Archive | October, 2016

Do African Lives Matter for African Leaders? By Hussein Solomon[1]

31 Oct

Editor’s Note:  Later this morning (10/31), the president of the International Criminal Court will address the UN General Assembly.  A high priority for her presentation is sure to be the recent decision by South Africa to withdraw from the Court.  Here, Professor Hussein Solomon, one of our most insightful colleagues, offers reflections on the contexts and implications of South Africa’s decision. 

Africans have grown accustomed to the West ignoring their suffering. This is hardly a new phenomenon. Consider the fact that Belgian King Leopold II’s atrocities was historically ignored in Europe at the time and barely gets a footnote in recent European books on its African colonies. To be clear, 15 million Congolese were murdered and numerous others were mutilated by this ‘civilized’ European king as he sought to extract rubber from this blighted country. More recently, more than 6 million Congolese have been killed since the 2nd August 1998. Once again, there is scarcely a mention on the front pages of The Washington Post or the New York Times.

At one level, perhaps, this is understandable. According to psychologists one is supposed to have greater empathy for one’s in-group as opposed to the proverbial “other.” What is particularly galling for Africans, however, is when their own leaders display such callous disregard for their lives. Worse, still, is the hypocrisy accompanying the callousness on the part of Africa’s leadership. Consider for instance the events surrounding the 7 January 2015. This was the date of the brutal terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices which resulted in 17 people being killed on the streets of Paris. The world rallied with the French and a mass march of 1,6 million people took to the streets of Paris. This march also included 40 world leaders, including several African leaders who mourned the lives of the innocent savagely cut short. This is as it should be.

At the same time, of the Paris killings, however, there was another atrocity taking place. In the dusty town of Baga, northern Nigeria, Boko Haram militants slaughtered 2000 innocent people. There was no similar Paris march. No African leader took to the streets to commemorate the lives of those lost. Even the Nigerian President at the time, Goodluck Jonathan, did not immediately respond to the tragedy which took place on his own territory where his own citizens lost their life in such a cold-blooded way. This prompts the question: Do African lives matter to African leaders?

I asked this question several times following the decision by my own government – South Africa – to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC). The South African decision may well be related to domestic politics. According to Anton du Plessis of the Institute for Security Studies, the Zuma administration is attempting to protect itself from an imminent Constitutional Court hearing in relation to the 2015 visit of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir when Pretoria refused to arrest him as it was obligated to do under the Rome Statute. Instead Bashir and his entourage were whisked out of the country by the South African authorities.

To be clear, the arrest warrant for Bashir was based on the charge that he oversaw the war in Darfur which resulted in the deaths of between 200,000 and 400,000 people and the displacement of a further 2.5 million people in Darfur out of a population of 6.2 million. The so-called leaders of Africa denounced the ICC decision ostensibly because heads of state should have immunity of prosecution. The counter-argument is simply this: as Head of State should the buck not stop with him? Do not forget that Bashir was not merely Commander-in-Chief by virtue of him being President of Sudan. He was a military man who staged a coup in 1989 to come to power. The second charge levelled against the ICC was that it was unfairly targeting Africa. Let us be frank: many of the ICC investigations were initiated by African countries themselves since they did not have the resources to conduct an investigation and engage in a trial themselves. Do not forget, too, that the ICC is a court of last resort. The attack on the ICC is simultaneously taking place at a time when Africa’s own domestic and regional judicial mechanisms have come under threat from Africa’s self-serving leaders who desire to escape accountability at all costs whilst they simultaneously steal from and brutalize their citizens.

Perhaps the most powerful response to these objections put forward would simply be this: Do African lives matter to African leaders? Their deep concern for Bashir is akin to sympathizing with the aggressor as opposed to the victims. After all who speaks for the hundreds of thousands of innocent victims who needlessly lost their lives in Darfur?

[1] Professor Hussein Solomon lectures in the Department of Political Studies and Governance at the University of the Free State, South Africa.

