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.

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