Archive | December, 2015

Promises Made and Promises to Keep: A Small Policy Office Makes its 2016 Resolution, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Dec

Five years ago now, one of our longstanding advisory board members, Dr. Lester Ruiz, delivered an address to the 24th General Assembly of the Conference of Non Governmental Organizations.

“Defining the present, shaping the future: Making the present amenable to transformation,” was a highly thoughtful examination of what we in the non-governmental world think we are doing at the UN, and what we are actually doing.   Ruiz spoke uncomfortable words to an often too-comfortable community, reminding us of the need to sit in front of the “mirrors” that we are so keen to hold in front of governments and international organizations.   He also posed questions to help define the value of our work; more than money and status and branding, more than high-profile board members and multiple speaking engagements at UN side events.   Questions such as these can be suggested from Ruiz’s insightful work:

  • Do our actions build collegiality, diversity, and transformative leadership?
  • Are our offices and other work spaces genuinely hospitable?
  • Does our work create and nurture mindfulness and receptiveness to self, other, and world?
  • Are we doing our best to build networks of solidarity across the contested terrains of global civil society?
  • Do our actions promote the beautiful, the inclusive and the compassionate?
  • Are we using all of our access and assets to inspire a reasonable hope for a healthier, more peaceful world?

Based in part on conversations with GAPW staff and others in global civil society, Ruiz’s words continue to influence our own practice though probably not as much as they should.   As a small office, we are painfully aware of our limitations, some of them self-inflicted; but we are also aware that, despite those limitations, a goodly number of policy makers and advocates in all global regions listen to and depend on us.  They listen to our independent voice through books, blogs and twitter; they depend on us for linkages between global policy and community practice that are largely untainted by gate keeping and other manifestations of our mixed motives; they find a hospitable space in our office that helps them navigate the bewilderment occasioned by the UN and the often cold, inattentive and self-important city that surrounds it; they meet young interns and fellows from many regions who represent the future of this work, if indeed there is to be a future.

And they come because our interest in the UN is genuine and systemic, not opportunistic or sentimental.  We do not see the UN as a mere conduit for the fulfillment of our ‘mission.’ We are not “cheerleaders” for the UN, nor do we believe that the UN occupies a perch that exempts it from scrutiny.  We are attentive to the UN not because it is perfect (it isn’t), not because it brings us honor (it doesn’t), and not because we enjoy any ‘benefits’ of membership (those ‘benefits’ such as they are, seem to decline each and every year). We are attentive as an office because we know that as the UN improves its practice, embracing fairness and adhering to the norms that it inconsistently prescribes for its member states, prospects for a world at peace become more likely.

There is hopefulness here, but also adjustments still to be made.   Following Ruiz, we have been, and are likely to remain, concerned about much of what goes on in New York under the NGO banner.   Too many of us equate the good of our own organizations with what is good for the world.  Too many are disconnected from communities of practice, are more comfortable in elite settings such as the UN than in the places where, much to our discredit, we “leave people behind” with regularity.   Too many of us equate making UN side event presentations with having UN impact, or picking up reports as a substitute for helping those reports find their broadest audience; too many take funding from governments, including well-meaning ones, without properly factoring in the impact of money on our policy choices.

Our funding, our privileges, our branding all have an impact on our organizational priorities, personal motivations, and policy content.  Those claiming otherwise are strongly urged to take a second look.

In addition to this, we have been, and are likely to remain, concerned about how the UN deals with NGOs.  As a matter of course, member states in their public statements routinely cite the ‘need’ for more civil society involvement in UN affairs.  And there are some instances, as with the Open Working Group for the Sustainable Development Goals, where those rhetorical promises were largely kept.   But it is also the case that access for NGOs is increasingly problematic.   There are more and more ‘closed’ designations on the UN’s daily schedule, longer and longer lines as NGOs like GAPW endure screenings multiple times a day when other UN stakeholders experience no such impediments.  Indeed, some days it seems that the primary business of security guards (whom we genuinely appreciate deeply) is to keep NGOs out of more and more conference rooms.