Green Day: The UN Seeks the Means to Defend Environmental Rights Defenders, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Oct



Environmental human rights defenders are at the heart of our future and the future of our planet.  2016 Report of the UN Secretary General on the “Situation of human rights defenders”

At the UN, as in much of the world as a whole, the policy news on a daily basis seems to run the gamut from hopeful to dreadful:

  • Some extraordinary progress on ocean preserves is offset by rapid polar melting and massive ocean storms
  • A breakthrough on negotiations to eventually “ban” nuclear weapons is compromised by reckless arms transfers and illicit arms movements that endanger civilians, destroy schools and medical infrastructure, and threaten an already fragile negotiating trust
  • Global progress on ending capital punishment is undermined by states citing drug trafficking and terrorism as “justifications” for continuing state-sanctioned executions
  • Policy gains on women’s equality are stymied by institutional sexism and political systems more comfortable with making promises on gender than keeping them

Perhaps nowhere at the UN is this schizophrenic path to progress more apparent than in the 3rd Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) of the UN General Assembly,  one of six GA committees meeting throughout October (and sometimes beyond). Chaired this year by Colombia’s Ambassador María Emma Mejía, the 3rd Committee embraces a stunning, ambitious schedule of rights-related issues that span a full spectrum of UN concerns – from persons with disabilities facing discrimination or journalists under siege to persons forcibly “disappeared” by governments or executed without due process.

Over the month, an extraordinary lineup of independent experts, Special Rapporteurs and Special Procedure Mandate Holders appear before the 3rd Committee to describe the progress they’ve made, the obstacles still to be overcome, and the reasons why attentiveness to the issues of their respective mandates still matters so much to the world.  This was also (and sadly) a time to honor extraordinary experts whose mandates (though not the issues themselves) are set to expire, including Juan Mendez (torture), Rita Izsak (minority rights), Maina Kai (peaceful assembly) and Fabian Salvioli (Human Rights Committee Chair).

My fall interns are forced (by me) to experience all facets of UN policy, but they seem to have a special interest in the skillfulness and diverse interests represented by these mandate holders.  As painful and even horrifying as some of their testimony surely is, interns are amazed (as well they ought) at the range of substantive UN human rights concerns – trafficking and child pornography, health care and adequate housing, the land rights of indigenous people and the plight of displaced children.  Despite limited implementation successes in a number of instances, these rights stand as almost “sacred” obligations of states parties, obligations that are not compromised — let alone disappear — because some states refuse their full acknowledgment.

But these rights obligations need champions outside the UN as well as within, as has been noted often by Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders.  And as we have all come to know, the dangers faced by these “outside” champions show few signs of abating. Last Monday, in a side event –“Empower environmental defenders, safeguard our future” – Forst joined with Norway’s Ambassador May-Elin Stener and an activist from Honduras (CEHPRODEC) to chronicle some of the grave threats experienced by environmental rights activists seeking to organize communities to safeguard health and livelihoods in the face of aggressive corporate predation, state corruption and broad international indifference.

Many in the room were still mourning the death of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, not the only activist to lose her life defending land and community in states such as Honduras and, given the current state of our limited protective mechanisms, unlikely to be the last.  Within the Global Action orbit, we have also mourned friends and colleagues who have paid the ultimate price for our collective indifference.  We have watched families torn apart as land-owning corporations pay family members to shoot their “trespassing” kinfolk. We have seen first-hand the effects of logging and mining that bring few local benefits but inflict staggering local hardships.  We have seen activists’ reputations rent asunder by forces eager to label them as “criminals” or “terrorists” while exempting their own actions from virtually all means of accountability.

As states prepare to assemble in Morocco to assess the early stages of implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement, they would do well to confess this schizophrenic policy moment – on the one hand, urgency to control emissions and create a more healthful planet characterized by peaceful and inclusive societies; on the other hand, business as usual under cover of states underwhelming in their commitment to protect their own citizens – and those who seek to defend them — from external threats of diverse human origins.

