Archive | November, 2019

Voices Raised: Lessons from protests around the world, by Nikkon Balial

26 Nov

Editor’s Note:  Nikkon came to us via Central European University and the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program.  An Indian citizen, Nikkon has been working as an intern (for Foreign Policy Interrupted) highlighting the work of extraordinary but under-the-radar women writers in peace and security. During her limited time with us, Nikkon has thrown herself into a wide range of UN issues while keeping her eye on global trends beyond this building.  The following post is the fruit of her attentions. 

Almost half the world is seemingly out on the streets protesting their leaders, flawed systems and the failed promises. These protests may not be having the exact same demands, but they have more things in common than meets the naked eye. These protests expose the ever-increasing rich and the poor divide along with the growing gap in demands between the economically developed and under-developed countries. These protests across the world teach us lessons about the overwhelming youth involvement, changing definitions of power and contrasting demands. They prove that the lens which we have been using to analyze global dynamics must be thoroughly re-evaluated. The changing global dynamics are trying to tell us something and if we are not realizing that already, then, what are we paying attention to? The protests demonstrate the gaps and we must detect them first to begin finding solutions thereafter.

The notion of peace journalism developed by Lynch and Galtung concentrates on how the consequences of war are more important than understanding how war is actually fought. What happens after the war is over is often where coverage is most required. But what happens when civilians revolt against the state leaders? Is covering the war within the state more important or is it the consequences of the protest and the conflict, which is paramount? In most cases, they are not independent of each other. They happen together, sometimes with increased momentum and at other times leaders get lucky and the unanimity frizzles out! The world has been torn into protests recently, From Hong Kong to Chile, Guinea to Lebanon, from Bolivia to Georgia and Iraq to Ecuador. People have all united against a range of issues comprising of rising corruption, economic inequalities, democratic rights and popular resentment against leaders. The protesters have mobilized seemingly without strong leaders dictating to them. They have gathered and protested for rights they believe they deserved.

Closer to my home, what led to the protests at the Indian academic institution Jawaharlal Nehru University? The students of the institution gathered on the streets to protest the price hike at the University and demanded education to remain a public good, accessible to all. The youth leading these large protests has become a striking phenomenon across the world. Recently, in Czech Republic, the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution became an occasion to ask their Prime Minister to separate trade from politics. The protesters who were mostly students and young people, saw their populist Prime Minister as a threat to democracy and wanted him to step down. Hong Kong, even more so, demonstrates the truest spirit of the young. The youth have proven their perseverance by carrying forward the symbol of anger against Chinese control, steadily over months. These examples clearly demonstrate the perseverance of young people to want change and act towards the change. The young are flooding the streets massively, reinstating student involvement in mass demonstrations. They are relentless, committed and ready to question authorities who they believe have been unfair, across cultures and countries. The youth have remained engaged despite authority’s backlash. It is not a choice that can be exercised by the leaders in accordance with their whim and fancies.

Protests have erupted in every continent of the world. They have started with one issue and soon has used that to express their overwhelming discontent with the entire system. Some have achieved the resignation of leaders, while others have earned promise of change and reforms. But, an important lesson that came out of them is that democracy is a primary need for the privileged while social safety net policies are what people in the under-developed countries require. The difference between rich and the poor is not the only gap widening, there is also a clear demarcation emerging between economically developed and under-developed countries. The protests in the developed regions are raising their heads for democracy and the loosening of state control. In Czech Republic, people want their Prime Minister to maintain the true values of democracy. In Georgia too, the people gathered in front of the parliament to protest the parliamentarians who could not pass an electoral reform bill. Hong Kong students have demanded democratic rights, lesser control by China and their freedom of speech and expression, while the economically weak are flaring up to demand for subsidies and lower prices. They are roaring in the streets, calling out for basic resources to survive. These examples clearly show how the developed countries and economically advanced countries have people demanding for democracy, their right to assemble and their right to uphold democratic principles through governance. This is almost in contrast to the demands being made by Latin American, African and Middle Eastern countries. The protesters in Iran have risen against the price hike in petrol while Chileans have gathered to protest the hike in public transport prices, poor medical facilities and low pension rates. Much like Chile, the Lebanese people also started gathering on the streets after the introduction of new taxes by the government. Soon, the price hikes, electricity shortages and economic crisis became an overwhelming part of the protests. Inequality, inflation and the inability to afford the basic standards of living is more concerning to the people of under-developed and developing countries. Their demand for low prices, safety net systems, and subsidies are evidently visible.

