Archive | January, 2016

Without a Trace:  The Security Council Examines a Trauma that Lingers, Dr. Robert Zuber

31 Jan

Missing things, missing people is a part of life for all of us.   Our popular music is punctuated with the emotional residue from our empty spaces – especially from loves gained and then lost. The singer John Waite once mourned “there’s a storm that’s raging through my frozen heart tonight.”  Sometimes the ache from the loss of a loved one is too much to bear, even when you know where they’ve gone, even when you knew a separation was coming.

In an age characterized by so many scattered peoples – from war and drought, or from seeking economic opportunity in a hopefully more peaceful context – larger and larger numbers of us are separated from much of what we had previously come to love.  Our growing social and economic mobility, for some motivated by a determination to save their children from the ravages of conflict and abuse, has increased the distances separating so many of us from the objects (and subjects) of our hearts’ desire.

This pain is greatly magnified when the separations are imposed, arbitrary and secretive, when people awake to find that one or more of those in their most intimate social circles has disappeared without a trace.  In such instances “frozen” hearts are often accompanied by frozen hands and lips, the consequences of a trauma that can produce almost coma-like effects, sometimes lasting for many years.

This week, in addition to much other Security Council business, Ambassador Rycroft of the UK convened an “Arria Formula” meeting to look into the consequences of these traumatic disappearances as they relate to international peace and security.   The meeting featured the welcome presence of Ambassador Diego Arria of Venezuela who was responsible for the idea of having more Council-sponsored, informal discussions to allow members to examine security linkages and implications without scrutiny from the media or pressure to agree on resolutions.

For his part Ambassador Rycroft affirmed his preference for these sorts of engagements.  Indeed, he has been one of the Council members most inclined to pressure colleagues around the oval to come out from behind their prepared texts and engage each other as policy and learning partners in their essential but highly challenging endeavor – maintaining an often elusive peace. Rycroft noted that the Arria process allows members the “chance to hear from people in the know” and to do so in interactive fashion.  It is hard to disagree that such chances should be pursued as often as possible within the limitations of the Council’s already weighty schedule.

There is more to say on the “working methods” implications of this Arria process, but it is also important to acknowledge here the crushing burdens that persons separated from their loved ones and communities due to armed conflict must bear.  The US, which at Council meetings often miscalculates the bonds linking stories of abuse and remedial policy measures, aptly cited in this Arria the “searing pain, trauma and impotence” that accompanies persons who have had loved ones taken from them in situations of armed violence, taken without any apparent rationale or information regarding their whereabouts.

As noted by the ICTJ’s Tolbert, this missing represents a deep ache with broad implications, correctly referencing the “social trauma” that so often takes up residence in communities where people have been “disappeared.”  For his part, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid noted the “grave abuse potential” that exists when women and girls go missing. And he encouraged more “truth telling” by authorities (a point also made by New Zealand) to help loved ones cope with their losses and displace with more concrete information some of the horrific fantasies regarding the whereabouts and treatment of loved ones that often accompany coping efforts. Such information allows for the lifting of the “veil of silence” that reinforces fear and social isolation, subtly perpetuating what Zeid called “the sharp edges of abuse.”

But of course our task in all of this is not to examine this pain but rather, as urged by Mexico rights activist Sr. Consuela, to “ensure that this becomes part of our past.”   And many of the voices in this Arria Formula meeting, including the High Commissioner, Italy, Japan and Uruguay, maintained that the efforts to end the trauma of disappearances is indeed “directly relevant” to the Council’s core responsibilities, that Council attention can accrue tangible benefits towards the final resolution of this agonizing abuse.

That noted, this Arria event was not without controversy.  As they have done previously when discussing other attempts to extend the Security Council’s policy concerns, Russia essentially rejected the relevance of this “disappearances” discussion to those concerns.  Russia is for now the most vocal critic of what it considers to be the habit of “politicized” application and even expansion of core Council principles, resolutions and mandates.  Other Council members, including February’s president Venezuela, have also cautioned against taking on less “central” issues when so much of the core peace and security mandate of the Council (read Syria, Yemen, Mali, etc.) lies unresolved.

