The Importance of Importance:   The UN General Assembly Reasserts its Cross-Cutting Value, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Sep

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One of the things I marveled at during my months (long ago) as a hospital chaplain in Harford, CT was the ability of emergency room medical staff to perform “triage” on incoming patients.

The principle is simple in the abstract if not in practice:   In a system under constant stress, professionals must be able to distinguish quickly between patients requiring urgent attention and those who can wait a bit – albeit often uncomfortably – for their turn at treatment in the hope that full health can be restored.

This “triage” is hardly confined to hospitals; parents make these judgment calls all the time, sequencing the lives of children so that they get more of what they need when they need it, especially during times of urgency.   And of course many of these judgments point down a life-long road – sealing the relationship linking healthy diets, prompt health care, home reading and other nurturing activities, and the promotion of future self-directed adults able to contribute much to families and communities.

The UN has its own versions of “triage” though the public face of this is largely confined to Security Council meetings where “matters of importance” take place, including assessments and responses to threats that literally leap on to the front pages of our media.  There are, indeed, matters of gravity punctuating the Council agenda – Syria and Yemen are only the most notable – and the Council is learning again about both the potential and limitations of its policy solidarity.  Thankfully, Council members are also spending more time in the field – as we write this, they are in South Sudan – in part in an attempt to better grasp some of the practical consequences of their sometimes inadequate decision making to maintain (or restore) peace and security.

What the Council has most in common with emergency rooms and families is the expectation of relevant potency.   While hardly omnipotent, the decisions of ER doctors and parents are clearly binding within their “areas of jurisdiction.” For its part, the Council is one of the few modalities within the UN that has a mandate to “make states do things” that they might not do otherwise.  While the effectiveness of Council responses has been and should continue to be challenged, the assumption reflected within the Council’s mandate is that if states do not abide by its resolutions, more or less coercive measures may well follow – sanctions, travel bans, peacekeepers or even overtly military operations.

For many people, this coercion is a critical dimension of “importance.”   If we can’t make governments and other entities abide by rules of law and conduct, if we can’t force states to keep their treaty or resolution promises, then “triage” is little more than the creation of a priority list for institutional impotence.   What good, for instance, is it to create (as the UN is seeking to do this week) massive ocean refuges beyond national jurisdiction in an attempt to heal the seas if there is no trusted mechanism of enforcement – if there is no “ocean police” to ensure that fish stocks are not depleted, biodiversity is preserved, plastics and toxins are not carelessly dumped into increasingly compromised waters?

But it is not at all clear to what degree the UN’s use of coercive tools have actually modified the behavior of recalcitrant state and non-state entities.   Moreover, it seems to us, as it now seems to many UN member states, that there are many “soft power” options that have been – and remain – largely underutilized in this institutional space – tools such as mediation and good offices, to be sure, but also what we might call the “power of importance,” the resolve that comes from knowing you are placing priority on the most urgent matters with the most far-reaching consequences.

We don’t get many compliments in this office (few of us at the UN do) but the kindest remark ever paid to us was by a diplomat who noted, “You folks always show up for the most important discussions.”   For us this year, “showing up” has largely meant following the exhausting itinerary of the president of the 70thGeneral Assembly (PGA), Denmark’s Mogens Lykketoft.  This PGA has run a marathon during his year of service, refocusing and empowering the General Assembly while offering (even insisting upon) tangible support to other key UN functions, including the Financing for Development mandate of the Economic and Social Council  and the peace and security mandate of the Security Council.   He has lent the support of his office (and his personal presence) to a host of issues on the UN agenda that must stay firmly on our collective radar – pandemic threats, the rights and well-being of migrants and refugees, our urgent climate challenges, the political participation and employment of the world’s largest-ever generation of youth, the elevation of peacebuilding skills and architecture, the healing of our oceans, the transparency of the current Secretary-General search and its full inclusion of women candidates, the end to discrimination against disabled persons, indigenous women and far too many others.

We have few if any quibbles with the PGAs triage.   With or without the power of formal coercion, he has focused the attention of the GA on the issues about which we will learn to cooperate more fully or perish more rapidly.

And he saved some of his time and energy to focus on his own office – its needs in relation to the extraordinary expectations now placed upon it. Part of this has involved exposing the hypocrisy of a system that demands more and more of its key leadership without the funding commensurate with those responsibilities.  Lykketoft recognizes the advantages of coming from a wealthy country anxious to subsidize his success.   Other PGAs have not been so lucky.  Others have had to cut corners and make deals, often in ways that sow suspicions.   Plugging the institutional gaps in the system closest to the PGA is both a gift to his able successor (Fiji’s Amb Thompson) and to our collective ability to sustain interest in the most important policy priorities which the PGA and his VPs have energetically highlighted.

This past week the PGA hosted a “culture of peace” event in Trusteeship Council.  It’s a bit of a “mushy” topic, to be sure, but the event did underscore the diverse responsibilities of peacemaking beyond the control of weapons and coercive responses to wrongdoers.  It also gave UN officials and others the opportunity to share some of what drives their commitment to this place and keeps them energized to fulfill its multi-lateral potential.  From Nicaragua’s insistence on poverty reduction priorities and Italy’s call for youth inclusion to Malaysia’s urging of political moderation efforts and Indonesia’s call to find pathways out of “fragility,” many states welcomed this space for the kind of deeper reflection that keeps our policy deliberations on track, the kind of reflection on which good policy triage depends.

Also during this event, Tunisia’s Nobel Laureate Wided Bouchamaoui noted that, despite the slow pace of change, we must keep our focus on the reform that “alters destinies,” a reform that requires humility, the renunciation of despair and a commitment to concrete outcomes. Albania directly referenced Mother Teresa, warning that “we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”  On a similar note, SG special adviser David Nbarro, a key architect of the UN’s Ebola response and now focused on the Sustainable Development Goals, reflected that “human beings can respect themselves better as they learn to respect others better.”

These contributions are not a substitute for good policy, but they reference attributes of the human experience essential to good “triage,” keeping our eyes and energies fixed on matters of urgency in these gravely challenging times. We thank PGA Lykketoft for his year-long lesson on what truly matters.

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One Response to “The Importance of Importance:   The UN General Assembly Reasserts its Cross-Cutting Value, Dr. Robert Zuber”

  1. marta benavides September 5, 2016 at 12:48 am #

    gracias .. good work.. here is example of a twit @UN @UN_PGA TheImportanceOfImportance:TheUNGeneralAssemblyReasserts itsCross-CuttingValue, Dr. … https://gapwblog.wordpress.com/2016/09/04/the-importance-of-importance-the-un-general-assembly-reasserts-its-cross-cutting-value-dr-robert-zuber/ via @GlobalActionPW

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