Archive | October, 2015

Birthday Bashing:  The UN Seeks a New Resolve to Focus on What Matters, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Oct

On the 70th anniversary of the UN Charter, I’m on a flight path that will eventually take me to Mexico City for the launch of a volume with scholars from Instituto Mora and other institutions examining the impact of armed violence on the priorities and practices of the recently-minted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) , with a particular focus on the violence currently plaguing Central America.

While some governments refuse to acknowledge that there is any relevant relationship at all, it is clear to my office and other authors of this volume that armed violence in its various manifestations has implications for development that are alternately frightening and frustrating.  The presence of so many weapons in criminal hands (or in the hands of a ruthless security sector) creates conditions that suppress education, commerce, political participation and other essential human activities.

At this point in the life of the UN, there is general recognition of these linkages. The issue of course is how to ensure that our responses are genuinely consequential for communities.  Part of our work in Mexico City will be to discern strategic options for security sector engagement necessary to successful development and full political participation. But we seek engagement without “securitizing” development, that is, seeing security as an end in itself that can justify a range of discriminatory policies and human rights violations in the name of combating trafficking in weapons, narcotics and persons, or even combating insurgencies.  We seek alternative to a security system that, in the name of protecting communities, too often robs them of hope and contributes to gravely diminished prospects for diverse social and political involvement.

We will report on the outcomes from Mexico City in future posts.  What is clear now is that on this day when there is so much reflection on what the UN has and has not accomplished over 70 years, the recently endorsed SDGs represent a potentially monumental achievement, one that provides hope for diverse constituencies but also blends all three pillars of the UN system – development, human rights and peace and security – in productive and helpful ways that might well have encountered sustained political resistance just a few short years ago.

This more mature understanding of the policy web that can sustain peaceful societies is welcome news to Global Action, but also creates new challenges for our mostly young and part-time colleagues.   The philosophy of our work at the UN has some familiar benchmarks – providing hospitality for individuals and groups around the world seeking access to the UN system; paying close attention to what diplomats are doing and thinking; making issue connections between conference rooms, agencies and key organs such as the Security Council; and identifying the issues and relationships that can help define a life’s work for a new generation of schaolars and policy advocates.

And perhaps the most important of all, we encourage careful triage on the activities of the entire system at UN Headquarters to make sure, as best we are able, that we are covering, learning from and communicating what we have deemed to be the most consequential discussions taking place in the conference rooms that house our primary work.

This is no mean feat in a system that is bursting with activities of all kinds from contentious Security Council meetings to heavily branded side events.  More states are taking initiative to host events.  There is a deepening recognition that norms are not sufficient – that the SDGs for instance require reliable, flexible data and dependable sources of funding if they are to fulfill anything close to their potential.   There is much to do and much to think about – ideal for a small office such as ours consisting mostly of extraordinary younger people and dedicated more to discernment than to advocacy.

And there have indeed been some extraordinary events this month:  joint meetings of the General Assembly First and Fourth Committees on Outer Space Security, as well as between the Second Committee and the Economic and Social Council on ways to strengthen African development financing.    A Security Council debate on the Middle East found Council members (and DSG Eliasson) united in their growing frustration at the unresponsiveness of the relevant states parties to Council mandates.   Open discussions about the need to seriously vet women candidates for the next UN Secretary General within a process that is more than a backroom deal involving the P-5.   Sixth Committee efforts to strengthen codes of conduct for UN personnel such that we can begin to eliminate chasms of trust which some of those personnel created.  Second Committee discussions on climate health that point towards a hopeful blend of thoughtful policy and existential urgency.

Two of the other genuinely important events from our vantage point happened virtually simultaneously – the annual report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Jordan’s Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, and a report from the Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, Juan Mendez, on some of the recent opportunities and challenges of his generally familiar mandate.

The High Commissioners statement was a bit of a tour de force inasmuch as it represented the flowering of a human rights consciousness beyond “first generation” rights concerns, including applications to fields such as business practices, counter-terrorism measures, UN peacekeeping and humanitarian operations, and the right to privacy.  He reminded us all that human rights norms and treaties are not ends in themselves, but are part of a larger effort to “reach and improve people’s lives.”