Another takeaway from the new wave of protests is the contrasting use of technology. Digitalization and social media play a very significant role in the protests of today. The same technology is used in contrasting ways by leaders and the working lower middle-class masses who are protesting in these countries. Where, the leaders have curtailed civil liberties and formed narratives as per their convenience for the people to believe, the people have risen against their leaders together to protest, using the same social media platforms. Protests in Lebanon, Chile, Hong Kong have spread using social media and digital platforms. The rage has accumulated on the screens and brought the people to the streets. This impact of digitalization is bringing people of underprivileged classes in developing and post-colonial countries closer, making them stand up for their own rights.

These protests also bring to light the need to re-evaluated definitions and systems of power. The power holders in countries have remained unaccountable and pursued policies without really addressing the needs of the people. This is part of the problem of being blindly influenced by western systems and narratives. Countries like Chile, Lebanon, Ecuador have suffered for decades. Power is not static and leaders across the world cannot expect to maintain power the same way they did for decades, by following a single model and a single model of understanding policy benefits and needs. It is time for the priorities of leaders to change and change in accordance to the needs of particular countries. It is also time that they start viewing their people’s needs not with the same lens as developed countries do. Policies need to address specific concerns of local populations and not follow the principle of ‘one size fits all.’

Lastly, the protests prove that wealth and economic reforms do not have much to do with addressing inequality in post-colonial developing countries. Ecuador, Lebanon, Chile, Iraq and Guinea need policies not based on models of developed western economies but policies with safety nets and supporting benefits. Despite funds from IMF and World Bank making the economic development index of a countries rise, it is in turn doing nothing to address the problem of rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. A conflict demanding the end to class differentiation has arisen and the real vote bank, the masses, the working population, is raising their voices louder than ever before. The demand from the working class and lower middle class might not exactly be the way Marx envisioned it, but identities are being manifested on the streets to protest policies that have stripped people of their capacity to meet basic needs. Better economic models based on positive differentiation and country history need to be considered. The notion of ‘one size fits all’ has served the world no good.

In this era of right-wing leaders, autocracy and compromised human rights, it is no longer a one-sided game. Leaders may have gotten more powerful but the people in the streets are not far behind. Post-colonial structures demand a re-calibrated system with a priority on safety nets beyond the focus on rights and liberty. It is time to detect the change that the world is currently undergoing, and it will be too late for all of us unless we address these changes with greater scrutiny.

Scar Face:  Reconciling the Wounds we Barely Acknowledge, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Nov

Stolen 2

I talk to my patients, to my neighbors and colleagues–Jews, Arabs–and I find out they feel as I do: we are more similar than we are different, and we are all fed up with the violence. Izzeldin Abuelaish

Perhaps one day, all these conflicts will end, and it won’t be because of great statesmen or churches or organizations like this one. It’ll be because people have changed.  Kazuo Ishiguro

Propensities and principles must be reconciled by some means.  Charlotte Brontë

We must recognize before we can reconcile–especially in instances where we are too blinded by privilege, comfort, and tradition to even notice that reconciliation is needed.  Josh Larsen

I want to live in a neighborhood where people don’t shoot first, don’t sue first, where people are Storycatchers willing to discover in strangers the mirror of themselves. Christina Baldwin

Our week at the UN had more than its share of dramatic events, some of that courtesy of the decision by the US government to disengage the authority of international law and Security Council resolutions from Israel’s settlement expansion.   The long-term implications of this decision are unclear, especially given the high levels of political turmoil in Israel at present, but this represents another (by no means unique) “propensity” by large powers to distance themselves from the legal principles and obligations they seek to impose on others.

Other events were more hopeful, including move-the-pile discussions on peacebuilding reform and a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone for the Middle East, tentative progress on negotiated settlements for Syria and Yemen, and still-early efforts to hold Myanmar accountable in international courts for massive abuses perpetrated against the Rohingya.  There was even an event on the ways in which the stigma and lack of health-related resources for menstruation continue to negatively impact school attendance by girls in some global regions.

This last event was linked to a major celebration under the auspices of the General Assembly of the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The Convention boasts the largest number of state ratifications of any UN agreement and, over two days, these same states were eager to share the ways in which they have worked to improve conditions for children and, with a bit less enthusiasm, the urgent commitments to children yet to be fulfilled.

