Archive | August, 2017

Glass Cleaner: Reflecting the Inspiration We Find in the World, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 Aug

flood

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it. Edith Wharton

It is never too late to be what you might have been. George Eliot

Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world. Desmond Tutu

We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us. Joseph Campbell

I’m sitting in the office early on a beautiful Sunday morning in New York, sifting through seemingly endless lists of “inspiring” quotations, hoping to locate one or more offering a bit more insight into what “inspiration” actually requires — why we in the NGO world need to address our own inspiration needs; but also why it is such an important (if often overlooked) aspect of our work that we are willing to offer inspiration for and/or “reflect forward” the inspiration provided by others.

This might seem like an odd topic to take up in a setting like the United Nations, a place that most people who have not given up on us entirely think is literally dripping with inspiration.  Look at all the good work that emanates at least in part from this space; the disaster relief supplied, pandemics overcome, landmines disabled, refugees housed, impunity challenged. Under the UN flag, people risk their own lives daily to protect and provide provisions to civilians in horrific conflict zones.   Under the UN flag, people doggedly pursue elusive political agreements and even more elusive justice.  Under the UN flag, people rally stakeholders to stave off the grave consequences associated with a warming planet, staggering levels of armament and vast populations on the move, risking much in the search for safer havens. Under the UN flag (and with excellent leadership from the current President of the General Assembly, Fiji’s Peter Thomson), dozens of small island nations have banded together in common cause, gathering allies powerful and humble from other parts of the world and then lodging urgent, science-based appeals for ocean health.

There has never been any doubt in our minds about the value of this policy space.  While the UN might never live up to the standards established by its often-incessant self-branding, there is little reason to believe that any of the (more and less) existential messes we have inflicted on ourselves are more likely to be resolved in its absence.

But while the UN is (to our view) very much necessary to global healing, it is also, equally clearly, not sufficient.  Those of us who walk these policy corridors many hours each day quickly become familiar with this system’s limitations:  the restrictive power imbalances among states; the conflict-related messes we struggle to clean up that didn’t need to be messed up in the first place; the promises on development, armaments and more that we so often make to the world and that we know, at face value at least, we are unlikely to keep; the amount of time we spend “condemning” state conduct without any prospect of meaningful follow-through; the often competitive and non-transparent manner in which we engage with other stakeholders, certainly including within and towards the “community” of NGOs.

As with its many successes, there is more to the UN’s “insufficiency” of course, more reasons for people to question if UN and government officials truly grasp the implications of the precarious moment we find ourselves in. Are our levels of attentiveness, dedication and urgency appropriate to the challenges of our times?   Are we doing all that we can with the opportunities presented here, including doing enough to inspire others to fill in our gaps and raise expectations for our collective performance? Do we have both the courage to keep our own candle of inspiration alive and (perhaps more important) the humility to learn from and properly reflect forward the light of inspiration offered by so many others?

This week we in the office (and far beyond) mourned the death of Tony De Brum, the former Foreign Minister of Marshall Islands and a formidable voice for sanity on many issues, but especially on the threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change.  As BBC and other media tributes this week (along with a few personal stories told by our close colleague, John Burroughs) made clear to all, De Brum was heavily and persistently motivated by his life experiences – including witnessing the “Bravo” nuclear test in 1954 while fishing with family – to become a “legendary” advocate for his people and the small islands that still conceal poisons from the early nuclear era and are now threatened by seemingly relentless sea level rises.  The “coalition of high ambition” that De Brum helped to create was instrumental in bringing about the unprecedented Paris Climate Agreement.  As he would no doubt recognize, such a coalition is now needed in many other policy areas where the greed and carelessness of all of us have placed the future of our children (and so many other life forms) in considerable peril.

As with current PGA President Thomson, De Brum demonstrated in full measure that it is not necessary to be a major player from a powerful state to have meaningful impact.  Nor are big-ticket contributions from the most powerful institutions necessarily what are now needed most.  Around the world, from Harlem to the Marshall Islands, there are gardens to tend, children to teach, conflicts to mediate, coastlines to clean, rights to defend, refugees to shelter, poverty to eradicate.  And today, as on too many climate-affected days, flood victims to rescue from the rooftops.

