Archive | February, 2017

Justice League:  The UN Hesitantly Manages its Peacekeeping Expectations, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Feb


That was the thing about the world: it wasn’t that things were harder than you thought they were going to be, it was that they were hard in ways that you didn’t expect.  Lev Grossman

Expectations are dangerous when they are both too high and unformed.  Lionel Shriver

When I was a child, far back in the last century, I was enraptured by the exploits of a group of superheroes known as the Justice League.   This formidable group – from Wonder Woman and Green Lantern to Batman and the Flash – kept us on the edge of our chairs as they battled the forces of evil, sometimes alone, sometimes together, but almost always successfully.

In retrospect, what made these imaginary heroes so compelling is their complement of imaginary attributes.   They were mighty.  They essentially answered to no one.  They were kind to all but the evil doers.  They responded to crises without hesitation.  They possessed extraordinary skills allowing them to simultaneously fight the “bad guys,” repair damaged infrastructure and reassure nervous populations wondering if the values their make-believe parents taught them any longer had relevance in their make-believe world.

Our real world of “evil doers” is considerably more complex.  The lines that separate the “good guys” and “bad guys” are less obvious than our governments and media make it seem.   We tend to replicate the behaviors of our adversaries more than renounce them, fighting bombs with bombs, offering threatening rhetoric in response to threatening rhetoric,  demonizing those who demonize us.  And when we do renounce this pattern, our collective responses (such as through the UN) are often far slower than is optimal, based on preparations that are political as much as technical, that are often more about “what we can do with what we have at hand” rather than what is actually needed.

In real life, there is no Justice League available to resolve our conflicts, no heroes in costume with power on permanent standby, determination in their hearts and kind smiles on their faces.

We have written often in this space about the need for the UN to better manage the full complement of its expectations, which far too often run apace of any relevant strategies or capacities to end conflict and/or sustain peace.  Our public relations pitches, our Security Council mandates, our Commissions and Committees, all seem designed to convince the public (and perhaps ourselves as well) that we actually have what it takes – on hand right now – to discharge fully and successfully the weighty responsibilities to which we have been entrusted.

Within the UN, this burden of expectation falls heavily on peacekeeping operations, the most expensive of UN operations but also the operations that bear grave field responsibilities that are essential both to the UN’s peace and security reputation and to the successful implementation of other UN country team activities – from development to mediation.

Others more focused and knowledgeable on peacekeeping matters have written extensively about the extraordinary and widening responsibilities now laid at the feet of peace operations – seeking out “spoilers,”  interfacing with terror threats, rebuilding entire sectors of states under siege,  enabling access points for humanitarian assistance,  offering protective services to threatened civilians.

And defending human rights, a complex matter under the best of circumstances, but certainly for peace operations facing threats from insurgents in “ungoverned spaces,” staffed by recruits from Troop Contributing Countries” with limited knowledge of (or at times interest in) the intricate political and social circumstances of the places they are mandated to “defend,” seeking to fulfill expectations both robust and multifaceted,  expectations that more than a few commentators would call “unfeasible.”

An example of this “heaping” of responsibilities on peace operations is the last Security Council renewal (2323/2016) of the UNSMIL mandate, the peacekeeping and special political mission in Libya.  Despite a security situation that is so dangerous and unpredictable that many key UN functions (ICC, UNMAS) must operate largely from outside the country, UNSMIL peacekeepers are somehow expected to

  • help consolidate governance, security and economic arrangements of the Government of National Accord;
  • provide support to key Libyan institutions;
  • provide support, on request, for the provision of essential services, and delivery of humanitarian assistance and in accordance with humanitarian principles;
  • monitor and report on human rights;
  • secure uncontrolled arms and related materiel , and counter their proliferation;
  • coordinate the provision of advice and assistance to state-led efforts to stabilize post-conflict zones, including those liberated from Da’esh.

