funds to achieve sustainable development, reverse climate impacts, and guarantee health and educational opportunity for themselves and their own children.

The too-often horizontal, addictive and narcissistic dynamics of our defense and security policies are a source of discouragement and even anger for many, as a spate of news stories from Nagasaki and around the world today make clear.  It is almost beyond imagination that smart, caring, savvy adults can consistently craft policies that might succeed in easing a bit of global pressure but that fail to provide longer-view leadership for anxious people – including the young and indigenous persons who will fill the UN this month – who properly cringe at the thought of inheriting an overheated, bio-compromised, politically-polarized and overly militarized planet.

As ice caps melt, ocean storms intensify, areas of severe drought expand, specie extinctions accelerate and groups armed with second-hand weapons show first-hand contempt for the governments that have too-often neglected their interests, nuclear weapons in their current or modernized iterations represent one crisis waiting to happen that we simply can live without.  The lingering justifications for maintaining (let alone modernizing) these weapons are quickly eroding. Only the policy addictions (and their high price tags) remain intact.

In these “dog days” of August it might be wise for all of us still at work at the UN to spend a bit of time inside this week’s events focused on the needs, aspirations and skills of youth and indigenous persons.  These people, by tradition or generational temperament, demand a longer view on security and development policy, something wiser and less addictive than merely responding to the next alarm bell.  By indigenous standards, we have long since failed the “seventh generation” policy test.   Perhaps this month,on nuclear weapons and other global threats, we can find more of the wisdom and means needed to at least pass the “next generation” one.

(Desperately Seeking) Health Without Safe Water: A Reflection by Leah Caudell-Feagan

5 Aug

Editor’s Note:  The following (with very slight modifications) was written by Leah Caudell-Feagan currrently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. I came across this Blog the morning after the UN adopted the outcome document which recommends a new and ambitious set of Sustainable Development Goals to Heads of State who will gather at the UN in September.   One of those goals (#6) is expressly devoted to achieving universal access to safe and affordable drinking water by 2030.  Diplomats could hardly make a better case for such a commitment than Leah has here.

Health Without Safe Water

It simply can’t exist.

This is a fact that we all know. A woman from Gambia walked in the Paris marathon this year to show the lengths to which some people in the world have to go to obtain potable water. Matt Damon and other celebrities star in videos gone viral that try to shock us into understanding how crucial water is, and how big of a problem it is for so many.

A lack of water is a global issue, affecting too many people worldwide, though celebrities, activists, and normal citizens alike understand this problem mostly in a theoretical sense. I also had some awareness of this problem, even to the extent that I felt guilty when I took showers that were luxuriously long, or when I left the tap running while brushing my teeth. However, it was not until my Peace Corps service that I truly began to understand how critical water is to health.

After becoming intimately acquainted with life sans potable water, I can tell you from personal experience that a lack of water makes life harder in many ways, but none more taxing than losing control over your health. During my Peace Corps service I have constantly gone back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs because it has become relevant for me in ways I never imagined it would.


For the first time in my life, I became stuck in the first tier, not being able to climb past physiological needs to general safety. Maslow said it well–without water, there is no security of body or health. Following that truth, without security of body and health it becomes increasingly difficult to find footholds in the higher, more complicated needs and aspirations. Such a lack negatively impacts your esteem, and halts your ability to find time and energy for creativity and those things that truly make life feel exciting and stimulating. In simpler terms, if you are stuck in your house having diarrhea every 30 minutes, investing time in your friendships, feeling great about yourself, and thinking of ways to develop yourself and rise out of conditions of poverty all become pretty daunting if not completely impossible.

