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Culture Club:  Linking Policy and Inspiration in UN Contexts:  Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Jul

Plane Crash

To build a world without fear, we must be without fear. To build a world of justice, we must be just. And how can we fight for liberty if we not free in our own minds? How can we ask others to sacrifice if we are not ready to do so?  Dag Hammarskjöld

Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence. Aristotle

Happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness; it has no taste. Charlotte Brontë

Forgiveness is the answer to the child’s dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is made clean again. Dag Hammarskjöld

This week marks what would be the 112th birthday of the legendary Dag Hammarskjöld, one of the very few persons whose mention still evokes awe inside the UN even if most of his thoughtful wisdom has been relegated to the sidelinesof “quaintness” by a political system that has become much too “inspiration resistant.”

As many of you know, Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash under what are still deemed to be suspicious circumstances.   These have been the subject of General Assembly resolutions and a 2015 Panel of Experts report that has stoked further interest in what we still don’t know about the crash, what intelligence files might still exist that could shine light on what is a yet-unresolved 56 year old tragedy.

It is relatively easy, I suppose, to revere figures from our past as they are no longer around to annoy us or get in our way.   And it is relatively easy to sideline the values-driven perspectives of a Hammarskjöld as the product of a global order characterized by considerably fewer (almost entirely western) centers of political and economic influence than what we know today.   To be clear, the UN of Hammarskjöld’s time had to accommodate far fewer member states represented by far more male delegates.  Beyond the rightful preoccupations of the time with decolonization, the dominant, bipolar power dynamics were focused on how to prevent the early stages of “cold war” from becoming dangerously heated.

But that the values of Hammarskjöld might not any longer be wholly “appropriate” to the activities and constituencies of the UN does not imply that issues of the UN’s culture and purpose to which he pointed should be abandoned outright.  Our dreams and aspiration to clean the messes we failed to prevent and fix what is broken — these still matter.   Our need to embody the courage, forgiveness and other traits of character that we expect from those we deign to lead — this still matters, too.  The importance of aspiring to be more than just “good enough” in these dangerous and treacherous times — this perhpas matters more than ever.

There are places throughout the UN where vestiges of this interest in how we do our general business, including our obligations to one another, remains.  In the Security Council debate this week on African Peace and Security, and during meetings of the Peacebuilding Commission, the Japanese Ambassador both lamented and challenged the current proclivity inside the UN to “chase conflict,” a chase that exhausts human capital, compromises the trust of peoples and states, and creates both massive victim heartbreak and senseless finger pointing by states who never seem to get around to pointing fingers at themselves.

In this current Security Council configuration elected members Sweden and Uruguay are among those that continue to press regularly for a more thoughtful, humane policy culture. Sweden has kept up pressure on colleagues to honor promises to gender equity, to the rights of displaced persons, and to full-spectrum, collaborative engagements on peace and security with the Peacebuilding Commission and other UN and regonal entities. Uruguay for its part has demonstrated a relentless regard for the anxious impatience of the wider UN membership with progress on peace, as well as the will to do what few other state representatives in New York are encouraged or authorized to do – remind the large powers of their occasional duplicities on armed violence, on respect for human rights, on protection of civilians, and on their rush to coercive responses to conflicts that require above all else honest political dialogue.

Beyond the Council, also noteworthy for us this week was a presentation in the Economic and Social Council High-level segment on the eradication of poverty by Fatoumata Jallow-Tanbajang, Minister of Women’s Affairs of Gambia.  The Minister, whose country recently and only narrowly avoided a major crisis of political transition with its related allegations of theft and corruption, could have been forgiven for taking a “fingers crossed” approach to the general implementation of the sustainable development goals, not to mention her country’s own potential to meet their SDG targets.

She did nothing of the sort.  Instead, Minister Jallow-Tanbajang laid out one the most hopeful, inspiring messages of the entire week.  She spoke honestly about addressing the “diaspora” arising in part from years of political turmoil that drained the talent now badly needed at home.  She stressed concrete efforts to bring about social cohesion in a state “that has been divided for too long.”  And, quite remarkably, she advocated for both “freedom” and “happiness” as viable indicators of development success, understanding that the quality of societies is at least roughly equivalent to the quality of the lives of its inhabitants.  As a statement on the importance of promoting a humane and sustainable national culture, this was without peer.

Indeed, there are many times when we find ourselves longing for more of this honest, determined, people-centered discourse. Global Action is fortunate to have among the more diverse cohorts of interns and fellows of any group at the UN.  It is an important commitment for us – a testament both to the vast pools of talent that lie still unrepresented in this world, and the need for this talent to spend enough time inside the UN to determine if there is room for them here, room where they might cultivate their policy voices and become models for the world they are anxious themselves to build.

The answer is often, sometimes wistfully, “no.”

As I understand it, this “no” is not a rejection of the opportunity which the UN presents or the extraordinary learning space it represents; nor is it an indictment of what or how much the UN is doing to engage global threats. There is simply no way, in our view, to argue that the UN is not addressing the most crucial issues of our times, from oceans to nuclear weapons.  It is, though, an open (if respectful) question as to whether the general UN culture is honest enough, thoughtful enough, determined enough, to deliver on its essential promises.  The issue here, certainly for our young people, is not if our policies are pointed in the right direction, which they most assuredly are, but whether our hearts and hands are directed similarly.  This matters to them, as it should matter to us all.

The “dream of a miracle” to which Hammarskjöld attested is hopefully one that has not gone out of style, has not been doused by our political maneuvering and predatory economics, let alone by our institutional incapacity to concede and forgive. As the Gambian minister noted this week, “We have suffered, but we are not crying.  We will stand tall.”  If we are to stop chasing conflicts rather than resolving them; if we are to find the persistence needed to bring the hope of sustainable development to wary and oft-neglected communities; if we are to retain the interest of the young talent that has been attracted by our lofty promises; then we will need to stand taller in this global policy space as well, mastering even more than we have at present the determination to fix what is broken and clean what is soiled.