Archive | November, 2016

Water Slide:   A Shrinking Resource Creates a Peace and Security Dilemma for the UN, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 Nov

To value gold over water is to value economy over ecology, that which can be locked up over that which connects all things.  Rebecca Solnit

Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.  W. H. Auden

On Thursday in the US, many of us gathered with family or other loved ones, glasses and dinner plates on overload, all under the guise of confessing and sharing with each other our many blessings.

We pause too seldom in our busy lives to assess the many ways in which our lives in the so-called developed world have exceeded the global norm – more abundance, more opportunity, surely more access. If gratitude is an engine that makes our lives more meaningful and generous towards others, too many of us have left that engine on perpetual idle.  Or worse than that, we have bought into the more aggressive idea that the things we are lacking are more important to happy living than the things already provided. Despite what often appears to be our many blessings, we protest quite loudly about alleged deprivations regarding the things others have that we feel should be our right as well.

Especially in a time of increasing inequalities and incessant marketing, the temptation to identify our desires with those most well-off is overwhelming.   We want what others want; we desire more for ourselves but also “for our children.”  We can’t easily fathom that others could be rewarded so handsomely for their efforts while the rest of us struggle to merely push the envelope on material success.

Meanwhile, the simple things in life, the things we take for granted, remain largely beyond grateful consciousness.   In many places, we mostly assume that supermarkets will be filled with fresh produce, that water from our taps will be safe to drink, that waste from our consumption will be safely carted away well beyond the reach of our senses.  Our “taken for granted-ness” has taken our souls on a wild ride that clouds our vision while fanning our desires, endangering our own prospects and those around us.

And we so often refuse to connect the dots, to consider those untold millions on the move because the crops will no longer grow and the bombs cannot be silenced; the millions who can barely quench a deep thirst or wash away the layers of dust and ash from their hair and clothing; the millions who can provide no guarantees to their traumatized children that it will get no worse for them, children in conflict zones who must (as noted recently by the ICRC) spend their days in search of water instead of an education; the millions who now dream of even one day of clean water and fresh vegetables in the same way that some of us dream of Mcmansions and secluded seaside resorts.

Many of these “millions” have seen the advertisements as well.  They know something of what we in the “developed” world long for, what we have been taught to “crave.”  If our frustrations boil over at the perceived “injustices” of modern economic life, what response from these millions trapped in places like Aleppo, riding makeshift crafts across the seas from Libya, or recovering from corporate-induced water stresses in El Salvador would we consider to be justified?

This week in the UN Security Council, under leadership of Senegal, the issue of water access took center stage as the principle threat to international peace and security which it surely is.  While some Council members – especially Russia – preferred that discussions such as this take place in more clearly mandated UN conference rooms, all states acknowledged the peace and security implications of this most precious of resources, the degree to which, as Egypt noted, the world is characterized by “uneven distribution” of fresh water resources with potential to raise state tension levels.  With so much of our planet’s remaining unpolluted fresh water now melting into oceans or otherwise under control of only a handful of states, the conflict impacts of water scarcity will (and should) likely remain at the top of our collective security agendas.

Many Council members and briefers highlighted the complex relationship between water and conflict including, as noted by the US and Angola, the case study of the Lake Chad basin where water insecurity is both a cause and consequence of armed conflict.  Uruguay jointed with the ICRC in condemning the degree to which water access by local populations, especially in already water starved areas, is used as a “weapon of war.”  Malaysia rightly described water scarcity as a “threat multiplier,” a condition only made more urgent in the aftermath of military or terror activity.  New Zealand, as one of the very few states exercising sovereign control over more fresh water than it needs for domestic purposes, cited the “existential threat” to many Pacific island states experiencing rising sea water levels mixing with what little domestic fresh water resources exist.   As in other parts of the world, this Pacific  region is enduring what the UK more generally referred to as “a matter of life or death,” a desperation that can only fuel despair and increase prospects for violent conflict.

