Archive | June, 2017

Misconnections:  Digging Through an Avalanche of Words in Global Policy, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Jun



In the whole round of human affairs little is so fatal to peace as misunderstanding. Margaret Elizabeth Sangster

Between what is said and not meant, and what is meant and not said, most of love is lost. Kahlil Gibran

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.  George Bernard Shaw

There are many things in the world that make us anxious, and we hardly need to chronicle them for readers of this blog.  We listen every day to some of the best, but much of the worst of the human condition – wars and rumors of wars, states turning against their own citizens, refugees fleeing conflict only to encounter rejection and neglect, oceans becoming receptacles for every incarnation of human wastefulness, children forced to abandon all vestiges of their childhood….

For all of the human-made madness that the UN seeks to address, one of the things that makes us most anxious is the ways in which we now mostly choose to communicate with each other.  In the culture at large, “communication” by whatever means and technology has quickly become associated with a mixture of excessive self-disclosure and ever less-subtle manipulation.  People so often “sell” themselves and their products or programs with little regard for the integrity of their audiences, as though what we are saying is all that truly matters while showing diminished respect for what others might need to hear. “Sharing” is now so often connected to creating an image or brand, to proclaiming ourselves as beings who have fully “arrived,” who are ostensibly already “good enough” rather than possibly just “good enough for now.”

The UN has its own communication malfunctions. We speak in endless acronyms, forcing anyone who enters UN conference rooms to scramble to grasp our institutional short-hand.  We make needless verbal promises about the keeping of peace and the promotion of human well-being which have more rhetorical than practical significance, and which thus tend to evoke at least as much public disappointment as gratitude.  We hold “debates” in the Security Council and elsewhere where no debate actually ensues, where states mostly present bland versions of their national positions without so much as a passing reference to the positions of others.

We are in this space literally buried in words that are too often disconnected from both our erstwhile constituents and from any clear actionable strategies in the world.   We “condemn” misconduct as though that has any demonstrable value in altering state behavior.  We remain “seized” of dangerous situations facing the world, though generally without the urgency or other emotional content which we might normally associate with that word.  We make endless (and at times also interminable) statements that rarely address what has already been said, do not anticipate statements or developments to come, and mostly avoid truly compelling ideas, images or suggestions whose impact might actually “survive” the end of the session.  We craft resolution after resolution to achieve a “consensus” that is mostly akin to a de facto veto and which results in language sometimes heavy on “bark” and almost always light on “bite.”

And we maintain groups of “like-minded” states and NGOs which often have a dubious relationship to the full growth and development of the norms and principles allegedly being defended, “selling” important normative frameworks while sometimes avoiding the changes needed (including the renunciation of our own rhetorical control) to ensure that we “get them right.”

The end result of all these choices — our watered down resolutions, overly facile promises and seemingly endless, forgettable statements by states and NGOs – is a lack of attentiveness to the consequences of our avalanche of words, specifically related to the assumption that some form of legitimate communication has taken place when precious little of the sort has actually happened.

There were many examples at the UN in this busy week of policy – from eradicating trafficking to banning nuclear weapons – where it seemed as though stakeholders were too often talking past each other or, at times, merely talking for its own sake.   One of the more painful of these exercises was in the Security Council last Tuesday during a week that was otherwise largely hopeful and positive for the Council.   In this instance, the focus was on Burundi, a country in the throes of considerable turmoil both internal – including compelling evidence of state-sponsored torture, arbitrary detentions, and mass displacement, and external – including allegations of incitement to violence by Rwanda and a noteworthy breakdown in relations with various parts of the UN system, including and especially with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Burundi has received considerable attention from the international community, including from the UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) configuration ably chaired by Ambassador Lauber of Switzerland.  Amb. Lauber was one of the briefers in this Security Council discussion and, along with UN Political Affairs’ Zerihoun, painted a picture that contained elements of hope – mostly related to the robustness of regional efforts to end the violence and restore stability — but was otherwise uncompromising in its portrayal of internal displacement, state-sanctioned rights violations, the closing of “civic space,” and an ongoing lack of state cooperation with both the Commission of Inquiry and key UN agencies.  Council members were largely silent at this session, though most have already voiced similar concerns through the PBC. Uruguay did take the floor to reinforce the main points of the briefing, noting the degree to which the current political stalemates within and outside the country threatened both prospects for future elections and efforts to promote justice for the many Burundians already gravely abused.

