Archive | April, 2018

Redesigning Peace: Creative Learning from Diverse Local Actors, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Apr

In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.  Czesław Miłosz

We value virtue but do not discuss it. The honest bookkeeper, the faithful wife, the earnest scholar get little of our attention compared to the embezzler, the tramp, the cheat. John Steinbeck

It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are in some degree independent of men. Mary Wollstonecraft

It isn’t enough to stand up and fight darkness. You’ve got to stand apart from it, too. You’ve got to be different from it.   Jim Butcher

In some ways, this was a hopeful week for the international community.  The images of Korean leaders greeting each other across the DMZ to start mapping out an end to the Korean War and the possible de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula were remarkable.   There is cause for skepticism here, including with regard to the intentions of the big powers to manipulate the current diplomatic opening, but it our hope that the international community can attentively accompany this still-fragile process rather than seek to exploit it for political “credit” or to enhance economic or military alliances.

At the UN, the president of the General Assembly Miroslav Lajčák set off a fresh series of High Level discussions on “sustaining peace,” yet another UN slogan at one level, but also an overdue opportunity to refresh and reset our security frameworks.  In diverse conference rooms (including the Security Council chamber), states and other stakeholders engaged in what Equatorial Guinea this week called the “redesign” of our collective peace and security architecture, getting out in front of armed conflict and its devastating impacts rather than waiting until defenses of state sovereignty give way to what are generally untimely and expensive pleas for peacekeeping operations and conflict-related humanitarian assistance.   As France put it on Wednesday, once the “gears of conflict” are set in motion, we must find the means to respond sooner and better.

In the end, the value of “sustaining peace” lies in its commitment to both use all the tools and actors at our disposal and to create the capacities and networks that we still need to fully honor our peace and security commitments; commitments considered by many – often tinged with anxiety – constituting what Poland called the “holy grail” of UN policy mandates. As such, one of the most hopeful events of this past week was a side session, hosted by Belgium’s Queen Mathilda, during which women from several African countries made the case for why mediation must command a higher profile in the UN’s conflict toolbox, but also why women are so often well positioned within their communities to adapt such tools to productive conflict prevention ends.

As the GA  High Level event made plain, we have tools still to build and, indeed, a culture of multilateralism still to firm up within which such tools can have power to shift our conflict dynamics.  As evidenced in a speech delivered on Tuesday by H.E. Michael Higgins, the President of Ireland, it is certainly justifiable  to express frustration with our collective incapacity to use the skills already at hand to eliminate violence and poverty, at the same time acknowledging the collective imperative to recover through new tools and urgent actions the “ring of authenticity” of the words we use in this policy space – and sometimes overuse –to lament armed violence and the inequalities and insecurities at community level which too often provide its “oxygen.”

When speaking of the need to overhaul our collective peace and security framework, a favorite term of SG Guterres (as is well known) is “prevention,” a term that is relatively easy to toss around but difficult to apply in practice within an institution where virtually every ray of sunshine is clouded in politics.  We have written much about this notion in earlier years, underscoring the degree to which “prevention” remains a pervasive driver of our family and community lives.  But we have also noted that it has not, except in fits and starts, translated into actionable policy at multilateral levels.  Diplomats who are properly scrupulous about the diet, health care, education and weather-appropriate clothing for their own children are infrequently able to bring those skills and insights into UN conference rooms.

We agree with what the ever-pragmatic Kazakhstan offered this week in the Security Council about prevention:  when we are able to truly implement it, prevention “works, saves lives, and is cost effective.”  And we do understand that drawing analogies from family life to multilateral policy spaces is fraught with difficulty.   Diplomats can be scrupulous with children on the (quite valid) assumption that they are not yet able to make good decisions for their own long term benefit.   With member states, the assumption is closer to the opposite, that states are able and primarily empowered to “handle their own business” until they demonstrate (and then admit) that they cannot manage those responsibilities themselves.  What states want (rightly so) is capacity support for conflict resolution and peacebuilding, but they mostly want it within a framework as noted by many states (and perhaps China most reliably) of full respect for national sovereign interests.

