Archive | March, 2016

Ballot Stuffing:  The UN Confronts State Claims of Indispensability, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 Mar

Vote for Nobody           Bosnia

I’m sitting in my office on an Easter morning having just walked through a park filled with Narcissus (Daffodils) – bright yellow and white flowers that bear within themselves the promise of their own regeneration.

In the northern countries, budding flowers have long served as visual confirmation of at least part of the Easter message – that death is not the final word, that renewal is possible and that the keys to renewal reside partially within us.

Some states on and off the UN Security Council claim such a power for elections as well, seeing them as an “elixir” of national stability, an integral step towards any prospects for national regeneration.  In many parts of the UN system, including the Security Council, elections are widely encouraged as an antidote to political stalemate, to insurgent violence, to restorations of both the rule of law and the good graces of the international community.

Nonetheless, as we look around the world on this Easter morning, this ascription of “elixir” would appear to be a hard sell.   High levels of “negatives” for US presidential candidates, confidence in leadership undermined in Brazil, concerns about Turkey and the political collapse of the European community, economic woes in Burundi, the DRC and elsewhere spiking public anxieties and threatening transitions, spoilers within too many states (and not all of them insurgents) stoking violence and unrest that undermines reasonable prospects for the maintenance of some semblance of normalcy.

And then there are those leaders who simply refuse to leave, those who imagine themselves to be “indispensable” to the maintenance of whatever prospects for national stability and prosperity might exist.  Some of these leaders have thumbed their noses at their own constitutions.  Others have committed grave abuses against their own people and then manipulated electoral processes in order to shield themselves from post-office litigation.  Too many lay claim a “mandate” that is neither constitutional nor performance-based, a mandate that serves only to further widen the distrust  of citizens towards a state fully convinced that its continued presence in office is beyond reproach.

Clearly, as noted by Paul Collier, “elections determine who is in power, but they do not determine how power is used.”   Nor, apparently, do they always determine when and how such power is to be transitioned.

In preparing to write this piece, I searched for quotations on elections that I thought might be uplifting.   What I mostly found were quotations both humorous and skeptical.   Among them:

The Portuguese writer José Maria de Eça de Queiroz alleged that “Politicians and diapers should be changed frequently and both for the same reason. “ The US humorist Will Rogers noted that, “If we got one-tenth of what was promised to us in these acceptance speeches there wouldn’t be any inducement to go to heaven.”  Also from the US, Mark Twain noted that “If voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.”

There were many more in this vein – grateful for the existence of elections and their own ability to participate in them, but skeptical of the motives of those running for office and mostly despairing of the accountability of the winners after all the votes have been counted.  Many are skeptical as well of the disproportionate influence of those holding large fortunes on the political “fortunes” of others, of the ability of leaders to resist the allures of power and redirect that power to public benefit, of the willingness of leaders to battle the demon of “indispensability” through which so much violence, discrimination and political inertia flows.

Clearly, as many within and outside the UN recognize, elections cannot be abstracted from the societies in which they occur.  Moreover, the holding of elections, while useful in helping to “settle” and legitimize the political order, is hardly a panacea for what ails people.  Indeed, much of the violence which occupies the UN Security Council and security establishments in national capitals relates to the inability – or unwillingness – of ostensibly “elected” governments to offer protection, legal integrity, political freedom and development-without-discrimination to their populations.

As the US noted rightly this week in the Security Council, if leaders are “indispensable,” then clearly they have failed at nation building.  Clearly they have too often failed to uphold the rule of law on which most national constitutions are based. Clearly they have also failed to guarantee an end to impunity for violations of public trust committed by any officials of the state. Clearly they have failed — as suggested by UN SRSG Sidikou during that same Security Council meeting — to create and maintain vigorous public spaces for journalists, civil society and even dissenting policy voices, helping to ensure that official promises are addressed in good faith and any abuses of power are not repeated.   Clearly, they have failed to heed Spain’s recent Council urging for electoral processes that do their part to help turn citizens into “protagonists for their own future.”

