Archive | May, 2016

Face the Nations:   Security Council Candidates Make a Public Pitch, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 May

There was so much of value to write about this week at the UN.  Jordan and Italy convened the last of three experts’ events to examine the phenomenon of degraded and trafficked cultural artifacts by organized crime and terror groups.  The Security Council with leadership from Spain and Ukraine organized a useful session on the security implications of climate change and desertification on Sahel states. Also in the Council, Egypt presided over yet another discouraging briefing on the state of Syria humanitarian assistance by UN “Relief Chief” Stephen O’Brien.  Others welcomed International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Bensouda who both briefed the Council on her Libya activities and held a smaller, well-regarded consultation on a broader range of topics relevant to international justice for a group of ICC “friends.”

But minor ‘historic’ events trump even the most insightful briefings. One such event took place this week over two half-days when, for the first time, candidates to become non-permanent (N-10) members of the Security Council faced an audience of their peers.  While two of the regional groups that contribute such members produced candidate running unopposed, the Asia Group (Kazakhstan and Thailand) and the European (and other) group (Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands) held separate, non-binding, “public” discussions consisting of statements by Ambassadors (mostly a recitation of their national priorities and UN contributions) followed by questions and answers from the curious audience.

The event was organized by the World Federation of UN Associations (WFUNA) and the questions were generally helpful.  Perhaps the best of these was posed by Poland during both sessions, making the point that the Ambassadors on the podium are not at all guaranteed to be the ones sitting around the oval after a successful candidacy, thus begging the question about the degree to which the respectful salesmanship in evidence actually reflects relevant state priorities.   Other questions raised during both sessions related to matters ranging from a Council “code of conduct” to priority issues (such as climate health and gender balance) that the elected N-10 would wish to highlight on the Council’s agenda.  NGOs, mostly New York-based were also invited to participate though, as we explained directly to organizers, this was often a matter of the usual questions posed by the usual suspects.

As readers of this blog are likely aware, the UN community has several Security Council “reform” movements afoot.  In a variety of contexts, the general membership remains concerned about the power imbalances within the Council, its limited regard for other relevant UN organs and agencies, and its willingness to entertain interventions from other states without evidence of how any of those disclosures actually impact Council working methods or policy outcomes.  It seems at times, as we have written before, that the Council has established a large and lovely picture window allowing all to peer into a dinner party to which they are too-rarely invited.  This distance makes non-Council members understandably nervous as some articulate forcefully and routinely during Council “open debates.”

As these discussions ended, and as an organization which has witnessed hundreds of Council meetings, we collectively wondered if the sessions (which we were mostly grateful for) actually got to the heart of the matter.  We know the work of these five delegations well.  They are all worthy of Council membership; they are all making important contributions to core UN objectives; they are all taking leadership on structures, issues and delegate groupings that have become indispensible to the UN’s core mission, including on promoting women’s participation in peace negotiations (such as the Netherlands has for Syria) and for Secretary-General candidature. (More women’s voices on the Council would help also.) Moreover, each is doing significant work to enhance key UN objectives beyond the UN itself, including Italy’s stirring rescues of desperate immigrants and their capsized vessels in the Mediterranean Sea. Thus there is some reason to believe that at least a significant measure of what the five Ambassadors pledged at these sessions will ultimately be honored by their capitals.

Of course, Council membership remains quite demanding, especially on small and mid-sized missions.  The responsibilities related to subsidiary committees, for producing statements at many “open” meetings, for weighing in on consultations and participating in private briefings – these and other duties can be quite taxing on delegations from N-10 missions.  In addition, N-10 members receive requests to confer with non-member states that tend to see these diplomats (often so) as collectively having the interests of the general UN membership more “at heart.” Sweden was one of the candidates pledging to speak on diverse Council matters “with states, not at them,” but meaningful conversation takes energy, not a luxury that many small and mid-sized delegations can claim.

Given these burdens and given what these states have “taken on” to prove their mettle – from convening the G-77 (Thailand) or Peacebuilding Commission (Sweden) to the aforementioned work on the preservation of cultural heritage and the promotion of international justice – it would have been relevant to ask how mid-size missions plan to fulfill Council responsibilities on top of their many existing commitments?  As these states are selected, what will be the likely impact on their 2030 development work within ECOSOC?  What will happen to General Assembly and related duties for which these states are already known and about which expectations have already been generated?  What policy commitments are most in danger of falling by the wayside so that sometimes-relentless Council demands can effectively be fulfilled?