Such is the “dance” that the UN engages as it attempts to honor its diverse peace and security responsibilities.  Despite justifiable hope emanating from Liberia, Colombia and now the Korean peninsula, our peace and security architecture still prompts many to “throw up their hands” at the apparent inability of the system to end settlements in the West Bank, prohibit the bombing of civilians in Yemen and Syria, commit the governments of Mali and South Sudan to honest peace agreement implementation, find justice and relief for the people of Puerto Rico and Haiti, and much more.  The successes are real and most welcome, but the frustrations are numerous and patience with the existing system, at least in some quarters, grows thinner by the week.

But there were encouraging signs this week that we might be on the verge of the kind of renaissance that we have tried in our small way to point towards over several years – an integrated security framework that is as concerned with water as with weapons; as concerned with gender as with the prevention of genocide.  Such a framework is, in some significant ways, the “gift” of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an ambitious “blueprint” for a healthier and more peaceful future wherein by 2030, in our most optimistic expectations, the major triggers of conflict are tamed and the pervasive impacts of violence are healed.

The SDGs give special credence to two important, security-relevant insights to which we probably don’t give sufficient attention:  a practical (and enthusiastic) affirmation of the intrinsic value of multilateralism on the one hand, and the need to make good on our promises to the full integration of global actors on the other.   The first of these was well noted — often with caution—during the dizzying array of events held here in New York this week.  Indeed many states (and many other actors as well) worry  that a “new Cold War” brewing among the major powers, coupled with new concerns over fiscal austerity and the potential escalation of unresolved conflicts, threaten to unravel enthusiasm for behaviors conducive to effective multilateral policy, including as Ethiopia urged this week the reigning in of our “short sided pursuit of national interests.”

But it is the second of these that interests me most, the need to inspire hopeful actions in others, but also to acknowledge and extend the many good works that generally fly under the radar but contribute in their own way to more sustainable futures.  Of all the images of this past week, one of my favorites was the one of truck drivers assembled in formation under a Michigan overpass to deter someone apparently seeking to commit suicide.   Truck drivers, not known as a group for their policy savvy (certainly not when I was driving one), are seen implementing a solution to urgent human need as creative as most of what we routinely accomplish within our policy bureaucracies.   Indeed, these drivers reminded me a bit of the women mediators from Africa and those advocating for justice for Puerto Rico and from indigenous communities – people engaging in hopeful responses to despair or injustice, and likely capable of doing more if we would only set proper places for them at the table.

Despite some appearances to the contrary, there is practical virtue running all through our communities. If a “redesigned” peace architecture is to succeed we must find ways to highlight and enable more of that hopeful and creative energy.

Dream Catcher: First Nations Address the Community of Nations, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Apr


We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.  Chief Seattle

If our prayers were suddenly answered, would be we ready? Or would we look behind us for the familiar things, the people, the habits, the routine?  Joyce Sequichie Hifler

Hold on to what is good, even if it’s a handful of earth.  Pueblo Prayer

Today is Earth Day, and it already promises to be a clear and cool late April day here in New York.

Many who acknowledge the day in more than superficial ways rightly claim that each and every day should be devoted to an examination of our practical values and commitments.  They urge us all to build on the smaller changes we are all-too-willing to make and that might actually deflect attention from the larger shifts in lifestyle that global circumstances now require of us.

Some are able to redirect energies and commitments in ways that are both pragmatic and inspirational.  But too many of us have already fallen off the sustainability wagon, abandoning the harder journey and settling for token gestures of action and rhetoric. Most of us are willing to contribute some part of ourselves to the sustainable future that our children will require, but our habits run deep and in directions (and with values) that in the main hold limited promise for our children’s future.  We struggle to make our small changes based on contexts that are themselves not really conducive to change.

As a First Nations prayer of unknown origins suggests, “We have forgotten who we are,” exploiting to our own ends, distorting our knowledge, abusing our power, seeking security largely for “our own.”  This is a heavy indictment on what is becoming here a lovely spring day, an indictment directed as much at the systems we have evolved as it is towards the minds and souls of individuals too busy resisting their own evolution.

At the UN over these two weeks, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous People has been meeting in its 17th session. We certainly haven’t attended all the discussons, but those we have – both plenary and side events – have added good value.   While a range of issues regarding the health and dignity of indigenous peoples have been raised, the primary focus of the discussion has been on representation – seeking a formal role for indigenous people in the UN General Assembly and other key UN organs with a level of status lying somewhere between that accorded member states and that of NGOs.