When it was Burundi’s Ambassador Shingiro’s time to speak, it became clear to the Global Action contingent in Chambers that speakers were not reading from the same book, let alone being on the same page.  Amb. Shingiro spoke of his “calm” country in which a “culture of dialogue” that can counter “false narratives” was being promoted through stakeholder retreats and conversational cafes.  While reminding the Council that reconciliation needs to be state driven, he also insisted that the problems in Burundi were not related to rights violations – allegations of which he described as “slander” and largely “politicized” –– but primarily to development deficits (which he seemed to blame on a “humanitarian war” and which have, for the record, consistently been discussed in the PBC).  In almost direct contradiction to the testimony of Lauber and Zerihoun, Shingiro alleged “security normality” for Burundi with “functioning democratic institutions from top to bottom.”

My group has been around the UN long enough not to be completely stunned by such massive communications “disconnects” between the Council and a UN member state.  But troubled they were, as was I, by the degree to which smart, savvy, committed diplomats could talk past each other in ways that jeopardize peace prospects and, more importantly, threaten citizens of Burundi with the specter of rights violations and development deficits well beyond the immediate future.

Our common plea – to ourselves, to the UN system, to persons inside and outside the policy realm – is to double down on strategies for clearer and more stakeholder-respectful communication.   We cannot have peace within institutions characterized by so many words trending towards so much misunderstanding; nor can we do all we might to bring peace to a complex world when finding narrative commonalities in our relatively small policy spaces remains such an elusive and even torturous task.

Dream Weavers: Honoring the Fathers Who Make us Fly, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Jun


My father didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it. Clarence Budington Kelland

Whoever does not have a good father should procure one. Friedrich Nietzsche

My mother gave me my drive, but my father gave me my dreams. Thanks to him, I could see a future. Liza Minnelli

I bet after seeing us, George Washington would sue us for calling him ‘father.’  Will Rogers

This was a week at the UN when many challenges and hopeful images washed over this community.  The building was filled with persons with various disabilities seeking to solidify their legitimate rights while reminding the rest of us here that not everyone can achieve – or even seeks to achieve – the erstwhile “perfections” of mobility and sensation that are so commonplace in UN spaces.

We also witnessed important discussions inside and outside the Security Council to strengthen efforts to prohibit the production and use of landmines and other improvised explosive devices that strike fear into communities, inhibit development, discourage displaced families from returning home, and create new legions of disabled persons as legacies of our collective failure to address conflict in its earliest stages.

And then there was the beginning of a negotiating process that will result in a “treaty” to prohibit (at a minimum) the production and use of nuclear weapons, hopefully in some not-too-distant future leading to their eventual elimination.

But this is Father’s Day weekend, and it’s my struggle to find a way to honor fathers and relate to such a policy and gender-complex environment as the UN tends to be.  Here goes…..

An article this week in a New York newspaper described the role of most fathers in their families, despite or perhaps due to shifting gender roles, as something akin to a backup musician to a lead singer:  helping to keep the show on track but not a headliner.  “Face it,” Bob Brody warned fathers in fact and prospect, “you’re doomed to lifelong tenure as the runner-up parent. ”

I will never be a parent but, as some of you know, I do dabble as an amateur bird watcher.  Perhaps for this reason, the Brody quote reminded me that birds have a relatively straightforward contract with their young:  providing food, protection and a nudge out of the nest when it is time for them to take off on their own.  We humans have a much more complex relationship to progeny, as any good psychologist will tell you, but even within this complexity there are essential tasks associated with children: taking care of their basic needs, protecting them through their vulnerable developmental phases, and lovingly escorting them out the front door of the family home when it is time for them to find their own way.

Indeed at some point in life, ready or not, it is time for all of us to go forth, to make our own decisions, to stand on our own feet, to love who and how we can, to “rebuild better” what has been broken, to scrape our own knees and find the ointment and bandages needed to bind our wounds and stay in the game.  Despite the false hope often communicated to us through our ubiquitous “devices,” there are dimensions of life – fortunate and unfortunate — that will forever remain outside our control.  Hopefully they will not also remain outside our circle of concern or our capacity to respond with some compassion and effectiveness.  We can indeed response to life’s challenges, even the harsher ones, while keeping our hearts and minds propped open and the switch that powers our hope in the “on” position.

Frankly, I worry about more than a few of the young men in my life and especially here at the UN, their apparent deficits of autonomy and self-determination, their confusion about their value independent of the women, parents and teachers in their lives. I also work within a system displaying a somewhat schizophrenic relationship to gender: the needs of men and boys are now virtually invisible relative to those of women and girls, the latter of which now pop up in virtually every UN policy discussion, from landmines and nuclear weapons to disabilities.  And yet, for all this understandable institutional attention to the deprivations imposed on women and girls in diverse circumstances, the UN remains very “male” space and not often in the best sense – in the genetics of much of its leadership, of course, but also in its proclivity to defend institutional “turf” and its consistently formalized and distancing policy rhetoric.  And to top that off, there are too few persons of either gender who seem terribly interested in changing the system’s culture beyond uncluttering the pathways to their own personal advancement.