As the UN Secretary-General has intimated, human rights defenders are the essential link between sound global policy and community resiliency.  We cannot do without their tireless and courageous commitments.  We cannot fulfill our “leave no one behind” promises while abandoning communities – especially their women and indigenous — to defend legitimate local interests while their leadership languishes in prisons or even in morgues.  We cannot hope to inspire stable, healthy communities when the voices of so many of its citizens are mute – or facing a dangerous backlash.

As Rapporteur Forst himself noted during this side event, the world is characterized by growing “power imbalances” that imperil rights defenders and the community interests they seek to defend.  There is, he warned, a “crisis of retribution” which the Honduran activist asserted almost never results in punitive legal judgments.  As we seek a fairer, greener and more just planet, it is important to honor and sustain the community-based courage that must be part of any viable pathway to change.  As Ambassador Stener noted, state, corporate and community interests will not always align, but respectful dialogue –not threats– is the only sustainable way forward.  The international community can and should do more to guarantee that such dialogue takes place, and that it takes place on a more level playing field.

The Wonder Years:  The UN Seeks Super Powers to Navigate the Current Crises, Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Oct


This was yet another one of those weeks at the UN.   Apparently, we now have a cartoon character serving as our collective symbol of women’s empowerment: an athletic, thoroughly Anglo. scantily-dressed figure of some artist’s imagination who ostensibly will inspire and mentor young women and girls more effectively than the many women of high intelligence and character already roaming our hallways and conference rooms.

This week also featured an informal discussion led by PGA Thompson between Secretary-General-elect Guterres and the full membership of the General Assembly.  It was a good and reassuring session, even as some states lamented the lost opportunity to select a woman SG.  As many of you know, there is still to come the appointment of a Deputy SG, and some with us in the “blue seats” half-jokingly speculated about the possibility of Wonder Woman being tapped for that post as well, noting that while her wardrobe would not be particularly well-suited to Security Council meetings and grand state functions, it might actually be helpful to have a figure at the most senior levels of the UN who could single-handedly enforce Security Council resolutions without resort to punitive sanctions or aerial bombardments.

The PGA also led a more somber discussion later in the week, this time on the unresolved horror in Syria.  Special Envoy de Mistura joined the conversation by video, and after painting the grisly scene yet again (Aleppo might well be “gone” by December), welcomed efforts by the General Assembly to seek options for response beyond what the Security Council has been able to successfully muster. Non-Permanent Council members joined the chorus of those many UN states seeking traction on what Uruguay referred to as the “massacre” of Aleppo (and other areas of grave violence) as the Security Council itself appears in too many instances to impede more progress to peace than it promotes.

We’ve been in many such meetings where atrocity crimes and other horrors are laid bare only to then elude the imposition of practical, remedial measures.  And there is, of course, no direct pathway leading us from the perception of human misery to effective policy response. Knowing that your own child is in pain may well ratchet up the urgency, but that does not in and of itself suggest the best way forward. This is especially the case in instances as in Syria or Yemen where the causes of the current misery –its backgrounds, stakeholders and motivations – are complexities challenging to sort. Only in the world of comics are ethical situations given to the clarity that makes it possible for super-heroines to spring to effective action, time and time again.

In regards to Syria as elsewhere, the threat of terrorism looms large in virtually any policy discussion. In and out of the Security Council, state leadership often declares terrorists to be akin to “savages” an understandable ascription at some level but not terribly helpful from the standpoint of discerning policy relief.  For some states, counter-terror almost takes the form of a righteous crusade, a rhetorical clash of good and evil, a fight to the death between the forces of stability and chaos, the children of light taking on the children of darkness.

Moreover, terrorism is now widely utilized around the UN by member states as a justification for state behavior of all kinds.   Russia, for one, justifies its horrific bombing campaign in Aleppo by citing the need to eliminate terrorists, while France defines such bombing (as it did at the GA meeting with de Mistura) as more like a “gift” to terrorists. But France, like most states in and out of the Council, has its own horses in this race for national policy justification, even as it speaks – and rightly so – of the importance of keeping covenant with our values throughout an era of unprecedented non-state threats.