For some of the indigenous delegates –and for some of the rest of us – these representational discussions are not new.   In many parts of the world, indigenous peoples struggle to hold their own amidst a barrage of corporate incursions, formal and informal discrimination and government neglect that conspire to threaten livelihoods, languages and the ecosystems on which they depend.   Representatives of these groups – and those who support their diverse concerns – are becoming more and more skilled in linking issues interests and demanding rights-based attentiveness in multinational forums.  If the logistics of some “special status” could be successfully addressed – perhaps resulting in “observer” status — indigenous representatives could then experience a greater assurance that states would no longer be able to establish policy to address indigenous issues behind the backs of indigenous people.

This would be a welcome development at several levels.  And yet I wonder (as we do with persons with disabilities who will come later this year and the women who took over the UN for the CSW in February) if the indigenous delegations understand fully what the UN is capable of and what it isn’t?  And, perhaps more importantly, whether these delegations are more likely to change the UN, or to be changed by it?

It is difficult to exist within UN headquarters and not “play by its rules,” accept its political compromises and “thick” protocols. Indeed, were it not for the geographic origins and traditional clothing worn by some delegates, it would be a challenge to discern how this Forum differs from other Commissions.   The rooms and protocols reflect the same dynamics of power and communication.   People from diverse indigenous contexts read prepared statements that in some instances merely serve as a petition for the right to come and read more prepared statements in a wider range of UN conference rooms beyond the Forum itself.  As in other UN settings, the podium drives the process, giving priority to UN agencies and related “experts” seeking to brand their indigenous bona fides, which in some instances are considerable.  But the overall tone seems to serve as a message to indigenous representatives that “you are in the place you need to be,” that this is where the action is for you and “your people.”

I’m not convinced, at least not at face value.   There are few groups at the UN who cover the range of UN processes as we do, and we can confidently report that there is scant discussion of indigenous issues in formal UN settings aside from the two weeks of the Forum.  Moreover, there is little indication that the UN has in any way been impacted by the values that lie at the heart (if not always reflected in practice) of indigenous life.   Our collective resistance to truth telling, especially on matters of peace and security (Yemen is a good case study here); our ability to smooth over the many rough edges of global threat by burying urgency in a garden of bureaucratic consensus; our incessant habit of publicly “thanking” states for statements that in some instances seem as intended to undermine as enable our collective responsibility to peace, rights and development; these and other dimensions of our institutional culture could stand a steadier dose of indigenous perspective.

But such perspective comes with a risk.  As with many people on this Earth Day, our institutional habits here at the UN are highly resistant to change.  And I sometimes fear that the more people line up on First Avenue to get through UN security, the more people who petition to participate in the UN’s institutional habits, working methods and too-often politicized outcomes, the less likely that the cultural changes that we need to see in this policy space will actually come to pass.  Why change when we’re so “popular?”

It is not, of course, the task of indigenous communities to “save the rest of us from ourselves” nor to “fix” institutions that have often neglected indigenous values and interests.  And I am not inclined to sentimentalize the spiritual messaging of indigenous communities any more (or less) than that of their large, western, institutionalized counterparts. But it is not unreasonable to hope that the higher-profile presence of indigenous representatives being sought in all facets of this policy space could actually inspire and impact the way we routinely “do our business” and not merely replicate some of the least effective of our already considerable stable of unaddressed habits.

Certainly the value perspectives are in place within indigenous cultures to help shift our collective course.  In a passage called “Sacred Instructions,” attributed to William Commanda and Frank Decontie, we find a litany of indigenous values and practices that can transform lives, communities and, yes, even bureaucracies:  practicing kindness to self and others, expressing care in all our life settings, thanking the creator at all times, achieving humility as the path to wisdom and understanding, and practicing honesty with self and others.

None of this is easy in an age of competition, personal branding and ambition and none corresponds to any of the UN’s existing “rules of procedure.” Moreover, the mere stating of any aspiration is certainly not sufficient to making it incarnate in the world.  But I am convinced that the planet would be on a more sustainable path if these values and practices were less negotiable within our community, national and global institutions; if some of our complaining could be bathed in thanksgiving; if some of our incessant public relations could adopt a lens of humility; if some of our overly-politicized discourse could defer to our responsibilities to truth telling.

