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.

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