In addition, there is a tendency of some states to lump all “civil society” together, assuming that we all see issues the same way, or that NGO “advocacy” is about “getting our way” rather than being thoughtful or discerning about the relationships linking policy norms, constituent needs and institutional capacity. Indeed, it appears, more and more, that access and visibility are less a function of the answers given to the important questions suggestion by Lester Ruiz and more about having branded expertise (or experience) on issues of state interest, or the ‘right’ government sponsors (which almost always involves funding).

Finally, we have been, and are likely to remain, critical of ourselves.   Our office has not yet opened enough doors for others.  We have not been generous enough with praise when our community does its proper job, such as was the case with the 2030 development goals.   We have avoided some of the conflict that it is, in part, our job to resolve.  We have given up on some people too quickly, and others perhaps not quickly enough. We have allowed our policy ‘notions’ to cloud our vision regarding some of the opportunities and challenges unfolding before us.  We have too often seen the “mirror” as a reflective tool but not so much a pedagogical one.  (Awareness and learning, after all, require very different types and levels of investment.)

Even so, thanks in large measure to our board, funders and affiliates, we have always found ways to play “larger” than our size would suggest.  This year we will commit to finding better ways to make and keep our organizational promises.  This involves more attention to our own institutional stability, a new investment in the ways that we can (and do) add value to the UN system, and most importantly a stronger commitment to represent the concerns of our global partners rather than being fixated on our own policy preferences.

In line with the wisdom of Dr. Ruiz, we know that a fragmented, inattentive world characterized by impunity, self-indulgence and exclusion has little chance to fully implement the astonishing range of global norms emanating this year from the UN.   We need a softer edge, a more attentive and cooperative disposition, a willingness to step back from our urgent business to make sure that our remedial intentions aren’t creating more grounds for urgency instead.

As terrorists threaten, the ice caps melt and greed yet again assaults social equity, we cannot abandon the task of discernment.  This is the task that helps us put to use all our available resources, but to use them in ways that are consistent with our best selves, the selves that – much like the world around us – we have not yet quite attained.

This is our resolution for this challenging, hopeful New Year.   We wish all the best for you and your important work in the world.

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Voice Lessons:  A “Fabulous Five” sets the bar for their Security Council Successors, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Dec

Last year at this time, we published a piece that sought to honor and assess the contributions of the five non-permanent members who vacated the Council at the end of 2014.  As we noted just last week, this group has gone on to continue the pattern of distinguished leadership they refined while on the Council, with a special nod to the Republic of Korea’s current stewardship of the Economic and Social Council.   The current departing five members – Chad, Chile, Jordan, Lithuania and Nigeria – are all poised to do nothing less.

We have long been of the view that a limitation of the UN, even in this year of extraordinary movement on development, climate and now, perhaps, on Syria as well, is its apparent resistance to institutional memory.  There is so much turn over, so many people passing in and out of UN service, so many diplomats and policymakers coming to New York to make their own mark rather than build upon and honor the marks of their predecessors.  In the Council, the irony is that just as non-permanent members are finding their way through a maze of often-arbitrary P-5 power dynamics, so-called “provisional” rules of procedure, and evolving working methods still better suited to a bygone era, they are obligated to vacate their seats around the oval.   Just as they are coming into their own, their voices communicating strength and wisdom as well as urgency, these non-permanent members must now forfeit a portion of their security policy relevance.

And over the past two years, it is more than states that must shed their voices; it is the competent women leading several of these delegations who have also left the oval.   Last year it was Argentina and Luxembourg that left a void.  This year the losses are excessive, even painful:  Lithuania, Jordan and Nigeria will all rotate off, as will Chile, a delegation led by (quite thoughtful) men who have regularly invoked Chile’s President Bachelet, well known to the UN community for her tenure at UN Women.