This Earth Day, we have more to do than finding the right colored bin for our ever-less-likely-to-be-recycled waste.  We must instead better prepare to receive the “answer to our prayer,” a prayer for justice and respect, yes, but a prayer for grace to help us cherish the things we have soiled, lift up the things we have brought down, share more of the love we keep hidden behind dispassionate eyes, and risk more honesty within our communities of policy and practice.

And perhaps above all, to hold on to what is good and offer more of what is good to others.

Position Paper:  Elected Council members reflect on Syria Implications, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Apr

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. Anne Frank

Our lives improve only when we take chances – and the first and most difficult risk we can take is to be honest with ourselves. Walter Anderson

Every absurdity has a champion to defend it. Oliver Goldsmith

One of the questions I get asked often regards why we don’t take more public stands on key issues of the day?  What is our “position” on the immigration policy of the Trump administration, on arms sales to Yemen or, of most recent vintage, the decision to bomb chemical weapons facilities in Syria?

Having “positions” is valuable in terms of directing organizational energies, finding program partners and explaining to potential funders “what you do” and “where you stand.”

But having “positions” also begs many questions.  For starters, what difference do such positions make?  In the case of the recent Syrian bombing, for instance, the combined skepticism of many “insiders” including the US Secretary of Defense was relatively powerless to force a rethink of the value of the raid let alone to stemming the triumphalism that has followed in its wake.  How would our “position” on the specifics of the raid (we were opposed for the record) have had any tangible impact?

Another of the dangers of having “positions” is that, especially once public, they tend to track towards hard and stubborn edges.  As governments spend too much time defending positions and too little time exploring their lessons, so too do groups like mine tend to defend policy turf that in some instances has long since become a policy swamp.  It is challenging and humbling business to try to stay on top of policy developments while keeping an eye fixed on the world we are trying to enable, the world that we must build if we are to emerge intact from this weapons and xenophobia-obsessed period that has only served to remind us that we are not nearly as clever and “principled” as we imagine ourselves to be.

Among the words you almost never hear at the UN, either by states or by NGOs, are the words “I’m sorry.”  I’m sorry for getting this position wrong and acting like I didn’t.  I’m sorry for keeping my policy commitments carefully “in lane” rather than seeking out a broader picture.  I’m sorry for trying to convince others of things that aren’t true or claiming virtue as the wreckage from my injustices is strewn far and wide.  I’m sorry for (inadvertently or willfully) allowing my funders to cloud my vision.  I’m sorry for trying to make it seem like I have more authority (or impact) than I have.  I’m sorry for not making more of this rare and precious opportunity to shift our current, treacherous path.

This commitment to growth and self-examination, to maximizing benefit regardless of budget, to doing what we can to ensure the health of the institutions that “house” our policy values and not just to the branding of those policies– these are also “positions.”  And as our little team scampers throughout the UN doing our modest part to link policy concerns and examine the security-related implications of issues from oceans to migrants, we never stop being mindful of how little our policy and methodological priorities have yet to find their way into the service of a healthier UN, particularly a UN that is able to trade off some of its politics for truth-telling, truth about where we are as a planet but also truth about our current and collective state of fitness to help address looming threats.

Much of our UN time, certainly this week with all of the discouragement on Syria, is spent in the Security Council.  We are not there, day after day, because we think the Council always functions as it should or always makes the best decisions, or because its members are sufficiently thoughtful regarding roles and responsibilities in what is – arguably at least – the single most important policy room in the world.  We are there to offer our meager support to those several members who are clearly trying to honor the grave responsibilities that have accrued to that chamber – Sweden, Kazakhstan and Equatorial Guinea certainly come to mind from the current configuration — but also to keep track of and provide feed-back on Council decisions and indecisions that are in one or more ways certain to exert pressure on other parts of the UN system.

Those pressures can be considerable.   Failures in the “maintenance” of international peace and security, as we have noted many times, create conflict refugees needing material and psychological assistance, inflict infrastructure and environmental damage that we struggle to remediate, bloat an already massive global arms business which continues to drain national coffers to no sustainable security end, and increase insecurity for vast populations who lament letting their children outdoors for fear of coming in contact with a landmine.  The costs of failures on peace and security are staggering — to which what seems at times to be an endless stream of “pledging conferences” at and around the UN clearly attest.