The justifications linked to terrorism can be seen in one of our core issues/values as an office, one which we share with our close associates FIACAT, regarding the abolition of the death penalty. At a side event during this week when so many Human Rights Rapporteurs are in town to meet with General Assembly committees, one of the UN’s newer Rapporteurs, Professor Callamard, took the floor with Norway, Palau and Australia to both advocate for death penalty abolition and to delink abolition from some of its foremost “retentionist excuses,” including and especially its alleged rationalization as “just punishment” for the high crimes of terror.

All speakers at this side event were clear on the inadmissibility of the death penalty regardless of the severity of alleged crimes.  Norway’s testimony here was especially compelling, as Ambassador Stener recounted the intense pressure for a time that her state was under to reinstate the death penalty following the horrific and (for Norway) unprecedented violence perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011.   She noted that the people of Norway somehow found a way to stay connected to the most fundamental of their values regardless of the horrific circumstances calling them into serious question.  Even in those dark hours, she maintained, reinstitution of the death penalty was never considered as a serious option.

But on the same panel, newly-minted Human Rights ASG David Marshall highlighted the disappointing (though not entirely surprising) reality that setbacks on moving towards full abolition of the death penalty (or even a full moratorium) are now mostly attributable to the politics of terrorism response.  In too many places, it seems, we are giving way to political expediency and the self-defeating call to vengeance. In too many places, we have convinced ourselves by our own bellicose rhetoric that our “will to punishment” is just.  In too many places, we have forgotten that, across the psychological and policy spectrum, violence does indeed beget violence.  Too often, we willfully misplace our responsibilities under international law to uphold the basic rights of even the most egregious criminals.

The world that we currently slog through – a world that yearns for more capable, more equitable leadership — is complex in its threats, root causes and potential for meaningful change.  We’ll navigate through these tumultuous years, I’m sure, but we’ll need to tap an array of resources within ourselves far beyond the carefully scripted narratives of cartoon heroines if we are to make it safely to the other shore.

Crying Wolf:  The UN Hedges its Bets on Crisis Response, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Oct

As most readers of these posts know, we’ve been around the UN for quite some time.  And we find that most of the people who work here, in and out of the diplomatic missions, really do care about making the world a better place.  But there is also a pervasive cynicism afoot in our time, including the belief that crises are sometimes manufactured by elites in order to consolidate their authority.  The view in such instances is that elites put out images of threats to people who are largely powerless to respond themselves and thus must rely on “leadership” they barely trust to determine the policy path forward.

We can tell you from many long hours in diverse UN conference rooms that the wolves are running loose all around the building — on weapons and climate, on oceans and pandemics, on inequalities in economics and politics.  But given what we often experience regarding UN political culture, there are indeed legitimate questions about whether the UN is equipped to handle this collection of sometimes existential threats, to lead with integrity and by example, bringing together the resources and cooperative spirit needed to get the human race over its current, stubborn humps: a tangible sense of urgency on the one hand; a sincere willingness to rethink unreliable strategies and alliances on the other.

From the standpoint of integrity in policy decision making, these past few days at the UN were a mixed blessing at best:

The highlight of the week clearly was the selection of the next UN Secretary-General .  Mr. Guterres is a smart and good man, and we wish him well.   He is also arguably the person we would have gotten regardless of how transparent (or not) the SG selection process was, especially given all of the men who are currently seated around the Security Council oval and whose recommendation for SG was unlikely to be overturned.   Given the large number of singularly qualified women vying for that post, given the volume of gendered discourse permeating virtually all UN conference rooms, and given the broad perception that the UN is in serious need of an administrative “shake down,” the time seemed right to turn the page on what has been a male-dominated leadership post.   Except it wasn’t.

