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Truth or Consequences:  The UN Takes a Risk on Sustainable Security, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Jul

Security is mostly a superstition. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.  Helen Keller

We will bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security. Dwight D. Eisenhower

Distrust and caution are the parents of security. Benjamin Franklin

It was a pretty good week at the UN for the young people of the world, those who are destined to inherit the consequences of our wars and famines, our grave challenges and too-often incomplete policy responses.

Media headlines have recently focused on North Korea missile launches and G-20 divisions largely involving the United States and climate change, and there were certainly some tense moments this week in the Security Council as US Ambassador Haley threatened colleagues with unilateral action in the absence of a viable, collective response to North Korean “provocations.”

But for the most part, at least at the UN, it was a hopeful time for the planet.  In the Economic and Social Council, Secretary General Guterres outlined his “8 Point Plan” for the UN development system that wisely focuses on service results and less on bureaucratic structures, “more on people and less on process. “  And the Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) hosted two days of important discussions designed to honestly assess and carefully address what was seen by presenters as a growing threat by terrorists to civil aviation.

Beyond this, there were two other events of considerable significance at the UN that would have done well to take greater note of each other.

As we mentioned last week, the UN has been involved in a process to prohibit the development, possession, stockpiling and certainly the use of nuclear weapons.  The so-called “Ban Treaty” was adopted on Friday to thunderous and well-deserved applause.  The 122 states that supported adoption –none of which were weapons-possessing states nor the principle, alleged “beneficiaries” of nuclear weapons “umbrellas” – believe that they have set in motion a process that will eventually lead to the total elimination of such weapons.  Whether that happens or not, whether the treaty ultimately strengthens or weakens the resolve of nuclear weapons states to invest in weapons development and modernization, the adopting states have declared once and for all their rejection of deterrence-based security doctrines; indeed their full independence from the erstwhile allures of nuclear weapons culture. As such, the “space” for that culture has shrunk once more, hopefully soon to be replaced by a security culture that is far more people centered and far less weapons driven.

One of the “complaints” about the Ban Treaty is that it didn’t go far enough when it had the chance to do so, didn’t enact prohibitions that sufficiently covered all aspects of what had become a dominant, pervasive and dangerous nuclear weapons culture.  Some of these alleged deficits were a function of the limited time granted to negotiators; some were surely related to relatively weak structures of governance and accountability within the treaty: and some were surely based on the fear of some that strict and comprehensive prohibitions would only increase the prospect that nuclear weapons states would choose to maintain their distance from the treaty, thus making the goal to which the treaty points – weapons elimination – that much less likely.

Perhaps ironically and at virtually the same moment that the “Ban Treaty” was being adopted in UN Conference Room 1, a complementary event was called to order upstairs. Chaired by Panama on behalf of the Human Security Network, a group of over a dozen member states committed to the full implementation of General Assembly resolution 66/290, this gathering underscored the degree to which human security “recognizes the interlinkages between peace, development and human rights, and equally considers civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.”

All presenters at the session highlighted one or more aspects of these bold and comprehensive linkages. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed reinforced the degree to which a human security framework is well suited to address poverty in all its aspects and manifestations as well as provide a framework for preventing conflict and addressing natural disasters and climate-related impacts.  Other speakers on the panel used the examples of disaster response (Mexico) and refugee flows (Jordan) to underscore the “human security” priorities of sound risk assessment, comprehensive analysis, local capacity assistance, and the cooperative, diverse stakeholder engagement specifically urged by Panama.

We heard only one vague reference to the “Ban Treaty” adoption in this Human Security session, and there was certainly no recognition of the latter in the former.  But from our standpoint these rooms were clearly pulling in similar directions, trying to address not only weapons, but their culture; not only conflicts but their multiple triggers and enablers.  As with the “Ban Treaty,” the large and powerful states were almost entirely absent from the Human Security discussions.  Thus it was left to both rooms –mostly independently of one another–to create signposts towards a more just and hopeful world while exercising only limited control over the consequences of their decisions.

Ultimately, of course, the challenges we face are not just about policy, but also about us, about our creeping inability to tolerate any risk in matters personal, professional and political that isn’t guaranteed to succeed.  We should be reminded that the “daring adventure” that is our collective life requires, in part, people who are willing to take the dare, who are committed to deep thinking and bold action, who are prepared to manage carefully and then acknowledge gracefully the intended and unintended consequences of even our best policy efforts.  Within the political limitations of the rooms in which they found themselves, stakeholders at the UN this week seemed more willing than usual to take the dare, to uphold the truth they behold and manage as best they can the consequences of the truth lying (at least for now) a bit beyond their gaze.

At one of the CTED briefings on aviation safety, one of the few questions posed was asked by one of our Global Action interns, who wondered why we struggle as a community with risk assessment, why we spend so much energy running after threats whose challenges seem always one step ahead. For many of our young people, such questioning corresponds to a deep anxiety – that those at the UN and elsewhere currently in charge of global policy don’t often enough “level” with themselves and the rest of us about the state of global affairs as a precursor to deeper commitments to assessing global risk and promoting resilience – resilience in the form of diverse, local actors (including younger actors) with the skills and resolve to create context-specific analyses and responses to the challenges that affect them most directly.

Such honest “leveling” is important, especially for an often suspicious and cautious generation that wonders if we collectively have what it takes to survive current challenges; but that also wonders if they themselves have what it takes to detour from the straight and narrow highway that older persons have often placed them on and embrace that “daring adventure” wherein lies fresh energies, ideas and experiences.  We will need plenty of all three from this generation – and then some – if we are to continue on our “human security” journey: towards honestly analyzing global trends, making and sharing relevant connections, enabling a more diverse array of stakeholders, and managing consequences when our best policy efforts don’t completely work out the way we planned.