Archive | 2:53 pm

Labor Pains:  The UN Undermines Some Key Stakeholders, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Sep

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Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity, and to liberty. Rebecca Solnit

People with courage and character always seem sinister to the rest. Hermann Hesse

The only kind of dignity which is genuine is that which is not diminished by the indifference of others. Dag Hammarskjold

On Friday as I was preparing to speak to a group of Bard College students about the UN and the ways in which it does and does not promote human dignity among the world’s peoples, I discovered an announcement on the UN Website informing NGOs like ours that access to UN Headquarters was being restricted for the entire month of September.

In that same announcement, NGOs were offered the option of huddling around a nearby street corner to (essentially) “beg” UN staff tasked with the onerous duty of providing half-day-only event passes to NGOs so that they could attend events – like one produced by UN Habitat and another sponsored by the Office of the PGA on a “Culture of Peace” – to which we and others would normally be invited as a matter of course.

There was no prior discussion known to us regarding this change to NGO access, no obvious consultations or negotiations amongst our erstwhile UN/NGO leadership.   Moreover, I would be shocked to discover that any member state – including those who routinely lift their voices in bland and non-specific praise of NGOs, had bothered to invest any political capital in preserving our access during a September period for which our presence has traditionally not been – and should not now be – an issue.

On that same day, on another part of the UN’s website, I discovered that tourists visiting the UN will be allowed access through September 18.  The “plan” for such access is the same arrangement that we and other NGOs had become accustomed to (and more or less accepted) in the past – a two-week hiatus in late September while Heads of State occupy the UN space for the opening of the General Assembly and seating (even for UN-based diplomats) is at a premium.

But let this sink in for a moment:  The money collected from tourists is apparently more important to the UN than the monitoring work of the handful of NGOs (including our own overseas guests) that bother to be present during important UN discussions, many of which do in fact take place in the days before the General Assembly formally opens. Aside from inspiring fresh allegations of hypocrisy regarding how the UN too often treats non-state actors, this move is likely to accelerate a trend which we have long rejected – NGOs that bypass the occasional indifference and indignities of this system by ingratiating themselves to governments – often as well their funders – governments that then ensure access by these NGOs as needed via their own credentials. These quasi-state NGO agents will find their seats at the table and will surely not be milling around on street corners waiting perhaps in vain for some magic entry pass.

Given all of the discouraging news in the world and the many millions of people under immanent threat from armed violence, flooding and starvation, it is imprudent at best (and a serious diverse at least) to worry excessively about one’s own deficits of access and respect.   We do routinely acknowledge both our privileges and our limitations.  But we also understand that access restrictions impact persons far beyond our own office, people who are seeking (and deserving) their own seat in UN policy space, but also the people who depend on folks like us to identify policy niches and opportunities into which a more diverse set of policy actors can hopefully become immersed.

And these manifestations of disregard or indifference are hardly confined to NGOs.  In the General Assembly this week, several states (including Mexico and Singapore) took the floor to complain that the annual Security Council report was both late in arriving to delegations and contained (once again this year) little analysis or reflection on how and why the Council made the decisions it did, and why more peace and security didn’t emerge as the result of so many of those decisions.

In the Council itself, during a week which featured an excellent debate on peacekeeping operations and a powerful statement by Uruguay’s Ambassador Rosselli in response to briefings on the political and humanitarian tracks in Syria, working methods frustrations also flared.  For instance, during a contentious renewal of the mandate for the UNIFIL peacekeeping mission (Israel-Lebanon), Italy’s Ambassador Cardi took the unusual step of chastising the resolution negotiations process – which apparently included veiled criticisms of the mission itself — in the name of the large contingent of Italian forces without which UNIFIL itself could barely function. Japan, which has ably chaired a committee on Council working methods, presented agreed recommendations that stressed matters such as briefers’ brevity and preparations for newly elected members rather than perhaps more fundamental deficits in communications and negotiations that raise frustration levels needlessly.

Like a number of states at the UN, we are fully committed to a framework wherein tradition assumptions of security – based primarily on weapons systems and power-politics – evolve steadily into a more “human security” perspective.  This evolution implies several important transitions, including the willingness to address security-related dimensions across issue frameworks as well as the determination to place human well-being at the center of our policy objectives, well-being that is fully inclusive of cultures and conditions, and that recognizes policy goals resonating far more with sustainable development than with arms races and endless “asymetrical” warfare.

But human security requires more than people promoting more inclusive, progressive policies. The key to successful human security is bringing out the best versions of human beings themselves, people of dignity and purpose who understand and nurture their connections to the communities around them, people who can and do contribute to secure futures in ways other than fearing adversaries, trading in explosive weapons, defending narrow national interests, appropriating resources not their own, or politicizing the application of rights and legal standards that could otherwise help to create fairer and more predictable social environments.

The importance we attach to enabling better people as well as better policy systems will lead us to “double down” this coming year on some evolving commitments in the US and beyond, including on “servant leadership” with colleagues at the Business School of Georgia Tech University; and on “Inner Economy” with a group on the US West Coast associated with Women in International Security, in the latter instance specifically on examining “the inner resources one gains, uses, and loses in the exchanges of daily life.” These and other commitments will hopefully help leverage and inspire more of the traits of character needed to build both sustainable communities and more trusthworthy state and international institutions.

While pursuing these aims, we won’t go begging for access this month on any Manhattan street corner.  As we gaze from this now uncomfortable distance at the policy drama soon to unfold across the street, we will however do our best to discern how yet another UN promise – this time to a cooperative and transparent relationship with non-governmental organizations both around and far beyond UN Headquarters — is currently being undermined.

We remain in this UN community, year after year, because we believe that this essential policy space can be healthier and more highly regarded as it better honors its commitments both to its global constituents and to diverse stakeholders beyond the diplomats: those like us who critique, compliment, cajole and complement the often good work which the UN does in the world; but also those who serve our coffee, clean up after our many messes, keep the heat and lights working, and provide a helpful, steadfast security presence, day after day.

This and more is labor worthy of the day we celebrate tomorrow. It is also labor that deserves more than bureaucratic indifference from an institution whose essential presence in the world we still very much acknowledge.