Downstairs from the Council chamber in the First Committee of the General Assembly, discussions focused largely on what to do about the threat posed by nuclear weapons.   Increasingly, as many of you recognize, the international community is gathering behind proposals for a negotiated treaty to “ban” these weapons.   The principle hold-outs, of course, are the current nuclear-armed states, the same states (rightly) grinding their teeth over nuclear weapons in the hands of the DPRK and – potentially — terror groups while (wrongly) spending many billions of dollars modernizing their own arsenals and even exploring their extra-terrestrial deployment.  The “anti-ban” statements made Friday by the US and UK – punctuated by a “fist bump” at the end – signified to onlookers that the nuclear armed states don’t take the threat from these weapons as seriously as much of their rhetoric might otherwise suggest.

While the Security Council was busy negotiating the selection of Mr. Guterres, it was also immersed in a series of security –related discussions “lowlighted” by the October 8 emergency session on Syria during which not one but two different resolutions on the Aleppo violence failed to pass.    In addition, the Council attempted this week to clarify its intent regarding peacekeepers in Central African Republic while receiving an underwhelming briefing on ISIL, including its potential expansion within Yemen.  Despite the horrors inflicted by the repeated bombings of hospitals and other civilian targets, the excruciating and widening famine, and the escalating violence now involving a US warship off its coast, the ISIL briefing was barely the only mention of Yemen this week in chambers.

As with other global crises, the Council seems at times unable to back up urgent rhetoric with practical remedial strategies.  In addition, the Council often seems unwilling to “share the ball,” assuming that if there is going to be a “winning shot,” they are going to be the ones to take it.

One partial exception to these unsettling circumstances was in response to the damage to Haiti caused by Hurricane Matthew.   Here Security Council members were joined by other member states such as Brazil pledging immediate support for victims and urging a delay in plans to draw down the UN’s peacekeeping mission (MINUSTAH) there. During the mostly helpful discussion, there was also some acknowledgment of the UN’s role in initially bringing cholera to the country, the post-Matthew recurrence of which adds another (and needless) dimension to Haiti’s already-massive relief challenges.

And then there is Iraq, where the pathways to freedom from ISIL are simply horrific to behold:  the political and geographic divisions that begat a dictator that begat a US invasion that begat a partial power vacuum that begat a terrorist movement that begat a caliphate that have now necessitated some of the most heartbreaking “liberations” we will have seen in our lifetime.

As the Iraqi army prepares to move on liberating Mosul, there are already concerns of a massive humanitarian disaster awaiting us beyond the pale of what we have already seen in Falluja.  At the UN, Iraq’s Ambassador has been visible, acknowledging the profound physical wounds, social dislocations and emotional trauma that are likely to accompany this “liberation” from ISIL’s clutches.   He has also been active in seeking support from the UN and other member states.   In this, the response of the UN Mine Action Service has been particularly noteworthy especially its work to help eliminate short and long-term threats from landmines and the ubiquitous, easy-to-make, improvised explosive devices.

People in Iraq, as elsewhere in the world, have endured multiple sufferings as one faulty policy decision is ostensibly “corrected” by another – decisions seemingly based on political expediency more than on a sense of urgent, attentive compassion – addressing the current crisis but not quite in a manner that anticipates and plans for contingencies, that involves all meaningful stakeholders, that takes account of any past policy deficiencies, and that places potential victims at the very center of our policy planning.

It is possible, indeed essential, for us to have more of this type of policy planning which can build public confidence in the integrity of our leaders and which can help ensure that the cycles of policy errors and consequences that establish the context for so many of our current threats and crises are effectively curtailed.   If Mr. Guterres can inspire more of this planning to effectively (and enduringly) address the wolves currently howling at so many of our doors, his time in office will be time well spent.

Full-Court Press:  Placing the UN’s Accomplishments and Shortcomings in Context, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Oct

We bombard people with sensation. That substitutes for thinking .―Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Those of you who follow the UN (either through us or other sources) know that this hasn’t been the very best of weeks.   We appear to have a new Secretary-General, but it remains to be seen if he can rise above the disappointment of both Eastern Europeans anticipating the selection of one of “their own” and countless others who believed that this was finally the time for the UN to choose from among a bevy of highly qualified female candidates.

