Archive | July, 2018

A Credible Path Forward for ASEAN on Climate Risks, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Jul

Legitimacy is based on fairness, voice and predictability.  Malcolm Gladwell

A superior person is modest in speech, but exceeds in action. Confucius

Every action or perceived inaction shapes credibility. Mindy Hall

Claiming that you are what you are not will obscure the strengths you do have while destroying your credibility.  Tom Hayes

Thanks to the excellent organizing work of Dr. Catherine Jones of St. Andrews University, Scotland and colleagues from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, Indonesia, Global Action was pleased to participate in a two-day seminar, “Peacekeeping, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief.”  The seminar specifically looked at the relationship between peacekeeping assets and the growing humanitarian burdens facing Indonesia and its regional neighbors from a variety of natural disasters increasingly attributable to climate change.

The seminar group included Indonesian government officials tasked with national peacekeeping policy and scholars skilled in dissecting regional peacekeeping assets and policy concerns.  Assumptions were made – rightly I think though barely interrogated– that the already great burdens of humanitarian response to either emergency or “slow onset” disasters is only likely to increase across the region.  The questions then become:  How do we better prepare communities to face this growing threat? What role might peacekeeping play in emergency response and resiliency building? What other skills, capacities and “partnerships” (a term that came up often at these meetings) might we need to develop in order to ensure timely, comprehensive, competent and (dare we say) rights-based responses?  And in that light, how do we (to quote one of the participants) “capture” more of the stories of how local communities are responding to these evolving climate threats?

The backdrop for this discussion was ably articulated by several participants in this “Chatham House” format.  As readers of these postings are already familiar, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member Indonesia is set to join the UN Security Council in January to begin its 4th stint as an elected member.  Much has changed in the 10 years since Indonesia was last on the Council, including prickly conflict dynamics regarding Iran nuclear and Syria chemical weapons; peacekeeping mandates which are now generally more coercive, more protection-oriented and (thankfully) tied more closely to political processes; and formal consideration of a wider range of security-related global problems (including those related to climate), thematic obligations which demand attention from the entire international community.

As Indonesia is well aware from its leadership roles in the non-aligned movement, disarmament affairs and the Peacebuilding Commission, the UN system faces daunting challenges both in the world and within its own conference rooms.  Recent pleas for overdue assessed funding from the UN Secretary-General along with public threats to muiltilateralism from heads of some member states underscore the precarious nature of some of the UN’s most important commitments – to ocean and climate health, to the fulfillment of the sustainable development goals, to the maintenance of an effective human rights system, to timely and effective peacekeeping and peacebuilding, and to the resolution of conflicts from Yemen to Central African Republic that continue to drain funds and political will from the international community and compromise (at least for some states) the credibility of the very Security Council that Indonesia is set to join.

Amidst this uncertain policy climate, there appear to be growing calls for collaboration between the states of ASEAN and the UN along the lines of peace and security partnerships already well established with the African Union and European Union.  This is not the space to assess the pitfalls that a too-hastily-engaged alliance might ultimately expose, but seminar participants were right to point out the “long shadows” currently cast by China and the US over virtually all aspects of regional security, UN partnership or no.  What we would wish to see going forward is more analysis of the inter-sectional, climate- security risks facing small regional states as well as some of the current impediments to creating genuinely horizontal, inclusive, credible partnerships between the UN and regional bodies such as ASEAN. As a cautionary tale on partnerships, exhibit A might be the recent Council decision to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan over the objections of African Union and IGAD officials who have been at the center of efforts to broker a sustainable peace in that country.

Indeed, a case could be made that any ASEAN or other regional partnership with the UN should look beyond the alleged prestige from such arrangements to some of the functional limitations that would need to be overcome if such partnerships are to become context appropriate – sensitive both to the threats to be addressed and the most culturally-appropriate tools and methods for addressing them.  Rather than replicating the ambitions of regions that seem to have garnered “insider status” at the UN within and beyond the Security Council, ASEAN states and scholars such as those at this seminar would do us all well to help guide discussions that seek to preserve strategic autonomy, explore benefits and limitations in a more systemic manner, clarify inter-relationships among core regional threats –including climate events, nuclear  perils and super-power posturing and “ad hoc” policymaking– and examine the fitness of existing resources (sometimes presenting in “friendly” military garb) to create stability and integrate more fully than at present the skills and energies of community-based stakeholders.

Comprehensive peace arrangements sufficient to this vast region must account for many factors. The way forward to credible regional agreements and partnerships with the UN and other international organizations characterized by reliability, transparency, trust-building and attentiveness to political and cultural context lies still beyond the horizon.  Indeed, one valuable next step to bring the horizon closer might be a thorough examination of the “Plan of Action” to implement the Joint Declaration on Comprehensive Partnership between ASEAN and the United Nations (2016-2020).  This “plan” is under-developed and under-utilized to be sure, but it also contains elements that intentionally link peacekeeping, civil-military coordination and disaster management/response. Properly handled, this document could help ASEAN states “practice” forms of cooperation that both effectively address climate impacts and lay the groundwork for developing or deepening other forms of bilateral and multilateral security cooperation. Such “practice” is, from our standpoint at least, time well spent.

Our consistent view has been and remains that we have reached a dangerous tipping point on climate that is sure to result in an increased number of “events” – more and more of them catastrophic — that will test virtually all current response capacities and security arrangements.  From this point, we must do more to ensure that the right tools and capacities are available to stave off slow-onset crises and stabilize communities in the face of those less predictable, rapid-onset emergencies.   If the collective security will of ASEAN states affirms the need for deeper UN security and climate partnerships, these states should at least ensure that such partnerships focus on (as one participant noted) their credibility and effectiveness in addressing threats such as those from climate more than on establishing their “legitimacy” in the eyes of the international community.  ASEAN, to our eyes at least, already seems quite legitimate enough.

Indonesia is sure to deal with its share of Security Council headaches over the next two years. But along with its new Council colleagues, especially Germany and South Africa, Indonesia has the capacity to provide strong and (when needed) contrary policy guidance for a Council that is too often bogged down in its own security duties and disconnected from the duties of its UN colleagues. Helping to develop, test and implement a robust regional capacity for disaster response and stabilization – a capacity that fully utilizes all relevant peacekeeping assets but is not constrained by them — would pave the way for more reliable and trust-worthy security-related collaborations within and across the region.

During our seminar, Indonesia affirmed its commitment to the full integration of gender, conflict prevention and civilian peacekeeping capacities, all towards what one official referred to as a “global ecosystem for peace.”  For all who yearn for an end to armed conflict, and perhaps especially for those within the ASEAN region, it should be clear that sustained attention to the implications of our damaged eco-system must accompany, if not precede, any successful and sustainable peace.

 

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Just Desserts:  The UN Celebrates an International Justice Milestone, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Jul

There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. Elie Wiesel

When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

To sin by silence…makes cowards of us all.  Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy. Wendell Berry

What if our aloneness isn’t a tragedy? What if our aloneness is what allows us to speak the truth without being afraid?  Rachel Corrie

This has been another exhausting week at the UN.   From government ministers gathered to assess progress on sustainable development goals at the High Level Political Forum to the (now) annual meeting of the African Union Peace and Security Council with both the UN Security Council and the increasingly visible and relevant UN Peacebuilding Commission, diplomats, civil society and UN staff were sprinting from one room to another, hoping to catch hopeful glimpses of a future whose contours, as of this writing, are still very much in doubt

For our cohort of interns, it was hard to make decisions about how to invest their time.  One or more seized the opportunity to meet with the over-stretched Special Rapporteur on Internally Displaced Persons, to participate in the launch of a report on promoting inclusion through social protection, to attend a humanitarian briefing on the DPRK (including discussion on the impact of sanctions) and another event focused on “resilient women,” and to listen to Kenyan Minister Kamau discuss the “blue economy” in the very same UN conference room that he once deftly steered the UN community to adopt what were to become the Sustainable Development Goals.  For the interns and despite all of the redundancies and clichés that punctuate many UN discussions, this week’s blur will likely help define their “possible,” the range of viable options for their growth, prosperity and service.

For us at Global Action who strive to blend these conversations into some semblance of policy coherence, this was a period where it was literally impossible to be in anything close to all the rooms where progress on core UN pillars of peace, development and human rights might be discovered.   We and others we spoke with over this long week were left pensive and often frustrated from a long week of listening and scrambling from room to crowded room seeking conversations that can get us beyond policy inertia and funding scarcity, conversations that can invigorate forward momentum and remind us of the stable of obligations essential to building that world of “sustainable peace” that our UN leadership is now so fond to speak about.

One such conversation occurred early this week as Liechtenstein and other states hosted an event to celebrate and inspire deeper commitments to international justice, specifically in the form of our obligations to the health and integrity of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Such events take place every year on July 17, but this one felt different, more important, even more relevant than most other years.

For starters, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Rome Statute that called the ICC into existence and provided it with its marching orders – its jurisdictional scope, relationship to the UN Security Council, and much more.  The ICC by most accounts – even by those states that refuse to become parties or that fail to uphold key obligations under the Statute – has been in some critical ways a game-changer.  Though the ICC (as Australia and others reminded participants) is a “court of last resort” in instances where states are unable or unwilling to prosecute those of “their own” who commit the gravest of crimes, the ICC has also been an incubator for high-level discussions that are “shaping perceptions of justice” as well as underscoring our responsibility to uphold international law at a time when such responsibility has been wantonly ignored by state and non-state actors alike. At the same time, the Court has motivated states to strengthen their national legal frameworks to combat and prosecute the most serious violations of international law and has contributed in ways small and large to the development of special criminal courts – such as the one now taking shape in the Central African Republic – that will hopefully become essential to national justice and reconciliation, key conditions for ensuring that states which have emerged from violence have every opportunity to remain violence-free.

There was plenty to celebrate and ponder at this July 17 event, but even more this time given that this was the day when the jurisdiction of the court was extended to include the crime of aggression, a most welcome development to those committed to conflict prevention and perhaps especially for smaller states (as Andorra noted) that must rely on international mechanisms and the pressure they can exert to prevent external threats to their territorial integrity.  For its part, Brazil lamented our “long history” of legitimizing violence between and among states, legitimacy it noted which has now been called into serious question and with full legal force.

Those things which the Court still needs to work out as it moves past its 20th year are widely known.  Funding and staffing are less than adequate to the broadening scope of the Court’s work and the many horrific crimes still being committed in our world and for which ICC investigative and prosecutorial scrutiny is requested.  Despite a recent Arria Formula and other frank and conciliatory discussions, relations with some Security Council members, both permanent and elected, remain tense as the briefings by Prosecutor Bensouda on the Darfur and Libya referrals consistently make clear.  During her last brief to the Council on Darfur, Ethiopia went so far as to urge the withdrawal of the referral that resulted in an arrest warrant for Sudan president al-Bashir – a warrant which as we know has largely been ignored even by those African states which are parties to the Rome Statute.

Indeed, this has become a classic instance where security and development “progress” in Darfur –which has been recognized by the Council to the extent that a draw-down of the UNAMID peacekeeping force is well past the initial planning phase – is in danger of obscuring the massive crimes that came before.  Apparently, so long as leaders make a decent effort to clean up their messes – and there has indeed been progress in Darfur — they are no longer responsible for the grave impacts of those messes in the first instance.   This is a slippery slope, one noted by the outgoing Ambassador of Italy, who intoned that, more often than we might wish to believe, impunity “plants the seeds” of new conflict.

There is of course the additional headache that those permanent Security Council members whose footprint on ICC referrals looms large are themselves unlikely to ever face ICC scrutiny themselves.   There will surely be no referral on Eastern Ukraine or on the indiscriminate bombing that reduced places like Raqqa and Sanaa to rubble.  There will be no extension of the existing referral on Libya to include those who authorized the bombs in 2011 and who –inadvertently or otherwise – set off a frightening arms migration throughout Africa that makes mass animal movements across the Serengeti seem downright tidy.  Time and again, major power “guardians” of international law have rationalized away the damage from their own international law transgressions, often doing so in front of states and courts which have no power to prevent them from doing otherwise.

But much of the conversation this day was not about gaps to fill and inconsistencies to expose, but about the immense progress demonstrated by a Court that, as noted by the president of the General Assembly and others, has barely escaped its teenage years.  The pursuit of justice remains an often “onerous task,” as explained by Iceland, but it is a task that we can and must pursue together alongside the ICC if we are to fulfill the expectations that others have of us for justice but ultimately also for reconciliation, sustainable development and peace.

During this ICC session, the Palestinian Ambassador pointedly urged us all ”to embrace a higher calling.”  This is, of course, sage advice in all areas of multilateral policy, but surely so within the realm of international justice as a guarantor of a dependable and sustainable peace. As Argentina rightly insisted, we must continue to build the “solid ground” of justice, to renounce the “sin of silence” and bring hope and tangible relief to those victimized by both the high crimes of too many of their rulers and the relative indifference of too many of the rest of us.

Missing Ingredients:  Consolidating a Consequential UN Week, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Jul

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Peter was, simply, what a person would look like if you boiled down the most raw emotions and filtered them of any social contract. If you hurt, cry. If you rage, strike out. If you hope, get ready for a disappointment.  Jodi Picoult

While prosperity does not trickle down from the most powerful to the rest of us, all too often indifference and even intolerance do.  Hillary Clinton

I am not surprised that the people who want to unravel the social contract start with young adults. Those who are urged to feel afraid, very afraid, have both the greatest sense of independence and the most finely honed skepticism about government.  Ellen Goodman

We may demand that the citizens of each sovereign state view citizens of other states (or even stateless people) with compassion, respect and sympathy, satisfying some requirements of “minimal humanitarianism.” Amartya Sen

This was in several ways one of the more remarkable weeks in recent UN memory, capped off by the historic agreement on the text of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration which will be formerly adopted in Morocco in December.  The document was negotiated under the able stewardship of the co-facilitators (Mexico and Switzerland) and was rightly hailed by Deputy Secretary-General Mohammed, President of the General Assembly Lajčák and Special Representative Arbour as a triumph of multilateralism, a way forward for governments to address and honor the challenges of migration but also the many contributions that the 258 million or so migrants in our world today can make (many already making) to our sustainable development priorities.

In other conference rooms, the UN was alive with delegations and discussions assessing progress (or its lack) on fulfilling our 2030 Development Agenda promises.   From sustainable cities and financing “partnerships,” to the right and access to fresh water, sanitation and sustainable energy, the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) held important discussions that explored gaps and celebrated successes, but also aired frustrations about the lack of progress in implementing several development goals and about the lack of transparency regarding the “partnerships” currently being proposed (few of which involve reductions in military spending) to pay for our 2030 development ambitions.

As a small office with diverse policy interests, we could cover only a few of the HLPF events (most reflecting the current interns’ interests in the right to water, African affairs, environmental care and sustainable cities).  But as is our want we remained intrigued by the “cross-over” events that remind us of the systemic nature of our development promises, the degree to which sustainable development must be pursued at multiple levels and must integrate as fully as possible both the human rights and peace and security pillars of the UN’s policy mandate.  Indeed, presentations by the resplendent UN Climate Envoy Mary Robinson as well as by Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmore and the ocean-focused, former president of the General Assembly Peter Thomson helped give sustainable development a wider lens if not always an optimistic one.

True to form, Gilmore and Thomson were particularly blunt.  Gilmore in fact went so far as to call trickle-down economics a “staggering oxymoron,” noting that the forces in the economy  exacerbating inequalities are not as “inevitable”  as we sometimes make them out to be.   For his part, Thomson underscored the urgent need to “re-establish and respect planetary boundaries.”  No categorical critic of profit (nor are we), Thomson yet wondered aloud about the value of short-and medium-term pursuit of such profit when our longer-term sustainability is under continuous assault, when our “plastic plague” shows too few signs of abating, and when we have been too slow to usher in a “new generation of stewardship” represented by our young people, stewardship that can help our markets and governments respond more urgently to growing inequalities while inspiring our consumer appetites to become less voracious and wasteful.

And as has been the case for the last couple of summers, we eagerly welcomed the release this week of Spotlight on Sustainable Development, a compendium of viewpoints assessing our sustainable development responsibilities, progress and failings produced by the “Civil Society Reflection Group” on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.   The 2018 version of the report contains a diverse array of data and commentary including and beyond the SDGs tagged for assessment at this HLPF.  What the authors (many of whom also presented during the HLPF) seemed most to have in common was a commitment to narrowing what have become almost grotesque social and economic inequalities in many regions of the world, in part through important calls to reverse our recent “privatizing” obsessions and restore more accountable municipal control over water and other essential services.

The Security Council, which at times seems a bit “tone deaf” to developments and achievements elsewhere in the UN system, also had a good week.  Despite some considerable controversy resulting in a razor-thin vote to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan (over the objections of South Sudan itself and the African organizations currently seeking to broker SS peace), Sweden’s presidency was off to a positive and collaborative start with high level discussions on children in armed conflict, on women, peace and security in African states, and on climate as a peace and security issue.

All are worthy of sustained attention by this Council, not so much to control these narratives (a persistent concern of non-Council members and many Council watchers)  but to support efforts taking place elsewhere in the UN system, and indeed in communities around the world.  Regarding climate, while some members remain a tad suspicious (the US never actually uttered the term during its Wednesday remarks) and others (such as Russia) maintain that there is sufficient policy robustness on climate in other UN settings, most agreed with the Netherlands, represented at this meeting by the Prime Minister of Curaçao, that “we are all in the same canoe, and need to collectively paddle faster than the threats that are now overtaking us.”  Such “paddling,” he insisted, must involve greater responsibility for ensuring that all UN agencies with a mandate and/or determination to mitigate climate threats, including the Security Council itself, be about those tasks as though the future of the planet depended on it.

The grandest moment for us of ths particular Council session, perhaps of the entire week, was when indigenous representative Hindou Ibrahim addressed Council members.  For Hindou and the often-vulnerable people with whom she lives and works, climate change is no abstraction.  Its impacts dominate every aspect of their lives, forcing people into adaptations that strain resources, security arrangements and community bonds. “We don’t have a choice,” she noted (raising her finger), “but you do.”  “You choose to sit on this Council.”  You must, she intoned, do more to “give the people hope.”

I caught up with Hindou later in the day and congratulated her for her courageous words, noting how much better balanced the UN system could be if there were more people like her wandering its halls and fewer people like me.  She replied that “everyone has a role to play.”  Everyone, including people with uneven skill sets and financially challenged offices; everyone, including people who have been battered by climate events that have destroyed their homes and ruined their farms; everyone, including those who have never once been invited to make a better world for others; everyone, including those who have already spent too much energy trying to convince themselves that things cannot be so very different from what they have now become.

In a week as momentous as this one at the UN was, in a building that was filled to the brim with talented and creative people, some of the most important takeaways appear to be pretty straightforward:  that those who choose to occupy seats of authority must set a hopeful bar for themselves and others that renounces both indifference to our ever-more unequal world and intolerance to our ever-greater human diversity; that our national and multilateral institutions don’t quite have the precise blend of human ingredients needed to bake some variety of the bread of life to offer to our children and those who come after; and that a mixture of “compassion, respect and sympathy” is a prerequisite for hopeful and sustainable policy, not an afterthought.

We’re getting there.

Reflections on a Summer UN Sojourn, Ruth Tekleab Mekbib

11 Jul

Editor’s Note:  Ruth came to us from the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program as a somewhat last-minute but most welcome member of our summer cohort.  An Ethiopian by birth, she has shown great interest in the African issues that often punctuate the UN’s agenda, especially in the Security Council.  Ruth’s perspective on the UN has proven highly valuable to us.  Indeed, seeing the UN through a fresh lens of those who will inherit the successes and failures of this system gives purpose and energy to our work. 

This past month, I’ve had the opportunity of attending high level meetings at the U.N. covering a wide range of topics including peace and security, human rights and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to name a few. These meetings gave me a new insight and deeper understanding of the U.N. system and how it functions as an organization made up of more than 190 countries. On my first day, I witnessed a historical moment as the next president of the General Assembly, the current foreign minister of Ecuador, was elected. She becomes the fourth woman to hold this position since the creation of the United Nations and it was indeed a cause for celebration. I was surprised to see that the U.N. uses a paper ballot system for general elections but with all the technological advancements, they should be using an electronic voting system because it would be time efficient and environmentally friendly. Despite the archaic way of conducting votes, it was interesting to see how the vote of each member state proved crucial in determining who the next president should be.

During my time at the UN, I have been especially interested in attending meetings addressing concerns on the African continent in part because of my family connection to Ethiopia. I attended numerous Security Council meetings concerning the continent including countries such as South Sudan, Mali, Rwanda and Central African Republic (CAR) to mention a few. In my opinion, the Security Council is the most interesting place at the U.N. because you can see how the diplomats interact with one another closely. Before meetings starts, you can see diplomats hugging each other and conversing amicably even though that they may have opposing views. Once the meeting starts, each representative reads out a prepared statement that argues for one cause or another. However, after the meeting ends you can see the diplomats go back to being friendly to one another and maintaining close ties with not just their allies but also their “enemies”. This showed me the importance of diplomacy in maintaining peace and security and how it is important to foster friendly relations even with those who may not agree with your position. It is a great lesson to learn and I only hope that more people would choose to act similarly.

There were also interesting side events to participate in on a diverse range of topics including a recent meeting on the reintegration of child soldiers. One of the panelists in this meeting was from Sierra Leone who himself was a child soldier and discussed the difficulties of reintegration into society due to stigma and discrimination. I learned a lot about the efforts by U.N. agencies such as UNICEF in creating programs to help children reintegrate into society despite the permanent psychological trauma they may face. Another panelist highlighted how girls are particularly disadvantaged because of sexual abuse and other gender-based violence. In this meeting, there were conversations in the impact of race, gender and socio-economic background, all of which are important topics to discuss in an organization such as the U.N.

I also attended a meeting on financing the SDGs where several private sector companies were invited to speak about how their resources could help achieve the SDGs by 2030. What intrigued me in this meeting was the fact that some representatives were claiming that there was no lack of money for sustainable development while others refuted this, arguing that governments alone cannot achieve the SDGs and that they need the help of the private sector and multi-lateral lenders. Interestingly, most of the panelists in this meeting were from Europe with a clear lack of representation of speakers from regions such as Africa or Latin America who might have been better able to demonstrate the current disparities in wealth that must be overcome. One member from the audience voiced this concern with inequalities, posing the question “Why are we not redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor?” to which none of the panelists were able to fully answer his question. In my opinion, his question was valid and shows how, at the U.N., these issues are often overlooked and not prioritized, which only threatens to weaken the credibility of the institution among the world’s peoples.

All in all, through my experience I was able to see that despite the lack of inclusivity in some policy discussions, the U.N. still tries to be an organization responsive to the needs and concerns of all. It is actively working towards closing the gender gap, which was demonstrated by the election of the female PGA, and it gives sustained and priority attention to some of the most critical challenges facing our planet. There is still a long way to go to achieve balanced representation in U.N. policy discussions, but I am encouraged by current efforts to achieve equality. If such efforts continue, I might see a female Secretary General in the fairly near future which will inspire many young people around the world to achieve their full potential.

 

 

Health Bar:  Ensuring Vitality for Sustainable Development, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Jul

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We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.  Kurt Vonnegut

Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Wendell Berry

A sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us. Pema Chödrön

What drains your spirit drains your body. What fuels your spirit fuels your body. Caroline Myss

One of the things that we have noticed (with gratitude) over this past year about the UN policy agenda is the emphasis on health—not only on leveling access to health care but on indicators and implications of health for both our sustainable development and peace and security responsibilities.

As the ECOSOC High Level Political Forum prepares to convene on Monday, governments and NGOs will convene in large numbers from all directions to review progress on some of the most important Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – from clean water access and sustainable energy to reversing desertification and biodiversity loss, and sustainable production and consumption.  Through plenary reviews of national SDG progress and a remarkable series of policy-focused side events, the HLPF will provide the opportunity for all of us to assess the degree to which what is arguably the most comprehensive and urgent promise the UN has ever made to future generations is being properly honored.

Recent weeks have seen UN discussions on a range of health-implicated policies, from efforts to end tuberculosis to the expanding global crisis of access to safe drinking water in an era characterized by both diminishing supply and growing privatization. In the past few days alone, the UN has seen interesting events and negotiations focused on universalized health care, the role of “cooperatives” in increasing healthy food security, and an “interactive hearing” on Thursday in preparation for the third High-Level Meeting of the General Assembly on Non-Communicable Diseases.