Of all the briefers and responders this day in the Security Council, perhaps the most impressive was Danilo Turk of Slovenia, formerly a candidate to become the next Secretary-General and now Chair of the Global High-Level Panel on Water & Peace.  In his remarks, Turk urged the UN to do more towards what he referred to as “hydro-diplomacy,” embedding expertise in water infrastructure into peacekeeping missions, ensuring that water protection becomes an integral component of civilian protection.   He also urged the UN to support successful, trans-boundary water management efforts – such as with the Senegal River – as well as offer to mediate agreements in other regions where cooperative water management could yield significant tension-reducing benefits – such as in Central Asia and in the Lake Chad region of Africa.   In this time of inequality and scarcity, water cooperation, Turk noted, “predicts peace.”

This is a prediction that all of us have a role in ensuring.  This is a form of conflict prevention in which all of us with blessings to spare can take part. We can learn to be as sensitive to the water demands of our consumption patterns as we are to the fat and calories in the foods we eat.  We can demand that infrastructure priorities include more reservoirs or, even better, more ways for private homes, apartments and industries to “catch” rainwater before it finds its way to the sea. We can eat more “imperfect” fruits and vegetables that are largely discarded by supermarkets and that consume, in the growing stage, every bit as much water as “perfect” specimens.  We can avoid watering our gardens as though all the plants therein were transplants from a distant rainforest.

And we can do more to promote resource justice. If water and other natural resources are the likely backdrop for new iterations of political and social unrest, we all have a role to play in reducing that potential.   This will be one test of the ability of our species to recover mindfulness and generosity at the heart of our consumptive desires. As Japan noted during the Security Council meeting, “a species made up primarily of water should treat water resources more kindly,” a kindness which surely must be extended to those millions longing for that day when reliable access to fresh water resources for their families can finally be guaranteed.

 

The UN’s Coordination Dilemma, Kai Schaefer

25 Nov

Editor’s Note:  Kai is one of our fine group of fall 2016 interns and fellows.  Having orginally come here to pursue an interest in Responsibility to Protect, Kai has taken a keen interest in both disarmament affairs and the working methods of key UN agencies, including and especially the Security Council.  The following reflects his rapidly expanding policy interests. 

With heightening tensions at the international level– recently manifest during the Security Council meeting of October 27th which ended with a walkout by the U.S, UK, and Ukrainian delegations when the Syrian representative took the floor — the efficient functioning of the United Nations system and its subsidiary bodies is of increased importance. However, in addition to increasing tensions among the world’s great powers — especially Russia and the United States — which prevents the efficient functioning of the Security Council, the UN system itself and its lack of coordination creates various obstacles that need to be overcome.

The problem of coordination and cooperation shortcomings among the various GA committees, UN bodies and subsidiary organs is not a novel problem. As the 71st GA session continues to unfold, the international community would well benefit from increased dialogue especially between the disarmament and human rights committees, but also in linking to diverse areas of peace and security more generally.

A recent example of the lack of coordination is draft resolution L.41 that was introduced by Austria and adopted by the first committee on October 27th with almost three-quarters support from the General Assembly. L.41 calls on all states to start negotiations on a legally binding treaty to ban nuclear weapons in 2017.  Especially given the fact that the resolution was not supported by any of the nuclear weapons states, the lack of coordination and failure of states to link crucial issues of security, development, and human rights is equally hampering in creating treaty bodies and resolutions that will have lasting impact.

First Committee disarmament debates in New York seemingly occur in a vacuum, shielded from external influences and events, as well as security-related trends highlighted in other UNGA committees especially in 3rd. The inherent connections between disarmament and socio-economic development, human rights, and international law often remain unexamined. Likewise, the NGO’s involve in the promotion of L.41 would benefit from a widening of their vision for disarmament by taking note of other events and advancements occurring at UNHQ.

This problem, however, is systemic in nature and goes beyond narrowly focused NGO’s and member-states negotiating at the UN. The UN cannot necessarily be characterized as a learning community, which is in part desired by certain member-states. The shuffling around of diplomatic delegations and missions in New York make sustained efforts in developing robust and lasting political commitments difficult to achieve. Moreover, as the UN is often described as one of the world’s largest bureaucracies, a certain degree of overlap, duplication, waste, and lack of coordination is hard to avoid.