In the UN General Assembly Committees meeting this month, teeth were clenched over matters such as the status of Western Sahara and other non-self-governing territories (4th), the human rights responsibilities of counter-terror operations (6th) and the relative merits of a negotiating process in 2017 that might at some point lead to a “Ban Treaty” on nuclear weapons.

We also received disappointing news this week that a suit brought on behalf of the Marshall Islands in the International Court of Justice by a legal team which included our office mate, John Burroughs, was turned away by votes of 8-8 (for the UK) and 9-7 (for both Pakistan and India).  The suit represented an attempt to create legal pressure on nuclear weapons states to fulfill their international nuclear disarmament obligations “in good faith. “  Such pressure, wistfully, must await a different diplomatic opening.

There was some positive news on the climate front as European Union member states held a hopeful event to highlight their ratification of the Paris climate agreement, thus pushing it over the line towards Entry into Force.   But even here, even as the Paris agreement set a record for rapid ratification, optimism and reality managed to distort one other. As president of the General Assembly Thompson (Fiji) noted, this event occurred as Haiti lay in ruins from hurricane Matthew and polar melting affecting coastal and small states accelerates:  a glass struggling to retain its half-portion of fluid.

And then there is Syria, the topic of a rare Saturday session of the Security Council, a session that Russia itself – the current Council president and sponsor of one of two resolutions offered up for vote – referred to as a “spectacle” that would accomplish little and simply waste valuable time.   Russia itself vetoed the alternate proposal on the table – offered chiefly by France and Spain – setting off a bitter exchange that strained Council protocol and featured a “walk out” by 3 permanent members when the Syrian Ambassador began his own Council remarks.  Egypt captured the mood of many left in the room, wondering aloud if anyone in Syria any longer cares what the Council does or doesn’t do.

For those of us who make a point to be present as these and related deliberations take shape, there are several priorities for us – attentiveness to the topic at hand and to subtle shifts in government positions; linking conversations across various meeting rooms to get (and communicate) the full measure of the UN’s engagements on its most important issues; and – perhaps most important –showing interest in how our “bubble” deliberations are perceived by communities far beyond the UN.

This final consideration is critical for us as it seems to be for a growing number of delegations and civil society.   If the reputation of the UN is defined largely by perceptions of policy incompetence, ill will and/or internal branding that raises expectations beyond the capacity and will of the UN system, then there is ultimately little point to our work here.  If the UN Security Council –to cite one example — is turning into a “dialogue of the deaf” then we should be directing our own and others’ energies to places of greater resonance and effectiveness.

We still believe in the UN’s promise though we remain concerned that promises made here are quite more numerous than promises kept.  We also continue to see value in our mandate made more possible by the increasing transparency of the UN system – a mandate related to dissemination and analysis defined in part by what we feel are the best and worst, the most and least hopeful, aspects of UN activity.

In that light, there was a small event hosted this week by Ireland that highlighted some of our concerns regarding the dissemination aspects of our work.   At this side event, devoted to the question, “Do we live in an age of misinformation,” media representatives from inside and outside the UN discussed the ways in which the current media climate impacts public perceptions of migrants and refugees now on the move in record-shattering numbers.  Ireland’s Ambassador Donoghue shared his concern about media accounts that raise the bar on prejudice rather than on understanding.   A social media expert from CNN offered opaque linkages between the media we come to “trust” and the media which merely validates opinions and values that we already hold, in too many instances to the denigration and/or stereotyping of others.

It is important for us as an office to remember three things here:  First while increased transparency at the UN is welcome, it is no substitute for accountability.   While we are grateful to sit in the meetings that we do, we are well aware that, for the most part, we are staring through an ever-larger picture window at a meal that we ourselves are not allowed to eat.   Much like our professional journalist colleagues, we must struggle to find the gaps – often evident only after many visits to many different conference rooms – that allow us to make meaningful contributions to state and UN accountability.  We need to do more than cite UN intent; we and other must help ensure that intent is actionable.