I realize that I am absolutely oversimplifying a complicated thought experiment and issue. I am speaking from what I have seen and my personal experiences of living without water and struggling with my health. My immune system and I were never the best of friends, and I’m not saying that I was the healthiest person before making a home in OjedaHowever, after multiple amoebas, Chinkungunya, more UTIs that I can count, multiple bacterial infections, pink eye, and a skin rash that despite being seen by doctors 4 different times still has no name, I definitely think that I can prove correlation between the lack of safe water and the health decline I experienced during my service. And those health issues don’t include the digestive irregularity that becomes a baseline for PCVs, the food poisoning that attacks frequently, and viruses that take over the community every few months. As my flight back to the states approaches, people keep asking me what I am most excited for. Before they can even finish asking the question I always blurt out “TO BE HEALTHY!”. What I’ve realized recently is that what I really am most excited for is water. Beautiful, running water that has no creatures swimming in it. Filtered water that needs only to be appreciated.

Living without water means the house is not clean. It means that the plates you eat off of and the food that is prepared are not as clean as they should be. It means that no matter how hard you try, you physically are not clean, because even if you go to the river twice a day to bathe, you are bathing with animals and the hoards of community members who are there beside you.  A lack of water means that even the most basic steps to staying healthy become impossible. Washing your hands is one of the surest ways to protect yourself against illness. I know this better than anyone here–I teach it. However, when I have one bucket of water to last me today and possibly tomorrow too, washing hands becomes another thing in the long list of activities to prioritize.

Health is a human right, and water is one as well. These shouldn’t be things that anyone in this world has to prioritize around or worry so much about.

My mom is constantly telling me about the guilt that she feels for having water when I, and all of my community members in the Dominican Republic, do not.. I definitely do not want anyone reading this to feel guilty. But she also tells me how grateful she is for every glass of water she fills up out of the tap to drink, and how much she appreciates the water that pours out of the shower heads and taps all over our house. That- the appreciation and gratitude- is what I want you to feel. I appreciate all of the people all over the world who are working towards ensuring that all human beings have access to water and all of those who donate their time, money and energy to this cause. And when I am eventually back in the land of free flowing, filtered water, I am positive that I will never again fail to feel grateful.

Treasure Hunt:  the UN seeks the means to honor the expectations it raises, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Aug

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” comes at the end of a passage in the Christian Bible that appears to be denigrating wealth but is actually warning about our over-identification with the things we own and control.  It is also a reminder that how we invest our energies and our riches says much about who we are – individually and collectively — and what we actually care about, beyond the rhetoric of our own self-definition.

This week there were other “treasure” lessons to be learned at the UN. As we know, the “need for funding” is a ubiquitous feature of virtually every UN discussion. The “world we want,” a common slogan to inspire interest in the (still awaiting adoption) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is very much related to the “world we wish to pay for.”  In one UN conference room after another, and to a degree that is unprecedented in UN history, issues from innovative peacekeeping to heart-breaking humanitarian disasters seek out willing investors.  While most of this “seeking” takes the form of overtures to wealthier governments, it is becoming more and more apparent that such investors are pulling back on at least some of their commitments.  Pledges are less and less likely to be fully honored.   And, as Global Policy Forum has recently made plain in a new report, “Fit for Whose Purpose?”, more and more UN-related funding is being diverted from core functions to earmarked projects more directly consistent with national interest.

The fiscal dilemma for the UN mirrors a potentially troubling credibility gap.  Our diverse, frenetic and largely hopeful activities at the UN are collectively raising expectations throughout the global community.  Fueled in large measure by UN-generated branding, people have come to expect that the SDGs will eliminate poverty and save our oceans and forests from devastation.   People have come to expect that the Arms Trade Treaty will dramatically reduce weapons-related violence, that peacekeeping operations will protect civilians threatened by rape and rebuild violence ravaged states, that wildlife trafficking will be eliminated and threats of extinctions averted.  Within limitations, many of these worthy goals are enhanced by UN activity, of course, but people far from UN negotiating rooms can’t always navigate the distance between text-based commitments and active, binding promises.  They can’t always distinguish between the “world we want” and the world with which we might well have to eventually make our peace.  The expectations we project from the UN are often grandiose and almost always underfunded.  And the disappointments they sometimes generate are felt widely and return to this institution the bewilderment of much of the global public.

