Fort Worth:  The UN Presents Diverse Lenses on Human Potential, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Feb

Mother Earth

Most of us must learn to love people and use things rather than loving things and using people. Roy Bennett

We know that we are the ones who are divided; and we are the ones who must come back together, to walk in the Sacred Way.  Ojibway Prayer

Isn’t it sad that you can tell people that the ozone layer is being depleted, the forests are being cut down, the deserts are advancing steadily, that the greenhouse effect will raise the sea level 200 feet, that overpopulation is choking us, that pollution is killing us, that nuclear war may destroy us – and they yawn and settle back for a comfortable nap. But tell them that the Martians are landing, and they scream and run.  Isaac Asimov

Cover my Earth Mother four times with many flowers.  Zuni Prayer

And certainly, the mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it.  George Eliot

Teach us to walk the soft earth as relatives to all that live.   Sioux Prayer

We think we know what we are doing. We have always thought so. Michael Crichton

In beauty it is finished.    Navajo Chant

As many of you have gathered from even occasional readings of these Sunday missives, the UN offers what at time represent an equally dazzling and frustrating lens on global policy but also on the people who, among other things, establish its norms and responses.  This week alone, saw government experts convene to establish the basis for a framework to address the growing threat posed by the militarization of outer space, a well-organized briefing on Yemen to “hold the fort” on humanitarian response until a viable political process to end the conflict can be established, and a joint presentation by the presidents of the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council respectively in an attempt to ratchet up both funding pathways and diplomatic urgency to keep our collective commitments to the 2030 Development Agenda at least somewhat on track.

We do lots of “holding the fort” at the UN, trying to maintain global attention on the difficult (non-Martian) issues that cause many constituents to turn their gaze away or “settle back for a comfortable nap,” but also to gather resources within the UN and in member states to support “good faith” responses to what are at times ugly manifestations of the human condition. The UN does what it can, in many instances keeping the focus on often-ignored matters of planetary urgency while organizing competent and strategic responses in the hope that various forms of “reinforcements” — of funding, capacity support and political will — do not lag too far behind.

Of all the “ugly manifestations” of human conduct that the UN highlighted this week, perhaps the most discouraging was an event on human trafficking organized by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime.  The event itself was very well done, focusing on the launch of two related reports, UNODC’s full assessment of global trafficking and a second report covering much of the same ground but focused specifically on trafficking in the context of armed conflict.

The latter report was directly requested by the UN Security Council and is perhaps more germane to Global Action’s organizational priorities; but both “booklets” paint a sordid picture of the willingness of human beings in diverse circumstances to contribute to brutality, abuse and “exploitation” that contexts of armed violence merely magnify.  Highlighted within booklet 2 is the recruitment of children into armed groups to serve as everything from porters to suicide bombers, and victims trafficked for purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation.  In addition to copious statistics on trafficking demographics, law enforcement responses and conviction rates, mention was made often of the particular vulnerabilities of displaced persons — including those many thousands displaced by armed violence — and the often-desperate people, mostly women and children, who sign on to what are certain to become exploitative arrangements in the complete absence of viable options, arrangements perpetrated by those who, at the very least, “love things and use persons.”

One can (and we often do) laud the efforts of law enforcement, peacekeepers and UN officials to provide urgent perspectives and high-quality data on this soul-crushing issue. At the same time we also lament the “blows” inflicted by traffickers to any sense of optimism about the ability of human beings to do any better than to “hold down the fort” as our norms of international order prove themselves “thinner” than we imagined and predation in many forms continues to flourish; traffickers, yes, but also an economic system that allows some to build massive wealth casting dismissive shadows on the many millions resigned to running (if they can) from people and institutions content to treat them mostly as “things” to be used, rather than beings to be cherished.

For many younger people, even those around Global Action’s orbit contemplating careers in international affairs, one can perceive a pervasive sense of cynicism about the human condition, a sense that self-interest is fully entrenched as our collective guide-star, that narcissism has become a social expectation and, moreover, that there is really not much that people can do – UN resolve notwithstanding — to “turn this tide” characterized by too much ugliness, too many people content to sleep through crises or turn a blind eye to the inequities that are actually within their power to change.

This assessment of “human nature” – less a science-based lens for exploration of both our warts and potential, and more an excuse for not changing what we are able to change – must also be countered.   After all, the forts we “hold” will not stay held forever.  We see evidence throughout that the walls are cracking, that provisions are scarce and unequally distributed, that communications are increasingly vexing, that promises of reinforced capacity are too-often unreliable. We simply cannot go on the way we are, cannot reverse our current slide while simultaneously enabling (often unintentionally) the forces committed to an unequal and rapacious exploitation of what little is left to exploit.

As the gorgeous group of quotations above makes plain, there is another path that integrates honor and gratitude, that upholds the dignity of human beings while rejecting indignities directed towards our natural home. The UN also knows this other path.  On Friday in the General Assembly Hall, the UN launched the International Year of Indigenous Languages, an event that included powerful statements from President Morales of Bolivia and the President of the General Assembly Maria Fernandez. The event also highlighted indigenous representatives who spoke directly to the multiple benefits of indigenous language preservation – not only the safeguarding of indigenous culture itself but the life given to forms and depths of expression to which indigenous languages are particularly well suited – expression that links people to each other and to the many blessings of creation, that reminds us of the power of beauty to inspire our better selves, that urges us to cover our “mother” with flowers of her own making rather than with bulldozers and space weapons of our own.  As Ecuador’s minister affirmed, the words of indigenous languages “have a soul, a memory, a heart.” They tie together those who live where their sounds are uttered, binding the human and non-human, ties of gratitude and what the PGA called “symbols of belonging,” all held together with pledges to walk more “softly” on a planet that too many of us have conspired to treat much too roughly for much too long.

This event was not designed to romanticize indigenous culture, to promote the soul-energy embedded in indigenous languages as the singular antidote to modernism’s excesses. Indigenous leaders are all-too-aware of the “divisions” that need to be reunited in their own communities, the many sources of pain (including the self-inflicted variety) that require a more robust healing response.  And yet there is so much richness embedded in these language forms, so much beauty, connection and “will to cherish” that culturally-homogenous modern societies — too comfortable in what they “know” and too resolved to “have their own way” — need much more of.

An aboriginal woman from Australia told the diplomats in the GA Hall of the joy it brings her to “whisper into the ears of her grandchildren words from my ancestral language.”  We owe our children and grandchildren more than smart phones and foolish owners, more than forts buckling under the strain of assaults coming from predatory humans in many forms.  We owe them, as one indigenous speaker on Friday noted, the chance “to sing the songs of the earth,” songs that in too many corners of this planet “have simply grown silent.”

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