Archive | August, 2019

Mood Music: Feeling the Pain we Pledge to Alleviate , Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Aug

Caution 2

Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation but as a question.  Niels Bohr

Those who live by the sea can hardly form a single thought of which the sea would not be part.  Hermann Broch

Just because someone knocks on the door doesn’t mean you have to open it. Ruta Sepetys

What good is speed without the ability to brake?  Nilesh Rathod

You don’t throw a compass overboard because the ocean is calm.  Matshona Dhliwayo

I dragged my mind away from that line of thought; there was nothing but quicksand and crocodiles down that path.  Melanie Casey

There are few occasions when I rise early on a Sunday to start writing these missives when I find something in the mass media that corresponds neatly to what I will shortly attempt to communicate.   Today’s Washington Post provided such an occasion, an article by Stanford Professor Jamil Zaki seeking to explain what he refers to as our “breathtakingly immoral” response to climate threats.  Zaki expands a line of argument that I have seen in other contexts making the case that our species is under siege from the recklessness of much of our behavior combined with what he calls our “shortsighted instincts,” the grave difficult we seem to have “scaling our emotions” to address the threats which may yet engulf us, threats that evoke less determination and more “compassion collapse” than are suited to our common survival, dismissing the real and metaphorical fires now burning largely out of control within and beyond the Amazon.

There is not much to disagree with here, save for the matter of our current, largely disengaged and discouraged, “mood” which such articles, clever though they may be, help to reinforce.   As science reduces the human condition, more and more, to instincts and algorithms, as we probe the collective limitations of our capacity for empathic response to a growing array of threats to our own and future generations, we are inadvertently creating justifications for turning our energies away from the world, cashing in and localizing what remains of our empathy for the sake of the smaller circle of current activities and events that we still seem able to impact.  Given the complexities of modern life to which we allude often –now to include Brazil indigenous who must find a way to cope with fires and smoke and the inevitable mining and cattle interests that are likely to follow — it is understandable, if dangerous, that so many are dropping out of the race to make our politics more compassionate, our climate policies more effective, our economics more equal, our rights more respected. If our emotional connections have, indeed, reached the limits of their instinctual bandwidth, why fight the feeling?

The “mood” inside the UN at times reflects a different kind of distancing.  On Friday, Security Council member Germany (with Peru and Kuwait) sponsored an Arria Formula event on accountability for the massive crimes perpetrated against the Myanmar Rohingya who now, 2 years on, languish in Cox’s Bazar and other nearby settings across the border in Bangladesh.  This was a most welcome event given the miseries of the displaced, the disingenuous gestures of Myanmar towards those seeking to return to their ancestral homes, and the well-documented mistakes by the UN to prevent the violence before it spiraled out of control and broker a “safe and dignified return” for those who wish for that.

As with so many other discussions of this type, the mood in the room didn’t fit the dire consequences of our failure to prevent.  The job of diplomats is to get along with each other, to keep the “windows open” if you will; even so, the laughter and back slapping before and after the event seemed (as it so often does) borderline scandalously inappropriate.  In between, the good briefings and statements by diplomats were serious but emotionally restrained, a far cry from the images I was receiving simultaneously on twitter from a Rohingya journalist (who shall remain unnamed) who has been documenting for us (and others) the misery, the anger, the insecurity, the frustration from two long years of displacement following an even longer period of discrimination and abuse. When the Arria meeting had concluded it was not clear what steps Council members were prepared to take.  It was time for lunch.   For the Rohingya it was probably time to find a bit of sleep and, perhaps foolishly, dare to dream of a return to homes and fields that might somehow have escaped utter destruction.

Some diplomats and even NGOs like me apparently have our own empathic limitations, brakes on our own ability to actually feel the abuses we seek to address, to practice solidarity while we discern the best paths forward for our own and (hopefully) generations to come.  Such deficits are ably examined by scientists, but I would be happy to argue (in another space) that we nonetheless retain capacities to set a more humane example, to fortify our emotional intelligence in ways that can keep us from having to “explain away” our apparent willingness to subsume urgent threats and needs under a veil constituted by genetics, consumerism, careerism and policy expediency.

