Purpose and Repurpose:  The UN Seeks to Recover Its Multilateral Mojo, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Nov

People and Planet 4

I think we have a right to change course. But society is the one that keeps demanding that we fit in and not disturb things. Anaïs Nin

Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.  Parker  Palmer

It is by way of the principle and practice of vocation that sanctity and reverence enter into the human economy.  Wendell Berry

He had been adapted to the verses and had learnt the art of making them to such perfection.  Charles Dickens

Your job is to find out what the world is trying to be.  William Stafford

There was more than a proper portion of bad news this week, including Austria and other states following the US lead by refusing to sign the Global Compact on Migration which promises to streamline migration governance for the millions of people now on the move by choice or (in the case of the Latin America “caravan”) coercion.  Even Morocco, host of the Global Compact signing, is now apparently imposing travel restrictions on nationals from select African states!  In Yemen, the viral image of a young child wasting away in her famine-afflicted environment was a reminder of our collective indifference to the catastrophic consequences of our too-often, weapons-stoked, foreign policy choices.   And the bull-rush of global populations to elect “nationalists” to high office has exposed a pervasive – if not always well-founded – suspicion that the so-called “liberal order” and its multilateral incarnations might never fulfill its promises of inclusion and prosperity beyond the machinations and manipulations of its elites.

Inside the UN enmity reared its head, on and off, in several conference rooms.  In the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, states resisted critiques of their human rights records, including their treatment of human rights defenders, often making the badly-worn argument that because there are laws on the books guaranteeing rights, that rights are surely being upheld.   In the First Committee, weapons-related negotiations were, once again, the pretext for sometimes bitter recitations of deep political division.  And in the Security Council a discussion on the misery that remains Libya with the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court exposed, yet again, the deep divides among members regarding the role of international justice in ensuring international peace.  Finally, back in the General Assembly, the overwhelming support by member states for the lifting of the US blockade on Cuba belied that fact that the US currently has no intention of doing so, thumbing its nose once more at the apparently absurd notion that multilateral institutions can force powerful states to behave themselves or even honor their public commitments to international agreements and principles.

And yet, at least in our little corner of the policy universe, events were held that renewed vigor for the challenges of keeping energized both our bureaucracies and our own souls needed to resolve the complex and difficult challenges that are in part of our own making.

This week, we were honored to participate in the formal launching of the “Peace Angels” sculpture at the World Trade Center in New York.   Led by renowned artist Lin Evola, this was a wonderful day of events which showcased the majesty and promise that can be created through the repurposing of metal from weapons that had once been used to intimidate opponents and spread havoc on our streets.   In the Christian tradition, we speak of baptismal waters transformed “from a common to a sacred use.”  As the Peace Angels project has only begun to remind us, there remains so much for the rest of us to transform as well.  The prospect of deadly weapons repurposed as inspiring monuments to peace should move us all to consider occupying more often this fertile middle ground between the first creation and the final destruction – places where opportunities for repurposing generally reside.

And back in the UN, a little advertised event brought together three current leaders of our still-grand multilateral experiment.   The president of the General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, was joined on the podium by the president of the Economic and Social Council, Inga Rhonda King, and October’s president of the Security Council, Bolivia’s Sacha Llorenti, all making passionate pleas for the preservation and renewal of our now-besieged multilateral system before a modest audience of (as Indonesia gratefully noted) mostly senior diplomats.

What struck me about this session was how personal it became.  Speakers and responders were clear (in ways that we rarely see in this space) that the UN’s many challenges are about our culture as much as our management, about our often misplaced sense of purpose that makes the task of repurposing ourselves and our institutions so fraught with unease and frustration. Some maintained (with Dickens) that we have become “adapted to the verses” but haven’t spent enough time listening to the voices that remind us of the life beyond the texts, the “life beyond our walls” as Egypt stated during this session. Ecuador claimed that delegates “are often running from one room to another” with little sense of the scope of activities of the UN or reminders of “why we came here in the first place.”  Ambassador Llorenti cited the many global challenges such as terrorism and climate change which simply cannot be resolved within national contexts, and chided states that now seem hell-bent to “go it alone.” Common sense, he exclaimed, now seems to be the “least common” of the senses.

One of the questions that comes up from time to time in our small cohort of interns and fellows is “how badly do people here want this to work?”  How much are people really invested in bringing about the world embedded in the UN’s security and human rights resolutions and its promises of sustainable development?   Is UN service merely a stepping stone to some higher career aspiration, or is there reason to believe that people here are truly committed to incarnate in diverse communities the resolution texts to which diplomats devote great energies but which too-often remain mostly in the realm of the aspirational? Do UN stakeholders fully grasp what the GA president said this week –that the UN can and must become the place that better “upholds a rule based order and provides a context for cooperative and equitable relations among states”?  Do we truly believe, as Canada stated, that we must be “here for the world” as much as for our governments and organizations?

Clearly there is an urgent need now to meld purpose and repurpose, to blend a renewed commitment to the aspirations and values that brought us to this place with the courage and creativity to transform the “common” that is killing us into the “exceptional” that might sustain us.  Only from this melding can we listen carefully to “what the world is trying to be” – despite current enmity levels — and then make the best contributions we know how towards helping that world break out.

As the president of ECOSOC noted this week, we are still in command of the resources that allow us to cope with what often seems like an “unforgiving universe,” including our capacities for compassion and creativity.  Zambia likewise reminded delegations that, despite this difficult moment for multilateralism, “we are capable of making the change” we need to make, both in these halls and in the wider world.  But if any of this is to happen, we must more effectively resist going through our motions, running away from disturbance, fitting in merely for the sake of fitting in, or substituting career for purpose. We would do better (for ourselves and the planet) to recover the vocations to serve in this place that can shift our current course, repurpose our working methods and mission statements, and turn draft resolutions into declarations and platforms for sustainable and cooperative change.

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