Specifically, Ambassadors Murmokaitė, Kawar and Ogwu leave a distinguished Council legacy.  They have each in their own way evolved as policy leaders.  Their voices have become progressively strong, challenging, even elegant.   Those like GAPW who are mostly “twitter onlookers,” rise in attention when the Chair calls for their delegations’ statements.  Even the (many) other women in chambers – from US Ambassador Power and deputy representatives from Malaysia and New Zealand to junior mission staff – seem to listen more intently when these three Ambassadors are sharing their remarks.

This is no “add women and stir” moment.   And these senior diplomats are certainly not the only voices in Council chambers worth heeding.  But there has been high competence in evidence here, supplemented by a pattern of mutually-supportive engagement, that has been a pleasure to behold.   Indeed, such support seems in varying degrees to have been appreciated by a range of high-level, female Council presenters this year including the ICC’s Bensouda, UNDP’s Clark, CAAC’s  Zerrougui, SRSG Bangura, the EU’s Mogherini and many others.  It surely helps to make difficult cases within such an august setting when these extraordinary UN actors can appeal to a policy audience diverse by gender as well as by geography and culture.

Clearly, the three female Permanent Representatives now leaving the Security Council are no more or less representative of what has become a cacophony of voices from talented women leaders at the UN that has recently featured Special Adviser Mohammed, UNFCCC’s Figueres and UNESCO’s Bokova.   Ambassadors Ogwu, Kawar and Murmokaitė have themselves spoken with passion and conviction; they have taken policy risks as well as exercised policy leadership; they have massaged the sometimes inscrutable structures governing Council practices to convene discussions seldom held; they have not shied away from calling the Council to end its self-shielding impunity for policy malfunctions and neglect while it seeks to address and remediate the abuses perpetrated by rogue states and terror groups.

As we noted last year, the task for non-permanent members is to find ways to use this temporary platform to revitalize Council methods, build stronger and more trust-worthy bonds with the rest of the UN system, and create platforms that can give voice to otherwise muted policy concerns and neglected policy stakeholders.  Given the stubborn power disparities within the Council itself and the often unruly political machinations that sometimes proceed from this imbalance, we can only honor the many and diverse efforts by all these departing members.  As a group and as individuals, they have helped to level the “playing field” for security policy while undermining whatever latent resistance there could still possibly be to the leadership of women at the highest levels.

There are lessons here to help encourage the next group of non-permanent members — Egypt, Japan, Senegal, Ukraine and Uruguay – perhaps the greatest of which is the potentially transformational power of diverse policy voices coupled with the benefits of having wise and competent women seated behind more and more of those Council microphones.

Defining, Protecting, Recruiting Youth: Security Council Members Revisit their 20s, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Dec

This was quite a week for the UN.  A Climate agreement was reached in Paris.   Several contentious Security Council meetings helped to define its role going forward on Ukraine, Libya, Central African Republic and the DPRK.   The General Assembly took public responsibility for improving mechanisms for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.   And the human rights “pillar” took center stage with high-level events to remember victims of genocide and promote “Human Rights Upfront.”

But perhaps the most intriguing event of the week was not about climate or genocide, but about “youth,” that vague and fluctuating category of human existence to which we often pay too little attention unless we are trying to sell something – a product, generally, but also an idea, a policy, a value or even a lifestyle.

On December 9, with leadership from Jordan, the Security Council passed Resolution 2250 on “Youth, Peace and Security” (www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp symbol=S/RES/2250(2015). Modeled to some degree after SCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, this resolution represents a formal affirmation of the “important role youth can play in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and as a key aspect of the sustainability, inclusiveness and success of peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts.”

Other sections of the resolution pointed to the “unique demographic dividend” represented by today’s large population of young adults that can help build lasting peace and economic prosperity.  The resolution also cites the vulnerability of these persons to recruitment by terrorist organizations and urges more protection for them during conflict and post-conflict situations as well as their greater participation in “peace processes.”