Sometimes the burdens of being in this conflicted policy space – like the burdens of life in general — seem too great to bear, or at least too great to bear alone.  But we will never truly know our capacities – how far we can push, how much we can endure, how significant are our powers to heal others and transform systems – unless we put ourselves fully to the test, or until someone who matters to us insists that we take that test. What are sure to be unsettled times ahead will require much of us: stamina, patience, tenacity, dependability and resourcefulness – virtues we must practice diligently in the world for them to take hold and for which a bevy of academic degrees and “next gen” smartphones are no substitute.

In this world of tests that seem so challenging and so prone to end in disappointment, it is perhaps reasonable that so many young people with options to “lay low” would seek to do so.   But we can insist that those under our care get the pushes they require to leave the safety of the nest once and for all, to secure places in the world to test and practice their skills and virtues, hopefully fulfilling at least some of their dreams in the process.  The best fathers I know are happy to cheer on their progeny and other young people throughout this process, to accompany their joys and scrapes and provide perspective when life choices become a confusing maze.  But the best fathers I know also understand that dreams shrivel and die unless they are pursued in the world fully, effectively, collectively, even fearlessly.

And so big thanks goes to fathers – both biological and functional – who insist that the young people they raise and otherwise engage stay committed to full involvment in our anxious world, doing their part and weaving their dreams.  A push from the nest is unlikely to improve a father’s “runner-up” status as a parent; indeed it might reinforce that status in the eyes of some.  But there are few better things we can do for our young people, let alone for the world they are set to inherit, than to insist that they take wing and get on with their journey.


An Ode to the Ocean Conference:  A Poet’s Reflection, Elena Botts

14 Jun

Editor’s Note:   This from Elena Botts is both longer and more poetic than we usually post. Elena is indeed a full-length published poet as well as a student at Bard College.  She represented Global Action at the recent Ocean Conference and seemed both intrigued and perplexed by much of what she witnessed. Elena’s presence with us continues a long tradition of making space for young people with diverse skills, insights and interests beyond the remit of international affairs.  Their collective (and often provocative) “take” on what the UN is and is not, what we at Global Action are and are not doing, helps us chart our course in this policy space. (Title is mine, not Elena’s.)


There is no city except a city in fog before anyone. Had woken as the trees moved in an otherworldly breeze. There is no ocean but the ocean. Before anyone was stranded on a distant shore overlooking the bluffs of crazy sorrow. And here is the horizon that first finds the sun and moon as they rise and no stars but these stars as cannot be traced. By anyone. I saw you in a dream but then it was only seeing you in a dream. When still the ghost of you walks this earth.


We begin by stating (once more) that the ocean is the easiest thing to envision as “the beyond”. All of the delegates sat in a circle out on the windy dunes, some half-buried in the sand, others laughing like loons and spinning into the surf. We sat in the sun or sought a beyond in the waves like the way the people come to the beach just to sit facing the surf and sky without a prayer but the prayer of being alive and think nothing of it. We didn’t think anything of it. One ambassador asked another if they might have lunch and an NGO intervened to say hello and cast a distrustful eye on their shared national interests. An intern tried to find the right shoes. Of those around him, he thought to himself: “No, I wouldn’t say you all are selfish, just absorbed in your own perspectives and motivations. I’d say there’s always something to talk about. One can always trace the stars into a constellation, but will it catch on?  Will anyone talk about it? And then, will someone fly into outer space with billions of lines of bungee cord and-”

It is a motif in all our lives, the Secretary went on empathetically or perhaps nasally but probably not. He was only talking to the dim thunder of the surf.

He said something like this: “Given the immensity of the ocean, I can hardly think of the loss that our destruction of it represents. But instead of turning away, it becomes all the more important to calculate the effects of acidification, pollution, overfishing, resource extraction, and other human actions. A particular focus of conference is regional consequences for different countries whose representatives are in attendance. There is a portion focused on the Senegalese plan for facing these issues.”

The Secretary reminded us all that he was from Portugal and that Portuguese writer Vergilio Ferreira once had something to say about oceans. What Secretary quoted was that “A language is the place from where you see the World and in which the limits of our thinking and feeling are mapped out. From my language I see the sea.” What he did not say was that “From my language its murmuring is heard, as from others can be heard that of the forest or the silence of the desert. Therefore the voice of the sea has been that of our restlessness.” It wasn’t the real words, it was translated, as everything eventually is, into English. Are we made of the contexts we have forsaken? Do we meet here to discuss the world before we go out and find it?

