Archive | February, 2016

Stating the Obvious:  Good Governance as a Justice and Health Priority, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Feb

This week at the UN provided more fodder for policy writing than most weeks, and more than can possibly be summarized in a small space.   From Monday’s extraordinary Operational Activities for Development segment of the Economic and Social Council to late Friday in the Security Council as Special Envoy de Mistura counted down the final moments before the start of the Syria “cessation of hostilities” agreement, the week was diverse, notable and hopeful.

Steady movement towards diplomatic consensus could be seen at high level events this week focused on issues as diverse as the development implications of migration, increasing gender-balanced mediation resources, and motivating more engagement by the full General Assembly membership on peace and security issues, including on our civilian protection responsibilities.  But sometimes it is the smaller events that highlight important linkages we need to pursue further.

Two such events occurred this week, one “off campus” involving medical personnel discussing the spread of the Zika virus and the other at UN Headquarters highlighting the need for additional resources for Legal Aid as one component of state commitments to justice and criminal accountability. The Zika discussion was sponsored in part by Women in International Security whose programming we broadly endorse.  The Legal Aid discussion at the UN was sponsored by Norway, the US, South Africa and the International Legal Foundation (ILF).

While it might not seem so at face value, these two events had some important dimensions in common.  For one thing, the events highlighted the many “pro bono” services both medical and legal professionals offer, often under extremely challenging circumstances, in an attempt to help redress access and resource imbalances and the injustices that often flow from them.  Indeed, generations of lawyers have put their lives on the line to uphold the work of human rights advocates and other, perhaps more ordinary people, in danger of having wrongful abuses swallowed up by inattentive or corrupt states. At the same time, many of us have watched in awe and mainly at a distance as doctors with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and other groups keep societies on life support through bombing raids and grisly pandemics. While Zika impacts are not to be equated with those of Ebola nor HIV in its earlier iterations, there are risks to take account of here as well, including to expectant mothers in areas of limited medical care and female doctors who might themselves wish to conceive at some later time.

Those of us with relatively “easy duty” here in New York surely do not give sufficient honor to those with high professional credentials who choose a much more challenging path, bringing some measure of justice and healing to places most of the rest of us hesitate to go.

The other major commonality of these events is an implication for good governance.  At the Zika event, the medial professionals competently explored the epidemiological implications of the disease and drew connections to other (often more severe) pandemics.  But it soon became apparent that descriptions of disease response needed to be placed in their larger political and social contexts.   What are the security, development and governance dimensions of a viable health response framework?   What does the medical profession need from states, all states, such that doctors can contribute more than helping patients recover from disease or injury only to face economic deprivation, insecurity in many forms, even abuses at the hands of their own leaders? The doctors in this discussion were not entirely comfortable responding to this inquiry, but all have served in challenging settings and all understood the “enabling” criteria for effective medical response which many states are unable or unwilling to provide.

The event on Legal Aid offered another lens on this problem.   As with response to pandemics, no one in the UN conference room would have suggested that Legal Aid was not a useful commitment.   All of the designated presenters and diplomats who followed voiced concern about chronic imbalances our justice outcomes.  US  Amb. Power gave full support to ILF’s work while noting the degree to which the US continues to fall short on legal fairness.  Argentina’s Amb. Garcia Moritan made clear that legal access – a core provision of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – should privilege free legal assistance if such access was ever to become universal.  South Africa’s Mlambo highlighted Legal Aid as a key element in any successful effort to eradicate poverty, itself perhaps the single key objective of the SDGs.

Ever-thoughtful Brazil reminded the audience that access to justice and access to the courts are simply not the same thing, and urged more dispute resolution resources outside formal courts.  What was not discussed at great length, to the chagrin of some listeners, is the ability of Legal Aid, court-appointed legal assistance, or any other form of pro-bono aid to overcome the enormous legal advantages accruing from the growing economic inequality within many states. As access to legal aid is not the same as access to courts, neither is it the same as legal clout sufficient to take on the corporate and political hegemonies that can pay for (or in some instances pay off) the highest caliber of legal services.

The sad reality is that, while Legal Aid should command higher policy attention, many of those who could benefit most from that assistance already feel “burned” by their justice system.  This was certainly the case in my Harlem parish, and I have heard similar stories in poverty stricken areas worldwide.  Many people know (or think they know) that the legal system is “rigged” against them, not just because they have irresolvable difficulties locating some form of legal assistance, but because economic and social inequalities have clear, compelling and largely detrimental legal dimensions. Rightly or not, these people have developed significant trust issues with the state and its legal institutions.