On the surface there is little to argue with here.  Jordan, which has been a most influential non-permanent member over the past two years, has used that influence to sponsor a resolution that recognizes the significant peace and security contributions that can be made – and are now being made – by younger people.  Moreover, this resolution blends two of the major concerns voiced by Jordan during its Security Council tenure – promoting youth and countering terrorism – which we hope it will continue to take leadership on once Jordan “returns” to its place within the general UN membership.

Indeed, one of the important takeaways from the service of non-permanent Council members is defining the security-related issues that will exemplify their work at the UN going forward.   Nigeria, for instance, has taken leadership on Security Sector Reform.  Lithuania has been a compelling voice on gender issues as well as on countering foreign terror fighters and the ongoing security crisis in Ukraine.  Chile has done excellent work on UN-sponsored criminal tribunals and on the requirement of dependable international justice in general.   Chad has been a strong voice for the evolving security partnership that is developing between the Council and the African Union.   As with Jordan, we appeal to all these members to retain their voices on issues on which they have gained considerable expertise and diplomatic visibility during their Council tenure.  Each of them has earned this leadership and, like governments before them, we very much need them to exercise it fully.

Returning to this landmark resolution 2250, there are caveats that we would wish to pose to Jordan and other states and stakeholders regarding the definition, character and policy access of youth.

First, we should probably acknowledge that the term “youth” represents something of a controversial matter.  The resolution – following the lead of the General Assembly – defines “youth” as persons between 18 and 29 years of age.    As someone who was raised in a different time, who was on his own making some semblance of adult decisions (albeit mostly badly) prior to reaching the chronological starting line for this resolution, I have always found this definition a bit jarring.  Rightly or wrongly, I would have been appalled as a 16 or 17 year old to be patronized by a definition that seemed to be more about limiting my options than honoring what seemed at the time to be my best assets and interests.  That such a limitation could have been applied to me at 28 or 29 years of age is almost beyond comprehension.

I suspect it would seem that way to many “youth” now as well.  For instance, just yesterday, thousands of US navy and army cadets sat in a stadium in Philadelphia and cheered on their respective football teams.   These are all “youth” by 2250 definition, persons in their 20s who just happen to be well on their way to becoming officers in a huge military establishment, thus having much to do, for better or worse, with how the international community defines and implements security.   They are not looking for protection by their government, but are ostensibly offering protection to the rest of us.  Adults assuming adult responsibilities.

Clearly, the criteria for the youth “leadership” and “empowerment” we seek to promote are not immediately apparent either to young people or the rest of us.   There are many “youth” in the approved range who are now running NGOs, religious institutions, even political offices. Does “leadership” simply mean being in positions of institutional authority, or is something else involved, something related to character and maturity of judgment?  In a similar vein, does “empowerment” merely mean “having a voice?”  And if it is about this, does it matter what kind of voice that is, what its objectives are?  Clearly the Council doesn’t particularly want “voices” that promote terrorism or advocate its attractions.  What else don’t we want?  Do we want voices that promote sexism, xenophobia, or rampant consumerism?  Do we want voices that advocate the selfish hording of resources or the destruction of ecosystems?   Do we want voices that dismiss sustainable development or human rights as anachronistic artifacts of sentimental liberal states?

The implications of these questions are, at least to my office, very much worth considering.   As young people — especially from more elite environments — spend more and more time in school, the values of school resonate, which at least in much of the West include the commodification of knowledge, competitive careerism, peer obsessiveness, etc.   What school (and western culture at large) is not so good at, apparently, is providing tools for genuine independence of thinking and living beyond the expectations of peers and the wider culture.  Nevertheless, people in their 20s, despite the intense consumerist and institutional programming to which they have been subjected, retain essential elements of distinctiveness. They don’t all go to college, they don’t all leave their birth communities to pursue “opportunity,” they don’t all spend their free time in frivolous socializing, they don’t all embrace religious institutions or political ideologies, they don’t all stare into cell phones for hours a day, they aren’t all suspicious of adults who aren’t directly subsidizing their lifestyles.

