Archive | 2:38 pm

Cliff Dwelling: Keeping the International Community off the Ledge, Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Feb

Men riding on motorbikes pass the trucks that carry belongings of displaced Syrians

We all make choices, but in the end our choices make us. Ken Levine

When you desire a consequence you had damned well better take the action that would create it. Lois McMaster Bujold

Perhaps we’d be better off training our youth to be highly observant.  Richelle Goodrich

Good and evil both increase at compound interest.   C.S. Lewis

And I felt a sudden whirl in my head, knowing this leap was inevitable, that I wasn’t just standing on the cliff, toes poking over, but already in mid-air.   Sarah Dessen

This was a whirlwind week inside UN headquarters, but also in regions beyond.  Delegates were simultaneously outlining what they hope will be a fruitful future for the UN system and assessing the consequences of policy decisions that in some instances should never have been allowed to happen.

Specifically, the situations in Northwest Syria and Eastern Ukraine took up much of the bandwidth of both the Security Council and the General Assembly this week, sesssions in which the Russian Federation took abundant heat from numerous other delegations – both for its enabling of separatists in the East of Ukraine and for its decision (with Syria) to double-down on violent “counter-terror operations” in and around Idlib. The horrific consequences of the Idlib violence, as most recognize, have largely been at the expense of civilian populations, hundreds of thousands of whom are now displaced and facing winter deprivations on an almost unimaginable scale with numerous reports of children dying of exposure and entire families trying to stay alive under plastic “blankets.”

This is not all about Russia, of course.  The Russians have made their policy choices, the consequences of which could easily have been (and often were) predicted, and for which they will likely continue to face considerable backlash if sadly little justice.  But let’s be clear:  the UN’s (still flawed) peace and security architecture also lends itself to pious responses that have limited practical impact on victims, statements that routinely blame others for the cliff on which we are all perilously perched but which fail to acknowledge failures more common, including  those related to our willingness to see mostly what conforms to our national policies and worldviews, or to settle for what seems “good enough” for others when we know that it would never be “good enough” for us.

This tendency to verbally-defer actions that might create the consequences we say we desire was manifest in diverse policy settings this week.  A Security Council Arria Formula discussion focused on the plight of persons (especially women) who agree to cooperate with the UN on promoting human rights advocated new focal points for the UN secretariat but little in the way of concrete state commitments to act more resolutely regarding the risks which such persons take to provide testimony to UN agencies, often with little to show for it afterwards beyond fresh threats of retribution back home.

And in another conference room this week, the full counter-terror apparatus of the United Nations was on display at a session devoted to a new initiative that links Central Asian states (the “Stans”) in a concerted effort to combat what was referred to at this meeting as “the terrorism-arms-crime nexus.”   The nexus, of course, is quite real as trafficking in small arms and light weapons continues to be a major contributing factor to both the violence inflicted by criminal and terror groups (often in harmony) and the financing that keeps these enterprises afloat.

What became clear from this meeting is that these diverse UN agencies and partner governments were clear and unified on the dire consequences of insufficiently checked terror and criminal elements enabled by porous national borders and trafficking in arms and other commodities. But what was also clear was the perpetuation of what in the UN is a routine lack of attentiveness to the production of armaments and ammunition, the staggering volume of manufactured weapons (supplemented by “craft” and restored weaponry) that continue to overwhelm efforts to control their movements and confine their use to erstwhile “licit” purposes as defined by governments themselves.

The failure to concretely address the consequences of “licit” weapons production with the same vigor that we address the consequences of the “illicit” trade remains, for us and others, a blot on our collective credibility.   Even in this state-driven system and despite the UN Charter’s endorsement of the right of states to defend themselves from threats, the massive volume of weapons produced and let loose on the world wrecks havoc on communities, soldiers and budgets beyond the illegal uses of terrorists and criminals.  Such linkages and their often-dire consequences should at least have been acknowledged during this otherwise helpful session.

And then there is the Peacebuilding Commission, now chaired by Canada, which is undergoing a review of its practices and procedures as requested by the Secretary-General and which convened a general meeting this past week to discuss the complex matter of “transitions,” especially those from conflict to what the UN refers to as “post-conflict” settings.   Transitions, as we know, are rarely easy in any context and the ones under discussion here are particularly complex as states confront often-grave damage to civilian infrastructure, the mistrust of opposition parties and cultural minorities, the past abuses in search of justice, the humanitarian needs of those who barely survived the conflict, and the youth and women clamoring for a place at the table to help ensure that states which have stepped back from the edge of the cliff do not subsequently fall off it.

The noteworthy “unity government” launched this week in South Sudan is simply the latest of a number of examples highlighting this transitional complexity.  As our South Sudanese colleague, Bol Aher, is now reminding us, welcome calls for “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” are insufficient unto themselves to undo a decade of political and military decisions largely divorced from any consideration of consequence.  As the guns begin to fall silent, Bol reminds us of the communities that now lie in ruins; the makeshift military units now confused about who and what it is their duty to protect; the limited state authority over many regions of the country including borders that remain inviting to traffickers in arms and other commodities; a new cabinet consisting of “familiar faces” who in some instances should be facing tribunals rather than making policy for others; children wondering if life is more than displacement and deprivation.

Here as elsewhere, the unforeseen or willfully neglected consequences of armed conflict create vast complexities that governments, no matter how enthusiastic they might be, are often ill-prepared to address.  It is indeed difficult to put Humpty Dumpty back together again once that egg has been duly cracked.

Returning to the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), the title for this post was lifted from a recent presentation by Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed to the PBC, a statement in which she highlighted the financial “cliffs” facing states transitioning in post-conflict situations, the hard decisions about whether to invest scarce resources in repairing the consequences of conflict or in meeting the development needs of populations, in the rebuilding of infrastructure or in health and educational services, in dialogue for national reconciliation or resilience to the effects of climate change.

The “cliffs” to which the DSG referred are not news; despite the “composure” evidenced by diplomats and others in this UN space, we mostly realize how close we are now to the fiscal and political ledge, how any more of the careless steps we too often take can easily send us into a rapid descent and crash landing.  Along with NGOs and others, the Peacebuilding Commission could play a greater role in making sure that we ask all of the questions that complex transitions and security threats pose, the ones that need to be asked not just the ones we are comfortable asking.  The PBC could also do more to alert the rest of the UN system to the potential consequences of decisions taken and not taken, the messes we have “manufactured” and are obligated to clean up – made in considerable measure through our own inattentiveness to consequence — messes that largely didn’t need to happen in the first place.

The UN is taking the global lead on a host of important peacebuilding concerns from food security to transitional justice.  But we still have a way to go to ensure a fuller accounting of potential consequences of our policy decisions and, more importantly, to promote actions which ensure that the consequences we desire most have the best chance of coming to pass. This is the path, uncertain though it might sometimes seem, that can keep the world — and ourselves — off the fiscal and security cliffs that threaten our transitions and perhaps even our very existence.