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Animal Planet:  The Rule of Law and the Recovery of What Makes us Human, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 May

Orangutang

People often claim to hunger for truth, but seldom like the taste when it’s served up. George Martin

The technical revolution has turned us into a virus consuming all living organisms. Edward Burtynsky.

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

We have a problem when the same people who make the law get to decide whether or not they themselves have broken it. Michelle Templet

When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them. Hilary Mantel

There were so many highlights (and lowlights) in our policy centers this week, actions that fed the soul competing with others that reminded us (or should have anyway) that we are not quite as clever or virtuous as we might otherwise be tempted to believe.

One lowlight for me was a statement by the US president (doubled down by his press secretary) referring to some illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes as “animals.”

This is a toxic formulation that was common in the blue collar households of my childhood.  “Animals” constituted a label that could be placed on anyone who behaved in a manner inconsistent with what “we” believed was right and appropriate.  “We” after all were the guardians of the good, the ones on whom had been bestowed special divine favor, the ones whose “civility” was under assault from hordes of uncouth, ill-mannered, lazy “others.”  “We” generally lacked the wherewithal to remove such people from our midst; so we regularly, it seemed at the time, removed ourselves from theirs.

We are living in a time when such demons that had been allegedly bottled up for years have now made a stark reappearance; indeed many have been shocked to discover that the tops on those bottles had not been screwed nearly as tight as we had imagined.   Some of us have openly scrutinized the limitations of the “polite culture” of which we have long been suspicious, only to discover that our recovering “honesty” is too-often leading, not to opportunities for intimacy, innovation and personal growth, but to occasions for brutality, selfishness and distrust.   What we have released from these bottles is more venom than virtue, more condemnation than compromise.

The irony of this otherwise cruel and debased “animal” characterization is that, to some degree or other, it applies to all of us.   We all seem to participate, one way or another, in predispositions to predation and self-interest.  We often crave predictability, comfort and attention. We tend to feel threats even when no threats are imminent, and ignore most of the challenges threatening to blow our metaphorical houses to the ground.  We often cave in to yearnings and addictions.  We see what we want to see or, more and more, what we have been externally manipulated to see.

And yet there are times when being an “animal” would probably elevate our collective practice.  Animals after all don’t kill for pleasure.   Animals don’t systematically destroy the habitats on which they depend.   Animals don’t enable the extinction of other species that form the food chain that ensures their own survival.  Animals don’t diminish the savvy or “intelligence” of the life forms with which they share an ecosystem.

As we know, much of the history of philosophy and religion in both “west” and “east” has struggled with the “human” dimensions of human nature.  Are we merely animals with larger brains and the appetites to match, or is there something different about us, something that we should cherish and practice more, something that gives us hope that we can stifly our violent proclivities and avoid the extinction that we have so callously set in motion elsewhere on our fragile planet?

This is no time to rehearse this struggle (though I would be happy to do so with any of you off-Blog), but it is worth noting here the degree to which, in my own faith tradition at least, “sanctification” has impeded thoughtful practice.   My tradition has too often adjudicated our disjointed “nature” by alleging and emphasizing our divine entitlements.  Much like our claims for moms and dads, “God” apparently really does like us best, even when we bury the memory, reason and skill under a cloud of suspicion and acrimony.  Under this rubric, “God” apparently forgives of our behavior a priori, even when such behavior leads to gross injustices and abuses for which forgiveness is rarely sought.  “God” apparently exempts some from scrutiny by virtue of some cache of unearned blessing, a form of plenary indulgence that allows we so endowed to believe that the laws and norms that seek to regulate and even inspire the human community simply don’t apply to us, that our “exceptionalism” (a term not confined to the US) allows us to indulge ourselves what we vigorously refuse to others, to demand apologies from others as we too-often dodge the responsibility to acknowledge our own transgressions.

