Archive | April, 2019

Turning the Page:  Recovering the UN’s Relevant Responses, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Apr

UN Stamp

If we don’t all row, the boat won’t go. Unknown

If everyone helps to hold up the sky, then one person does not become tired. Askhari Johnson Hodari

Laugh as long as you breathe, love as long as you live. Nujeen Mustafa

Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving.  Albert Einstein

In the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism.  Naomi Klein

While contemplating the content for this post, I took a walk in a nearby Manhattan park in what has been a particularly lovely season for flowers and blossoms.   While strolling and admiring I came across a Parks Department worker and thanked her for making all of this wonder possible.

She looked a bit stunned, as though this simple recognition was akin to a message from Mars.  But I remember well a time when my jogs through this very park were exercises in reckless risk taking, when park benches and pathways screamed out for repair, when “security” was largely based on “street smarts,” when flowers bloomed in defiance of neglect rather than as the result of loving care.

Part of the “care” of this park now is a function of a largely-unfortunate gentrification. We didn’t “deserve” a functioning green space, apparently, until the neighborhood became “safe” enough to absorb copious quantities of downtown money.  But even so, the park is now a place where flowers are planted and benches painted, where playgrounds are truly playful for children rather than being the dangers they once were for their parents, where teenagers play ball near a pond with turtles, egrets and feral cats, and folks trying to get in better shape are encouraged to jog around the now-even pavement meandering around the park’s edges.

And I contributed to virtually none of these improvements, as I tend to contribute too-little to so many of the things I use and (too often) take for granted.

This is intended less as a “confession” and more as a punctuation to what was an exhausting and instructive week of UN business.   From indigenous people straining to protect biodiversity and achieve formal UN recognition to some policy-challenging conversations on identifying and addressing what the UN Office of Drugs and Crime called “chilling” threats from nuclear terrorism and the increasingly convergent interests of terrorists and organized crime, it was difficult for us to keep track of (let alone contribute to) these multiple challenges or identify threads of what might constitute an effective response.

Fortunately, there were other UN events this week where the positive potential was easier to spot.

One of these was in the Security Council where Germany (April president) reinforced a discussion on the security and humanitarian issues affecting Syria by scheduling a poignant briefing from Nujeen Mustafa, a remarkable young woman with a disability who, from her wheelchair, schooled Council members on the many persons much too “invisible” in times of peace who become even less visible in times of conflict.  She reminded all in the Chamber that the figures quantifying humanitarian need have human faces, and that some of these faces already experience grave difficulties in this world which armed conflict merely intensifies.

And in the General Assembly, President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés convened the first International Day for Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace.  While some delegations rightly lamented that such a day would even be necessary, and some used the opportunity to settle political scores, most understood that ours is a system that needs to be fixed rather than cast aside.  The president herself understands that a future for the UN lies in its ability to help build “a fairer world in practice, beyond our UN rhetoric,” a world that reaches persons living with poverty, with disabilities, with grave discouragement. And, as noted by the Finnish Foreign Minister, a world pointing to a future that does not belong only to “the rulers and the strong.”

In preparation for this post, I looked through my grandfather’s collection of UN stamps from 1951, the first year that UN stamps were issued.  The themes were revealing:  stamps highlighting the work of UNICEF and the ILO, stamps honoring the commitment of the UN to human rights.   And there were two others from 1951 of direct relevance to this post – one touting the UN’s commitment to capacity support and the other (at the top of this post) implying that the doors of the UN are open to all peoples of the world, and that it is the “common” people – and not only their diplomats and bureaucrats – who must be able to find something akin to an attentive and respectful haven in this place.

Taken together, this combination of hopefulness and tangible support is a legacy that is worth preserving, a legacy that certainly demands more of each of us, more thoughtfulness, more tangible contributions, more honesty, even more compassion.  It requires many more of us to commit to “hold up the sky” and row the boat, but also a willingness to burden-share, to refuse to “hog the oars” or avoid getting near the boat in the first place.