For Mendez, his focus was on important issues raised by recent events, the practice of torture in the context of migration and of armed violence.  But even more, with support of Demark and other states, he concentrated his attention on refuting claims by some states that their dual obligations to prevent torture and work towards its general abolition have no jurisdiction beyond national borders.  Mendez makes clear that there are no territorial limitations on most provisions of the Convention against Torture and that states have practical, positive obligations to respect the rights of persons everywhere – not just within their own borders — “to be free from torture and ill-treatment.”

We have written previously on why the abolition of torture –much  like the elimination of armed violence itself — is a precondition for both development and participation.   Torture represents a high stakes imposition of security sector abusiveness that is designed to humiliate both the tortured and the communities surrounding them, sending a chilling message to anyone whose political or social aspirations conflict with the dominant state narrative.

Mendez knows how states cleverly seek to justify practices such as torture on grounds that it helps prevent larger violence. But he is also clear: there is no credible manner consistent with UN treaty obligations in which we can justify the abuse of rights to preserve rights.   We must find ways to address trafficking of weapons and persons without authoring abuses of our own.  We must find ways to counter terrorism that does not create new civilian casualties and provides motivations for dangerous migrations and new terror recruits.

In our search for sound policy, we must be guided by the principle, as the author Wendell Berry used to declare, not to live “beyond the effects of our own bad work.”   In the present context, Berry might well urge us not to make policies for others that we would not accept for ourselves, nor to promote policies which are long on promise and short on substance.   And certainly not to serve up policies when we have not fully considered their unintended consequences to rights and prosperity, the very consequences likely to wreck havoc in communities we had already convinced ourselves we were there to “help.”

Indeed, this is the primary virtue of a human rights based approach to security and development:  the aspiration to fairness and respect, to the elimination of exclusion and discrimination, and to a system with (hopefully) adequate resources and robustness to hold states (and ourselves) directly accountable for our conduct, if not always to guarantee compliance.  This is important work and we need for it to continue throughout the UN system.

Of course, not everything that happens within the UN is consequential or sometimes even helpful, as critics of the UN on its 70th birthday have been quick to note. There are still too many repetitive statements by governments, too many policy gimmicks, too much thoughtless branding of policies without attention to potential consequences, too much recourse to politicized policies when honestly brokered policies are well within our grasp.

These are components of “bad work” whose impacts are generally felt, not by those of us in the UN bubble, by others far from UN headquarters.  But as we have already noted there is much of positive importance taking place here as well, much we are beginning to figure out, to blend together, to embrace beyond the restrictions of national interest.  There are voices here (and others brought here) that point us to a future that has great potential albeit wrapped within peril.

Put more bluntly, the 70th birthday of the UN reflects an uneven prognosis.  We have made healing progress together on so many issues and at so many levels and yet the genuinely existential crises – nuclear weapons, climate change, mass atrocity violence, terrorism—sit with us like so many inter-connected, terminal illnesses.

Given this troubling prognosis, we simply must do better about abandoning practices and policies that lack sufficient consequence.  The UN’s 8th decade must be the one wherein together we cast aside vestiges of failed structures and narrow interests and address the scourges that truly jeopardize our common future.

A Delicate Balance:  The Sixth Committee Considers the UN’s Rules and Reputation, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Oct

As most of our readers are aware, this blog is an extension of our Twitter feed (@globalactionpw) – our attempt to provide a sense of how much activity takes place within UN headquarters, and to explore changes in structure and methods of work that can improve overall performance of the UN system.  And, indeed, this was yet another week where those seeking to cover a range of UN processes were running from one end of the campus to the other.   The Security Council under Spain’s leadership held a debate on Women, Peace and Security that lingered on through a second afternoon and also hastily called a meeting on Middle East violence, while the General Assembly (GA) voted 5 new, non-permanent members to join their 10 Council colleagues at the start of 2016.

