Archive | June, 2016

Twitter Diplomacy, by Alison Vicrobeck

28 Jun

Editor’s Note:  Alison came to Global Action through her friendship with a former Fellow and from the Columbia Journalism School.   She has been a remarkable addition, quickly picking up the nuances of UN security, development and human rights policy and gently reminding all of us how to “communicate the UN” with sensitivity and fairness. Here she reflects on the rapid evolution of her Twitter “brand” at UN headquarters (@alisonvicrobeck) and notes some of the strengths and potential pitfalls of Twitter engagement.  

Six months ago, I was a complete UN outsider. From where I stood, the UN was an impenetrable fortress, protecting the world’s most important diplomats who were tackling the biggest issues facing the globe. I thought, if you were lucky enough to visit the building, you were still just scratching the surface. You could see ambassadors, presidents and other world leaders running into secret meetings behind closed doors, but you would never ever be privy to any of what they were discussing. Especially not in the most intimidating room of all: the Security Council.

On my first day as a fellow for Global Action, that’s exactly where I went. I sat in on a meeting about the situation in Libya. I felt as though I had gotten the golden ticket to the world’s most exclusive club. And I still feel that way. But I also found out that you don’t have to physically be in the room to know what’s happening. You don’t even need a UN badge. All you need is an internet connection and a Twitter account. In fact, you may find out more by lurking on Twitter than by sitting in the conference room.

Twitter — for those of you less familiar with it —  is a social media platform that specializes in what they call “micro-blogging”. Every day, Twitter’s 300 million active users send out “tweets” or short messages that can be read by anyone. It was long believed to be targeted at youth, but it has become a new and important tool in diplomacy. Almost every major UN body or delegation has at least one twitter account – with the Security Council being a notable exception. Every event has a hashtag that diplomats, press secretaries and reporters use to tell the world what is being said at the UN and what they think of it. People call it “Twitter diplomacy,” “digital diplomacy,” “twiplomacy” or “eDiplomacy”.

What I’ve observed is that at any given UN event there are three types of conversations happening at once: the one on-the-record, the one off-the-record, and the one on Twitter. They’re all complementary, but sometimes, the one online is the most interesting one. On many occasions while live-tweeting, I’ve had people from a panel or meeting retweet me in the middle of the event. In other words, while they were supposed to be taking part in this “official conversation” they were also following the one happening online.

Recently there has been a push for more transparency at the UN. I’ve heard many diplomats – and people from civil society – say they want to get the media and the public more engaged in UN affairs. Without a doubt, Twitter seems to be the way diplomats are choosing to do that, as demonstrated by the very public election of the next Secretary General (#NextSG) or the next non-permanent Security Council members (#UNSCElections).  Some candidates even created Twitter accounts exclusively for these elections.

Twitter has become the space where everyday people can play a role in diplomacy. During the Q&A session for candidates in the upcoming elections – both for Secretary General and Security Council – some questions came directly from Twitter. And people also become more influential when delegations retweet them as has happened to me on several occasions. When a delegation or an ambassador retweets me, my interpretation of what they said appears on their official Twitter page. This is huge because their followers are accepting (or at least considering) the value of my summary interpretation of the “official statement” from that delegation or diplomat.

What diplomats share on Twitter can be as politically impacting as what they say during speeches or public appearances. Diplomats use Twitter to interact with each other and their followers. Sometimes who and what diplomats chose to retweet or tweet says more about their relationship with other delegations than anything they might say in a Security Council or ECOSOC meeting, because Twitter is the perfect medium to help straddle the line between official statements and comments shared in secret behind-closed-doors.

Twitter compels diplomats (and those like me who follow their activities) to reduce their ideas and policies to 140 characters. They are then bite-sized and accessible to the public in real time. Often a play-by-play of major meetings can be found online even before the media is briefed. And because a lot of social media is about being shareable and interesting, tweets are entertaining or sometimes even humorous, making diplomacy something even the average person can learn to appreciate.

