Archive | January, 2017

Future Shock:  Traumatized Youth and Prospects for Sustaining Peace, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Jan


Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children, Sitting Bull

As many of your recognize, part of our task in these weekly missives is to blend events at the UN that are too-rarely blended – to help people inside the UN become more conscious of policy linkages and to help people outside the UN discern what this institution is uniquely suited for – and perhaps not so terribly well suited for.

In both aspects, this week presented multiple venues and options for reflection.

The highlight of the week was probably the 1+ days devoted by the President of the UN General Assembly (PGA) to “sustaining peace,” a welcome effort to link implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), arguably the UN’s most ambitious current project, to the promotion and maintenance of peace, arguably the UN’s most important overall mission.

The events, including a relatively uninspiring, pre-event, “brainstorming” session, attracted the highest levels of officials across the UN system.  Brainstorming is not what we do best here, but this particular session at least put on the table the notion that funding the SDGs will require some adjustments to our rapacious patterns of military spending, and that such adjustments are more likely if we can demonstrate as much capacity to prevent armed conflict as we currently expend to clean up the debris left behind in armed conflict’s aftermath.

The main “sustaining peace” event in the Trusteeship Council was devoted in part to what GA President Thompson called the “disastrous consequences” that conflict inflicts on development prospects. On his last day as chair of the Peacebuilding Commission, Kenya’s Ambassador Kamau urged capacity development for what he called a “diplomatic surge” that could help all UN member states address threats in their earliest and most manageable stages.  And Switzerland’s Minister Baeriswyl was one of several voices advocating for an end to our policy “fragmentation” so that we can impact the security and development fragility of states with greater efficiency and effectiveness.

By the end of these sessions, there was a bit more clarity on what “sustaining peace” means in theory, especially regarding the reinvestment of our energies more towards conflict prevention and less towards the rehabilitation and reconstruction that have proven so costly and with uneven consequences for human and ecological well-being.  Nevertheless, the Mexican Ambassador made his own plea – urging that we quickly move beyond “beautiful political concepts” to embrace the hard, practical work of peacemaking whose success has eluded our grasp in more instances than we are publicly willing to acknowledge.

And much of the failure of that work directly impacts future prospects for our children.

During both the main and side events on “sustaining peace,” states as diverse as Cambodia, Jordan and Andorra all advocated for education to raise levels of SDG awareness among youth.  Such education is welcome especially if it then leads to more direct participation by youth in the implementation of these diverse goals.  And indeed speakers did advocate more pathways to involvement, led by the PGA himself who noted that youth have a greater “skin in this game” since they are the ones who will inherit the fruits of our policy labors, for good or for ill.   In that context, the PGA lamented what he called the “selfishness” of too many adults that inhibits gender balancing and other hopeful prospects for his own (and for many others’) “female grandchildren.”

Indeed, the “selfishness” of adults currently takes so many insidious forms that result in long-term physical and psychological damage to our young.   At a small side event this week seeking funding pledges for a badly-needed “Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty,” a roster of UN and NGO experts highlighted the horrific and lasting impacts on children who find themselves in often inhumane, punitive detention facilities: some who have been victims of organized crime and traffickers; some who were living on the street having been separated from their families; some exhibiting clear signs of mental illness or drug dependency; some seized by government or insurgent forces during armed conflict.  These “invisible and forgotten” children include many who had already been victimized through sexual violence or recruitment into criminality, a second-helping of trauma for lives that are literally being drained of promise.

We can now only guess how many children are currently deprived of liberty in facilities that are dispiriting at best.  In this as in other areas of children’s rights, we need better data to guide our policy and focus our concern.  But what we are already able to predict is the long psychic climb that these deprived children must make if they are ever to live “healthy and constructive” lives, if they are ever to achieve their full capacity to help guide this planet through what remain treacherous waters.

As is noted often at the UN, this generation of youth is the largest in human history.   But it is also a generation characterized by deep distress in many of its sub-groupings.  When damage in the world is mirrored by — — even at times surpassed by — damage absorbed by our children and young people, both education and participation are sure to be negatively impacted by a trust- and confidence-eroding trauma that we can and must collectively do more to prevent.