In some sense, there is irony in having to encourage governments, as does SCR 2250, to pay more attention to a demographic that is so large in number and so close to assuming cultural and political leadership in their respective societies.  These erstwhile “youth” are adults, plain and simple.   As with persons in every other demographic category, they deserve policy attention from states and international institutions, in their case especially on matters of education (not only school-based) and employment. But they are generally not helpless, not attracted to every “bell and whistle” offered up by advertisers or terror groups, not “special needs” any more than other generation might be.

If our political leaders want to involve these “youth” in efforts to eliminate extremism and prevent conflict, goals about which we heartily agree, this would seem to require (at least) two ingredients beyond formal resolutions. First, a commitment to reopening inter-generational dialogue, dialogue in which older persons listen more and judge less, but wherein they also insist that “youth” in their 20s commit to no long hide behind age-specific, “essentialist” notions that both let them put off their larger responsibilities and keep them inching towards an adult status that they have mostly already earned.

And the key to this, in every one of “youth’s” diverse incarnations, is personal and policy respect, respect which recognizes and encourages multiple thoughts and aspirations, respect that allows young adults to breathe while meeting their responsibilities and finding their places in a world that is unlikely to heal without their full input.   If Resolution 2250 helps to cultivate higher quality, cross-generational relationships and more fully respected, policy initiative and leadership from younger people, it will become a truly lasting testament to Jordan’s tenure on the Security Council.

 

Why Religious Conflict Will Intensify in Africa, By Professor Hussein Solomon

7 Dec

 

Editor’s Note: Professor Hussein Solomon of South Africa is a longtime friend of our office and is widely recognized as one of the very finest commentators in all of Africa on counter-terrorism and the triggers of mass violence.  Here he provides insight on the security, development and even gender implications from increasing religious conflict across the continent. 

Originally published as an RIMA Occasional Paper, Volume 3 (2015), Number 11 (December 2015)

This past week, Pope Francis conducted a six-day tour of the African continent that took him to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic. The latter, in particular, has been experiencing violent clashes between Muslims and Christians. In this context, the visit by the pontiff to a mosque in the Central African Republic was highly symbolic of the need to reach across the religious divide if sustainable peace is to be achieved on this troubled continent.

What happens in Africa could well define the future trajectory of Muslim-Christian relations globally. What accounts for this prognosis is simple demographics. Between 2010 and 2050, Africa’s share of the world’s population will increase from 12 percent to 20 percent. To put it differently, this continent will experience the fastest demographic growth on the planet. At the same time, in a mere two generations, the majority of the world’s Christians is expected to reside in Africa[1]. Over the same period the number of Muslims globally will grow by a staggering 73 percent[2]. The number of Muslims in Africa, meanwhile is expected to grow by nearly 60 percent from 242.5 million in 2010 to 385.9 million in 2030[3]. The interaction – whether peaceful or conflictual – between these two great faiths on the African continent could increasingly define the interaction between Christianity and Islam globally.

The nature of the interaction between these two faiths is however complicated by environmental variables and the politics of identity. Much of the population growth is taking place in societies where there is a scarcity of resources. Think here of the Sahel.  Growing desertification, has intensified conflict over scarce arable land. The city of Jos in Nigeria, for instance has, witnessed ethno-religious conflict since 2001 which has pitted Christian Berom against Muslim Hausas. At the heart of the conflict is access to fertile land at a time when the population is growing whilst the arable land has been under sustained threat due to the ongoing drought[4]. Over and above the twin impact of environmental variables and religion, Jos also highlights situations where ethnic and regional identities reinforce the underlying religious divide. Add to this the politics of exclusion practised by the Nigerian state, and conflict is all but inevitable. Indeed, most African states have failed miserably at inclusive governance.

Another dimension of the demographic problem is highlighted by Eric Kaufmann in his seminal book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century[5]. He convincingly argued that the fertility rates among non-religious communities is displaying the lowest fertility rates in human history – often less than one child per woman. Conversely, the fertility rates of deeply religious people are several times this. Moreover this holds true across faith communities – Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or Jew. This is unsurprising given the fact that religious communities emphasise traditional roles for women and all three Abrahamic faiths encourage their adherents to ‘go forth and multiply’[6]. This growing population increase amongst the religious will, according to Kaufmann see greater conflict between deeply religious communities as they contest who speaks for God as well as between the religious people and secular states. Conflict, once again, becomes the norm.

