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Rocked Around the Clock:  The UN Struggles to Talk its Way out of Global Crises, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Dec

It is often a devastating question to ask oneself, but it is sometimes important to ask it– In saying what I have in mind will I really improve on the silence?  Robert K. Greenleaf

I continue to cling to words because it is up to us to transform them into instruments of comprehension rather than contempt. It is up to us to choose whether we wish to use them to curse or to heal, to wound or to console.  Elie Wiesel

Today is Human Rights Day and, sadly, it is not a day to break out the celebratory champagne.  Indeed, this was a week characterized by gross violence and shoddy decisionmaking both somewhat unforeseen and symptomatic of a breakdown in confidence in multilateral authority, including on the human rights on which so much of our hope for a future of dignity and peace depends.

First there was the news that at least 15 peacekeepers assigned to MONUSCO were ambushed and killed by armed insurgents in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  These deaths simply add to 2017 peacekeeping casualty figures that are in themselves staggering – as noted by the UN Times, 33 peacekeepers killed in Mali, 23 in Central African Republic, 16 in Darfur, and an additional 10 in DRCongo.

Such deaths have dealt another blow to a system of peace operations that is increasingly expected to work miracles – protecting civilians and UN country teams, paving the way for post-conflict peacebuilding, training national police and security contingents, and much more – all in settings of active conflict combined with frequent equipment shortages and threatened budget cuts.  And after all these valiant efforts and ultimate sacrifices, and given verbal commitments in many of these countries to fair elections and viable pathways towards inclusive political dialogue, we find that in so many settings there is still too much hostile shooting and too little honest talking.

Another event rocking the UN this week was precipitated by the decision by the US president to formally endorse Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.   This decision, which had been a campaign promise by Mr. Trump, had been rumored around Washington for some time.  It was nevertheless deemed as reckless in most parts of world not named Tel Aviv and has subsequently spawned street violence in the Palestinian territories, careful denunciations from allies such as the European Union (which has barely had time to recover from Trump’s rejection of the Iran nuclear agreement), and an emergency Security Council meeting on Friday morning called by 8 of the current SC members, including exasperated allies the UK and (especially) France.

At this meeting, Council members and UN Special Coordinator Mladenov outlined some of the discouraging consequences from a unilateral action that, whether the US embassy eventually moves or not, has spawned violence and, as noted by France, provided yet another recruiting tool for violent extremists.  Mladenov went even further, noting that all efforts to curb incitement and other provocations that impede serious dialogue — including as highlighted by Sweden and others on the “final status” of Jerusalem — have been severely imperiled.   Indeed, Mladenov warned of the possibility of a “new intifada” wherein ordinary Israelis and Palestinians will once again bear the brunt of violence stemming from a failure to resolve Jerusalem’s status through a negotiated agreement.

The danger of what Egypt called “unjustified chaos” resulting from this US decision constitutes yet another test for a UN system that struggles with budgetary threats and numerous (uncontained) “fires” now raging from Myanmar and Yemen to South Sudan and Cameroon.   As most readers of these posts are aware, there certainly exist tools across the UN system to address violence, including those regularly advocated by  SG Guterres in the service of early warning and conflict prevention.  But the tool invoked most often in UN settings, certainly in the Security Council, is that of “inclusive political dialogue.”

This seems sensible enough:  Sit conflicted parties down for a timely chat.  Urge parties to bring their grievances, but also to come as they are able without preconditions or “end game” agendas.   Ensure that all who need to be around the negotiating table are duly and sincerely invited into the conference room.

It all sounds helpful and relatively straightforward. Indeed, we are helping to promote just this sort of engagement as a contribution to resolving the increasingly volatile political and security situation in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon.  But as we are also reminded often, inside and outside the Security Council chamber, “dialogue” is a complex matter requiring skills sufficient to the intricacies of the peoples and parties invited to participate.  And in this respect, we don’t always have what we need.

This week, before heading down to Peru for a Women, Peace and Security event hosted by UNLiREC,  I was privileged to engage some law students at the University of Alberta, Canada who were making final presentations in a fascinating course entitled “Truth, Falsehood, Deception and Justice.”  Among the more interesting points (for me) to emerge from one 3 hour engagement was the notion of “truth fatigue,” the idea that “opinions” of people don’t often result in tangible actions in the world, the alleged virtue of maintaining “manners” in public speech, and the growing disconnect between politics and pedagogy.

There is no space here to do a thorough debrief on these and related insights from this experience, but a couple of their complex interactions with “dialogue” might be relevant to UN processes, processes which are too often given over to discursive caution beyond what is needed to keep the diplomatic winds blowing, or to the incessant branding of policies clearly in need of much greater examination.

For one thing, this was a group that is much more comfortable than I am with the idea that politics is largely void of any pedagogical obligation; that is, of a responsibility to use language in a way that clarifies context and responsibility, which is more than a tool to firm up political support and persuade others to join the cause.  These students have grown up in a “brand saturated” environment that is, by their own often resigned admission, seductive more than trustworthy, where what is “true” is largely a function of what you can convince others is true. People beholding such “dialogue” tend not to learn much apart from the positions held by the speakers.

The second core takeaway has to do with what John Kang referred to as the “case for insincerity.”  This “case” was introduced in the seminar room as a choice between hiding behind the “mask” of polite speech and the sharing of controversial, even toxic political and/or social preferences.   The (unspoken) assumption here is that in the absence of manners, what is likely to be “let out” will be venomous to ourselves and others, that politeness is the vehicle of preference for our attempts to keep our dysfunctions and discrimination carefully bottled up and out of sight.  This, of course, flies in the face of much psychology which affirms that a good portion of what we now work so hard to hide from others, much of what we stuff behind the masks of our own creation, is actually good for us, and most often for others as well.

These tendencies – “polite” speech that stretches diplomatic courtesy beyond its proper functions and which attempts to “sell” policy more than explain its origins and consequences – certainly have implications for UN practice, implications which we will continue to explore in the months to come.

