A Discouraging Word:Violence and its Multiple Impacts, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Sep

The only shameful thing about mental illness is the stigma attached to it. — Lindsay Holmes

Last evening, on my way to a birthday party, I stopped by the World Trade Center site.  The powerful “9/11” spotlights were turned on, helicopters circled the area, and many loud banging noises could be heard in the neighborhood. While watching the spectacle, I had striking flashbacks of people jumping out of windows of the old Twin Towers because staying put on melting upper floors had ceased to be an option; also of responders urgently rushing up stairways that ultimately became their graveyards.

But I also thought about the thousands upon thousands of bombs that have fallen since “9/11,” the uncounted masses whose homes and shops will never be rebuilt, whose losses will never be formally commemorated; countless families who have barely known a moment of stability or peace for the past 15 years.

We in the US have been victims; we have created many as well. Violence in too many forms preceded 9/11 and violence in too many forms has defined its wake.

Such diverse forms and manifestations of violence always find a place on the agenda of the UN community: even when we fail to guarantee refugees safe passage; even when efforts to eliminate nuclear tests go up in flames; even when conflicts rage like wildfires that have long-since jumped the control line; even when abuses are committed against civilians by their erstwhile protectors; even when hospitals are bombed with weapons sold by countries that had previously pledged seller’s restraint.

There were many UN events this past week with implications for peace and security, for societies that no longer have to calibrate the staggering costs of violence (including their deep emotional wounds) that threaten every hopeful impulse.  Two for us stood out.

On Tuesday, the General Assembly help what is now an annual debate on the Responsibility to Protect norm for addressing genocide and other atrocity violence, placed on the UN’s agenda at the 2005 World Summit. “R2P” as it is known has attracted significant interest from many UN member states as well as from a handful of “loyalist” NGOs who were well represented at the debate, what one person described (with a hint of irony) as something akin to a “family reunion.”

Despite high regard for the norm and for addressing what Bolivia referred to as the “repugnant” crimes to which the norm points, this discussion brought many fault lines to the fore, based in part on the recognition (as described by Slovenia and others) that 11 years on from the World Summit the world is still facing widespread misery and displacement instigated by state and non-state actors.  The questions (and frustrations) were evident throughout. Brazil wondered about our habitual response to coercive responses that endanger the very persons we are trying to help.   Vanuatu wondered why states sit idly by waiting for the Security Council to act when there is much conflict prevention that even small states can promote.  Spain wondered why the UN’s promises of a “culture of prevention” remain essentially unfulfilled.

And yet amidst the frustrations, there were signs of positive life. Several states (and USG Dieng) called (as we have also been doing for years) for RtoP to find life through a regular, formal General Assembly process that allows states to (as noted by Panama) engage a wider range of stakeholders, but also to examine the political and capacity gaps that impede effective implementation. We also need (as noted by the Netherlands on behalf of the “Group of Friends”) more regular briefings to the Security Council by USG Dieng and (soon) ASG Simonovic, requiring both a more active, determined secretariat and a less “tone deaf” Security Council when it comes to its response to early warnings.

DSG Eliasson confessed during this meeting that when we look around the world, it is hard not to be discouraged. We just can’t go on like this, he implored. Indeed, we cannot.  The longer the violence festers, the longer people are denied relief and justice, the longer we fail to develop (as noted by Rwanda and others) strong institutions to help us face our conflict prevention and protection responsibilities, the longer we attempt to mask the truth about protection promises unkept, the deeper discouragement is likely to become.

Such deep and painful emotions were also the backdrop of a special event sponsored by Palau (with Canada, Belgium and UNDESA) on “Mental Health and Wellbeing at the Heart of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”  Palau’s Ambassador Otto, a trained physician himself, has taken a special interest in SDG 3 which links “mental health and wellbeing” to what some might consider as the “self-inflicted wounds” associated with non-communicable diseases, including narcotics and alcohol addictions.

Amidst the “earth balloons” and children chanting “happy people, happy planet,” there were sober matters to consider. ASG Daniella Bas underscored the particular mental health concerns of disabled persons.  Canada addressed the social isolation characteristic of so much mental illness, but also called attention to the pervasive mental health challenges affecting migrants and refugees.  Micronesia’s newly-installed, Ambassador Chigiyal, called attention to the stigmas that impact care for the mentally ill, citing examples from her own “family focused” country. And many diplomats and practitioners raised the specter of the trauma, including from indiscriminate use of weapons, that we should do more to prevent and for which our capacities for remediation and restoration are still largely deficient.

But more than this, we should think harder about what is needed at the level of policy to help stave off the effects of trauma and related illness that impede human and community development.  Beyond addiction, we are moving towards full recognition of mental health impacts from being unable to protect our children from harm or abuse, from having our livelihood disappear, from being betrayed by people in our “inner circle,” from being unable to stop violence that threatens everything in our community of concern. These and other examples point towards two features of a mentally healthful life – trustworthy human connections and the ability to impact events in the world, large and small.  Without meaningful connection and viable agency, life is simply too isolated and unpredictable to sustain mental health.  Too many of us in this world struggle mightily to find protection from harsh winds that we simply cannot control, and too often we struggle alone.

Ambassador Otto’s introductory remarks summed up perhaps the most important insight from this event, reminding us that “the heart is a great enabler.” Indeeed, implementation of all our development commitments and all our preventive and protective responsibilities must be animated by something deeper than the need for clever and well-crafted policy.  We must learn to empathize more actively with lives incapacitated by armed violence; we must do better at preventing and protecting against its devastations.  While doing this, we would do well to place greater emphasis on encouraging more personal connection and social participation as antidotes to the isolation and impotence from which so much discouragement in this world currently proceeds.

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