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.

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