Much of the work carried out at the UN suffers from the oft-mentioned “silo approach.”Many delegations now realize that in order to create policies that will have a lasting and sustained impact on the ground, increased coordination among the numerous UN bodies is needed. The value of cooperation and coordination among NGO’s, IGO’s, civil society, academics, epistemic communities, MNC’s, and nation-states has long been recognized. However, the continuing lack of practical coordination within the UN itself often remains unaddressed. Certainly, the amount of specialized knowledge which is at the UN’s disposal is one of its core strengths. Nonetheless, the current compartmentalized approach taken by the UN often misses crucial links among security topics and across policy spheres. The UN membership continues to insist that peace cannot exist without development, and development cannot be achieved without lasting peace. However, public rhetoric and institutional structures are clearly not always aligned.

In regard to the previously mentioned resolution L.41 calling for negotiations to ban nuclear weapons, it is noteworthy to state that many of the arguably most compelling and probably more effective security-related discussions occur not in First Committee but instead in the
Third, a committee largely centered on the protection and promotion of human rights. In order to create effective and efficient treaties centered on disarmament that will end up having a genuine effect on the ground, it is crucial to consult with voices of locally engaged staff, special rapporteurs, and persons directly affected by weapon inflicted violence. Thus the ongoing stalemate in First Committee could be overcome by joint events between first and third committee, and more significantly between all relevant stakeholders, and not solely by the disarmament community alone.

In like manner, the UN and international community as a whole, would benefit from stronger emphasis on preventive measures instead of acting largely retroactively. This holds especially true for the Security Council which tends to only take action when crises become unsurmountable. Increased consultations between the SC and TCC’s / PCC’s as occurred on November 10th is also welcome in order to create sustainable peace and foster capacity building. Furthermore, coordination shortcomings within the security domain at the UN could be overcome in part by not scheduling Security Council and Peacebuilding Commission sessions at the same time. The link between coordination and prevention is crucial in this regard. Essentially, a fundamental flaw is not the lack of information available at the UN, but how such information is being processed, disseminated (and even scheduled) throughout the organization.

Nevertheless, despite coordination and cooperation shortcomings within the UN, it remains the epicenter of multilateral diplomacy. The Security Council continues to be the arguably single most important chamber in the world.  However, due to deadlocks over Syria, the rest of the UN membership is becoming increasingly anxious to find an end to six years of brutal conflict. A General Assembly informal dialogue organized by Canada on October 20th underlines efforts of various states no longer willing to sit on the sidelines until the Council finds the means to take urgent action on Syria, especially in Eastern Aleppo. The participation in this GA dialogue by Council members both permanent and non-permanent accentuates this general concern.

The UN is tasked with settling the world’s most protracted conflicts and finding solutions to some of mankind’s most pressing issues and problems. There is almost no issue area in today’s globalized world that has not been impacted by the UN or at least found its way on to the UN’s agenda. This becomes evident upon examination of a plethora of “side events” at UNHQ sponsored by states, NGO’s, civil society, and the UN itself. During these side events the real scope of UN activities becomes apparent, highlighting the ongoing relevance and importance of the UN, providing a forum where a multitude of relevant stakeholders can raise awareness, set agendas, and sustain momentum towards agreed upon policies and treaties. Nevertheless, it is vital that the UN remains more than a mere talk-shop. Enhancing internal coordination regarding issues, scheduling and more can help create broader, sounder security policy.

Explanation of Vote: Procedures that Clarify and Heal, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Nov

angry-kid

During a week in which considerable energy was expended on responses to a threatened US assault on climate-related multilateralism, UN Headquarters had on display its own controversies and contentions.  The 3rd Committee of the UN General Assembly (human rights) absorbed more than its share of conflict as delegates struggled over resolutions condemning the human rights records of individual states (Iran, Myanmar, Belarus, etc.) as well as the still-contentious matter of capital punishment – how to eliminate the practice (our preference) or at least to extend national moratoriums to minimize its use or threat of use by states.