This “do as I say, not as I do” reflection of our erstwhile “providential” exemptions holds many consequences for UN practice.   After all, the UN functions most effectively when it provides consensus norms to guide and rationalize state conduct and when it upholds what many diplomats referred to this week in a Security Council debate on rule-of-law as our “rules-based order.”  Such an order, at and beyond face value, posits many positive implications for peace and security, even when that order is being willfully abrogated. Such implications include the following:

  • Helping to inspire collaborative and supportive activity among state and non-state actors in areas such as migration governance, ocean health, pandemics and counter-terror;
  • Helping to identify and address threats to the peace towards which the international community has a fully legitimate and compelling interest, such as the use of chemical weapons, the commission of mass atrocities or the destruction of a healthy climate;
  • Helping reassure states that all are playing by the same rules, addressing trust deficits caused by power imbalances, economic inequalities and discriminations of many varieties, while also ensuring (as Ireland did this week) that the rule-of-law is not subtly (or visibly) replaced with the considerably less attractive “rule-by-law”;
  • Helping restore confidence in all but the most cynical that we retain the human capacity to rise above narrow, partisan interests and predatory practices and affirm a world where respect, cooperation, thoughtfulness and generosity proliferate.

This is quite a “haul,” and all much needed.  But as this week’s discussions in various UN conference rooms made plain, we still have work to do to create a policy framework that can reinforce and utilize the best of our “human nature.”

There was much in the recent Council debate on rule of law –convened perhaps a bit ironically by Poland’s president Duda — that provided good insight, including Italy’s assertion that disregarding international norms is particularly dangerous in a world awash in weapons, South Africa’s reminder that the rule of law itself does not protect people but only its implementation, Mexico’s insistence that we reject the creeping notion of an “acceptable level” of civilian casualties, Greece’s assertion that “good neighborly relations” is a “common duty” of states, and Brazil’s concern to address the lack of conceptual clarity in international law that leads some states to conclude that armed violence and gross rights abuses can somehow be justified in practice.

Bu there were also reminders of how far we still must travel to create a reliable and robust system that is both trusted by and adhered to by many.  In this, at least two things come to mind, the first of which builds on the strong claim by Ethiopia and others that the Security Council has often “failed miserably” in its responsibility to uphold international law. This failure is due in part to the Council’s imbalanced and sometimes “politicized” application of its own responsibilities, especially in its levels of commitment to the implementation of its own resolutions.  But more than this is the failure of the permanent members to ascribe in practice to the principles of international law that they proscribe for others.  The “exceptionalism” that drives some national policy has its peculiar iteration within this Council in a manner which at times jeopardizes both its own credibility and respect for the Charter of which it is guarantor.

But there is another dimension to note in this context: This week I and others received an important post from the ever-thoughtful Paul Okumu of Kenya, who chided NGOs and others for obsessing on the low hanging fruit of how we use technology to do our organizational bidding while failing to see the mass consolidation of power now well underway within the realm of big data, what Kevin Plank has described as “the new oil.” Indeed, big data seems poised to replace capital as the latest essential medium of global power, a power that can, in the words of Toomas Hedrik Ilves, “deduce more about you than Big Brother ever could.”

For all of the benefits of the current data revolution, even given all the people who now register more faith in “code” than in their neighbors, it is sobering to think of the vast concentration of power that can accrue from turning people into digitalized caricatures of human beings, persons willfully accepting manipulation at the hands of those who know more about our material predispositions than we know ourselves.  In this realm as with others, we must insist that the rule of law be proactive as well as protective, helping us anticipate and then address threats such as this one which might otherwise simply overwhelm the remaining vestiges of our common humanity.

For me and our interns, one of the most moving moments of the week was when Bolivia took the floor in the context of the Security Council discussion on the shootings by Israeli forces at the Gaza fence, the meeting at which the now-infamous photo was taken of US Ambassador Haley walking out of the Council chamber as the Palestinian Ambassador began his remarks. Bolivia’s Ambassador didn’t walk out nor did he deem to lecture the Israelis or his Council colleagues.  Instead he sought forgiveness from the Palestinian people for the “humiliations and deprivations” they have experienced over so many years, noting that Monday’s “moment of silence” was for these victims, but equally in mourning for the “ineffectiveness” of the Council’s application of internatonal law.

We who have accepted the responsibilities of policy have much forgiveness to ask. We have failed to always adhere to the laws we promote.  We have failed to point clearly and forcefully to emerging challenges that directly compromise our children’s destiny. And we have largely failed to inspire a higher and more difficult calling in each other, one in keeping with a genuinely human striving to be better protectors, better stewards, better predictors of a common future that we simply must not let slip through our grasp.

We can do better.