During Friday’s session on Jerusalem, France bluntly questioned the degree to which the policy the US is attempting to “sell” on Jerusalem is in accordance with international law and reminded all members that  “there is no shortcut” to peace.“ The same can be said for the dialogue on which peace is dependent.  We still have so much to learn about how to engage, how to include, how to build trust with others, how to confess and then move beyond our own respective needs and contexts.  In both personal and political realms we need to recover and enhance skills for dialogue that can create meaningful and actionable collaborations rather than pushing parties further into their respective corners or creating incentives to hide deeper behind our many masks.

Our world is in crisis in part because our language is in crisis and in part because our views of ourselves have given over to an un-empirical pessimism.  If dialogue is to be our pathway out of crisis, we need to urgently revisit its manifold linguistic and personal requirements.

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Treasure Hunt: An Advent Reflection on Pathways and Resources, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Dec

Advent Image

For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last. Frederick Buechner

Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other- things that are of no real consequence- the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.   Dietrich Bonhoeffer

To be human is nothing less than to be caught in the great congested pilgrimage of existence and to join ourselves freely to it in the face of the evidence of its never-ending troubles.  Eugene Kennedy

For where your treasure is there will your heart be also.   Matthew 6:21

I’m not usually asked to write things by others – more likely asked NOT to write things, actually.   But there was one recent exception – a valued colleague asked if I would comment on an important, recent NGO discussion on the “perils and challenges of a shrinking UN budget.”    Since it is also time for my annual Advent letter, I will attempt to conflate the two responsibilities.  (You might want to consider a stronger cup of coffee before proceeding further.)

At the UN, much of the constriction just alluded to is based on threats from the current US administration and some other donor governments, officials seeking a leaner system that can do “more with less.”  As we know, this often translates into “doing less with less,” a problem for an institution that is being pulled in a variety of challenging policy directions and is having more and more difficulty taking care of basic expectations to staff and constituents on top of evolving concerns related to issues as diverse as autonomous weapons, forced migration, mass climate incidents, ethnic and disability-based discrimination, species extinction and pandemic threats.  Our global community – even those parts that don’t much trust us here in New York – simply has no viable recommendation to offer for how we might, together, ever make it “home” to a world of peace and well-being without the UN’s occasionally clumsy – and now also funding-challenged — efforts to clear away some of the debris that inhibits our collective progress.

There are challenges as well for those of us who labor in UN confines, and not only for the institution itself.  Some of those have clearly “seasonal” references.

My profound admiration for the late Dr. Bonhoeffer notwithstanding, my own take on this season of Advent is less about “killing time” in a confined space waiting for some divine (or human) power to turn the lock, and more about discerning what we plan to do – and with whom we plan to do it – in order to bring this current, difficult and confining sojourn finally to an end.

Like many people with far better excuses for this neglect than I have, I don’t spend enough time in reflection or –if you prefer –prayer, in Advent or any other season.  I don’t spend enough time simply dwelling with myself – the good and uglier aspects of that – figuring out both where I want to go but, more importantly, where I want to invest my treasure and with what values?  Moreover, who do I wish to stand alongside, and for which causes and objectives shall we together stand?  How can we best point out the many structural and, at times, self-imposed obstacles that litter our path home without sounding shrill, or mean, or even self-righteous?

Beyond such self-analysis, the reflection time of Advent allows me to take at least partial stock of all the people in my life who matter, some of whom are facing their own trials of health or meaning,  others of whom now finding themselves killing time in mostly hopeless spaces with no obvious exit.  When I reflect — when I pray — I remember all the people I am usually too “preoccupied” to think about in the ways that they deserve. And in my best moments, I recall that capacity to care about people in practical ways commensurate with the genuine value they can and do add to my life (and my world).

Advent for me represents a time of longing, of the hope that the heavens will open revealing the way out of the tiny rooms in which we have, sometimes willfully, restricted ourselves.   But it is also a time for planning what we will do once our full release is secured, and with whom we will walk ahead on a path towards greater inclusiveness and equity.

For many of us, this planning and walking clearly has something to do with money.  In an expensive and economically skewed city such as New York, those of us who work in this UN vineyard have to pay attention more than we wish to the financial implications of our respective missions.   It is difficult at times to live with simplicity and generosity beneath a bevy of shining towers saturated with moneyed interests but with little or no concern for what we are attempting to accomplish with and for each other in the realm of global policy.  It is even more difficult to share this space in the way we should with the many stakeholders worldwide who can effectively “check” our elite realities but can’t foot most or all of the bills associated with their presence here.

The UN, as already noted, has many of its own fiscal laments, sometimes substituting slogans and scheming for thoughtful reflection on what are often utterly daunting program and funding tasks.   One of those slogans relates to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) tag line of “leaving no-one behind.”  I have written previously about this once game-changing but now tired and overused formula that now represents an aspiration likely to exhaust our collective energy, probably also our powers of attention, certainly our currently available (and perhaps even projected) resources.

UN budget challenges, including the preference by some states for greater austerity and “earmarked funding,” have indeed been complicated by the ambition of the SDGs but also by the global events that make fulfilling these goals so essential to our very survival.   More and more attention is now being paid to addressing the massive price tag associated with our sustainable development promises, including through commitments to end state corruption, solidify domestic revenue streams, and integrate the so-called “private sector” in what must become a fully transparent and rights-based manner.  Military spending, much to our chagrin, remains an obvious and largely “off limits” source of potential SDG revenue.

Along with SDG-related imperatives, there are now frequent, UN-sponsored “pledging conferences” focused on forcibly displaced persons facing deprivation and trauma, the victims of discrimination and armed violence that we have done less-than-enough to prevent, the stranded and water-logged residents of coastal areas battered by storms made worse through our collective climate negligence.  A shockingly high percentage of funds pledged for disaster and humanitarian relief are actually never honored while the humanitarian and environmental crises-of-our-making seem continually to evolve.

