The Courage of Good Questions, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Mar

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Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas. – Marie Curie

I’ve always been really curious about things and slightly confused by the world, and I think someone who feels that way is in a good position to be the one asking questions. -Terry Gross

I spent many years in school, but it was rarely a happy or satisfying place for me. There were simply too many times when the “who said so” of ideas trumped the complexities behind what was actually being conveyed.   For me, school was full of ideas that seemed beyond reproach when they left the mouths of the instructors, only to be revealed as incomplete and at times even misleading down the road.

And such a long road it was.  It was not until my doctoral program that I literally “lucked into” mentors who were more passionate for their ideas than for their careers, who were far more curious than defensive, who understood at the deepest levels that most of the problems soon to confront the world had not yet been faced, let alone overcome.

These mentors pushed me hard, beyond trying to impress others with my edgy “cleverness,” towards a place of rigor and kindness – rigor characterized by attentiveness and the willingness to “ask the next question,” and kindness grounded in the (hopefully) humble recognition that all of us, even the most accomplished in worldly terms,  have much still to learn.

Part of what Global Action seeks to accomplish (and occasionally does) is to embody that all-too-rare combination of attentiveness and curiosity, understanding that the best questions make good use of existing context and help to examine not only what has been “settled,” but to preview the ground soon to move under our feet, requiring more of what Jeremy Taylor once referred to as “the incontinency of the spirit.”  In our office, we don’t often abandon attentiveness for chatter, but we do at times try to ask good and hard questions at the UN, not to draw attention to ourselves but rather to the unresolved matters of policy that are both far from consensus and close to undermining our current, fragile stasis.

The UN can be a remarkable place, filled to the brim with experience and expertise on the widest possible range of policy concerns.   It provides, in some ways, an education like no other.   But it also harbors noticeable intellectual deficits.  There are few opportunities for genuine open-ended discussion on policy needs and responsibilities.   There are few questions posed that genuinely push “authorized speakers” to signal new space for potential policy shifts.   We are a building full of consensus-builders and (on the NGO side) campaigners, useful skills to be sure, but skills not ideal for breaking up our superficially optimistic mood or reminding people of the hard truth that some of the consensus resolutions they worked so hard on are unlikely to accomplish much in the world beyond First Avenue.

Two examples from this past week highlighted the pedagogical frustrations and opportunities of this very political space.  On Wednesday, the UN University organized an excellent discussion on the problem of modern slavery.  The keynote speaker made learned and helpful background remarks which emphasized distinctions between the “prohibition” of slavery and its “eradication.”   The pitch was, as is often the case in UN conference rooms, for the provision of national legislation that parallels and supplements international legal obligations to prohibition.

Fair enough, though as we pointed out, there is a deep conundrum attached to this approach.   Within the Human Rights Committee, for instance, a frequent response given by states whose human rights record has been called to account is something along the lines of, “this can’t be happening here, we have laws to prohibit it.”  But as NGOs in Geneva are fond of reminding Committee members, the presence of laws does not by any means guarantee eradication of the practice.  Thus our concern that a focus on legislation alone is insufficient to end the scourge, while a focus on eradication might make states more reluctant to sign on to human rights agreements in the first place.    How to navigate this problem?

The response we received was unfulfilling at best, almost as though the expert hadn’t considered this conundrum previously (surely he had) or failed to appreciate it being brought to his attention during a session that was being webcast. Moreover, no one in the audience approached us afterwards (or even made eye contact) to continue the conversation.  Apparently, ours was not a polite, courteous question, despite the fact that it seemed well within the band-width and interests of the speaker to respond and reflect.

This is what the UN is like too often – implicit and even excessive deference to “experts” and “authorities” who are often, but by no means always, on the best possible policy track.

Fortunately, there are bursts of healthy curiosity to be found if one is open to them.  One such occasion was on Tuesday when Ecuador ably convened a gathering to discuss prospects for a Fourth Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD).  There has been no such “special session” for 29 years now and delegates spent most of this morning discussion debating the scope of a possible meeting, whether to focus on one of the many stubborn areas of disarmament dysfunction or instead authorize a thorough review of all disarmament-related processes.

At one point, the Ecuadorian diplomat intervened, wondering aloud (lamenting perhaps) why the word “disarmament” so rarely is heard now across UN headquarters?   The question was simultaneously simple and brilliant.  For if disarmament has been downgraded in at least some quarters from a core UN priority, can a “special session” possibly help to restore its luster?

Despite the fact that disarmament matters attract some of the most capable diplomats in the UN system, the topic itself has never had a lower profile in my entire UN-based tenure.  Part of this is due to the discipline itself – inflexible architecture, low levels of state trust, treaties that are disregarded or are full of loopholes that uncooperative states are happy to exploit, invitations to weapons manufacturing states to hide behind consensus as a way of undermining disarmament agreement, a focus on managing the flows and modernization of weapons rather than reducing their volume and “footprint.”

But part of this low profile is due to successes in other parts of the UN, successes that have spawned a series of new, interesting, policy-rich discussions on conflict prevention and sustainable peace, conversations that often explore the implications of omnipresent weapons for development, climate, trafficking, even gender based violence.   Disarmament practitioners are only rarely present for these discussions; indeed SDG 16 on “peaceful and inclusive societies” was drafted and adopted with almost no involvement from disarmament-focused diplomats or related UN resource persons.

Whether another SSOD can resurrect the UN disarmament priority is debatable. What for us is less debatable is that our collective task here remains not to get things settled so much as to get them right.  Good questions – probing and respectful – are important contributions to ensuring timely and credible responses to constantly evolving global challenges, including human rights and disarmament challenges.

The most-curious Ralph Waldo Emerson once prodded teachers that when your students correct your mistakes, “hug them.”   There is little reason to believe that hugging will become common practice inside the UN, but a bit more curiosity regarding gaps yet to be filled — and perhaps even a modicum of gratitude for those who expose such gaps — would help keep us all on a more progressive policy path.

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One Response to “The Courage of Good Questions, Dr. Robert Zuber”

  1. marta benavides March 9, 2017 at 8:27 am #

    saludos to each and all — we at civil society must lead the UN, we must see it as the great tool it is.. for caring for all and most important/urgent aspects of life in Mother Earth.. and maybe some day on how we be in the universe.. the SDGs are a good tool for working to achieve really, if we so want it.. what i see is our call while here on Mother Earth.. to be born humans and become humane as we live each day.. for that we need to create a world fit for that purpose.. Bob, thanks a lot for your work and weekly accompaniment.. re this blog.. love.. marta- el salv

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