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Editor’s Desk: Moving the UN Closer To its Masterpiece, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 May

The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason. T. S. Eliot

Growing a culture requires a good storyteller. Changing a culture requires a persuasive editor.  Ryan Lilly

Focus on making yourself better, not on thinking that you are better.  Bohdi Sanders

Edit your life frequently and ruthlessly. It’s your masterpiece after all.  Nathan W. Morris

One of the satisfactions of being inside the UN each day is to see the multilateral system generating effective outcomes:  elevating the formal status of indigenous people and persons with disabilities; calling practical attention to our (so far) too-tepid responses to threats from our plastic-filled oceans, our rapidly warming climate and our shrinking biodiversity; dodging bombs and bullets to reach literally millions from Yemen to the Central African Republic with humanitarian aid; helping states like the Gambia transition to more inclusive governance, Burkina Faso hold the line on a fresh wave of terror attacks, or Bangladesh manage its Myanmar-responsible refugee crisis.

But we also recognize that world remains messy with so divergent policy goals, so many values and expectations, so many vested (and often unacknowledged) interests.  It is also “messy” in the sense that the institutions which have been in the forefront of efforts to navigate and even “referee” the mess, including the UN of course, have been and remain intensely political in nature, not only in terms of the “politics” of negotiating some version of consensus, but “political” in the sense of telling less than the truth we know, the truth that serves the interests of our national policy hierarchies but not necessarily the needs of the global commons we allege to represent.

We have made this point before, but it bears repeating here:   we have enabled formation of a “culture” within our multilateral settings where “straight talk” is too-often at a premium, where norms and resolutions are not expected to be implemented, and where articulated policy preferences and recommendations mask as many dimensions of our sometimes existential problems as they clarify.

This past week at the UN was in part an exercise in why the system where we spend our days could use an editor of sorts for organizational culture.   The General Assembly discussion this past Wednesday on “inequalities within and between nations,” especially in the introductory session, outlined  a growing crisis that many at the UN believe rivals climate and weapons of mass destruction as existential threats to our future.  As often this year, GA president María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés set a tone that was part restating the UN’s commitment to fulfilling SDG 10 and part potentially culture-shifting storytelling, noting that we live in a world where some children are fortunate to eat once a day while others eat “whatever and how often they wish.”  She also quoted an African proverb that “injustice is like a snake that only strikes those who are barefoot.”

But what gave this session its “legs,” moving the room beyond mere outrage at the growing gaps between the rich and the rest, were the specifics provided by other speakers to address in practical terms the Egyptian Minister’s call for the rapid, intentional “removal of obstacles” to the reduction of poverty and inequalities.  States and other stakeholders shared diverse practices designed to improve domestic revenue streams, eliminate corruption, improve access to education and other public services, and even consider income floors for citizens.  With due regard for national context, what the session lacked was someone to clarify and distill common priorities and help build specific lines of support for hopeful and replicable initiatives by states and other stakeholders.  As the “operational activities” segment of the UN’s Economic and Social Council opens this week, we hope that more persuasive “editing” of the activities that can incarnate our development goals is on the near horizon.

But of course inequalities are not confined to the vast spaces separating barrios from corporate board rooms.  There are also inequalities – sometimes vast – when it comes to how states are able to manipulate the levers of power and influence the narrative in multilateral settings.  The Security Council is often “ground zero” for the display of such inequalities — permanent members who cast blame but rarely accept it; members who make statements that share a portion of the global truth, but mostly the portion that serves more parochial interests; members who adopt resolutions for others but are all-too-willing to bend international obligations to suit themselves and their allies; members who resist efforts at significant reform that could alter the very fabric of the Council’s  culture and working methods, including how it engages with the rest of the UN system.  The culture of the Council is not even remotely “edited frequently and ruthlessly” nor is there now any candidate for the task who would be trusted by more than a handful of members currently serving.

To find examples of the varying levels of policy effectiveness in a largely “unedited” Council, one would only have to consult last week’s meetings:  a largely successful review of the G5 Sahel Force with the Foreign Minister of Burkina Faso; an urgent session seeking to preserve what remains of the cease fire in Idlib, Syria in the hopes of preventing the renewed bombing that would signal a humanitarian disaster beyond what the UN and other agencies could possibly handle; a session on Yemen which celebrated the demilitarization of the Hodeidah ports while continuing to blame only Iran and Houthi rebels by name for the still-considerable violence across Yemen, mentioning Saudi Arabia only in praise for their generous donations to ease the suffering of the many thousands of Yemenis put at deadly risk by Saudi bombers (with weapons from the US, UK and others) in the first place.

And then there was the discussion on Cameroon, held outside the formal chamber in an Arria Formula format, but which nevertheless represented a breakthrough of sorts regarding a conflict with many victims that has directly impacted our office and that we and others have been warning about for many months.  Convened by the US, the session was noteworthy for the sometimes-gruesome truth-telling of USG Lowcock and two Cameroon briefers, especially the director of Reach Out Cameroon who was known to us from previous trips to the country and who gave what she called a “human face” to the vulnerabilities of so many living in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon – including those who have “lost it all” and are now “trapped in the bushes” or “living in petrol stations.”

We have sat with many of these images already; no doubt some of the diplomats have also. However, despite the concerns of the UK that the Council is now at risk of having to “discuss Cameroon more often,” there seemed to be little other interest in taking this matter on to the formal SC agenda.   There was no plan floated (let alone agreed upon) to confront Cameroon whose representative remained defiant throughout.  Some states were concerned about jeopardizing Cameroon support for counter-terror operations around Lake Chad and for the care of refugees from the Central African Republic.  Others were concerned about putting Cameroon on the formal Council agenda when risks to International Peace and Security were not yet persuasive.  Still others expressed concern about placing yet another African state on the Council’s agenda without clear strategies for entry and exit.

We were dismayed to note that despite the compelling testimony, especially from the Cameroon briefers, not a single other speaker directly referenced any segment of their stories.   Not one.  Caveats to a deeper involvement by this Council appeared to win the day.  “Partnership” with Cameroon commanded a higher priority than rescuing women and children from the bushes.

Beyond the Cameroon briefers, there were certainly truth-tellers in the Council this week – including ASG Keita on fresh threats from terrorist violence in the Sahel, USG Lowcock on the incontrovertible links between violence, deprivation and displacement in Cameroon and NW Syria, Special Envoy Griffiths on the “corrosive nature of extended war” and the still-perilous, still-fragile security and political context in Yemen. Added to that has been the constant and welcome refrain from May president Indonesia that the primary purpose of this Security Council is “to save lives.”

But if this SC as to achieve this “masterpiece” of a purpose going forward it must focus more energy on “making this better,” to  embark towards what could represent a profound cultural shift, one in which states are expected to take responsibility more often than they cast blame; a shift that encourages the “right deeds for the right reasons,” that confesses more often the “mixed” that constitutes motive, that not only consults the truth on the ground but allows such truth to fully infuse its policy decisions, that honors security alliances which don’t require women and children to hide out in petrol stations.

In our current, hyper-active and crisis-defined system, one that is driven by state interests and large state interests above all, I don’t know from whence that fully “persuasive editor” of our institutional culture is most likely to emerge. But for the rest of this year and perhaps beyond, our small team of interns and fellows will remain on the lookout.

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