Every country that has a statement on Sustainable Development Goal 14 (it calls for us to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”) has the right to make a scathing remark about how the U.S. is being an irresponsible bastard when it comes to climate and everyone knows it. Every day, the Americans renew their commitment to a carefully constructed guilt complex that has emerged in the aftermath of withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. We have never been good at national shame, however, so the guilt becomes new fodder for airing our differences and plastering our laptops with stickers just so everyone knows that our allegiance lies with not with the USA, nor with any special creed or conviction, but none other than the unimpeachable moon herself which we will soon colonize after we finish untangling Congress, our sense of morality (sometimes referred to as Guantanamo and other times called late stage capitalism, for more information, please take your local epileptic to Times Square), and the Dark Web.

So let’s talk acidification, pollution, overfishing, resource extraction, and other human actions (dumping especially), regional consequences for different countries whose representatives are in attendance, and let’s see what the Senegalese have to say. Today we are going to affect the lives of everyone on the planet. Don’t breathe or let your heart beat too loudly. I’ve heard that in sacred political spaces, the butterfly effect deafens. Let your heart beat too loudly.

Every organism is, in a way, representative of the whole ecosystem because something that impacts one, impacts all (much like the international system). I think most of us know this. It is hard I think to understand the depth of the human impact on the planet, sometimes I think scientists have only observed a small fraction of our influence. And even that which we have measured and can extrapolate from, in terms of climate change among other phenomena, is difficult to really process. I think it is emotionally numbing for many people to care about environmental problems just because they seem so insurmountable and the average person seems so powerless. However, it is important to overcome this attitude if only because it is through cooperative effort that we can enact real change, and this requires participation from all parties.

And what is the outcome of this? The delegates at the UN Ocean Conference are meant to determine and agree upon a set of voluntary commitments regarding marine life as a contribution to Sustainable Development Goal #14.

These commitments are put forward by nations and by NGOs and enacted as initiatives through governments or organizations. It is my personal hope that these initiatives are implemented, and expanded because the ocean is an immeasurable resource and critical for the continuance of that illimitably precious thing, life on earth. ‘The world’s oceans are key to sustaining life on the planet. They provide a range of benefits for human well-being and prosperity by providing food, jobs, habitats and biodiversity, and by moderating temperatures and capturing carbon.’

Later, you’d tell everyone that the greatest thing was the obliteration of sound when you fell into the collision of two oceans, midwinter in Africa. It was a yelling kind of frigid, your whole body syncopated.

Because afterwards, is the storm of doing but for nothing? What is this action plan, this nexus of hope but a ruse to tie us together when we are already tied together, when we are already threaded and indeed tired. ‘These are the action years’ says somebody, says probably the secretary of something. “This is the best opportunity we will have.” But I see you talking, sir. All I see is you talking. There is nothing happening here, all of the happening happens somewhere else through the efforts of people more committed than these. It is a vast and bureaucratic machine with no sense to soften it.

Suddenly, a group of scientists and researchers descends, all speaking excitedly of mangroves. Flood protection is vital they say, and economically viable. Eastern Caribbean states are especially vulnerable to storms and loss of coral reefs. Still, the Cook Islands might have trouble getting up. He and his people have, he says, “a disproportionate burden”.

And when the earth is destroyed, we will not inherit the earth, not even the scientists who were devoted will inherit but one shoreline in the shadow of a great beached whale. If it is as the minister of the Cook Islands has said, even his little heaven shall be underwater.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!” He cries (sixty percent of his own territory is legally protected). The Cook Islands soon hope to transition to all renewables. “You know”, he says, as an aside, “we really do have more water than land.”

There is an actor here and for a moment I’m afraid he was hard to discern from the enthusiasm of the Canadians. He says that he is full of goodwill but that the “g” in “goodwill” is in uppercase. He is positively giddy. He talks for a long time. He says nothing of substance. It is just a hundred flickering signs on the backs of the chairs where it is written: “Save the Ocean.” Maybe this is hopeless optimism. Maybe this is willful pragmatism. Maybe this is all messaging and now that meaning is gone, we’re effectively underwater. Maybe this is someone was commissioned to create ocean-related sculptures outside so now we too must play our part and take pictures of their creative work. It isn’t creative work. It’s a bunch of waves or something. You act like you’re too postmodern for this.

Sri Lanka keeps taking it all very personally, as we all might do if avoiding confrontation regarding the human rights abuses incurred over the course of one’s own civil strife.

The Swedish would like some fish. Or they’d like their fish back, which is why they’re co hosting and altering their fishing regulations to improve sustainability. Fiji is co hosting because soon they’ll have nowhere else to be. All it takes is a few cyclones. Palau and Tuvalu also mention the importance of fishing  regulations and indigenous solutions to prevent further “exploitation of international waters.”