In other words, “indispensable” leaders who lack the commmitment to enabling rather than obstructing citizens as they seek to express and enact the powers of social regeneration that lie within them.

More and more, elections themselves seem to be more of a “fingers crossed” moment than any guarantee of future inclusiveness – fingers crossed that “changing the diapers” willl result in happier outcomes than another round of diaper burn.  States worldwide are under assault from terrorists and climate-induced drought, from criminal networks and economic predation.   Even the most accountable of states are now staring down multiple traumatic circumstances.   All states now need help in one form or another, from the UN and other mutilateral institutions, of course, but also from their own citizens.

At the UN this past week, Special Envoy Djinnit noted that, in the African region for which he is responsible, successful elections are now the occasion for mostly “fragile achievements.”   Even in these treacherous times, we know some of what it takes to remove the “fragile” tag; replacing repression with open political space, discrimination with fairness, and manipulations of the law with accountability to its cherished provisions.  We must also do better at ensuring vital and thoughtful linkages between national governance and the three, public commitment pillars of the UN system – to security, human rights and development.  “Fragile” is still within our power to change.

And of course we must find ways to do better about selecting people to lead us who have the humility and wisdom to pass the torch when it is time for them to go.

Elections are one significant piece of a larger puzzle towards ensuring peaceful relations, participation and fairness, both elections within member states and even elections within the UN itself: A puzzle incorporating balloting that underscores – rather than undermines – commitments to political and social inclusiveness, while cultivating a “verifiable trust” in government by citizens that is – more than any political leaders themselves – indispensable to a just and effective political order.

Sue Me, Part II:   The Marshall Islands Pushes the Nuclear Weapons States on Their “Good Faith” Deficits, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Mar

ICJ (2)

There is a line not far off the United Nation’s home page that indicates what UN officials imagine the role of journalists to be: Journalists who cover the United Nations play an important part in its work, because they help explain to the public what the Organization does and why. 

There are several ways to interpret this, but the most obvious is to assume that the job of journalists is to act as conduits for the promotion of UN activities, largely employing the words with which the UN seeks to have those activities conveyed.  The assumed role of journalists, it would appear, involves some measure of capitulation to the dominant narrative, pushing the soundbites that elevate the stature and impact of the UN in ways that are likely misleading – explaining away mistakes and even missing some important ways in which the UN adds value beyond the fringes of policy centers.  After all, in a highly competitive, branded environment, we are as likely to lose sight of the places where we add value as the places where we have failed to add it.

What we need from journalists, with all due respect to the UN’s web content, the pressures of the media market and the unpredictability of editors is to be attentive, thoughtful and, to the extent any of us can be, balanced.  We need journalists who strive to see the whole picture, who eschew easy abstractions focused on political power or celebrity scandal, who resist the pages handed out for them to read in favor of pages they investigate for themselves.

And most of all, we need journalists who flock to the places where matters of genuine importance are taking place, matters where lives are potentially being saved, where threats are being vanquished, where longstanding prejudices are being overcome, where awareness can swiftly lead to action on some of the critical issues facing our planet.   Those of us who supplement journalism with active social media know how to get to the scenes of impact, but professional journalists most often bring a more disciplined eye.

From March 7 to March 16 before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, one longstanding threat to the human race came a bit closer to being vanquished. A superb team of legal experts – with leadership from Dutch lawyer Phon van den Biesen and HE Tony deBrum, Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands (and including John Burroughs of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy) — argued persuasively that the nuclear weapons states have manifestly failed in their obligations under customary international law and the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to pursue “in good faith” negotiations towards a nuclear-disarmed world.