At first glance the “non-communicable” disease focus might seem a bit trivial stacked up against Ebola, tuberculosis and a host of other pandemics – potential and actual – made more frightening by the increasing inefficacy of our antibiotics.  But we know that there are numerous and deadly health threats that we don’t “catch” from others but which we routinely impose on ourselves and our neighbors – the diabetes tied in large measure to our processed diets and immobility; the toxic substances that collect in women’s mammary glands and create breast cancer emergencies; the impediments to clean water access in our “privatizing planet” that sicken and suppress children and their caregivers; the substance addictions that ruin relationships and drain the spirit of resolve.  The environmental burdens we impose in the name of “progress,” the “lifestyle” choices we make in what are often futile efforts to overcome fear, anxiety and isolation – this and more has led increasingly to the ironic circumstance of longer lives characterized by only episodic vitality and enthusiasm for living.

Indeed, one of the takeaways from the interactive hearing was the degree to which “health” in our time is largely a matter of overcoming our battered spirit, our psyches filled with anxiety and remorse, our political climates of recrimination and repression, our propensity for inflicting violence that solves few problems but ensures lasting distress.  We are living through a moment where our already besieged spirits are under fresh assault.  And few medical professionals are now prepared to deny the impact that our collectively impaired mental health is having on our physical vigor.  Those seemingly growing numbers (including of our children) who suffer from depression or trauma are less likely to practically cherish their physical well-being.  Where the web of health is damaged, all aspects of vitality seem to be called into question.

Another of the many take-aways from the hearing had to do with the role of health professionals and private sector entities tasked with providing what we ostensibly require to overcome health threats – the doctors and nurses who bind wounds and diagnose deeper sickness, and the pharmaceuticals that provide us with the chemicals we need to overcome (but not necessarily prevent) health impediments.  As one might predict, there was considerable and sometimes heated discussion about the imprecise and shifting lines connecting regulation and innovation, connecting the need for companies to turn a profit and the needs of communities for life-saving generics, connecting  investments in high-tech therapies with (more human-effective) investments in prevention.   And of course the lines connecting the need for “evidence-based” health commitments with the fact that, as more than one expert noted, the available evidence in some instances is pointing in diverse directions.

There are clearly some trust issues to overcome amidst all of this uncertain balancing.  In one of the sessions, a professor from Rwanda challenged the sometimes facile articulation within and beyond the UN of the “public-private partnership model,” noting that while better “quality control” over agricultural and pharmaceutical production is important, the current preoccupation in some quarters with diets and other “lifestyle” issues is likely an over-reach. Such a preoccupation, she noted, tends to just “put the blame on the people.”  What she called for in addition was a greater commitment to transparency and broad public participation regarding government health policy, to lift the veil on the mostly off-camera “public-private” dealings that can saddle communities with medicines they don’t particularly need at prices they can’t afford.

If “leaving no one behind” is to be something more than the tag line for this HLPF, we must consider what keeps us vital in these challenging times, what make us not only able to benefit from sustainable development but allows us to participate fully and energetically in building a more sustainable world.  In this second and critical dimension of SDG implementation, the role of good health cannot be over-stated.  It is truly one of the blessings of life to be able to early rise from sleep and feel healthy enough to help take on some of the world’s problems, perhaps even ease a few burdens for others.  If the SDGs are to achieve their full promise (and there is really no planetary alternative to doing so), the vitality of the world’s peoples – our personal connectivity, “humane ideas,” uncontaminated environments and other indicators of well-being — must be better assured.

Health is a core dimension of sustainable development that the UN seems well-suited to address, and we strongly encourage its continued focus.  In its absence, woes of body and mind will continue to sideline too many of the skills, passions, ideas and connections needed to ensure a more peaceful and sustainable future.

Civil Society: Making Change without Making Enemies, Dr. Robert Zuber

1 Jul

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A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman, of the next generation.  J.F. Clarke

Political parties are on the hunt to search and destroy each other, as though we were involved in some kind of enemy combat, rather than the work of statesmanship.   John Lewis

The challenge was that it was harder to be subtle than strident.   Nancy Gibbs

New truth is only useful to supplement the old; rough truth is only wanted to expand, not to destroy, our civil and often elegant conventions.  Robert Louis Stevenson

This was an exhausting week at the UN for all its stakeholders, including a high level General Assembly event on countering terrorism, planning for important resolutions on infectious diseases and a September Mandela Peace Summit, and an outcome document for the Review Conference of the Programme of Action on Small Arms that had delegates negotiating over issues from women’s participation in disarmament affairs to the control of ammunition supplies well into early Saturday morning.