The Chinese nodded along like buoys in a harbor. Someone cheerfully metaphorized the stock market, comparing it to a tide, rising and falling.

All of the people of Bolivia came here in one person to fight against “the commercialization of biodiversity” and “capitalism as a threat to the earth that must be broken down.” It’s amazing what modernity can do. He thinks we must be the siblings that he lost to imperialism so every day, every hour we must remind him that we are his enemies, that we would like to take his soul and sell it and afterwards eat of the cocoa leaf too.

Bolivia is getting so tall lately, says one of the five, but finally they decide to maybe help the landlocked developing country renegotiate with Chile for fair sea access. Bolivia is forced to clarify that “brother” is not a pejorative but comes from a place of deep cultural sensitivity. He goes on to explain that not everyone is born rich and that cultural traditional is important to those of indigenous heritage.

The Gabonese Republic mutters about “discrimination” and sanctions and the oceans become a thematic backdrop for allegations of vote-rigging. The sea is apparently the new locale for international justice.

If Belgium is in a hurry then is everyone else in a hurry too? No, no one else is in a hurry. Belgium is simply confused. Because it is important that we all sit in a room emailing and texting each other while someone else grants us idealistic colloquialisms about the fate of the word and this is not a circle jerk because in between important meetings we all drift as by osmosis, colliding with one another like random, idea-generating particles. But random doesn’t apply here because we are caught and we are each a mess of intentions and I need you to be quiet here for a moment and watch the boats go by in the lounge where no food or drink is allowed so that I can think about the state of our world or maybe just my state afterwards (I must address my constituents somehow, they are more real to me than these walls and these people and these ideas which I cannot fully bear).

After all, when you had first entered the building, did you know that you are inside the inside of everything? You know you must have been here before that time before you were born. Once again it was very quiet and everyone moved like the wind.

It is important that you remember that you are not a real person. It is good that way, no one will see you. You are a political entity and should act as such. It is perfect; every bit of the space has meaning but no one knows what it is. It’s like a song that you make up as you go along, except that no one is singing anything, at least until some Pacific Islanders came to the front and howled in song and it was the most beautiful thing about it. Come to think of it, you’re all alone. Only Pachamama is watching.

A man with a vacuum emerges around the corner and vacuums all around but not under your feet. You avoid one another’s gaze. There is a solitary ship on the East River, dim lit bulbs strung at its helm. A diplomat watches as you pass, evaluating the import of your step. You say you have no message but the words stick in your breath. This is the part of the story where- “she’s trying to feed dragging the dead calf after her”- marine life suffers and dies due to discarded fishing gear soon to be followed by a teary-eyed conservation society proclaiming that greater fishing regulation is necessary for the health of our oceans.

If you were a real person, you know what you would do. First, you would get a new shirt. Then you would recycle, but really recycle, not only cans and jars or nets and plastic bags (floating like death for the mammals to bite into, floating like manufactured ghosts, on the high seas, floating), recycle all the great sorrow of the people and the earth (as though in some implicit suicide pact, we fall, by warming, we lose even our essence and are melded together in that final hour, maybe even wading through a rising ocean, and scarcity was uncompelling and in the end we didn’t know what it meant to be human, we just knew that we were dying if we didn’t find out) and turn it into something compelling like a solution or as they call it lately, these days, a multilateral agreement, like a great something (beached whale?) between nations.

Finally, you would ride on a foreign minister’s back like a strange monkey from far away. You would say hello to everyone that you saw in the hallway. It is not impractical to address every single human being here, it is like playing god without being divine and especially without any pride. In the morning, you wake with the realization that we sprung from the womb as fully formed solutions. Surely, we could write the whole thing off to existential rot. Surely we could say who’s bright idea was existence anyway? To hell with the oceans! To hell with her that is like my mother and my father and my whole world, all that I have ever loved.

Yeah I care about what the ocean thinks. The real problem here is that there is no wind inside the building. It is not like we went into the great wood and oh goodness it breathed, those stormy trees and a weighted breeze rippling the solid calm of lake. Here I can only beg you not to speak so quietly when all lives bend to the water but you do, oh you do. The united nations climbed a tree, fallen as it was and each spoke of how everyone was restrained in a mighty fear, like something that could not be named so we named it and the world shook out from under us until we entered the old earth.