But tweeting makes diplomats vulnerable to something average people do all the time: making mistakes. For this reason, some states have decided not to have official accounts. The repercussions of an angry or awkward tweet can have serious real-life implications. We live in a time when virtually everything can be screenshot and made to go viral, even if the “offending” tweet is deleted at a later time.

Twitter, by its very nature, encourages rapid or even instant outreach. This means that every individual tweet that is sent out doesn’t get approved by the MFA or by the state’s government, even though Twitter followers will view the tweets as representing, at least in summary form, “official” statements. This raises the prospect of diplomatic representatives (or their interns) tweeting – deliberately or inadvertently – opinions that divert from their state’s official positions. In diplomacy, every word counts. So, an “impolitic” tweet has the potential to compromise deals that are happening behind closed doors and possibly even “sour” existing relationships.

Regardless of whether or not states choose to start tweeting, Twitter and social media in general will undoubtedly continue to play a major role in public diplomacy. Such media makes the UN a much less intimidating place to the general public, and certainly to people like me. I now know that even when I am not physically present at UN headquarters, I can go on Twitter and feel like I’m in the room with the diplomats and other observers.


Peacebuilding Week:  The UN Seeks a Sustainable Culture Shift, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Jun

At a time in its history when so much is on the UN’s plate, so much globally and institutionally is perceived to be on the wrong track, the demand for reform is considerable.  More and more, people cannot fathom – and with justification – how structures designed for one era’s crises can be expected to overcome the new and daunting hurdles that lie before us.  A briefing on Syria last Tuesday under the auspices of PGA Lykketoft gave Special Envoy de Mistura and USG O’Brien an opportunity to tell the full UN membership about tentative humanitarian and peace progress, but also just how much further we need to go before we stop adding to the bloodshed and trauma that already stretch our common capacities to their breaking point.

We at the UN often run behind responsibilities and crises rather than head them off.  We negotiate resolutions on weapons systems that have already evolved more dangerous iterations.   We create agreements on climate and development destined to require more energy and resources to clean up previous messes than prevent new ones.  We seek to address the mass trauma from so many victims in so many conflict zones, at times overlooking the obvious fact that the only viable means to effectively address such trauma is to do more to ahead of time to minimize its occurrence.

Like much of the national legislation with which its own policies interact, the culture of the UN system is reactive more than proactive.   Diplomats now speak regularly about the need for better early warning mechanisms and prevention strategies, but this is still largely at the level of aspiration, not representative of a sustainable shift in culture.  As a system, the UN’s “directional” continues to stick on the “post” side of conflict rather than on marshalling wisdom and resources to address conflict threats that we increasingly have neither the skills nor the resources to heal once “threat becomes reality.”

The week’s numerous events on and references to UN Peacebuilding and the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) represented more than branding for a still-fledgling, underfunded and even under-appreciated capacity.   On Monday, the PBC’s Burundi configuration (Switzerland) met to discuss that country’s many current fragilities.  On Wednesday, the Security Council held a briefing on potential directions for the PBC as noted in its 9th annual report. Thursday the PBC was in session all day with excellent opening and closing events and more intimate sessions in workshop format.  At that closing, current PBC Chair Ambassador Macharia Kamau of Kenya made important pledges to take the “longer view” on peace and security, to find political alternatives to military interventions that “rarely promise peace,” and to do what is necessary to “raise levels of ambition” at the UN for ensuring more peaceful and inclusive societies.

The following day, the Economic and Social Council held an historic, joint session with the PBC on the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Sustaining Peace.”  Such linkages hold no surprises for the many civil society organizations (and their constituents) living daily with the conflict implications of failed development policies and their implications for trafficking in weapons, narcotics and human beings.   Still there was an urgent energy on display here that would have been encouraging if not reassuring to global constituencies.

It was truly, as noted on Friday by Ambassador Kamau, a “Peacebuilding week” at the UN.  But this was more than a routine assessment, more than a commemoration of “configurations” well-tended.  It was an affirmation that UN Peacebuilding is staking genuinely hopeful ground, hope that the UN can do more – sooner and tangibly – to reduce levels of global tensions and deprivations before they spill over into active conflict.

