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.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: