Archive | August, 2016

Attention Deficit Disorder:  The Security Council Struggles to Shove the Genies Back in Their Bottles, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Aug

Space Weapons

“There are cameras nowadays that have been developed to tell the difference between a squirrel and a bomb.” ― George W. Bush

It is becoming more and more common, in this age of breathtaking technology (and the advertising to match) to jump all over each and every new gadget on the assumption (or wishful thinking) that the effect is purely additive and not also subtractive, that the need to overcome what Lewis Mumford once referred to as the “abyss of boredom” can wholly obscure the dangers lurking deep within our own techno-obsessions.

Some of us are even willing to line up on the streets for hours to purchase the latest gadget, proud to show off what others don’t yet possess, but not entirely prepared for the inevitable — when others figure out how to get what we now have.

In matters within (and also beyond) technology, we tend to assume a positive impact from the “new and improved” while remaining willfully oblivious to the “dark sides,” the less positive consequences that we will at some future point have to contend with, and often at a moment of greater urgency or less convenience.  As noted by Henry David Thoreau quite some years before the advent of any of our modern contrivances, we are prone to distraction by our “pretty toys” from the things that truly matter.   He might also have added that if we fail to “practice” attention to those “things that matter,” we will be woefully under-prepared for the times when those “things” spring a metaphorical leak.

These reactions – the need to push the envelope on the acquisition of “bling,” the unwillingness to even acknowledge the potential negative consequences of acquisition, and the lack of attention to what our strategy will be when everyone else has what we have – are hardly confined to the relatively petty realm of personal technology.

A weapons-related version of this conundrum was on display last Tuesday in the UN Security Council.   A debate hosted by the Malaysian Foreign Minister focused on “challenges in addressing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), their means of delivery, and related materials.”  The debate gave proper credit to the efforts of Spain and other states to clarify and fortify our responsibility to secure the most dangerous weapons and hopefully prevent access to such weapons by nefarious regimes and non-state actors.

Otherwise, the debate broke little new ground, inasmuch as the immediacy of the WMD threats were pretty clear – including unsecured nuclear weapons in Turkey, chemical weapons use in Syria, reckless flaunting of nuclear weapons capacity by the DPRK, and biological agents laboratories in too many places.  There were some thoughtful statements of course – including the Secretary-General’s admission of links between emerging technologies and WMD access that need urgent addressing by the international community.  In that light, Vietnam joined with others in citing the “dual use” challenges that potentially cloak the wolves of mass weaponry in sheep’s clothing.  Venezuela lamented that WMD use is not at all “theoretical” but becomes ever more likely as our “secret” weapons programs continue their expansion. Panama smartly noted the grave challenges that come to the fore as our technological progress becomes more “democratic.”

But even more than these statements, the debate also, deliberately or not, reinforced the precarious position in which the Security Council finds itself when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, those already on the books, those subject to modernization, and those in the planning or pre-production phases.  Simply put, states (especially the P-5) don’t come to the Security Council to discuss their weapons modernization, let alone to seek approval for the development of any new weapons technology.   The Security Council has a role only at the point when shiny new weapons systems or deadly biological agents are in danger of falling into nefarious hands, only when the weapons “we alone have” become the weapons that many can acquire.

As with our personal technology, the unchallenged assumption seems to be that technological advance itself is inevitable.  Its shiny new wrinkles – the “lust removed from nature” as Don Delillo once coined it — cannot apparently be resisted by mere mortals and their institutional guardians.   All we can do, it seems, is fuss and fume over the inevitable challenges that occur when our carefully crafted blueprints for a militarized future fall into the hands of the “bad guys.”

As they inevitably will. During the Council debate, Professor Greg Koblentz noted that our collective skill level required to use new technologies is actually decreasing.  What is also decreasing is our courage to ask the next questions, to pause in our weapons-related feeding frenzy long enough to recognize that the genies we release will at some point get mighty ornery, will start hanging out with the “wrong crowd,” will do everything possible to avoid being “bottled up” again.

As it is now, if a new distraction appears on our “smart” phones, we have to follow its allures. If a labor-saving device can eliminate more of our labor force, we have to market it. If a new weapon will give us a temporary edge over our adversaries, including those with whom we refuse to negotiate, we have to build it.  If we can build a camera that can distinguish between a squirrel and a bomb, well “hot dog.” Ain’t we clever?