I recognize every day the degree to which our own little project has become a bit of a dinosaur, wedded to obsolete technology and pushing values that are important at one level but haven’t always served the global interest well as they should have. I also recognize that there is significant interest now in many corners of the globe to simply turn the page, to move on from rowing and holding, to dismiss the institutional arrangements of the past that have led to undeniable progress but also to exclusion and broken promises; arrangements that have allowed existential risks to become near-certainties, and that have extended cooperation with one hand while hording power and resources with the other.

Our fervent wish is for people to read the page before they turn it.

Read the page about the many issues – from sexual violence in armed conflict and nuclear terrorism to climate change and pandemics – for which the UN remains an indispensable point of policy reference.  Read the page about the people like Nujeen Mustafa whose “invisibility” is steadily giving way to recognition and respect.   Read the page about the many delegations reminded of their responsibility to both contribute more to the world they want and offer more tangible encouragement for the contributions of others.  Read the page about those who have dedicated their lives to protect human rights for those who labor and those who protest, for those who are mere bystanders to conflict and those whose vulnerabilities have compromised their very agency.   Read the page where coordinated pressure from UN agencies and member states has created conditions for the dramatic reduction of numerous human scourges, from torture and malaria to state corruption and the recruitment of child soldiers.

This page certainly contains its share of hypocrisy and protocol substituting for genuine gratitude and compassion, but it also contains evidence of a willingness to grow and change, to give a good-faith attempt to resolve its lapses of effectiveness and address the legitimate skepticism of some of its global public. We routinely spend 10 hour weekdays inside the UN, and there are days when we shake our heads so often that our necks become strained.  But we know that this place retains some capacity for self-reflection, occasionally even humor. Together we can fix this place, making it more effective but also more human, insisting that its constituent parts contribute more to the global commons and uphold more fully the values that gave rise to its existence 74 years ago.

At the General Assembly this past week, the Irish Ambassador spoke of the “problems without passports” for which the UN is uniquely if not yet fully equipped to address.  Hers is the section of the page we need to be sure to bookmark.

100 days: South Africa’s Uncertain Direction on the UNSC, by Benji Shulman

26 Apr

Editor’s Note:  Benji Shulman is a resident of South Africa, was an intern with Global Action in the summer of 2014, and has been a colleague of longstanding through our Green Map affiliate.  This reflecton on South Africa’s early tenure on the UN Security Council reflects the policy thoughtfulness we have come to expect from Benji. 

The minister of the Department International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO) of South Africa, recently gave an address to a local think tank on their policy positions for the UN Security Council (see here). South Africa is over three months into its role as a non-permanent member of the council, for the period of 2019-2020. What is immediately apparent is that South Africa’s tenure will bring with a number of opportunities to advance multi-lateral agenda items that are on the UNSC bucket list. However, its ability to deliver these may be hampered by some of its bilateral approaches to international relations.

Two multi-lateral issues of significance in the minister’s statement provide especially good opportunities for South Africa to provide meaningful engagement on the Council.

The first, is that of arms control. The minister noted that from its first term on the Council (this is now its third), it was proud of its achievements in this area. It has also stated that in its role as chair of the African Union, this will also be a priority.  Given the Council’s recent focus on this area, as well as the upcoming NPT “Prep Com” in New York, South Africa’s perspective from a continent where arms control is a serious challenge will be welcome.

The second issue is that of gender. South Africa has pushed this agenda at the UN for a while now, engaging in frameworks for the greater participation for women in peacekeeping mandates and other peace and security responsibilities. A key part of its stated aims will be the support and encouragement of women’s full participation, not just at the UNSC, but also in its own diplomatic corps. In an age where gender campaigns have been gaining prominence, this should continue to receive strong support from member states and NGO’s.

Despite this positive approach, South Africa may find that the above focusses and programmes on their agenda might run into challenges because of some of its bilateral foreign policy priorities. Take for example, two of the country’s stated objectives for its current term:

  • South Africa upholds in the strongest terms the principles of the UN Charter without biastoward any country.
  • We support the peaceful resolution of conflicts, with a focus on prevention, the utilization of mediation approaches, and the promotion of inclusive dialogue.

Three months into its UNSC tenure these objectives are already coming under strain. The first instance, was its voting pattern on the UNSC vote on Myanmar, where South Africa abstained from voting on a resolution condemning that government’s actions against the Rohingya minority. The minister has said, that in effect, this was a “technical error” based on a voting strategy which was adopted before being elected onto the Council.