Working on the Convention in its infancy, helping in my own small way to create a “world fit for children” was, for me and others, the “gateway” to a longer-term multilateral involvement.   The many children who graced us with their presence this week, some of whom represented their national governments at the podium, reminded us all of the road remaining to be traveled, the decisions and indecisions taking place inside institutions like the United Nations that are not as child-friendly as we might imagine, that are still too much about our own privileges and protocols and not enough about the precarious legacies we have bequeathed to so many young people. We still turn our gaze away from the scars children bear (as highlighted by Azerbaijan) that never should have been inflicted, the search for “peaceful environments” (as a child from Iraq shared) that too often come up empty, our oft-violent and melting planet which will likely occupy too much of their own creative bandwidth going forward.  We are simply too far still from what ought to be (as Portugal stated) something we should all be able to agree on, making a world of peace and justice for children “without tears.”

This 30th anniversary event (with a special appearance by David Beckham) followed by a day a debate on “reconciliation” in the Security Council organized by current president United Kingdom. This event called attention to what South Africa urged as “an enabling environment” for reconciliation that moves along the path between disclosure and punishment and that helps to ensure, as Belgium and others implored, as much of a guarantee as we can muster that conflict once halted will not be allowed to return.

The Secretary General was one of the briefers and was on point in his insistence that while there is no peace without justice, “there is no justice without truth.”  In this context, the SG highlighted the “truth” about the times we are living in and how we managed to collectively arrive at the places we now experience, places of dissonance and distrust, of compromised policy courtesy of both national interest and multilateral “consensus.”  Despite the tools which the SG has sought to improve or bring online, even in this precarious funding environment  — tools such as special political missions, mediation resources, a revamped resident coordinator system and increases in funding for peacebuilding activities – our ability to prevent conflict and to walk the fine line highlighted by South Africa and others linking truth-telling and accountability in situations where conflict prevention proved impossible is all still a work in progress.

Peru was among the Council members highlighting the potential, positive impact of preventive diplomacy on our collective reconciliation burdens, while Indonesia suggested that visible, concrete “peace dividends” could make post-conflict reconciliation more successful.  Beyond the Council members themselves, Kenya promoted the linkage between social and political inclusiveness and successful reconciliation, a theme also taken up by Switzerland which reminded delegates that “dialogue among political elites alone” cannot sustain peace or bring reconciliation.  One of the best lines that we heard all week was from Namibia, whose Ambassador suggested during Monday’s debate that “peace must be boring” given all of the unresolved violence that remains in the world, violence which this Council is mandated to address and towards such resolutions urgent reconciliation measures are called for.

All things considered, this debate was a good start on a subject that ultimately requires considerably more recognition and thoughtfulness.  As one of the civil society briefers noted, one of the requirements of reconciliation is the “re-humanizing” of former enemies.  But, to paraphrase the SG, the times we are living in are characterized by political polarization and massive trust deficits, people who are both “fed up” with the violence that surrounds them but also tired of the “blindness” of much privilege, including a “blindness” to the urgent need for “re-humanizing” in many social and political contexts well beyond the post-conflict dynamic.

Surely there is need for reconciliation in Yemen and Syria, in Myanmar and Cameroon, in South Sudan and Bolivia, in China and the UK.   But the demand for effective reconciliation cannot – must not – be confined to outsized conflicts and political divisions, gross abuses of human rights and existential threats to climate health.   The Security Council has its own internal reconciliation to effect as do many of its governments back in capital, the lack of which leads to conflicts unresolved or dragged through unseemly political deadlocks.  The UN writ large has its own reconciliation to effect in the form of promises made and not kept to constituents who lack viable alternatives for redress and relief.  Communities that are increasingly politically or ethnically polarized have their own reconciliation impediments; people just like us willing to believe, often without evidence, that we “know” the motives of our adversaries. People like us who resolutely fail to see the mirror images of our neighbors in ourselves. People like us who exist in social or policy bubbles that allow us to believe that reconciliation is the task of “someone else,” someone not us.  People like us who are too quick to jump to conclusions more than commitments, who listen too little and talk too much, who “write off” people who don’t toe our ideological lines.  All of this is understandable, but not to our credit and likely not of much value in achieving the future we say we want.