Moreover, such failures erode trust, not only trust among member states but trust in the viability and legitimacy of the UN system itself.   This is not “news” to anyone who has spoken off the record to diplomats or been on the receiving end of twitter rants from skeptical academics and civil society representatives.  But after all these years it is remarkable how seldom such concerns are raised in UN contexts, how often we “dodge” this essential truth in what are often less-than-effective efforts to convince donor states and media outlets that “all is well,” that the acrimony so often seen at the UN, and especially as our new “Cold War” (to quote the SG this week) now plays itself out in the Security Council, doesn’t quite signify what we all know (and fear) it does.

We gratefully recognize that the UN has gotten some helpful traction on ocean health and migration governance, on gender-based violence and climate impacts. And yet all is clearly not well within or outside our building, a “position” that we are keen to at the very least try to do something about.   In this context we acknowledge that, in ways that are sometimes unexpected, member states are rising up to name and address deficiencies. This includes elected Council members who increasingly refuse to sit idly by as the large powers fuss amongst themselves and spin narratives regarding their pious commitments to “uphold” the erstwhile global order that are, to our mind at least and surely to others, too-often unconvincing.

Amidst all of the political carnage within the Council these past days, meeting after meeting that resulted in no formal rebukes to unilateral bombing raids, no agreement on a mechanism to assess responsibility for gruesome chemical weapons attacks in Douma and elsewhere, and no olive branches extended by any to any, there is just cause for the frustration that Sweden’s Ambassador Skoog has expressed on more than one occasion, a frustration borne of his own and his country’s determined desire to break impasses and restore Council unity in more than the most passive and superficial sense.

But such unity, as several of the elected members noted during this latest Syria marathon, cannot be simply about achieving political consensus but rather must be about fidelity to the values and principles of the UN Charter, the one text that, as Ethiopia reminded, states affirm in common as a precondition of their membership.  And as Kazakhstan made clear this week, the willingness of some states to bypass the Security Council and the Charter, to justify unilateral military action through reference to the appropriately grave matter of chemical weapons use, is to set the UN’s security system on a course that privileges might over preventive diplomacy, a course that only promises more misery, more refugees, more damaged infrastructure, more distrust and hostility, even (to quote Ethiopia) the prospect of “catastrophe beyond imagination.”

For me, the highlight of this Syria marathon was a series of speeches delivered by Ambassador Llorenti of Bolivia, a government that has “sided” with the Russians in the Council more than most other members, though mostly on procedural grounds rather than on policy content.  Llorenti’s speeches laid out several essentials, including the outright illegality of any chemical weapons use, but also called out the major powers for treating the Council like a “game board,” upholding multilateralism only “when it suits their purposes.” We cannot, he exclaimed, “seek to address violations of the UN Charter by committing violations of the UN Charter,” a position taken up by the African states and other elected members who fear that “locked and loaded” states (to quote US Ambassador Haley) will resume habitual practices of doing “what and where they wish.”

From our vantage point, the UN’s security system is in danger of sliding into a deeper pit of acrimony and disrespect that gunships and tomahawk missiles will only exacerbate. Impeding this slide has been and remains our “position” of urgent policy preference.

Speech Impediment: The Darkness Lurking Behind our Migration Governance Efforts, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Apr

Migraton II

The strategic adversary is fascism… the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us. Michel Foucault

A wise woman wishes to be no one’s enemy; a wise woman refuses to be anyone’s victim. Maya Angelou

Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. … Every separation is a link.  Simone Weil

All of us with multiple settings and contexts for our lives understand that forms and contents of our communication tend to vary with our audience.   Few people taking the stage for a presentation use the same language that they would use in a conversation with a loved one or with a familiar shopkeeper.  We don’t often communicate the same around children as we do around those closer to our own demographic.  We don’t generally use the same language in our houses of worship as we do at sporting events. We don’t communicate the same on the streets of places like New York – filled largely with inattentive strangers – as we do back home around people who stake a different claim on the contents of our self-definitions.