Nonetheless, other Council members will have good cause to be suspicious of South Africa’s potentially partisan stances.  Members will no doubt be aware of the country’s reputation for a being a “rogue democracy”, voting with the Council’s more autocratic members on various UN resolutions.  South Africa’s minister has been stung by criticism that its standing in the international community has dropped considerably in the last ten years and is clearly looking to restore its moral authority.  The minister’s statement is replete with language about “imperialism” and accusations that western countries are “undermining” regional powers. This will perhaps make member states wonder if South Africa is coming to its Council responsibilities with a more divisive agenda than they have let on so far.

More evidence of this kind of division can be seen in the minister’s posture toward the state of Israel. The statement suggested that South Africa would be looking to downgrade its relations with Israel in the coming term. Most countries on the current Council have been working in the opposite direction in regards to their relationship with Israel, especially the P5. Even Kuwait, which has no official ties with Israel, has seen informal improvements in relations of late. A move by South Africa to distance itself further from Israel could be diplomatically counter-productive and might especially annoy the United States, which already has a poor “UN relationship” with South Africa.

If the current Council members see South Africa’s inclusion on the Council and its behaviour as embracing a too-narrow agenda in terms of its diplomatic relations, then this could prove to be an alienating influence on other members.  This, in turn, would threaten to undermine Council support for South Africa’s aforementioned and quite welcome multi-lateral goals.  Three months is a short time to be on the UNSC but South Africa will have to work out some of these contractions as it goes forward in promoting its agenda.

Money Matters:  An Easter Reflection on the World We Don’t Yet Have, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Apr

Make the World Better

A fine glass vase goes from treasure to trash, the moment it is broken. Fortunately, something else happens to you and me. Pick up your pieces. Then, help me gather mine.  Vera Nazarian

Be aware of the place where you are brought to tears.  Paulo Coelho

With age, gone are the forevers of youth. Gone is the willingness to procrastinate, delay, to play the waiting game.  Joe Wheeler

Change won’t happen because everyone wishes it happens. It happens only when people decide that we’ll never stop digging until we find our gold.  Israelmore Ayivor

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.  Matthew 6

On a rare spring weekend when the end of the Christian Holy Week and the beginning of the Jewish Passover coincide, I was at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, a place where I did ministry many long years ago.

Amidst the beautiful choral interludes and reflections on crucifixion – a practice which we would now unhesitatingly characterize as torture – a member of the clergy read a long prayer, known as the “Collects.”   Half way through, I heard something that piqued my interest beyond the beautiful petitions that I had once come to know intimately.

We pray for the “members and representatives of the United Nations.”

I don’t know if I technically fit that description, but I do know that many people have “prayed for me” over the years, most to highlight things I was doing that they didn’t like or those times when I was leading myself –or others – astray.   Occasionally I was also “prayed for” in the hope that I would somehow reach my “potential,” would get beyond the childish ways that I dragged far too long into adulthood and assume the responsibility that my education and privilege would suggest and my peers had a right to demand. Mostly in my case, unfortunately, people seemed to assume that they were praying for a “lost soul” rather than for the rapid completion of my somtimes-jagged path towards maturity.

It was in this second sense that this prayer for the UN was intended, “that they may seek justice and truth, and live in peace and concord.” No lost cause here, but rather the fulfillment of an essential and even planet-healing potential.

Surely, this is one hefty solicitation, one which the UN and its diverse stakeholders have yet to reach.  We have, in fact, been a bit too complacent as respect for the rule of law has become an endangered species.   We have too-often replaced jargon and bureaucracy-speak for honest discussion about the future we want and, perhaps more importantly, what stands in our way.   We have allowed politics to taint our primary responsibility to prevent conflict and maintain the peace.  We have refused to play fair in matters of finance and trade thus pushing smaller states into client relationships that force “bargains” that are anything but grand.

At times, the great privilege of working in this policy space for the sake of all life on this stressed planet gets buried under orders from capitals and home offices, and by a “bubble” culture that allows those of us who should know better to believe that the good we are doing is somehow good enough.  Despite frenetic UN activity, despite the many global challenges that rightly find our way into our reports and conference rooms, there is as the Collect goes “too-little health in us.”  As we have noted often, beyond the inspiration of these holy seasons, institutional reform must be accompanied by personal reform; in this instance, the courage to crawl out from under our respective mandates and insist that the good the UN and its member states already do evolves into the good that the times demand.