And what of the children who graced us this week let alone the children who endure “cold nights” and whose futures have already been compromised by factors such as unrelenting poverty, persistent conflict and tepid responses to climate threats?   How do we reconcile with these children?  How do we explain to them what we’ve done, how we’ve exercised our authority, and why they have so often been left to fend for themselves? How do we help heal their scars and then together with them build a future that is truly “fit” both for current generations and their progeny to come?

These are hard conversations, harder than we might acknowledge, harder than we might even have the stomach for.  But I’m convinced that if we can find the words and deeds to convince children that we have, in truth, amended our “adult” ways, we will be that much closer to helping the larger world reconcile its own disagreements, renounce its addictions to future-threatening items such as weapons and plastics, and plug the still-formidable gaps that separate our propensities from our principles.

Monster Mash: Vanquishing a Generation-Defining Conflict, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Nov


At the heart of all anger, all grudges, and all resentment, you’ll always find a fear that hopes to stay anonymous.  Donald L. Hicks

Hiding from the monsters only made them stronger.  C.L. Wilson

May we find the language that takes us to the only home there is –one another’s hearts.   Ibtisam Barakat

We need an immunization program, one that injects people with respect, dignity, and equality, one that inoculates them against hatred.  Izzeldin Abuelaish

Occupation exposes us very young to the extremes of our emotions, until we cannot feel except in the extreme.  Susan Abulhawa

Why don’t they want to let others in? Well, sometimes because they’re shy, and sometimes because they’re convinced of their own superiority. But those aren’t the only reasons. Sometimes it’s because they have something to hide.  Lauren Myracle

This was one of those weeks at the UN when there was so much to reflect upon and write about:  the role of special procedures in the upholding of human rights; the conditions of prisons that inflame the extremism we must do more to suppress; the carnage in Syria made even more complex by Turkish forces, Russian targets and US oil grabs; the street protests from Hong Kong and Iraq to Bolivia and Lebanon that are exposing once again the trust deficits that define so much of modern governance.

One of our interns is now preparing a piece on the protest movements that will soon appear in this space.  I am instead going to dive into a space that is both raw and crowded, a space that has resisted policy correction for as long as I have been alive, a space full of hundreds of policy wonks and many thousands of oft-muted voices who can now only “feel in the extreme;” these along with others who make a living highlighting abuses and offering policy alternatives to this wound that simply will not heal and, indeed, that too many of the rest of us will not allow to heal.

I’m speaking of course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I am fully aware of the pitfalls of wading into this space.  Our twitter and email accounts are already filled with people struggling (often-legitimately) over land, over rights, over governance, over control of a narrative that has too often been appropriated by people like me.  From Myanmar to Cameroon, we are often – and legitimately – chided for our incomplete understandings, for our erstwhile failures of courage and conviction, for the gaps we minimize between our allegedly bloated access and our generally deficient experiences.   We plead “no contest” to all of that.

And yet we do have a responsibility to reflect as we sit in rooms (such as with the General Assembly Fourth Committee this week) where diplomats take up the “Palestinian cause” with both intermittent vigor and a narrative that heralds few, if any breakthroughs.  We do have a responsibility to comment (as do others) on discussions that are mostly about, as Senegal noted earlier this week, indulging a “longstanding UN habit of passing resolutions designed to improve the lot of the Palestinians, and then failing to implement them,” the consequence of which is to leave the youth of Palestine (and many other regional youth) “forever marked.”

Indeed, one by one, delegations take the floor in these settings to highlight and condemn abuses in well-worn formulas.  Surely there is little news here, aside from the “news” that, session after session and year after year, we are failing in our responsibility to put an end to a conflict that attracts significant diplomatic energy but little diplomatic resolve.  And every year that we fail in our duty, the “political horizon” embedded in so many GA statements recedes further and further behind the clouds.

Indeed, having sat through literally hundreds of sessions like those this week, there is a sameness of perspective and approach that is as likely to deaden resolve as inflame its potential.  As South Africa noted this week referencing its own path to freedom, “we were able to liberate ourselves,” in part because of the “indignation that is largely absent” in the instance of the Palestinians.  Indeed, the statements read out during these sessions, often by younger diplomats who are not responsible for their content and who are commenting on a conflict that long predates them, often share too much text “condemning” the occupying power without taking a longer view on a responsibility that is also shared, the “monsters” that are also about us and from which we continue to hide.