In fairness, Russia of course also “politicizes,” also uses the format of the so-called “open” meetings to brand its preferred versions of the truth, rather than truth’s more comprehensive incarnation.   Moreover, it is not uncommon, as core policy matters get in a rut and pressures mount, that persons or governments seek out problems to which they can make a real contribution, hoping perhaps that efficacy in more “marginal” realms can translate somehow into efficacy in core responsibilities.

Having sat through hundreds of Council “open” branding sessions — which January’s president Uruguay (at Friday’s wrap up session) rightly noted produces little in the way of policy movement or even clarity regarding national positions – it almost seems reasonable to share skepticism regarding the motives and politics of Council engagement.  However, the solution to such skepticism is not to cease holding Arria Formula events. It remains important for Council members to consider testimony on issues such as disappearances “from people in the know,” and Arria is the best format currently available to make that happen.

The caveat here is that Council working methods have, as noted frequently by many non-members, long under-estimated the efforts, activities and even mandates of other key UN actors.  Council members are quite grateful to their briefers – who now encompass a wider range of UN issue area interests– but much less often seem conversant with the activities and priorities of the agencies these briefers represent.

There is a significant distinction between “adding value” to the resolution of issues such as the scourge of missing persons, and being seen as undercutting relate efforts of colleagues elsewhere in the system.   This seemingly habitual tendency of the Council to “vacuum up” any and all security-related topics raises concern from many non-member states; those seeking to keep the Council focused on its “primary” responsibilities, yes, but also those understanding that lasting solutions to security problems involve diverse capacities inside of and beyond the UN, solutions not to be found solely within the texts of the Council’s mandates and resolutions. And to be clear, the primary purpose of the Council must be to resolve threats to peace and security, not to bolster its own prerogatives – outcomes not status.

If the Arria Formula option is to reach the potential that Ambassador Rycroft rightly feels it can, the introduction of new issues and perspectives to Council members must be accompanied by a more sophisticated and generous grasp of existing UN agencies and their capacities.  Traumatic abuses such as forced disappearances are likely to be addressed with greater effectiveness when the Council states its clear and primary intention to add value rather than control outcomes.

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Creating Spaces for Creative Participation:  Practicing Fairness, Heeding Evidence: Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Jan

One of the tangibly hopeful things around UN headquarters is the degree to which participation concerns have been legitimized in policy.   The skills and perspectives of people across gender, race, age, culture, social class, nationality, (dis) ability and more receive at least rhetorical confirmation somewhere or other within the UN’s increasingly busy schedule of policy deliberations.

From the vantage point of the still-excluded voices, gender gets the most attention these days around the UN, with strong agency leadership and NGO support from those running a gamut of gender-specific issue concerns – from ensuring more women’s voices at UN functions to the complete dismantling of patriarchy in all its forms.

And certainly there is plenty to atone for where women’s rights are concerned.

Nevertheless, despite all this legitimate, multi-layered attention, there remain structural and political limitations to enacting our participation concerns.   At the UN, as in much of the rest of the world, we have ample evidence for a tenuous relationship between the things we discuss and the things we actually change.   Sometimes conversation serves as a springboard for personal or institutional reform; other times it serves as their substitute.

In the case of gender, our participation-related limitations take multiple forms.  For instance, despite all of the current institutional focus on gender equity, we still have too many single-gender panels at UN Headquarters.   We still put excellent diplomats such as Luxembourg’s Ambassador Lucas in the awkward position of having to remind her peers, as she did during Friday’s 70th Anniversary celebration of ECOSOC, of the pervasive male dominance of much UN agency leadership.  Despite our generally supportive gender rhetoric, we still have not fully grasped the degree to which national economic policies, peace and mediation processes, poverty reduction efforts and much more remain exclusive domains, including exclusive of too many women.