Such a struggle of potential was on display in several UN venues this week, including a mostly compelling Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) session with Sri Lankan officials on progress made in the realms of development and justice.  As many of you know, the often-horrific violence from earlier this century that officials have already done much to overcome, reappeared this weekend in the form of a series of deadly bomb blasts that tore through churches and hotels.  This is no time or place for second-guessing, but it is worth noting that during this PBC, while the Sri Lankan Finance Minister lauded the “cultural diversity” of his country and praised PBC and other international support for this “maturing democracy,” he and others from the government harshly referenced the “extremists” who pronounce “unfounded criticism” of government development and reconciliation efforts, including the pace of accounting for those still “missing” from the long war. Clearly, the political “co-habitation” envisioned by the Minister in the PBC session still has many miles to go.

And then there was the Financing for Development Forum organized by the president of the Economic and Social Council, Ambassador Rhonda King.  Four days of packed programming, including numerous side events, examined options (with varying degrees of effectiveness) for financing the 2030 Development Agenda, an agenda both daunting and indispensable if we are to emerge from our current malaise of distrust and apathy and forge a healthier, fairer, more secure world.

We were not present for many of the plenary discussions which we were thankfully able to follow through the Global Policy Forum and other of our policy friends.  Some of the side events held greater interest for us, including on “gender-lens impact investing,” on “financial inclusion for the forcibly displaced,” and a hopeful, humble discussion led by El Salvador on creating “feminist foreign policy.”  But the plenary discussions we were able to follow revealed some interesting fault lines on development financing. Some (like us) continued to point out that, despite some success in increasing domestic revenue streams through tax policy reform and the elimination of state corruption, global financial investment is still heavily tilted towards those with incomes, with collateral, with infrastructure already well into development.  Moreover, as noted by several NGOs, the international trading system is similarly skewed towards those states with power and leverage to set the rules.  As some states and civil society worried, the current fiscal ledger for the 2030 Agenda leaves too many inequalities intact, too many skills and voices stranded on the margins, too many waiting for someone to help them “pick up the pieces” before they can move forward.

For all of the well-meaning talent gathered in the Trusteeship Council chamber, it was quite possible to come away from the discussions wondering if this UN commitment is headed in the direction of too many others, a commitment led by people who know well how to “manage” this development race but who apparently have little enough stomach to do what is needed for all of us to reach the finish line.

As the four days of financing for development talk ended, both hopeful and cautionary tales were shared. The eloquent Zambian Ambassador who co-facilitated the draft outcome document eventually approved at this meeting, cited the “beautiful commitments” of the SDGs for which there is surely “enough money in the world.” Without citing bloated defense budgets or other untapped funding sources, he made plain that “we can fund the SDGs if we really want to do so.”  He was followed by Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed who cited 2030 Agenda funding gaps “larger than we had anticipated” while warning against any hint of abandoning yet another promise, this truly grand promise of sustainable development which is tethered to peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, the respect for rights and the rule of law, the nurture of our children and care of our oceans, and ultimately (as she well noted) the vitality and credibility of the multilateral system itself.

We return to the prayer of this holy weekend, a prayer to remember where our collective treasure truly lies: in justice and truth, in peace and concord.  This is the agenda for which delay and procrastination are no longer an option.  This is the gold for which we must never stop digging. This is the place of responsibility and service that must “move us to tears” until our jobs are finally done.

Bad Optics at the UN, by Rex Collins

19 Apr

Editors note:  For the past couple of months, New Orleans native Rex Collins has provided attentive commentary on a range of UN processes largely through his twitter feed:  .  Rex came to us, as have many excellent interns over the years, through the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program.   It’s been valuable for us to “see” the UN through his eyes, as the following post attests. 