Some of the things that strike my interns when they sit through these discussions are, I think, germane to this current discussion.  They note, for instance, the frequency with which Israel is admonished (and rightly so) for its practices but by states guilty of some of the very same practices.  For instance, the statement delivered this week in the 4th Committee by Saudi Arabia on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement rejecting the practices of “torture and assassination” by Israel was the right call but the wrong look.

Our interns often and rightly highlight the lack of concrete suggestions, let alone commitments, on the part of most of the delegations which take the floor.  And they also have come to recognize that “condemnation” is not in any way a valid commitment.  Indeed, it is an indulgence that has little to no practical impact aside from driving a deeper wedge of distrust between the parties, lengthening the distance to language that “takes us to the home of one-another’s hearts.”  Moreover, while condemnation might evoke some acknowledgment of guilt in the short term, its impact decreases as its use increases.  This is true with individuals and even more so with states.

Indeed, such condemnation could be viewed (and we would do so) as a “substitute” for meaningful engagement.  One thing that observers to these discussions become aware of quickly is their utter lack of practicality. We are reminded of the old adage that “everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it.”  There is a deep suspicion among those of us who follow the dialogue regularly, both in the GA and in the Security Council, that the desire to actually resolve this conflict, to actually move beyond settlements and blockades and rocket launches and generations forsaken, that desire, that “indignation” against the perpetuation of the long stalemate, is simply lacking.  We hear the reports of fresh violence, fresh settlements, fresh assaults on human dignity by UN Special Coordinator Mladenov and others, and we will do so again in the Security Council this week; but the stories largely fail to nourish our categorical condemnations or push us to try differently on political settlement; to move beyond our well-worn statements, even beyond the welcome support for Palestinian relief, to find just and durable solutions that genuine indignation would insist upon.

And our interns are discouraged (as should we all) that an organization with so much attention focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been able to make only intermittent progress (much of it sadly reversible) within a time-span that is longer than their own lifespans.   Indeed, one of the most moving aspects of this week’s discussions on Palestine were the honest frustrations shared by both ASG Gilmour and the Deputy PR of Palestine, both of whom reflected on what for both has been a “professional lifetime” of engagement on this tragedy. Gilmour lamented the “”unremitting injustices” that have accompanied his entire career inside the UN, injustices that have done much to drive worldwide the “extremism” we presume to reject.  As for the Ambassador, she expressed frustration that she must come to these discussions highlighting the violent oppression that we all recognize “year after year, speech after speech,” without a viable political horizon.

As Iraq noted this week amidst its own protests and repressive responses back in capital, it is important to maintain services for the Palestinians “until a final status solution can be reached.”  And we are grateful for those who donate to UNRWA relief as well as those working to address its recently-highlighted managerial issues. But surely it is at least as important to re-invest in the search for creative political solutions, to confess the many conspirators that covertly impede political progress of a sort that could permit a conflict that serves far too many politicized interests to focus once and for all on the only “interests” that matter – the security and dignity of the parties.

As the UN prepares tomorrow to take up a long-deferred promise on a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone for the Middle East, it will soon become apparent, if it isn’t already, that the “monster” we have co-authored in this region will not easily agree to occupy a seat at this negotiating table. The wounds now are both too deep and too fresh. And in the absence of a viable “immunization program” against hatred and mistrust, we are left only to ourselves and our capacities.  Regardless, it is long past time for states and the rest of us to stop feeding this beast, to bring the motives we so skillfully hide into the diplomatic light, to expose our still-largely “anonymous” fears, and to bring a viable horizon for dignified peacemaking back into view.

Frighteningly enough, the vast misery suffered by Palestinians is not the worst conflict-related humanitarian disaster now facing the world.  But it has clearly been one of the defining tragedies of my generation.  It must not be allowed to define another.

Blame Game: Lowering the Heat on Policy Acrimony, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Nov

Recognize that the treachery of one member of a house does not taint all born within it. Jacqueline Carey

The world can use more light and less noise.   Steve Goodier

No state can combat disease, climate change, or international terrorist organizations on its own–but any state can play a destructive and destabilizing role on its own.  Rosa Brooks

Was it you or I who stumbled first? It does not matter. The one of us who finds the strength to get up first, must help the other.  Vera Nazarian

Some people’s blameless lives are to blame for a good deal.  Dorothy Sayers

Despite a few controversies that threatened to boil over, this was an unusually satisfying week at the UN.   It was satisfying inasmuch as the UN seemed to be addressing what we consider to be topics of high value if we are to get past the current financial and policy impasses that threaten confidence in multilateral structures.

