Archive | March, 2019

Passion Play: The UN’s Drowsy Acknowledgement of Racist Violence, Dr. Robert Zuber

31 Mar

Old Man

It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.  Audre Lourde

No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them. Elie Wiesel

Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.  Ta-Nehisi Coates

We first crush people to the earth, and then claim the right of trampling on them forever, because they are prostrate.  Lydia Maria Child

White privilege is an absence of the consequences of racism: an absence of structural discrimination, an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost.  Reni Eddo-Lodge

Three hundred years of humiliation, abuse and deprivation cannot be expected to find voice in a whisper.  Martin Luther King Jr.

This past week at the UN was reminiscent of some of the energy surrounding the opening of the General Assembly in September.  Many heads of state and foreign ministers were in the building weighing in on climate change and sustainable development, on peace prospects for Mali and its Sahel neighbors, on pledges to enhance the UN Secretary-General’s Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative, on collaborative actions to stem the financing of terrorism, on ways that the General Assembly and the Peacebuilding Commission can collaborate on conflict prevention and building “national ownership for sustaining peace,” and on the largely-US-initiated controversy around sovereign jurisdiction over the Golan Heights.  Beyond the rooms where the political dignitaries could be found, the UN also hosted some excellent side events on the preservation of biodiversity in the ocean waters beyond national jurisdiction, one piece of a larger treaty-based effort to promote global ocean governance in the vast, threatened, open ocean.

It was all breathtaking and challenging for us to process while running from one conference room to another to catch and share (@globalactionpw) the most important moments of too-often parallel events .  Much of the energy of the week, especially on peacekeeping and peacebuilding, was positive, though in some instances not always sufficiently urgent.  As was duly noted in several conference rooms, both our climate and our oceans are deteriorating more rapidly than our collective responses are ratcheting up, threatening small island states and regions such as the African Sahel, the latter of which is already groaning under burdens of drought, weak institutions of governance, and unwelcome external interference including in the form of pervasive violence from armed groups operating across multiple borders.

With all that was taking place in the worlds inside and outside the UN, there were three distinct images from this past week that touched a not-particularly-happy chord.  One of these, courtesy of CNN, was of the town hosting the so-called “doomsday vault” (Svalbard Global Seed Vault) that is apparently now warming faster than anywhere else on earth, threatening the integrity of the vault’s precious storage.  Back at the UN, the Security Council discussion on the validity of what Israel called the “just proclamation” by the US on the Golan deteriorated at the end into a bit of a shouting match with the Syrian and Israeli Ambassadors attempting to “shame” one another, as though there isn’t already plenty of unacknowledged and unconfessed shame at the UN to go around, certainly by these two states but also by myself and others who need to do more than the modest part we are playing now to help keep this UN ship steered in the right direction.

The third disturbing image for me was not about melting and shaming, but about absence.  After two weeks of crowded hallways, overflow conference rooms and passionate speeches from UN officials courtesy of the Commission on the Status of Women, the General Assembly held two events on Monday, essentially back to back, ostensibly to reflect with the international community on the scourges of racial discrimination and the slave trade, including its grave contemporary manifestations.

For both events, the GA Hall was largely empty at all seating levels, including the section where we were stationed. Only a half-dozen or so non-diplomats were witness to the first morning conversation in a level of the Hall that can seat hundreds.  One of those was an elderly African-American woman seated in one corner of what was otherwise a vast sea of empty seats. We wondered if all the open space disturbed her.  It disturbed us.

Some salient insights were communicated during this day though the speeches were often uttered without much passion, “whispers” easily swallowed up by vast, empty spaces.   There were exceptions: participating states including Cuba, Kenya, San Marino and Guyana exposed “doctrines of racial superiority” and the “hatred that could lead to genocide” while insisting that the UN take the lead in educating people about what Guatemala called “pernicious” and all-too common racism and discrimination.