The second is that those in positions of authority who perceive a problem “on their watch” have some remedial responsibility relative to it.  If it is the case that social media — and specifically the way in which it is used by corporate media – contributes to ever-more, like-minded “ghettos” where people only hear what they want to hear, then it is the responsibility of media companies to help figure out how to address this shortcoming.  To raise a legitimate concern in a UN conference room and then throw metaphorical hands in the air as though we are powerless to address that concern seems a bit disingenuous. After all, the point of knowing is only partially about validation or control; it must also be about possibility and change.

The third lesson has to do with assumptions of bias on the part of media professionals but also garden-variety bloggers such as ourselves.  There is certainly ample bias to examine; however as many media professionals recognize (even if they refuse to acknowledge it publicly), bias is only partially about the things we say about the things we choose to cover.  It is also about what we choose to cover in the first place and the “contexts” we establish for the claims we subsequently make. And these latter “choices” now trend too often towards the sensational, the scandalous.  We are well along to becoming “ambulance chasers” of breaking “news,” which itself represents a bias of monumental proportions.

The UN community can surely do much to counter misinformation on complex global challenges such as global migration, including its own role in moving this community of nations forward in ways that would be virtually impossible if the UN itself did not exist.  But people deserve more, need more than “half stories” and official spin.  They deserve instead a fair and full accounting of UN practices, practices beyond the celebratory, beyond the sensational, even beyond the gravely disappointing; practices that hold the promise of a more stable, peaceful world, but mostly for now (as we have seen this week at the UN) only incompletely.

During the Irish media event, a speaker from Syria spoke of the need to “humanize” migrants, to see and communicate migration in its full complexity beyond stereotypes and “challenges” posed to host communities.   This embrace of complexity is sound advice for every stakeholder in UN coverage and for our communication with diverse constituencies. Following that advice will require more –from those who produce UN-related content and from those who consume it.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place:  UN Legal Obligations and their Operational Inconsistencies, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Oct


There are many weeks when global affairs seem to be operating on parallel (and largely un-complementary) tracks.   For instance, the Security Council this week took up the horrific matter of hospital bombings in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.   Despite the existence of settled “hard” humanitarian law and relevant Security Council resolutions, hospitals continue to be targets of heavy bombing, medical supplies are in ever-shorter supply, and medical staff from Médecins Sans Frontières and other organizations now speak openly of dying at their posts, resigned to the reality that “hard” law in the international arena is insufficient to motivate the “hard” choices that are now needed to stop the bombing and open reliable pathways to healing and relief.

In South Africa this week, states and experts met under the aegis of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  Endorsed by virtually all UN member states, this meeting of CITES was devoted to discussions on “how best to integrate law enforcement, development, environmental and social approaches to combating illegal wildlife trade,” trafficking that rivals narcotics, weapons and persons as major sources of illicit revenue.  There are aspects of this general pursuit that make us uneasy – specifically the overused notion that we are “saving” species that our lifestyle choices and pervasive economic inequalities have endangered in the first place.  Still, CITES underscoring of the criminal aspects of wildlife trafficking –reinforced by the presence in South Africa of officials from INTERPOL and the UN Office of Drugs and Crime – may lead to some (but perhaps only temporary) relief for highly stressed species teetering on the brink of extinction.

In the climate arena, India has declared its imminent intent to ratify the Paris Climate Agreement, bringing another major carbon producer into the fold, and thereby bringing us that much closer to entry-into-force.  But prior to entry of this “harder” obligation, Costa Rica joined Iceland in demonstrating the technical capability and political will to power their countries with 100% renewable energy.  Small states, yes, and boasting an abundance of geo-thermal and other energy advantages to tap; but states also demonstrating that it is possible to take “softer” obligations and turn them into hopeful options for a planet melting faster than our “hard” agreements have to date contemplated.