We have long advocated for a higher profile for the Peacebuilding Commission.  We laud its ability to attract some of the very best diplomatic talent in the UN system; its longstanding affirmation of the primacy of diplomacy and political engagement; its flexibility in assembling the most contextually relevant and competent stakeholders; its commitment to a full-spectrum engagement with peace, including its economic, development, environmental and cultural dimensions.

Our wish for the PBC, one which is intimated in the Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding review, is for the PBC to reach that point where it transcends its current structural and “cultural” limitations: able to assess and address peacebuilding needs beyond the “configuration” states; able to provide guidance on peacebuilding to states that are anxious but not yet in turmoil; able to provide perspective on the conflict implications of all three UN pillars within an evolving culture that seeks to broaden the policy tent more than control its location and functions.

As part of that transition, the PBC and its evolving UN partnerships must help the development-security linkage to find a deeper discernment, what Korea’s Ambassador Oh Joon on Friday outlined as that “blending of a universal agreement and a fundamental responsibility.”   Part of that discernment was offered by Mexico’s Deputy Ambassador who outlined the “healthy social fabric” needed to sustain peace, but also (along with the Swedish Minister) chided governments for investing more in weapons of war than in tools for building and sustaining peace.

The Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, someone on whose leadership we often reflect fondly, predicted on Friday that the culture change we are seeking, and that was represented by Friday’s joint meeting, is well on its way.  If the problems we face are linked, Eliasson noted, our solutions must be also.   We can and must all do more to claim more “horizontal” and collaborative space if we are to build and then sustain an institutional culture that encourages – as noted by Australia’s Ambassador Bird — full-spectrum response to our diverse peace and development challenges.  “Delivering as one,” she noted, is still frustratingly rhetorical within UN settings and must urgently become the go-to strategy of a reformed, cooperative, preventive UN culture.

We have planted many seeds here at the UN on peace, development, climate and justice, but too many of those seeds have fallen on thin soil.  As the words of Kamau, Bird, Eliasson and others grow deeper roots at the UN, the flexibility and wisdom gathering within the PBC can help ensure a more hopeful, predictable harvest for more of the world’s people.

Throwing a Wrench into Another Father’s Day, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Jun

One of the interesting things for me over the years is noticing the difference in moods leading up to the “days” we set aside to honor parents.   Mother’s Day is a huge emotional and commercial undertaking which fathers, lovers and children ignore at their mortal peril.  Father’s Day, on the other hand, barely registers interest:  somewhat greater than National Gingersnap Day (July 1 in case you care to celebrate) and about the same as the dreaded (for many of us in the US) Columbus Day.

I started Father’s Day weekend in the same way that I start most weekends – with my church family at the All Saints food pantry.   On the pantry line, most of the people (and most of the women) seemed to have little recollection of or interest in this ritual time to honor fathers.   Back home nursing sore muscles, those few TV commercials that bothered at all focused on dad’s apparent unending need for tools – wrenches seem to be a popular choice this year.  I like wrenches, especially their metaphorical capacity for tightening and loosening, but again neither grateful recognition nor other emotional content was present.  Checking my policy-oriented twitter feed it was filled, even on this day, with gendered discourse focused primarily on the (legitimate) concerns of women and girls.

Not much at hand to encourage today’s message. Fortunately, I was inspired to start thinking earlier about fathers during a busy UN week punctuated by persons possessing and/or insisting on attention to an array of physical and mental disabilities.  They came to the UN in large numbers from around the world to advocate for more rigorous and comprehensive compliance by states to their obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

This may be my single favorite event of the UN year, in part because of the compelling messages that people in wheelchairs or “speaking” in sign language are particularly well suited to communicate to the rest of us. Messages about pushing through limitations. Messages about the blatant inadequacies of our notions of success, beauty and perfection.  Messages about seeking equity and inclusion, about reaching beyond comfort zones to touch the needs and aspirations of persons habitually marginalized due solely to limitations of mobility, learning, communications or psychology, limitations that are only more visible than our own and often seen as a bigger “problem” by those around persons with disabilities than by the persons themselves.