When I was a child, it was common to see summertime trucks passing through the neighborhood spraying chemicals designed to suppress mosquito populations.  And while the fumes seemed toxic enough (and in fact turned out to be of some medical consequence to more than just the bugs) folks in the neighborhood had sufficient residue of trust in the government to allow the sprayers to pass without protest.  But in too many parts of the world, such spraying might be interpreted as an attack of the state.  In too many parts of the world, the urgent instructions of medical personnel seeking to control a pandemic might be interpreted as a state-endorsed violation of their personal and cultural integrity.  In too many parts of the world, people have had painful, interactive lessons with the legal systems in their countries of residence and, as a result (as quoted recently in a NY tabloid), simply “don’t do courts” any longer.

Building trust in the principles and practices of states is not an optional measure, but is essential to any medical healing or legal leveling in the social order.  At the same time, recognizing the myriad of consequences for medical healing, legal assistance and more from both an unequal social order and the resulting deficit of public trust is just as important.  Those of us seeking to expand medical, legal and other assistance must commit more to ensure a proper “enabling environment” for needed services; which in large measure is tantamount to better ensuring more effective and trustworthy patterns of governance.

Bible Study:  The UN Security Council Revisits its Sacred Origins, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Feb

On Monday January 15, under the presidency of Venezuela, the UN Security Council held a full debate on the UN Charter, the fundamental document guiding this institution’s objectives, values, relationships and working methods. The debate, “Respect for the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations as a key element for the maintenance of international peace and security,” attracted a chamber filled with ministers, mission diplomats and others.

It should be noted here that the General Assembly has also been involved in its own efforts to revitalize itself in accordance with the Charter.   The GA’s version, of course, is a more inclusive process.  Indeed, much of its membership is also suspicious of efforts by the Security Council to “filter” such important conversations through its much more narrow accountability frameworks.   Thus, much of the conversation on this Monday was less about the Charter per se and more about the working methods of the Council itself – how to improve Council effectiveness in responding to security threats but even more its accessibility of and accountability to the wider membership.

To the extent that the debate kept its focus on Charter values and obligations, it followed along lines similar to those of religious communities debating the contemporary relevance of ancient scriptures.  Some UN members stressed the need to hold fast to the fundamentals of the Charter as the basis for all UN action. Others stressed the need for flexible Charter applications to respond effectively to security and other threats – including asymmetric threats from ISIL and other groups – which those giving birth to the Charter could not possibly have foreseen.   Still others acknowledged a shifting security environment while insisting with the Secretary General that we “must get out in front of conflict,” as the Charter suggests we should do, and without recourse, as Pakistan warned, to “power politics”

The world that welcomed the UN Charter has certainly changed on a massive scale since 1945.   At the same time, states joining the UN entered an organization defined by Charter obligations and limitations.  Indeed, many smaller states have seen in their UN membership both an opportunity to participation meaningfully in global policy and a means for resisting big power incursions into their internal affairs – a window on the one hand, a wall on the other.

At this particular debate there were frequent references to Charter values that seek to protect territorial integrity and sovereign equality.   Sovereignty itself was the subject (as it always is whenever the UN membership addresses the Security Council) of much discussion, especially among some states that see sovereignty as a protective principle, including too often protection from accountability for abuse of its own citizens (a point made strongly –but not only– by Spain and the UK).  Sovereignty is too often invoked as one obligation abstracted from others, and is unfortunately also invoked as the ultimate principle within the household of UN Charter values.

Such debates in the Security Council often dredge up regional tensions owing to the fact that states do not always act in accordance with Charter responsibilities and those that don’t (when they don’t) are not held to the same levels of accountability under international law.   In the Monday debate, along with a few side-skirmishes (such as with Cyprus and Turkey), the focus of several delegations, most notably Ukraine, was on Russia’s aggressive behavior in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

We think that this aspect of the debate, while a bit of a diversion, was largely “fair game.” Indeed, it is part of a larger discussion that needs to continue and that focuses on the degree to which Security Council members – most notably the permanent five – seen by many as the guarantors of important Charter-based responsibilities, routinely abrogate those responsibilities.  This rightly includes, but is by no means limited to the Russians.   One doesn’t have to accept at face value Venezuela’s concern about violations of rights by large powers in the name of “democracy” to agree that accusations of rights abuses are too often externalized, too often used as a tool for political ends, too often used to deflect attention away from other abuses committed closer to home.  As a body, and certainly in the case of the permanent members, we are still prone to accusing too readily and apologizing too seldom.