We all should pledge to do more in these times, including providing reassurance and inspiration for all who seek to help “overwhelm” our common, stubborn challenges.  But lest we forget:  many are already doing deeds to promote sustainable peace and justice, often beyond the spotlight of national media and the recognition of international organizations. And as much as we might like it otherwise, it is through reflecting those many deeds, rather than through promotiong our own actions, that inspiration and hope for meaningful, sustainable change can have its greatest impact.  To magnify the light for these murky times, the mirror is likely more potent than the candle.

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Oxygen Tank: Finding the Fuel to Stay on Mission, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Aug

Oxygen

Basic human contact – the meeting of eyes, the exchanging of words – is to the psyche what oxygen is to the brain.  Martha Beck

Even the laziest person will fight for oxygen when drowning.  J.R. Rim

No one can find the rewind button, boys, so cradle your head in your hands. And breathe, just breathe.  Anna Nalick.

It is coming on late August in New York and the light of summer is beginning to wane, certainly more quickly than either the humidity or the bus fumes.  Along with the tourist-clogged sidewalks, endless construction (including outside my home windows) and mass transit that elevates sweat glands and blood pressure more effectively than it honors its public service obligations, it is hard to truly breathe here now, even harder than is usually the case.

In its corner of this breath-challenged city, the UN has been a bit quiet again this week. However, World Humanitarian Day was aptly commemorated on Friday both to honor those who have died in the service of those enduring armed violence, catastrophe or abuse, and to reaffirm in the strongest terms that civilians (and those who assist them) are not and must not become “targets.”

In the Security Council this interplay of armed violence and humanitarian risk was also in focus.  On Thursday, an otherwise predictable discussion on civilian protection and election preparations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was enriched by a report by Egypt on its “resource trafficking” initiative as well as by the participation in chambers of family members of two UN Experts — Zaida Catalán and Michael Sharp – brutally murdered in the DRC.  The promise of justice extended to these families is one that we should all do our part to ensure it is kept.

On Friday, the discussion on the grave humanitarian emergency that is Yemen seemed a bit more typical of the tenor of recent Security Council meetings.   Outgoing OCHA head Stephen O’Brien described a “maelstrom of death and destruction” in Yemen that does not seem to be improving despite his belief (shared by some around the oval) that this conflict is “deliberate” and well within our power to prevent. Outrage by the Council has had “little impact” on the misery of Yemen’s civilians as both O’Brien and Bolivia’s Ambassador Llorenti duly noted.   Outrage in and of itself rarely does.

This particular Council session was attended by Yemen’s Minister of Foreign Affairs who ignored Uruguay’s call for UN monitoring of entities deliberately endangering Yemen’s women and children, seeking instead to expose only the abuses committed by the Houthi “coup masters” who have “brought war to Yemen” and seek to spread Iranian-inspired “ethnic division” throughout the country. The occasional conciliatory tones expressed by the MFA were directed towards the Council and its resolutions rather than towards political opponents or the growing legion of victims in Yemen in need of healing and reconciliation.

As the meeting was gaveled to a close, a couple of my younger colleagues were taken aback. Is that it?  Is that all?   No firm commitments of human or material resources?  No concrete resolve to end the bombing and sustain a political process? No confession of the failed political maneuverings and reckless arms sales that have directly contributed to human carnage on a scale that relativizes even the sieges of Syria and famine-like conditions in Somalia and the Sahel?

There are times when UN meetings inside and out of the Security Council leave us literally gasping for air, wondering how diplomats and NGOs like us can sublimate so much of what we know about the precariousness of our world within statements and responses that are at times clever but not particularly compelling, insightful but not particularly urgent. In these UN buildings, in the city that surrounds, there is simply too much gasping, too much agitation and distraction, in part because we are not, literally not, “in our right minds.” We are running on fumes too much of the time, fumes which metaphorically represent the dregs of our remaining oxygen supply, the desperate need for which our ubiquitous challenges and frenetic paces have largely obscured.