The UN already recognizes its responsibility to promote “mental health for all” in part through SDG-related initiatives led or supported by several member states including Panama, Belgium, Canada, Liberia and especially Palau.  Indeed, at a UN side event this week co-hosted by the NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, Palau’s Ambassador Otto reiterated his plea for mental health services and priorities, noting that it is not only in places like Aleppo and Sana’a where services are needed, but also in the midst of our own hometowns.  Otto recognizes the value of spiritual resources in mental health, but also acknowledges the longer-term threats to peace and development that present themselves when youth and families are abandoned to cope with the impacts of trauma and mental illness that, if anything, are clearly still on the rise, still represent a distressing “shock” to a collective, sustainable future.

In a not-so-charming opening gambit, the new US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley began her tenure here with a threat – that the US would be “taking names” of states that do not “watch the back” of the US and its interests.   We’d like to suggest that the “names” that Ambassador Haley should take first are those of agencies and governments that deliberately inflict – through policy and practice — traumatic damage on children and youth, thereby creating deprivations of mental health that will impede “sustaining peace” efforts long past the tenure of any of our UN offices – or national administrations.

Cooperation Nations:  Creating Circles of Many Winners, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Jan

The only thing that will redeem [human] kind is cooperation. Bertrand Russell

There are days in our office (as I suspect in most others) when dissonance overwhelms clarity, when it seems as though we are hell bent on confirming the darkest, murkiest corners of our human character.  While it appears that Gambia will finally achieve political transition, ominous clouds are descending over Cameroon, a country and people for which we have a special fondness and which appears, more and more, to be giving in to the stresses of Boko Haram, refugees from its neighbors, and the vestiges of a protracted bi-lingual struggle that is now quite out in the open and warns of more ugliness to come.

And then there was Friday’s spectacle in Washington, DC featuring a new president with his own dark and at times insulting message; a day that also called attention to a violent minority within what were mostly peaceful protestors, a minority whose own angry message is unlikely to turn down any of the heat that most in what is now referred to as “the winner’s circle” of governance seem disinterested to turn down themselves.

Up the road in New York, I sit daily in “safe” multilateral space, full of people whose task it is to create and endorse norms that are intended to impact behaviors within and beyond national borders.  On the US inauguration day alone, the Security Council found common ground with the Economic Community for West Africa on ways to ease what is now a full-fledged political transition in Gambia.   The General Assembly is close to finding common ground on a conference that will endorse protocols for “safe, orderly and regular migration” with a clear priority on “effective participation of all relevant stakeholders” from scientists to migrants themselves. And in ECOSOC, the Forum on Forests cemented details on a document that will highlight the critical role that forests must continue to play in addressing climate-related impacts.

There are holes that can be “poked” in all three of these initiatives, including states running away from the idea that the regulations they are creating on migration governance have any sort of legal force. But the fact remains that none of these would have even a fraction of the global support they enjoy if not for the sometimes torturous but mostly welcome convening and norm-building power of the UN.

With dramatic changes in Washington, that power will surely and soon be put to the test.  Despite the fact that the US has long been the de facto decision maker at the UN, despite all the deference to US interests which most UN diplomats are encouraged to display, new leadership in Washington seems convinced that the UN will need to sing even louder for its supper — deep-throated odes to the needs and whims of US leadership — or risk losing its place at the dinner table.

There have been US-orchestrated challenges previously, mostly behind the scenes, to the fiscal and political integrity of the UN.   And frankly not all those challenges have been without merit.   It is difficult to assess the current threat level at this early stage, one which could well result in more or less the status quo or facilitate a highly dramatic move out of New York with US funding completely severed,  at least until the next electoral cycle.  Multilateralism was never the strongest interest of many of those who bothered to vote in the US election this time around, and there was nothing in yesterday’s inaugural speech that indicated that such dismissive indifference to the UN, at least at high official levels, will abate any time soon.

