Rocked Around the Clock:  The UN Struggles to Talk its Way out of Global Crises, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Dec

It is often a devastating question to ask oneself, but it is sometimes important to ask it– In saying what I have in mind will I really improve on the silence?  Robert K. Greenleaf

I continue to cling to words because it is up to us to transform them into instruments of comprehension rather than contempt. It is up to us to choose whether we wish to use them to curse or to heal, to wound or to console.  Elie Wiesel

Today is Human Rights Day and, sadly, it is not a day to break out the celebratory champagne.  Indeed, this was a week characterized by gross violence and shoddy decisionmaking both somewhat unforeseen and symptomatic of a breakdown in confidence in multilateral authority, including on the human rights on which so much of our hope for a future of dignity and peace depends.

First there was the news that at least 15 peacekeepers assigned to MONUSCO were ambushed and killed by armed insurgents in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  These deaths simply add to 2017 peacekeeping casualty figures that are in themselves staggering – as noted by the UN Times, 33 peacekeepers killed in Mali, 23 in Central African Republic, 16 in Darfur, and an additional 10 in DRCongo.

Such deaths have dealt another blow to a system of peace operations that is increasingly expected to work miracles – protecting civilians and UN country teams, paving the way for post-conflict peacebuilding, training national police and security contingents, and much more – all in settings of active conflict combined with frequent equipment shortages and threatened budget cuts.  And after all these valiant efforts and ultimate sacrifices, and given verbal commitments in many of these countries to fair elections and viable pathways towards inclusive political dialogue, we find that in so many settings there is still too much hostile shooting and too little honest talking.

Another event rocking the UN this week was precipitated by the decision by the US president to formally endorse Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.   This decision, which had been a campaign promise by Mr. Trump, had been rumored around Washington for some time.  It was nevertheless deemed as reckless in most parts of world not named Tel Aviv and has subsequently spawned street violence in the Palestinian territories, careful denunciations from allies such as the European Union (which has barely had time to recover from Trump’s rejection of the Iran nuclear agreement), and an emergency Security Council meeting on Friday morning called by 8 of the current SC members, including exasperated allies the UK and (especially) France.

At this meeting, Council members and UN Special Coordinator Mladenov outlined some of the discouraging consequences from a unilateral action that, whether the US embassy eventually moves or not, has spawned violence and, as noted by France, provided yet another recruiting tool for violent extremists.  Mladenov went even further, noting that all efforts to curb incitement and other provocations that impede serious dialogue — including as highlighted by Sweden and others on the “final status” of Jerusalem — have been severely imperiled.   Indeed, Mladenov warned of the possibility of a “new intifada” wherein ordinary Israelis and Palestinians will once again bear the brunt of violence stemming from a failure to resolve Jerusalem’s status through a negotiated agreement.

The danger of what Egypt called “unjustified chaos” resulting from this US decision constitutes yet another test for a UN system that struggles with budgetary threats and numerous (uncontained) “fires” now raging from Myanmar and Yemen to South Sudan and Cameroon.   As most readers of these posts are aware, there certainly exist tools across the UN system to address violence, including those regularly advocated by  SG Guterres in the service of early warning and conflict prevention.  But the tool invoked most often in UN settings, certainly in the Security Council, is that of “inclusive political dialogue.”

This seems sensible enough:  Sit conflicted parties down for a timely chat.  Urge parties to bring their grievances, but also to come as they are able without preconditions or “end game” agendas.   Ensure that all who need to be around the negotiating table are duly and sincerely invited into the conference room.

It all sounds helpful and relatively straightforward. Indeed, we are helping to promote just this sort of engagement as a contribution to resolving the increasingly volatile political and security situation in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon.  But as we are also reminded often, inside and outside the Security Council chamber, “dialogue” is a complex matter requiring skills sufficient to the intricacies of the peoples and parties invited to participate.  And in this respect, we don’t always have what we need.

This week, before heading down to Peru for a Women, Peace and Security event hosted by UNLiREC,  I was privileged to engage some law students at the University of Alberta, Canada who were making final presentations in a fascinating course entitled “Truth, Falsehood, Deception and Justice.”  Among the more interesting points (for me) to emerge from one 3 hour engagement was the notion of “truth fatigue,” the idea that “opinions” of people don’t often result in tangible actions in the world, the alleged virtue of maintaining “manners” in public speech, and the growing disconnect between politics and pedagogy.

There is no space here to do a thorough debrief on these and related insights from this experience, but a couple of their complex interactions with “dialogue” might be relevant to UN processes, processes which are too often given over to discursive caution beyond what is needed to keep the diplomatic winds blowing, or to the incessant branding of policies clearly in need of much greater examination.

For one thing, this was a group that is much more comfortable than I am with the idea that politics is largely void of any pedagogical obligation; that is, of a responsibility to use language in a way that clarifies context and responsibility, which is more than a tool to firm up political support and persuade others to join the cause.  These students have grown up in a “brand saturated” environment that is, by their own often resigned admission, seductive more than trustworthy, where what is “true” is largely a function of what you can convince others is true. People beholding such “dialogue” tend not to learn much apart from the positions held by the speakers.

The second core takeaway has to do with what John Kang referred to as the “case for insincerity.”  This “case” was introduced in the seminar room as a choice between hiding behind the “mask” of polite speech and the sharing of controversial, even toxic political and/or social preferences.   The (unspoken) assumption here is that in the absence of manners, what is likely to be “let out” will be venomous to ourselves and others, that politeness is the vehicle of preference for our attempts to keep our dysfunctions and discrimination carefully bottled up and out of sight.  This, of course, flies in the face of much psychology which affirms that a good portion of what we now work so hard to hide from others, much of what we stuff behind the masks of our own creation, is actually good for us, and most often for others as well.

These tendencies – “polite” speech that stretches diplomatic courtesy beyond its proper functions and which attempts to “sell” policy more than explain its origins and consequences – certainly have implications for UN practice, implications which we will continue to explore in the months to come.

During Friday’s session on Jerusalem, France bluntly questioned the degree to which the policy the US is attempting to “sell” on Jerusalem is in accordance with international law and reminded all members that  “there is no shortcut” to peace.“ The same can be said for the dialogue on which peace is dependent.  We still have so much to learn about how to engage, how to include, how to build trust with others, how to confess and then move beyond our own respective needs and contexts.  In both personal and political realms we need to recover and enhance skills for dialogue that can create meaningful and actionable collaborations rather than pushing parties further into their respective corners or creating incentives to hide deeper behind our many masks.

Our world is in crisis in part because our language is in crisis and in part because our views of ourselves have given over to an un-empirical pessimism.  If dialogue is to be our pathway out of crisis, we need to urgently revisit its manifold linguistic and personal requirements.

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