Faced with such daunting difficulties — and this mission’s mandate is not unique — it is miraculous that peacekeepers can be assembled with even a reasonable chance of successful outcomes.   I wonder if even the mythical Justice League would have signed on to such obstacle-laden responsibilities.

This week, in the margins of the (C-34) Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations, some of the inconsistencies of Peace Operations associated with our sometimes grandiose mandates came to the fore.   During an excellent briefing on “human rights at work in peace operations,” Sweden’s Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs noted the many places worldwide in which “dignity is now under pressure,” urging a higher level of rights consciousness in peace operations. A peacekeeper from Somalia cited the damage to the UN when peace operations commit (or fail to respond) to rights abuses, including (as noted by a peacekeeper in the DRC) those committed by host governments.   And, echoing a theme highlighted later in the week at another superb peacekeeping side event, this time hosted by Indonesia, several speakers urged higher levels of women’s involvement in peacekeeping in part to help open new pathways to community communication that could meet Sweden’s request for clear and “early warnings” of impending violence and the rights abuses which so often follow.

The promotion and protection of human rights is an indispensable pillar of UN activity.  And yet, we find that peacekeepers lack sufficient training in these responsibilities, nor are they equipped to manage the sometimes tragic dilemmas for which peacekeeping operations must find a way forward.   Perhaps the most challenging of these dilemmas was mentioned this week by both ASG (DPKO) Wane and ASG (DPA) Zerihoun who cited difficult ethical dilemmas faced by mission command – having to temper actions to defend human rights in order to preserve access granted by the host state; and having to engage in reconstruction activities – including security sector reform and civilian demobilization and disarmament – alongside persons who have themselves committed severe rights abuses.   Coupled with the ongoing tragedy of civilians in the field abused by the very persons (peacekeepers) tasked with protecting them, it is clear that peace operations continue to face human rights challenges that, one after the other, threaten to compromise expectations and undermine our collective credibility.

Our peacekeepers are not superheroes; nor are the government officials that create their mandates, fund their operations and raise (often excessively) expectations.   Given this, we would advocate for more attention to the front end of expectation management rather than the back end — when the unpredictability of politics and conflict intervenes to complicate and restrict performance in ways that, once acknowledged as they were in the C-34 this week, sound a bit too much like excuses for failure.

This past Thursday, a female Indonesian peacekeeper made reference to the “power of smiles” in peacekeeping operations, a power that can in its own way help expand community “access and acceptance” beyond what is granted through formal “status of forces” agreements and other political arrangements.   Perhaps this is one mostly-missing ingredient towards a more realistic merger of expectations and performance within the realm of our peace and security responsibilities?   At the very least, it’s a start.

Devoted: Bringing Passion to Policy, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Feb


There are people who are capable of devotion, public devotion, to justice. They meant what they said and every day that passes, they mean it more.  Wendell Berry

Perpetual devotion to what people call their “business” is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.  Robert Louis Stevenson

I just returned from what was a successful trip to Mexico for Global Action.  We were able to both solidify two significant partnerships (Instituto Mora and OPANAL) and confirm our bona fides in the areas of security policy, peacebuilding and the 2030 Development Agenda.  We were able to have many urgent and at times reassuring conversations with Mexicans about the currently un-nerving “state of play” in US relations.  We even got to see the Mexican president.

But as is often the case when traveling abroad, the most memorable moments were beyond the professional realm:  the smoke plumes rising from still-active volcanoes; the harrowing motorbike rides through the streets of Mexico City with my Mora host, Simone Lucatello; the children on sidewalks sweetly selling small Valentine’s candies; the blindingly magnificent religious architecture that almost succeeds in obscuring the slave labor needed to construct it.