In an adjacent UN conference room this past week, a group of scientists and policy wonks were taking up the task of creating forms of governance that can help us address threats to what is by far the largest ungoverned space on our planet, the open oceans and its marine biological diversity beyond national jurisdiction.   Delegates who are well versed regarding our current “wild west” approach to the open seas effectively chronicled the damage we have done from dumping and other forms of abuse, but also the ways in which this “common heritage” of humankind is now less and less able to combat climate change, preserve its still-unexplored biodiversity or supply nutrition to the vast millions living around its perimeters.  Delegates also discussed the support that needs to be shared if the peoples most affected by climate and ocean-related risks are able to hold the line on survival relative to a problem that most did little, in and of themselves, to create.

And the delegations invoked another principle, that of “precaution,” which is to say the idea that we actually give serious consideration to the potential effects and consequences of our policy preferences on people’s rights and well-being before proceeding to “help them”; that we consider how we are going to put out the fires before we light the fuse; that we consider how we are going to preserve primordial assets such as our oceans before we set out to despoil them, even in their deepest and most remote regions.

This principle is not to be equated with “caution” which has both instinctive and cultural references, keeping us out of danger, including the danger of being “judged” or socially rejected, but also preventing us from summoning the courage and determination needed to pull our species collectively back from the precipice we have propped ourselves on.

Some 33 years ago, the band Genesis released “Land of Confusion,” a song imploring my generation to  “set it right” but also noting how little love there seems be “going around” with which to energize that promise, to bond more deeply with what we presume to cherish.  Sadly, we’ve managed to make it “right” only for some while neglecting the discipline (and requisite training) that can make us better able to incarnate the love that can anticipate negative policy consequences; that is willing to ask hard, precautionary questions; that can drag ourselves away from the “quicksand and crocodiles” of our most toxic assumptions and excuses; that knows how to “speed up and brake” when appropriate; and that has the courage and wisdom to reach across the generations with compassion and responsibility.

All the current global confusion and ample scientific references to human limitations notwithstanding, none of these tasks are beyond our collective capacity.   None come easily, to say the least, but compared with the massive damage control now underway in most all global regions, none are without their obvious advantages to the health of our planet, to the trust which some have long forgotten to cultivate, and to our collective “mood” which is now alternately sour and distracted.

We retain options to “lengthen” our instincts, recalibrate our emotional lives, and avoid the “collapse of compassion.”  But we’ve apparently tossed our collective “compass” into what we mistakenly believed to be calm water and, as a consequence, we are running out of time and energy to make those options happen.

Melancholy Moment:  Restoring an Unmanageable World, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Aug



I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow.  Edgar Allan Poe

He had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life’s gas-pipe with a lighted candle.  P.G. Wodehouse

As the current answers don’t do, one has to grope for a new one, and the process of discarding the old, when one is by no means certain what to put in their place, is a sad one.  Virginia Woolf

Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.  Dodie Smith

Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.  T.H. White

Here in the northern hemisphere, we are confronting the end of another summer.  The heat and humidity persist but the days shorten, the trees and bushes have lost much of their vitality, and the time sadly wanes in which we might grab just a bit of rest and outdoor recreation, time to be taken up all-too-soon with fall preparations and duties focused on our families and institutions.

Even for me, for whom this current period represents the best time of my life, I now also breathe a bit of an “atmosphere of sadness.”  Like some who feel pangs of melancholy at dusk, I grieve that we might not have what it takes to address current threats from cold and darkness: the shifting climate that impedes any residual semblance of normalcy, the people falling further and further behind; the stresses that seem to come out of nowhere and linger far too long; and of course the search for better “answers” in policy and practice as our current stable of solutions seem too-often akin to searching for “the leak in life’s gas pipe with a lighted candle.”