The president of the General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés added some important dimensions to this discussion in what, for her, became quite a remarkable week of events and interventions. She underscored that the UN has not kept its “never again” promise; that “stereotypes and micro-aggressions” persist and inflame conditions that lead to racial intolerance.  And she restated the commitment of the General Assembly to the 2030 Development Agenda and its promise to eliminate the gaps that leave space in our world for race-based discrimination and abuse, for the hate crimes, abuses of authority and family-separated children that stain our very souls.

But it was two other insights from the president that particularly piqued our interest:  her lament that “inhumane subjection” continues to take so many ugly forms in our modern world, and her call to honor the (trans-Atlantic) slave women who endured “physical exploitation” but who nevertheless reached beyond their own suffered indignities to “uphold the dignity of others.”

In the aftermath of the CSW (whose side events we regularly attended), the implications of these two comments seemed clear.   First that “inhumane subjection” now casts a broad and nefarious shadow over the entire human condition, affecting too many women to be sure; but a shadow that engulfs and shrouds persons of many racial and religious backgrounds, including indigenous people of course but also persons with disabilities and disabling diseases, the chronically poor and politically marginalized. And second, that if “physically exploited” women can find it within themselves to uphold the dignity of others, then surely the rest of us privileged folks have far fewer excuses for neglecting this fundamental duty towards the building of a world of genuine reconciliation and sustainable peace.

For all the chatter about “intersectionalities” around the UN, we seem to have misplaced a good portion of that (probably now overused) term’s implications.  It is not just about multiple forms of discrimination experienced by such as indigenous women, as pervasive as those forms are. It is also about extending meaningful solidarity to other “sections,” identifying with their diverse humiliating and abusive contexts, supporting their calls for justice and reconciliation and, as with this past Monday, showing up at events where the abuse and discrimination of focus are not focused specifically on “us.”

At the end of a week of so many UN discussions both exhilarating and frustrating, the most hopeful image for me was the one at the top of this post, a 95 year old man who traveled on four buses to make an appearance at a rally to show support for New Zealand’s mourning Muslim community, thereby adding his voice to what must become our common call to take racial, ethnic and religious discrimination – and the multi-layered “crushing” and “trampling” which it now spawns in all parts of our world – with greater seriousness.

We could have used his presence and inspiration in the General Assembly Hall this past Monday.

Timber Line: The UN Labors to Encourage Reverence for Forests, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Mar

Forests II=

Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours.  Herman Hesse

When great trees fall in forests, small things recoil into silence, their senses eroded beyond fear.  Maya Angelou

When trees burn, they leave the smell of heartbreak in the air.  Jodi Thomas

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. William Blake

To come in contact with the tree you have to put your hand on it and the word will not help you to touch it.  Jiddu Krishnamurti

And see the peaceful trees extend, their myriad leaves in leisured dance— they bear the weight of sky and cloud upon the fountain of their veins.  Kathleen Raine

The UN took up some important issues this week, including the economic and social benefits of Universal Health Care, the need to fulfill our participation promises from the Women, Peace and Security Agenda, and the implementation challenges of “biometrics” technology in securing national borders and positively identifying “foreign terrorist fighters” and other members of terror movements.

The biometrics event, organized by the ever- thoughtful UN Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate, was particularly instructive as expert after expert wrestled with how to balance the technological benefits with the human rights pitfalls.  How do manage the “secret sharing” of this technology with intelligence and law-enforcement officials across borders while ensuring that rights of privacy and freedom from politicized applications are duly protected.  As is so often the case in such matters, we were left with an unfulfilling formula with many more concrete assurances regarding the counter-terror functionality of biometrics than regarding its own potential for rights abuses.

While some in this policy space would diminish its relevance, this is actually a pervasive problem at the UN.  We can prod and cajole, we can institutionalize our normative concerns and “turn up the heat” on serially-offending states.  But at the end of the day, it remains easier to “sell” governments (and other stakeholders to be sure) on the benefits of technology than on the vigilance required to ensure that such technology is not “repurposed” to political or economic goals inconsistent with Charter obligations to uphold human rights let alone the people-centered promises we have made to global constituents on sustainable development and a healthy environment.