Even Dogbert from the cartoon strip “Dilbert” understands that much of our modern “advancement” is predicated on “people not asking too many questions.”  We must insist harder than ever that our leadership asks the questions that matter, and then ask them again.  And we must insist on the same for ourselves.

Indeed, if the Security Council cannot compel the major weapons holders and manufacturers (mostly the permanent members) to give a heads up on their short-term, high-tech advantages, then we need to push harder in other spaces.   We simply cannot continue the policy of wringing our hands about threats which in general are predictable and which in specific are knowable.  Or soon will be.

There were news accounts recently of Pokémon GO players literally falling off a cliff while chasing its elusive, virtual species.  Those in control of our WMD responses are urged to study the metaphorical implications of this accident very, very carefully.


Weapons and Wounds: The UN sorts its Conflict and Humanitarian Dependencies, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Aug

Eliasson and WHD

Friday was World Humanitarian Day, honored throughout the UN system.   In New York Deputy Secretary-General Eliasson led a moving tribute to fallen UN staff, whom he honored as “the most committed of the committed,” specifically referencing those killed in an attack in Baghdad over 20 years ago.  There was also an evening spectacular during which governments were urged once again to honor pledges to support humanitarian assistance, pledges that as UN Relief Chief Stephen O’Brien has noted in many Security Council meetings, are far more numerous than their fulfillment. Clearly it is easier to make promises than honor them, for states no less than for the rest of us.

This pledging gap stands in sharp contrast to the unrelenting work of medical and relief personnel in some of the most devastated conflict zones worldwide.   We have been privileged to attend many briefings, in and out of the Security Council, by representatives from the White Helmets in Syria as well as from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) which operates not only in Syria but in Yemen and other unimaginably stressful environments.

While they dig traumatized children from rubble and amputate their irreparably damaged limbs in makeshift medical facilities, the bombs continue to drop, on top of them as well as around them.   The workers themselves have become targets; at the very least the scruples of international law that mandate that warring states avoid civilian targets have lost their sting. More and more, victims have little say in how these conflicts evolve and little to gain once (if) they are finally resolved.  More and more, relief agents like those of MSF face existential threats merely because they have the courage to care.

There is now talk around the UN that the White Helmets are a virtual shoo-in for the next Nobel Peace Prize.

We would welcome such a well-deserved honoring.  And yet, there is an uneasy feeling within us and many others, in part due to the fact that, as MSF stated as part of its distancing from the Istanbul World Humanitarian Summit, not nearly enough attention is being paid to the grave sacrifices and often needless dangers that diverse first responders to tragedy must now endure.

But it is more than that; indeed there is a growing sense that conflict and relief have become too dependent on one another, are too intertwined in their operations and expectations, that relief efforts are less about cultivating what one commentator recently referred to as “a shared humanity” and more about setting up bureaucracies that spend vast sums without also critiquing the system that breeds violence, drought and dangerous climate events on a formerly unimaginable scale.

Too many of the large relief agencies, it seems, are quite willing to be seen as the “benign face” of an otherwise ugly pursuit, with massive fundraising and resulting “interventions” based on tales of misery that they can and should do more to cut off at the source.  It is not by accident that the first “core responsibility” listed by the UN Secretary General in his “One humanity: shared responsibility” is “political leadership to prevent and end conflicts.” This is leadership that all of us, including the institutional beneficiaries of what Simone Lucatello of Instituto Mora and others frequently refer to as “humanitarianism,” must insist upon with greater urgency.

As many other colleagues worldwide such as Kenya’s Paul Okumu have commented, we are now at the point when we need more activists and fewer NGOs, more people devoted to stronger communities and fewer devoted to large-scale institutional maintenance.  Moreover, we need both activists and NGOs who are willing to confront the architects of violence and environmental destruction with the ultimate futility of humanitarian efforts.  We simply cannot bandage the mistakes of global policymakers.   We can’t make it “good enough” so that governments don’t have to feel so badly about initiating yet another round of deadly conflict, another license to ruin what precious little remains of our formerly climate-healthy and biodiverse planet.

The agonizing work of the White Helmets gives them a unique perspective here.  Should they win the Peace Prize, and even if they don’t, they have both the savvy and the gravitas to remind the rest of us that humanitarians do not keep the peace, do not stop arms transfers, do not negotiate political settlements to disputes. Unless that message is steadily and convincingly conveyed –- with conviction and without regard for funding impacts and branding opportunities — we will continue in a cycle where large NGOs continue to be paid handsomely in a mostly futile effort to clean up after messes that, in many more than a few instances, should never have happened in the first place.