The cases entitled, Obligations concerning Negotiations relating to Cessation of the Nuclear Arms Race and to Nuclear Disarmament ( also brought to the court legal teams of the three nuclear weapons states – United Kingdom, Pakistan and India – which had previously accepted compulsory jurisdiction of the Court regarding adjudication of these claims of obligation. (For more on these cases, see

While a comprehensive review of this process is beyond our competence, the arguments of the nuclear armed states seemed to us simultaneously vigorous and fatuous, attempting as they were to make the case that the jurisdiction which they had already accepted did not now apply, while also seeking to re-write history such that the weapons each state has unilaterally pursued and now seeks to modernize are somehow “consistent” with legal obligations to negotiate towards nuclear disarmament.   Perhaps even more remarkable, states seem to have been largely oblivious to what is quite a “high character” gesture by Foreign Minister deBrum of the Marshall Islands.   The Minister was consistent throughout that his country was not seeking punitive damages, financial compensation or reparations in any form, but was rather seeking legal remedy that would help to drive meaningful (and irreversible) policy change regarding any alleged “right” to ignore disarmament obligations.

Despite the damage inflicted on the islands and its peoples from years of above-ground nuclear testing, the Marshall Islands early on in this process took the prospect of financial compensation off the table.  The “compensation” of preference was a judgment that nuclear weapons states have simply not fulfilled their obligations under customary international law, and that the tangible commitment to “good faith” negotiations was necessary to satisfy both the judgments of the court and the people of the Marshall Islands that their longstanding and radiation-soaked sacrifices could serve a higher calling – a world once and for all free of nuclear weapons.

There were other matters about this case that were intriguing from the vantage points of policy and media. First, we have to admit that we don’t quite understand what appears to be incessant squabbling over relevant lenses – legal, humanitarian, moral – through which the question of nuclear weapons possession can finally be put to rest.   The skillfulness of the plaintiffs’ arguments in this case was matched by the compelling, kind and far-reaching nature of the relief being sought, not treasure in the conventional sense but the treasure of the greater good.  In these three legal cases, what is at stake is nothing short of our ability to have confidence in international law as applied to the dangers posed by the possession of these potentially “ecosystem destroying” weapons.

Second, while all arguments stayed fairly close to issues of admissibility and jurisdiction that dominated so much of the three state “defenses,” there was an under-current in the room that these three cases might create “jurisdiction” of another sort in the form of “good faith” negotiating pressure on the (majority) nuclear weapons states that chose to stay away from this case.   It surely occurred to the ICJ judges – as it must have for the Marshall Islands legal team – that it is a short distance from precedents established in these cases to accusations of “good faith” negotiating failures on the part of the other weapons possessors, including and especially the two largest possessing states.   The UK’s “one hand clapping” reference notwithstanding, there is reason to believe that such precedents coupled with political pressure from the “humanitarian” sector and moral pressure from the faith communities might finally be sufficient to get us on a path characterized by something other than pious statements advocating disarmament followed closely by negotiating intransigence.

By any relevant standard, this process before the ICJ would seem to rise to a level of importance –politically, symbolically and legally – for it to have received wider attention from both professional journalists and social media advocates for disarmament.  While grateful to the outlets and organizations that covered the cases (and even in the latter instance funded the participation of the Marshall Islands legal team), we simply cannot fathom how so much of this important work remained in the media shadows.   There is so much about peace and security advocacy that is bogged down by duplicitous state interests, distracted NGOs, even a lazy press.  This is one instance when our collective eyes and ears should have taken better notice.

“Sue Me”:   The Council Seeks Belated Traction on Peacekeeper Abuse, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Mar

One of the things we do in our office with interns and fellows is insist that they pay as close attention as possible to as many parts of the UN system as they are able.   The UN offers remarkable learning opportunities beyond international peace and security: from global health to fair employment access, the UN’s conceptual and policy scope is virtually unparalleled.