Thankfully, the UN that I see up close every day is better equipped than perhaps it has ever been to handle this challenge.  More governments are taking the lead on policy, grasping connections across sectors and finding ways to contribute to the global commons and not only reap its capacity-building benefits. More governments are stepping up with ideas, with funds, and with inspiration needed to cooperatively tackle global problems, some of which have become nearly overwhelming in their scope.

Let’s be clear:   While the UN still too often privileges protocol over insight and bureaucracy over character, we have what it takes in this space to meet our global development and climate obligations.    We have what it takes to create safe and orderly conditions for persons fleeing conflict or drought, or merely seeking a safer environment for their children.  We have what it takes to end our reliance on weapons of mass destruction, to reduce threats from pandemics, to solve conflicts upstream so that we don’t have to unravel mass atrocities downstream.

There is enough talent and resolve in and around the UN to help the human race get through this rough, distracted and dangerous patch — with or without the largesse or approval of any single state and its temporary government.

And thankfully, the potency of our multilateral institutions is mirrored, even surpassed, by the potency of global citizens. The extraordinary, hopeful and non-violent marches that swamped the streets of Los Angeles, Washington DC and New York on Saturday and which resonated with many thousands of other women (and some men) marching in settings from Mexico and Australia to South Dakota and Missouri, are the latest, forceful indication that there will be no turning back, there must be no turning back, on women’s full participation, on respect of persons, on gender justice.

But as there is no turning back, there must also be no turning away.   For every woman of determination marching on Saturday, there is surely at least one woman who might feel slighted, or ridiculed; who might be discouraged from participating in marches in part ABOUT participation perhaps because she doesn’t toe the line on progressive orthodoxy; because her views on what makes women empowered don’t jive with the ideational and behavioral expectations of the political and cultural celebrities who seem always to find their way in front of the cameras.

If the myopic grimness characteristic of Friday’s inauguration in DC is to be countered effectively – and the Saturday marches were a hugely hopeful beginning — it will require an expanding tent, what we at the UN like to refer to as “a broader range of stakeholder engagements.”  To counter threats from hostile officials, whether grounded in ideological paranoia or garden-variety misogyny, our mostly like-minded movements – no matter how large and vocal — are unlikely to be sufficient to the current spate of threats, even if those groupings are already better equipped to fill the streets with legitimate concern than the sources of the threats themselves.

The pathway to the change that women are rightly looking to sustain and grow lies beyond elections and their victors, beyond celebrity endorsers and well-worn messaging.  Indeed, it probably also lies beyond the women marchers themselves.  Much like the hopeful agendas endorsed this week at the UN this change does not depend as much as we might think on the largesse or “permission” of any particular government.  But it does depend on our willingness to push the envelope on participation, doing more to ensure that all who seek to share a contributing, even cooperating voice will have that voice respected and, to the highest degree possible, integrated.

We at the UN must work much harder to honor our promises to include all states and their constituents in global policy. On the domestic side, we would also do well to keep our doors – and our ears – open to the voices of those many, still-marginal women and their still-marginal neighbors, persons tempted to brood in the darkest corners of our national psyches in part because they feel, rightly or wrongly, barred from access to brighter spaces.

A Pound of Cure: The new UNSG Seeks Upstream Alternatives to Downstream Crises, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Jan

Let us try to offer help before we have to offer therapy. That is to say, let’s see if we can’t prevent being ill by trying to offer a love of prevention before illness.  Maya Angelou

The Security Council was a bit more festive than usual this week as Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and five new members of the Council – Sweden (as president), Italy, Ethiopia, Bolivia and Kazakhstan — made their first presentation in chambers under their current status.

All five states have so far handled their duties with aplomb, especially Sweden which was thrust into the presidency on its very first day back in the Council. Bolivia, taking over from an often-combative Venezuela, was equally feisty, criticizing the large Council powers – in this instance especially the US – for playing unfairly, largely through their manipulation of both Council working methods and policy outcomes.   We always appreciate a concern for fairness and hope that Bolivia can help find the clarity and tact needed to bring the non-permanent members together to address working methods and power imbalances long in need of correction.