Compounding these issues is what kind of Islam is on the ascendancy. Is it a moderate Islam embracing plural societies and secular states or is it a Salafist Takfiri Islam violent in its rejection of secularism and the proverbial “other”. The fact that there were 27000 terrorist attacks globally since 9/11 (or more than 5 per day) linked to radical Islam clearly demonstrates that radical Islam is on the ascendancy[7]. On the African continent, the fact that there are more than three terrorist attacks per day attributed to Islamists, reinforces this global trend. Under the circumstances, one can only conclude that religious conflict on the African continent will intensify in the coming years.

[1] Christine Mungai, “The future of world religion is African, so what would an `African’ Christianity of Islam look like?” Mail and Guardian. 30 September 2015. Internet: http://mgafrica.com/article/2015-11-30-the-future-of-religion-in-africa. Date accessed: 3 December 2015.

[2] Manasi Gopalkrishnan, “An interview of Dr. Moshe Terdiman on Deutsche Welle (DW) on the Muslim Population by 2050,” Internet:https://muslimsinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/04/08/an-interview-of-dr-moshe-terdiman-on-deutsche-welle-dw-on-the-muslim-population-by-2050. Date accessed: 21 April 2015.

[3] Mungai, op. cit.

[4] Colin Freeman, “Nigeria’s descent into holy war,” The Daily Telegraph, 8 January 2015. Internet:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/new/worldnews/africaandindianocean/nigeria89999758/N. Date accessed: 9 January 2015.

[5] Eric Kaufmann, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century. Profile Books. London, 2010.

[6] Ibid., p. xvi.

[7] Daniel Pipes, “Why the Paris Massacre will have Limited Impact,” op. cit.

Disabling Inequality:  Establishing Conditions for a Healthier, Less-Conflicted World, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Dec

Korean Artist

On December 3, the UN commemorated the International Day of Persons with Disabilities with day long displays of art and film along with some stirring and inspirational panel discussions led by senior UN officials, influential diplomats and leaders of disabilities-focused organizations.

No fewer than seven Ambassadors followed presentations by the Secretary-General, ASG Bas and NGO leaders on disabilities, affirming their “commitment to action” in relation to the day’s theme, “Inclusion Matters:  Access and Empowerment for People of all Abilities.”   Among the highlights of those presentations was Kenya Amb. Kamau’s call for “inclusive education” to increase options and empowerment for persons with disabilities while also highlighting the degree to which such persons are disproportionately victimized by armed violence. Spain’s Amb. Oyarzun noted that it has been a decade since persons with disabilities “were no longer ignored in policy,” but also cited the long road ahead until equality of access is assured.  Amb. Yoshikawa of Japan and Amb. Bird of Australia highlighted the high mortality rates of persons with disabilities affected by humanitarian disasters and called for greater sensitivity in disaster risk planning.  And the current president of ECOSOC, Amb. Oh Joon of Korea, cited disabilities as a “cross-cutting” theme, the recognition of which by the UN has allowed it to better “lead by example.”

In a week when diplomats and activists in Paris were trying to stave off a climate disaster, the Security Council was trying to make sense of escalating violence in Burundi, other diplomats were wrestling with ways to make the Council’s sanctions system more fair and effective, and officials in the US were attempting to draw lessons from our latest mass murder rampage, it might seem that there are far more important things to focus on than the plight of persons with disabilities.

I think not.

One of the things that policymakers need to do more, and often fail to do, is to look beyond current crises to the societies left in their wake.   If we are somehow able to disarm our weapons and clean our waterways; if we are able to restore the ice caps and reverse species extinctions; if we are able to end mass atrocities and settle restless populations, then what?   How do we best lay the ground for societies that have some chance of consolidating the gains from crisis resolution in ways that minimize the risk of new crises taking their place?