Meanwhile, the GA’s Third Committee took up the rights of women and children and the Fourth committee wrestled with issues as diverse as non-self-governing territories (i.e. Western Sahara) and efforts to rid conflict countries of landmines.   The Second Committee took up the need for South-South cooperation as a component of Sustainable Development priorities to end poverty and address inequalities both within and between states.  UN “side events” ranged from ensuring access to legal services for girls to commemorations of World Food Day and the International Days of Rural Women and of Older Persons.

All of this (and much more) required every ounce of available diplomatic and NGO energy, with plenty of content to incorporate in the pursuit of international peace and security, and the fulfillment of core obligations to the poor and vulnerable. If some of these many forums and presentations can lead to hopeful and relevant activities in the world, we have a decent chance of dodging climate, resource and weapons scenarios that are unsettling at best and frightening at virtually every other level.

And then there was the Sixth Committee of the GA, dealing with grave matters that are indispensable to the functioning and credibility of the UN, including Rule of Law, responses to international terrorism, and International Justice.   These are matters both heady and consequential if the UN is to maintain the confidence of member states and the publics they serve.  Sixth Committee efforts to establish a more level playing field for states, to eliminate impunity for grave crimes against civilians committed by some of those same states, to ensure that our responses to terrorist threats are proportionate and human rights-based, and to insist that the behavior of UN staff and consultants in the field – including and especially peacekeepers – conforms to the values that lie at the core of the UN’s charter mandate,  these and related topics  are truly fundamental  to the lifeblood of the UN system.

And yet, in the vastness of the Trusteeship Council, you had to strain to hear even the echoes of policy relevance.   There were many empty seats in the rows of delegations.   There was virtually no one seated in the section reserved for UN agencies, apparently designations based on protocol more than on interest.   As for the NGOs, most of the rows (let alone seats) in the back were completely empty.  Indeed, the most movement in the room much of the time was the line of tourists filing through the back aisle, much to the (understandable) chagrin of conference services.

The point of this is not to be snarky, but to wonder what it is about this committee, and indeed this community, that fails to produce an attentive audience for such core considerations.   Friday was a case in point as the Sixth Committee took up issues related to the conduct of peacekeepers in the field;  how to promote “zero tolerance” — not a particularly high bar according to our peacekeeping fellow – and ensure that states are vigilant in their investigation and prosecution of abuses committed by their nationals (which may be a higher one).   Given the many layered implications of this discussion, including for Women, Peace and Security, it was odd that so few appeared to support committee efforts to rescue this dimension of the UN’s sometimes shaky reputation.

And there certainly was much of system-wide value to digest, including Malaysia’s call for more preventive measures emanating from the UN, not only directed at sexual violence but also the trafficking in persons and armaments that increase civilian threats and complicate response options.  Kenya underscored the degree to which abuse allegations within a few peacekeeping operations (PKOs) undermine confidence that future deployments will, as urged by Liberia, duly exercise their fundamental duty to care for persons in crisis.  And Ecuador, speaking on behalf of CELAC, cited “excessive use of force” by PKOs as a potential abuse also worthy of the UN’s full policy attention.

There was more to this discussion that invited a wider interest.  Both Algeria and the European Union urged much more rapid investigations and prosecutions after abuse allegations are made.  India suggested more state oversight of contributed troops and swift justice to those who abuse their positions.  The US called for more community based capacities that could help expose abuses of all kinds at earlier stages.  Guatemala urged special consideration for abuse allegations that involved minors, and South Africa noted that as the size of UN field staff and the complexity of their responsibilities grow, the need for more regular conduct reviews grows as well.

Two other suggestions with system-wide implications stood out from this conversation, both involving Norway speaking on behalf of the Nordic states.    First, with the European Union, Norway urged that sanctions and other measures be considered for use against states that fail to provide credible reports to the UN regarding state investigations and prosecutions of allegations of abuse by their citizens.  In the second instance, Norway joined with El Salvador and others to urge protection for “whistleblowers” seeking to highlight instances of abuse that some in the UN system would much prefer to ignore or dismiss.

As El Salvador made clear, the culture of “defending the UN at all costs” must come to an end.  We cannot improve, let alone heal, what we are unable or unwilling to face.   And there is no indication of this unwillingness as harmful to the integrity of any institution as the urge to “kill the messenger.”