Here at the UN we have our well-appointed buildings and conference rooms.  We have the respect of many based in part on the carefully-negotiated and heavily-scrutinized normative frameworks needed to stave off at least some of the catastrophes that verily threaten human possibility.  But something essential is missing here; its almost as though we have wilfully misplaced the advice of airlines stewards to, more often than is our habit, place on our own oxygen masks before assisting others.

At a small weekend retreat in New Jersey this weekend hosted by Adora and Levi Bautista, a small group of persons in various “caring contexts” took our own first steps towards oxygen replenishment, not only to enhance our own clarity and well-being, but to help refresh the people alongside whom we identify and address challenges both local and global.  As we slowly felt able to take deeper breaths, some truths hopeful and uncomfortable revealed themselves.  We became a thoughtful and engaged group who recognized that we, too, have not invested sufficiently in “eye contact,” attentiveness and other manifestations of human connection that can create the oxygen we need to clarify, to solve, to thrive.   We have neither “honored” nor shared sufficiently as our partial antidote to the cautiousness and competitiveness that ultimately rob us all of air.

On Monday, the moon will slide between our home planet and our sun in a once-in-our-lifetime occurrence, an anticipation that has people reaching out who might otherwise keep each other at a distance.   With any luck, this burst of eclipse-inspired human connection will also create a bit more oxygen, even in this city, even in these policy halls, allowing us to breathe a little easier for a little longer.

As I found out in the months before my heart surgery, it is hard to think clearly or fully appreciate our assets and blessings when we are habitually oxygen deprived.  Clarity and gratitude will be needed as never before as we seek to fulfill our global responsibilities and reassure the young and vulnerable that the current turbulence that shakes their confidence will eventually subside.

As the wonderful song by Anna Nalick reminds, we simply cannot hit the “reset button” on either our personal lives or our policy choices. But we can ensure that we learn what we can from both our mistakes and successes, that we seek to integrate more human kindness and connection into our policy work, and that we magnify opportunities for ourselves and others to connect the world to which we aspire to the people we aspire to become.

Just breathe.

Hunger Pangs:  Local Pathways to Famine Reduction, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Aug

There is no humiliation more abusive than hunger. Pranab Mukherjee

I find by my calculations, which are according to revealed inspiration, that the sword of death is now approaching us, in the shape of pestilence, war more horrible than has been known in three lifetimes, and famine. Nostradamus

These past two weeks, under Egypt’s presidency, the UN Security Council has issued presidential statements (non-binding urgings) on various matters pertaining to international peace and security, including last Wednesday’s statement on the threat of famine now looming in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and northeast Nigeria. The statement follows an Arria-Formula meeting in June on the same subject hosted by the three, current African Security Council members – Senegal, Ethiopia and Egypt.

In this week’s statement, the Council noted from the outset the “devastating impact on civilians of ongoing armed conflict and violence,” famine as a direct consequence of both the armed conflict itself and of the barriers imposed by state and non-state actors to “an effective humanitarian response in the short, medium and long term.”  The Council’s statement underscores that bombs and military barricades do, in fact, lead to famine and risks of famine, a term recently invoked by the UN in the context of South Sudan to describe conditions far beyond “food insecurity,” in this instance the very real threat of starvation by as many as 100,000 South Sudanese.

The Security Council ostensibly focused on these four geographic areas – and not others that could have easily been included – due to the frequency with which they appear on the Council’s agenda on top of the utter gravity of their current humanitarian situations.   And yet, however one assesses the degree to which any Council statement is actually binding in practice, this presidential statement bears no legal implication for states.  In this instance, the Council seemed to be reaching out with some urgency to the Secretary-General to use his good offices and other tools at his disposal to help bring an end to these four conflicts and open reliable humanitarian corridors.  The Council also, as it has done in the past, urged states with “influence” to help resolve the seemingly endless emergencies rendered by armed conflict and related impediments to humanitarian response.