As Denmark noted during Thursday’s “Implementing the 2030 Agenda to Accelerate Realization of Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls” event, we must do more than we are now doing to ensure that we bring the “marginal into the center.”  This has implications beyond gender, but certainly many implications for how women – including working class women, women with disabilities, and indigenous women – find space to pursue their policy skills and interests. As Regions Refocus’ Anita Nayar stated, the 2030 development agenda gives us another opportunity – one we would do well not to squander – to claim the space needed to “democratize and feminize” implementation of the new development goals.

Indeed, at Thursday’s “gender and development” event, there were many important statements that fit under the heading of “not squandered,” including several shared by men.  For instance, Latvia highlighted the need for more attention to the “gender digital divide” and better indicators to monitor gender-specific compliance. UNCTAD’s Carpentier raised the concern that the current preoccupation with “public-private partnerships” is not delivering the goods on women’s employment. Cuba went so far as to criticize diplomatic training, noting that if such training is gender-biased, future diplomatic placements are likely to remain biased as well.  And Canada noted “evidence” that gender equity signals many important social benefits, and urged all to listen more carefully to that growing body of evidence.

But the event also highlighted an even broader, more systemic concern.

There is a pervasive flaw, in our view, in events around the UN that are “given over” to issue interests:  Gender advocates talking about gender.   Indigenous advocates talking about indigenous issues.  Youth advocates (however you define “youth” these days) talking about youth concerns.   Disabled persons talking about the unmet needs of persons with disabilities.

These mostly branded conversations rarely add as much as we imagine to the evidence base of the largely knowledgeable audiences around the UN. They certainly don’t help build capacity across issue interests.  They do tend to consolidate domains rather than create linkages across domains.  They do not, as advocated by Ireland’s Ambassador Donoghue on Thursday, effectively promote “whole government” and whole systems commitment to full and effective constituent participation.

In response to this trend, we have long advocated events characterized by persons deliberately advocating for “space” for other groupings, not only for their own issues.    With full respect for the incredible talent that the UN routinely seconds into its meeting rooms, we see relatively little value in organizing events wherein the same voices advocate for the same things in the same way.   Such events tend mostly to ritualize policy concern rather than explore its next frontiers.  People come to these events in the hope of new insights or creative policy formulations, only to leave – more often than not – disappointed rather than reassured.

For us, it is always more inspirational to hear about the “stakes” people acknowledge in the unresolved concerns of others.  Why should advocates for genocide prevention care about efforts to eliminate arms trafficking?   Why should youth advocates care about elder rights?   Why should women’s rights advocates, as highlighted by GPF’s Barbara Adams at Thursday’s event, care about illegal financial flows?  Why should Security Council reform advocates care about the accelerated pace of melting ice caps?

And why should those tasked with implementation of the 2030 development agenda care about the full integration of gender perspectives?  On Thursday, we got a hopeful glimpse of what those answers might look like, as well as some insight into all the many other “cross cutting,” (or as Nayar proposed) “co-constructed” discussions that need to take place in and around our multilateral policy centers.  The clarity of our priorities, the quality of our resolutions, the depth of our commitments, can all be enhanced through our willingness to walk a pace in each other’s policy shoes.

At the UN, who speaks at events is largely (and too often) a function of who has been authorized to have a voice.  However, we have sufficient band-width as a policy community such that we can enable voices beyond the usual, and at the same time demonstrate broader policy discernment beyond our organizational mandates and diplomatic portfolios.  The participation space that we increasingly seek to open in the world must be opened wider at the UN as well; on gender yes, but also with respect to other, too-often “marginal” stakeholders seeking their policy moment.

Calling for Clarity and Constancy: The UN Doubles Back on Recent Commitments and Expectations, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Jan

Back in October 2015, under Argentina’s leadership and with the support of several other member states, the UN held a panel on Ethics for Sustainable Development.

We commented at the time on both the format and substance of a discussion that we found to be notable at several levels, including its focus on the many ways in which those who control capital flows and labor relationships have increased inequality at a time when most of us at the UN feel an urgency to narrow it.