Despite this robust scope, what our young colleagues learn quickly is that, for all of its conceptual clout, the UN is primarily political space: political in the sense of having to negotiate agreements within diverse and often contested settings, and political in the sense of trying to convince others of positions which might well be misleading.  Thus the job of fellows and interns involves both openness to learning and wariness about the “truth” limitations within any government position or presentation. They come to recognize the “salesmanship” even within the most thoughtful statements; they become sensitive to the fact that what is “left out” of statements is often more important than what is included.

This discernment takes time, but once it happens, lights go on in some creative ways.   For instance, this week in a General Assembly informal on the rights of indigenous peoples, my youngest intern listened intently to statements focused on getting “higher” representation in indigenous forums – by which was meant more duly elected tribal leaders and fewer activists who speak and act “more like NGOs.”  Many statements also noted the need to include indigenous peoples in all issues “relevant to them.”

Shortly after, the intern noted, If delegates are looking to integrate duly elected representatives of indigenous groups, he noted, what is NOT relevant to them?  Health? Security? Human Rights?  Employment?  Water Access?  And if “relevance” has issue limitations, doesn’t that make indigenous representatives a bit like NGOs?  If the GA wants a more formal level of representation at forums, doesn’t this mean extending participation to all aspects of the UN’s work?

The politics impeding such broad participation aside, this is what we want from our people – attentive and supportive, but also discerning and evaluative.  Discerning to improve the UN, not to embarrass it.  Attentive to the hopeful evolutions in government positions, but also to efforts to politicize solutions to the world’s horrors, ignoring or covering up inconvenient elements to a full and complete picture.

Some of those “elements” have been on display this past week as the Security Council succeeded at responding to what has become a persistent blight on the UN system – the abuse by peacekeepers of civilians entrusted to their protective care.  Such abuses may represent a small fraction of the violence taking place in sites of UN operations from Central African Republic to Yemen, but the despair left in the wake of peacekeeper abuse is a strong and pervasive multiplier impacting both civilian populations and UN operations far beyond peacekeeping.  This effect called to mind the impact of techniques used by torturers whereby they surround the victim with persons posing as police and religious clergy who appear to be condoning what they should otherwise be preventing.  Abuse at the hands of erstwhile “protectors” and “caregivers” is doubly traumatic.

During the debate and the subsequent discussion on what became resolution 2272 – which included a rare separate (no) vote on an amendment proposed by Egypt – the Council went on the record, in the words of Japan, to preserve this “last hope” to civilians represented by peacekeepers through measures that include robust state reporting of response to abuses and threats of repatriation for offending units. The Council also, as highlighted by Spain, Uruguay and others, urged greater effort to honor our collective responsibility to victims abused by forces originally generated and then mandated for purposes of their protection.

The passion in the Council chamber on this day was palpable and seemed sincere.  As many members noted, the impacts on the abused and on the reputation of the institution tasked with protecting them is staggering.   Most military people –including my own family members around the dinner table – understand full well that abuse destroys confidence in all aspects of operations, making the task of honorable military (and other) protectors that much more difficult.  As the US, France and others rightly noted, it is appalling when citizens fear the sight of blue helmets rather than see in them a sign that their ordeal might finally have some positive resolution.  Such fear does not easily dispel.

The US – one of several states on the Council that is not a Troop Contributing Country but which served as penholder on resolution 2272 — clearly articulated the manner in which abuse by those trained to protect represents a higher order of offense. Indeed, the US Ambassador used the opportunity provided by the Egypt amendment controversy to address Council members in a lengthy statement that in some ways was among the best of her Council tenure. She was passionate, powerful and mostly off-script.  Unfortunately, she was also dismissive of any who challenged the scope, working methods or motives behind the resolution, as well as of other efforts inside the UN system to confront and address this scourge. “My motive,” she proclaimed at one point, is to address this cancer. “Sue me.”

Indeed.  As the dominant power within the Council, even more so in back rooms than in official settings, the US knows perfectly well that no lawsuits are forthcoming.   No state would dare.  None would be permitted.   States seemed to be biting their metaphorical tongue as they so often do when the US or some other permanent member takes off on an accusatory rant.