As global challenges and their stakes both rise, tendencies to “kill” rather than consider will generally follow suit.  In such an environment, it will be harder to achieve what the Swiss suggested in 6th Committee – to take every possible action necessary to eliminate cycles of abuse in all UN operations.

In this, all of us have a role. The pleasure of our company is requested, in the Trusteeship Council chamber and elsewhere, in part because we know how elusive lasting change will be if we aren’t all bearing (and sharing) witness.  The doors to our policy participation and scrutiny are open.   We need to walk through more of them on a more regular basis and do whatever we can to help get abuse response and other key “rule of law” issues right.  It will be that much more difficult to achieve our security and development goals if we as a community fail fundamental tests of law and justice.

A System Wide Awake: Promoting an Ethical Culture for UN Policy and Development Practice, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Oct

Those who follow diplomacy in New York might have expected a bit of a lull inside the UN after two stressful weeks of presidents and other dignitaries.   But everyone involved with the UN from diplomats to cafeteria worker, had a very short turn around.  The General Assembly committees began their work and immediately became embroiled in issues from narcotics interdiction and space weapons to the status of Western Sahara.   In addition, some most helpful side events – on the dangers of current global finance and hopes for more sustainable cities and better criminal justice — helped to fill in gaps in what needs to become a comprehensive grasp of our post-adoption responsibilities to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

One of the most intriguing events for us was one on October 5 entitled the “Ethics for Development.”  In this event, chaired by the Kazakhstan Ambassador Abdrakhmanov and co-sponsored by Panama, Argentina and Palau, the UN took a closer look at how it does its development business beyond how it sets goals and targets and locates the broad data and stable funding to make implementation possible.  In the opening panel, Argentina’s Minister Tomada urged more attention to what he called the ethics of “decent work” noting wisely the multiple, SDG-related, beneficial consequences that accrue from increased employment opportunities: ending poverty, increasing social cohesion, strengthening democracy. Chef de Cabinet Susana Malcorra, specifically citing the recent UN visit of Pope Francis, noted “ethical shortfalls” leading to an unhealthy planet and persistent economic inequalities.  Several speakers noted that, given our heavy reliance on science and technology to solve development challenges, some consideration of the ethics of those domains – including unintended consequences — was clearly in order.

And the Kazakhstan Ambassador himself provided some helpful and ethical commentary, lamenting the cultures that choose to “throw away” or cast aside persons. Given the persistence of our tendency to “discard” much of what we should treasure, the Ambassador noted that we would do well to have a “watchdog” for all who seek to implement the SDGs, to do what we can to ensure that we do not repeat grievous errors of diminishing the needs and expectations of communities and their residents, in part by carelessly or intentionally promoting development for the few to the neglect of the many.

Despite the fact that the UN is primarily a norm driven institution – setting frameworks for action more than taking action itself – “ethics” is a category that gets little air time at UN headquarters, in part perhaps because of a misunderstanding of what “doing ethics” entails.   Ethics is less about the “values” we publicly espouse and promote, and more about our thoughtful engagement with our responsibilities, as well as with the structures and practical behaviors that support or contradict responsible conduct.

More than anything else, ethics is about mindfulness, in part about the mindfulness of our limitations — of the potentially negative consequences of our own best ideas; of the ways we “misplay” our power and influence; of our capacity to deliver on our sometimes excessive promises to others.   But ethics is also about ensuring that our words, deeds, structures and finances are, to the best we are able, “speaking” with a singular voice.  It is about resisting the urge to “offload” responsibility on to others that rightly resides within us. And it is about the sometimes arduous task of incarnating goals and objectives in a way that accommodates cultural contexts and expectations, building on them more than imposing on them.

Ethics is about having the courage to “mind the gaps” that exist in our norms and practices, to be willing to ask the next question rather than getting bogged down in the last one, to anticipate changes and challenges rather than waiting for them to frustrate or even overwhelm us, to confess both our privileges and our sometimes excessive needs for reassurance and “credit.”  We do all of this as ethical beings not to “beat ourselves up” but as an invitation to the many people outside our loops of influence who actually have much to contribute to the policy work left undone, the healing that remains.