How the world “wags” now is a mixed blessing at best.  It will take many noble deeds from many sustainable sources, many public displays of service and discernment, many acts of courage and discomfort, if we are to get through this precarious time and heal the emotions that we neither confess nor control, feelings of gloom that dampen enthusiasm for even those activities and relationships that were once reliably joyful.

At breakfast this week with my friend and colleague Wendy Brawer, we discussed a range of sustainability issues and concerns which have been our obsession for many years at Green Map – from pollinators and parklands to bicycles and food security.   When I asked her about issues that have not gotten sufficient treatment, she mentioned “climate grief,” the sense of sadness that comes from knowing that our current trajectory is not at all sustainable and largely absent clear markers regarding how best to bend that arc and what our role in that bending could be.

I experience a bit of that grief despite the policy-privileged position that I find myself in every day – near the center of discussions about which we have some modest impact on strategies for a more peaceful and sustainable world.   Being near the center is accompanied by its own melancholy, of course, wrapped up in the policy compromises that prevent people from having the basic security and prosperity which should by now be our common inheritance. But “having a say,” being one of the “somebodies” that can do something about what collectively ails us, creates its own positive energy.

We at Global Action always have plenty to do, plenty to share (some helpful) on issues which these weeks range from international law to ocean governance, from the dispute over Kashmir to state-sponsored violence in Cameroon.  And yet there is also that nagging sense that we are not doing enough, nor with sufficient wisdom and nobility, to ensure that this time of metaphorical dusk will not descend into a colder, darker time.  As one commentator noted, with respect to climate change, we seem now to be like a passenger in a car speeding towards a cliff that we don’t acknowledge and without a clear strategy for diverting our course.  This metaphor could equally apply to our refugees and our weapons, our biodiversity and our fresh water supply.

For those raising children, for those who are still children themselves, this race-car scenario doensn’t offer much in the way of comfort nor much in the way of a path to transform some of the current melancholia into sustainable action.

Of course, climate grief is tied to other sources of emotional discomfort, from the ofen-bewildering and regularly escalating complexity of our “modern” lives to the self-protective and sometimes vicious manner in which we, formally and informally, engage the rest of the planet.  We defend within our circles what at times we would do better to renounce, and this current iteration of defensiveness seems less about the other and more about coping with the spoiled fruits of our own melancholia, our own fear of personal fraudulence and social impotence.  We know that something is seriously wrong; we know that we are literally being besieged (largely through our hand-held devices) by those desperate to persuade or distract us; but mostly all we seem to know to do in response is to aggressively defend and protect what is closest, to hope that, somehow, the looming and severe storms will magically pass over our self-made havens without us getting thoroughly drenched.

This epoch of high stress and higher anxiety that we are living through inclines us to medicate but not mediate; to demand from others what we neglect to offer ourselves; to cling to policies and practices that have long-lost their flavor in part because we refuse to adjust our speed to the cliff looming just over the horizon and in part because we no longer completely trust the authors of policy to take account of needs and aspirations of more than themselves and their “interests.”

There is simply too-little health in us.

But there remains another path, of simpler living and clearer thinking, of services gratefully offered and received, of governance at all levels compelled to help us release from their bottles only the genies that can inspire our better selves. We haven’t had such inspiration in what seems like quite some time.  This current wave of xenophobia and climate-obscuring narcissism is not entirely a creature of our present but has deep and complex roots.  Save for too-brief periods and circumstances, we have long been encouraged primarily to pursue the interests of self – and then to “shoot” in one form or another anyone who seems to threaten our various domiciles and dominions.

That other inspiration — to the service of others and to policies that might actually save us from ourselves — is not a matter of moral virtue but of common survival.   We know this somewhere deep in the recesses of our being, in the places that we collectively allow to generate more anxiety and fear than determination and empathy.  It is time to own up to and shed light on our legitimate melancholy but also to the still-potent change capacities and aspirations to which those feelings remain tied, and to do so before the often-beautiful light of dusk turns into a deeper and more foreboding darkness.