This past Wednesday, with leadership from Panama’s Ambassador Flores, part II of this assessment of our collective ethical responsibilities to sustainable development was held.   The large and enthusiastic audience filling the Trusteeship Council chamber, including a large number of permanent representatives, attested again to the importance of the UN’s ethical responses to its own high commitments and the broad expectations thus raised.   The content of this discussion was both structural and personal, and demonstrated much overlap with the October event.

For us, such overlap was welcome as it reinforced sentiments shared by Palau, the Netherlands, panelist Dr. Bernardo Kliksberg and others, that while we are certainly capable of overcoming avarice and other forms of malice, ethics is hard, habituated work for persons (and institutions) as “complex” as we all tend to be.  Sustaining ethical behavior requires regular reinforcement and self-scrutiny even (especially) at the heart of global governance.   Unfortunately, as Dr. Kliksberg noted, we have spent too much of our collective energy “hardening our hearts” and waiting for technology to soften the blows which we have inflicted on ourselves through our generalized inattentiveness and our “speculative, unbridled greed.”  We can (and should) do a better job of cultivating our ethical nature, as noted by Liberia, but there are few short-cuts – no pills to swallow or aps to download that can keep us from having to set out on the long and often winding ethical road.

The “ethical roadmap,” cited by Ambassador Flores, is an important contribution to SDG fulfillment, but as we know from our own work with Green Map System, maps are mostly useful only when people desire to get to the places to which the maps point us.  The more thoroughly we cultivate and model ethical behavior, the more we reinforce the notion that ethics is a daily walk and not an episodic one, the more useful that ethical roadmap will become.

The Deputy Secretary-General, as is often his welcome role, sought to assist event organizers in rallying diplomats and NGOs to embrace an ethic worthy of this “unprecedented” SDG agenda.   He shared the view that the SDGs can best be understood as a “declaration of interdependence,” a declaration that privileges solidary with the most vulnerable.   We at the UN have raised expectations very high now; meeting this ambitious calling requires us to be regularly informed by those whom we seek to support.  It requires us to reach out intently, but also to reach deeply, beyond our zones of comfort to places hard to reach and even harder to address.   The “margins” we acknowledge here in New York are often safer and more “recognizable” spaces than those framing the context for families struggling at the edges of desperation.

Ethics is hard work indeed, but it is hardly without its conceptual guideposts and even its satisfying moments. Dr. Kliksberg made mention of Pope Francis’ “hallowed addiction” to addressing the needs of the poor, an addiction which seems to energize the Pope and from which our own, policy-driven, poverty-reduction efforts could learn some valuable, sustaining lessons. The president of ECOSOC, Amb. Oh Joon of the Republic of Korea, cited “access to justice” as a fundamental “leveling principle,” such leveling being a key outcome of SDG fulfillment but also a cardinal value of a newly revitalized ECOSOC that will celebrate its 70th anniversary later this week at the UN.

Despite what our current economics and politics might suggest, this commitment to “leveling” is in the best interest of all of us.  We cannot continue to plunder the planet and turn the most desperate constituencies into statistical abstractions or social media caricatures.  We cannot raise the bar with one hand and use the other to smack down people desperate to grab on.

Back in the Trusteeship Council chamber, Germany was clear on the point that “ethics is not a luxury” for 2030 development implementation.   But this net must be cast wider.   The expectations that we raise across the three pillars of UN activity all have ethical components, as does our collective behavior which sometimes falls off the proverbial “wagon” when we think no one is looking.

Someone is always looking.

As many diplomats have affirmed with a sense of well-deserved pride, this is a big moment for the world; also for the UN.  If we can deliver on our development and climate promises; if we can (as Palau noted) systematize ethics in our diverse policy outcomes; if we can better balance (as Argentina urged) our national ambitions with our commitment to inclusion, then the most vulnerable will get more of what they need, the planet will stand a chance, and the UN will have made an important statement about the indispensability of multilateral frameworks going forward.