Ethics for us at the UN means living and working as though our objective truly is what we are actually privileged to pursue every day – building human potential, eliminating economic and social inequalities, caring for the planet as though our grandchildren depended on it.

Ethics in our policy contexts also means explaining ourselves so that others can discern our intentions (not necessarily agree with them).  It means using language as the basis for connection, not salesmanship.  And it implies the willingness to “de-center,” to give more than token attention to the aspirations and values of others, especially persons in so many parts of the world where aspirations have been trampled over and over by flawed governance, excessive weapons, multiple discriminations, and soul numbing poverty.

Around the UN as in other policy environments, we can discern many instances of structures and practices that contradict our responsibilities.   We have instances of unresolved allegations of rape by peacekeepers; Security Council members that violate the laws they expect other states to uphold;  states bullying other states to get their way on policy; NGOs claiming to represent what they mostly try to control.  Even the recent indictment of a former President of the General Assembly this past week gave clear evidence of another ethical contradiction: the power of money to corrupt our best intentions and literally overwhelm our worst.  We don’t often speak with a clear voice on these and related matters.  We are not sufficiently forthright about what lies behind the curtain, which we know full well is often more important than what lies in front of it.

What the events above (and others that could have been added) have in common is that they threaten the reputation of the UN as an institution, something which the UN cannot afford if it is to secure global public confidence for the long struggles ahead to heal the planet, eliminate nuclear arsenals, fulfill development commitments, achieve gender balance and address the attractions and abuses of terrorism.   Every resolution or treaty drenched in political considerations; every failure to prevent mass violence in its earliest stages; every committee deliberation doomed to repetition or irrelevance; every voice stifled by another seeking funding and status more than equity – these are no mere annoyances to a cranky, ageing philosopher (who should probably start thinking about staying home and watching Wheel of Fortune), but represent genuine threats to the long-term viability of this system.   When our system’s credibility is challenged, so too are the policies emanating from it, no matter how hopeful the garb in which they appear.

Compared to naming and promoting “moral values,” the practice of ethics is indeed a challenging craft, a special responsibility and high calling for those of us fortunate enough to labor at the center of global governance.  Thankfully, my long experience at the UN has convinced me that this is not a craft beyond our capacity. Indeed, the discussion on Ethics for Development, the diplomatic reaction to the Papal visit and other recent events demonstrate clearly that we still have more than enough to amend our course when needed, communicate forthrightly as required, deepen our policy resolve to address problems before they become crises, and see all that we need to see and not only what we are willing to see. In other words, we have all that it takes to be a more engaged focal point for ethical discernment at the center of both multi-lateral policy and global expectation.

The Inclusion of Inclusion:  The UN’s Dramatic 70th Convening Seeks Ways to Level Policy and Diplomacy, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Oct

In the early afternoon of October 3, while police outside dismantled the last barricades and lookouts, the president of the 70th UN General Assembly, H.E. Mogens Lykketoft summarized a frenetic 9 days of activity at the UN before finally banging the session (and indeed this high-level diplomatic season) to a close.

In some significant ways, “frenetic” fails to capture the scene.  It started with an historic papal visit and the adoption of historic Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and ended with a myriad of high level discussions on South Sudan, Yemen, Libya, Syria and other trouble spots which often mirrored the same political divisions that characterize the UN in quieter times.

There were three themes that seemed to encapsulate this cacophony of activities and presentations, and that in many ways generated complementary commitments to more inclusive policy and practice:

The first of these was the eradication of poverty, a major consensus priority for the SDGs.  Indeed, PGA Lykketoft “read the room” correctly when he expressed the hope “that the international community can do more to alleviate human misery.”  Much of the focus of this “misery” was on the plight of refugees and internally displaced in and around Syria.  The PGA announced that his office would focus more on refugee issues as a corollary to existing commitments on poverty reduction.  And just prior to final adjournment, Iceland joined with Spain and many other governments speaking earlier in urging the full inclusion of women as necessary if we are going to end hunger and fulfill other sustainable development commitments to the poor and marginalized.