Part of this dilemma is courtesy of a modern mind-set that “trusts” technology more than the motives of governments or even other human beings.  We have certainly adjusted our collective policy work to accommodate the language and thought-processes of technology and, on that basis, assumed that technology will more or less “sell itself” to an audience perhaps much too eager to embrace its benefits without bothering to assess, and then recover, what we might otherwise be in danger of losing.

Some of this disconnect was in evidence at this week’s International Day of Forests event, a precursor to May’s Forum on Forests to be held at UN Headquarters.   We eagerly anticipated this event, in part, based on our understanding of the important role that forests play worldwide in absorbing and storing carbon, but also the degree to which the lack of healthy forests (due to disease or deforestation) is itself a significant contributor to climate risks.  Thanks to UN reports and local agents of change, we know that healthy forests have direct implications for water, soil quality and other quality-of-life issues in rural areas.  Thanks to Green Map and others, we also know of the multiple benefits of trees in urban areas, including energy conservation, CO2 reduction, storm-water capture and pollutant removal, as well as traffic calming and crash reduction, healthier walking and cycling, even “an enhanced sense of well-being and conviviality brought by singing birds and shaded sidewalks.”

Some of these topics were mentioned, mostly in passing, at an event that (even with the presence of eco-engaged children) created little “buzz” among the scarce audience in the ECOSOC chamber. From a purely policy level, there were several missed opportunities to drive this discussion further.  Among those “misses” was a focus on the role of forests in maintaining our dangerously shrinking biodiversity, not only as habitats for individual species but in preserving the symbiotic bonds between species, bonds increasingly threatened by our habituated carbon loading and resource exploitation. Moreover, there was no mention of the rights and implications of respecting “land tenure,” even by the representative from the Food and Agriculture Administration (FAO) which is largely credited with placing land tenure issues squarely on the UN’s agenda in the first place.

Tenure issues are critical to healthy forests, as “insecure tenure rights” courtesy of corrupt government or corporate entities creates conditions conducive to “conflict and environmental degradation.”  The arbitrary separation of people (including indigenous peoples) from their forests and other lands also has grave stewardship implications, inasmuch as the persons “closest” to the land, persons who understand best the rhythms and relations that keep forests and other ecosystems healthy are no longer able to render those sustainable services.   As tenure rights are violated, often with impunity and despite official promises to the contrary, natural resources are more likely to be exploited and promises for eco-protection and restoration are more likely to go by the wayside.

As part of the International Day event, a representative from China’s “Shelterbelt” Program shared an ambitious, forest-focused government program (started in 1978) to protect communities and agriculture from “dusty wind, desertification, water erosion and soil loss.”  As technologically impressive as this project has been, more poignant for me was the testimony of young people who have successfully “localized” the protection and expansion of forests and trees, planting and caring for life forms that might well outlive them, recognizing their many benefits — well beyond the commercial and the technical — for the abundance and health that they (and many millions of others) hope to enjoy.

And in the process, perhaps helping us to revive a bit of the “romance” of the forest as well, a romance well-represented in the quotes at the beginning of this post, odes to trees that inspire awe as well as offer protection from flooding and pollution, trees that offer “long thoughts” as well as long shade, trees that “bear the weight of sky and cloud” as well as the weight of the millions of people and countless species under stress relying on them for sustenance and shelter. To be able to touch the trees that themselves touch the sky, trees which hold secrets long–forgotten or ignored by humans more anxious to use modern tools to exploit the “green thing that stands in our way,” this can be a life-changing, even “romantic” experience that can enrich and sustain forest protection commitments over many years.

I have been so fortunate to touch so many threatened “great trees” – the majestic redwoods on both sides of San Francisco, the Cedars of Lebanon that once fostered mighty ships, the tangled web of vegetation in the Panamanian rain forest, the Black Pines of Japan interspersed with bamboo, the brilliant fall Maples of New Hampshire, the Sycamores of sub-Saharan Africa, the Cypress of Robeson County, North Carolina.  These and other trees inspire awe even as more and more of them are isolated both from their own kind and from the deeper forests which were once their incubators.