Moreover, it would have been interesting to ask these diplomats about their impressions of life as an N-10 member, drawing lessons from states now sitting around the oval, and from those that have previously served (including their own previous tenures).  There have been recent grumblings, including from current members Malaysia and Venezuela as well as New Zealand and Uruguay, that the Council is insufficiently democratic space, that permanent (P-5) members manipulate both the language and timing of resolutions in ways that exclude full member participation, and that Council mandates to “maintain peace and security” are often held hostage by the largest states, a reasonable accusation given that none can hold the P-5 accountable in the manner that these states seek to hold others.

Given these factors, it would have been valuable to ask candidates for specific impressions and concerns about the ‘office” for which they seek election.  In a similar light, it would also have been helpful to explore ways in which they believe that the N-10 can, individually and in unison, promote a more equitable Council structure both for themselves and for the states that will succeed them.  If there is any hope for meaningful and lasting Council reform, it seems clear that the N-10 members and alumni must do more to lay out issues, structures and implications that continue to impede peace and security progress and compromise the overall reputation of the UN, especially in the eyes of the most vulnerable. N-10 alumni know a good deal about what these five states are likely to face.  Their wisdom remains indispensible to any efforts – as Kazakhstan recommended with regard to the Sustainable Development Goals and Thailand with regard to the Peacebuilding Commission – to broaden what the Council supports while limiting what it controls.

There are risks associated with asserting this preference of course, including risks to political “favor” and careers from a too-bold confrontation with the largest and most powerful states.  But if the UN is to preserve a global confidence, some measure of political risk-taking must be part of the N-10 job description. We urge in any future “public” discussions with N-10 candidates that their reflections on Council risks-worth-taking are accorded a higher priority.

Eurovision 2016: Glitter and Politics

25 May

Editor’s Note:  Jessica is now employed in public policy after having spent time working on youth development initiatives in Ukraine. She currently serves as an adviser to GAPW where she previously worked as Project Consultant.

Where is your heart?  Yaşlığıma toyalmadım

Humanity rise.  Men bu yerde yaşalmadım

As the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues comes to a close, it seems apropos that in a parallel but more theatrical forum, issues relevant to the protection of indigenous rights have played out for the world to view in the form of song.  The enormously popular “Eurovision 2016” song fest was held recently in Stockholm and featured both the Russian favorite to win the competition, Sergey Lazarev, and the ultimate winner, Ukraine’s Jamala.

Jamala’s song “1944” references May 18, 1944— the date on which approximately 200,000 Tatars were deported from the Crimea under the USSR’s Stalinist regime.  Rules and regulations aside (“No lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature shall be permitted during the Eurovision Song Contest”), Jamala’s song reignited conversation across Europe and beyond regarding the rights of indigenous peoples—and in particular, the rights of an indigenous group that has struggled to retain much of its culture while existing under various ruling powers: the USSR, a newly democratic Ukraine, and now Russia.

The 2016 United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues focused on the theme of “conflict, peace, and resolution”—a relevant issue in light of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the various accusations of human rights violations targeting Crimean Tatars that have followed. It also raises an interesting question of policy: how can we create meaningful initiatives to commemorate the traumatic history of the past and, at the same time, push for more inclusive societies that recognize the unique language and culture of indigenous people?  In addition, what responsibility does a multi-lateral institution like the United Nations have towards indigenous people who are alleging persecution by the government that “rules” over them?

It is not enough for the world to show its solidarity with Crimean Tatars through a cultural song competition, no matter how popular.  Various op-eds have called for “Western” governments to push harder to protect Crimean Tatar rights. However, as difficult as this dialogue may be (especially given that Ukraine and Russia both now sit on the UN Security Council), it needs to take place at the United Nations—and include input from multiple regional organizations, cultures, governments, civil society, and the Tatars themselves.  If the conversation is not fully inclusive, we risk politicizing the situation further—which is exactly the game that Russia now accuses the West of playing in Eastern Europe.

