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

29 Jan

save-the-planet-for-me

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.

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