And then there is the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a place I have visited previously but also a place like few others I have ever visited.  Several months distant from the feast which bears Our Lady’s name and the thousands who walk and crawl great distances to refresh their souls and offer their prayers and petitions, the Basilica square was still filled with color and movement: people with their signs and symbols camped out by the hundreds; the huge main church building packed for mass at 10AM on a Wednesday; a young women leading prayers in an old side chapel, her voice unlike most any the chapel has hosted over its long history; persons with disabilities milling around the Basilica edges, hoping for the miracle that will allow them to ditch their canes and wheel chairs at least once more before their death.

In its many incarnations and limitations, devotion was on display here – so much devotion.

Devotion is a word that was in vogue once upon a time, even in our elite centers of learning.   We could, during one piece of our collective history, seek training that would allow us to gain cognitive mastery in philosophy and the (then) sciences while leaving space for emotional investments (even passions) of which devotion may well be the most powerful and compelling.

This is a word which now raises eyebrows in elite circles and even in popular culture; something we associate with “religious fanatics” and “true believers” in political and other realms rather than with persons deeply engaged with art, with family, with civic pursuits of all kinds.

Indeed, our goal in professional life too often now is to stay detached, to “be cool,” to hold tight to our agendas and ambitions, to stay “in control” and keep control, above all things. We have aspirations to fulfill, places to go and things to do; but not so much depths to plumb, nor commitments to refresh, nor connections to deepen.   We feel we have to maintain our critical distance, critical not so much in the sense of “evaluative” but critical in the sense of negating and distancing:  What we don’t care for. What we don’t want to commit to or get “tied up” with. The metaphorical “rooms” we won’t enter without first scouting out the “exit” signs.

Despite our often smug penchant for keeping “distance,” or perhaps because of it, I am simply enthralled with Guadalupe.  I cherish it because in that place, people search for things they long for but can’t find by themselves, miracles couched in the (for us, more believable) fervent hope of finding meaning, healing and forgiveness, goals with which most of us worldly strivers can just barely identify.

In saying this, I do not underestimate the limitations and unfortunate consequences of intense emotional commitment – the legions of “rooting interests” and “self-fulfilling prophecies” that hold our cognitive and evaluative sensibilities captive, driving us towards unformed goals without a map and largely without heeding street signs or traffic lights. The lines that separate devotion and addiction can be thin indeed; our devotions can certainly portend the “neglect of many things” in ways that are not in anyone’s interests.

Moreover, collectively, we already “make up” too much of our worldviews, failing to do our homework or hold each other accountable to the testimony of our still-formidable senses.  The “Alt-facts” that now punctuate so many discussions are by no means the restrictive domain of the US president and his sycophants.

And yet there are dimensions of devotion that can enrich and sustain all of our “9-5” contributions, dimensions that can inject both passion and humility into what are largely, for most of us, relatively tepid and episodic commitments to the social and political challenges beyond the walls of our offices and domiciles.

It’s not my place to judge the commitments of others. That people don’t put time and energy into things I care about doesn’t in any way imply that there aren’t other areas in people’s lives for which devotion is still relevant and active.  Folks raise children and take care of sick relatives.  They cultivate beautiful gardens and tutor struggling students. They hold bake sales for fire departments and clear polluted streams. They invest what they can, even as much as they can, without completely abandoning other commitments, other necessities.  Indeed, when we are immersed in our ways of devotion, it becomes easier to forget to feed and bathe the children!

Still there is something about being around those people in Guadalupe — something about that energy and resolve — that raises for me legitimate questions regarding the depth and sufficiency of my own commitments.  In this world where the buttons are literally flying off our carefully tailored clothes, is the energy and skill that we now dispense sufficient to sew them back?  Do we actually have enough devotion to the world we claim we are endeavoring to fix?

As some of you know, there is a section on the BBC website called “50 Reasons to love the world.”  Of course, as the BBC would readily admit and regularly makes plain in part through its “Planet Earth” series, there are many more reasons to love this planet.  Love it, not play deadly games on it, not scheme around its obstacles, not sap its shrinking abundance and wonder.  Real care.  Real devotion.