The uncomfortable truth is that, sometimes, the burdens of our current crises often shield us from exercising this larger policy responsibility.  Discrimination against persons with disabilities surely seems less “existential” than climate and mass atrocity violence until we recognize the degree to which inequalities foment such threats and, indeed, impede their successful resolution.

This recognition is similar to comments made by Guatemala’s Ambassador Rosenthal during his review of the Secretary-General’s recent Peacebuilding report.   Echoing comments from others, Rosenthal noted that peacebuilding has been largely restricted to post-conflict settings.  And while the goal of eliminating recidivist violence is noble, the best way to ensure this is to work more creatively and “further upstream,” to breathe fresh air into our policy structures so to prevent the inequalities and discriminations that are the “first principles” of a dangerous planet.

The presence of wheelchairs, walking sticks and sign-language interpreters in spaces normally filled by persons lacking visible limitations reminds us of how carefully scripted and stubbornly “fashioned” life in our corridors tends to be.   We speak when protocol determines our right to speak.  We dress according to “western” business models even though many of us are not “western.”  And we mostly walk independently from one meeting to the next.   We see with two eyes, hear with two ears.  Our brains have been schooled to grasp the intricacies (and tolerate the tedium) of our policy discussions.  At the same time, we outwardly show little joy, share little of the emotional space that houses our own hidden “disabilities.”

And we have established social structures defined too much by competition and too little by kindness and respect: competition that is based largely on criteria that is both school-driven and limited in scope, with “winners” largely confined to persons with multiple formal credentials, conventional incarnations of beauty, aggressive ambitions, or well-sculpted physiques.  In most every instance, these are persons without recognizable “flaws,” such being determined by the very same people who have managed to avoid having, or at least showing them to the rest of us.

But of course there are manifold skills, talents and contributions beyond our socially-sanctioned ambitions, ones which we need both to solve our greatest challenges and to create those “peaceful, inclusive societies” to which we so often point, hoping that such societies can be successfully crafted such that they can somehow ward off another generation of existential threats.

Nowhere during this day of events was this any more clear than in the art exhibit “Like Wildflowers, Like Stars,” from the Korean artist Kim Geun-tae.  The faces he renders – children living with disabilities – show a range of emotions from confusion to joy.   Some faces appear remote while others are delightfully engaging.  Some of the children appear sick, others are physically incomplete, but few could walk this UN corridor and conclude that these renditions do not represent a veritable cornucopia of potential contributions to the societies that we need and want.

The lessons in the paintings are both simple and numerous, but two stayed with me.   One of the panels asks, “Does this child have cerebral palsy or polio?”  The answer comes:  “I am Min-june.  I am not palsy or polio,”  reminding that none should be defined by our limitations, the visible nor the hidden.  And the second lesson may have greater poignancy.  In a panel that depicts children with disabilities in obvious distress, the artist proclaims, “The harder we feel our lives are, the more firmly we have to grasp each other’s hands.”

Indeed, the more important it is for hands to be extended.

In reflecting on the beauty of the artist’s panels, on the often-wise content panels earlier in the day, as well as on the many grave responsibilities found daily on our policy plates, I cannot but wonder about my own “disabilities” — out of sight for the most part, but not without consequence for others.  For many of these “others” worldwide including persons with disabilities, life is hard now, and our collective response is not with hearts and hands fully extended.  Our crisis reactions are overly militarized; we are too dismissive of each other’s talents and contributions; we are inattentively sending species to extinction and threatening to do the same to ourselves; we do not “step up” often enough with understanding and welcoming hospitality; we allow ourselves to be distracted too often by so many things that just don’t matter.

Thankfully, these are all things we can do more about, some primarily in the realm of policy, others within our private dwellings and local communities.  In the end, as we were reminded this week, one of our best, most sustainable antidotes to social and political crises is to humanize the cultures of discrimination and inequality that now lie at their roots.