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The UN’s Anniversary Season:   September Barricades and Ritual Benefits, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Sep

This past week, the UN hosted three events – on the 10th anniversary of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP), on promoting a Culture of Peace, and on ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) – all of which are now annual events on the UN’s September calendar.   On Monday the 14th (today) there is another commemoration, 10 years of addressing threats posed by incitement to commit terrorist acts based on Security Council Resolution (SCR) 1624.  Later this fall, Spain will preside over a 15 year celebration and review of SCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security.   Other commemorative events will quickly fill the UN calendar in its 70th year.

Anniversaries can be the stuff of Hallmark Cards, full of sentimentality and, at times, optimism bordering on escapism.  We’ve all “celebrated” anniversaries in one form or other – marriages, birthdays, work tenure, institutional longevity.   Some of these milestones represent true celebrations of high achievement – productivity, loyalty, innovation – while others chronicle sorrows, disappointments and unfulfilled expectations.  Probably most fall somewhere else, in that uneasy space between knowing we’ve done well with what we’ve been given, and knowing that we haven’t yet done enough.

Such is the case as well for our small office, now honoring and assessing 10 years of Global Action’s (GAPW) current leadership.   We’ve done some good things, made some stable connections, helped launch new initiatives, written books and blogs, tweeted across the social universe, mentored many extraordinary young people, etc.   And still the ice caps melt, refugees gather desperately at sometimes hostile borders, human rights take a beating from Yemen to Ukraine, species are pushed towards extinction,  pandemics are one unsuspecting host away from emerging, weapons continue to flow in many deadly directions.

Have we “done our jobs,” or have we not?   Some days it is hard to tell.  Clearly the problems that persist on our watch and that have defied resolution over many years should make us pause – and keep our advocacy strategies humble.  But pausing is not the same as giving in, and humility is the proper accompaniment of hopefulness, not its adversary.

Yesterday, friends of GAPW hosted a Garden Party to honor our past 10 years of mostly modest achievements.  Among its other benefits, the Party was a reminder of how important it is for persons, communities and institutions to invest in ritual celebrations of many kinds.  Such rituals serve as ‘place markers’ for people in the midst of so much change, so much turmoil.   In a world of such a pace as ours, with so many demands and accompanying distractions, it is important for all of us to double back on the memories and symbols that help to define our life paths.   It is important for us in this work to smile a bit more and also to renew pledges not to lose touch with the values and aspirations that motivated participation in our loftiest projects in the first instance.

But as intimated by CTBTO’s Lassina Zerbo during last week’s session, there is always more to be done than honoring and remembering.  There is also assessing and changing to address new circumstances.  In practical terms during this “anniversary season,” there is also the need to ask how we can best expand efforts towards full CTBT ratification, how we can push the Responsibility to Protect norm into a broader diplomatic engagement within the UN General Assembly (as several states in last week’s interactive debate suggested), how we can advocate for cultures of peace when there is sometimes so little peace within us or around us.

Soon to come at the UN is another “anniversary” of sort – that time each September when we are all reminded of our true place in the global hierarchy.  The conference rooms that we visit many hours each day will become largely off limits to us.   For this short period, we apparently become more of annoyance to the UN system than a valued accompaniment, a security threat more than a welcome advocate for a fair and inclusive global system.

There are currently no rituals to give meaning to these annual restrictions, and probably no taste for developing any.  But for us and perhaps for others on the non-state side of the UN system, this has now become our time for seasonal assessment of the ways in which we are – or are not – fulfilling the responsibilities entrusted to us. This is our time to ensure we are doing all we can with whatever means we have at our disposal such that the “high level” doors to access for the needs and aspirations of diverse civil society are not closed to all, even if some are temporarily closed to us.

For this office in its 10th year, the “promised land” still largely exists in the form of a promise. During the UN’s anniversary period, as so many temporary access barriers are being erected, we will lay plans for engagement – both policy and ritual – to offer our best guidance, attentiveness and hospitality to the diplomatic community once our freedom has been restored to resume walking the long road that now lies in front of us.