The second of these areas of ‘inclusion’ was in the realm of climate health.  A specific focus here was the widespread concern over the health of our oceans and the small island states threatened both by pollution and rising sea levels. Grave concerns was also raised over the prospects of refugees fleeing drought, flooding and other environmental uncertainties that threaten local crop yields and access to fresh water.  While some stakeholders have expressed skepticism that the December climate meetings in Paris will result in anything other than a delay in facing up to our new climate destiny, none would dare say so publicly.  Indeed, the urgency of climate disaster seems to slowly, steadily, be taking over diplomatic consciousness in ways hitherto unseen, and this higher “leveling” of government concern is most hopeful. We will soon see if we still have sufficient time to change our personal lifestyles, corporate priorities and diplomatic energies as the basis for altering our current, dangerous climate trajectory.

The third of these areas was institutional inclusiveness, not only within and between states, but inside the United Nations itself.   Some of this, of course, made reference to the SDGs, specifically regarding their funding and data requirements.  But other concerns could be lumped under the banner of UN reform, specifically the process by which the next Secretary General is to be elected as well as a voluntary “Code of Conduct” by virtue of which the Security Council can allegedly reach consensus in a timely manner and “act decisively” on threats with a singular voice.

Though the unresolved horrors in Syria provide the backdrop for much of the “reform” discussion, the impetus for reform stems from a more positive place, what the PGA himself noted is the need for a Council that better “reflects new political realities.”  Specifically, these realities relate to levels of regional representation reflecting the growing economic and diplomatic dominance of large states such as India and Brazil.  Of course, there are other “realities” as well, such as the need for closer coherence on policy and practice between the Security Council and other UN entities, a point made often last week at a High Level General Assembly forum on peace and security. It could also indicate the need for “voluntary veto restraint,” though a Council that fails to fully vest the authority of its non-permanent members, remains highly political in its public and private workings, and fails to address potential conflict before it becomes raging conflict – this and more should keep us mindful of the genuine risks associated with turning grave Council decisions into state-driven popularity contests.

All of these inclusion themes were summarized by the PGA Lykketoft on a dreary, unseasonably cold Saturday afternoon.   Too few diplomats remained in their assigned seats to hear the summary though, we presume, more are on board with the potentially species-saving commitments made during this past week.

But an extra bit of caution might be wise here. Most all of us in this ‘business’ have been to conferences and meetings where the rhetoric is inspired, commitments flow like table wine, promises of regular communication with new friends and connections are made, ideas and plans are “hatched” that seem almost too good to be true.

And then we return home to our responsibilities and our stresses, the ones that preoccupied us before we left.  We are speaking with different people at home, children and partners who need our attention, colleagues waiting for manuscripts or resolutions of logistical challenges, friends to whom we have already made promises that might not neatly accommodate the ones we made on our journey.

This phenomenon is not new, but it merits reflection as we think about the responsibilities of states going forward.  Despite high levels of authority and capacity available to most presidents and their ministers, they also have to navigate numerous domestic burdens, including political responsibilities, which can sap energy and distract focus.  Given this, I cannot escape the sense that if the goals of this past week are to achieve their proper incarnation, it is the diplomats here in New York who will most likely keep objectives in focus. These diplomats, who needed secondary passes last week to get into the sorts of meetings that they preside over during the remainder of the year, understand first- hand the opportunities going forward but also the obstacles to inclusion:  the waning attention on climate health, the rhetoric on poverty reduction not mirrored in proper funding and data commitments, the reformist energy that gets hijacked by national interests, at times in tandem with the interests of NGOs.

The general energy around inclusiveness, the acknowledgement of how uneven our economic, social and institutional “playing fields” have remained, the realization that business-as-usual must end even if we haven’t yet worked out all the implications of our “new normal” — all of this is hopeful.   The question, as it so often is for the UN, is one that interrogates the expectations we raise and the commitments we make.   We have dramatically “raised our own bar” in these critical instances of inclusion.   We will now see how well those of us left behind in New York — diplomats and others — can ensure that this bar can be cleared.