Global Action’s interns were present for these discussions, the actual votes, and what the UN describes as “explanations of vote,” the opportunity for states to clarify why they supported a particular resolution or – more often – why they did not.  Our interns have been present for many of these “clarifications” and have noticed the diverse manifestations of “no” in UN processes: some states object on procedural grounds (such as believing that country-specific rights resolutions are invalid); others seek to protect their sovereign “ground” (as when deciding on national criminal penalties); still others seek to defend the interests of their political allies.  “No” can embody diverse sentiments, and for all their limitations and associated political drama, the UN’s “explanations of vote” helpfully bring at least some of these to the surface.

Such “explanations” might soften the impact of “no” in our personal lives as well. Small children often come to associate “no” with power, or at least the ability to manipulate or control circumstances – in no small measure because of the frequency with which they hear some variation of “no” from parents and other adults. “Don’t touch the stove.”  “Don’t spit out your food.” “Don’t leave the porch.” “Don’t pull the cat’s tail.”  “Don’t play with that bottle.”  “Don’t poke your sister.”  No, No, No, No, No.

The commands often come from a caring place.   There are many legitimate dangers lurking for unsuspecting children as well as people all-too-ready to judge families because of their ill-behaved progeny.  But for the children themselves, the relentless restrictions and modifications of behavior are often absent of “explanation,” interpreted as much arbitrary manifestations of adult authority than the acts of care that they so often are.  What appears to be mere “defiance” of a world in which desires are routinely thwarted is also a form of mimic – learning “no” as their lives are so often filled with “no.”

When children become teens, more of the complexities of “no” come into focus.   For most teens, some aspects of autonomy cannot arrive quickly enough, though generally quicker than the arrival of personal responsibility.  The all-too-typical teenage pattern in many societies – demanding privacy and separation on the one hand, dependency and an often relentless need for reassurance on the other – often drives parents and teachers to the brink.   Such reactions, it seems, come attached to the disclaimer (an “explanation” rarely uttered) that needs are subject to sometimes wild shifts — that what was perfectly acceptable on Tuesday has somehow morphed into a borderline “human rights” violation by Friday.

For many people, the more nefarious legacies of “no” – manipulating circumstances, creating distance, assuming malevolent intent when desires are thwarted, changing preferences and commitments more often than we change our socks – persist well into adult living.   Too often, we willingly continue on a path of suspicion and a prickly defiance.  Too often we state preferences devoid of real commitments – we want to keep our “options open” above all.  Too often there is an “edge” in our voice coupled with a certain withholding of emotional content that almost guarantees negative reactions from others.  Don’t give away too much.  Don’t reveal too much.  Keep your distance.

We are also now painfully prone to give in to suspicion about almost everything inside and outside our limited circles except what we probably should be suspicious of – and that is ourselves.  We have generalized excess confidence in what we “know” in part based on an excessive reliance on smart-phone mediated judgments.   We “know” what “other people” are thinking and feeling without asking.  We “know” how deplorable the “deplorables” are and how virtuous the intent is of those who share our political or religious judgments.   We know.

In a world where “explanations of vote” — in both the narrow and larger sense — are neither required nor requested, we are left to blithely assume much of the worst about the people and things that offend or allegedly threaten us.  No honest inquiries are made, and none are anticipated.

This edgy, suspicious worldview is neither as clever as we make it out to be nor helpful to the peaceful, inclusive world that many of us say we are trying to build.  And it is by no means inevitable.  Last week, the New York Chapter of Women in International Security held a discussion entitled “Perspectives on Colombia’s Peace Process.”   While there were several helpful interventions of note, the star of the discussion was Laura Ulloa, a woman twice kidnapped in Colombia by the FARC who has worked since at demobilizing combatants and improving life for underserved populations in her country.

As many of you recognize, Colombia went through its own crisis of “no” as the (voluminous) peace agreement that had been negotiated was rejected in its initial iteration.   As with other countries facing similar political turmoil, the recrimination in Colombia was evident as soon as the verdict was clear.  Do “these people” not want peace?   How could so many of “those people” fail to vote?  The questions, if seems, were largely rhetorical, born largely out of pain and frustration from a long war with adversaries obsessed about but little understood.