These are tough times.  They need not be the end of times.

Disappearing Act: The Struggle for Transparency and Humanity in Detention, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Aug

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He didn’t worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him. He was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it.  Neil Gaiman,

The system does everything within its power to sever any physical or emotional links you have to anyone in the outside world. They want your children to grow up without ever knowing you. They want your spouse to forget your face and start a new life. They want you to sit alone, grieving, in a concrete box, unable even to say your last farewell at a parent’s funeral.  Damien Echols

Locks didn’t cure; they strangled.  Scott Westerfeld

God’s creatures who cried themselves to sleep stirred to cry again.  Thomas Harris

They keep us in our cells for a long time…  And, if we get out, we lug them with us on our shoulders;  Like a porter with a chest of goods.  Visar Zhiti

For me, one of the most compelling image from this often-dismal week belonged to a child in Mississippi whose father had just been arrested (with hundreds of others) by  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a child now seen crying in front of the cameras with little or nothing to reassure or comfort her, no promises that the cruelly-abrupt, information-starved distance between this child and the father on whom the quality of her life largely depends will not grow ever-longer.

This is how it is in too many places around the world.  People locked away without charges, without contact with loved ones, without anyone to defend their interests when they are brutalized, ostensibly for inconveniencing in some political or security sense the entities and their guards into whose hands they have now been forcefully committed.

The sad fact remains that in too many parts of the world, “criminal justice” is a system which refuses to scrutinize  its own conduct, which refuses to abide by its own principles, including principles governing humane treatment.  It is bad enough to arrest and detain arbitrarily.  It is another thing to prevent any thread of connection that can preserve a glimmer of hope for families and friends that their loved one will eventually be released with some measure of physical and emotional health intact.

The states that detain arbitrarily are as unlikely to concern themselves about the health and well-being of those released from prison as they were likely not concerned about their health and well-being while in detention. Indeed, it is to the benefit of unscrupulous governments that the often-grave damage lingering from forcible detention be plainly visible as a warning to the citizens beyond prison doors – all with whom the formerly abused comes in contact — that they need to watch their step, watch their words; that the psychic “strangulation” they now behold came from a facility that could easily enough have their own names engraved over a prison door.

This week the UN Security Council took up the matter of arbitrary detention and disappearances in Syria, a raucous discussion at times (including several heated exchanges between the UK and Syrian Ambassadors) that featured testimony from two Syrian activists who took umbrage at the failure of the Council to take a firm and united stand and end the suffering of those arbitrarily detained and abused during this 9 year conflict.  But these women also highlighted the suffering of the families who have endured the equally-long pain of official silence, of not knowing what is happening to loved ones, where they are being held, how they are being treated, how long their isolation might continue.  Information, even if it only references the remains of persons who have “left this world” without a fair trial, even that would provide families some small comfort.

For we human beings — faced with a cruel information void such as this — can often and easily imagine the worst.  In cases like those described in Syria, with practices such as torture and disappearances experiencing a resurgence in some regions, such vivid and horrifying imagining comes much too easily.  One can only guess what that Mississippi girl must now fear in her deepest parts, for herself and her own future, but also for her perhaps permanently absented father.

As many of you who peruse this space know, we maintain a close affiliation with the Paris-based organization FIACAT, in part because of its faith-base, in part because of its strong connections to the protection of human rights in Burundi and across Africa, and in part because they keep focus on what used to be at the core of human rights concerns – torture, arbitrary detention and forced disappearances — abuses that place individuals in mortal jeopardy, families in unrelenting sorrow, and communities in perpetual fear.

As the UN’s human rights mechanisms have grown more sophisticated, if not always more effective, and as the “menu” of human rights obligations and concerns expands in important ways, it is perhaps a bit easier to overlook the detention-related damage that continues to be inflicted by abusive states and officials in many parts of the world, states that seem to have forgotten their obligation to ensure that criminal justice embodies transparency of process, respect for both prisoner rights and information for loved ones, and in the best of all worlds a practical commitment to restoration more than punishment.