Yaşlığıma toyalmadım [I did not enjoy my youth]

Men bu yerde yaşalmadım [I was not able to live in this place]

We need to engage at a level beyond song, beyond the deep concern expressed by interested parties, in order to ensure a viable future for the Crimean Tatars.   They, like other indigenous, must be allowed to live in the places of their familial and cultural origins.

City Harvest:  Seeking a UN Urban Agenda That Deepens our Rural Connections, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 May

This week the UN Security Council was on mission in East Africa, the General Assembly was focused on AIDS and Migration, and the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues concluded another round of UN-based advocacy.  The rest of the building was taken up with preparations for the UN Humanitarian Summit (now underway in Istanbul) and with aspects of trade, development and “south-south” cooperation relevant to the fulfillment of our general obligations under the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Perhaps the most important of these were discussions took place under the aegis of UN Habitat on a Draft Document towards a “New Urban Agenda” that will help guide the Habitat III convening scheduled for later this year in Quito, Ecuador.

The rationale for another major gathering on cities is difficult to refute.  As the document’s introduction makes clear, our global demographic continues its rapid shift towards urban areas.  Predictions now are that, by 2050, as many as 70% of global inhabitants will reside in cities making urbanization “one of the 21st century’s most transformative trends.”

These meetings were largely upbeat, highlighting significant improvements in the quality of lives of urban residents since the UN first took up the challenges of cities in the mid-1970s.  Delegations were generous in their acknowledgment of the technological, economic and cultural innovations so often characteristic of cities.  As mostly urban dwellers themselves (even when not serving in New York) delegates seemed grateful for the opportunity to do their part to enhance the longer-term quality of urban settings.

As we know, cities are places of cultural and ethnic diversity; they also, as UN Women duly noted at a related event this week on “Movements of Refugees and Migrants,” provide places of hospitality and employment opportunities for migrants who often find within cities both a base line acceptance along with a community of ex-pats to help ease what can often be a frustrating and lonely transition.  Cities are magnets for the underemployed and dispossessed, but also for the entitled and ambitious.  Cities allow people to redefine themselves, to test their skills and talents, to become something other than what had been “planned out” for them by others.

But cities are also places of distraction and suspicion.  They breed anonymity and emotional disconnection.  City residents are so often found staring into tiny smart phone screens rather than seeking out what little sky lies beyond the tops of buildings.  People in cities become more comfortable with the insides of transit stations than with farmlands or watersheds.  They are part of increasingly relentless, market-driven environments with vast options for consumption and entertainment far beyond those found in other settlements.  And there are times when an endless range of options makes it difficult to make – and hold fast to – any decision, be it about consumptioin or more personal matters.  Sometimes there are so many tempting dishes on the menu it takes many frustrating minutes to figure out just what you want to order.

In our work with environmental mapping (Green Map) we have noted, time and again, the growing impact of human and technological innovation on urban living, offering pathways to make such living more convenient and helping to solve infrastructure related problems that were previously resistant to change.  But we have also noted the degree to which peoples’ (even basic) knowledge about their urban environment is flimsy and compromised.  While advances can regularly be cited related to urban poverty reduction, protecting wildlife habitats, enhancing food security, expanding waterfront access, and “greening” our energy use and modes of transportation, too many urban residents continue to “go small,” seeing mostly what is on the screens right in front of them instead of grasping the issues and connections that that will give us the best chance to move beyond still-current threats to the longer-term achievement of sustainable urban living.

Part of what we need to see now is that larger picture that Peru and others provided during the Habitat discussions: In addition to attention to things like the preservation of cultural heritage and fortifying disaster preparedness and relief in this unsettling time of climate fluctuation, Peru also cited a critical need to enhance urban-rural connections, including a renewed respect by city dwellers for the lifestyles and livelihoods of a shrinking rural populace.

This last agenda is easier said than done.   Until and unless there is a crisis of access (or until we need a vacation break from our urban chaos), city folks too often tend to take rural areas and their inhabitants for granted.   Collectively, we don’t think much about the ways in which our food is grown and produced.  We don’t worry much about the security and sustainability of our reservoirs and watersheds.   We don’t pay much attention to the people who mine our minerals, maintain our cross-country roads or bury the cables for our internet upgrades.   And we almost willfully ignore the lifestyles of people – indigenous and not – who choose to reside beyond the bright lights of cities, people who resist joining the throngs seeking opportunity, security, convenience and endless distraction in urban settings.