During this particular week at the UN, not everyone could go out for buffet lunches or run on treadmills at the gym.  Not everyone could be fitted for clothes off the rack at Saks or drive to the ocean for the weekend.   These delegates on disabilities weren’t here to impress others or see the sights, but rather to see to it that people like themselves matter, and matter fully.

And my how they did so!  The events surrounding the formal meeting of States Parties were among the most issue-diverse and courageous I have seen at the UN, linking persons with disabilities to needs and concerns across the UN’s vast agenda – from sustainable development goals and employment discrimination to war-related disabilities and involuntary limitations on freedom of movement.  Controversies over “consent” were particularly paramount this week, with disabilities advocates seeking to ensure (rightly) that they have control over any and all decisions made about them, including all those decisions allegedly made “in their best interest.”

The quality of discussions and interactions this week within the disability community, in some ways, reminded me of the best of the fathers in my life:  Willing to ask the next question; willing to push through the latest challenge; willing to explore beyond the immediate horizon; willing to work with people’s limitations (we all have such) to put them in the best positions to succeed; willing to accept the obligations that stem from being the responsible party; willing to honor promises (including one this week to gender balance the CRDP) and not just make them; willing to use wrenches (real and metaphorical) to loosen and tighten the screws that bind us together with the goal of ensuring more fair and efficient public institutions, and more competent and inclusive communities.

I know so many fathers who embody such interests and traits of character.  I know so many fathers who also teach other peoples’ children, bind other peoples’ wounds, open doors to the homeless and hungry, mentor youth through difficult times; even attend to jobs that are literally killing them so that their children (and others in their communities) can have a chance at a better life in these challenging and sometimes discouraging times.

I see fathers in my life pushing their children to be better people, to neither give up nor give in, to resist dependencies that convert character into comfort, to stay both humble and focused, to take the risk of pulling others up short when they wander too far off course.

These are a few of the many things that so many fathers (and other nurturing men) in my life – family, friends and colleagues – bring to this world still very much in-progress.  My “Waffle House” cap, the one which I’m now wearing in my office, is hereby and mostly gratefully tipped to each of you.

Those Hazy, Crazy Days of UN Summer:  Coaching our Common Future, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Jun

This is perhaps my favorite time of year at the UN.  The days are long which make it possible to work hard and still find time for summer recreation. The pace of policy is furious, from the protection of civilians in conflict and the rights of persons with disabilities to eliminating illicit arms flows and securing adequate housing for the world’s homeless.  Moreover, during this season ours and other offices are filled with the eager and sometimes bewildered faces of younger people seeking a place at an overflowing (if sometimes undercooked) UN banquet.

Some of these young people have come to us before, but come they do year round with great talents, high hopes, and strong and direct links to cultures and communities far from New York – Cameroon and El Salvador, Afghanistan and France, Korea and Nigeria. They make their way here through word of mouth, to renew previous positive experiences, or through affiliations such as the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program.

They also represent diverse professional backgrounds, from journalism to engineering.   Some come to refresh their passion, others to find it.   But all understand the perils of the times and all seek to find ways to be more than spectators to the grand and sometimes horrific events that will shape their lives beyond personal technology, wedding vows and alma maters.

They are remarkable, each in their own way, and each in ways at least somewhat different than they have been defined by families and schools.   They share what they know with each other. They embrace values of attentiveness and hospitality. They are kind to security guards and café staff.  They accept the profound and almost unimaginable intellectual challenge of wrapping their heads around a system as complex and bewildering as the UN tends to be.

They are collectively more than we have the capacity to handle, and less than we have the responsibility to nurture and befriend.   We can’t do enough for them, but we try to do enough with them.

To be with this diverse group of people is to stare an uncertain future squarely in the eye.   How, they ask, can we care for ourselves and the world?   How do we fulfill the expectations of families and teachers and at the same time respond to urgent needs and circumstances that they have come to know in so many UN conference rooms?