This “forgetting” is a stain on Syria’s government to be sure, and we welcome the Secretary-General’s commitment to a process of inquiry which will hopefully obtain the access needed to expose, remediate and eventually even prosecute and begin healing for the conditions and perpetrators highlighted this past week by the Syrian women.

But Syria is not at all our only problem; its prisons are not our only scourge.  At the UN this week during an event on “Peace and the Brain,” an NYU Psychology Professor noted that the times require firm commitments to adaptation as well as to ensuring that the darker sides of “consciousness” are held at bay.   Species like ours with “voracious appetites,” he noted, including the appetite to abuse, might well not survive this current “extinction moment.”  A youth speaker at the same event took up a similar theme, underscoring  the relationship between “human greed and social disorder.”

Where abuses such as disappearances reign, where “yesterday has already brought” some of the worst pain and isolation humans are capable of inflicting, we must all continue to push for access, information, rights and justice.  But we must also save some of our focus for the long-term psychic impacts of our appetites to abuse and disappear – the trust that continually eludes our grasp, the access to services we cannot promptly secure, the scars from cells that prisoners display long after their release, the tears of now-abandoned young children for whom sleep offers only temporary relief.

Nelson Mandela once quipped that we cannot truly know a society until we have been in its prisons.   In too many parts of our world, that narrative remains needlessly ugly, needlessly distanced from our better selves. We seem driven now to dig a deeper hole than we collectively have the skill and capacity to extricate ourselves.

It’s past time to put away that shovel.




Cold Play:   Eliminating Barriers to a World Fit for Children, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Aug

Children on Swing

War is what happens when language fails.  Margaret Atwood

There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.  Howard Zinn

Something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences. Suzanne Collins

We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.  Erich Maria Remarque

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree, if mankind perished utterly. Sara Teasdale

The picture at the head of this piece is one I hesitated to use.  Most all of you have already seen images of this extraordinary sight – children (and some adults) on both sides of the US-Mexican border riding a “see saw” projecting through a heavy-metal fence designed by policy to keep them separate.

But the events of yesterday, the carnage associated with shooters in Dayton and El Paso whose hatred and access to weapons had literally colonized their consciousness, brought me back to this hopeful but bittersweet image, an image that reinforces the indomitable spirit of children around the world who find the means to connect and play amidst the psychic and physical rubble courtesy of we “well-meaning” adults.  Virginia San Fratello and Ronald Rael deserve major honor for developing this simple piece of playground equipment that unlocked spaces of hope we’d probably forgotten we had.

This was also, in some ways at least, an important week for child-attentive policies at the UN.   Under the leadership of current president Poland, the Security Council held a 9 hour debate on “children and armed conflict” this past Friday covering virtually every aspect of the distressing encounters of children with situations of armed violence including sexual abuse, children locked away in adult facilities, and forced recruitment into the service of some armed groups and national militias.  Special Representative Gamba and UNICEF Chief Fore led a procession of 80 state and civil society briefers weighing in on an issue that weighs heavily on the consciousness of many – our limited ability (despite numerous resolutions and debates) to protect children from the worst consequences of our conflict-prevention failures.

A day earlier, Canada had hosted an important side event during which it launched its Implementation Guidance for the Vancouver Principles.  The “principles” are proving increasingly relevant both in identifying and addressing recruitment and other abuses perpetrated against children in conflict zones.  They are also proving their value in recruiting “eyes and ears on the ground” — peacekeepers, gender specialists, child protection advisors and others — to ensure both that abuses can be prevented wherever possible and that children freed from conscriptive bondage have accesses to the services they need to successfully walk that long road to healing from stigma and trauma.