It would seem appropriate at this point to apply some iteration of the biblical reminder regarding the links between our treasure and our heart to UN policy contexts.  To paraphrase:  where our treasure is withheld or withdrawn, where it is beholden to institutional politics more than to people, thus might well our hearts be hardened.

And there are NGO dimensions associated with current budgetary challenges.  Every time I walk into the UN, a place where I spend an average of 9 hours each day, I cost the UN money.  The security officers whom I often greatly admire, who are the “face” of UN hospitality, and who are often not treated with sufficient respect by diplomats or NGOs, are paid to make sure that people like me and my interns/fellows don’t trespass on diplomatic prerogatives, don’t get off the elevators on the wrong floor or sneak into closed meetings.  Moreover, we don’t pay for the earplugs we use in UN conference rooms; we don’t pay for the electricity or the wireless that allows us to communicate UN deliberations to the outside world; we don’t pay for any of the access passes I and my colleagues liberally bestow upon others; we don’t pay for the literature we collect and then stack up throughout our office.

And so part of the discussion about UN budgets must focus on the benefits (sometimes begrudgingly) enjoyed by offices like my own but, even more, about the financial limitations that even now impact the ability of others to sit where I sit – those many “outlandish creatures” worldwide who have every reason to insist on their place in this policy space, on their ability to “add value” in ways that I can only pray we do as well.  In a time of abundant and mean-spirited austerity threats, including towards the UN, there is little reason to believe that important and hopeful voices will find their way out of the spaces where they have for too long been confined and into UN conference rooms where “what they know” can and must inform “what we do.”   Little reason, that is, unless we commit more of our treasure to making that happen, to insist that our (still-intact if shrinking) institutional privileges are available for them as well.

For unless we all make more time for reflection on both our commitments and our own privilege, unless we are fully prepared to use whatever treasure is at our disposal to reach as far as we can to connect with those in need of both justice and a voice – and then stretch a bit further still – we are more likely to remain as “toothless plaintiffs” towards a system already well into its embrace of what Global Policy Forum calls “selective multilateralism.”  Our road home to a place of inclusion and equity is littered with debris that we have often scattered ourselves – our self-preoccupations and excessive material interests, our numerous distractions and competitive suspicions.  Ours is indeed a “congested pilgrimage,” albeit one we maintain (at least for now) the power to de-clutter.

Some of this business about sustaining multilateral policy space is about funding, specifically about a fair, predictable, transparent and depoliticized balancing of resources and expectations. And some is about reminding governments and other international stakeholders that their often-furtive and restrained financial commitments in the face of global crises tell us much about the size and health of their collective heart. But some of it is about us as NGOs as well:  our willingness to use opportunities — including the reflection space of Advent — to interrogate the promises we keep, the value we contribute, the conflict we prevent, the voices we enable—commitments that we must “own” each and every day regardless of the current health of our organizational balance sheets.

As we lobby for a sane, sufficient and promise-oriented allocation of resources based on something akin to what NGOs often refer to as “full funding” of the UN, we would also do well to ensure that our own treasure is fully engaged — that the self-reflection encouraged in this season begets some newly-minted, heart-felt and tangible commitments to inclusive access and a sustainable peace for more of the world’s people.

Humiliation Nations: Rehabbing our Common Humanity, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Nov

Humiliation

Humiliation is poisonous. It’s one of the deepest pains of being human. Pierce Brosnan

There is no humiliation more abusive than hunger. Pranab Mukherjee

I have not seen deeper suffering than seeing humans humiliated.  Behrouz Boochani‏

It was the day after the US Thanksgiving and I (what else?) was reading over a brochure that was picked up for me during a visit several years ago to the Nazi transit camp at Westerbork in the Netherlands.    There one can still seek remnants of the railway that carried away many tens of thousands of Jews (and some others) directly to the ovens of Auschwitz, a number that included Anne Frank and, on its last “run” in 1944, 77 children unluckily caught by the Nazis while in hiding from their madness.

For me, a most interesting aspect in the brochure is what the authors referred to as Westerbork’s “system of false hope.”  Conditions in the camp were apparently “tolerable” enough, and the Nazis had instituted a system where select persons could be issued an “exemption” from deportation to the east.  Some actually got these exemptions, though most who got them eventually had them revoked, thus falsifying the “hope” that minimized the humiliation and despair of being in that place, that blunted the grave anxiety from watching trains pull out of the transit station filled with neighbors and comrades, until the veil of deception covering their own eyes was finally lifted.

Eventually the trains stopped running, the raids ceased to pull any more children out of hiding, the scars from years of anxiety and humiliation would grow no longer.  But what did we ultimately learn from this?  What has changed for us?  Why does it take us so long to see the doomsday transit and humiliating confinement – in historical and contemporary terms — for what they really are?

As we in the US prepared for feasts and football, there were a few events in the world that led us to believe that we might be slowly learning our lessons. For instance, many welcomed the conviction in The Hague of former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić, a result that brought tears to the eyes of persons who had waited many years for this long-overdue justice.  Given the scale of the atrocities that had previously been presented in court, evidence of thousands upon thousands humiliated, even butchered on Mladić’s watch, one can only hope that this verdict – late and tepid though it might well seem — will somehow promote, rather than impede a still-fragile regional reconciliation.

This verdict will effectively shut down the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia which will now be folded into the UN Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals.  But this will not end the UN community’s (often untimely) commitment to international justice, nor to the search for strategies to relieve those suffering soul-threatening humiliation and abuse at the hands of predatory forces inside and (mostly) outside government.

Two events in the pre-Thanksgiving period spanned a spectrum of this abiding UN justice concern.   On Tuesday, the UN Security Council under Italy’s presidency held a general debate on the issue of “trafficking in persons.”  The unintended backdrop for this meeting was the CNN footage of an open-air “slave market” operating in Libya and “feeding” off of the thousands of forced migrants gathering on Libya’ shores hoping only to be granted access to a life-threatening passage across the Mediterranean Sea.