In January I attended my first UN event as a Global Action intern: a Peacebuilding Commission meeting to elect new chairs and outline the 2019 work plan. As PBC members presented their aspirations for the new year, I carefully took notes; I was shadowing my new supervisor, Dr. Robert Zuber, and I wanted to make a good impression. But a few hours into the meeting, Dr. Zuber caught me off guard with a simple question: what’s missing? I had no idea, so I was relieved but embarrassed when he quickly revealed the now-obvious answer. Women, said Dr. Zuber. He was right. Almost two hours had passed, and not a single woman had presented a statement. The newly-elected PBC chair eventually recognized the first female presenters of the meeting–the EU representative followed by the Irish ambassador–but only after more than a dozen men had shared. Pardon the expression, but the optics were not great. After witnessing this unfortunate display in the PBC on my first day, it has been surprisingly easy to spot similar scenarios at the UN–scenarios that the outside viewer would perceive as awkward or contradictory to core UN values. In fact during my last two months at the UN, this concept of ‘bad optics’ has emerged as an inescapable, recurring theme.

The next time I observed ‘bad optics’ at the UN was just a week after the PBC meeting. I was sitting across from Dr. Zuber in the Vienna Cafe, checking my emails and enjoying a banana. When I finished my snack, Dr. Zuber asked for the peel so that he could bring it to a composting facility later that evening. This request puzzled me; surely the eco-conscious UN provided compost bins in its dining areas. But when I surveyed the cafe, there were none to be found. This was a surprising revelation, considering the UN recognizes composting as a viable tool for climate action and sustainable development. The UN SDGs website even encourages “average” people to compost in a subsection labeled “The Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World.” The UN advocates for composting and evidently thinks it requires minimal effort, so it would only make sense for the headquarters building to enable staff and guests to responsibly dispose of their compostable waste. But instead, the options are: 1) stuff briefcase with food scraps to be composted later, or 2) dump food waste in super convenient trash bin. Sure, it’s possible that many of the diplomats, security guards and interns opt for the former, but my guess would be that a good majority take the easy way out. I mean, I know where my banana peels would end up if Dr. Zuber didn’t take them off my hands every day. It’s embarrassing that in the same building where member states affirm their national commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the hallways and dining areas are filled with misplaced banana peels and apple cores, just waiting to burn in landfills and release more harmful gasses into the atmosphere. Not a good look.

A more consistent example of ‘bad optics’ that I have encountered at the UN is low attendance at events that should definitely have high attendance. In February, for example, the General Assembly kicked off the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The event was an opportunity to celebrate indigenous populations and the new 2019 Year Theme, but several delegations apparently had better things to do. Dozens of empty chairs and unclaimed placards lined the floor of the GA Hall. I was clearly not the only one who noticed, because the president of Ecuador began his own statement by criticizing the member states that skipped the meeting.

Other events at the UN have suffered from an embarrassing lack of participation by diplomats and other UN stakeholders. This was the case for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, observed last month. You would think a General Assembly meeting to honor victims of intolerance and prevent future discrimination would draw a sizeable crowd, but I was literally the only audience member in the balcony for a good portion of the event. To be fair, the GA Hall is a difficult room to fill, but the scale of the venue made the weak turnouts all the more visible and embarrassing in both cases. Besides, these events did not end up on the UN’s biggest stage by accident. They embodied themes that the UN prioritizes, at least on paper, so it looked pretty bad when so few people bothered to show up.

So why do optics at the UN matter? Sure, these instances can simply be awkward (e.g., the Russian ambassador highlighting the “femininity” of female colleagues in front of the predominantly male Security Council on International Women’s Day), but they can also have real consequences. For example, the cases I’ve observed reflect what some would see as a pattern of UN hypocrisy that can turn off onlookers. Students, civil society and other observant guests will likely take note of missteps like the gender imbalance in the PBC or the missing compost bins, potentially leading them to question the UN’s commitment to its own principles, including on the 2030 Development Agenda. Furthermore, ‘bad optics’ can be discouraging –for the indigenous guest speaker addressing a half-empty General Assembly, or the young woman and aspiring diplomat waiting too long to hear another woman’s voice. Such displays leave UN stakeholders feeling neglected rather than included or empowered. Finally, these instances normalize bad habits. Employees are more likely to disregard composting altogether when they witness coworkers trashing food waste on a regular basis, and delegations may become inclined to skip events when they see others doing the same.