Indeed, there is probably no institution on earth that is subject to less accountability for its excesses and errors than the UN Security Council.   70 years removed from its founding, as the world recovered from a shattering conflict, it is hard to imagine that Founders Intent could have included such a lack of accountability both to those impacted by its decisions (or lack thereof) and to the general UN membership.  Armenia and India were only two of several states during the debate noting that trust in the UN system is currently under strain due in part to the Council’s working methods.  Fixing those methods, as many states seem now prepared to do, would go far to enhancing the UN’s trust reserves.

But any discussion about Charter intent is to some degree speculative and subject to review by the historians who have a better sense of what those Charter framers were thinking, the new world that they were helping to set in motion.  It is for us to take that analysis and apply it to our own multi-lateral framework for addressing contemporary problems – problems both outside and inside the UN.  Member states breathe life into the Charter, as noted by Malaysia, implying that fair and inclusive working methods can be as important a Charter value as respect for the rule of law. Like so many other states at this debate, Malaysia clearly seeks strategies that enhance the Charter, not bypass it.

As we examine appropriate ways to modify and enrich our understanding of the UN’s founding “scriptures” to accommodate new security and development realities, it is imperative that we abandon, as Japan duly noted, any predisposition to apply “rules” to some and not to others.  We must also ensure, as Sweden, Italy, the African Union and others urged, that we always make the full and best use of UN and regional capacities to address conflict, and to apply preventive tools wherever and whenever possible.   We need a more level field of play as well as a full complement of partners to play with.

Latvia got it quite right, I think, when it referred to the UN membership – inside and outside the Council – as the “guardians” of Charter promises.   Panama also got it right when it encouraged Charter applications that place people at the center of our policy deliberations.  These and related recommendations from the membership imply a reverence for the values and principles that underpin our collective responsibilities that is all-too-rarely seen inside UN headquarters.   The specifics of those promises may at times have to adjust to new and even unforeseen circumstances, but the promises themselves and the values they embody continue to uphold the foundations of the UN’s sacred trust.

Lens Crafters:  The Vision Deficits that Cloud our Global Policy Choices, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Feb

I am sitting in my New York office having earlier braved a record cold morning, wearing more clothing than I ever knew was in my closet.  Time now to reflect on a line from a speech given in Munich yesterday by Russian Prime Minister Medvedev, who reportedly wondered:  “Can we unite in order to stand up against the challenges we face? Yes, I am absolutely sure that we can.”

The “challenges” in this case refer mostly to those related to Syria – ending the war, “degrading” ISIL, addressing almost unprecedented violations of international human rights law, providing access for humanitarian relief to those trapped in zones of despair or sitting in camps in Lebanon and Jordan.

Any alleged “certainty” about Syria’s future is heartwarming I suppose, but also mostly problematic.  The bombs of several countries (including far too many of Russia’s) continue to fall.  The Saudis are set to send in ground troops.   Turkey continues to keep an eye open for opportunities to vanquish the Kurds.  A full spectrum of abuses committed against civilians continues to unfold.  NATO ships are set to interdict and return refugees to places characterized by empty markets and violent unrest.  Arms continue to flow in all directions.  Pledges of assistance are more numerous than pledges honored.

Prime Minister Medvedev is right at one level.  We can address these and other global challenges.   They are not beyond our collective skills set; not even beyond our politics.  They might, however, remain out of reach given the self-inflicted “degrading” of our collective vision, seeing what we need to see, what we need for others to see, rather than all that lies in front of us.

 Self-distraction and self-delusion stealing the stage from clarity and honesty

The default for sub-standard policy these days seems to be some form of “we didn’t see this coming.”  At the same time, we gush over all of the technology – both earth-bound and in space — that allows us to probe and peek, to prod and predict.  The weather system rattling my leaky apartment windows last evening was forecast well over a week before it arrived.   Indeed, our forecasting in so many areas relevant to policy has reached breathtaking proportions.   We might not have been able to predict with full confidence the extent of the current Zika outbreak, but we certainly know enough to stay vigilant regarding potential pandemics, the “when” exhibiting a stronger probability than the “if.”

Unfortunately, our policy vision these days is too often saturated with a blend of enthusiasm and desire.  And there is no impediment to clear and honest assessment quite like that of desire.  When we want it to be so; when we need it to be so; we find ways to convince ourselves that it is so.

