Archive | April, 2016

Temperate Zones:   The UN Celebrates its Climate Covenant, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Apr

This past Friday the UN once again made history.   Heads of State and other High Officials from 175 states added their signatures to the Paris Climate Agreement, the largest number of states ever to sign a UN agreement on any single day.

The opening ceremony was mostly a lovefest and not without reason.   To create this consensus agreement was a truly massive undertaking, one that required states to overcome latent climate skepticism while working through some intense political considerations, including the concern that states finally finding their economic footing are being asked to break their carbon habits while the large states make only modest efforts to combat their own carbon addictions.   That states were able to overcome (or at least overlook) these and other obstacles to reach this agreement will go down as a truly historic undertaking in this age of climate trouble.  People outside the UN can only imagine the degree of difficulty associated with bringing a large number of diverging state interests together in an agreement of this complexity and magnitude, albeit with its multiple, notable limitations.

The ceremony was not entirely about hugs and congratulations.  There were warnings as well from inside and outside the UN.   In addition to the seemingly endless “we must move to action” yearnings, several more pointed critiques were made.   For instance, Bolivia was noteworthy in calling attention to the root causes of the climate crisis which in the mind of its president are linked to individualism, greed and militarism and which will allegedly require a thorough re-acquaintance with indigenous lifestyles if the Paris agreement has any chance to succeed.   Special guest Leonardo DiCaprio was equally blunt in urging states to “leave the carbon in the ground,” and transition more rapidly than at present to a more sustainable energy matrix.

Beyond UN confines other warnings abounded, often with greater intensity.  While the ceremony was taking place in the UN General Assembly hall,   twitter was exploding with images of melting ice caps, “bleached” coral and other difficult – if-not-impossible problems to reverse.  The Stimson Center in Washington DC was referring to our oceans as “the world’s largest crime scene.”   As I’m sure was the case with many others, our twitter account was engaged by groups far from New York weighing in on the “temperate” measures being suggested by UN member states for a planet besieged by massive storms and droughts, a planet now thought by many in the scientific community to be at a dangerous tipping point.

Indeed, early on, the negotiations for the Paris Climate agreement exposed an uneven sense of urgency, as large industrial (and polluting) states hedged their bets, newly developing states sought to continue their growth trajectories, and small island states sought to counter what for them is more akin to an existential threat, even in the very near term.   And despite urgings on Friday from French President Hollande for states to overcome what remains of “narrow interests,” there is legitimate concern about how much agreement implementation will actually be able to transcend the rhetorical and self-referential.  During the opening ceremony, it was only Canada’s Trudeau who specifically called for special support for the most vulnerable states, the states which, as a group, bear the least responsibility for the climate mess we now find ourselves in.

During the daylong activities, several states – quoting from the Secretary General’s climate agreement assessment – also noted that “the unthinkable has become the unstoppable.”   As I watched the ceremony, I thought about what is needed – beyond the agreement itself – to keep up our sense of urgency to reverse current trends and replace climate crisis with climate health.  And as is often the case, my mind wandered to concerns that are mirrored in more common human practices.

For instance, in counseling it is common to speak of “bargaining,” clients who agree to make changes that are not so terribly important while escaping responsibility for the more fundamental changes that they really need to make.   This tendency to focus on what matters less in order to avoid commitment to what matters more occurs in many contexts and creates numerous, well-documented problems for families and communities.

In the context of the climate agreement, bargaining by states might well spell the end for life as we know it, substituting carefully-crafted by largely token gestures for the more fundamental shifts on which, as Italy and others noted, the existence of our children and grandchildren depends.   The gifted Tanzanian youth who spoke to the assembled UN dignitaries made clear the stakes of the moment noting, almost as a warning, “I am not alone.”   If the climate agreement is to meet its full potential, states (and other stakeholders) will have to suspend all vestiges of bargaining and be willing to live with some of the highly inconvenient consequences of a climate challenge created largely on our watch.

It is also important, as several states noted during the opening ceremony, that climate health is seen as a full-spectrum responsibility and not merely one of state and even corporate concerns.    The refrain from within the UN of “common but differentiated responsibility” can be put in somewhat more familiar terms – unless we get many more capable and committed hands on deck, this “ship” will take on more and more water, agreement or no agreement.

Easily said, but there are many obstacles to filling this deck – including deep, well-cultivated habits of consumption and media distraction that impede both the development of skills that can contribute meaningfully to address the current crisis, and the strength of character to push us to continue contributing through disappointments and setbacks.  Much like teenagers behave with parents, it is just too easy for all of us to externalize blame on to states and other stakeholders, eschewing the full-spectrum engagements and commitments that bring into sharp relief just how difficult and complex the climate mitigation task actually is. Reversing habits that threaten our survival is every bit as energy and time consuming as forming those habits in the first instance.  There is no time like the present to get started on this difficult but life saving work.