In listening to the academics at Mora and to diplomats at OPANAL and back home at the UN –all clearly worthy of respect – it still isn’t clear if we will be able to summon what we need and all that we need to navigate our current threats.  We have information; we have skill; we have our careers and communities of practice.  But are we devoted enough?  Is there some helpful dimension for those of us working in the realm of “sustainable peace” equivalent to the loving energy expended by the pilgrims and miracle-seekers of Guadalupe, the ones who travel miles to the Basilica in wheelchairs — even on their knees — and then, when they finally reach their destination, wish only that they had traveled miles more?

In recent months, I have talked often about the need for us all to find another gear.  I think we have to find a deeper gear as well, one that is simultaneously learned and devoted, competent and passionate.  Despite what seems like so many appearances to the contrary, such synergies are both within our grasp and in our collective interest.  In these unsettled times and their seemingly endless demands, devotion is one key for turning episodic interests into faithful and loving pursuits of the “sustaining peace” for which so many around this planet are currently longing.

Evacuation Route: Mapping a Common Exodus from Multiple Global Threats, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Feb

Up and down the lanes, the last unevacuated townspeople wake, groan, sigh. Spinsters, prostitutes, men over sixty. Procrastinators, collaborators, disbelievers, drunks. Nuns of every order. The poor. The stubborn. The blind.” ― Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

I have just completed a (very late arriving) flight to Mexico City soon to join regional diplomats and civil society representatives to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Tlatelolco and its key implementer, the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL).

As is widely known, the Treaty of Tlatelolco sets out protocols and responsibilities for a nuclear weapons-free zone that has been both stable and in its own right and critical to the development of other regional security arrangements within and beyond the region.  These include zones in other parts of the world that are helping to “shrink” the political and logistical space far-too-long occupied by nuclear weapons and their possessor states.  Moreover, from the security frameworks set in motion by UNASUR to the more normative security platform organized at the United Nations known as CELAC, Latin American states have to a remarkable degree taken advantage of their relative stability and prosperity to create collaborative security that informs and inspires practices worldwide. These collaborations have simultaneously helped preserve critical policy distance from dependency on nuclear weapons and their security doctrines while deepening regional commitments to address the poverty, trafficking in weapons and narcotics, gender-based violence, and social inequalities – often the result of numerous, intimidating interventions from non-regional states — that have tangibly jeopardized the security of too many in the region for far too long.

At the same time, OPANAL is widely regarded as the gold standard for weapons-free zone implementers, a reliable and visible mechanism to keep governments focused on their own disarmament responsibilities while advocating for measures such as “negative security assurances” to help protect regional states from attack from the nuclear armed states as well as encouraging states to monitor their dependencies (and even at times enabling actions) regarding the protective nuclear “umbrella” offered by the US which the treaty itself seeks to disown.

The last time we attended a major OPANAL event was three years ago under its previous Secretary-General.   Our contribution at that time – which we may have occasion to repeat this Tuesday at the Mexican Foreign Ministry but will surely highlight during workshops later in the week with our welcome partner Instituto Mora – is the importance of simultaneously affirming activities to fulfill treaty obligations while promoting more reliable security and development arrangements within and beyond the geographic zone which the treaty helps to define.

Such arrangements include many of the policy norms, practical program and fiscal obligations embedded in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

As we noted in another publication on the 2030 Agenda, and about which we have been motivated to take our own action, there has to date been insufficient interaction between development and security actors.  Specifically, as noted by Laura Pereira and others at the UN, disarmament experts were noticeably uninvolved in the formulation of Sustainable Development Goal 16, the so-called “peace goal.”  And while Goal 16 does suggest a responsibility to curb the small arms proliferation and trafficking that negatively impact development processes – a key element of Latin American security undertaken with welcome assistance from the UN regional disarmament office in Lima – Goal 16 makes no mention of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction.