But here there are also “parallel track” events that came to our attention this week and that make us wonder if the “memos” on climate that send out from the UN are finding their way to the appropriate state and corporate desks:  including the pursuit of licenses to mine the floors of oceans already shedding biodiversity and harboring vast islands of plastic ; the rapid destruction of habitat and mass poaching of wildlife in African states; mining interests from El Salvador to the Philippines that needlessly threaten precious local water supplies and undermine local economies;  a decision by state ministers to spend vast sums on the UK’s Hinkley Point Nuclear Power plant rather than increase investment in renewable energy options;  the exposing of California’s mass refining of oil purchased from sources in the Amazon.   And these are only a sample of this week’s (for us) “head-scratching” acts of climate defiance.

We wonder:  What are we not seeing?   Is such behavior a deliberate flaunting of existing regulations?  Is it a matter of making all the profit available before more “serious” regulations take effect?   Is it just a matter of economic addictions that lie beyond the reach of governments and their treaties?

Our colleagues at Global Policy Forum (GPF) have recently published a study in which they call for a “hard law” treaty to enforce human rights obligations on transnational corporations.  Such a treaty would replace the voluntary UN Guiding Principles adopted in 2011, principles that have proven a bit too easy to redefine and circumnavigate.  At the same time, and despite the many recognized limitations in our collective application of so-called “hard law” obligations, objections to a ‘treaty process” have been considerable, especially noteworthy from the US and European Union.

The authors of this report appear to have more faith than we do in the innate compliance effectiveness of “hard” treaty law.  Nevertheless, they are right to note that many corporations are now seeking guidance on human rights obligations — and not because they aim to avoid them.  But most want to comply on a level playing field, and “hard law” obligations — especially if that law provides for investigative and oversight mechanisms –are the “levelers” that many corporate entities are thankfully now desiring.

Moreover, a treaty of the sort envisioned by GPF could have benefits to states struggling to reign in the behavior of corporate entities dismissive of “host” domestic law and largely lacking oversight from the countries where they are legally registered.  It is easier to hold entities accountable, or to seek assistance on enforcing compliance, when the obligations in question are both clear and (to the extent possible) uniformly binding.  In a state such as El Salvador, purely “voluntary” obligations are rarely subject to binding international legal review.  Moreover, the state itself might well lack the power or will to enforce domestic laws governing corporate conduct.  Reinforcement in the form of “hard” international law might spell the difference between corporate attentiveness to local rights interests and the total disregard of such interests.

But the success of “hard law” requires more than specified, non-voluntary obligations.  Success requires enforcement and, more than that, the will to enforce.  More often than not, it is “will” that is lacking.   Even in the Security Council, ostensibly the seat of the UN’s most robust binding obligations, enforcement is at a premium.  Indeed many Council meetings are punctuated by states imploring – sometimes bitterly – for the Council to honor its own binding resolutions – “honor” in the sense of ensuring its own internal compliance but also “honor” in the sense of enforcing previously negotiated obligations.

As we have seen in many areas of international law, treaties can have considerable value in affirming core international norms and raising levels of compliance, especially treaties which are accompanied by compliance-enriching mechanisms in the form of treaty bodies.   But in a world characterized by diverse existential threats and numerous instances of willful discounting of such threats, we must be careful not to put all our eggs in the treaty basket.  There is other key work to accomplish– as relevant to “soft” law as “hard” – including continued vigilance regarding the impacts of reckless corporate choices (and government enabling of those choices) on options for rights-based, peaceful, inclusive, sustainable living.

We at the UN rightly talk a lot about the need for more “prevention,” especially in the areas of armed conflict and severe human rights crimes.   But “prevention” related to our diverse international obligations – as in what “prevents” us from achieving full respect for human rights and other life- affirming goals — is prevention that we must do more to counteract.  Given the crises that dominate our media and clog our in-boxes, our collective responsibilities seem clear – more vigilance, more thoughtfulness, more collaborative activity, more active and persuasive engagement with diverse corporate and state authorities. For civil society, these responsibilities persevere regardless of how “hard” or “soft” the regulations might be that we now find at our disposal.