It has been said that we have done to the forests what we have done to each other – degrading their inherent dignity and disrespecting connections that are crucial to our common existence.  Through greed and indifference, through careless fires and the endless whining of chain saws, we have caused our share of “heartbreak” among the trees. The promises of technology notwithstanding, we will not survive our current climate threats without millions of local commitments to larger and healthier forests, nor will we end poverty and protect the languages and cultures that remain most directly “in touch” with the canopies on which we all depend.

Let us then be about the urgent business of revering, protecting and above all, planting.

Women’s Wear:  Sharing the Burdens of Those Who Defend and Inform, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Mar

Afghan II


To stand up for someone was to stitch your fate into the lining of theirs. Tom Rob Smith

Every human is fated to have one moment in their lives in which they can change their own destiny. Takayuki Yamaguchi

If I don’t help the women in Afghanistan, they won’t be around to help me. Cheryl Benard

It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women; that the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The end of this past work week was dominated by images that pointed human potential in vastly opposite directions.  In New Zealand, a mass killing in two mosques grabbed world headlines and caused many institutions – including the UN Security Council – to pause for a moment of silence, a moment that underscored both concern for victims and viceral unease at our collective inability to address — let alone eradicate — this “other terrorism.”  Indeed, the relative indifference evidenced by the government of the UN’s host nation stood only partially in contrast with the mostly muted levels of shock emanating from other states, shock perhaps due more to the startling location of this violence than to its severity.   We are collectively becoming numb to the incessant carnage, it appears, renouncing violence only when it hits too close to home, and often not even then.

On the same day, many thousands of teen-aged young people prepared to leave their classrooms and fill the world’s streets, taking adults like me to task for our negligence on climate threats.  Despite the warnings of insufficient responses, despite the scientific consensus on a threat more immediate and widespread than previously thought, we have mostly gone about our regular business as though our concerns were primarily grounded in rhetoric rather than in survival.  Moreover, we have inflicted this “business” on succeeding generations mostly stuck in classrooms and consumed with admission to next educational levels while the planet melts, millions are on the move, rights are being violated with impunity, and violent tensions are on the rise.

That said, it is especially good for all of us that young people take to the streets to protest some portion of the absurdity of “preparing for life” on a planet that might not be able to sustain life as we know it for that much longer.  Among their contributons, their presence on our avenues and boulevards is a reminder to the rest of us that the greatest gift to climate deniers is the lifestyle indifference of we who claim to accept the “reality” of climate threats, our unwillingness to reduce our ecological footprint, to care for the displaced and discriminated, to hold erstwhile “leadership” accountable for what is coming and not only what is.

The UN of course takes regular notice of threats from terrorism and violence even if it must often wait for states, especially powerful ones, to take up their own portions of global responsibility.  For this week, however, threats to and opportunities for women dominated the UN during the 63rd convening of ECOSOC’s Commission for the Status of Women (CSW), ably chaired by Ireland.  Thousands of women from around the world made the trek to New York, filling virtually every available UN space in plenary sessions and copious side events to discuss the merits of “social protection” and link “women’s empowerment” to sustainable development goals previously promised to the world through the 2030 Development Agenda.

The CSW is both a major branding opportunity and a bit of a “mixed bag” for the UN, which failed once again to secure guarantees from the host state for access by all the women registered, while also largely failing to provide levels of hospitality that women who have traveled long distances to participate surely deserve.  What these CSW delegates found instead is endless lines for coffee and basic sustenance, standing room only side events, and rest room configurations that had not been adjusted in any way to accommodate the thousands of women now in the building.  The security officers tasked with screening and providing direction for these women have often been no less stressed than the visiting women themselves.