As documented by the International Organization for Migration and other agencies, the volume of persons forced to flee conflict, drought, discrimination and other “push” factors continues to stagger the imagination.  To flee from your home dragging children behind you who can’t possibly understand what is happening to them or why their families can’t “fix things”; to face grave hunger and other uncertainties as strangers urge you across unfamiliar and at times unforgiving lands; and then at the end of the line facing a bevy of human predators ready and willing to exploit every migrant’s distinct vulnerability.  It is a story of multiple tragedies that seem to “pile on” those who are already at a breaking point.

A day earlier in a smaller UN conference room, delegations led by Singapore examined another issue critical to human wellness– water and sanitation.  In conjunction with “world toilet day,” Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed noted during this event that, “We all produce waste, but many do so without dignity and in a manner that ultimately jeopardizes their own health and well-being.”   She lauded the work of what she called “sanitation heroes” that clean latrines and other facilities thus ensuring higher levels of community health.   But she also noted the millions of people – especially women – for whom both health and physical safety are compromised daily due to a lack of private sanitation facilities.  She highlighted those persons needing only a “few cement blocks” in order to make still-open sanitation more secure, less risky, less humiliating. With urging from Singapore, Australia, Slovakia and other states, there was some hope by session’s end for more security and less humiliation relative to the most private and intimate of human functions.

It might seem like a long road from the haughty butchery of Mladić to the emotional safety of cement blocks. But the policies that lead to murder and misery, that hold families and communities hostage to sinister and predatory ideologies, do their damage in often very personal ways.   The “demonizing servitude” referred to in the Security Council by UN SG Guterres encompasses a wide range of what Sweden referred to as “grotesque” humiliations, from hunger and intimate exposure to the horror of having to sell off your children to servitude in order to protect other children; or even to watch those who systematically abused your family walk freely around the towns where those very abuses once occurred.

Tuesday’s Security Council debate did result in unanimous support for Resolution 2388 which, among other things, called for greater national efforts to break up trafficking networks and address the severe trauma often left in their wake; as well as additional training to help police and UN peacekeepers identify and disrupt traffickers and the many threats they pose. And one of the persons primarily responsible for coordinating UN efforts on trafficking in persons, USG Yuri Fedotov, did note during the debate a hopeful, “forward momentum” against crimes of slavery, especially those committed against children, responses which he tied closely to other efforts aimed at ending money laundering and corruption.

But the mood in Council chambers this day was generally more “appalled” and less “hopeful.”  As Ambassador Chergui from the African Union warned, where trafficking is concerned, “our common humanity is at stake” and “time is not on our side.” Such wide-ranging damage to human confidence and capacity diminishes both individual lives and the collective resolve we need to address what are in some instances “existential” threats and challenges.   While some are able to rise above pervasive abuse and hopelessness, it generally takes so much to restore even the most basic confidence in persons who have been beaten down and humiliated in ways that, to quote US Ambassador Haley, “most of us are blessed not to be able to imagine.”

This pattern cannot continue; neither the “unimaginable” abuse, nor the out-of-control predation, nor our own “system of false hope” that inadvertently substitutes policy resolution language for the urgent and quite practical tasks associated with the reclaimation of our common humanity.

The next time the US Thanksgiving rolls around, my hope is that (citing Colombia’s Ambassador) the practice of “selling people as merchandise” will have come to an end, that legal gaps currently exploited for trafficking purposes will have been closed, that the needless conflicts driving forced migrants into the clutches of predators will have ceased, and that the “poison” of humiliation will be seen for what it truly is – a threat to the common humanity on which our common future ultimately hinges.

That would indeed be a Thanksgiving to remember.

Giving Tree:  Growing Spaces for Gratitude and Service, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Nov

I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. Henry David Thoreau

Pride slays thanksgiving but a humble mind is the soil out of which thanks naturally grow. Henry Ward Beecher

What seems insignificant when you have it becomes important when you need it. Franz Grillparzer

My cooking is so bad my kids thought Thanksgiving was to commemorate Pearl Harbor. Phyllis Diller

This is the beginning of Thanksgiving weekend in the US, a time when we are hopefully inspired to – as my grandmother used to say – both “count our blessings” and share more of them with the world around us.

For many years, my Thanksgivings in New York were preoccupied by labors in a Harlem church pantry presided over by two enormously capable women who knew the neighborhood and its diverse “characters,” including the ones who had family plans for the provisions we provided and the ones who were merely hoping for a bit of “resale” cash from those provisions if they could get their hands on them.

I actually don’t miss those Thanksgiving pantries.  Expectations and anxieties were considerably higher than was the case on the other Saturday’s of the year when the pantry was also open.  There was more food to distribute on Thanksgiving but often less grateful hands receiving it and, as the years went on, fewer hands it seems being extended to help us with the distribution chores.  Thanksgiving, it seemed, was characterized by increasingly lower levels of both gratitude and reciprocal service to others.

Yesterday, in another part of Manhattan, Global Action was the beneficiary of a truly lovely event organized for us by our dear friends India Hixon and Olive Osborne.  The event was a fundraiser of sorts, but the “gratitude messaging” was much broader than the financial giving.   Interns and fellows, current and former, described how their UN experiences affected their lives; NGO leaders at the UN talked about how Global Action and others help to develop a narrative on global polity that is more attentive, connected and generous, with minds and hearts focused more on the needs and aspirations of constituents and less on the complex and sometimes myopic politics that characterize UN conference rooms.  We also heard about some of the many amazing initiatives and investments which have germinated just from the people sitting around our Saturday afternoon event space — including Wendy Brawer’s Green Map and Lin Evola’s Peace Angels — projects taking place in many parts of the world and taking many forms that make our own work possible and, more importantly, our world more hopeful.

And we were reminded of something that should be enshrined in every global policymakers work space – that the key element in any policy work is not agreements on language, but practice by human beings.  It is what we as people do with the policy openings made available to us that truly make the difference in our world.   In the absence of “en-action,” what UN-speak refers to as “implementation,” the promises embedded in our often politically-compromised texts will die a slow and largely unheeded death, generating (in ourselves and in others) neither a grateful nor generous spirit, let alone inspiring hope for a healthier and more prosperous future.

Perhaps ironically, the system that we still respect and in which we labor daily behaves at times in a manner that is almost incompatible with any recognizable thanksgiving-themed outcomes.  On Monday, for instance, the Security Council held an Arria-Formula meeting to discuss the situation in Venezuela which, as many know, has been characterized over several long months by mass political turmoil, food insecurity and a growing number of human rights violations, many specifically targeting (and imprisoning) political opponents and the media.

The event was “sponsored” by the US and Italy (current Council president) though it was clear from the outset that the US was the principle organizer of this Arria narrative.  US Ambassador Haley’s assessment of conditions in Venezuela was harsh and unforgiving, not without reason (as was reflected by the other speakers including High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid) but also largely without strategic purpose.

This was clearly not an event to “educate” Council members about a situation that has been evolving (and deteriorating) for some time and that clearly has potential implications for peace and security, including on its neighbor Colombia’s still-fragile peace process. This seemed instead to be more of a politically-charged rally designed less to find solutions with UN frameworks but more to attack the Venezuelan government (low-hanging fruit that this represents at the moment) for the sake of – what exactly?   Was the US advocating for regime change?  For the latest iteration of some external invasion by covert or overt means?   For formal sanction from the Human Rights Council or other UN bodies?

Usually reliable and thoughtful Uruguay reminded delegations that Venezuela does not currently appear on the UN Security Council agenda and thus is not deemed to be a threat to international peace and security. This was, at best, a “besides-the-point” moment given the preventive priorities of SG Guterres and the responsibility of the Council to maintain international peace and security, to get out in front of conflict and not wait to merely (attempt to) pour water on fires that have already done considerable damage.  Moreover, none appeared to be calling for such an agenda expansion; indeed three Council members – China, Russia and Bolivia – spent the time of the Arria holding a separate press briefing with the Venezuela Ambassador, in part to insist that no such addition to the Council agenda was warranted and essentially accusing the US of using the Arria Formula to instigate some variation of a political circus.

France, which has increasingly become the “adult in the room” when it comes to permanent Council member diplomacy, did not minimize Venezuela’s rights violations, but stressed the humanitarian imperative as well as the need for robust mediation efforts from regional and UN sources to help overcome what has become a deepening and abusive political impasse characterized by citizens who, in the words of HC Zeid, have “largely lost confidence in their state.”

At another meeting later in the day, Zeid (who once represented Jordan on the Security Council with thoughtfulness and diplomatic distinction) lamented the current “culture” of the Council, the inability of those entrusted with global peace and security to apply dignity and respect in their dealings with each other as a precondition for assisting global constituencies longing for stability and seeking relief from violence and its many levels of threat.

The acrimonious Venezuela discussion, coupled with another round of painful (and largely failed) discussions on the renewal of the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism for Syria, left our little group of Council watchers wishing that the chamber could find a way to declare some sort of “time out” for itself.  Such would be an occasion to suspend political considerations and reflect on all those persons around the world who are depending on our good decisions, who want to believe that we still have their best interests at heart, who are even willing to offer morale and practical support towards a more peaceful world so long as that support does not fuel more of the political gamesmanship and excessive, pride-filled policy maneuvering that seeks to pin political blame on everyone and everything – except of course on oneself.

There is a precedent for such a time-out.  In the General Assembly hall this week, a group of diplomats and guests spoke of the power of sport to help bring about healthier more peaceful communities.  In that context, the Republic of Korea Ambassador, whose country will soon host the Winter Olympic Games, floated once again the idea of having a moratorium declared for the period of the games – a time when states would pledge to lay down their arms (or at least point them away from their alleged “enemies”) and reflect on their often-misplaced responsibilities to build a more peaceful and sustainable world that might actually be fit for their own children.

This will likely continue be a tough sell in such divided, mistrustful and fragmented times, but all must do what we can, where we can, to create openings where gratitude and giving can grow and flourish, even within institutions like the UN Security Council whose politics and working methods lead members to sometimes forget who it is that we’re actually working for.

Herding Cats: The UNSG Leads Wary Constituents Towards Management Reform, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Nov

Only in growth, reform, and change –paradoxically enough — is true security to be found. Anne Morrow Lindbergh

An institution or reform movement that is not selfish must originate in the recognition of some evil that is adding to the sum of human suffering, or diminishing the sum of happiness. Clara Barton

Reform, that we may preserve. Thomas Babington Macaulay

This was one of those intense weeks at the UN during which if I were smart enough to write them — and you were patient enough to read them — there could have been a policy-related post emanating from this office every single day.  It was a week for the Peacebuilding Commission to assess the difficult circumstances in Burundi, for the UN General Assembly Fourth Committee to review the UN’s commitment to Palestinian refugees, for the Security Council Counter-Terror Executive Directorate to discuss rights-based ways for military and police to respond to the challenges of returning Foreign Terror Fighters, and for the entire Security Council to listen to commanders and otherwise honor the role of UNPOL (UN Police)in stabilizing communities, building trust with local constituents, and paving the way for easier transitions from peace operations to UN country teams and local security forces.

The highlight of the week from a public-interest standpoint was probably the Security Council debate focused on the report of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  This was actually the third recent discussion on the report and/or JIM mandate renewal – one previously in the Council that saw Russia veto a proposal to extend the JIM prior to the report’s release and another in the General Assembly’s First Committee that deals specifically with disarmament and weapons of mass destruction.   As the policy lines sharpened this week among Council members and with occasional professional insults hurled at JIM director Mulet, our twitter account literally exploded with commentary, much of it from persons angry or frustrated at what they saw as attempts by (mostly) Russia and Syria to undermine both the methodology and findings of the JIM report, calling its basic integrity and usefulness into question.