At one point during the opening ceremony, the Secretary-General noted that “we are running behind schedule,” thus delaying the actual agreement signing.   For some, this seemed almost metaphorical – a response to climate threats that many fear might be just a bit too little and just a bit too late.   Others commented on the “footprint” of the signing ceremony, a huge UN room full of officials and their entourages who chose, yet again, to fly in rather than Skype in to express their climate concerns.   Like citizens and their governments, the UN also has habits to address, habits that motivate some to turn their backs on a problem we simply cannot solve without them.   People – skeptical and otherwise — need to know that the policy community, too, is willing to wrestle with and amend our habits for the sake of our common future.

As the Prime Minister of the small island state of Tuvalu made clear at the UN, climate impacts are now a global phenomenon.    Sea waters in every ocean are rising, storms are intensifying, drought and flood zones alike are expanding, traumatized climate refugees are desperately seeking safer ground.   We’re all in this now.   We must all be in this now.  GA President Lykketoft specifically cited the role of civil society groups (like our own) in keeping states on track regarding their climate responsibilities.  Clearly, we on the non-governmental side also have our own, long road to walk on climate impacts before any “all clear” signals are likely to be heard.

The aggregate message conveyed on this Climate signing day was simple and clear:  This is going to be a hard task.  The hour is getting very late.

Let’s get busy.

The Young and the Restless:   Seeking a Wider Gaze at UN Headquarters, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Apr

It was a chaotic and, in some ways, historic week at the UN with major sessions on the threats of terrorism, data-related work by the Commission on Population and Development, special discussions on “drugs and the death penalty” and “the rule of law” (the latter with a focus on children and juveniles), the release of the UN World Water Development Report, assessment of the peace and governance implications of the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit, and of course unprecedented “interviews” of eight candidates for the position of UN secretary-general moderated by current General Assembly president Lykketoft.  (For background on the interviews, including candidate “vision statements,” visit

Amidst all these high level events were a few more “intimate” discussions that raised issues significant for us and other non-governmental organizations. For instance, this past Tuesday, Ambassador Laura Elena Flores Herrera of Panama headlined a breakfast discussion on “Rethinking the Role of Civil Society in an Evolving UN System,” The breakfast was co-sponsored by the Baha’i international community (probably the most generous of the NGOs around UN headquarters) and the International Movement ATD Fourth World (one of the more “grounded” groups around these parts).

Ambassador Flores Herrera has been a breath of fresh air since assuming her current post in late 2014 and she had some important things to share about the ever-shifting role of NGOs in the UN system.  While (rightly) praising NGOs for their contributions to cementing the 2030 development agenda, she also urged a “widening of our optics” when it comes to partnership building within and beyond our common policy community.  Many of our existing partnerships, she noted, have been disappointing at best, leading some to now distrust the whole notion of partnership building altogether.

Of course none of us can solve global problems alone, not even the largest government or the most well- funded and heavily-branded non-governmental entity.   The question isn’t whether we will have partnerships, but who will they be with and on what terms?   Will they be defined more by generosity and respect or competition and predation? Will they open space for others or shut down helpful alternatives to our often narrow agendas?  Will we as NGOs continue to answer the call when governments (often cavalierly) request more civil society involvement, or will we yield the floor to those many groups worldwide who have important things to share and little opportunity to do so, in part because we in New York so often take up more than our share of policy space?  Is our commitment to a diverse and thoughtful engagement with our system of global governance sufficient to overcome our “duty” to impress our funders and imprint our brand names in every possible conference room?

In sorting through these and related questions, the Ambassador’s notion of “widening optics” was most helpful.   It calls to mind our collective attention deficits, our apparent need to share our own “positions” when we could be serving as the eyes and ears of a vast, rich policy community that, for no particularly good reason, will never be invited to sit in the places we do. It calls to mind our emotional limitations, the deficits of transparency and clarity that we tolerate in ourselves all while critiquing this in our institutions and those who run them.   It calls to mind cognitive dysfunctions that manifest themselves as hyper vigilance around mission statements and policy preferences while willfully ignoring other policy urgencies attached to those preferences, not to mention the many communities worldwide still desperately seeking policy relief.