Hopefully, it is context and not a will-to-deceive that lies at the heart of these linguistic variances.  In our best sense, we try to establish connection in part by sharing with people what we think they need or can tolerate to hear as a precondition for a deeper and hopefully more trustworthy transaction.  In this current age given to collecting trivial “data” about each other and over-sharing what we think others need to “know” about ourselves, there is perhaps even greater value in mastering the rhythms of transaction, of withdrawal and return, of discerning how best to connect to others, including those most troublesome to ourselves, through attentive and persistent practice.

In our communities of faith, the task is much the same: acquiring diverse tools and strategies to communicate with a range of “others,” trying and failing (and trying again) to establish or regain trust, providing a consistently more comprehensive narrative of meaning to replace the often-petty sound-bites that we seem so reluctant to abandon.  It is a challenge indeed to find the right formula to communicate successfully through the walls that divide us, including and especially walls of our own making. I know of few persons in and out of faith communities who are sufficiently skilled at this.

Of course, communications-related challenges abound in our large public institutions as well. One of the things that you have to get used to around the UN is the sight of diplomats articulating progressive norms – or at least contributing to discussions about such — while events back home in the countries these diplomats represent are sometimes tracking in a very different direction.

While there are certainly “unreasonable” things proposed at the UN – including many statements inside and outside of the Security Council that are less about clarifying policy truths and more about convincing those open to being convinced– the multilateral contexts of the UN suppress somewhat the degrees of aggressive and ethno-centric rhetoric now emanating from more and more global settings.  Statements by diplomats, as we have noted on other occasions, might be redundant and irrelevant, might disrespectfully neglect both established time limits and the obligation to listen to others, but they don’t generally offer rhetorically-direct challenges to core Charter values even if the behavior of states they represent or of a growing number of their constituents suggest something different.

One instance of the divisions between UN diplomacy and national practice was provided during this week’s discussions — kindly and effectively led by the Ambassadors of Mexico and Switzerland — towards a consensus draft of the Global Compact on Migration, a Compact that is being negotiated alongside its “partner” Compact on Refugees, and which represents a potentially important antidote to the chaotic basket of laws and protocols that at times do more to confuse and frighten people than provide predictable pathways to services, employment opportunities and community integration.

As delegations to these Compact discussions surely recognize, their often-“enriching” efforts come at a time when anti-migration sentiment seems to be growing in many parts of the world, including in areas of Central Europe which have spurred numerous news reports of highly-disturbing, public rhetoric promoting “ethnic purity” and in at least one instance disparaging persons co-occupying national territory as “ferocious humanoids.”

Inside the UN, there has thankfully been far less virulent blowback to a largely progressive, non-binding Compact that seeks to regularize migration in ways that work for migrants and for states involved in one or more segments of migration pathways.  Reproaches have largely taken the form of assertions of sovereign interest and have included requests for clarification regarding distinctions between migrants who “choose” to leave and those who do so “irregularly” based on considerations as broad and discouraging as climate impacts (as noted by Tuvalu) or the conflict “refugees” for whom settled international law already exists (if not adequately implemented). There have also been requests for better data on how migrants, in the words of the Compact draft, create economic benefits in both origin and destination states.

If only such benefits were clearer and sufficiently compelling for more people.  If only people like me who attend these meetings could do a better job of both communicating migration benefits and offering solidarity with and support to the growing number of skeptical people worldwide who are being asked to make way for newcomers while too many of the rest of us piously go about our all-too-regular business — bending the arc of what little remains of our global resource base to the benefit “of our own.”

In our policy bubbles and urban penthouses, it seems that some of us  have managed to convince ourselves that, regarding the acceptance and care of regular and irregular migrants, others should “take one for the team,” in too many cases a “team” that has thoroughly marginalized local interests and otherwise failed to honor the promises of a globalized order, a “team” thas has too often acquiesced to an “order” characterized by gross inequalities and equally gross (and mostly unpunished) lapses in judgment by more than a few who benefit most from current conditions.