Let’s be judicious. Let’s have a council. Let’s prepare statements while we sit on airplanes or jets shooting across the sky like renegade falling stars that somehow, and to find fuel, to combust and propel oneself from a thousand foreign countries, immersed as we all are, after all, in the oceans. This all makes so much sense we don’t have to say it aloud. We’ll say it aloud anyway, loudly and ad nauseum. Did anyone forget that we are here to, in fact, save the oceans? We’re here to save the oceans. We’re here and we’re naked and we want more than anything to gird ourselves in compliance and measures to limit pollution from industry and eventually we would like to succumb to the formalization of an international system that seems so increasingly unsteady like, forgive me, a captainless rudderless ship sailing out between the dead buildings of New York City.

And in ghost – walking the city one recalls that there are many organisms that think they are separate organisms. If the nations are united then is this just another city? No, because no one is eating here and no one is sleeping here but mostly no one is knowing here another thing, for what it is. It is inescapable, New York, as we walk into a unseasonable temperature, passing security guards who ask if we are okay or perhaps feeling a bit under the weather today.


I keep thinking about the ruler of the universe, you know the one who controls the aquatic symphonies, the tides. He has a cat, a gingery thing that will leave his side and often but somehow remains like a piece of his face only you wouldn’t think of his face you’ll never remember his face quite even after you’ve met him and maybe it’s this way for a lot of people but for some reason. His face makes you remember a lot of things but these are as unspeakable as the planet in its slow revolutions of the sun and nothing ready to the mind, you cannot speak.

He lives in a small house. Here there is a table and a cat, a gingery thing that eludes him somehow more or less than all the ether that he cannot convince himself is real. He doesn’t believe in anything, he says. Most especially not himself and that is why I recall him so fondly, perhaps he is a generation of my own eroding. Maybe it is fond to know little or nothing or perhaps it is endearing to us who know mostly of failings and less of things that stick and stick and stick like stars or even the constellations of skin, so fixed is my vision on impermanence, so broken my bones by merely the thought of it and breath just another thing to carry me out of this world. Had I known myself enough here to know this place.

He lives by the sea, but we all do in our minds, anyway, ourselves forever wading or cresting. It depends on whether we are in it or of it, whether we could know it, or even the moon. He has a face like the moon and he breathes a cosmic wind that floats down and flutters us, our bones, our terrible unshakeable hearts that we do anything and everything to annihilate. As oblivion was the first true love.

When you embrace the ruler of the universe, he only shivers and admits that he doesn’t know if he exists, let alone if there is a universe. The others often aim at convincing him, that yes, there is great care in the cosmos, even rabid desire and the minds of animals, even the salivating human animal, and that the spinning suns burning out implode for something after all, even the nethers of us. But he is. The cat has lost itself in the wave but pads out again, slim flank and a trim fish in mouth or maybe an imaginary fish, a scintillating thing that the felid devours madly, streaking the bones and ravening. They comfort the body of the ruler, hold him tight though he is unmoved, moves little. His body doesn’t speak fathoms and his eyes are forgettable to each of us. We hold him like nobody until we are released. He smiles at us and says he will soon return to his little shack on the rim of the great ocean on this planet that is smaller than most but on which he is lonesome, that is if one can be alone, that is if he is what he is and there is a shack crumbling and an ocean also and a rim of all things, though he says, and skuffles a foot into a dune, I cannot suppose that is so. I do not know.

The Last Word:  The Security Council Mishandles its Audiences, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Jun

There is never enough time to say our last word-the last word of our love, of our desire, faith, remorse, submission, revolt.   Joseph Conrad

It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the heart: the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you.  Mark Twain

That most dangerous of opponents is the one who took pains to comprehend the position of his adversary.  Piers Anthony

One of the many lessons of life that I (and many others) with privilege and access struggle to learn is that, for all of the impediments in the world – the competition for attention or resources and the wildly divergent lenses on reality that give rise to so many of our struggles – the greatest impediments often lie within ourselves.   “The enemy within,” the stuff of literature and legend, is an adversary about which we often seem to know the least. And in a world currently preoccupied with externalizing responsibility rather than accepting it, these knowledge gaps are only likely to grow.

As many of you know, we are regular (and largely grateful) participants in what the Council refers to as its “public” sessions.  As we have noted on other occasions, these meetings are for us a bit like sitting in front of a large picture window through which we can clearly behold a meal we are never invited to join. Indeed, aside from “re-tweets” from select delegations seeking to brand themselves and their ideas – a matter which diplomatic missions have now largely taken into their own hands – we have little interaction with Council members.  They almost never acknowledge our presence in the room, even when we are the only non-diplomatic persons in it.

So why do we sit there, hour after unacknowledged hour, listening as we do to statements that require great attention on our collective part just to find a kernel or two of value or interest that we can transmit to (and beyond) our twitter following? Why do we track conflicts and controversies that routinely appear on the Council’s agenda and that, with some notable exceptions (such as Liberia and Colombia) are often locked within political struggles that prevent successful conflict resolutions or even hopeful transitions?