But on this day the stage belonged to newly minted SG Guterres who has not only hit the ground running, but as outgoing US Ambassador Power noted, he is also running hard.   And he appears to be heading in a direction different from most of his predecessors – not only keen to address crises, as he is now attempting to do in Cyprus, but even more to keep crises from happening in the first place.

Guterres’ “upstream” approach is fully in keeping with directions advocated by Global Action and many other NGOs.  As he himself noted, while preventing conflict is not always straightforward, it is clearly more cost effective than rebuilding failed states after conflict – costs related to the repair of damaged infrastructure as well as healing for traumatized families who have already watched their intimate spaces and the communities beyond crumble around them.

The UN has, as many speakers in the Security Council on this day acknowledged, a full toolkit to address conflict and crisis at earlier stages.  What we do not have, as Guterres himself advised, is a reliable, robust early warning mechanism that would allow us to engage potential adversaries through re-energized tools including diplomacy, mediation and good offices. What we also need, in our own view, is a Secretariat more committed to over-ride political obstacles and bring fresh and actionable information to the Security Council at a point when preventive measures are most likely to bear fruit.

Even with that, conflict prevention remains a high and daunting bar. Two days after the Guterres statement, the Council met again for an update on conflict in the Lake Chad basin, a long-festering crisis defined by Boko Haram atrocities, one that is constantly evolving as climate change, drought and other social and environmental factors destroy agricultural and other livelihoods, inflame local tensions, and create massive flows of displaced persons for reasons that go beyond terror-related threats.

It is not an overstatement, as noted in the Council by the Nigerian Ambassador, that a “shrinking” Lake Chad has become a “tinderbox” for regional conflict, an area (as shared by Senegal) characterized by significant “resource depletion” that lies at the core of regional instability.   Add in the presence of trafficking networks in arms, narcotics and persons (cited by Italy’s Ambassador Cardi) as well as high child mortality rates in regional camps for the internally displaced (as described by UN “Relief Chief” Stephen O’Brien), and you have the makings of a protracted crisis that only becomes more difficult to resolve whether Council calls for “action” by Ukraine’s Ambassador and others are heeded or not.

Given the deep severity of longstanding crises such as Lake Chad, you would think that the notion of preventive maintenance would have wide resonance for diplomats, in part because their own lives are veritably punctuated with preventive obligations.   We feed and inoculate children we love so they can grow strong and better resist disease.  We educate children so that they can achieve decent employment and self-sufficiency. We service our vehicles so that they won’t leave our families stranded at the sides of highways. We conduct boiler maintenance in our homes so that we are not without heat on the coldest winter days. We put coats on our children because we don’t want them to get sick and because we don’t want to have to take care of sick children.

Waiting until things go horribly wrong before we act is widely considered to be grossly irresponsible – to ourselves and to those for whom we are actually responsible.   This principle applies in virtually every area of life – except at times inside our large multi-lateral institutions.   In these places we authorize massive funding to rebuild societies that did not need to face destruction in the first place.  We seek to rehabilitate so many thousands of victims who did not need to suffer in the first place. We develop a formidable infrastructure needed to provide humanitarian relief to persons subject to unspeakable cruelty the causes for which were anything but inevitable.

Unfortunately, in the realm of international diplomacy, prevention is not as simple as getting children vaccinated, keeping insurance policies updated or changing the oil in our car’s crankcase.  We can be more “preventive” in our personal lives in part because of the extra degrees of control that we exercise in that realm such as when determining how our children eat and learn.  In the realm of diplomacy, however prevention runs up against a Charter conundrum (not to mention UN culture) – that states maintain rights to territorial integrity and sovereign equality until states choose otherwise or until circumstances on the ground are sufficiently dire and compelling enough to warrant more focused international attention.  In other words, the presumption of authority lies with states to resolve problems before other states (or the UN itself) can claim a vested interest in so doing.

