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.

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