Much of that “getting past” in our view has two distinct (and related) requirements.   The first is to eliminate the incessant blaming indulged in by states and their representatives, the “treachery” associated with the pervasive compulsion to “shift responsibility” from oneself or one’s country on to some other entity whose behavior ostensibly “justifies” harsh criticism and/or even harsher punitive measures.

There were two major blame-rich episodes this week that caught our attention:  The unfortunate denial of visas by the US as host country to Russian delegates seeking to attend the UN General Assembly First Committee (disarmament) caused the Committee to suspend deliberations for a time and resulted in both numerous acrimonious exchanges and a resolution offered by Russia (but not adopted) to move Committee functions out of New York altogether.  The second was a contentious General Assembly debate on a resolution (supported by all UN members but Brazil, Israel and the US) insisting that the long US blockade of Cuba be lifted, a blockade which the US Ambassador expressly and relentlessly blamed on what she interpreted as “freely chosen” repression by various iterations of the Cuban government.  Whatever else might have been intended, neither of these blaming exercises did much to inspire confidence in UN deliberations.

The second requirement in our view is to successfully transition the UN from a preoccupation with conflict management based on military force generation to “softer” and more prevention-oriented security measures which this week focused on UN police capacity, international justice and what the UN calls “special political missions.”

While the UN remains properly preoccupied with its coordinating role on terrorism response, it is not at all clear that robust, heavily-militarized missions undertaken by “blue helmets” are warranted in most instances. And while “protection” remains at the core of UN commitments to civilians in conflict zones, it is also increasingly clear that what the UN does quite well — better than it is often given credit for — is helping to stabilize pre-conflict and conflict settings with mediation resources, police capacity and training, and the “good offices” of the Secretary-General and his regional offices and representatives.  While USG DiCarlo this week acknowledged the mighty challenges associated with reintegrating combatants and persons displaced by conflict, she also noted that the UN is improving in its ability to “match mandates and resources with challenges,” helping to ensure that competent and (gender and ethnically) diverse capacities such as UN Police and mediators are made available to prevent conflict, preserve the rule of law, and ensure that peacebuilding tools and resources are fully integrated into all conflict-responsive strategies.

Such strategies are still unevenly applied in some conflict settings, including Myanmar, Libya and Cameroon, but the UN is under increasing pressure – rightly so – to make good on its promise to engage all conflict actors in all conflict settings as it is now enabling in South Sudan, Yemen, Syria (with the formation of the constitutional committee) and other conflict spots.  As one dimension of this response, the role of criminal justice in ensuring accountability for the most serious international crimes is paramount.

While there is broad acknowledgment that the primary responsibility for the investigation and prosecution of what are known as “atrocity crimes” rests with states, there is also considerable recognition of the importance of complementary international legal capacities to assist states in bringing the most serious criminals to justice. As noted this week in the Security Council by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court ICC), “perpetrators of serious international crimes are emboldened when they believe they will never face justice.”   This point was echoed earlier in the week by the ICC president who remarked to the General Assembly that “even the most powerful can no longer be certain that they will escape unpunished” for their heinous acts.

The ICC as most readers know is not the only legal entity connected to the UN and established to investigate, attribute, try and punish perpetrators of the worst of crimes.  The “residual mechanism” for the international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia; the Special Criminal Court created for the Central African Republic and contemplated for other settings where grave abuses have occurred;  the investigative mechanisms established to assess chemical weapons use in Syria or Iranian compliance with nuclear weapons program obligations; the extraordinary network of human rights experts seeking remedial access to prisons and other settings of potential abuses – these and other capacities lend hope to those seeking a world where questions of guilt will eventually be answered, where victims will eventually be vindicated.

The UN indeed has an increasingly robust set of eyes and ears to both assess the most serious challenges to a rules-based order and build pathways to accountability.  These pathways are essential both to the recovery of victims and to the credibility of multilateralism. But even here support from states, including some of the largest and most powerful, is often wanting. As ICC Prosecutor Bensouda presented her 18th report on Libya to the Security Council, nearly a decade after the Security Council originally referred the situation in Libya to the ICC, resistance to the Court was yet again evident.  Council members Russia, China and Equitorial Guinea flatly refused to endorse the role of the Court while the US took a more nuanced but no less troubling position – pushing the Court to end impunity while explicitly refusing jurisdiction of that same Court over alleged abuses committed by US personnel, including those committed in Afghanistan.