Changing this dynamic portends benefits for many, including those who still reside in rural areas and whose issues are often buried under an avalanche of city-focused policy and city-obsessed media.  What is now required, as the Food and Agricultural Organization noted during the South-South discussions, is a new form of cooperation on matters of vital, common interest, a new way (as the “New Urban Agenda” document referred to it) of “conceiving urban-rural linkages.”

This “conceiving” must go beyond rivers and melons to embrace common efforts to reduce our eco-footprint and create reciprocal and tangible regard for diverse lifestyles that reflect important aspects of our human character.   As we cannot flourish without urban innovation and diversity neither can we flourish without deep connections to the land and its biodiversity which surrounds us, or to the people who live with and cherish such connections.  As Cuba noted this week, sustainable development cannot be achieved without the active participation of global “south” countries, but neither can it be achieved in the absence of the skills, care and wisdom of their diverse rural peoples.

A representative of one of those rural peoples – the Sami – came to the Indigenous Forum this week seeking (as did others) redress and reconciliation for what was termed policies of “forced assimilation.”  Whether we like it or not, in an age of climate-related famine, weather-related disasters and widespread armed violence, much of what is driving urban growth feels a bit “forced” as well. We urge Habitat III to do everything possible to continue on the path to make urban centers thrive.  But city life can be vital without being inevitable.  Preserving, enhancing and respecting the “rural option” should be understood as being in the best interests of urban dwellers and constitutes a major objective for those tasked with defining urban interests.

Connecting Some Difficult UN Dots:  The Risks Worth Taking, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 May

This was one of “those weeks” at the UN – a time when complementary discussions were taking place in multiple conference rooms and when it was difficult to know where the most important discussions were actually taking place.  For instance, President of the General Assembly Lykketoft held an important, two-day High Level event on Peace and Security, in part designed to find ways to engage UN member states beyond the Security Council in diverse aspects of conflict prevention and resolution.   On the second day, barely 50 paces away, that same Security Council under Egypt’s leadership was holding a valuable general debate for UN members on strategies for combating terrorist narratives.   Venezuela was one of the few Council members to directly reference the General Assembly meeting nearby, but none risked referencing the needless overlap forcing interested parties to divide their attention between two related discussions that both warranted full and undivided attention.

A similar overlap occurred this week with respect to matters of abuse, the means to address which the UN community is taking stronger (if seriously belated) notice.  One setting for such discussions is the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, one of our very favorite annual UN events.  The Forum combines diverse cultural expression and high-quality activism with sober reflection on abuses forgotten, land stolen, cultures denigrated, voices denied, ecologies poisoned, resources exploited.   And yet there is gratitude in evidence here as well.  A colleague reported that speaker after indigenous speaker at the Forum began by giving thanks – not for the abuses and humiliations, of course, but as a way of honoring the ancestral owners of the land and sea on which this Forum was happening, opportunities that we can embrace now because of all that happened before us.

This ritual gratitude is no mere ritual.  It is an effort to keep living connections between our current strivings, those before us who gave us contexts and challenges, and those after us who will have to live with the consequences of our sometimes thoughtless legacies.   It is this grateful awareness of multi-generational impact — this attentiveness to a world that we did not make ourselves and that others are destined to inherit — that helps bring meaning and power to situations too often characterized by rights abuses uninvestigated and unpunished, cultural and resource thefts justified by trade agreements to which indigenous peoples were not party, and other violations of respect.

It is too bad that these indigenous representatives are not present at the UN more often, and also too bad that there is no time – or perhaps invitation – to share their lenses on meaning and power in other conference rooms.   One such room this week was a briefing for diplomats, again under the auspices of the General Assembly, and this time devoted to updates on the UN’s efforts to address sexual violence by UN personnel, especially peacekeepers.