Sometimes, whether we like to admit it or not, appearances do matter; when the UN appears to take shortcuts or break its own rules, it can lose credibility, alienate its audience and reinforce damaging practices. Optics aren’t everything, but the community of the United Nations would do well to take them more seriously.

Curtain Call:  The Security Council Earns a Tentative Bow, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Apr


There are curtains in the windows of our eyes! Either we open these curtains and see the world or keep the curtains closed and see only the curtains!  Mehmet Murat ildan

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.  Groucho Marx

The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonorably, foolishly, viciously. Julian Barnes

As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate action: you liberate a city by destroying it. Gore Vidal

These things will destroy the human race: politics without principle, progress without compassion, wealth without work, learning without silence, religion without fearlessness, and worship without awareness. Anthony de Mello

This is the second month of the joint France-Germany presidency of the UN Security Council, and we have been impressed at the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which the “optics” of the Council have undergone necessary shifts.  From the unprecedented opening of the Council curtains to the views of the East River to the “hourglass” that attempts to keep speakers on time and the (largely unheeded) requests to dispense with protocol and issue “joint statements” in the name of improved efficiency, the Council has had a decidedly different “feel” than in the past, in some ways a bit reminiscent of the Netherlands presidency of last year.

We have been accused of having our own love-hate relationship with the Council, a body which possesses abundant authority and attracts an enthusiastic audience inside and outside the policy community; but which often fails to produce results in keeping with its lofty mandate, failures which in turn impact outcomes by the entire UN system. This argument was advanced forcefully on Tuesday by High Commissioner for Refugees Grandi who spoke in the Council of the “toxic” environment for refugees now evident in much of the world, insisting that the motivation for so many who flee their communities lies in the conflict that we collectively – but certainly the Security Council specifically – fail to prevent.

Love and hate aside, our interest is in the proper functioning of this Council, functioning that keeps its distance from national political concerns and is ever mindful of the sometimes disastrous consequences that ensue when such concerns overwhelm its primary mandate.  The UN’s humanitarian and refugee responses are highly regarded but cannot compensate –as they now are forced to attempt over and over –for our failures on peace and security, failures that create massive capacity gaps that have forced the UN into numerous pledging conferences and, as highlighted by the Global Policy Forum, serve to “open the door” to excessive corporate influence over UN policy.

As always at the UN there were events this week which raised levels of hope, including a Belgium-sponsored Arria Formula discussion on addressing the threats from landmines and Improvised Explosive Devices; a scientist-led discussion (sponsored by Switzerland and Indonesia) on the “synergies” that open up possibilities for successful Sustainable Development Goal implementation; an all-day Security Council discussion to promote much-delayed increases in levels of participation by women in peacekeeping operations, mediation resources and special political missions;  an extraordinary two-day discussion hosted by the President of the General Assembly and Director-General of the International Labor Organization on “The Future of Work;” and progress reports and briefings on what have been largely laudable Security Council engagements in Colombia, Haiti and Abyei (the latter a challenge for both Sudan and South Sudan).

These all were moments when we wanted the UN in general and the Council in particular to be able to step in front of the curtains (even the open ones) and take at least a partial “bow” for work well done.  Indeed in these aforementoned (and other) areas, the UN has added real if at times compromised value; compromised in the sense that politics and “national capacities” (not value or urgency) still dominate too many aspects of the UN policy landscape.  There is, for instance, little reason why the Council took a full day to investigate integrating women more fully into peace operations.  This has been on the Council agenda since at least the year 2000 and should be a relatively straightforward task involving both shifts in peacekeeping “culture,” many of which have thankfully occurred, and a deeper commitment by states to attract more women into the national contingents from which peacekeepers are ultimately nominated and selected.

This compromise of significance happens often in the Council as well as in the wider UN.  We know that this institution is on the right track in many ways, is talking about the right things, is often urging the right actions.  But too often the policy community is left wishing for more in the way of tangible responses to the urgency that the UN has become so skilled in highlighting.  Once the chatter is over, where do we go from here?  What have we learned that can shift our policy commitments in more productive directions? Why must we so often double down on conversations that have previously generated so few tangible outcomes? What is in the way of progress and how can we remove the impediments?