Laura’s take was refreshing.  She highlighted efforts to revise the agreement prior to its resubmission to voters.  She explained how her time with the FARC, while alarming at times, eventually humanized her feelings towards people whose life experience has largely been about the conduct and consequences of war.   Without condemning the FARC (or the government for that matter), she pointed to the need to put “truth first:” the truth about the violence, to be sure, but also the truth about the years of social neglect, disparagement and displacement.  The full truth is what she sought, not a self-interested version by one or more of the parties.  After all, she noted, we are seeking “agreement” on how to move forward together towards a more peaceful, inclusive society. This is not surrender.

And she communicated all of this seemingly with no traces of anger or bitterness.  She was firm in her convictions, but in a way that invited discussion, learning, flexibility in the face of overly-hardened opinions.  It is clear that she has spent much of her life watching and listening, not assuming and dictating.  She didn’t “know” for certain why people voted the way they did in this initial referendum or why some failed to vote at all; but she was certain that the reasons were diverse and complex, and she believed that those things “wrong” with the agreement – as with the country in which the agreement would be implemented – could (and would) ultimately be fixed.

This all was a wonderful reminder for me and others in the room.   Request more “explanations” and then listen respectfully to the answers.  Speak to others with less of an accusing edge.  Assume less, especially about the motives and intentions of those who appear to “vote” against our interests.

“No” is a complex word that is tied to some of the best and worst in our politics and in ourselves.   More “explanations” solicited and accepted would help heal our many current divides.

Swamp Things:  The UN Family Considers New Challenges to a Multilateral World, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Nov

Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.  Henry David Thoreau

As has certainly been the case this week, US elections often send shock waves through the international community as political decisions made in Washington impact so many around the world – those whom we in the US care about and those others whom we apparently don’t care about so much.

The potential “collateral damage” from US elections is not limited to the deployment of ever more deadly weapons systems but also to economic and social policies, external debt and other factors.  The US can be a helpful and generous society, but also a bit of a “bull in a China shop,” knocking over and even carelessly trampling the items that other communities depend upon in order that their families have a fair and fighting chance at a better life.

That bull is apparently about to get noticeably more ornery!

Now in Washington DC, a group of (mostly) white men has assumed an electoral (modestly legitimate) and even divine (illegitimate) mandate in an attempt to remake the political culture from which so many have grown increasingly alienated.  The term now in vogue around Washington is “draining the swamp.”

This is an interesting though not particularly apt metaphor, repeated by erstwhile leaders who, I am quite sure, don’t know so much about swamps.   The “swamps” that need draining are hardly swamps at all, but rather unhealthy, stagnant pools of standing water, breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other life forms dangerous to human health.

Healthy swamps, on the other hand, are regularly refreshed and have multiple ecological benefits, including security for threatened wildlife, rain retention and flood control during severe storms, breeding areas for fish, barriers to soil erosion, filters for otherwise polluted water.  Moreover, the mangrove swamps that exist in the south of the US and in other global regions represent some of the most mesmerizing and bio-rich ecological features on earth.

Clearly we in the US have already drained more healthy swamps than is in our best interests, creating more standing water through deforestation and pavement than we have eliminated.  Ironically, one of the most influential political settlements sitting atop a drained swamp is Washington, DC itself.  And in this settlement, it isn’t such a wild leap to apply the prevailing (if highly imperfect) swamp metaphor to existing standards and circumstances to much of our governance –the stagnation from which breeds a bitter, divided, self-important political culture that indulges itself while too often failing to feed those who authorize its representatives.

Whatever happens next in the “swamp” that is now the city of Washington — and some of it could well be grim for the family of nations — there will hopefully be fewer stagnant pools in the end, fewer political entitlements, fewer back room deals and duplicity that we must rely on hackers to expose.

But how do we get there?   How do societies that have misplaced the capacity to distinguish between healthy swamps and stagnant pools (in metaphor as in reality) recover their proper perspective?

This is an especially important question this week in the US as some in an electorate that too often neglects  basic civic duties has indulged for various reasons in bitter tears and even street anger to protest someone who will not even take office for two months.  The mournful and angry reactions are reminiscent of the aftermath of Brexit – seemingly more robust and organized expressions of concern after the vote than before – a miscalculation perhaps that what “we” want to see in the world and the values driving those perceptions are somehow ordained, inevitable, guaranteed.