There was some gratitude expressed by UN officials during this briefing – mostly to the peacekeepers who do difficult jobs under even more difficult circumstances, who largely do those jobs free from scandal and abuse, and who labor under mandates that are often unclear, unmanageable — even  grandiose.  After all, we do not “protect civilians” in the same sense that fire departments respond to all fires. We protect “some” civilians, except in those gruesome instances when we do the exact opposite.

My office colleagues, two of which have been closely following the Indigenous Forum, found this particular GA discussion rather unfulfilling.   They largely reject the “bad apple” theory of abuse that ignores structure and context and allows senior leadership to avoid scrutiny.   They reject the idea that anyone – soldiers included — should be lauded for refusing to sexually abuse constituents, regardless of the other challenges they might be facing.   They reject the idea that we can focus solely on the (quite helpful) measures now being taken to eliminate abusive behavior without a serious (and apologetic) examination of why it has taken so long to counter a problem that we have known about for some time.   They reject the idea that the reputation of the UN should be our primary consideration rather than the well-being of victims. They wonder if our approach to all this is too much about “damage control” and not nearly enough about “damage confession” while embracing the political risks necessary to try and make things right.

There were lots of powerful words spoken at this particular GA briefing.   But those few of us non-diplomats in the room (sadly including no indigenous representatives we could identify) came away largely unconvinced that bold words and proposed programmatic reforms would be sufficient to overcome the UN’s aging habits of policy distraction and policy spin.  We don’t seem to have (or have lost) that longer view to which we can attach longer commitments, based in part on gratitude for those who struggled before us and responsibility towards those who will follow. Eliminating (not merely addressing) abuses, as both the Under-Secretary General and Special Coordinator pledged to accomplish, will require culture shifts as well as policy adjustments.  We must take needed steps more urgently, but then stay a considerably longer (and honest) policy course that keeps victims (and our collective history of creating and responding to them) at the center of our concern.

In the GA briefing, there were many important statements from member states following the formal UN presentations.  But Norway had it quite right, we thought.   They expressed clear “impatience” at the pace of change.   They also noted the likelihood that more allegations will be forthcoming as more attention is paid to the issue of abuse by UN personnel and national contingents.   We’re not out of these woods by any means. Moreover, we’re not likely to make matters better if we cannot risk more fundamental changes to the way we do our own business.  Addressing abuse goes beyond training manuals and force-generation strategies, beyond troop strengths and the comprehensiveness of mandates.  It surely involves, as Tanzania noted during the briefing, a commitment by states to avoid the “blame game” and to accept the risks of “collective responsibility” to justice and recovery services for victims.

Collectively, we seem to be losing our capacity to take values-relevant risks.  One colleague at the UN recently told me a story of how she helped someone in distress find assistance on a late-night New York street, only to be verbally “accosted” by a few of her peers, mostly in a related policy field, apparently upset that someone they know would put themselves in that sort of position.   As though that isn’t precisely the type of risk we who say we “care about the world” should be encouraging each other to take!

The lessons of the week seem clear:  if we are to collectively solve problems from terrorist narratives and discrimination against indigenous persons to peacekeeper abuse we’ll need to peer (and act) beyond the edges of the prevailing consensus.   This implies, among other things, venturing into policy rooms beyond our specific brands, and then being willing to take a few more risks once we get there.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place:  The Decisions Mothers Must Make, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 May

In many communities on this Mother’s Day weekend, people worry about whether their children will remember them with flowers or chocolate, whether they will still appreciate their sacrifices, whether the sentimentality of this occasion will translate into genuine gratitude, real recognition.

But today in other parts of the world, as this week’s Security Council meeting on violence perpetrated against medical facilities underscored, mothers also wonder if the hard and often painful decisions they have had to make for the sake of their children will pan out – if the hospitals to which they take their children seeking safety and healing will somehow become their gravesites; if the rafts on which their families have boarded and for which they have mortgaged their material futures will set their children on a new life course or literally drown every ounce of their potential.  At this meeting, Council members themselves were rightly deemed complicit by both the ICRC and MSF in at least part of this pattern of displacement and carnage; but lost in the inevitable blame game that accompanies our long and gruesome conflicts are the many decisions that mothers make in an attempt, sometimes wholly in vain, to protect children from dangerous circumstances that lie fundamentally beyond their control.