Our “for what it’s worth” recommendations in response to this twitter flurry were twofold: to reauthorize the JIM promptly but also to carefully scrutinize its working methods and possible methodological gaps, especially given fresh allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria that will also need to be investigated, hopefully this time with successful on-site inspections.  Given all of the interest in eliminating these weapons and ending blatant violations of the non-proliferation regime, it is essential that these investigations be as “above reproach” as we can get them.

Despite all this impact-filled drama, our preference for a Sunday highlight was a joint Thursday briefing by the president of the General Assembly and the Secretary-General on the SG’s proposals for reform of the UN’s peace and security pillar. The SG’s report on this subject is largely focused on management reform rather than on specific changes to the ways in that the UN conducts its security-related responsibilities.

Following the SG’s opening statement, a number of states came forward with support for reform efforts, specifically lauding the SG’s focus on UN management and his willingness to reorganize across pillars and sectors.  Others cautiously awaited more specifics on proposed changes to the peace and security architecture with some explicitly calling on the president of the General Assembly to exercise oversight of the reform process on behalf of member states.

Given the SG’s management focus, and perhaps due to constraints of time as well as a reticence to get into too many details on how a post-reform UN would conduct its business, there were several matters of critical importance to peace and security that were barely mentioned during the two-hour briefing:

  • The reform of the Security Council (this was noted in passing by Ambassador Kamau of Kenya but ignored by the remainder of speakers, which included several Council members)
  • The architecture and structure of UN Disarmament Affairs. Indeed, the word “disarmament” was not uttered, neither in a programmatic or management context
  • The potential (and actual) prevention-related functions managed by the UN’s genocide and atrocity prevention mechanisms
  • Full-spectrum motivations for this reform initiative, specifically including funding threats emanating from the US government and other member states; their preferences, more and more, leaning towards earmarked funding rather than pledges for core operations.

What was most welcome from the SG’s remarks is his commitment to enhancing the visibility and functionality of the UN’s peacebuilding architecture, something we have long advocated.  With Guatemala’s Amb. Rosenthal in the room (a primary architect of the UN’s landmark peacebuilding review), the SG made a strong case for why the Peacebuilding Commission and Peacebuilding Fund deserved a broader role in the UN system – beyond its current post-conflict confinements – to hopefully become a significant resource for states seeking guidance on conflict prevention and mediation before facing the prospect of turning up on the agenda of the Security Council.

At this point, I can “feel” many of those who chose to read this thinking, well, this is all well and good for the SG, but what are the takeaways?   I think there are several, but will summarize the following:

  • First, for a range of reasons, the “mood of the room” on Thursday was mostly supportive of the SG’s reform push. Uruguay and Japan, as examples, were two current Security Council members who reinforced the SG’s “mandate for change” and sought ways to support that change without seeking to “micro-manage” it.
  • Second, there is a clear and tangible concern among many member states that the UN is simply not delivering “on the ground” in accordance with expectations that we in this policy space have raised but often failed to meet. In an age of austerity for the UN system, the pressure to deliver “more with less” is being felt across the UN and certainly has “raised the bar” for the current leadership.
  • Third, Morocco’s Ambassador and other officials reminded colleagues that reform of one aspect of the UN system changes – at least in potential – all other aspects of the system. Changes in the management structure and architecture of the UN’s security apparatus – including peace operations — will change institutional dynamics and policy options on gender, counter-terrorism, human rights, children’s issues and other key dimensions of the UN’s multilateral contribution.
  • And fourth, there was some helpful recognition in the room that, to use our own analogy, there is quite a difference between planning a wedding and sustaining a marriage. As Algeria’s Ambassador Boukadoum noted near the end of the session, everyone seems to be in favor of reform until they figure out what they are likely to lose (or have to pay for, or change) as reform commences.   Pakistan picked up this theme urging the SG to initiate thoughtful reform “that does not replicate the ills that it seeks to fix.”  The recognition that a push for reform does not, in itself, guarantee successful (or happily embraced) institutional outcomes was a sobering reminder for delegations. This led to one of the more noteworthy comments of the day, a request by Singapore’s Ambassador for a “framework of assurances” to help member states track reform progress but also to help ensure, as noted by the Ambassador of the Solomon Islands, that we all do everything that we are able in order to “get this reform right.”

On Friday, in another reform-minded session with SG Guterres, ECOSOC President Marie Chatardová noted that where matters of reform are concerned, “the devil is in the details, but also the opportunity.” As Amb. Chatardová knows well, the UN does not control many of the variables that can threaten successful management reforms and those changes that could well add to “the sum of happiness” far beyond Turtle Bay.  And many of the variables the UN does control, it controls only in part – such as the actions of major powers in the Security Council or the rates at which states honor funding commitments to urgent matters such as core UN functions and emergency provisions of assistance.

What this reform push does recognize is that this is a time of trial for the entire UN community.  Can we fix the ills that hinder us without replicating them or creating new problems out of the ashes of the old?  Can we assure states – but more importantly constituents – that reform is more than a concession to budget threats but is actually capable of increasing the general threshold of human well-being and building back what has become significantly compromised confidence in multilateral structures?

Like any marriage, UN reforms will be won or lost in the trenches – in the challenges of day-to-day communication, confidence-building measures, systemic trust and steady reassurances.  The SG on Thursday noted that Algeria had once offered haven to political refugees from his home country of Portugal.  He then shared the hope – jokingly we trust — that the current push for UN reform won’t end up with him scurrying to Algeria seeking a safe haven for himself!

But beyond the humor lies a somber recognition: if this community fails to embrace and sustain the changes that can preserve and enhance our collective service to the global community, more than the SG will eventually find their own professional security “up for grabs. “

Paper Chase: Ensuring the Dignity and Safety of Journalists, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Nov

Newspaper

There are very few people who are going to look into the mirror and say, ‘That person I see is a savage monster;’ instead, they make up some construction that justifies what they do. Noam Chomsky

We don’t go into journalism to be popular. It is our job to seek the truth and put constant pressure on our leaders until we get answers. Helen Thomas

People may expect too much of journalism. Not only do they expect it to be entertaining, they expect it to be true. Lewis H. Lapham

There were so many interesting things taking place at the UN this week that compelled our interest:

  • a strong effort in the General Assembly by Cuba to compel the US to finally and fully lift its economic, commercial and financial blockade of the island;
  • an all-too-rare briefing in the Security Council by the UN’s Refugee Chief Grandi during which he inquired with some frustration, “Are we unable to broker peace?” He reminded the Council that peace and security constitute the deepest longings of most refugees;
  • a spirited discussion in the General Assembly’s Third Committee featuring the president of the Human Rights Council, Guatemala’s Ambassador Maza Martelli, focused in part on the still-considerable divide separating UN human rights policy development in New York and Geneva;
  • a fine ending to France’s October Security Council presidency in the form of a full-member debate on our responsibilities to children in situations of armed conflict including this presidential statement;
  • a tense discussion in the General Assembly’s First Committee regarding the contents and implications of the recently-released, Joint Investigative Mechanism report on chemical weapons use in Syria.

But we as an office remain inescapably drawn to discussions and presentations on media, and we were particularly grateful for the side event on Thursday sponsored by Greece and UNESCO on the topic, “Ending Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.”

Part of this discussion was focused on implementing the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, with special attention given to the special health and safety risks of women journalists, especially those working in conflict-affected areas.   While women journalists make up a still-small percentage of total victims, their numbers in the profession are rising faster than their “welcome,” with many reporting threats based on their gender as well as their investigative work, and many accusing authorities from diverse parts of the world of continuing to “dismiss” what they (and many of the rest of us) believe are fully legitimate, personal security concerns.

What is always disconcertng to us during these discussions is how few attacks on journalists result in proper investigations let alone prosecutions.  UNESCO’s report World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development cites data supporting the discouraging conclusion that ”impunity has remained the predominant trend with few perpetrators of the killings brought to justice.”  As UNESCO’s La Rue put it during the UN side event, “every unpunished crime is an invitation to more.” The UN’s “Group of Friends” on the Safety of Journalists, including four current Security Council members among its 19 participating states, understands the urgency of breathing protection and honor into this increasingly dangerous and unduly tarnished profession.

But beyond the courage of the journalists who risk so much for the sake of their important investigations, especially in zones of conflict, there are many disturbing metrics regarding the health of the media sector as a whole and the implication of that declining health for promoting safety for journalists and ending impunity for violations against them.   As it turns out, where journalists are concerned, levels of honor and violence are more closely intertwined than we might otherwise wish to acknowledge.

It is no news to anyone reading this post that the media landscape continues to evolve in ways that are in part about shifting “markets” and in part about some other discouraging shifts regarding the people we’ve become and the societies we’ve created.  The days of “Extra, Extra, Read all About it” have long given way to a complex, subjective and often ideologically-constituted media landscape that contributes to current levels of social fragmentation more than ameliorates their disintegrative impacts.

We are passing through an an age that breeds media alternatives far faster than it encourages reflection on media roles and responsibilities; an age where cell phone cameras have turned so many into amateur “paparazzi” ready to exploit and humiliate every conceivable human foible and compromise what little remains of our personal privacy; where media “professionals” chase scandal for ratings and seem more interested in “taking people down” than in helping leaders  be effective in the jobs for which they have been entrusted; where more and more of those leaders, in turn, judge the “legitimacy” of journalists based on how much official “spin” they are eager to ingest.

It is also an age characterized by copious quantities of suspicion, even cynicism, about the potential of humans to co-exist in respectful tones.  Everyone, we are now led to believe, is simply “grinding an axe.”  All have an agenda, usually we suspect for personal gain and well beyond that which is immediately accessible.  In addition, everyone has “something to hide;” one or more juicy tidbits from past or present that could be valuable to others in their own desire to successfully “manipulate outcomes.”

We even now “use” select aspects of the media to keep us from having to face the challenges that we so badly need journalists to keep us informed about.   Indeed, it now seems highly plausible to be a major consumer of media and hardly ever have to confront a story or opinion that contradicts our values or biases.  And when media’s challenges somehow manage to break through all of the obstacles we have placed in front of them, appearing clearly enough in the mirror that is set before us, our tendency more and more is to smash the glass because we can’t cope with what we see.  We would rather have glass fragments on the floor than respond thoughtfully to an image that reflects a path to professional growth and character development, let alone to a healthier and more sustainable planet.

This is where “fake news” becomes such a toxic moniker.  What is “fake” is what does not tell me what I want to hear, what does not reflect my slanted, self-serving views of reality, what does not put me in the uncritical, positive light that I so “clearly” deserve.

I recall at the UN a couple of years ago an Ambassador from a European country commenting at a side event about how difficult it can be to read assessments from journalists indicating that he is not quite as policy savvy and virtuous as he would like to think.  But as a leader of state he also understood the value of broadly-educated, committed journalistic professionals who can shine a light on his successes and limitations, remind him of his previously stated commitments and promises, and explore the difficult choices of leadership that might better have been made differently.  Despite having things “pointed out” in public that he would have been happy to resolve (or not) privately, he understood and honored the value of this professional scrutiny to the health of his society, even if at times such scrutiny is obsessive, or one-sided, or bereft of its proper context.

And by the way, his country has one of the lowest rates of violence against journalists in the world.

In its aforementioned report, UNESCO highlights both the right to share information and opinion and the right to seek such for oneself.  These rights are important, of course, but are only part of the social contract in which professional journalists can continue to play an important role in informing democratic participation and inspiring better behavior in our leadership.   While most of us are busy “sharing” information and (especially) opinion through our personal devices, we have not outgrown the need for the expertise of professionally skilled journalists who can thoroughly investigate matters of public interest that have been deliberately hidden from view and then communicate the results with fairness and balance (and perhaps even a smidge of humility).