Some of it, especially for our interns and fellows, is related to the desire to be present at those moments when history is being made – an agreement on Iran’s nuclear capability, a comprehensive plan to degrade ISIL, a first ceasefire in Aleppo, a response to weapons threats by the DPRK.

But more of it is grounded in our organization’s contribution of “attentiveness” based in part on our recognition that the Council’s sometimes arcane working methods and intractable political disagreements can weigh heavily on the rest of the UN’s agenda. When the Council indulges a meaner spirit; when its power imbalances denigrate the prerogatives of its elected members, when Council members allow a few special representatives and other briefers to be “beaten up” by offended states, the discouragement – in my office but also in many parts of the UN system — is more than palpable.   Why, my interns ask, does anyone think this body, behaving in a manner at times invited by its own working methods, is sufficient to solve crises that in some key ways already impact their future?

Some of this discouragement was on display Thursday afternoon during a report on Darfur by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda.   Her presentation to the Council – and the 25th report on Darfur on which it was based – was a direct challenge to uphold Council resolutions based in part on the “trust” for justice that victims have placed in this body. The report was also recognition that there has been some progress on social, economic and human rights conditions in Darfur.  There has recently been reported, as the prosecutor noted, fewer clashes between the government and insurgents, fewer rapes of women in the displacement camps, fewer denials of access for humanitarian assistance or impediments to the movements of UNAMID peacekeepers.

The prosecutor in so many words reminded the Council of its failure to act in cases of non-cooperation with the Court, such as when states acceding to the Rome Statute allow indicted war criminals such as Sudan’s al-Bashir to travel beyond his own national borders, contravening obligations under the statute to have him arrested and turned over to prosecutors in the Hague.  But in the same session, the prosecutor reminded the Sudanese that while their recent positive overtures are noted, “better” does not imply “sufficient.” Moreover, such positive signs do not in and of themselves constitute pathways to immunity for crimes already committed and for which formal indictments have long since been issued.

Council members are decidedly mixed regarding their reaction to the International Criminal Court with firm supporters such as Italy, Uruguay, France and current Council president Bolivia making appeals for cooperation and resources to skeptical states such as China, Ethiopia, Russia and Egypt.  Some of this skepticism is grounded in a concern, not completely without merit, that ill-timed indictments lacking broad (in this case African) regional support undermine a peace process that is beginning to show progress, a peace that is ultimately in the best interests of Darfur.

But in our hearing, some of this skepticism took on more of the character of permission to “take on” the prosecutor; and the Sudanese Ambassador willingly obliged.  He followed up his own assertion that Madame Bensouda was using “abusive language” directed at both the Council and Sudan by ratcheting up the abusive rhetoric himself – calling for the complete shutdown of this “kangaroo court,” implying that the ICC is incapable of doing its job without “inventing evidence or bribing witnesses,” congratulating the UN secretariat for allegedly “distancing itself” from ICC interpretations, even suggesting that the ICC had met its match and was now “tasting the consequences” from having taken Sudan too lightly.

It was a show of contempt that, sadly, is not without precedent in this Council.  Moreover, in this instance as with too many others, the Ambassador’s remarks went unchallenged.  No one attempted to restore the context of the meeting, let alone defend the reputation of the prosecutor.   The session was quickly brought to a close.   The last word belonged to the Sudanese.

Psychologists have done some good and interesting work on the phenomenon of “the last word,” much of it in the context of arguments across gender lines.   Without diving into this too deeply here, there is broad consensus that the need for the “last word,” is a function of an over-exercised or (ironically) damaged ego: needing to be “right” all the time, or needing reassurance, over and over, that a passionate point of view is “being heard.”  But there is more to it:  the manner in which we humans tend to interpret the silence that too often follows a bold, even reckless accusation.  In that silence there is an assumption of acceptance, an assumption that maybe this last point of view had more going for it than we might have otherwise imagined. And in many instances, it is this last viewpoint – abusive or not, factual or not – that becomes the” take-away” for the audience.

In this Thursday meeting, the Council continued a pattern of institutionalized practice that ensures maximum impact for the opinions and accusations of some of the states that, by their own conduct and even their own admission, have demonstrated more than a bit of contempt for Council resolutions and often for international law itself. Such states certainly deserve to have their say.  They should not, however, be entitled to have the last word.