Moreover, there is a sense in which delegates seem to have been led to believe that the CSW is breaking new ground for the UN in terms of ending impunity for sexual violence in conflict, ensuring women’s participation in political and peace processes, and guaranteeing educational opportunity and social protection for women and girls.   These matters already constitute a significant portion of our regular discourse here at the UN.  This is as it should be, with the caveats that our gendered jargon (how do we know when someone is “empowered?”) might actually impede a deeper, connected understanding of the many layers of exclusion that infect our collective interests.  For all the barriers faced by women in diverse cultural contexts, theirs is but one ample portion of a number of often-interlocked exclusions associated with race, religion, ethnicity, poverty, disability and social class. These factors contribute to complex and multi-layered patterns of discrimination that impact women to be sure, but hardly women alone.

It is in the CSW side events where the complexities of human lives – women’s lives – are mostly likely to find their voice.  Two such side events stood out for us this past week.  The first, “Current Challenges and Opportunities for Women Human Rights Defenders,” featured women from Syria, Myanmar, Sudan, Nicaragua and elsewhere who literally put their lives on the line to defend rights and public interests in places where most of us – including many who reside in our UN safe spaces – would not be anxious to tread.  The powerful and largely humble testimony of these women did not downplay either the threats they face in the field (including gender-specific threats) or the limited reach of UN protections against reprisals for their activities (duly acknowledged by the UN officials present).  Women defenders are expected to “navigate layers of power” while insisting that their own “layered” and often-traumatic experiences inform what one defender referred to as women’s rights discourse that has become “too predictable,” a “tool for repressive states,” alienating for many women on the front lines of change.

Another side event this week, “Journalism and the empowerment of women,” featured women journalists whose difficult work is both facilitated and imperiled by their deep connection to and reliance on “social media.” Such platforms have become havens for “anonymous” and mean-spirited trolling of the journalists who tell the public things they would rather not know, trolling sometimes accompanied by gendered threats of overt violence that, in some instances, morph into physical attacks against individuals and families.  One of the free-lance panelists who is dedicated to covering right-wing movements cited “staggering” amounts of anti-Semitic, derogatory responses on social media in response to her body of reporting. Another journalist capably extended the discourse on exclusion and abuse, noting that when you examine issues of race, “you put a target on your back,” a target for which there is scant protection, especially from online assaults. Male journalists, it was noted, are also subject to abuse, but are generally regarded as “hated equals,” a courtesy rarely extended to women in the profession.

I was so grateful for the women on both these panels who were generally able to speak clearly about the extraordinary pressures they face without demonizing others or minimizing the generalized impacts of the recrimination and violence that characterize much of our current social climate.  But I also wondered: What keeps them going when their energy and hope have worn thin?  What allows them to do their work, day after day, knowing that they and their families risk being “hung out to dry” by those of us in much safer spaces who can simply redirect our energy to other matters?   Is it pride and determination? Have they simply “stitched their fate” with those serially oppressed?  Do they feel the hurt that can only be healed through intention?   We need to know more about their motivations and feed off their examples.

With an absence of essentialist jargon and with the recognition that too much global policy is like rain that forms in the clouds but never reaches the parched earth, women defenders and journalists are boldly sharing stories and contexts that some want to kill and too many others ignore.  If we want a world where families are safe to worship and children are confident in the health of a planet that will house their adult aspirations, we must all pledge to do whatever it takes to offer mechanisms of protection and solidarity with the eye-opening and often life-saving work of these people of courage.




Deprivation Nations:  The UN Struggles to Measure a Sustainable Life, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Mar


An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language. Martin Buber

Your cravings as a human animal do not become a prayer just because it is God whom you ask to attend to them. Dag Hammarskjold

We’re simply not as different from the rest of the animal kingdom as we used to think. Jane Goodall

You have to steer a course between not appalling people, but at the same time not misleading them. David Attenborough

Today we stand with the brains of hunter-gatherers in our heads, looking out on a modern world made comfortable for some by the fruits of human inventiveness, and made miserable for others by the scandal of deprivation in the midst of plenty.  Richard Leakey

The UN completed yet another busy and, from the standpoint of effective policy, uneven week.   The Security Council held its collective breath as it contemplated a way forward for peace in South Sudan, but also warmly welcomed back H.E. Miroslav Lajčák, former president of the UN General Assembly, who is now responsible for, among other things, coordinating the work of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) with that of the UN more generally and the Security Council more specifically.  In addition, several Council members sponsored a side event on the protection of health workers and facilities in armed conflict, a core tenet of international humanitarian law literally under assault in recent times.