This omission is noteworthy given the devastating impacts from the use of nuclear (or other weapons of mass destruction) on any viable strategies for development .   As the nuclear weapons community is fond of reminding the rest of us, the “humanitarian consequences” from the use of these weapons is likely beyond our capacities to respond.  We are already painfully aware of the high costs of conflict in Latin America and elsewhere – so many diverse lives traumatized, ruined and often ended by insurgencies, by indiscriminate bombing raids, by landmines and other explosive remnants of war.  When nuclear weapons themselves become a lively option for use, the costs of conflict could literally bankrupt the human treasury.

But the other side of this policy interaction also demands more attention.  In the two days of events to celebrate the long history of effective OPANAL actions on behalf of Tlatelolco, little mention will be made of the political, social and economic contexts in which weapons of mass destruction could become, once again, attractive options for states.   Even in the program for the international seminar organized for the first day of the Tlatelolco celebration, the words “development” or “human rights” do not appear on the schedule at all.  Climate is mentioned but simply as a way of “ranking” existential threats, not as the basis for building common policy frameworks for eliminating those threats.

Clearly not every event can cover every eventuality.  The seminars we will conduct with Mora later in this week will also evidence conceptual gaps, will also fail to capitalize on openings for growth and response.  That said, people in these anxious times are also anxious to know how things “fit” and we must do a better job of helping them make connections, as a first step through a demonstrable willingness to seek out and make those connections ourselves.

A development agenda that does not find a way to “flag” existential threats, including from weapons of mass destruction, is engaging in wishful thinking.  So too is a disarmament agenda that does not rigorously interrogate the manifold threats to peace and security from poverty, trafficking, discrimination and a myriad of other factors. We need to be in dialogue with the threats we do not directly address, not to solve them all so much but to be attentive to, support and encourage those attempting to transform the world – to evacuate the threatened, if you will — in ways other than but complementary to our own.

There was a discouraging news wire that the US president was recently having a discussion with his Russian counterpart regarding nuclear weapons policy commitments, specifically those embedded in the START treaty.  At one point, apparently, the US president had to pause the call to ask others standing in the oval office what START was.  While this president may well set the bar for policy incuriousness, the fact that so many nuclear weapons are now in the hands of volatile governments and their leaders is of grave concern.  So too are the relatively tepid commitments from these states to contribute to sustainable security frameworks that (they say) are needed in order to make nuclear weapons obsolete.

Nuclear weapons need to go, regardless of other circumstances.  But circumstances in these difficult times require more from all of us; certainly more from those of us in the security field:  more solidarity and communication with the marginalized, more attentive policy linkages, more tangible encouragement for the important work of others.   As many within our “sector” are thankfully recognizing, this is not the time to “double down” on our issue silos or on our self-serving proclamations about the way things “ought to be.”  If we are to successfully apply a healing balm to our deep social wounds – those that threaten our very existence and those that daily eat away at our collective dignity and resolve – we are simply going to have to raise our game. We will endeavor to accomplish exactly that during our busy policy week in Mexico.


Disabling Poverty:  Overcoming humanity’s most pervasive limitation, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Feb


People presume my disability has to do with being an amputee, but that’s not the case; our insecurities are our disabilities, and I struggle with those as does everyone.  Aimee Mullins

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see. — Mark Twain

At the UN this week, the Commission for Social Development has been in session, a Commission that takes up issues and policies related to poverty, disability, ageing and youth, seeking to link these concerns in ways that will motivate greater levels of policy coherence and funding commitments by state and non-state entities.

We’ve always tried to be present in the room for this annual Commission as much as we can, in part because of the constituencies it routinely identifies – youth, persons with disabilities, the aged – but also because of its sensitivity to the ways in which poverty acts as a complicating factor in efforts to help these and other  constituents (as noted in a recent UN report) “fulfill their potential in life, and lead decent, dignified and rewarding lives in a healthy environment.”