This manifestation of the UN’s blame game — mostly powerful states willing to hold the less powerful to account but not themselves– is a major contributor to the mistrust simmering around our fiscally-challenged system of global governance.  We see evidence on a regular basis of the willingness of large and some not-so-large states to flaunt the rules, to engage in “destructive and destabilizing” behavior that undermines the multi-lateral confidence needed to solve the problems that now threaten the entire planet.

The UN has the tools, especially policing and other “soft power” capacities, to help states resolve conflict, promote justice, and restore stability and development in conflict’s aftermath. What it has not yet located are the words to convince all of its member states to play by the same rules, to commit to ending impunity for themselves and not only for others, to cease all self-interested attributions of blamelessness and thus hold themselves accountable for responsibilities too-often deflected but rightfully theirs.

This is a high bar, indeed.  But we know from our own lives that there are simply too many instances of persons and institutions advocating for others what they reject for themselves, casting blame on those who appear to stumble rather than asserting a common responsibility to better behavior.  Clearly at this precarious moment in our collective history we need “more light and less noise,” more honesty and less treachery, more reflection and less projection. The tools and capacities created by the UN to help fulfill our peace and justice mandates are compromised as much by self-interested judgments and assertions of blame as by the funding and confidence deficits now looming over our entire system.

Rift Valley:  Embracing a More Common Cause, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Nov


Never confuse a clear path with a short distance. Daren Martin

The pendulum never swings one way.  Audra Lambert

Everything seems simpler from a distance. Gail Tsukiyama

The rules say that to tell a story you need first of all a measuring stick, a calendar, you have to calculate how much time has passed between you and the facts, the emotions to be narrated.  Elena Ferrante

I’m going to distance myself until the world is beautiful.  Tao Lin

This has been an extraordinary if unsettling week for the world.  From Algeria to Chile and Iraq to Hong Kong, and from the insistence on good governance to calls for climate sanity, people in large numbers are taking to the streets to make their demands heard, their skepticism of governance and its structures tangible.  The unmet needs, the denied aspirations, the betrayals and broken promises, all of this and more has pushed people into places of protest that they might never have imagined themselves occupying.

This is not to ascribe uniformity to their motives or deprivations. Political considerations may be driving much of the protest, but many protesters have also made personal commitments to a deeper engagement with the world they want, the world that is still possible, the world they were once promised by political elites and their cohorts.  All of the personal stories that helped give form to the protests, all of the wounds and fears that must be accounted for by whatever structures and leadership will in the end emerge, all of this reflects longings for safe, healthy and prosperous spaces for which the protests themselves are merely the most visible expression.

The UN is not immune to the need for such intimate reminders. In this robustly political space, we seem perpetually in danger of privileging the distant and the categorical to the neglect of the immediate and personal.  It is indeed our “occupational hazard” that the “political eye” with which we see the world is inclined to “essentialize” much of the reality we seek to legislate, creating categories out of personal narratives and imposing stereotypes on constituents and adversaries to combat stereotypes imposed on us by others.  We work a bit too hard at times to keep our distance from people and problems in the hope that we can maintain sufficient “simplicity” and clarity to get our resolution-related work accomplished, to somehow convince ourselves that we can contribute to a more beautiful world from an intentionally remote location.

In the process, we have misplaced the truth that “distancing” represents positioning that must then be defended from alleged “attacks” by those who neither understand what we’re doing nor appreciate the essential “goodness” of the path we’ve chosen.  One of the more toxic phrases in play at the UN these days – especially in the context of recent Women, Peace and Security (WPS) discussions – is the admonition to “pushback against the pushback.”  There is truth in this, of course.  The pendulum does indeed “swing both ways,” and some of the current “swinging” is clearly a mean-spirited, stubborn, misogynistic effort to restore privilege to its full masculine glory.

But the assumption that “pushback” is inevitably misguided and hostile is itself so.  Such a posture presumes instead that we are invariably “on the right path,” that our causes and working methods are fully just and effective, that we are somehow avoiding the creation of new “rifts” under the guise of eliminating old ones, that we are not guilty of “patting ourselves on the back” for our attention to agendas that could well have been pushed much further, agendas that have been useful for political purposes but that have fallen far short of implementation seriousness, let alone of securing pathways to that still-elusive social and economic inclusiveness we repeatedly say we desire.