Earlier in the week, the Peacebuilding Commission struggled with what seems to be an endless dilemma over how to navigate the challenge that is Burundi, specifically how to balance development and human rights commitments within a political and security environment that clearly (as evidenced by the conversations taking place on our twitter feed) alarms many stakeholders in Burundi at much higher levels of urgency than those of us in the policy community here in New York.

The week also witnessed abundant (and mostly welcome) references to International Women’s Day.  Amidst a few awkward “tributes” and near-zero-sum attributions of “exclusion,” the events and testimonies this week served as prelude to this week’s high-profile Commission on the Status of Women and also perhaps a bit of a blueprint for how we might successfully navigate other pervasive exclusions in economics, politics and peace processes that are directly related to ethnicity, race and social class.

Even more than these other concerns, the UN was dominated in recent days by ECOSOC’s Statistical Commission. Commission discussions can appear dry and disconnected at times, but are essential if we are to accurately track our collective responsibilities under the Sustainable Development Goals.  Some Commission side events — specifically one on “Knowledge and Politics in Setting and Measuring the SDGs,” hosted by the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung and the UN Development Programme and another on “Measuring Child Poverty in Sierra Leone” hosted by UNICEF —  were noteworthy for their acknowledgement of the statistical burdens that accompany fulfilment of the Sustainable Development Goals, but also of some of the pitfalls that occur when we employ reductionist data modeling, allow our investigations to be tainted by political considerations or access limitations, or fail to innovate data collection to respond to evolving understandings of community needs and expectations.

In this regard, the Sierra Leone event was a special breath of fresh air.   Moving beyond poverty indexed almost exclusively to household income, the speakers in this event spoke instead of “deprivations” that collectively provide a more accurate lens on conditions of poverty than income figures alone.  By attempting to measure a wider range of factors associated with the “quality of life” of children and families – housing, nutrition, education, vaccination rates, clean water access, even “connectivity” to the wider world — statisticians and UN officials together can insist that the data they now collect is much better able to contribute to more comprehensive and sustainable reductions in poverty, especially for children.

The skilled presenters also seemed mindful of the fact that their expansive indexes don’t necessarily capture all of the “deprivations” from which children in diverse urban and rural settings need to be protected.  Indeed, one deprivation that largely eluded “capture” is related to the need for a healthy environment, certainly for clean air and water, but also for healthy forests and the biodiversity they support – from large mammals to the exponentially more numerous (and equally-threatened) insects — essential to maintaining environmental well-being for current and future generations.

While threats to climate and oceans rightly dominate UN conference rooms, “other” environmental issues too-rarely appear on our common agenda.  This changed a bit this week as meetings to examine the role of “corruption” in the illicit wildlife trade and to prepare for the upcoming UN Forum on Forests brought together a number of stakeholders concerned with shrinking biodiversity and the forests (among other ecosystems) that support such life.  The corruption discussion was more elaborate, citing examples of the profligate and illegal wildlife trade made more profitable by virtue of the ability of traffickers to purchase inattentive silence from officials ranging from park rangers to environmental ministers.  Moreover, efforts to arrest and prosecute wildlife trafficking are impeded by funding limitations, themselves a product of an often indifferent public sentiment willing to endorse protection for only the most visible and iconic species – as though such species can possibly thrive independent of numerous “non-iconic” life forms on which their survival ultimately depends.

The original title of this piece was to be “animal crackers,” a form of warning about that time when our relationship to even the most visible parts of the current natural order will be confined to flour-concocted replicas rather than to direct and nurturing experiences.  Our current efforts to “save wildlife,” noble at one level, fail to communicate adequately the degree to which we are only “saving” what we ourselves have brought to the brink of extinction; moreover that we are “saving” mostly the top end of food chains that are literally disintegrating at lower levels, victims of our pesticides, our deforestation, our addiction to plastics, but mostly our collective indifference.