More and more, our claims “not to have known” are undermined by the very technology on which already we over-rely.   When we fail to see all that is in front of us, when our enthusiasm blocks our willingness to assess all obstacles that threaten our cherished policy assumptions and conclusions, we run the risk of doing damage to the very constituents we otherwise seek to assist.  But this is less about our technological “eyes” than it is about the personal lenses we have allowed to become foggy and dusty.

In the case of Prime Minister Medvedev, it would appear that his enthusiasm for a resolution to Syria consistent with Russia’s national interest has created its own thick blinders.  Russia’s conduct in Syria is hardly the only conduct beyond reprehension, but it is staggeringly reprehensible in its own right.  Indeed, it is hard to see how peace can be sustained given such levels of myopic leadership.

This problem of vision affects more hopeful policies as well.  The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, a remarkable achievement in their own right, have been subject to a series of urgent discussions in the early days of 2016. Much to its credit, the UN has not waited for the dust to settle but is making strong connections to important stakeholders (youth, women, indigenous, persons with disabilities) and urging member states to quickly identify areas of priority activity and relevant needs for capacity assistance.

In addition, good work is being done in two key areas – the indicators that will drive assessments and the financing that will sustain progress.   But there also seems to be a largely unspoken assumption of predictability in the “enabling environment,” one which is likely related more to our enthusiasm for the goals than to a sober assessment of current security, fiscal and climate prospects.

As noted in a recent UNCTAD briefing in New York to launch the report, “Rethinking Development Strategies after the Financial Crisis,” any assumptions about an “enabling environment” are fraught with peril.   UNCTAD officials noted two major impediments which have to date received insufficient attention and which have the power to short-circuit the most enthusiastic applications of the 2030 development agenda.  The first of these is the prospect of another major financial downturn, most likely initiated by some of the very same institutions that we failed to hold accountable for the last one.  In such a scenario, equity markets will shrink and states will feel forced to preserve stasis rather than reaching out to help lift the fortunes of those hitherto marginal.  Another financial collapse will likely ensure that our best development efforts will still “leave plenty behind.”

Second, there is a noteworthy shrinking of policy space in many countries, a shrinking that damages prospects for full participation, but also for policy innovation and assessment of “official” priorities.  We must explore the participation and assessment implications of all the SDGs, perhaps especially Goal 16, but we must do so based on clear analysis of the current threats posed to journalists, human rights advocates, indeed most anyone who dares to expose an emperor’s nakedness.  In many parts of the world, there is currently no “enabling environment” to count on here either.  Not yet anyway.

For many young people rightly frustrated by their elders and our global legacies, there are occasional bursts of concern for our collective future.  Are we going to make it?  Do we have what it takes as a species to get over ourselves and address the full implications of all the challenges that face us, not just the ones we are willing to see?

It would be foolish to sell us short.  We can still make good on our promises and bring some healing to the planet in the process.  We can end violent conflict, bring international finance under control and wedge new policy space in otherwise recalcitrant states. But it would also be foolish to believe that we can make any sustainable change merely by tinkering with policy resolutions and other international instruments.   Those instruments, while not perfect, are mostly already sufficient to their purposes.   The “wild card” here is us, what we see and what we refuse to see.

In the Christian bible, there is a line in which Jesus of Nazareth warns those looking for specks in the eyes of their neighbors to first take the “logs” out of their own.  Such excavations are encouraged as they can do much to restore the clarity of vision and firmness of purpose we will need to get over both our “enthusiasms” and our current, bulging “humps” of security, development and climate challenges.

Looking Backward:  Anticipating a Verdict on our 2030 Development Responsibilities, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Feb

This was an unusually synchronized week at UN Headquarters.  The Security Council was largely focused on the London pledging conference for Syria and then returned to the urgent need to plot next steps – including likely new sanctions — in response to the DPRKs latest missile launch.  Instead, most of the building was preoccupied with assessing and enriching the early stages of implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This past Monday, ECOSOC kicked off a two-day youth event that brought out an “A” list of presenters, mostly to encourage youth to join in the full implementation of the 2030 development agenda.   We’ve written previously about the ways in which UN youth events tend to patronize their audiences – fairly heralding their talents and urging their full involvement, but without either expressing regret for much of the state of the world nor insisting, as older people used to do in my life, that youth are not yet quite as ready for prime time as we have previously convinced them they are.