Two other events this week highlighted for us the ways in which we believe “humanitarianism” needs to evolve.  First, we watched with interest as a majority of states attending the Open Ended Working Group on Nuclear Disarmament in Geneva — as reported by Reaching Critical Will and others — indicated their support for negotiations in the UNGA First Committee towards a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.  The justification for this initiative is largely a humanitarian one – modern nuclear weapons are so powerful, so devastating in their effects that any humanitarian system we could envision would be inadequate to respond.   If the human tragedy of Yemen is beyond our capacity to manage, and it currently seems to be, the consequences from nuclear explosions can barely be fathomed.

And then there was a long, insight-filled Skype call that we were honored to have this week with a room filled with young women activists mostly from Cameroon.   They asked many questions about what the UN does and why we do things the way we do them here; why we don’t reach out more, listen more, use more examples from their lives and fewer from our own?  And then it was time for my question:  “If you could make one change in the lives of the women you know, what would that change be?”

One by one, they came to the front to share their hopes: more women in politics and other places where laws and norms are developed; more girls at higher levels of education; an end to subordinations based on income, law or tradition; increased access to financing and other public goods.  And finally, there was a plea for the lowering of barriers that separate women from each other and from their better selves.   Their quest for that elusive ”shared humanity” within peaceful, inclusive communities, settings that demonstrate capacity and skill regarding resilience to conflict and climate threats, requires each of them to change and grow as well.

These are the lessons we seek to promote: that humanitarian response is ultimately inadequate to prevent, end or recover from modern conflict and that communities and their leadership can play a more central role in responding to local victims while ensuring fewer victims in the first instance.

The humanitarian community already has many burdens to navigate, but we urge adding another one – the decoupling of what have become the “strange bedfellows” of conflict and humanitarian assistance.  Together, we must continue to address human need but do so in a way that does not enable political leaders to postpone or push aside their conflict-related responsibilities.  We cannot allow committed energy from humanitarians to be used to make the onset or continuation of conflict any more palatable.

School Daze:  The UN Struggles to Identify Education that Matters, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Aug


It’s mid-August in New York, and I and many other have struggled this weekend with indoor “sleeping” temperatures hovering around 90 degrees.   I’m also dealing with massive amounts of dust, willingly blown in all directions by my strategically placed fans, complements of a construction project next door.

For many young people, August heat portends the immanent start of another school year.  For some of these youth (including me decades ago) school is a place of boredom and even conflict. For other young people (and virtually all of their parents) the return to school is a return to normalcy – the prospects both of intellectual challenge and a re-emerging, viable, family routine.

Tragically, for many around the world, school remains mostly a distant vision.  For Syrian refugee children, for earthquake survivors in remote regions of Nepal, for children dodging bombs in Yemen or insurgents in the DRC, school represents the faint hope of stability and possibility; the yet unfulfilled promise of inclusive and peaceful societies in which their contributions —including their engagement with civic responsibilities — are valued and encouraged.

Last Monday, the UN held a discussion on Indigenous People’s Right to Education in recognition of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.   There was much of value in this session, including an admonition by ASG Thomas Gass to decouple indigenous education from any “backhanded” assimilation narratives. Also noteworthy was the UNPFII Chair Álvaro Pop’s reminder that indigenous education must maintain as its core objectives the dismantling of remaining colonial vestiges in order to create “better local democracies.”

But for the three of us in the room from Global Action, the “star” presenter was Ms. Karla Jessen Williamson, an Inuit from Greenland now teaching in Canada.  It was Williamson who most clearly defined the challenge with “schooling” from the standpoint of indigenous culture – that the higher up the educational chain indigenous youth go, the further they tend to get from indigenous linguistic and thought forms.  Others on the panels lamented the linguistic and other local losses that are absorbed when indigenous youth travel long distances to educational institutions, only to struggle at times with both the training methods themselves and the values embodied in those institutions.

Williamson additionally highlighted educational benefits including skills for “self-governance” of Arctic peoples and the respect they should rightly demand from “down south” governments, but these were raised with softer edges.   As with other speakers, she honored the “suffering” of those ancestors who made it possible for her (and others) to speak in a place like the UN.  She also expressed her educational preference for “inner imagination,” a preference which she did not have the opportunity explain at length but one which clearly sees education at its best as the full and dynamic expression of a whole culture more than a specialized, highly-cognitive pursuit within a distinct social institution.  It suggests an education that is about the contexts through which we can grow and change, that upholds the values of honoring and appreciating, and is not only about the worldly tasks that define our budding careers.