As one means to bring expectations and resources into some balance and as a supplement to (real or rhetorical) state funding limitations, the UN is increasingly looking to “public-private sector partnerships.”  While some consideration is given to small business interests, it is the large corporations and foundations that are increasingly looked to fill funding gaps and help the UN fulfill more of its promises.   And there is reason not to dismiss the benefits of these arrangements out of hand.  However, as noted by Global Policy Forum, whether it is Coca Cola with UN Women or The Gates Foundation with the WHO, the hegemony of large entities “partnering” with an institution with whose core values and assumptions they might not be fully aligned should give pause to the many groups and their millions of constituents who will never receive an invitation to any “partner” seminars or receptions.  The UN may well be open for business, but the terms and potential benefits (and risks) of those negotiations remain among the least transparent in the entire UN system.

Are there other sources to fund ambitious SDGs that we are overlooking? Development funding from the major state donors has to compete with domestic concerns of course, but also in many cases with rapacious military appetites.   The “guns and butter” arguments that used to punctuate UN budget discussions, at least as introduced by NGOs, have largely been silenced. Weapons development and use remain major impediments to social development and environmental health, but these linkages now seem to have fallen off the policy table, swept aside by dysfunctional disarmament machinery and arms-friendly documents such as the Arms Trade Treaty and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Moreover, many advocates have invested heavily in a “peace” SDG goal 16 that barely notes the consequences of illicit weapons and doesn’t mention at all the more devastating impacts of “licit” weapons or the discouraging budgetary impacts of still-out-of-control military spending.

Instead of focusing on the most obvious (if perhaps also most taboo) source of development funding, the UN has chosen to invest its brand in these “partnerships” linking state, corporate and charitable stakeholders.  As is now being recognized, much more oversight of these ‘partnerships’ will be needed, many of which involve formidable players whose financial leverage literally dwarfs that of the countries they seek to “help.”  While we don’t anticipate signs outside the UN proclaiming “Disarmament Affairs brought to you by Bechtel” or “UNDP brought to you by Nestle” there is clearly danger that the intense product branding and generalized disinterest in those at the bottom of the consumer scale characteristic of too many large corporate entities will jeopardize more than enhance implementation of the final, adopted set of post-2015 development goals and targets.

More than ever, it seems, responsible NGOs will be characterized in part by their willingness to “follow the treasure,” and then carefully assess its implications for the UN system, even if that means temporarily reigning in some of their own branded program priorities.  Again as noted by Global Policy Forum this week, we are at a critical moment at the UN (as we are in the US and other large states) regarding the growing ability of “big money” to buy significant policy clout.  If NGOs don’t respond to the challenge of lifting this veil and keeping it open, it is not at all clear where this urgent scrutiny is to come from.

But this moment requires even more — taking a look at our own complicated relationship to money, the policy compromises and rationalizations that can occur when we willingly accept funding from states or other stakeholders, even the unwarranted branding that comes when donor states or corporations seek to promote their own grantees at the expense of other worthy (and often more diverse) stakeholders.   Moreover, as was apparent earlier this week during the Sovereign Debt Restructuring working session of the General Assembly, we are working now within an economic system characterized by shocking levels of abstraction in financial decisionmaking, rampant consumer excess, and governments content to enable economic predators as much as regulate them. Treasure, as it turns out, bears high potential for self-delusion by all “partners” – those holding the purse strings and those beholden to them.   And this delusion will have every bit as much to bear on the potential success of post-2015 development goals as the quality of the SDG outcome document.

The implications of our search for “treasure” are far reaching and not always as self-validating as we might think.   Many people, diplomats and NGOs alike, have poured their hearts into an SDG blueprint to end inequality and preserve the planet. As we move together from “the world we want” to the “world we make,” we would do well also to keep close track of the ways in which we obtain, budget and allocate whatever treasure for sustainable development is to be entrusted to us.