There is a strain of self-importance that seems to have leaked into these electoral reactions – characteristic of a people who have forgotten much of their own history and its manifold limitations and illusions, who have put out of mind how many have had to suffer and die, how many healthy swamps have been recklessly drained, in pursuit of values and practices that we now assume are “inevitable.“  Inevitability, we apparently need to be reminded, is an obstacle to a healthy political culture, not its lifeline.

What people needed to hear instead in this just-concluded US election cycle – and didn’t – is not so much about how our institutions need to change (of course they do) but the “curve” along which we ourselves – those of us who presume to make policy decisions on behalf of broader constituencies — have also grown and changed.   What have our candidates and their surrogates learned about themselves and about our collective place in the world?  What have they come to realize that leads anyone to believe that they can turn away from past mistakes; that they can be more discerning about differences between healthy swamps and standing pools; that their decisions going forward will be guided by the humble recognition that most of their “adoring” constituents would have preferred to see others making policy promises at the political buffet bar?

Ironically it was Glenn Beck, habitually one of my least favorite US social commentators, who has recently been seen reflecting on US television about the ways in which he has been chastened by life, how the certainties that drove his politics (and his often nasty, media-stoking demeanor) have given way to a kinder, humbler, more discerning disposition.  These changes do not come as easily as he makes it sound;  but we are what we practice, and the more we practice kindness, the more we apply standards to ourselves that we so easily apply to others, the more likely any new “Beck behaviors” are to stick.

Humility, we must surely admit, was in very short supply in this election cycle as it is wanting in virtually every aspect of our modern political culture.  One of the reminders for us in this post-election period is that not all the stagnant pools are in Washington.   Not by a long shot.  There is plenty of self-indulgent stagnation within a mile or two radius of where I began this writing. There is plenty to drain in all our centers of political and economic governance, much stagnation in all the places that people have long since stopped depending on for services promised, the promises that represent what is left of our fraying social contract.  Candidates advocate for ties of trust in every election cycle, and then conspire to loosen those laces as soon as the votes are recorded.

The UN, it must be said, could face major challenges from this next US president.   The new government will be sorely tempted to walk away from agreements like Paris climate accords and the Convention against Torture.  The US might well decide to burn more coal, tear down more forests, indulge more inciting rhetoric, put up more walls.  We’ll likely continue to “drain” in a reckless manner, endangering our own health and, as is so often the case with this sometimes clumsy superpower, that of citizens in many other UN member states.  The world will nervously be about its diplomatic business while the US becomes even more insistent that the UN and other multilateral forums exist primarily to serve its own national interests.

For some of us, hopefully not for too much longer, we’ll shed more tears and shout more anger, actions that are understandable at one level but are also likely only to widen misunderstandings with the very same cultural counter-weights that helped give rise to this current, acrimonious political moment, the moment that we surely had the power to prevent if only so many of our “pools” of politics and governance hadn’t been allowed to become so stagnant.

Hopefully we in the US can create space for a truly discerning moment, an opportunity to assess what we’ve learned, what we’ve failed to learn, and why that matters for ourselves and much of the rest of the world.   Hopefully we can internalize, at least for a season, one of the life lessons from healthy swamps:  when you’ve lost your way in the dense undergrowth the only path to safety is to back out the way you came.

Registering Discontent: The UN seeks to renovate a damaged democracy gateway, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Nov

voting

The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.  John F. Kennedy

Today is Marathon Sunday in New York, a time for fireworks, physical achievements and extraordinary courage by those overcoming significant limitations to push themselves across the finish line.

This is also, of course, the Sunday before the US presidential elections, a marathon of another sort, as sordid a civic affair as I can ever recall.

The disappointment goes deeper than the compromised candidates, the numerous leaks of known and unknown origins, the obsession with fondling that slides past legitimate human rights concerns into reality TV titillation, the ascriptions of “deplorables” that obsess on the specs in the eyes of others but fail to see the logs blinding ourselves.

