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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.