Freedom Trail: Finding the UN’s Path towards Political and Policy Vigilance, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Jul

It’s a quiet weekend at the UN courtesy of the end of the Holy Season of Ramadan and a long Independence Day holiday weekend in the host country.

It was not so quiet this past week, with important discussions on issues from how to better ensure treaty compliance and improve response to armed conflict and other urban crises to new measures to reign in the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions.   This week’s celebrations, among their other joys, give diplomats and other UN stakeholders a chance to catch their breath and hopefully reflect a bit on the value of political “independence,” specifically the degree to which self-governance is critical to achieving viable pathways towards other “freedoms” and rights which find themselves regularly on the UN’s agenda.

As many of you are aware, self-governance was a core UN preoccupation for at least half its history as nations took on the often arduous task of separating themselves from the colonizers.  A part of that preoccupation is resurrected each year during meetings of the “Special Committee on the Situation with regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.”  With leadership largely emanating from the Latin American states – especially Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia – this Committee took up many still unresolved governance matters affecting many small island territories, but also including more high-profile (and high-controversy) matters such as Puerto Rico, the Malvinas (Falklands), and Western Sahara.   And while 2016 Committee Chair Venezuela complained about a lack of reflection within the UN on “colonialism’s legacies” as well as alleged “stagnation” regarding the UN’s promotion of self-governance,  the passion of Committee petitioners and participating member states bore witness to the belief that self-governance is that important platform on which many other freedoms and capacities depend.

But of course, self-governance represents only an initial step on the “trail” towards building what we refer to as “stable, peaceful and inclusive societies.   As the UN understands fully, it is difficult to talk meaningfully about freedom, inclusiveness or stability with those who have been forcibly displaced due to indiscriminate armed violence; whose communities have been battered (or baked) by climate-related shocks; who endure grave trauma in the aftermath of needless, horrific abuse; whose ethnic or personal identities have kept them in perpetual fear of discrimination or even worse.

While the UN might have some “stagnation” on political independence, it certainly has shown increasing robustness on addressing these other matters germane to fairness, freedom and abundance.  This week, as a follow up to the Istanbul Humanitarian Summit, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) convened three highly valuable sessions which sought to streamline the inter-linkages that define our collective responsibilities to development and humanitarian relief.  To some in the ECOSOC audience these linkages have been apparent for some time, though it was reassuring to have them explored sincerely and at such a high policy level

For most of the panelists and many of the responding UN member states, the sessions in part took on the mood of a confessional – relationship struggles long apparent but rarely acknowledged in formal settings.  Most of us already realize, as Brazil noted, that stopping conflict and the massive flows of weapons that exacerbate conflict is a core UN contribution to all development and relief work.  Most of us also recognize the intrinsic value of policy, as urged by Argentina and others, which “leaves people in control of their own well-being.”  And we mostly all nodded when the Philippines asked “where is the logic” in spending so much on response to crisis and so little on preparedness, meeting development needs more proactively and thus helping communities build their resilience to any shocks that might come along?

Many especially resonated with calls from UN Relief Chief Stephen O’Brien for “mindset change” in support of new (for some of us) modalities for coordinated development and humanitarian response.

Part of that “change” has to do with shifting our response-obsessive logic, our “business-as-usual” mandates with which responders (and their funders) are still mostly comfortable; and this despite the growing “confession” that there is clearly a better, more comprehensive way to relieve the threats that drive despair, undermine governance and eliminate personal and community options.  To that end, as a representative of the International Rescue Committee reminded us this week, we must find the means to revise our objectives such that our collective goal is not how much food we deliver but how “food-secure” people feel.  Not the quantity of aid in and of itself, but the quality of lives assisted.

But part of this mindset shift, I think, also has to do with a certain loss of general skill around matters of vigilance.  On this Independence Day holiday, there are too many entertainment distractions, too many people wishing for political or social sanity (perhaps even blithely assuming their inevitability) but not striding in that general direction, not allowing themselves to be sufficiently attentive to the threats and opportunities that define this current moment.

Many years ago, when I was young and even more foolish, Joni Mitchell hit me between the eyes with this refrain:  Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.  Why can’t we cherish more of what we have before it’s lost?  Why do some of us take so much for granted?  Why are we often so careless with things we say matter to us?  And, specifically in the policy realm, why can’t we do better at fostering (and supporting) cultures that help us to prevent and prepare for risk rather than mourn and attempt to recover from its consequences?

As many of you probably saw, there were photos this morning in the British press of massive crowds gathering in London to “support Europe.” One might well wonder where this level of political energy was before the Brexit vote, why so many apparently couldn’t figure out what they were risking until after risk evolved into an unalterable reality.

In those same press pages, tributes flowed to the late Elie Wiesel, a moral giant of our times.  Wiesel had many quotable moments in his challenging life, but it was his rejection of “silence” and “neutrality” in the face of human horror that spoke to so many of us.

We must, he insisted, be willing to “take sides” when it comes to “torment” and oppression; but such requires vigilance applicable to caring for victims, restoring dignity and opportunity, promoting resilience and self-reliance, eliminating impunity for abuse.  All of these responses require active voices and attentive mind-sets, along with the disposition to ignore the metaphorical rest areas and continue to walk the trail.

This week, perhaps more than others in recent memory, the UN system seemed to take to heart the words of its (now former) Messenger of Peace: a bit more vocal, a bit more thoughtful, a bit more vigilant.  We collectively seem more determined to walk the trail, shedding outmoded policy preferences, cherishing our essential responsibilities, and doing more to open political and development spaces for more of the world’s people.

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