There is no justification in this (or any other) time for the racist and hateful rhetoric to which we are now witness in settings from Warsaw to Virginia.  But neither is there justification for gas attacks on Syrian citizens, for starvation and siege tactics in Yemen, for snipers shooting unarmed civilians on the borders of Gaza.  Neither is their justification for vast concentrations of wealth and power that offer distractions rather than genuine participation in matters that affect community health and well-being.  While maintaining our lagely respectful and even constructive rhetoric in New York, we have been maddeningly idle as the UN Charter is sliced up by rich and powerful elements to suit their own appetites, persons who then hand the leftovers to “we the peoples” for whom the Charter meal was ostensibly and originally intended.

The UN Migration Agency IOM has rightly called migration governance “one of the most urgent and profound tests of international cooperation in our time.”  And they aptly point to the Compact on Migration as one key promise of effective global governance that can help to establish viable norms for enhancing migrant access and protecting migrant rights. Such rights include access to employment opportunities for adults and public services for children (as highlighted this week by Panama and others) and (as advocated by the Holy See) persons with disabilities. They also include transparent standards for and access to the remittances and pathways to family reunification essential to the well-being of both migrants and persons still residing in countries of origin.

But let’s be clear:  We are much closer to a negotiated Global Compact than we are to finding something closer to common ground with those many thousands marching around the world under banners of hate-filled rhetoric, banners that communicate disdain for our “liberal” priorities and institutions every bit as much as rejection of the “other.”  This represents a massive challenge to the values of many, including most all diplomats here in New York, but even more to the communications skills needed to dialogue effectively with that anger.

But if we are to truly and “profoundly” to cooperate on migration governance, if we truly want to support and maintain healthy flows of people in and out of our societies, then we must do more to identify and address the diverse community contexts and policy uncertainties identified in the Global Compact itself.  And that entails a stronger commitment to adjust our language – even if it means banging on dividing walls – to fulfill the hope articulated within the Global Compact draft, the hope that migration properly governed can truly “unite rather than divide us.”

For those of us for whom repulsion rushes to the surface at the news of yet another “hate rally,” communicating across divides of global policy and angry local marchers is likely to be the hardest bridge to cross. But if we don’t try, if we don’t extend hands of greater opportunity and responsibility, if we fail to use our leverage to recover the human face of both migrants and those determined to reject them, there might well come a time in our not-too-distant future when the walls around us grow so thick that no sound, no matter how wise or conciliatory, will be able to penetrate.


Heart Burn: Words that Consume our Peace and Development Prospects, Dr. Robert Zuber

1 Apr


I believe that we can, in a deliberate way, articulate the kind of people we want to become. Clayton Christensen

Words, like nature, half reveal and half conceal the soul within. Alfred Lord Tennyson

Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all. Emily Dickinson

It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart. Mahatma Gandhi

In the Security Council this month, Dutch Ambassador Karel van Oosterom in his capacity as president of the Council, invoked Provisional Rule 507 on a daily basis, urging Council members and briefers to be succinct and relevant to both the topic under consideration and the flow of the discussion.

For this Council, indeed for almost any discussions held inside the UN, this “507” business is a high bar. Indeed, what Ambassador van Oosterom (and at points in March his Prime Minister and Foreign Minister) requested was merely a small portion of the recommendations that could speed up meetings, avoid redundancy, and most importantly help establish the conditions for actionable policy.  And, while we didn’t bring a stopwatch to Council meetings, there appeared to be no apparent impact on the length or content of statements.  With few exceptions –including some states at Wednesday’s open debate on peacekeeping and an excellent brief at that same meeting by Mali’s Fatimata Touré – states and briefers mostly did what they always do: write what they want and read what they wrote.  If any changes were evident, they were primarily regarding the speed at which prepared statements were read, a frustrating practice which caused more than one headache for our excellent interpreters.

But it is the redundancy of positions that both interests and alarms the interns and fellows who often accompany me in Council chambers, statements prepared in anticipation of briefings rather than in response to them; statements replete with tepid deference to protocol and with only fleeting references to positions taken by Council colleagues; statements that communicate little hope that the future for these (and other) young people will be much different than their current, unsettled prospects.

And what is communicated directly through such statements is only a portion of the full revelation.  While we as an office remain seized of any new ideas or turns-of-phrase that might help clarify a path to peace in places as far-flung as Myanmar, Yemen and Mali, my younger colleagues are even more inclined than I am to interpret the “culture” of Council meetings in a skeptical light– Ambassadors preaching Council unity while habitually branding agendas largely conceived in national capitals; states expressing “concerns” and issuing condemnations that mostly fall on deaf ears; resolutions and presidential statements adopted that have little teeth and that represent political compromise more than an honest and urgent response to conflict threats.