While this statement was neither read out by Egypt’s Ambassador nor discussed in chambers, you could almost hear Russia and a few other Council members grousing about its content. Despite its own uneven (at best) performance in promoting peace and security, Russia has long lamented the expansion of the Council’s work into areas that it deems inconsistent with its mandate and for which there are relevant UN agencies already heavily vested with responsibilities for analysis and response.  That the statement made no mention of the UN’s FAO or WFP reinforced the concern of a Council moving on issues beyond its core mandate without several key UN partners.

All Council members can agree that famine properly understood is among the most devastating conditions that can befall human beings, especially children.   Given its thoroughly immobilizing impacts on families and communities, famine in and of itself is not a threat to international peace and security but rather the horrific aggregate of other threats: discriminatory political decisions and weak structures of governance; states that simultaneously lament human misery but double-down on its complicity through their copious weapons production and arms shipments; climate change about which some states are in denial while others have made tepid responses akin to denial in other garb, responses that neither address the threat directly nor promote resilient local communities to do so in their stead.

In these unsettled times, we would be wise to seek out (or perhaps merely be reminded of) other solutions, other directions, other visions.

Of all the writers within my own intellectual orbit, perhaps no one has been as sensitive to the multiple benefits of local knowledge of land and related environmental processes as Wendell Berry.  A poet and Kentucky farmer who just celebrated his 83rd birthday, Berry has written eloquently about our modernist inclinations to bureaucratic inertia, to media distractions public and private, to our apparent tolerance of, and even preference for “broken” economics such that many of us now “would prefer to own a neighbors farm than to have a neighbor.”

Berry has warned that, in more and more contexts worldwide, every natural landscape, every remaining parcel of arable land, now cries out metaphorically, “When?”   When will the speculators come?  When will the bulldozers appear over our horizons?  How long before the monoculturists with their heavy handed technologies and geo-engineering erode yet another functioning ecosystem under the false pretext of sustainable abundance?

And when will those who know and love those natural areas best, who can respond kindly and with discipline to their rhythms and seasons; those with the skills to “(re) build the earth under the dead leaves;” where will those people go who have learned to feed and nurture communities in the places to which bombs and landmines and climate-related drought have now so violently denied them access? And what happens to their communities once those with all of this local knowledge of natural rhythms and processes have no choice but to abandon the land they know intimately and love practically for land that is likely owned, managed and even exploited by others?

Addressing famine in our time has largely become a technical challenge; getting food from the places it is produced to the places where it used to be produced.  Such responses are largely in keeping with our heavily bureaucratic systems through which we attempt to address the vast devastation from famine but without being able to ensure its non-recurrence. Such a system makes honorable use of copious amounts of human planning, courage and decency; but it too often heaps dependency on top of misery, too often keeps people alive to behold the wreckage of once-vibrant communities that can now only be “saved” by some version of the technology that often encouraged the wreckage in the first instance.

The dimensions of “local life aware of itself” that have been so appealing to Berry have found their share of (perhaps unwitting) sympathizers.  Even those mega-environmental organizations that have been traditionally hostile to place-based learning and action have gotten religion on “local eco-awareness” in recent times.  And at the UN last week, it was comforting to hear “nerdy” statisticians under the guise of ECOSOC speak of the importance of land tenure and land rights to which many of those participants hoped their statistical work could contribute.

But if this hopeful movement is to restore the roots on which our future sustenance depends, we must simply and resolutely stop the bombing; we must take our climate responsibilities more seriously; and we must recover a real (not assumed) solidarity with the rhythms of life beyond our bureaucracies and arbitrary national barriers.  These are the duties of leadership for our times. Communities simply cannot cope, let alone thrive, given the impacts of armed violence, of abstracted social and economic policies, of agriculture graded on its volume not its quality or relevance to those who prepare and consume its bounty.  Such communities require a “truce” from the more toxic aspects of modernity and our leadership should do more to make that available.