As I look out from the kitchen window of my apartment of many years on to a street that has been gentrified and layered in concrete almost beyond recognition, I can see only a couple of tired-looking pigeons and one solitary tree, and then only if I strain my neck.  While my neighborhood probably has more accessible “green options” than most in this city, the view out my window surely reflects deprivation conditions of a too-common kind, our too-often-unrequited longing to connect with the “great language” of the natural world of which we have so-far proven to be a mostly predatory component.  Thankfully, this “comfortable for some, deprived for many” world we still conspire to create lies in the “cross-hairs” of the 2030 Development Agenda, an agenda which reminds us that we are now well past the point where our planet and the human communities it labors to support can be healed with half-hearted or single-lens measures. Such measures fail on data quality but also fail to promote a vision for a world capable of shifting the “green” that enables our “cravings” into the green that nourishes and sustains our children, indeed our collective soul.

The ability and willingness of these national statistical experts to name and count the world that can nourish and sustain, that can underwrite hopeful policy for children and other living things facing often-unique configurations of deprivation, was among the most encouraging and gratifying aspects of a packed policy week.


Sounds of Silence: The Security Council Endorses Ambitious Disarming, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Mar

Guns at Rest

Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?  Lawrence Durrell

And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.  Audre Lorde

People never expect silence. They expect words, motion, defense, offense, back and forth. They expect to leap into the fray. They are ready, fists up, words hanging, leaping from their mouths.  Silence? No. Alison McGhee

Talk, talk, talk: the utter and heartbreaking stupidity of words.  William Faulkner

The UN this week, much like the world at large, was replete with motion and “talk” on a variety of related fronts.  From dueling Security Council resolutions on Venezuela with acrimony to match, to renewed resolve (under the Kimberley Process) to turn remaining pockets of “conflict diamonds” into “peace diamonds” (as Romania and others insisted), the UN and those seeking to cover its many events had our collective hands full.

We of course welcomed all of this week’s interest by diplomats in security in all its diverse manifestations.   From a Norway-sponsored event to honor the 20th anniversary of the highly effective Mine Ban Treaty to a Japan-led event to commemorate the 25th anniversary of “human security” –an integrative concept beyond “hard security” preoccupations with weapons and alliances — we support (as most of you already know) holistic initiatives that seek to impact both over-produced weapons and under-inclusive governance; initiatives that seek to reduce weapons-related threats in part by addressing complementary challenges related to state corruption, climate-induced disasters and the persistent rights abuses and social inequities that provide too-easy rationales for so many to acquire and use weapons in the first place.

We urge states to address, as Poland mentioned this week in the Security Council, the “destabilizing acquisition” of weapons by states which cannot easily control their movements nor guarantee that weapons replaced by such acquisitions will not fall into the hands of non-state actors.  But we also urge action on the “destabilizing production” of weapons, the shiny new toys that are unlikely to provide any more “human security” than the toys states have already grown tired of.  To these ends, we have doubled down on support for efforts such as the Peace Angel’s “USA Weapons Destruction Campaign,” an initiative which seeks to repurpose weapons used to kill into works of art that can both inspire more peaceful communities and help identify ways to address the “triggers” of conflict that lead too many in these unsettled times to believe in the power of weapons more than in the power of the human spirit.

From the standpoint of a more secure world, this week’s main event was Wednesday in the Security Council where many delegations and a few civil society voices addressed the successes and gaps of the “Silencing the Guns in Africa by 2020” initiative.  Under the leadership of the Foreign Minister of Equatorial Guinea, the Council session was noteworthy for its verbal and active support of an aspiration that has proven to be more ambitious and complex than was perhaps originally envisioned, but which has inspired actions likely to accrue lasting benefits for more secure African societies going forward.