This is the future of my younger colleagues after all, and their level of skepticism can sometimes be alarming regarding the value and potential impact of Council “deliberations.” While they can recognize those times when Council discussions actually open space for peacemaking, they too often witness a hardening of positions and even a choking off of viable options for Council members sincerely seeking to “be deliberate” about the prevention and resolution of conflict or other threats to human well-being.

This weekend as most of you know marks the relative convergence of the Christian feast of Easter (this weekend for the west, next weekend for the east) and the Jewish feast of Passover.  The latter is tied to liberation – in this instance the liberation of Jews from their Egyptian bondage; the former to liberation of another sort – the hope for some kind of life beyond this one, some place of serenity beyond the pain of this world with which we at the UN are at least rhetorically familiar.

Both feasts are replete with powerful images communicated largely through the Easter Eucharist and the Seder.   But while our Easter churches are often full and there are generally few empty seats to be found around our Seder tables, there is something here that doesn’t seem quite right for me.  Simply put, we seem to be celebrating freedom from a bondage with which we have largely lost touch; the hope of some “heaven” that we have mostly not done nearly enough to replicate here on earth.

After all, this time of feasts is also a weekend in which the UN Secretary General complained openly about the slow pace of our collective response to climate change.  This is a weekend as well when bombs continued to fall on Syrian children despite a Council-mandated cease fire, when legitimate protesters along Gaza border regions were gunned down by Israeli troops, when the US decided to block any UN condemnation of such shootings (again assuming that any “condemnations” by this Council actually matter), and when fresh arms sales to erstwhile “allies” promise more violence,  suffering and trauma endured in large measure by “tomorrow’s adults.”

In recognition of the pain which punctuates this ostensibly “holy” weekend, I spent a good bit of this past week looking for inspiration that could properly bind the misery of Good Friday with the hope of Easter Sunday, linking real pain with the hope of deliverance. It was during this search that I came across once again Unapologetic, by Francis Spufford, one of the many books about religion that makes greater sense to those on the margins of faith than those who strive to maintain a more orthodox center.

Some of Spufford’s passages are frustrating; others almost tearfully moving.  His rendition of the Good Friday crucifixion is one of my favorites:

He cannot do anything deliberate now. The strain of his whole weight on his outstretched arms hurts too much. The pain fills him up, displaces thought, as much for him as it has for everyone else who has ever been stuck to one of these horrible contrivances, or for anyone else who dies in pain from any of the world’s grim arsenal of possibilities. And yet he goes on taking in. It is not what he does, it is what he is.

There will come a time when none of us will be able to do much of anything that is “deliberate.”  Our bodies will betray us.  Our minds will no longer be able to recall the small rituals that lie behind so many of our own utterances, let alone transform the half-heartedness of so many of our actions.  We will be eventually melded to our memories; the things we did that mattered, of course, but also the many things left undone, the opportunities to make change stifled by largely imaginary impediments. We will be left to remember actions that were hopeful and loving, but also the misery we failed to prevent, the damage we inflicted and then overlooked, the freedom we claimed for ourselves and denied to others, the matters we conspired to ignore so that we wouldn’t feel obligated to care, the words we employed to distract our audiences or “sell” them on our half-truths rather than inspire their own deliberate engagement with the world.

This sometimes uncomfortable time of memory may be our destiny but it is not yet our whole reality, not for Spufford nor for the rest of us who labor in places like the UN. For at the conclusion of his litany of human misery and disappointment soaked up by the one who cares so deeply but can no longer be deliberate about very much; and as the sun rises on Easter Sunday revealing confused specialists in stitching and cleaning beholding a seemingly empty tomb, we read the following:

Don’t be afraid, says Yeshua. Far more can be mended than you know.

Yes, far more can be mended than we know. Far more can be healed than we know. Far more can be resolved or prevented than we know.  In this season of holy possibility, let us commit to use this time and our often-formidable gifts to “take in” more of our human condition and then to be more deliberate about our “mending,” about the things we have the capacity and responsibility to fix before our time to fix comes to an end.