But while addressing these demands, we must also pay closer attention to the connection between our livelihoods and those of succeeding generations, practicing skills that offer a more hopeful path to sustainability even as our planet bakes and explodes and fills with plastic waste.   One example of this concern, as Berry once noted with little changing since, is that we in the “developed” world have simultaneously dissociated eating from agriculture while solidifying the ties between eating and economics. How many of us any longer know how to grow edible things, let alone healthy edible things?  How many know (or care) about the origins (or impacts) of what we so eagerly stuff into our mouths?

Unless we can more effectively preserve access to the land by those who know and love it best; unless we can get some distance from the mindset that knows the price of everything but the value of little; unless we can create social policy that enhances rather than undermines the capacity of local communities to feed (and largely fend for) themselves, we will surely confront the desperation and humiliation of famine over and over again.

One key here is to jar our memories every day that eating matters much more than bombing; and that in a world with both populations and inequalities still on the rise, the land we have destroyed will somehow, some way, need to return to productive uses.   Only the hands of those who know a land, who know its needs, potentials and cycles, can make that happen.  Despite forces turning them into a bit of an endangered species, these planters and harvesters of local life probably represent our best hope for a sustainable future.

The Council’s Bully Pulpit: Resolving Tensions Without Inflaming Them, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Aug

Bully

The sanctions will not kill us. It’s apartheid that’s killing us. Oliver Tambo

Knowing what’s right doesn’t mean much unless you do what’s right. Theodore Roosevelt

On this date in 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped by a US war plane on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.  Three days later, a similar bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.  Since that time, endless debates have ensued among some in the academic and policy communities regarding the “necessity” of those bombings (a less persuasive “necessity” in the case of Nagasaki) to bring about a final and decisive end to that Pacific war.

There is no time or place to pursue that discussion here, though it should be noted that a consensus of the learned on the precise motives, objectives and moral equivalences related to those atomic bombings continues to elude.  What we know with greater certainty is the multiple, long-term, devastating effects that emanated from what would today be considered quite modest-sized nuclear explosions.  Indeed, even major nuclear-weapons states that are committed to modernizing their nuclear arsenals and which continue to resist efforts to prohibit or even greatly reduce those arsenals understand the grave (even irreparable) damage their weapons can cause.

One would have to go no further than the Security Council chamber during a rare Saturday afternoon session to see fresh evidence of this concern.   During yesterday’s session, Council members unanimously adopted resolution 2371 which imposes harsh new sanctions (banning exports worth as much as $1 Billion) on the government of North Korea (DPRK) in response to its defiance of previous Council resolutions, specifically regarding its continued testing of ballistic missiles likely now capable of reaching several current Council members with devastating nuclear warheads.

This was the second time in this first week of Egypt’s Council presidency that the matter of sanctions took center stage.   On Wednesday, Egypt convened a discussion on a full range of sanctions-related issues that broke little new ground while holding at least some of the concerns of Council members in sharp relief.  Despite enthusiasm for sanctions as a significant aspect of the Council’s coercive options, and with due respect for the ways in which sanctions regimes have become – slowly but steadily – more accurately “targeted” and more transparent in their criteria (for addition and removal from sanctions lists), many gaps in knowledge, application and trust remain.  Bolivia, for instance, joined with other states in locating sanctions as a measure of “last resort,” with sufficient “due process” for those facing sanctions threats and a rejection of sanctions as a means of “punishment.”  And Ukraine joined with others in insisting on human rights-based sanctions impositions with full, prior attention to the inherent risks of sanctions to civilian populations.

Partially in light of such objections, Italy urged sanctions designs that manifest more “coherence” in terms of means and ends.  Sweden noted the importance of properly applying any response tools to context, while France advocated more “education” to inform member states and the wider public of actions the Council has already taken to increase the “precision” of sanctions towards increasing their effectiveness and legitimacy.  An “impatient” US urged Council members to take better stock of how to enforce resolutions once adopted, a point echoed by Kazakhstan and others.