All of these qualify in whole or in part as “hallowed addictions,” worthy in their own right of our full and ethical attention.

Weathervane: The UN Forecasts the next Phase of El Niño Impacts, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Jan

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Like many people in the US (and certainly in other parts of the world) I am beginning this morning by switching on the weather forecast.  In so doing, I discover that it is going to be a warm, wet and windy January day in New York, but also learn about the deep freeze in the center of the US and Canada, ongoing drought in southern Africa and Central America, un-seasonal tropical depressions in the Pacific, and much more weather-related information that is of interest to some and a warning to others.

The fascination that many of us have with weather goes beyond strategic matters such as how many layers of clothing to put on or whether or not to pack an umbrella.   As farmers know better than most of the rest of us, weather represents one of the major variables of our daily lives, a variable to which we must adjust but over which we have virtually no control.  As my weather-attentive grandmother used to share with me (ad nauseam), “whether it’s cold, or whether it’s hot, there’s going to be weather, whether or not.”

In the temperate zones, our weather adjustments are largely confined to manageable temperature and precipitation variations, though there are also increasingly dangerous weather configurations that command our interest and even our awe – hurricanes/cyclones along the coasts of states large and small; tornados, lightning storms and other violent and erratic weather systems; major shifts in surface temperatures, sometimes during the course of a single day;  patterns of drought punctuated by torrential rains creating flooding in areas where parched soil is simply incapable of absorbing so much water; rising tides caused in part by melting ice caps.

Weather can be a significant social leveler within states though not necessarily between them.  Funnel clouds don’t know to avoid wealthy neighborhoods and massive ocean weather systems do considerable damage to the largest (and smallest) shoreline homes. Our growing collective fascination with challenging weather patterns also transcends social class limitations, though we cannot emphasize enough that levels of resilience regarding weather’s effects vary dramatically, sometimes to life threatening degrees.

This past Thursday, the UN convened an event to help assess and address some of the effects of the El Niño system and its warming ocean waters that has scrambled any and all of our comfortable assumptions regarding weather patterns and their seasonal variations.  Chaired by USG and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien, and involving representatives from the World Meteorological Association (WMO) and administrators of UN country teams in Guatemala, Lesotho, Ethiopia and other affected regions, the meeting was designed to bring more international attention to, as the representative of Fiji put it, “the slow onset disaster,” set in motion by this particularly robust iteration of El Niño.

The UN discussion hit many important notes.   O’Brien himself noted that this version of El Niño is not a product of the climate distress that recently resulted in the Paris agreement, but that the consequences from this weather phenomenon, as the WMO also noted, are being felt “at a higher level” because of climate change.  O’Brien stressed the growing threats of food insecurity from severe drought, from flooding, and from cyclones in and around small island states, and he called for closer partnerships between development and humanitarian officials to mitigate weather-related distress and help “under-funded” states prepare “for what we know is coming.”

For their part, the UN country team representatives focused less on what is coming and more on the damage that has already taken place, from looming malnutrition in Ethiopia and disease outbreaks in Fiji to fresh water scarcity in Lesotho that is having profoundly negative implications for health care in that country.   At the same time, Guatemala’s UN field representative cited factors such as inequality, corruption and “institutional discrimination” that continue to impede otherwise critical efforts to respond to the country’s current, weather-related vulnerabilities.

As the representative of WMO demonstrated, this El Niño event will not last forever.  Apparently, there will likely be some return to “neutral conditions” mid-year, after which we are likely to have to cope with La Niña impacts.  But it was also made clear that El Niño impacts, perhaps even the most severe of them, have not run their course, and thus significant, sustained attentiveness at UN level to emergency response preparedness is more than warranted.

