Traffic Circles:  Addressing the Loops that Fuel Conflict and Undermine Dignity, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Mar

Enslave the liberty of but one human being and the liberties of the world are put in peril. William Lloyd Garrison

Do something wonderful; people may imitate it.  Albert Schweitzer

This week at the UN was a bit of an “odd coupling” with legions of blue Smurfs showing up to promote the Sustainable Development Goals while Washington added to the UN’s funding anxieties and Pyongyang created new nuclear proliferation headaches.

It was also the first week of the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), a massive (and in our view too often un-strategic) gathering that, in its best iterations, reminds us of the still-unfinished work of gender justice as well as of the many areas of policy and practice which are yet to become “women’s business.”

One area that has long been “women’s business” – as both advocates for change and tragically more often as victims of abuse — is that of trafficking.   This week, both in the context of a CSW side-event and in the Security Council under the UK’s leadership, the UN attempted to steer a more hopeful path that promises genuine forward momentum on this stubborn scourge beyond our conventional cycles of response.

The “complexities” of trafficking – so described by one inspiring Somali activist — were very much on display this week.   Diplomats and NGOs called attention to the multiple (and as Egypt and others noted) mutually-reinforcing networks that traffic in weapons, narcotics, cultural heritage and, worst of all, in persons themselves.   For his part, UN Secretary-General Guterres made additional reference to the “shine of some skyscrapers” in our cities that were dependent on “forced labor.”

What all these violations have in common of course is their assault on human dignity, putting persons in what many of us would deem impossible situations and then offering options going forward that are likely to accomplish little other than snuff out the last vestiges of self-respect.   This creates a pattern all too familiar and all too insidious – people risking (and too often finding) unacceptable vulnerability in an attempt to escape conditions of unacceptable vulnerability.

At CSW, it was noted again and again the degree to which trafficking and the “modern slavery” that so often follows in its wake constitute “money making machines” for transnational criminal networks, terrorist groups, unscrupulous government officials, and others simultaneously skilled in exploitation and dismissive of human value (and especially the value of women and girls) beyond their own limited circles of malfeasance.

The complexities of modern trafficking have contributed to responses that seem more like endless circles of frustration than pathways to progress.   This week at the UN, diplomats and NGOs alike commented on the degree to which armed violence creates breeding grounds s for trafficking in all its dimensions.   In the Security Council, Panama made linkages between armed violence and child marriage.  Nigeria noted the conflict-related misuse of captured girls as “baby making machines.”  In more general terms, the European Union cited the “spillovers of insecurity” that are caused by armed conflict and which very much include the enabling of hard-to-address trafficking networks.

At the same time, others in the Council made clear that the inequalities and vulnerabilities of societies create conditions ripe for human slavery and trafficking, but also for the perpetuation of armed conflict itself.  As Greece explained, trafficking in all its aspects remains a major factor in sustaining the “economy of war.”  And Bolivia was (as they have been since they joined the Council in January) insistent that the pervasiveness of inequalities is symptomatic of a larger systemic problem — that our economics and politics privilege competition over dignity, acquisition over equity.  We humans have spent too much of our collective history “taking what we want” even if it means (as it often has) lowering the threshold of our common humanity in the process.

Around and around we go – conflict fueling trafficking networks which exacerbates existing inequalities and discriminations which creates (as Morocco noted this week) new breeding grounds for conflict.  It is a cycle that frustrates, a loop we cannot easily escape, a ride from which we cannot seem to dismount.

But there are strategies afoot to help us fortify what Pakistan this week referred to as our “spasmodic” responses to the violence and criminality of trafficking. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime is doing its part to help strengthen domestic law enforcement and border controls.  Ireland and other states are actively exploring ways to improve legal accountability at national and international levels as one means to prevent future abuses.   UN Women and many of the participants of CSW are holding up the gender dimensions of abuse and insisting that policy accommodates each and every one of them. The Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee is helping to disrupt the financial incentives for trafficking networks and undermine their internet-based recruiting.  At the same time, at least some of those Council members understand that trafficking response must involve all relevant UN stakeholders; that one UN organ cannot presume responsibility for an issue that takes so many forms, impacts so many development and security processes, traumatizes so many global citizens.  All are initiatives and insights worthy of “imitation.”

But the Council (together with the Peacebuilding Commission and other stakeholders) can take welcome leadership in one additional area. This week, UK Ambassador and current SC president Rycroft cited our collective duty to end the “instability” in which trafficking thrives.  Much of this instability, we would argue again, is a function of the armed violence that flares up and drags on in so many global regions.  With threats to UN funding looming, with assaults on human dignity seemingly as pervasive as ever, with so many illicit arms fueling so much unaccountable criminal violence, the Council must become smarter and especially more proactive in its security responses.   As Indonesia noted well this week during the debate, fresh efforts directed towards a more upstream “de-escalation” of conflict threats would be the ideal next step.

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