Perhaps surprising to some, despite the near-unanimous views expressed by states that a “world fit for children” is a world where children and armed violence do not mix, success in providing protection and rehabilitation services for abused, abducted, incarcerated and recruited children is lagging in several instances.   We do have more child-protection advisors assigned to peacekeeping missions.  We do have a growing list of implementable normative frameworks — including the Vancouver Principles and the Safe Schools Declaration — designed to monitor and address conflict-related threats to children.  We are becoming more skilled at reintegration of child soldiers. And yet, the UN-identified “six grave violations” against children in armed conflict are still being committed, often with impunity, and increasingly (as noted in the SC debate) by state actors. Schools are still being targeted by bombing raids or used for military purposes. Hospitals and other medical facilities are also under frequent attack in confict zones.  Children continue to be conscripted into armed groups via abductions or propaganda, and then forced to endure numerous violations of their basic rights.  Children continue to seek opportunities for playful communion across militarized borders with peers facing indefinite separation from loved ones should they somehow find a way to squeeze through the intimidating metal fence.

In addition such children are so often denied access to things that might not rise immediately to the level of “gravity,” but which are essential to growth and wholeness — things like food security, safe places to play,  nurturing communities, schools equipped to prepare children for the world they will live in and not the world their teachers have lived in.  And perhaps also, communicating those too-hard-to-find assurances that the adults now “in charge” are doing everything possible to ensure that there is a viable, liveable planet for today’s (and tomorrow’s) children to inherit.

Among the takeaways for us from our diverse news feeds and this UN week of child-focused meetings is the sense that there truly is something seriously and collectively wrong with us.  To sacrifice the well-being of children in the ways we continue to do in the name of “settling differences” (that too-often remain unsettled) represents a moral sleight-of-hand that leaves philosophers and psychologists, not to mention child policy and protection advocates, fighting back tears of anger and disbelief.

In addition, and for reasons that literally defy our policy experiences and genetic predispositions, children facing violence or forced conscription, stigma, or trauma somehow escape consciousness when it comes to negotiating and implementing the agreements that seek to “bring peace” to communities, nations and regions.  This in itself constitutes a remarkable example of the ever-shrinking limits of our human concern.  We who fuss endlessly over our own children, who demand the “best” for them even if we have to bend the law to get it, endorse policy agreements and their negotiators that (in the name of unity and peace) literally put our children’s generations at risk; as though we are somehow doing our own children a favor by betting — through peace talks or parenting — that they can somehow escape the metaphorical (and perhaps literal) flood that is set to engulf their peers and those who follow.

While I am not the world’s foremost fan of the institution, there is (for me) a moving part of the marriage ceremony practiced in some Christian communities that goes like this:  Those whom God has joined let no one put asunder.   As one trying to maintain some semblance of faith amidst all of the idolatry and meanness of our collective present, these words seem particularly relevant to the children playing through a steel fence along the US southern border, or the 2 year old whose life ended abruptly yesterday in an El Paso shopping mall.  Whether we like to admit it or not, we are hard wired for connection, for communication, for play.  We have been “joined” to each other by our sometimes-glorious, sometimes sordid history, by the proddings of divinity, by the existential crises that we share (and must now resolve) in common.  And yet, despite all of this connective tissue, we are literally running out of time to demonstrate that we can sustain the innate and inclusive dispositions that can guarantee a future for our children that is more about riding see-saws and less about dodging bombs and bullets.

Those who would continue to disconnect us through ideology or economics, through social snobbery or overt racialism, must quickly be called to account for these actions.   We continue to laud our own technical and policy cleverness, but are actually making the case for our own collective demise and, what is worse, for the demise of those children who fervently wish that the physical and metaphorical barriers in their homes, schools and playgrounds could once and for all be removed.

If we truly seek to preserve and enhance the potential for exploration, wonder and play of children, we adults need to stop “playing” ourselves and commit fervently to freeing from bondage the enthusiasm and hopefulness of our young, sentiments now held hostage by our too-frequent short-sightedness and self-delusion.