The Nelson Mandela Peace Summit preparatory discussion — with the goal of a consensus political declaration — was particularly interesting for us as delegations shared insights on matters important for the entire UN community; including how to define “vulnerabilities” beyond group categorizations and how to position the declaration so that it reinforced system-wide commitments to “sustaining peace” and the 2030 Development Agenda. The discussion was led by the always entertaining and insightful Ambassador of South Africa, Jerry Matjila, who reminded delegations that these “unusual times require an unusual declaration,” one that can help convince people that “the impossible is still possible.”

As we were also reminded this week by African women themselves at an excellent side event on preventing violence extremism in Africa, the multiple threats from poverty and climate-affected desertification and drought conspire to create openings for extremists that bring danger even to daily routines.  If peace “is still possible” in the poorest, driest parts of Africa, it will take more reassuring capacity support and non-partisan leadership from the rest of us; more than these determined women can alone deliver for their communities, as they themselves made clear.

Such leadership is elusive in our time. On Saturday I was in New Mexico to join with a wide range of stakeholders — from activists representing area (often displaced) indigenous tribes to mothers clutching children themselves clutching signs of frustration and determination,  as the reality of the family separation being chronicled from the stage by those who had experienced it’s effects first-hand was almost too painful to bear.

The advocacy around the plaza ranged from those seeking only to reunite separated children to those seeking to oust the current US president using language that struck me as a tad on the reckless side – as though lecturing and insulting people you don’t like is an effective way to change their behavior, or as though any deference to civility in our currently ravaged political discourse is little more than code for passive indifference.

Civility did take a bit of a hit at this rally, with some declaring an era of state fascism and otherwise alleging political enemies in categorical terms.  As the scene unfolded, I kept thinking back to a poll released this week by Transparency International indicating that by a shockingly wide margin, people report only limited “trust” in their government.   The poll, it must be noted, was conducted through Facebook and would likely not rise to the highest polling standards.  And yet, at least in the main, it confirmed so much of what I read and hear about through the UN – societies becoming simultaneously suspicious, insular and polarized, with fewer and fewer opportunities for the “dialogue” that we constantly (and rightly) advocate for conflict states from Syria to Cameroon.

As some of the Hispanic speakers at the rally rightly claimed, too many people in this world are simply not being heard, and simply not being heard by governments.  Indeed, there are some people in this world who have a hard time being heard by any government – including voices from some of the indigenous communities represented on the plaza.  But “hearing” now seems to have become primarily a partisan activity as our views on what kinds of societies we want to live in continue to diverge. And to make matters worse, there is now a scarcity of statesmen/women who heed needs and voices beyond partisan bases and who help us grasp our longer-term responsibilities to the children who depend on us for things other than staking out political turf.  We need more of these leaders in both national and multilateral settings to help us resolve this current cycle of mistrust and recrimination while it is within our capacity to do so.

Through its sometimes powerful norm building, the UN for its own part seems to embrace a mostly progressive worldview with mostly-diligent diplomats working hard to “keep the doors open” for effective policy negotiations.  But there are tremors lurking here as well as some of the most visible and respected diplomats at UN headquarters represent leadership in national capitals whose “heads” are wrapped around decidedly different policy priorities. At the UN, we collectively know a fair bit about how to diffuse and even overcome some of the short-term policymaking and partisan venom that has infected discourse in so many political contexts.   We have learned much about the challenge and necessity of seeing value in the actions and priorities of even our policy adversaries. What we don’t yet know how to do, at least with consistency, is to use UN norm building as a tool to actively stem the tide of intolerance and authoritarianism that seems to be cascading over more and more of our member states.

In looking for clues in these urgent times, we all have things to atone for, including exclusions that we have done more to enable than we are willing to acknowledge. But we have also had past successes in reaching beyond limitations of trust and context that it would be helpful to recall.  Indeed, one of the most memorable speeches at the New Mexico rally was also one of the least incendiary.  A Vietnamese woman took the stage to remind the audience of its own history – specifically the successful integration of Vietnamese in the 1970s to places like New Mexico and Oklahoma which could not have been more different from where these people had come from but where –somehow, some way — people eventually made it work.

We can make it work again, she exclaimed.

Indeed we can.