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.

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