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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.