A Friend in Need:  The UN declares its intentions on migrants and refugees, Dr. Robert Zuber

31 Jul

dayoffriendshipToday is Friendship Day, a time to contemplate what we mean to and for each other, the many ways in which our lives intertwine, and how we can better accompany friends, family and colleagues as a precondition for staying our own course.

At the UN, this day is intended in part to support the goals and objectives of the Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace, a “culture” that privileges respect of persons, honors community and international obligations to rights and development, and refrains from any behavior that impedes the ability of others to pursue a life of dignity.

When I was younger, there was a saying that in our 20s we think we’ll be “saved” by love; in our 30s by friendship.  Well into our 40s we realize that nothing will save us.  Indeed, at that point in life, most are encouraged to turn from our preoccupation with personal ambition and emotional reassurance to embrace the challenges of a world not where we want or need it to be, certainly not what we wish to leave as our legacy to those we love and those we’ll never know.

This repositioning of life energy, I would argue, is in itself an act of friendship.  To brave the cold, harsh winds that currently batter our politics and our compromise our best selves, to eschew narrow self-preoccupations and seek to reign in the current madness without creating more of it, these are great acts of courage and kindness worthy of the best of friendship.

Global Action, like many small ventures, survives on such acts.  The confidence that is shown in us, the financial sacrifices that others make for us, the interest that others show in our impact (real and potential), the inspiration that comes to us from the valuable work of others, all are so very deeply appreciated.  Indeed, we recognize that some of these gifts are offered mostly on faith, mostly on the hope that, together with many other voices, we can help steer this partially disabled ship towards calmer, safer, fairer waters.

And these attributes and gifts are in no way confined to the relationship between small policy offices and their benefactors.  In my Inbox this morning is the fruit of many weeks of careful, sometimes painful negotiations towards adoption of a “Political Declaration” to address the question of large movements of refugees and migrants, a declaration that in its final form will be adopted at the UN by foreign ministers and/or heads of state in September.

Ambassadors Kawar of Jordan and Donoghue of Ireland are among the most respected diplomats currently at the UN, and as co-facilitators they carefully steered this General Assembly process through many drafts and some significant state objections; all this with the backdrop of millions of men, women and children on the move while responsibilities for their wellbeing are at present disproportionally confined to a few states that are “middle income” at best – Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and others.

The Declaration seeks to balance some difficult policy controversies – how to protect internally displaced persons without compromising state sovereignty; how to describe the “burdens” assumed by host states without implicating migrants and refugees as “burdens” themselves; how to calibrate what the UN often refers to as “common but differentiated” responsibilities such that more states are able and willing to extend concrete acts of friendship and protection to persons –especially children – displaced by armed violence, political instability and climate-related impacts that we have collectively not done enough to prevent.

The language of this draft Declaration makes such responsibilities crystal clear: We are determined to save lives.  Our challenge is above all moral and humanitarian.  Equally, we are determined to find long-term and sustainable solutions.  We will combat with all the means at our disposal the abuses and exploitation suffered by countless refugees and migrants in vulnerable situations. We acknowledge a shared responsibility to manage large movements of refugees and migrants in a humane, sensitive, compassionate and people-centred manner.

These are the values that represent the best of what the UN is capable of.   These are also the values on which a durable, dependable, inclusive, global friendship is built.

On this Friendship Day, it might be interesting to note that, in 1998, none other than Winnie the Pooh was named Ambassador of Friendship at the United Nations.  Pooh’s fictional “character” has been described elsewhere as a bit naive and slow-witted, but also friendly, thoughtful, and steadfast.  The draft Political Declaration negotiated over many weeks by Ambassadors Kawar and Donoghue resolutely avoids the first set of characteristics but might well serve as a model for the latter.

When asked by others what I need from my friends, my answer is essentially the same as what I imagine they need from me – insight and forgiveness: insight in the form of active attentiveness, challenge to our own status quo, an insistence that we become the best that we are capable of being; forgiveness in the form of confessing how our stubborn judgments sometimes betray our values and commitments, how we are sometimes “in the way” of the objectives of our heart’s desire ( not to mention the needs of a planet under stress), how we sometimes give in to the temptation to treat persons in crisis as though they have a life-threatening communicable disease.

Whether with colleagues or migrants, we can all “friend” better.   Let’s use part of this day to figure out how that’s done.

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