Seemingly hundreds of reasons exist to not vote for the “other” candidate, but few rationales seem to have been offered to vote “for” someone, for something, for a vision of the future that doesn’t lock us into perpetual mistrust of others, impeding pursuit of our lofty and urgent social projects, including projects on climate health and the prevention of mass atrocities undertaken with the United Nations and other multilateral settings.

Are our candidates to blame for this mess?  Is the media?   Is it our “culture” of violence?  Is it the fault of habituated, self-interested neglect emanating from too many of our political and economic elites?  Is it really just a matter, as the late US President Kennedy (along with many others) seemed to imply, that some people are smart enough to “get it” and others just can’t?

Can it possibly be that simple?   Is “ignorance” really that easy to identify?

And it’s not only here on this corner of our planet.   From El Salvador to the Philippines, people are grasping for ointment to sooth their own deep disappointments, the sense that their lives have not improved as promised, that the system is perpetually tilted away from themselves and their families, that life has been needlessly stressful, needlessly challenged, needlessly insecure, but also deficient in key elements that make life worth the bother – including dimensions of importance and meaning.

And this struggle to discern genuine pathways from disappointment is not getting easier. What is now held to be “true,” apparently, is little more than what you can convince others to be true.   We do it on Facebook.   We do it in politics.  There is too little now that we can place our trust in beyond branding, beyond self-promotion, beyond our “distractions” of preference, beyond the masks that conceal who we really are, what we are fearful of revealing to those close to us, let alone to Wikileaks.

We can do better than this.   We can fix what is broken.  But this clock is winding down.

On Friday, a small segment of the UN community took a short break from controversies over nuclear weapons, the International Criminal Court and the treatment of Syria refugees to ponder ways to “strengthen electoral integrity.”   This timely, frank and urgent discussion was sponsored by the government of Mongolia and involved representatives from International IDEA, the UN Development Programme, the UN Department of Political Affairs and Harvard’s Electoral Integrity Project.

Insights from the session were both numerous and relevant to current circumstances. One observation of note urged us to abandon a “free and fair elections” mantra that implies electoral “perfection” often beyond our capacity to reach. The panelists spoke rather of “credible elections” with robust protection of ballot integrity, the prevention of voter harassments and, perhaps most important, the willingness of the parties to peacefully (if bitterly) recognize and accept election results.

There was also acknowledgment that we make a mistake by at times assuming such a strong link between our “right to vote” and the maintenance of healthy democracies.  Harvard’s Pippa Norris made a strong pitch for oft-neglected “civics education” while also noting that elections (and the growing business of election monitoring) are merely the opening gambit in a process to ensure that all political factions and all stakeholders have a place at the policy table.   How we elect is one crucial matter.  How we work together (or not) in the post-election period is even more important, even more determining of our ability to resolve our conflicts and fix lingering matters such as voter access and security sector intimidation before the start of our next, also likely contentious, election cycle.

Indeed, as the very wealthy in the US are now legally permitted to both recognize and operationalize, voting itself is one of our more modest “influence footprints.”  Indeed, the health of our democratic system is only partially about casting a political preference; but also in part about how closely we listen to and care about each other, how much we are willing to overlook (or even forgive) each other’s flaws, how willing we are to resist substituting a “rooting interest” (at times even at the tip of a gun) for a sincere engagement with political processes from the local to the global, the needs and rights of others (not only the well-positioned) placed on par with our own.

Voting is to democracy what Christmas-only church attendance is to Christianity – helpful in its own way, but by no means an engagement sufficient to the challenges of political or religious life.  As one of the UN panelists on Friday noted rightly, “good elections” are not the same as “good governance.” Both matter greatly, but the latter will always matter more, will always demand more of us.

The claim of one of the US candidates notwithstanding, there appears to be little chance that our upcoming elections will be corrupted from forces beyond the ballot box. The “insider” erosion of our democratic processes, however, is quite another matter.  At the end of this electoral marathon, there will be few roses to hand out as we reach the finish line, little to celebrate beyond the families of the candidates and their closest political confidants.  For the rest of us, a bit of temporary relief perhaps, but also worry that the larger political marathon – the one about rescuing our democracies from ourselves – remains very much stuck in the starting blocks.