And not all the stated cautions regarding this resolution were in bad faith.  As Malaysia noted during the Council discussion, due to an “insufficient” consultative process with Troop Contributing Countries we might have lost the chance for forging genuine consensus on peacekeeper abuse. Senegal was reasonable in urging that notions of “collective punishment” for abuse be avoided at all costs. Venezuela’s formula of seeking “justice not stigma” was wise, if a bit unclear on the implementation.   Russia made veiled references to the (also) unresolved abuse by French forces, not a factor to be taken lightly within these discussions.

Clearly, not all the relevant factors are served by emotive and dismissive bursts.  Why, as the US itself noted, have these abuse investigations taken so long?   Why has no senior official in the Secretariat to date been held directly accountable for what are now longstanding and mostly neglected patterns of abuse?   Why have abuses (and uneven investigations) by French forces in the context of larger peacekeeping operations not been more public?  And what does it mean for the Council (and for future support by Troop Contributors) when a key non-contributing member dismisses the concerns of Council colleagues (not to mention General Assembly “C-34” efforts to deal with this problem) with what seemed to border on contempt?

One of the grave problems of our time, from which the UN is hardly immune, is the confusion of branding and truth-telling – words used as instruments to convince more than as a means to discern and disclose.  The political tensions within the Council, coupled with the need to brand national policies beyond their potential effectiveness, have created conditions in which all positions – including the most forceful, passionate ones – require a closer scrutiny.  All contain elements of truth, but all neglect elements that can turn partial remedies into effective, sustainable international commitments.

For my young colleagues, this is all becoming a sober but challenging occasion for discernment — a positive and badly needed step on peacekeeper abuse undertaken within a scenario characterized by damaging delays, mixed national motives and rhetoric that alternates between passion for victims and the patronizing of UN colleagues.  We are, all of us – victims and diplomats, caregivers and civil society – desperate for that just and lasting solution to the horrific pain which these abuses have inflicted. At this point, we can only hope that resolution 2272 is the starting point for honest, sustained engagement.

Travelocity: The Council’s Ticket to Closer Connections to Difficult Security Challenges, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Mar

As of this writing, Security Council members are in the final stages of a visit to West Africa to confer with regional leaders and assess security arrangements and ongoing threats in countries such as Mali and Guinea-Bissau.

We support such trips as, in the best of circumstances, Council members can both share concerns with political and military leaders (even opposition forces as in Mali), and also get a feel for how tenuous the peace can be in these places despite the Council’s often well-meaning meetings, resolutions and mandates.  It is good that they go, good that they listen, good that capitals experience their concern first-hand.

We look forward to the report on this trip later this month, under Angola’s presidency.   As part of that report, we would appreciate some rationale for the invitation list, specifically why the chair of the Peacebuilding Commission’s Guinea-Bissau configuration, Brazil’s Amb. Patriota, was apparently left off.   Indeed, a meeting of that configuration focused on the political stalemate in that country was held this week prior to the Council’s departure, a meeting which attracted an “A” list group of permanent representatives, virtually all of whom were properly encouraging of Amb. Patriota’s personal involvement with (at least) the Guinea-Bissau portion of the Council’s travels.

Indeed, from our vantage point, and having been present for virtually all recent meetings of this configuration, this would seem to be an opportunity missed.   Closer linkages between the PBC and SC have been called for repeatedly by Ambassadors and featured in SG reports.   These connections are considered essential both to ensuring broader participation by member states in relevant peace and security issues, and in helping to push our conflict-related energies further upstream, balancing our commitments to remedial measures in post-conflict settings with assurances that we will do all that we can — and more than we are currently doing — to fend off conflicts in their earliest stages.

Such assurances, as we have noted many times in the past, require more of us as we seek to become fair, thoughtful and collaboratively-minded brokers of our respective mandates.