In indigenous cultures and beyond, school and learning are not synonymous and it is unhelpful to see them as such.  Many personal and institutional roles carry an educational responsibility, albeit one not tied so tightly to career and employment options.  People “learn” about the world through diverse sources, many persons, institutions and agents of culture.  When a comprehensive social pedagogy is undermined, when “school” becomes the sole arbiter of what a culture transmits to the young, when adults abdicate responsibility for education to specialized (and increasingly expensive) institutions,  more than “inner imagination” is in jeopardy.

As the primary institution of global governance, the UN has its own “teaching” responsibility, sadly much of which takes the form of campaigning and branding, trying to “sell” political agendas rather than helping people understand more about the current state of the world and their responsibilities in it.   We throw around words like “empowerment” as though we have any clarity about its criteria – how we know it when we see it, how that generic (and overused) term can possibly have any relevance outside of the specific political and social contexts in which people find themselves.

Moreover, we too often address young people as though they are our “saviors” more than our successors, leading them to believe, in the name of (rightly) encouraging youth participation, that they are already perfectly formed, already prepared to take us places the rest of us ostensibly can’t take ourselves, already able to confront grave planetary challenges on their own merits, already “sufficient” to life in all its (increasingly) virtual and non-virtual elements.

Even in the august Security Council, security policies are sometimes promoted as though it could not possibly be otherwise, policies that are willfully detached from the consequences of their precursors– successful and often not — and that try to equate the political interests of one or more states with resolutions to address the interests of those suffering a wide variety of conflict-related abuses.  Here as well the point seems too often to be how to “convince,” not how to enlighten or reflect. Neither teaching nor leading, it seems.

The UN is primarily political culture, and so it isn’t surprising when discernment yields to political considerations.   But when such discernment devolves into outright hyperbole, into a denial of complex realities we should well be clever enough to grasp, few will get what they need to flourish in learning; our inner lives will suffer; general levels of trust in the veracity of our foremost institutions will shrink.  People will listen less often, in part because of our collective authenticity deficit.

During a UN youth event on Friday devoted to “sustainable consumption” and poverty reduction, ASG Thomas Gass in his own modest manner attempted to get the audience to be more mindful of the “ethical” compromises and sacrifices represented by the clothing we purchase, the food we waste, the phones we clutch as though our very lives depended on them. However, in the back of the conference room where I was seated, young people were busy on those very same phones, snapping pictures for their Instagram accounts, planning their weekends, texting like the world was about to come to an end, doing only what many kids now routinely do.

Their energy and confidence can both be infectious, but there is still so much for them to learn – about the world and its current challenges, about gadgets and their limitations, about the deep and sometimes scary wonders of their “inner imagination.”   This is education by diverse stakeholders and cultures that the UN would do well to assume a larger role in ensuring.  This is education the potential of which schools themselves can only partially fulfill.

A Message to our Future: The UN’s Mixed Reputation on Children, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Aug

We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children. – Jimmy Carter

The UN was a bit less frenetic this past week focused mostly on the health of oceans and the potential of geospatial data to monitor progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.  It was also the week that Malaysia took over as president of the Security Council, presiding over both “straw polls” to help determine the next Secretary-General and an important, full-membership debate on the subject of “children and armed conflict.”

This debate included the requisite amounts of wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding our collective compromises with respect to the welfare of children, along with a controversy that was bad news for both children and the UN itself. In the former category were (as noted by Argentina and others) attacks on schools and hospitals, abuse by peacekeepers, hostility at refugee border crossings and, as stated clearly by Indonesia, state denials of access to assistance intended in part for besieged children.

The controversy focused on a decision by the Secretary General, under financial and political pressure from Saudi Arabia and its “coalition” partners, to remove the country from a listing of state and non-state parties in an Annex to an SG report, parties that have been found to kill, rape, or abduct children, or bomb the schools and medical facilities they frequent.  The Saudis were listed in response to coalition bombing campaigns waged in Yemen that have had deadly ramifications for many children, with bombs we might add that have been supplied to the Saudis by at least one permanent Council member.  The list is maintained by the Office for Children and Armed Conflict current led by Special Representative Zerrougui who spoke at this Council session and whose office was widely (and rightly) praised by many speakers.