And the pain that comes from trying to be a nurturing, protecting mother when so many options are blocked, so many decisions fraught with peril, is by no means confined to the realm of geo-politics.  I was in a middle school in Edmonton, Canada this week at an “attendance board” meeting convened by an old friend of mine.   Across from the board sat a mother – with responsibility for three children while living in a modest hotel awaiting housing that might take many months to clear – and her 9th grade son, a quiet boy with a limited interest in school who had apparently just recovered from gall bladder surgery.

The board members were kind and attentive, asking the right questions and doing their best to keep the mother and son engaged.  But the looks on their faces, looks I have seen so many times in the Harlem parish in which I used to work, communicated palpable discouragement.   The mother had clearly been through this routine before, perhaps many times, based in part on life decisions that she made for herself and her children, decisions that turned out to be — at best– only partially effective. Her somewhat stunned and subdued presence at the attendance board signified many things, one of which was likely a painful doubling back on the hard choices she felt she had to make to give her struggling children a fighter’s chance.

Mothers (and their mates if they are so endowed) make many hard decisions over the course of a child’s life, some of which bear unforeseen consequences, others of which are beyond their innate capacities of control or discernment.  The women riding the seas with children on substandard “life” rafts or appearing for the 10th time in front of well-intentioned social workers don’t love their children any less than other mothers; but they certainly live with the daily, grim reality that they cannot fully protect them, nor nurture them to full health, nor always guarantee them predictable nutrition or education.

There are smaller rocks and softer “hard places” than these to get trapped between, to be sure, but all carry with them the burdens of life as it wasn’t intended to be.   Many mothers report that they can barely remember a time in their life when they weren’t mothers.   When their decisions end in painful or even ruinous circumstances for children, that nightmare is equally persistent.  It is more difficult than we might imagine to make the “right” call for children (or even for ourselves) when bombs are flying, crops are failing, schools are crumbling, abuses are pervasive, living allowances are at a premium.

We need to do much more, in policy and practice, to support all who spend too much time living in those spaces between the rocks and the hard places, mothers trying to make the most out of bad options and then living with the painful (and almost inevitable) compromises for their children.  Today, as all days, we should recall the many millions of mothers who have little say in policies – many still shockingly gender/social class exclusive — that routinely result in conditions that disrupt the pursuit of family normalcy and often dash their collective dreams.

Indeed, as we give in to the duties of today’s mostly sentimentalized ritual, it is important to recall the human costs of our inadequate social and security policies, pausing as we pick up the flowers or the restaurant check to recall the plight of mothers who must bear the brunt of finding safe passage for children in some of the roughest seas of my lifetime.

Sizing Up an International Icon from my Youth, Shengyang Li

5 May

Editor’s Note:  Shengyang served as an intern this spring with GAPW.  A citizen of China, Shengyang came to us from the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program as have a number of interns over the past few years.   Shengyang took a keen interest in many aspects of the UN’s work, including in the Security Council under China’s April presidency.  His interesting reflections on his experience (lightly edited) at the UN appear below. 

As a child, the education I received about UN is generally similar to how it describes itself to the rest of the world: the UN is the guardian of world peace, solver of the world’s problems, one of the most important organizations in the world. Other than we were taught few specific about UN activities. This deficit became clearer after we learned about the history of the League of Nations, the predecessor of UN and generally deemed a failure in the eyes of the world and its historians. I happened to have had the honor of learning the history of the League of Nations in both the Chinese educational system and the UK A-Level system. I noted that both ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ forms of education agree that our children should understand that the League of Nations failed, memorize why it failed, and note  that its successor, the UN, is doing its business differently and thus has been more successful. Still, nothing much was taught about how the UN actually does that “business.”

It was not until high school and my experience in the Model UN (MUN) club that I was provided more than a glimpse of the UN’s role. In retrospect I was not very happy about that lens, mainly because it was distorted: the nature of MUN portrayed the UN as more about state competition than an actual simulation of the challenges and opportunities regarding how the UN addresses global problems.  I encountered  a similar lens when I entered Bard college, so my perspective did not change greatly. This is not to say  that I have never heard negative comments about the UN’s potential, as there are many floating around in real life or on the internet. In fact, most of the negative comments I have heard are quite extreme, saying that the UN should cease to exist since it does little good in the world. Although some aspects of this frustration have merit, most are simply too extreme to be considered seriously.