And it calls to mind our collective discomfort with having our assumptions challenged by new and perhaps even “naïve” voices, persons young and old who perhaps do not represent UN policy interests but, in their own way, are perfectly fine representatives of human interests, interests that as most of us recognize are now facing considerable strain.   These are the voices that can at least begin to reboot some of our acquired UN habits, reminding us that a deeper engagement with these strains on the world generally lies beyond the limits of our organizational preoccupations.

Two stories this week illustrated this “reboot” for me:

The first involved a New York City middle school girl whose class, thanks to a colleague of ours, came to visit us this week, ostensibly to hear about issues in Asia.   The group wasn’t particularly interested in Asia as it turns out.  They were kids – mostly distracted, peer and smart-phone preoccupied, and seemingly so anxious about their lives.  At the end of our session, the girl came up to me and asked if she could make a YouTube video with Global Action.  About what, I asked?  “I want to teach people how to love,” she replied.   When I mentioned to her that it is perhaps less important to teach about love than to practice it in the world, she agreed but said, “I want to do this anyway. I think it matters.”

The second story came about during the question and answer portion of the Secretary-General candidate-interview with UNESCO’s Irina Bokova.   After fielding many, mostly predictable questions from diplomats, a boy (perhaps 16) from Brazil appeared on the video screen behind the dignitaries and asked, “If you aren’t selected for the job, how will you continue to help change the world? Will you still care about us?”

At that point, delegates sitting in that UN chamber let out a collective but muted chuckle.  The diplomats, as it turns out, are pretty anxious about the world as well, and they have all lived through their share of disappointment. But most of them, I gather, continue to believe that a “position of prominence” is needed in order to make change.  You must become the head of a mission, or UN office, or large NGO in order to make a difference.  The boy apparently didn’t care much about that. Indeed, he was suggesting something else:  that what we really need to make change, even more than fancy “positions,” are big hearts, flexible minds, and a passion to leave the world in better shape than we found it, no matter what obstacles – self-inflicted and not — lie in our path.

Teaching others to practice love better.  Persevering through inevitable failure and disappointment to help heal the world.  These reminders from sometimes restless youth are surely outcomes we would associate with a widening optics, reminders that point to the true, core metrics by which we govern and assess the value of our work in the world, even more than large funders or professional recognition.

Doing more and better than we can ever be compensated for or even recognized for, keeping our eyes open, our brains engaged and our hearts generous – this is perhaps more than anyone could ask of us. But it is also less than we will need if we are to contribute – fully and successfully — to a world that a girl from Manhattan and a boy from Brazil can truly believe in.

Home Improvement:   The General Assembly Initiates Some Deferred Repairs, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Apr

Anyone who has followed this space knows that Global Action is committed to a UN system that is suitably structured both to focus on needs and threats that states can’t solve alone, and to better honor its many development and security promises made to global constituents. If and when the UN bogs down in petty concerns or takes undue liberties with its vested authority, the hopes that people have invested in this community will continue to fade.

Our own humble contribution to this system has long focused on the way we do our collective business as much as the content of that business.   The promises of a disarmed world, of an end to extreme poverty, of responsive governments that respect the rights of their people, of a planet that can find healing amidst the relentless onslaughts of human ambition – these and more require structures of global governance that privilege effectiveness and whose movements and rationales can be more easily discerned by the governed.

Those of you who rightly wish for the UN to “do more” on development, climate and security should recall: When the home roof is leaking, the boiler barely functions, the tap water is contaminated and the weeds have taken over the lawn, the quality of life of the family is compromised, as is its ability to make meaningful contributions to the life beyond the home.

Indeed, the three major bodies that constitute the UN’s “home” base have all heard rumblings in recent years that their structures and methods of work are simply insufficient to the many challenges on their collective agendas.  In the Security Council, the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) group is just one of several initiatives designed to ensure a Council that is better able to respond to security threats at earlier stages and assess past decisions so as to eliminate future mistakes, while strongly urging the permanent members to “work and play” better both with elected members and with other core components of the UN system.

Under the presidencies of Austria and now the Republic of Korea, the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) has recently recovered its own footing, demonstrating through the High Level Political Forum and other structures that it is able and committed to creating meaningful and reliable space for assessment and oversight of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals — including its emphasis on ending economic and social inequalities — perhaps the single most far-reaching “promise” issued by the United Nations over the past decade.

As the most representative of UN organs, the General Assembly (GA) has also had its share of effectiveness-related issues. In the recent past, it has struggled trying to manage the needs and expectations of a growing roster of member states, including the expectation that the UN as a whole must become more democratic in its core concerns, including on matters of peace and security.  At the same time, the Assembly suffers under the burden of one-year rotating presidencies that make it difficult for leaders (especially from some of the smaller states that have recently held the position) to get full policy traction. The GA has also been limited by a funding mechanism that does not provide resources adequate to any sort of ambitious presidency (which exacerbates tendencies to bend the rules as appears to have been the case with 2013 GA president John Ashe).  And the president has always to contend with large and powerful states (including permanent Security Council members) that do not wish to have the Assembly wandering into their policy territory.

