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

20 Nov


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.


One Response to “Explanation of Vote: Procedures that Clarify and Heal, Dr. Robert Zuber”

  1. marta benavides (@benavides_marta) November 24, 2016 at 7:43 am #


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