The UN as many of you know does much with youth, a term which it loosely defines and which tends to prioritize packing large and enthusiastic rooms rather than inspiring deep personal connection.  Though we admire settings where large numbers of youth gather to communicate a common conviction, Global Action doesn’t have what it takes to pack a room.  But we can and will do more to keep personal connections alive, to help establish both the passion and the capacity to sustain the long journey towards a sustainable peace and planetary healing.

I often say to our colleagues that “it’s your turn now.”   I’ve had my turn.  My generation has had its turn.  We’re still in the game, but hopefully more as coaches than as competitors.   Whether we like it or not, our time on the pitch is running out.  Essentially, we’re now on “stoppage time.” It’s a younger persons’ game, summer or not.

And so this week a group of talented and eager people will fan out across the system – to treaty bodies and Security Council briefings, to elections in the General Assembly and discussions on sustainable development priorities in the Economic and Social Council; even to negotiations on transitioning non-self-governing territories (yes, they still exist).

And they will move through the building with kind and attentive looks on their faces, deeply concerned about the contents of their future — the impacts of migration, deadly droughts, and mass shootings — but also grateful for the opportunity to, in whatever way they are able, push the world in a more hopeful direction.

Last Friday, one of our younger colleagues from Georgia Tech University penned a blogpost in which she (as a soon-to-be engineer) shared her UN experiences and made a case for why people from careers far beyond the domain of international affairs should spend time in UN conference rooms.   Cathy (Xin) confessed to “haziness” and frustration in those “crazy” policy rooms, to be sure, but also lauded the means to stretch minds and extend worldviews, to see a bigger picture together with the many constituent parts that must function in sync if we are to survive this current, treacherous moment.

Of course, we at Global Action wish for far less global heartbreak, and we will do whatever we can while we’re here to clarify and then ease any complex policy transitions.   But in this challenging race, the current leadership has run about as far and fast as we can.  At least from our perspective, it’s probably time to pass the baton and then spend whatever energy we have left coaching the runners from the infield.

An Engineer’s Perspective on the United Nations, Cathy An

10 Jun

Editor’s Note:  Cathy (Xin) An came to us this summer via Georgia Tech University in Atlanta.  She was the student of Dr. Robert Thomas, a very good friend of our program.   Like our other capable interns and fellows, Cathy learned the UN “ropes” quickly; but she also experienced a variety of complex issues that will impact her personal and professional future.  As she goes forth to start her career, her reflections on her experiences here are very much worth considering. 

Four years at an engineering institution had taught me to see things at face value, to think analytically, and to be painfully concise and straightforward. By the time I got out, my approach to life was almost scientific in the way I shunned abstract meanderings in favor of formulaic and logical rhetoric. My four weeks at the United Nations as an intern for Global Action to Prevent War (GAPW), a policy organization with a focus on anything relevant to peace and security inside the UN, proved challenging in that it forced me to view new and “foreign” topics with a different lens. In every meeting,  Bob Zuber, Director of GAPW, had to whisper in my ear to fill me in on who was who, who mistrusted who, who’s in charge of what, and the decades of history and back stories influencing every decision. Gone was the brevity preached by my professors, and in came scripted speeches with a 5-minute intro with mandatory thank-yous, mixed messages with hidden political agendas, and conversations that always led to tangents. Anything said concisely was seen as being “blunt,” and people used ornate language as a tool for skirmishing around the topic. Also, oddly enough, everyone around me always seemed to know exactly how the meeting was going to turn out before the meeting even began.

I was thrown into the deep end and submerged in conversations on topics that I had only previously heard brief mentions of. “Yeah the U.S. needs to do something about that ISIS” was oftentimes the level of depth in these conversations with my peers. Terrorism, Daesh, climate change, wildlife conservation, gender equality, violent extremism…in only four weeks I had attended meetings on these topics (and many more) in which policymakers from around the world would sit in a room for a few hours and discuss options for decisions to be made. I listened to Fatou Bensouda, the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, highlight her progress on cases involving international criminals in Libya and Darfur, and I was disturbed that I could only recognize one name from her list. I was shocked to see how desensitized people were to certain issues; at certain times it seemed like speakers competed with one another to have the most shocking or brutal testimonies in hopes of grabbing the fleeting attention of an audience that has been hammered for decades with variations on the same sad story.