Into this morass in 2015 wandered the current GA president (PGA), Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark, who has made much of his country’s diplomatic reputation and links to the European Union (perhaps even exploiting his country’s pre-eminent levels of happiness) to rapidly enhance some of the GA’s luster.  He and his senior leadership have done so through massive infusions of attentive energy, insisting that this GA house be restored to purpose and set on a path of relevance to a new standard of global expectations.

His strategy has had multiple facets, but two stand out for us.   The first is his office’s omni-presence in the system.  Just this month, he has presided over/keynoted discussions on topics as diverse as African development, trafficking in persons, disaster relief strategies, and peacekeeper abuse in the Central African Republic.  He has traveled to other UN sites to share and to listen. He has also been an indispensable voice in efforts to open up the selection process for the next Secretary-General, a process that might well result in the first female SG but one which will surely change forever the dynamics affecting future selections.  This presence from the PGA has been both consistent and understated, permitting the president to define the GA’s stake in key global issues without undermining the expertise and authority of others, nor the many helpful precedents in the UN system that have brought us to this current, reform-minded place.

The second facet is related to a decision by the PGA’s office to hold fewer key policy discussions in a mostly formalized GA Hall setting – where prepared statements rule the day – in favor of more informal, less predictable discussions in other UN conference rooms.   President Lykketoft did not invent this format by any means, but he has seemingly embraced it in a way which allows delegations to reflect on responsibilities without the burden of producing resolutions, and which also underscores the abundant skills within the general UN membership that simply must be energized if the current collection of existential threats is to find permanent relief.  That some delegations continue to read prepared statements in such informal settings testifies in part to the complexities of the UN’s diplomatic habit; perhaps even to a lingering mistrust in a process that is likely to result in what for Global Action would be a welcome leveling of decision making authority within the entire UN system.

There are no either-or impediments looking forward.  We can find ways to honor both policy precedent and policy innovation.   We can test our current working methods to ensure they are sufficient to our policy challenges without throwing the UN system into procedural chaos. We can show competence on issues and contribute to their resolution without excluding other relevant stakeholders or marginalizing other helpful contributions.   We’re learning how to function as a system – as a home base — slowly but steadily.  It’s an exciting moment; but also an essential one.

The recently released Panama Papers provide those who question the motives of government officials with yet one more reason to do so.   For the UN, deviating from the revised direction recently established for our most important policy organs must not now be an option.  We seem at this point to have the energy and urgency to take better care of our home business, initiating the repairs we have long needed to make. We need to stay this course so that the hope still invested in this global policy community is not in vain.

The Art of Forgiveness:  Helping to Make Peace Prevail, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Apr

The weak can never forgive.  Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.  Mahatma Gandhi

It is rare that someone specifically asks me to take up a topic for the blog; in this instance a piece on forgiveness in the context of international security and conflict resolution.  For someone who has spent most of his adult life inside Christian churches, this might seem to be a fairly easy assignment. But as a member of the UN community for more than a decade, this task becomes sharply more challenging.   Needless to say, there will be much more than needs to be shared about this beyond what I share here.

To start, we should recognize that “forgiveness” is not a word we use at the UN.   We have in our active lexicon a full complement of justice-related terms, including the “impunity” that we are all struggling to end.   We also speak of “reconciliation” though often without pinpointing either whose responsibility this is (sometimes misapplying that to international courts) or acknowledging the slippery definitions and uses to which reconciliation so often comes attached.  Thankfully as a community, we are becoming more comfortable with the compensatory dimensions of justice, such as when we advocate for “reparations” for persons who have suffered sexual violence in armed conflict, reparations that acknowledge the long path towards healing and the services needed (but often not provided) to move that healing process along successfully.

But “forgiveness” represents a more challenging bar altogether, a bar that mostly eludes us here at the UN for better or (mostly) worse.  Forgiveness is a term that can be found in no statements that I can recall in my long years at UN headquarters, in part because forgiveness is generally attached to acts of contrition that are also highly unusual at the UN.  Here we don’t apologize for behavior; we defend behavior.  We don’t accept responsibility for behavior “on our watch”; instead we express “regret” for wrongdoing, mostly by spoilers or rogue states, sometimes by our own peacekeepers.  Responsibility for the mistakes we make ourselves — the people we failed to protect, the monetary pledges we failed to honor, the promises that we let drop by the wayside, the impunity we have allowed to continue, the vision of abundance blocked by our own narrow bureaucratic interests – is also too rare an occurrence.