As already suggested, Women, Peace and Security was once again on the agenda of the UN Security Council this week, an agenda so popular among delegations (often more in rhetoric than performance) that the UK (November president) will be hosting another session tomorrow to accommodate all of the delegations still seeking to share views.  Such enthusiasm is surely not without its complementary insight. This includes the important concerns expressed by FemWise-Africa and several delegations that so long as women’s voices are excluded from peace processes and negotiations there is the very real danger that, as in places like South Sudan and Central African Republic, women’s rights will be “bargained away” as a concession to armed groups who seek to maintain patriarchal structures or avoid accountability for abuses of sexual violence in conflict, and with whom the governments in question “need” to negotiate if a viable peace agreement is to be reached.   Any such “bargaining” must be fully interrogated by diverse women participants and, as circumstances require, resolutely rejected.

Canada also made an interesting and welcome point regarding the need to “reach across silos,” to be more “intentional about inclusion,” and place additional burdens on the “excluders.”  One is left to wonder, however, why after 19 years on the UN agenda, we haven’t seen more progress – on participation of course, but also on the willingness to tie the wholly-legitimate inclusion demands of women to other demands by persons (surely also including women) discriminated against by race, ethnic background or religion;  persons marginalized by disability or disease; persons forced to flee their homes once farms have been scorched or water supplies have been rendered toxic; persons hanging by a thread from economic margins that are inexorably receding from contact.

We have long ago stopped expecting WPS debates to address this (“other”) inclusiveness with any regularity nor make references to discussions elsewhere in the UN (including the 3rd Committee discussion on racial discrimination going on at the same time) where other key lenses of inclusion and exclusion are in focus, lenses as critical to peace and security as any, lenses about which women also have a clear and compelling stake.  That there is so little discussion in the long hours of WPS engagement regarding the multiple strands of exclusion that impede peace and security progress is discouraging at best, more it seems to us about branding the rifts than actually overcoming them.

This post is clearly not a referendum on the WPS agenda nor is it an indictment per se of its discourse. Indeed, we honor the multiple groups worldwide that have helped many thousands find their voice.  But it is important for us to point out that there are also more nuanced “gendered” discussions happening elsewhere around the UN.  For instance, my mostly-female interns are often excited by UNFPA discussions that smartly understand reproductive health and rights as gateways to the empowered choices of women and girls in many global regions.  And they were also inspired this week by two events – one a well-deserved celebration of ten years of the office of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict and another focused on integrating “gender” into counter-terror activities and responses, especially its panel on “drivers of female radicalization.”  Here, speakers (especially UNCTED’s Dier) cited the multiple incarnations of women’s associations with terror movements – including as victims and perpetrators of violence – and urged the audience to remove our “blind spots” regarding the diversity of women’s motivations and impacts. On that same panel, USIP’s Erdberg counseled the audience to resist overly-simplistic “tropes” that deny the complexity of women’s values and roles.  And Interpeace’s Simpson warned against romanticizing young women and their peacebuilding roles, urging momentum instead towards more nuanced strategies (and complex and compelling stories) of empowerment.

In our power-obsessed policy frameworks that are often more about politics than personhood, this was refreshing sharing.  Like the rest of us, women express a complex range of values, aspirations, needs and commitments.  They travel along different paths, including on the quest for meaning and interpretations of the obstacles, abuses and opportunities they encounter.  Their full inclusion suggests multiple positive (and even planet-saving) valuations – as is true for other inclusions – but there are no hard promises of such. As Angola noted this week, discrimination lies “deep in our mentalities where it is challenging to confront.” The path to full inclusion may be clear to us, but the road is frustratingly long: too long for us to navigate with a playbook full of essentialist certainties that substitute neat categories for multi-faceted persons.

The Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted in 3rd Committee this week that “hatred is the true danger facing our world,” a hole both deep and seemingly spreading, spewing racism, sexism and other discriminatory and isolating energies like an active volcano.  We must, he insisted, focus our attention and resolve on solutions to hatred not on denials of its still-potent force.

Most who participate in the women’s groups with which we are honored to be associated see that hole clearly.  Their individual and collective responses represent a tapestry not a monolith. In our various spaces of cause and concern, it is this diversity that we must continually honor and that is best suited to fill the holes that still threaten us all.