As is so often the case in this world, it is the poor and marginalized who generally suffer most from chaotic, dangerous weather systems.  The UN, specifically USG O’Brien, is to be commended for holding this briefing and for fully integrating perspectives from both weather scientists and officials from already affected regions. However, given that so many states are, indeed, “already affected” by current weather emergencies, we urge UN colleagues to find ways to get further ahead of the weather curve; helping to ensure that all of us – especially the vulnerable, the disabled and the politically marginal — are sufficiently prepared to cope with a range of potentially deadly (albeit at times fascinating) weather threats.

Habit Forming:  Infusing Possibility into Personal and Policy Resolutions, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Jan

As many of you recognize, a ritual element of our recently-concluded New Year’s celebrations involves the making of personal “resolutions,” not quite like the UN’s resolutions except perhaps in the extent to which too little in the world actually changes as the result of most of them.

Indeed, few are capable of making groundbreaking modifications in personal or professional contexts, in part because so little around any of us is either committed to or encouraging of that level of change.

The pious proclamations of the New Year are largely betrayed by a too-comfortable sameness; after the holidays, most of us return to the same jobs, engage the same relationships, reside in the same places, indulge the same media.   Moreover, most of the “changes” we allegedly seek in the New Year are largely personal in nature — about spending habits and weight loss and other matters that are of little consequence to any but those in our tightest social circles.

Although we like to think of ourselves as our own “definers” – often accompanied by the hope that our personal branding will obscure some of the downsides of our behavioral routines – we cannot escape the fact that we are what we practice in the world.  We are, to quote an old American football coach, “what our record says we are.”  Thus, if we wish to be different in any sense other than in a rhetorical one, we have to commit to changing our “record,” which means changing our practice, upping our game and then sustaining its demands.

The good news is that repeated, thoughtful, intentional practice does accrue tangible benefits; indeed neuroscientists have chronicled the degree to which people can actually change brain patterns for the better through determined pursuit of productive skills and habits. We can indeed become more like the people (or societies) we sometimes imagine we already are, but there are no shortcuts to this “promised land,” no products to purchase that will shave time off fulfilling the challenges of habit change.

As 2016 unfolds at the UN there are circumstances that signal opportunities to set and maintain a different course – new members on the Security Council, new diplomatic energies in member state missions, the launching of ambitious 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, a revitalized Economic and Social Council, new commitments to inclusion for often marginalized persons, a concern for largely neglected but critically important vocations such as agriculture, and much more.

Here as elsewhere, this context is as important as it relative, providing opportunities to seize or squander based on the intensity and constancy of our practice.  If we are collectively resolute about making the most of the opportunities and obligations given to us this year, sustaining and growing “records” of progress on security, development and climate implementation that become as familiar to us as our personal morning routines, then (and only then) there are reasonable prospects for achieving our most urgent policy objectives, including eliminating poverty, ending mass atrocities and healing our ailing planet.

But if we don’t “put in the time,” we will not ever see the results that so many people are desperate for.  Moreover, we will demonstrate once again our deference to an outmoded, non-scientific and even non-spiritual principle to the effect that that if we have well-researched ideas, the “right” intentions and relevant negotiated agreements, the world will inevitably change.

All those elements indeed matter, but they don’t matter enough.  (Or as we might say in philosophy, they are necessary but not sufficient conditions.) We need to establish contexts for change, and we have often done so admirably in recent years. But we also need to demonstrate plainly the hopeful, energetic resolve that can attract new stakeholders to the work while encouraging persons near and far to abandon some of the innumerable, addictive distractions of modern culture — and then set out on a healthier, more intentional path. Only then can the urgent implementation on security, climate and development for which all of us are now responsible be something more than episodic, cosmetic and unsustainable.

Habit change is essential to sustainable global healing, but it also takes time and we don’t have a lot of that now.  2016 needs to be the year that we fully reap the opportunities derived from the contexts that have been recently and carefully crafted at the UN and other international organizations.  Such resolve must be based on an awareness that political consensus and New Year’s resolutions make worthy pre-conditions for thoughtful and determined practice, but are in no way a substitute for it.

Here’s to a New Year for the international community characterized by that most challenging and necessary of attainments – urgent and thoughtful policy resolve.