And I would suggest here that an acknowledgment of responsibility, along with concrete plans to ensure non-repetition (what the church might call “amendment of life”) is indispensable if forgiveness is to mean anything to healing and wholeness beyond simply a resignation to “get over it” and “move on.”   We can “forgive” wayward actions by individuals or even states if their waywardness is accepted and recidivism is avoided going forward.  But repetitive waywardness, habits of disinterest or abuse, acts that are defended rather than confessed and that are repeated rather than shunned; in these and similar instances “forgiveness” loses much of its power.

Contrition and commitments to amendment are, of course, only one piece of this puzzle.   The other piece has to do with the one who has been wronged, their possible confusion about the motives of the perpetrator, the “confessions” designed more for “damage control” or to reduce the length of court sentences than to actually reconcile with others.   There might also be a struggle of sorts inside the hearts of victims – the struggle between a desire for vengeance against one with whom trust is broken and the allure of genuine healing.  Healing bears its own intimacies; as Gandhi insisted, it also requires its own courage.   It is not just about the promise of “feeling free” as some commentators have put it.   It is also about acknowledging that all of us are, in matters of forgiveness, a “responsible party,” responsible perhaps not for the wrongdoing itself, but certainly for at least part of any reconciliation to come. Not everyone is up to that challenge, even if it is in their best interests to accept its demands.

But it is important to be clear about a couple of things:  First, “forgiveness” at an individual level does not remove the obligation to justice at a social level.   Societies must uphold their legal obligations but should also acknowledge the degree to which punishment of offenders is itself insufficient to bring closure and healing.  We have enough testimony from victims’ family members witnessing the execution of a murderer to know how few empty emotional spaces such retribution actually fills.

Second, there are situations in which “forgiveness” itself must defer to more urgent obligations to enforce the most egregious violations of international law. Last week was rather satisfying for proponents of international justice as both Congolese politician Jean-Pierre Bemba and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić were convicted of horrific crimes. The emotional and physical carnage left in the wake of the violence perpetrated by these men (and others yet to face trial) almost defies imagination.  Any suggestion of “forgiveness” in a context such as this – with little remorse expressed for crimes committed that literally call our humanity into question– trivializes any potential response.  How and why would we possibly forgive those who so eagerly ordered the ruin of so many human lives?

Third, in a world that seems obsessed with pushing away responsibility or even clarity for our behavior and its consequences, there is value to understanding forgiveness as one of those things we learn to do ourselves based on our recognition of the value of having previously been forgiven by others.  We achieve kindness, generosity and even forgiveness through our own disciplines of practice.  But the inspiration for the discipline is the love and kindness we were initially shown by parents and others.  Recognizing and appreciating these points of origin are keys to our emotional well-being.

But such recognition is, more and more, hard to come by. I have had several conversations in the past few months with young people around the UN who were apparently trying to convince me (and no doubt themselves) of their deep disappointment with the behavior of others.  This disappointment is often justified to be sure.  What was less justified is the other part of their testimony – -that “I’ve never done anything wrong to anyone.”

This is where we are heading as a culture unless we are willing to take a hard emotional turn.  Not only are there monstrous and unpunished evils being perpetrated in our world.  Not only are we predisposed to posit ignoble motives to whatever few acts of contrition we can now find.  But we are also increasingly taking on a posture of hyper-sensitivity to the behavior of others all the while applying (an unconvincing) “blanket” immunity to our own.

This “everyone is out to get me, I’ve done nothing wrong” posture is anathema to intimacy, trust-building and emotional courage – the DNA of any forgiveness.  We can use the pious words all we want, but the positive consequences of forgiveness are too often swamped by lingering bitterness and self-interested assessments that make unreasonable assumptions between the ideas lodged in our brains and actual conditions in the world.

The good news about forgiveness is that we still need what it provides. We still can benefit greatly from honest, amendment-laden contrition. We still bear the need to reconcile even more than the need to punish.   The bad news is that we’re quickly losing that capacity for emotional courage and clarity that helps us to reconcile both with those who have wronged us and with our own, often-conflicted motives.

Pursuing justice and ending impunity for abuses is always the right thing to do and we should all seek ways to do so more effectively.   But it is not the final thing we need if we seek reconciled families and communities that can escape the bitterness that robs us of abundance and fuels new cycles of violence.  If reconciliation is a goal, we need to encourage more genuine contrition from ourselves and others; but also strive to establish more trusting and durable personal bonds with those who do so.