As 2019 reaches the “quarter pole” it would be foolish to suggest that gun-related “silence” across this large continent is likely to occur in nine months’ time.   Armed violence in many forms continues to impact African states from Burundi and Cameroon to Libya and Somalia. Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram insurgents are among the non-state actors indulging regularly in armed threats against civilians and government forces, and governments themselves have been responsible for armed attacks in South Sudan and elsewhere.  Moreover, the Security Council has authorized responses to insurgent threats, including the G5 Sahel Force, which have resulted in the importation of yet more weapons into theaters of conflict, albeit weapons lodged in the hands of “legitimate” authorities.  Whatever the merits of such supplemental and robust coercive measures – whether in Mali, South Sudan or DR Congo – at the end of the day these guns must also eventually go silent if the goals of this African initiative are to be fulfilled.

And yet, despite some notable setbacks, we have seen over these past few years an awakening of cross-regional capacity and resolve among Africans and their leadership which, together with UN and other supporters, have shifted at least part of the playing field regarding our responses to threats of armed conflict.  As evidenced by Wednesday’s Security Council meeting, the African Union and regionally-focused organizations such as ECOWAS and IGAD have undertaken a series of important measures to help ensure fair elections, mediate disputes within and between states, promote inclusive sustainable development, uphold the rule of law, and provide incentives for state leaders reluctant to share or relinquish power to rethink their alleged “indispensability.”

In Liberia, Eritrea, Guinea and elsewhere, threats of armed violence and rights abuses have given way to a welcome “silence” of sorts that must be fully utilized to consolidate gains and ensure that such abuses once renounced are not allowed to return.  These and other successes, perhaps even now in the Central African Republic as well, are in part a function of rapidly-evolving security architecture across Africa that will increasingly be able to “flag” emerging conflicts, mediate active conflicts, protect those displaced by conflict, and call attention to the many development and “human security” benefits that could well accrue in societies that have succeeded in finally silencing the guns.

Noteworthy for us in Wednesday’s Council debate were the pointed warnings from ACCORD’s Gounden and even a few diplomats about the need for vigilance in defusing the “time bombs” that tick loudly when guns proliferate in environments characterized by limited employment, governance challenges, unplanned urban growth and criminality.  The Council must, Gounden insisted, remain strongly engaged on the causes of armed violence in Africa.  The danger, he rightly noted, is that the guns will not be silenced but only the active and supportive voices of Council members.

And yet across seven “talkative” hours, it was apparent to most diplomats that “silencing of the guns” must continue and in concert with other “silencings” – of rights abuses and neglect of the rule of law (Belgium); of  discriminatory practices affecting the safety and access of women and cultural minorities (Ireland); of the constant march of development-desperate persons displaced by drought, flooding and conflict threats (Equatorial Guinea); of economic inequalities and illegal efforts to exploit natural resources for criminal gain (European Union); of the failure to include youth in policy decisionmaking, especially on conflict and employment (Botswana and Kenya); of impediments to education and health access (Angola), and much more.   Silencing the guns remains the essential condition that makes these other “silencing” tasks more likely to succeed.  Thus the key, as noted by South Africa, is to ensure that “that countries exiting conflict do not return to conflict conditions,” that guns once silenced are not permitted to roar again.

As the Foreign Minister of Equatorial Guinea noted during his opening remarks, “a conflict-free Africa will likely remain a utopia unless we promote inclusive development and put to use all available conflict prevention and resolution tools.”   This is, of course, sound advice, especially as the year 2020 inches closer.  Through this commitment to “silencing,” African states have sought to move mountains, and in fact have moved a few.  But as Namibia’s Ambassador reminded the Council, “if we want to continue moving mountains” on armed violence in Africa, we must begin by “lifting stones,” by engaging any number of smaller actions that set aside the “stupidity” of too many policy words and set about to build societies that can fulfill more conflict-related promises, end more social inequities, promote more trustworthy governance, and allow the displaced a safe and dignified return home.

As we sit here in March 2019, Africans are unlikely to meet their 2020 “silencing” goals at face value, but they have surely embarked on a path (albeit uneven at times) that offers hope both to their own peoples and to others watching across continental borders.  As this new peace and security architecture for Africa continues its evolution, we must all pledge to stay engaged.  This is simply not the time for the rest of us to withhold our own practical contributions or silence our own supportive voices.