For its part, the General Assembly held its own informal review of the early stages of implementation of the 2030 development goals, featuring addresses by the President of the General Assembly and the Deputy Secretary General.   DSG Eliasson’s recent presentations have helpfully integrated his own vast institutional memory, and here he noted the considerable differences in energy and urgency on SDG implementation in comparison with the Millennium Development Goals of year 2000. The morning sessions urged development leadership that can “inspire confidence on the ground,” and heralded the implementation of the “Technology Facilitation Mechanism” deemed essential to broad SDG fulfillment. The DSG, PGA, the European Union and many states noted the enormous development challenges and responsibilities that we all have assumed in these urgent times, a commitment that we should not seek to control and at which we simply must not allow ourselves to fail.

On top of these, the 54th Session of the Commission for Social Development convened under Romania’s leadership.  While the Commission room was often half empty (due less to NGO interest levels than to the manner in which “secondary passes” were distributed), the Commission spawned some interesting side events that also helped to clarify our roles and responsibilities to the 2030 Sustainable Development process.

One of these events focused on the launch of the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) report on global labor trends.   While few if any want the Security Council tampering with unemployment statistics, the status of labor clearly poses major implications for international peace and security.   Unavailable work, dangerous work, work that fails to pay a livable wage – these and other employment circumstances stoke social unrest and grave discouragement. While the ILO struggles to define and then promote its best understanding of “decent” work, our global economy remains in the hands of elites stubbornly unaccountable to workers; indeed largely unaccountable to the UN itself.  Another “manufactured” global recession will deepen poverty for some and throw others back into previously untenable economic options, which could well spark new waves of violence but will surely compromise the fulfillment of the SDGs even beyond their employment-specific targets.

Another side event exuded a more positive energy, this an event on “social protection” hosted by Ghana and featuring several of its ministers and parliamentarians.   Ghana has done good work establishing and maintaining social protection floors, including innovative ways of paying for state services, in ways that could well provide a model for its regional neighbors and others far beyond the African continent.  Indeed, we have already suggested to two other African states that they also consider placing their most hopeful “protection” measures on display for the review and edification of the international community.  There is never enough of this good development news.

This event (and others of the week) also stimulated thinking on the best strategy for maintaining what the DSG referred to earlier in the week as “positive energy” towards fulfillment of the SDGs.  Concerns in this regard are fully appropriate. Indeed, at a side event this week focused on positive changes in the mining industry in the DRC, Ireland’s Ambassador Donoghue was forced to admit that he is only “cautiously optimistic” that the SDGs will eventually achieve their targets.   Along with Kenya’s  Amb. Kamau,  Amb. Donoghue’s leadership on sustainable development goals was nothing short of heroic.  But he also understands the UN system, its political and fiscal compromises, its acceptance of “good enough” when only the best is called for.  As I understood his comments, his discouragement has less to do with the goals themselves and more to do with the limitations of the institution that houses them. Moreover, as understood by those leading the ILO event on labor, fiscal contingencies brought about by those persons and institutions perpetuating gross inequalities could easily dry up the revenue available (and necessary) to modulate and clean up the planet, and bring concrete hope to those most often abused or unreached.

Fortunately, side events associated with the Commission are providing some intriguing options to soften the contingencies of inequality and caution.  As a set of global norms, the SDGs (and their indicators, now in progress on several fronts) seem somewhat unforgiving.  Either we meet the goals and targets or we don’t.  And of course we should meet them once we can agree on the scope of their indicators.  But there is another way to look at the SDGs, less as a normative burden and more as a menu of resources for replicable and sustainable social change.

While watching images and listening to stories about persons in the DRC who had been abused by and then gained their freedom from the extraction industry, it seemed obvious that this is the sort of story that the SDGs were designed to magnify: identifying the relevant norms, to be sure, but also the available (fiscal and other) resources and the responsible parties.  Used in this way, the SDGs become part of the cutting edge of global problem solving, a stimulating factor in replicating things gone right, rather than a set of directives which we are almost destined to fall short of fulfilling.

Fifteen years from now, when a generation first cutting its teeth on development policy walks through that creaky door towards middle age, how will they assess our current commitments?   How will they feel when they look back at the choices we now make and the steps we now take to heal what has been broken and reach beyond our comfort levels to those who most need relief?   Looking backward is always precarious business, tinged with the inevitable “second guess,” but 15 years is a veritable blink of an eye.

We’ll be there before we know it, most probably with health and equity left to pursue, but hopefully with so many innovative and energizing successes that can inspire another generation to help save the rest.  The more creatively — and less punitively – we can harness the power and hopefulness of the SDGs, the larger the number of global communities that will be able to find their stride.  Hopefully, then, these will join to help another set of communities find their own.