The Saudi “threat” seemed straightforward enough.   Remove our name from the Annex or we (and other coalition partners as well) will withdraw funding support for other key UN functions, including agencies that support children.  Both the threat and its reactions were well represented in the Council discussion.  States from Demark to Yemen itself pleaded for fact-based, unbiased reporting of crimes against children that would be free of political pressure – from states being listed and states seeking to politicize such listings.  Others alleged that the precedent for the Saudi reaction was established a year earlier when Israel was removed from a similar list.  Other disturbing examples were also cited including (as noted by Croatia) the UN’s slow response to peacekeeper abuse of children and the consequences for children of the military activities in Syria supported in part by permanent Council members.

The useful concept note from Malaysia repeatedly refers to the full-day Council discussion as a “debate.”   But despite the Saudi controversy, the gathering in Council chambers understood that there is little to debate here.   Most states affirmed, as noted 20 years earlier in a UN report submitted by Graça Machel, that it is “unforgivable that children are assaulted, violated, murdered.” For every child killed or abused; for every child traumatized by fear and violence, for every child recruited into war and then abandoned by the world to their own devices, our collective dignity diminishes.  In the Council, Austria stated that armed conflict impedes the ability of children to “do good.”  But when the alleged international guarantors of the moral and legal order act in ways that run counter to those guarantees, the fabric of that order has been rent asunder.  Their authority, including for conduct towards children, is literally on life support.

Let’s be clear: The ways in which armed conflict is detrimental to the welfare of children are numerous and increasingly obvious, beyond the reach of credible denial either by states or by groups that violently oppose them.  As guns are loaded and bombs are dropped, the easy narratives of children as “precious” and essential to the future of humankind smacks up against a wall of trauma and loss, the likes of which the rest of us in our relatively comfortable confines can scarcely imagine.

In the West, psychologists’ offices are filled with adults suffering from a range of maladies – many inflicted as children — from sexual harassment and eating disorders to compulsive behaviors and the alleged preferential treatment by parents of one or more of their children.   But the abuses finding expression in the Council place in context the “Dad always loved my sister best” frustrations that in their own way damage prospects for healthy living.   Growing up in a war zone can be far worse than living with one hand tied behind your back.   With all due respect to our collective resilience –and it is indeed a marvel at times – the wounds chronicled in this Council meeting are more like a bleeding that no amount of clotting agents or tourniquets are able to stem.

It is always risky business to “compare pain,” but If the dangers, stresses, neuroses and addictions characteristic of life in our relatively stable, affluent and peaceful societies cause so many to lose their way, what do we say about children recruited into insurgencies, enslaved to satisfy adult urges, separated from families fleeing bombings, or burying parents who simply found themselves in the wrong places?  Beyond safe passage and humanitarian provisions, what do we imagine are the prospects for children for whom hasty escapes from cluster munitions are only the latest in a string of life crises?  Panama, Poland and other states cited the impacts of violence-related trauma that will last throughout these children’s lives.  Indeed, even with the improved psychological services called for by many speakers, damage has already been done.  Potential has been compromised.  Trust in a world of possibility and stability has been broken, in many instances irretrievably.

We have duly processed the clichés.   We know it is “wrong” to abuse the people we are mandated to protect.  We know it is “wrong” to engage in indiscriminate attacks on populated areas where the primary victims are both unable to escape and too young to have any responsibility for conflict that claims their psychological development if not their very existence.  As James Grant of UNICEF explicitly noted to Council members, we are speaking here of child victims of “warring adults,” conflicts which cast a long shadow over both their lives and our own future prospects.

We do not emerge from our various wombs fully formed. Bumble Bees we are not.   Our physical vulnerabilities at birth combined with the staggering array of skills we must develop in order to get on in this increasingly complex world should cause us to pause and consider when our policies and actions bear some risk of ignoring potentially negative implications for children.  That we do not “pause” nearly often enough is a collective “stain” that will not easily clean.

During this UN debate, the Secretary General rightly noted our collective integrity gap on the protection and nurture of children, noting that reputations (including his own) are clearly at stake.  Lithuania (speaking on behalf of the Baltic states) lamented that crimes against children are too many, but cases to end impunity for such crimes are too few.  What may also be lacking is recognition that legal remedies in the aftermath of crimes – as critically important as they are – cannot alone heal deep emotional scars or damaged reputations.   It will be up to the next Secretary General to find the right blend of discernment and capacity to ensure that her/his future reports on children are as free as possible from all political influences; and then to insist in the strongest possible tones that more states take more responsibility together for fulfilling “sacred” obligations to the care and protection of children.