Oceans 14: Making Peace with Life Below Water, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Jun


Global warming is the foreboding thunder in the distance. Ocean acidification is the lightning strike in our front yard. David Horsey

It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.   Ansel Adams

If you’re out someplace like the ocean on a capsized boat, it doesn’t matter if you have academic degrees, or if you’re a martial-arts ninja. Nature is a bigger force than you. Rachael Taylor

Monday, the UN is poised to welcome delegates from around the world, including many heads of state and foreign ministers from Small Island Developing States (SIDS). These leaders have come to profess their deep commitment to the vast and unique resource represented by our oceans.  They have come to share threats of desalination and sea water rise, of acidification, fisheries depletion, mass “islands” of plastic waste and growing species loss.  They have come to ask for justice and assistance to preserve their island homes and ways of life.

For months now, under the guidance of the president of the General Assembly, Fiji’s Peter Thomson, and with enthusiastic support from much of the UN system, our UN conference rooms been the scene of intense scrutiny of the consequences of our frivolous and longstanding misuses of our oceans, a resource that our western mythology has long cast as infinite and fearsome, but which we now recognize is showing grave strains that jeopardize the livelihoods, safety and well-being of all who live on its shores, all the families and communities who depend on its bounty.

The culmination of efforts by President Thompson and many other UN leaders is what is known as “The Ocean Conference,” or in its longer version, the United Nations Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

The larger policy backdrop for this meeting is a series of climate-related warning signs with implications for and from our oceans, including mass ice cap fissures, record high global temperatures, and increasing levels of food insecurity exacerbated by climate-related drought, flooding and damage from massive ocean storms.  And then there is the decision by the UN’s “host state” to pull out of the Paris Climate agreement, only one of a series of steps taken by the current US administration to roll back virtually all environmental protections for which the federal government has previously taken responsibility.

This isn’t the setting to undertake a thorough critique of the US president’s decisions on environmental protection, ocean health and climate change. From a multi-lateral perspective, though, we are inclined to reject the lens promoted by many in the media that US leadership is utterly indispensable to the urgent pursuit of ocean and climate health.   We have, in fact, both seen and welcomed the determination of many states around the world to step up their environmental commitments in partial recognition of the fact that the Paris agreement, for all of its hopeful policy urgency, establishes a still-shaky floor for climate health.  Many scientists believe that the targets established by Paris are probably not robust enough (a point also made by Nicaragua which has thus far refused to support the agreement); some scientists believe that we have already crossed a dangerous threshold and that much more will be needed from many corners of the globe if a permanent crisis is still to be averted. A bit of formal US government hostility towards environmental health may increase the shaking a bit, but thankfully others are doing more and pledging even more than that.  And the tide in the waters of US state concern can always turn again.

In this context, we should recall that a lack of formal US commitment to UN agreements has rarely, on its face, indicated an unwillingness to work with relevant UN mechanisms.   The US has long been a serial offender when it comes to ratifying UN treaties but not always a serial offender when it comes to honoring their spirit.  The US may never ratify the Rome Statute, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that the US won’t work with the International Criminal Court prosecutors to promote justice for mass atrocities.  There is wiggle room here to negotiate cooperative, if not binding arrangements on oceans and other climate-impacting resources, even with members of this fact-challenged administration.

Nevertheless, given recent threats to state support (at least for now in the US) for climate-healthy, environmentally-friendly policies, the onus must shift (and has shifted in many instances) to cities and communities, activists and academics, designers and farmers, people from all walks of life and their supporting organizations who have both skills and contexts to contribute to our urgent environmental tasks.  Indeed, one key feature of this week’s Ocean Conference is its focus on voluntary commitments from state and non-state actors, commitments ranging widely from efforts to rid the oceans of discarded fishing gear and micro-plastics to establishing new or larger ocean sanctuaries.  We will need to solicit and network many thousands more of these commitments by government and non-government actors, especially from within the major oceans-abusing and even climate-denying states.

One “commitment” that we value greatly is Green Map, which is now in the process of aligning its global iconography (170 core images) with the Sustainable Development Goals.   The point of this exercise is not to promote the icons themselves, but rather what the icons themselves promote – hopeful local sustainability initiatives taking place in communities worldwide.    There are many such initiatives underway and many more soon to take root.   We need them all, and then some.

If some states begin to lose their grip on the urgency of our ocean and climate risks, the rest of us must tighten our collective resolve.  We cannot survive as a species without our oceans.  We surely cannot meet our diverse obligations to the SDGs without healthy oceans. We cannot eliminate poverty, educate our children, resolve our governance-related issues, end discrimination and even solve climate change without oceans that can sustain its complex and still-undiscovered life forms while continuing to host our livelihoods and absorb our carbon excesses.

Many of us have had the experience of standing on an ocean shore staring at darkening clouds kissed by a setting sun.   Alarmingly, the thunder in those clouds is louder now; the lightning is getting closer than is comfortable.  The time has come, indeed past, for us to pause our grateful gaze and take up our urgent cause.