This “more” was ably expressed during “Human Rights at work in Peace Operations,” convened by Sweden to look at the human rights implications of peacekeeping operations (including of course the obligation not to abuse the people PKOs are mandated to protect).  During that event Francesco Motta, Head of the Human Rights Component of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, made clear that UN reports must be used to enhance human rights practices and not for UN publicity purposes.  Such reports must have direct application to circumstances on the ground, not only with regard to the values and strategies by which we respond to threats, but as a means for deepening our understanding of the nature and origins of threats.  Extremism did not appear out of nowhere, he advised, and the more we allow ourselves to know about its complex origins (including at times our own facilitating roles), the better we will be able to prevent their recurrence.  This self- and organizational reflectiveness from a human rights officer (and from several of his panel colleagues) was warmly received and rightfully so.

Some of the value of that reflectiveness could have been extended to the pre-trip Council chamber during discussion of resolution 2270 (2016) that tightens sanctions on the DPRK, including restrictions on new categories of exports and providing for the intercepting of DPRK vessels.  The US and China, as the two nations most closely associated with the resolution, had predictably different response to its unanimous passage, though both acknowledged the limited value of previous sanctions regimes to changing DPRK behavior.  The US took the lead in highlighting yet again the many levels of security threats and human rights abuses attributable to DPRK’s leadership.  China, again typically for them, highlighted the need for dialogue and negotiated settlement while noting the grave challenges on their own doorstep represented by some of the belligerent policies emanating from Pyongyang.

Two things particularly struck me from this discussion.  First, despite the many evidences of horrific DPRK behavior noted by the US, other Council members such as Japan, and even from ECOSOC president Oh Joon, there was an underlying if unspoken presumption of “rationality” of the DPRK leadership, some sense that this leadership is capable of internalizing the disapproval of other states and making sound judgments designed to resolve (or at least appease) such disapproval.

This assumption has merit with bratty children desperate for their mothers’ attention or “high maintenance” partners looking for reassurance.  But for bullies harboring what appear to be severe reality deficits, provocation seems always to be lurking in the metaphorical shadows, provocation which can be both a cause of and an excuse for obsessive, abusive, reactive behavior.

Still, regardless of any state sanity misconceptions, it would have been useful to have the DPRK in the Council chamber to gauge their reactions to the resolution, indeed their capacity to respond reasonably (if not positively) to its demands. It is standard Council practice to invite states under consideration – Yemen, Libya, Syria, Sudan, etc. – and then provide them the courtesy of response.  In this instance, as with many other UN deliberations on DPRK, government representatives were nowhere to be found. We have written previously urging the Council to abandon the process of letting erstwhile “offending” states have the “last word” in these formal sessions in part because of the high levels of “spin” characteristic of most of their presentations.  Nevertheless, these appearances are useful both in helping to take the “temperature” of states and to ensure that government officials actually “hear” the concerns of Council members.  Given this, every possible effort should be made to have the DPRK in the room when they find themselves (as they assuredly will) back on the Council’s agenda.

The lessons from this week’s travels and briefings largely confirm lessons of prior weeks:  If we politicize findings of potential mass violence or other security threats; if we protect officials who fail to address human rights abuse allegations forthrightly;  if we turn our backs on complementary capacities (including mediation experts) that can help us fulfill our own mandates (not to mention save lives); if we allow our political lenses to cloud our policy judgments;  if we craft statements or reports that tell the truths that we want others to hear, not the truths they need to hear; if we appear to encourage some abusive state voices while stifling others; then we risk undermining broad confidence in the multilateral structures we still very much need to implement the promises we have already made.

Whether we like it or not, that confidence is now a bit shaky.  We need quickly to demonstrate more resolve to preserve – even enhance — what is left of it.  If we were ever to lose this confidence altogether, we can rest assured that no Council session or overseas mission visit could likely restore it.