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Service Contract:  Sharing the Burdens of a World At Odds, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Jun

Service

You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. Martin Luther King Jr.

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.  Rabindranath Tagore

One of the most important things you can do on this earth is to let people know they are not alone. Shannon Alder

I’m starting to think this world is just a place for us to learn that we need each other more than we want to admit. Richelle Goodrich

The UN had its moments of schizophrenia this week:  An historic decision to approve by consensus the Secretary-General’s proposal for reform of the UN Development System occurred on the same day that the chairs of the UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies held a rare and important discussion on the crucial role of these treaties in fulfilling our sustainable development goals, a discusson that few bothered to attend.   The Security Council, due in part to a US veto, fumbled away an effort by Kuwait to ensure a measure of international protection for Palestinians enduring deprivation and violence –especially in the Gaza strip– on the same day that the UN highly honored peacekeepers who sacrificed their lives attempting to stabilize and offer protection in what have become increasingly volatile and unpredictable conflict zones.

This particular honoring of fallen peacekeepers through the Hammarskjöld Medal Award Ceremony had special significance, both because of this being the 70th anniversary of UN peacekeeping and because the list of casualties to which we all properly call attention seems to be growing longer each and every year.  From Tanzania and Pakistan to Ethiopia and Morocco, troops volunteer to be placed in harm’s way to stabilize and protect only to find themselves on the receiving end of a bullet or explosive device.  As is well known, Mali (MINUSMA) has been a place of particular vulnerability for peacekeepers.  As explained by USG Lacroix during the honoring ceremony, MINUSMA forces directly experience one violent incident on the average of every five days.  These forces, much like their counterparts in places like the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo, are not “keeping peace” so much as buying time for political agreements to be reached and take full effect, for armed elements to lay down their weapons and for national governments to assume not only control but also responsibility for the well-being of their citizens.

This is not the time or place to review in any detail the current status of peacekeeping operations, including ways in which such operations must be more tightly bound to “good faith” political dialogue, as well as the degree to which “protection” measures run the risk of appearing to be a “partisan” rather than a neutral activity, “taking the side” of the state or a particular party to the conflict.  There are also issues regarding troop reimbursements and equipment procurements that continue to plague at least some of these operations. But what is more important in this space (without assuming motives) is the remarkable sacrifice, the decisions that some make to place themselves in situations where they can remind the desperate and victimized that they are not alone, who choose the service of peace in settings where there is little or no “peace to keep.”

The notion of sacrifice itself now seems “old school” to many, in part because we have allowed ourselves to be overly determined by “preferences,” personal to be sure but also professional.   There is a Subway sandwich commercial now playing over and over on the few television shows I have the time to watch, in which the words “I want” crop up endlessly in the jingle accompanying the imagery.  Far beyond the food industry, “wants” it seems are being reduced at an accelerated pace to the immediate objects of our desire, more about fulfilling a craving than defining a relationship let alone a purpose.

Moreover, it seems, we have become more and more disconnected from the people who have made these often difficult choices to serve and protect. We might take the time to “honor” those who fight our fires, drive our emergency vehicles, report on dangerous conflicts and human rights abuses, or keep erstwhile “enemies” at bay, but we generally have little interest in the practical details of their lives, what it takes for men and women — often inspired by those who love and support them—to choose to place themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others, including “others” choosing to pursue “what they want” with hardly a second thought.

Even in the small sessions this week with the UN Treaty Body chairs, people who have indeed made choices to serve and defend the rights of others, there was evidence of this tendency to petition the skills and authority of others without sharing their sometimes considerable burdens. Indeed, some of the few NGOs who attended the Treaty Body meetings this week got a bit of blowback from the chairs, one of whom remarked a bit tongue-in-cheek that every time NGOs share their thoughts “we end up with more work to do.” The human rights pillar of the UN’s mission continues to buckle, in part because a lot of genuinely good and talented people have yet to fully master our “sharing of service” burdens, the requirement to participate more directly in the challenging and at times even dangerous activities undertaken “in our name.”

Over and over during the Hammarskjöld honoring ceremony, attention was given to the urgent need to increase peacekeeper safety including highlighting all that DPKO is proposing to better ensure that troops and other personnel sent to the field are returned intact to their families and communities.  Appropriate equipment would help.  Flexible command authority in the field would as well.   And certainly the Security Council can do more to ensure that peacekeeping mandates are clear, attainable and tied to both viable political negotiations and timely exit strategies.

But there is more to examine here, the culture behind the logistics.  We have written often (as have others) about the UN’s general propensity for being “slow on the uptake,” in terms of its attentiveness to potential conflict situations.  For instance, we and colleagues have been calling attention for some time to the still-ignored dangers of a wider conflict in Cameroon, but also to the cultural issues that prevent situations like this one from receiving UN attention at a stage when conflict is most likely to be contained.

Some of this problem will hopefully be resolved as the SG’s reform proposals for the UN’s peace and security pillar are rolled out.  But some is related to the institutionalized resistance of the UN system to invest in domestic security concerns until they have clearly reached a boiling point.  In this instance, the creeping tensions within states like Cameroon can be likened to someone with a smoking addiction.  Smokers might be told over and over by doctors, friends and others to quit their habit, but refuse the advice until the first cancer screens come back positive, at which point they frantically seek assistance from the very persons whose advice they originally scorned.

This pattern, one which has permitted so much pain and grief in the wider world, must give way to a system characterized by greater levels of institutional trust, better early warning and conflict prevention skills, and a greater commitment to the service which is indeed at the heart of the joy and meaning of life, helping to ensure that smokers can lay down their cigarettes before they need to consult an oncologist.

One of the most “liked” lines on our twitter feed this week came courtesy of the Department of Field Support which reminded the Hammarskjöld Ceremony audience that “the best way to honor the memories of fallen peacekeepers is to renew the commitment to peace that motivated their sacrifices.”  But beyond that, we should consider expanding our commitment to the service of others, service that the times now calls for and on which our own lives depend, service that can make available the skills and “grace” needed to build the sustainable peace that many millions worldwide now long for.

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