In the specific instance of the DPRK, despite the unanimous support for the sanctions resolution and all of the post-vote “branding” of diplomats and their positions on twitter, there was no unanimity regarding the role of sanctions in effectively diminishing the grave nuclear weapons threat symbolized by the DPRK’s increasingly successful missile tests.  Sanctions, we were reminded once again by several of the members, are one tool to be used alongside others consistent with both Council wishes and circumstances on the ground.  Sanctions must not inflict needless damage on the citizens of the DPRK who were described yesterday by more than one Council member as already being “enslaved.”   Sanctions must not impede the possibility (however unlikely at present) of direct negotiations between the Koreas and/or with other states.   And sanctions must not be seen as a backdoor justification for militarily provocative operations or other unilateral measures (as noted this week by Bolivia and others) that are only liable to make negotiations less likely and increasingly tougher sanctions (or other coercive measures) that much more inevitable.

Especially in a situation as volatile as the DPRK, where so much of what we “know” about this situation is as much supposition as fact, it is important (and recognized as such by at least several Council members) to proceed with some caution on the imposition of sanctions.  Sanctions should not become (much like peacekeeping operations has been) a default response to states that ignore Council resolutions or otherwise threaten international peace and security.   The UN’s conflict-prevention toolbox is still not fully operational, but it is slowly filling up and the Council must do a better job of leveraging all capacities inside and outside the UN that are relevant to the prevention of hostilities and (hopefully less often) the restoration of stability once security has been breached.

Note was taken several times during this Saturday Council meeting of Kim Jong-Un’s “deadly aspirations.”   This notion could also stand a bit of unpacking.   His “aspirations” certainly involve a growing capacity to inflict mass destruction without prior consultation, but there are surely dimensions to his bluster beyond fomenting ruin.

What was a bit perplexing for us is the way in which some Council members seem to question Kim’s personal and policy sanity while at the same time seeking to surround him with provocations at every turn.  (It is important to bear in mind that the Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, owing in part to a desire/demand for peninsular reunification.)  A politically unresolved war, a country surrounded by factions deemed hostile to its interests, provocative military responses off its shores and facing increasingly harsh sanctions regimes – these may all be at some level legitimate policy responses to DPRK defiance, but they also come with great risk.   We know how wildly bullies can lash out when they feel that they have been effectively cornered.  Assuming there are no military plans contemplated to utterly vanquish the DPRK regime, plans that would probably also result in the commission of war crimes, we should be skeptical at the very least about actions goading the DPRK into a military confrontation that is unlikely to follow any our “best options” scripts.

When Council members raise their hands in unanimous support for a resolution, more than policy consensus is on display.   What many states and other Council watchers also hope for is resolutions based on a robust, baseline knowledge of circumstance and consequence as well as a recipe of responses tailored to context and properly mindful (as China notes often) of the primacy of political settlement. That hope is about more than the will to “take action,” but taking action in a determined but modulated manner so to maximize prospects for dialogue conducive to a sustainable peace, avoiding as much as possible any longer-lasting, toxic side effects.

But is this really happening here?   Are we really asking all the right questions?  Are we aware of the gaps that still remain in our grasp of circumstances and consequences?  Are we pursuing the most comprehensive responses to threats beyond the boundaries of national political expediency?  Are we endorsing responses that can promote behavior change, encourage negotiations, and help ensure that citizens in targeted states are not subject to another round of deprivations?  And are we, as Sweden noted on Saturday, taking sufficient stock of the current risks of “miscalculation” which can ignite conflict that can shatter even the most measured of our threat responses?

On this August 6, we would do well to discern just how much higher the stakes have become for everyone on our planet.  Among all of the existential threats which currently absorb our attention and stretch our collective wisdom up to and beyond its limits, a nuclear exchange with our massive and ever-modernizing warheads would make every other threat even more challenging to address.  We applaud those Council members willing to temper their (legitimate) moral and political outrage over DPRK provocations with the wisdom to keep asking (and demanding answers to) questions related to the Council’s coercive measures and refrain from intensifying the bullying instincts of the DPRK through excessive or unhelpful provocative behaviors of their own.