Something surprising to me was how actively engaged the UN community was on twitter. Tweeting during UN meetings was excellent because it forced me to stay alert, and the 140 character limit helped me sift through paragraphs of filler words to find and present the main idea. I slowly improved my “filtering” skills, whether it be in finding a single relevant phrase stated by a verbose speaker, or in finding the important meetings in a list of meetings that all contained “buzz words” in its headers. Rather than be bombarded with information on issues that other people kept telling me were important, I slowly began to decipher for myself what were actually the priorities on the UN agenda.

What’s interesting is that I’ve always possessed this level of critical thinking, but its usage had been diminished by the time I arrived at the UN. Like many of my peers, I pushed the realm of international affairs off to a “foreign” space that I believed had little immediate consequence on my surroundings. In doing so, my knowledge of the world’s current events had already been predetermined and shaped by media bias; it wasn’t just the colored perspective of a journalist that helped influence my views, but also the media’s criteria by which some stories would be published over others. Furthermore, when you hear only fragments of news occurring in faraway countries, it’s hard to connect the dots and understand how they immediately pertain to you and your business. Indubitably, this lack of understanding is what fosters apathy among so many of today’s youth in relation to international and political affairs. We take what we hear at face value, and when we’re unfamiliar with a topic, the storyteller’s opinions become our own.

This mental separation between international affairs and “reality” is worrisome for businesses in the private sector. In an age of globalization, companies will need to see beyond their current scope and examine the potential implications and risks arising from their decisions and products. I’m positive that Twitter didn’t think ISIS would use twitter and other forms of social media to recruit thousands of youth to become Jihadi fighters; video game companies probably didn’t think that terrorist groups would use their products to simulate the fighting experience for future child soldiers; and those that disregard climate change definitely didn’t think that their actions would create environments conducive to violence in the Sahel region. Only a comprehensive awareness of the issues and concerns of the world will enable the private sector to do its part in being a key player in social enterprise. Fortunately, the United Nations and the private sector are beginning to recognize the benefits of partnership, as seen in many joint ventures including the STI Forum and the World Summit of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

If I could, I would encourage everyone to spend at least two weeks in the UN. Despite its flaws, the United Nations still stands as the pillar of human rights and development advocacy. It’s the world’s most complex institution, and two weeks in it will force anyone to expand their horizon of thinking across multiple sectors.

The Company We Keep: Discerning the Human Faces and Impacts behind the UN Policy Curtain, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Jun

As I write, this is World Environment Day as well as the beginning (Monday) of the holy season of Ramadan.  The latter is an opportunity for Muslims (especially) to separate for a time from the demands and distractions of the world, to “recover themselves” and their spiritual moorings.  The former is an opportunity for us to reflect and act on the many ways in which we continue, in part via those same demands and distractions, to undermine the capacity of the planet to support the life on which we directly depend.

This was a short work week in New York, but the UN for its part managed to offer up a menu of significant discussions that offered opportunities to bridge gaps between the policies we craft in this place and our levels of concern for the people responsible to implement such policies or who find themselves (for better or worse) on their receiving end.

This past Friday, the Security Council under France’s leadership took up the matter of conflict-related sexual abuse and human trafficking.   In that “open” meeting featuring the Secretary General and his SRSG Zainab Hawa Bangura, more than a few states were able to get beyond the data and threats to reflect on some of the ways that they can add value and draw closer (and genuine) connections to the needs of those affected by conflicts that, as Nigeria noted, we should do more to prevent in the first place.  In this context, it is important to note efforts by the UK, Angola and other states to highlight the responsibility to address local stigmas that tend to heap ridicule and shame, thereby magnifying the abuses that women and girls already endure within conflict settings.   Other states pointed to the deep traumas that conflict related abuse creates, with the Netherlands smartly urging states to consider ways to more effectively “accompany women and girls in their recovery from abuse.”