This, as indicated by Guterres, is a culture requiring both acknowledgment and refreshment.  If states remain free to refuse guidance and assistance (from the UN and other states as well as from the wisdom of their own citizens) right up to the moment when they are forced to confront national versions of the “gates of hell,” then our “love of prevention before illness” will remain as an aspiration for poets but essentially beyond the reach of diplomats. We can’t make states accept that “love” no matter how sincere it might actually be.

And as a number states will readily attest, it is not always so “sincere.”  Among other examples within this institution, we have rarely displayed the honesty and care to do a “full cost accounting” of armed conflict and other crises.   If we had to sit with and dwell upon our massive and often ineffective expenditures related to our current “conflict management” preoccupations–including the proliferating armaments that we tolerate in too many security environments, weapons that generate much trauma and distrust but little in the way of sustainable employment or sustainable peace — we would surely hesitate more than we do now before authorizing coercive responses that are rarely timely let alone particularly “loving.”

Perhaps this is indicative of what prevention dictates in multilateral settings; perhaps this is the culture change that can make “up-stream” engagements more productive and hopefully more likely. We can embrace future opportunities (which the new SG will hopefully provide) for sober, honest and respectful sit-downs with ourselves and our communities of policy regarding our expensive and unsustainable habits of response — the weapons we churn out but also the peacebuilding actions we postpone and the diplomatic tools we leave dormant in our toolbox, all of which make recourse to armaments (and other coercive measures) more inevitable than helpful.

If SG Guterres is to succeed in his efforts at policy redirection, if the UN is to remain politically relevant and fiscally viable in the face of evolving conflict threats, then we can no longer accept the crushing expense associated with sluggish action; neither can we ignore our patterns of irresponsibility towards those we presumably care about, patterns arising from our failure to engage threats at their most propitious moments as well as the failure to keep our most effective tools of diplomatic engagement close at hand.

Policy Scrabble:  Words that reveal; Words that bind, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Jan

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” — Mark Twain

The UN has had a quiet week.  Perhaps the most notable event was the formal transition to a new leadership team headed by SG Guterres and, in the Security Council, a bit of relief that the Kabila government in the troubled DR Congo has seen the wisdom (or at least uttered the words) of agreeing to a political transition including (relatively) expedited presidential and parliamentary elections in that country.

In a Presidential Statement issued in the Council by Sweden’s Amb. Skoog, DR Congo leaders are urged to continue on the path “to organize peaceful, credible, inclusive and timely presidential, national and provincial legislative elections no later than December 2017, leading to a peaceful transfer of power.”  President Kabila might well pursue this request.  He may also find new “reasons” to stall.  To that latter end, he might even invent a security crisis (beyond the many we already know about) or make some “trumped up” (pun intended) claim about the unreliability of MONUSCO and other UN partners to honor their own security or development promises.

In the gaps between declaration and intention lies a conundrum for the Security Council, indeed for the entire UN system. We are an institution of words — we make statements, give speeches, make presentations, write reports and resolutions.  Words and more words, statements made year after year, at times where little but the page heading has changed, words that bear little resemblance to circumstances on the ground, and which are rarely challenged by those who might well know better. Part of the muted skepticism of diplomats which is not uncommon across the UN, stems from so many discernible disconnects between the words we utter and the actions (if any) we eventually and collectively take.

It is frustrating, in and out of the UN, to see what has become of words.  Political cultures in the UN and in many member states seem to have lost their moorings when it comes to straight talk, not only the validity of the “facts” we cite, but in the contexts we provide for the judgments we make.  In this, “truth” (for all its contemporary imprecision) is more than simply disregarded; indeed in some political circles it is actually ridiculed as “old school” in a manner not unlike the social approbation cast on users of flip phones or cassette players.   The “truth,”, as we note often and with increasing urgency, is now simply what you can convince others is true.  And a “lie” is simply something someone is not prepared to hear, especially if it is about themselves and/or their policy choices.  Shrinking standards.  Flimsy evidence.  Thin Skin.  Ignoring the people paid to know about facts and contexts essential to finding the “right words.”

