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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