For its part the General Assembly held a useful all day consultation on conditions for and ways to prevent the “radicalizing” of children and youth, an issue that President of the General Assembly Lykketoft  wished “we did not have to discuss.”  DSG Eliasson commented on this “sad subject,” reminding the audience of mostly diplomats that “youth are subjects, not objects.” Therefore, he urged us to work with youth to resolve threats of extremist recruitment and not plan around them.

At the same time, as USG for Children and Armed Conflict Zerrougui noted during this session, we must do more to “drain the swamps” we have created, swamps full of enticements for youth, but swamps also characterized by “toxicity” emanating both from a loss of hope in a better future, and  from international responses that are too much about the military and too little about restoring family and community connections.  Young people will be responsible for this world soon enough and several delegations noted that we must do what we can now to ensure that their transitions to leadership and responsibility are secure, hopeful and inclusive.

But for us, perhaps the most interesting and personal engagement came during a meeting with NGOs and the Heads of the 10 UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies, committees of independent experts that monitor implementation of the international human rights treaties that define this pillar of the UN system and its core responsibilities to global constituents.  This monitoring is an essential confidence-building measure in a UN system that – excluding the Security Council in its best moments – has few ways to enforce state compliance with previously agreed principles of state conduct.

We were invited to this meeting because of our long and fruitful relationship with Paris-based FIACAT in its work to promote the abolition of torture and capital punishment around the world.   The meeting was chaired by Argentina’s Fabian Salvioli with whom we have had good but sadly infrequent contact over the past few years.

There were some probing questions posed to the Treaty Body heads by the relatively few NGOs in attendance, given the reality that the UN’s human rights system is not yet functioning in the way that encourages full-confidence by global citizens.  At this meeting, Salvioli acted mostly as facilitator, but his and other interventions were important – urging more clarity, specificity and follow-up regarding NGO interventions and recommendations and in languages to which Treaty Body members have ready access.   But he also noted, as did others of his colleagues, that their prior discussions with states were too often acrimonious, with accusations of bias in the interpretation and application of Human Rights treaties topping off what sounded like a lengthy listing of state complaints.

For our part, we wished to reinforce the pragmatic concerns of NGO colleagues – especially regarding the growing problem of government reprisals against human rights defenders – but our primary concern at this meeting was with the “quality of life” of those tasked with upholding state rights commitments.  It is clear to us, surely to others, that the task of managing Treaty Bodies is needlessly difficult.   Budgets and staffing are fragile.  Reporting is politically complex and often draining. States are sometimes resistant, even hostile, in part because they don’t really understand what Treaty Bodies do, why they are deemed essential to maintaining the quality of so many human lives (not to mention the credibility of the UN system).  Nor do states understand the largely voluntary sacrifices that these Treaty Body leaders make (partially in honor of the sacrifices of so many advocates in the field) to keep this essential but highly challenging system working and improving.  In many ways, this is a labor of love — and not nearly enough of that love is returned.

In the aforementioned GA discussion on youth and extremism, the Mayor of Rotterdam (NL) noted that the question we should be asking is not “who is to blame” for situations in the world but who is to take responsibility? Being the responsible party is becoming a bit of a lost art, but there are still many places in our societies, including within the UN, where people are able and willing to look beyond immediate policy tasks and statements to take the temperature of the systems of which they are part, the leaders tasked with maintaining and improving those systems, and the many people worldwide whose lives are needlessly undermined when we fail to make honest and thoughtful improvements in the systems they have come to rely on.

Early last week, the Security Council convened to renew the sanctions and peacekeeping (UNMISS) activities in the still-fragile state of South Sudan.  During that discussion, the South Sudan Ambassador made an appeal to all who seek a better life in his country and all who support the current transition in his country to more fervently seek “reconciliation and forgiveness” in response to many years of a violent and “bitter past.”

This appeal implies intensely personal work, sharing stories of pain and longing that are not to be “used” for partisan political purposes; accompanying the victimized, the betrayed and the simply-weary; and providing more tangible support to those who labor on behalf of a more just world.  Thankfully, behind the “policy curtain” is a wealth of human capacity, even empathy, that we are only now starting to tap and that promises to shorten the distance from bitter to reconciled.