And then there are those overtly discouraging exchanges such as on Wednesday when the Vice President of the United States came to the Council to deliver an undiplomatic, “righteous” (in his view), and barely cogent statement on the tense situation in Venezuela, asserting that where the US is concerned “all options are on the table” and telling the Venezuelan Ambassador serving the Maduro government that “you shouldn’t be here.”  The Vice President then proceeded to launch a verbal attack on Russia, China, Cuba and Iran before abruptly leaving the Council Chamber.

The curtains remained closed until he had cleared the room.

Readers of this space know that we go out of our way not to single out individual states for criticism, given that all of them have, to one degree or another, fallen short of their pledges to the UN Charter and other international agreements; all of them to paraphrase the Russians on the departure of the US Vice President have in some way grabbed other states and stakeholders “by the throat.” Statements by Council members too-often reflect national priorities and too-seldom express commitments to make the Council a more complementary player in the UN as well as a player displaying more fidelity to the “rules based order” so often articulated and even affirmed  in Council space.

But using a chamber ostensibly dedicated to the “peaceful resolution of disputes” to issue direct threats against another member state continues a particularly troubling pattern of institution-menacing actions in the form of visa denial to the ICC prosecutor and Disarmament Commission experts; walking away from obligations from binding Security Council resolutions including the Iran nuclear agreement; issuing sanctions against other member states that have not been authorized by the Council as a whole; and using discretion as “pen holder” on many important Council resolutions to ignore the policy wishes of other Council members.

This pattern of behavior, one mirrored in part or in whole by other Council members, must stop; both for the sake of preserving the Council’s legitimacy but also to keep the rest of the UN system, specifically the parts that must clean up messes and miseries when we “diagnose incorrectly and apply the wrong remedies” from having to engage in what are at times life-endangering responses in zones of conflict that could have – should have — been resolved at earlier stages.

We are now at the point when unresolved conflict negatively impacts every other of our current global threats as well as the availability of the resources needed to address them. The open Security Council curtains reminded us this week of all the hard decisions and even harder actions remaining before Council members can justifiably stand before those curtains and take a deep bow.

Bomb Squad: The UN’s Struggle to Give Disarmament a Chance, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Apr

Peace Bell

Who needs immortal strength when you’ve got weapons of mass destruction?  J.A. Saare

Before he danced with his weapons, now he danced with me.  Kara Barbieri

The people most reluctant to use weapons are the ones who can best be trusted with them. Christopher Bennett

Let the silence rise from unwatered graves and craters left by bombs.
Let the silence rise from empty bellies and surge from broken hearts
. Kamand Kojouri

Can bombs heal our souls or set our spirits free? Aberjhani

During a week in which armed groups ominously marched towards Libya’s capital and the world pondered what has changed and not in the 25 years since the genocide in Rwanda, Tuesday was the day for the UN to take up another of the existential threats that have found their way on to its agenda – weapons in all shapes, sizes and destructive potential that can continue to intimidate populations, enforce discriminatory practices, impede sustainable development, undermine trust in neighbors and governments, and (too) much more.

As some of you recall, Global Action invested much of its early years in disarmament-related activity, helping to provide attentive feed-back to governments on their disarmament responsibilities and sharing office space with colleagues such as the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, with which we continue to commiserate regularly on a range of arms related matters.

That work still matters greatly, though we came to believe some time back that for disarmament to be successful it must find a broader engagement, specifically with policy communities that can make helpful connections between weapons procurement and the “deterrence” with which such weaponry is often associated and justified with other efforts to end racial and gender discrimination, protect our environment, uphold human rights obligations, eliminate the use of child soldiers, promote “DDR” with former combatants, and address terrorist threats.

Not only are these issues linked, but indeed our contention has been that there has been more policy space at the UN and elsewhere for discussions that involve weapons than for discussions that are solely focused on weapons.   Of all the policy architecture on display in the many UN conference rooms to which we are attention, it would be no stretch to conclude that the disarmament architecture is among the least flexible aspects of the current multi-lateral system, the structure most likely to double down on failed resolutions and treaties (or what passes for treaties in the disarmament world), largely squandering the energies and ideas of the often-remarkable diplomats and civil society representatives who choose in good faith to throw themselves into these essential but too-often frustrating processes.

