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

25 Jun

Parachute

 

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.

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