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Value Clarification: Recovering Norms that Bind the UN Community, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Jan

un-charter-newspaper

Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.  José Ortega y Gasset

I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Ralph Waldo Emerson

If we do not penalize false statements made in error, we open up the way for false statements by intention.  Dorothy L. Sayers

To value gold over water is to value economy over ecology, that which can be locked up over that which connects all things. Rebecca Solnit

Perhaps at no time in the 20 years of Global Action’s existence have differences of opinions about the value of the United Nations been as sharp as they are now.

Some continue to idolize of the UN as an indispensable presence on the international scene, an institution that, as attributed to former Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, may not “bring us to heaven” but might be the only existing setting that can “save us from hell.”

For others, especially in this age of nationalist resurgence, the UN has become little more than a relic of the 20th Century, a place of stodgy protocol and undeserved privilege, where elites with excess ambition and little decision-making authority craft texts that few states actually abide by and that add too little practical value.

As a small organization that gratefully spends much of its life energy in UN conference rooms, we take what we hope is an attentive and reflective “third rail” approach to the UN.  We appreciate the expanding scope of UN policy interests as well as the time and effort that diplomats expend in keeping the UN properly funded, seeking to better-balance the power of states inside and outside of the Security Council, and ensuring (as best they can) that those who represent the UN in the field are properly protected and equipped, but that they are also held accountable for behavior inconsistent with mission values, priorities and mandates.

And we always recall that the UN is far more than its headquarters machinations, far greater in its scope and application than the ability of any one NGO to scrutinize.  Its peacekeepers, humanitarian workers, experts in promoting food security and pandemic response; these and many more are the lifeblood of the UN system, the reason that many frustrated over UN failures especially in the peace and security realm still cling to the hope that UN Charter values can become more deeply embedded in the culture of its members, can help guide all states on a path to a world that “values” the dignity and well-being of all citizens, that affirms in practical terms the cooperation that the challenges of climate, weapons, migration and more demand and that the UN should be well-placed to promote.

But this hope now displays frayed edges for many and not entirely without reason.   As I tried to explain in a recent interview with Global Connections Television, albeit clumsily, we are living through a “thin skinned” age, a time when many governments and individuals believe themselves to have earned the equivalent of a “plenary indulgence” shielding them from criticism or constraint, asserting their sovereign right to do pretty much what they want without judgment or indeed without consequence.

Such indulgence is toxic enough when asserted by individuals, but for governments it is discouraging at best and gravely dangerous at its worst.   Moreover, it is potentially life-threatening for a UN system that, at some level, must be able to bind its members to the values embedded in its Charter, values which are not always as straight-forward as some claim but which constitute a hopeful promise of sorts to global constituents who seek in multilateral engagements the capacity to hold individual states accountable for internationally agreed norms in ways that their citizens in (too) many instances simply cannot.

We have long taken the view that the “culture” of the UN which plays out in various conference rooms and political processes must itself better promote the norms and values which give hope to constituents and allow them to maintain faith in a system that has not always justified that faith.  The UN will never be perfect any more than its stakeholders will, and that includes tiny organizations like ours.  But the UN does have an obligation, we believe, to keep our collective eye on the prize, a world that has safely backed up from the brink of “hell” currently inflamed by existential threats from climate change, pandemics, plastic-filled oceans and weapons of mass destruction.

This is certainly no easy agenda.  As we on the NGO side are reminded all-too-frequently, the UN is largely what its member states want it to be.  And frankly it is not always clear to us that UN member states are uniformly and sufficiently interested in preserving the health and integrity of this system, a system that most all would affirm the value of (even if only to keep tabs on their adversaries) but where commitments to preventive maintenance are relatively rare.

Here are some of the practices we have witnessed by UN member states (you know who you are) that are both increasingly commonplace and undermining of the integrity of a system that, frankly, cannot tolerate any more shocks to its global reputation:

  • Articulating lopsided and self-interested versions of the “truth” that obsess on issues of national interest while ignoring relevant contexts
  • Demanding that smaller states abide by rules and obligations that seem not to apply in the same way to the more powerful states and their allies
  • Asserting that agreements negotiated under UN auspices are legally (or normatively) binding and then choosing to simply walk away from those that no longer suit national interests
  • Insisting that the UN has a role to play in assisting the internal capacity of states but has little or no authority regarding the internal behavior of states
  • Speaking (even in the Security Council) from the sole vantage point of national interest rather than investing more thought in how to promote the “best interests” of the system
  • Proclaiming the importance of the “liberal international order” without being transparent about the ways in which states – including the so-called guardians of that order – have undermined trust in its institutions and objectives
  • Advocating the presence of NGOs while blurring the distinction between merely “having a voice,” and actually “having a say”
  • Refusing to acknowledge mistakes and misjudgments while harping on the failures of others

One of the ceremonies I have long been intrigued by are those “renewals of vows” that are most often experienced in the context of marriages but which could certainly be arranged for member states and other stakeholders through the UN General Assembly.   As we have advocated previously, opportunities to publicly reaffirm the values and objectives of this system could encourage and energize global constituents while hopefully causing states that play loosely with the UN’s normative framework to reconsider their approaches and realign national values with those of the Charter.

Whether our various mistakes in language or judgement are “made in error” or “by intention,” it’s past time for us – all of us – to get back on the same page, or at the very least to acknowledge that there is a “page” to which we are all ostensibly accountable, indeed to which we must all be more attentive. If the UN is to avoid becoming another “dead institution,” another pious incarnation of a rapidly-diminished liberal world order, we need to work harder on improving the “culture” of the system itself – not just what’s in it for me, but what’s in it for all.

If we fail in this, prospects for resolving the challenges of climate, weapons, oceans, migration, pandemics and more – challenges that bind us all (whether we like it or not) and require more cooperation and trust than we currently exhibit – will be severely impaired.  And whatever history will eventually be written about us –our priorities, preoccupations and attentions– will surely not be kind.