As we have written about often, “dignified and rewarding lives” constitutes the essential precondition for peaceful and inclusive societies.  Where the elderly are preyed upon rather than protected, where youth are patronized rather than respected, where persons with disabilities – the apparent and the hidden – are left to fend for themselves on our often-dismal social and economic margins, prospects for conflict within societies surely rise.  For too many people in this world, despite our recent, demonstrable poverty-reduction successes, overcoming the effects of poverty is like trying to claw their way out of a deep swamp with plastic scissors.  Many times, there is no enabling environment anywhere to be found; only insecure spaces filled with hidden pitfalls that persons are mostly incapable of surmounting by themselves.

Of all the poverty-related connections raised during the Commission, the one most “personal” for me is the connection with disabilities. I have no disability myself – only miscalculations and mistakes that I commit, over and over, and about which my circle of friends and loved ones, and the larger world surrounding my life, are much too forgiving.  But I have also seen first-hand how genuine poverty and equally-genuine disabilities reinforce each other. As is the case with many of the other 1 billion people on this planet estimated to be living with disabilities of all kinds, I have seen my former Harlem church family members struggle to overcome the effects of sometimes-severe, physical and psychological limitations.  I have seen some of them toil mightily just to get by, to maintain connections of kindness and avoid discrimination, to find employers willing to take a chance on them or advocates willing to help them pursue more fair and sensitive social policies. I have seen them struggle to find physical or mental health services that could make at least some of the disabilities we widely recognize – and those we don’t quite know what to do with yet – less likely.

It can simply be overwhelming for persons with disabilities who also face the additional burdens of poverty, or for their caregivers (if they exist) trying to make ends meet while overcoming the effects of discrimination of their disabled loved ones.  For some facing severe economic constraints, it takes every ounce of energy, every fiber of resourcefulness, just to keep the sometimes-traumatic and always-insecure impacts and implications of disabilities on a remotely even keel.

In listening this past week to the often hopeful discussions within the Commission, some of us wondered what it would mean to explore the option of seeing poverty not only as a complication to disability but as a potential disability in its own right.  What if we put the same creative energy into finding that metaphorical “prosthesis” for poverty that we have been more and more successful at creating when physical limbs are lost and psychological disorders and addictions proliferate?  What if we could convince states and others to treat poverty more as a “condition” that needs to be addressed – with tools and laws and changes in social perspectives at the ready – and less as a moral failing or stigma to be overcome – or simply ignored altogether?

Given that poverty as we know it is embedded within a host of social and political conditions that breed deprivation and discrimination and impede just and robust societal responses, it will surely be more difficult to address than other “disabilities” – though as the Commission rightly notes, certainly no less essential.  However, this pattern of deprivation, discrimination and inadequate response is common to the more recognizable disabilities community as well.  Indeed, in some parts of the world, we have taken mere “baby steps” towards ending discriminations against persons with disabilities, even as our persistent social inequalities and heavily-armed militias create new legions of disabled, of traumatized, of the fearful and insecure.  Poverty might represent a higher bar for our collective response, but its disabling effects are also far more pervasive.   It is not the first goal of the UN’s 2030 development agenda for no reason.

As I was preparing to write this, I consulted hundreds of photos and “posters” on the internet that focus on one or more aspects of disability.  Many approvingly showed people being kind or courageous, or they depicted welcome examples of how societies are adjusting to differing abilities, challenging both complacency and our dependence on one-size-fits-all approaches to education, health, mobility and other core human tasks.  The solitary image I found in my search that seemed to in any way couple poverty and disability is the one found at the heading of this post.

For that man, as for too many others, the crutches we see from afar could merely hint at the full complement of his potential limitations, including limitations endemic to poverty itself.   While it is unwise to make too many inferences from one photo, we can hopefully come to see that of all the physical impediments and psychological disorders that impede our human progress, it is the pervasiveness of poverty that disables us most.