And yet on this past Tuesday diplomats were back at it in the Security Council (which has yet to fulfill its Charter obligation to provide a plan forward on disarmament) as well as in the Disarmament Commission, a process that we followed closely for years but now only engage episodically given its political malfunctions and redundancies, as well as its almost legendary inability to move past hard statements and political maneuverings to embrace the deliberative space that could result in more thoughtful recommendations on disarmament to a UN system that hasn’t yet found them elsewhere.

On Tuesday, the Disarmament Commission could not even get through a single plenary session before politics intervened – in this instance a complaint filed by the Russian Federation against the “host state” for failure to issue visas to Russian delegates to the Commission.  While visa denial is a serious matter, this particular complaint eventually necessitated the shutting down of the day’s session, hardly a crisis in its own right, but surely a “red flag” for states and civil society organizations struggling within multiple venues to address the many challenges related to excessive arms production and deployment in all its aspects, including space weapons, nuclear weapons modernization, non-proliferation threats from the DPRK, “autonomous” weapons systems, alleged chemical weapons uses, “craft” IED production, and the biological weapons which perhaps represent the most covert and devastating of the weapons-of-mass-destruction triumvirate.

This is, at face value, an extraordinary list of threats, surely long enough and grave enough that diplomats and other global constituents could be excused for wanting more – much more — from a Commission that can barely agree on a three-year work plan, let alone transcend its national interests (legitimate and contrived) to enhance prospects for global well-being through meaningful weapons reductions.

As for the Security Council, with the Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) soon to convene in New York, Council co-presidents Germany and France smartly put non-proliferation and disarmament at the head of this month’s deliberations.  Implementing the NPT’s “three pillars” (nuclear power being the 3rd) has been a bit of a slog, individually and collectively, though German Foreign Minister Maas claimed (and a Council press statement largely affirmed) that without the NPT “mutual distrust would be much higher” and dangers greater. Indeed, the FM evoked a popular Joni Mitchell song that “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone,” a sentiment in part echoed by High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Nakamitsu, who lauded the NPT’s “staying power” while rightly lamenting recent trends that preference “individual over collective security.”

This “it would be worse for us if the NPT weren’t here” claim can fairly be scrutinized, but the core issue is whether or not, given rising threat levels, the good is still good enough.   During this discussion, many Council members including Poland and Indonesia reflected on these three NPT pillars under stress, noting that the disarmament obligation remains the least implemented of the three. Indonesia’s MFA further reminded Council members that it is precisely tangible progress on this disarmament obligation that lends legitimacy to non-proliferation demands, progress that has been insufficient at best.

For his part, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Amano was forceful in proclaiming the work of his organization, specifically work focused on weapons monitoring and compliance deemed indispensable to the eventual fulfillment of the NPT’s promises. Indeed, that some NPT parties seem to put so little political stock in what Amano rightly deemed “powerful verification tools,” is a bit unsettling.  But more to the point, given that the health of the NPT is tied to its access to “state of the art” verification mechanisms unavailable in other weapons contexts, that key NPT members would then set out to “question” or even undermine the validity of these mechanisms is the sort of disconnect that should be called out in UN contexts more often.  No state should get a pass while voicing support for the NPT as a key component of the “rules based order” and then simultaneously creating distance in any form (including on financial support) from the one agency capable of verifying that the progress we claim on reducing nuclear weapons threats is actually being made.

An important issue for us is the extent to which a piece of our weapons-related monitoring and compliance can segue from states that might be guilty of undermining resolution and treaty obligations to the states and stakeholders that have — in UN and other contexts — turned an existential weapons threat into an occasion for trust-eroding, political posturing.   The question of how much we can trust the proliferators has largely been answered.  The question for this NPT Prep Com and for all subsequent NPT activities is whether or not we can trust the erstwhile disarmers?  If IAEA monitoring and compliance is as reliable as we believe it is, then we should support it.  If it is not as reliable as we believe it is, then we should fix it.  And if the problem is, as this Prep Com approaches, that some states simply don’t think that threats from nuclear (and other mass destruction) weapons warrant their best, “good-faith” diplomatic and technical efforts, then they simply (and quickly) need to think again.