Thus before I joined UN-based Global Action to Prevent War and Armed Conflict (GAPW) as part of an internship program from Bard College, my understanding of the UN remained more or less stagnant. Therefore, when I actually started my internship, I was both very excited and had no clear idea of what I was seeking or what I should be expecting.  I’d been told to pay close attention to the processes in UN conference rooms and to note down whatever was most worth reporting, including things that I felt might be contradictory or otherwise out of place. In other words, listen carefully for subtleties, and provide the most fair and accurate feedback possible

The first time I was able to recognize a full-fledged, subtle UN confusion was only weeks after I started this internship. It happened in relation to a panel focused on the inclusion of indigenous people and their issues. During that meeting a frequent sentiment was shared that the UN system should be more open to groups of indigenous people that are autonomous with a viable political structure, instead of opening more space to indigenous advocacy groups that act more like NGOs. It seemed like a reasonable suggestion to prevent this particular UN process from being flooded by activist agendas. A related sentiment widespread in the room suggested that indigenous representatives should concentrate on meetings and events ‘that are within their area of concern.’

These two sentiments seemed appropriate enough and were all mostly agreed by all delegates in the room. But after the meeting, I recognized an inconsistency: if we are to welcome at the UN those indigenous groups that tied to legitimate governments, then suddenly every topic that the UN is concerned about should be applicable to those groups as well. Water stresses? Arms flows? Gender discrimination? Income inequality?  SDGs? Are any of these topics (and others not mentioned) not an area of concern for legitimate representatives? Also, by using phrases like restricting indigenous groups to only participate in events “within their area of concern,” the UN was essentially forcing groups to focus on/fight for more narrow policy agendas. Isn’t that exactly the job of most NGOs? This interesting paradox was probably not intentional. Still, it reflects something that shouldn’t be there and was apparently not noticed by anyone participating in the discussion. What troubled me a bit is the realization that there are surely delegates and diplomats, not only observers like me, who noticed such logical fallacies, but chose not to point that out, or to even reiterate the error. People inside the system are often not willing to talk about an easily detectable inconsistency, or are simply too preoccupied to even notice things going wrong that might easily be corrected.

This was the first “Eureka” moment for me inside UN headquarters. The rest of my experiences I learned through my daily coverage of various UN meetings and events. I had been informed by my mentor of the importance of paying attention to who is not present, what is not spoken. Things ranging from an absence of an expected briefer to long and arduous statements that went on about past achievements and future expectations without solid plans or methods of implementation, even to the increasing number of ‘closed meetings’ in the UN buildings. I think I gradually understand what that means. There will always be things important to be discussed but that aren’t handled with proper urgency due to a variety of reasons (some intentional and political), and it is crucial that we notice what those reasons are and why things happen the way they do.

So overall, what did I learn from my time at GAPW? What should be my takeaways after only 3 months of trying to comprehend this system? Personally, I would say that one of the most valuable lessons I have learned is that just like other entities in the world, the UN is no stranger to branding, even boasting. And in this case, this branding can be somewhat useful; : people are taught from their childhood that the UN is a great institution, and it would be a huge burden to the UN if it ever fails to strive for the most positive image possible in the public eye.

Another key lesson I learned during my stay is the realization of the true function of organizations like GAPW. A Chinese idiom goes: “The bystanders always have better clarity than the insiders.” This assumes that the ‘bystanders’ are close enough to the center to see what is happening without getting completely caught up in it. This is what we at GAPW do according to my understanding: to study UN processes like an interested bystander but then provide “insider” advice to diplomats with the goal of helping the UN fulfill the tasks and aspirations that the world has entrusted to it.

A final interesting point about my experience is that before starting my internship, I was told by my mentor that many students before me have changed their interest or area of focus as the result of their UN exposure. I told him then that it probably won’t happen to me, but when I look back, I realized that my perspectives and interests have in fact changed a bit. Before GAPW I was fascinated mostly by diplomacy between states — so-called international politics — and little else. I cannot say that I have lost interest in those aspects, but now I have learned that there are so many other fascinating and important policy options for the world that need attention and that I had not truly considered before, from climate change and inequalities to gender balance and violent extremism.  These issues all form a connected web that will decide the fate of humankind’s future.

