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.

 

 

 

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