To the persuasive go the spoils.

As we wish we never had to write again, we have lost the discursive dimension of words, that is, the deployment of words to reveal and relate.  Words for us have become like what we used to call “sweet talk” a way to get someone to part with something you want rather than a means for establishing and building connection.  We are often content now, it seems, to be merely sellers and buyers, looking for a good deal – in business or politics – but having fewer and fewer convictions of a world we want to live in beyond the material plane, and even fewer notions of whose lives are impacted by the convictions we hold (or don’t).  Indeed, “convictions” themselves are becoming just another means to massage an audience into believing that someone “cares” even in those (thankfully still) uncommon instances when there is not a drop of evidence to support the presence of a caring impulse.

This phenomenon is neither new nor confined to the current spate of populist currents grabbing headlines around the world.  We in the more elite centers of influence actually cashed in many of our linguistic chips a while ago.  We made bold promises to people from our lofty perches and then smirked at those same people when they fell for our pitch.  We created and advertised technology that promises connection but is actually closer to a full-on selling machine.  We now often text people instead of calling them in part because the brevity of texting lends itself to the making of demands and the establishing of preferences.  On the phone (admittedly not my favorite device), people can hesitate or even object to our plans and strategies.  Negotiations might be needed.  We might have to explain ourselves.   Nope.  Not happening.

When we speak, too often it is to manipulate outcomes.  We also speak to be accounted for, which we often see in Security Council as protocol demands that all 15 members insist on weighing in on a particular security issue when perhaps half offer real substance to contribute to policy going forward.   Less and less do we speak to reveal, to tear away the shroud of politics and let people – even high-end diplomats – glimpse the mistakes that we lament, the circumstances of threat that keep us awake at night, the worries we have that maybe – just maybe – we’re in over our collective heads this time.

President Kabila, egged on by advisers and UN officials, might be sincere in his desire to effect a peaceful political transition for DR Congo.  From what we know about corruption and spoilers in that country, as well as cross-country tensions of a political and ethnic nature, the challenges of transition will be formidable even if the hopefulness of Kabila’s words is to be matched by the sincerity of his transition strategies.

But what if that isn’t the case?  What if this promise of transition turns out to be just another smokescreen, just another delaying tactic, just another bait and switch to throw political opponents and the international community off their respective games?  How will we know, and do we have what it takes to discern what would be yet another gross political insincerity in a manner timely enough to divert its course?

The fear of my office is that at some level, perhaps unconsciously, we have become so accustomed to empty phrases and broken promises that we have forgotten that there is another way, another objective for the words which currently fill our world to brimming, another path to contribute to holding others –even our leaders, even our inner circles – accountable to rhetorical commitments.

The populist movements flaring up around the world are not merely skeptical of “truth” in some self-authorizing and self-defeating fashion; some abandon “truth” in large measure because it was first abandoned around them – democracies bought and sold; media filling the airwaves with escapist nonsense and then telling only (the easy) half of any story; educators cultivating youth with skills for non-existent jobs but not for their very-much-existent lives; an economic system that aggressively disrespects the needs of workers so that the super-rich can continue their own shrouded competitions.

Is it any wonder that so many people have stepped away from civic life, preferring rooting interests and reality television to investments of themselves in still-grand civic projects?    I think not.  Indeed, if we are serious about addressing this malaise in our civic culture we must first avoid the temptation to do in political and diplomatic life what the Wall Street crowd did after the 2008 collapse – keep our heads down for a time and then go back to the familiar, insulated and, in the case of the mega-investors, lucrative business at hand:  with “sweet” words to match, of course.

This won’t work for us.   Not this time.  If people are to come to believe again in we who deign to manage institutions of culture, governance and economy, we must adopt softer, less judgmental and more straightforward communications, even about our greatest policy concerns and hardest policy challenges. We must insist on honoring the promises embedded in the rhetoric of all our leaders. And we must work harder to find the right words to let people know –many times over and despite a generation of appearances to the contrary — that we believe in them as well.