And what makes it more interesting for me is that all these UN policy issues require consensus, which gets us back to the good-old diplomatic formula that the UN and member states struggle to achieve every day. The multi-faceted learning experience I gained at the UN through GAPW is destined to leave a huge impact on me, and for which I am genuinely grateful.

Doing and Enabling: Broadening the Peacebuilding Tent, Dr. Robert Zuber

1 May

First off, blessings to all our Orthodox friends and colleagues who celebrate Easter today.

This past Wednesday (April 27) a rather remarkable if under reported event occurred: the Security Council and the General Assembly (in that order) approved a joint resolution designed to strengthen the structure and activities of UN Peacebuilding.  Based on a special report authorized by the UN Secretary-General, this joint resolution was perhaps the clearest, recent example of key UN agencies authorizing and encouraging each other’s work rather than defending institutional turf.  To see operational language like this in a UN resolution was a sight for these sore eyes:

To serve as a platform to convene all relevant actors within and outside the United Nations, including from Member States, national authorities, United Nations missions and country teams, international, regional and sub-regional organizations, international financial institutions, civil society, women’s groups, youth organizations and, where relevant, the private sector and national human rights institutions, in order to provide recommendations and information to improve their coordination, to develop and share good practices in peacebuilding, including on institution building, and to ensure predictable financing to peacebuilding.

The Security Council vote was unanimous, short and sweet.  The GA process, however, provide ample opportunity for key peacebuilding actors and other member states to share their hopes and aspirations for more effective UN conflict prevention and resolution efforts.  Many statements indicated that delegations understood just how momentous the moment was.  For instance, Mexico noted the need to change the “epicenter” of peacebuilding from post-conflict response to conflict prevention. Sierra Leone cited the diverse contexts in which peacebuilding occurs, contexts that can be enhanced and even effectively coordinated by UN efforts.   Australia urged that core UN “bridge building” efforts towards a sustainable peace reach out more resolutely to women stakeholders. And Kenya’s Amb. Kamau urged a flexible role for UN peacebuilding that spanned the terrain from prevention to conflict relapse, that distanced peacebuilding from military response, and (along with Sweden) that provided support to states beyond the few that were formally “configured” within the Peacebuilding Commission.

There was much more, of course, virtually all of it designed to broaden the space for peacebuilding in ways that respect diverse national and community contexts, space that intentionally includes the skills, passions and aspirations of its many stakeholders.

Indeed, it is this “authorizing” element that seemed so critical to us.   We have written previously about the negative implications of UN turf wars, urging agencies to concentrate less on what they do and brand, and more on what they share and leverage.  The attitude we urge turns out to be one that is quite conducive to the revised philosophy and architecture of UN peacebuilding.  Indeed, our office is in touch regularly with a myriad of activities that qualify as peacebuilding in every aspect:  efforts to protect courageous but besieged journalists; uphold human rights standards in the justice systems of the Caribbean; help women farmers in Central Africa to grow crops for healthy, local consumption; promote democracy in communities under strain in North Africa;  explore models of UN peacekeeping that can more effectively protect civilians and eliminate prospects for abuse; find ways to end the trafficking and human displacement in Central America that threatens the community fabric and compromises development.

There is so much more taking place beyond our knowledge and capacity to leverage, people dedicated to causes that have not yet sufficiently acknowledged their value.  This must change and change quickly.

A woman well known to the UN and its social justice advocates came to me recently to ask some advice on how to get more involved in peacebuilding.   The irony of course is that she has been doing peacebuilding all along — so many of you have also.  You may not have access to Commission meetings or be able to tap into peacebuilding funds, but your activities inspire reflection and hope towards more peaceful futures.

The resolutions this week seemed much more important than the usual normative text.  They were, in their own way, an invitation to millions of people who put their lives on the line each day for justice and access to essential services, for climate health and sustainable development, for food security and legal accountability.  Under the new rubric articulated in the SGs report and articulated in this week’s resolution, peacebuilding is becoming a very large tent indeed.    Large enough, we trust, for all the work we do and, perhaps more importantly, all the work we come to know about.