Journalists are not perfect in their craft, nor are any of the rest of us who seek to keep  leaders and institutions honest and point the way forward.  But journalists deserve honor and protection; indeed the first of these in some ways seems essential to achieving the second.  We urge the “Friends” group and other UN entities to continue to defend the dignity and safety of this now-maligned, but still-essential craft.

Study Hall:  Opening Policy to a Wider Range of Women’s Aspirations

29 Oct

Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less. Susan B. Anthony

Women, like men, should try to do the impossible. And when they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others. Amelia Earhart

There will never be a new world order until women are a part of it. Alice Paul

Under the leadership of France this past Friday, the Security Council debated once again the merits and deficiencies of its Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda (based on SCR 1325) now in its 17th year.  As in the past, the debate included more women’s perspectives than is normally the case around the oval, where the US is now the only reliable women’s voice to be heard at many Council meetings, albeit supplemented on occasion by female diplomats from Ethiopia, France and Sweden.

If our twitter feed is any indication, this debate gets at least as much attention from the UN policy community than any other.  In the presence of a large group of WPS advocates, one diplomat after another takes the floor to plead for attention to various aspects of this still-unattained agenda – from the persistence of gender-based violence employed as a tactic of war to the impediments still blocking pathways to participation by women in all aspects of political life (including media) and, more directly germane to SCR 1325, in all peace, mediation and conflict prevention processes.

Thematic Council discussions such as this one create different levels of obligation for UN member states.  Unlike country-specific crises that dominate much of the Council’s agenda, obligations under the rubric of Women, Peace and Security are equally binding on Council members themselves.   There is no “standing above the law” in these instances as the five Permanent Council members are as responsible for national implementation of “1325” as any other member state. There is no threat of veto to hide behind during this discussion, no implied perch of moral superiority from which to judge the behavior of other states.

No, we are all in this together, playing by the same rulebook, seeking a similar relief. And yet by many yardsticks that we respect, our rhetoric on “1325” over 17 years continues to exceed our progress.   Yes we have Security Council debates, UN Women and National Action Plans; yes we have seen women squeeze through some archaic professional barriers to find their rightful places in our hierarchies; yes we have seen women taking highly visible leadership at the UN on matters such as the sustainable development goals and on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons; yes we have raised the costs for sexual abuse by peacekeepers and other UN staff; yes we have exposed some habitually abusive men within and beyond our overly hormonal entertainment industry; yes women can drive a car (more or less) in Saudi Arabia.

All good as we know; and all insufficient as we also know.   As the quotations at the beginning of this post attest, women (and some men as well) have been immersed in the gender equality struggle for a long time.  Alarmingly, we are now in what appears to be a time of situational retrenchment, unwelcome movement which is being (intentionally or inadvertently) stoked in part by a defiant national leader accused of serial acts of abuse all of which have summarily (even publicly) been dismissed as  “lies.”

Global Action has had a longstanding though not entirely untroubled relationship with the WPS agenda.  We were an early voice for the full integration of women in disarmament affairs as well as in efforts to prevent, identify and prosecute atrocity crimes. Moreover, we have been a longstanding supporter of Women in International Security in its New York and West Coast (US) Chapters, a group which seeks to give voice to the growing number of women who offer security policy and protection to communities far beyond our elite policy centers.  An overwhelming percentage of Global Action’s staff, interns and fellows have been women. And we have openly mourned the abuse of women by peacekeepers and other “protective capacities” as well as called attention to what seems to us to be the willful disregard of remarkable resumes and experiences by more and more women whom we most pointedly need — not only in our leadership but in those many challenging interfaces where decisions by our political leaders simply miss-read their intended beneficiaries, in part because we don’t have enough skilled and compassionate people asking the right questions at local levels.

But as we have noted often, being a woman is not a skill set, but rather an opportunity to see the world differently and organize – also in a different voice —  our responses to structures and behaviors that offend, including of course the structures from which we benefit and the behaviors for which we are directly responsible.  Our relationship with this WPS work is “not untroubled,” in part because it still seems too much about us, our policy clichés and institutional reputations, our bureaucratic limitations and shortcomings of political will, our sometimes too-facile ascription of our own gendered dramas as somehow instructive for others.  We work at the UN in densely political space, a place where apologies and thoughtfulness are painfully rare, where so many believe they could achieve their own “stardom” if not for the malevolence or indifference of other (allegedly almost entirely male) rights deniers and their institutionalized coercions.

There is surely more to this WPS story than makes itself known in UN conference rooms. Earlier this week, I was privileged to see an exhibition of photography by Lu Nan, an artist of stunning vision and compassion for his artistic subjects.   Part of his mounted trilogy  was focused on “everyday life” on the Tibetan plateau.  The “stars” of his photographs were men and (primarily) women, families across generations who went about their many labors (including labors of love and care) with what Nan referred to as “unstudied poise.”

Lu Nan is not one given to sentimentalizing his subjects, but he has found a way to enter the worlds of people who have every reason to keep him at arm’s length, people like the wind-swept women of Tibet who somehow find ways for themselves and their communities to lead something approaching what Nan honored as “lives of peace and transcendence.”

I’m not given much to sentimentalizing either, but while looking at the weathered faces of these older women and their extended families, I wondered who was watching their backs?   Who was advocating for their meaningful participation in a wider social and political life?  Who was honoring them for guiding the horses pulling their plows, for planting and harvesting amidst the ceaseless plateau winds, for convincing their children and grandchildren (perhaps especially the girls) that the cycles governing their lives have things to teach others, that their “fate” is not principally in the hands of state authorities, nor of first-world bureaucrats and our clever resolutions.

While it may not be literally true in all settings and circumstances — as mentioned this week by Swedish Foreign Minister Wallström — that “more women means more peace,” it is surely the case that the “poise” of women in so many contexts and settings worldwide is considerable, integral to “lives of peace,” and still mostly “unstudied.”   While we fuss in places like New York with our ambitions and our status; while we do what we can to balance our leadership teams, address security threats from state and non-state actors, and end predatory practices by our erstwhile protectors; while we make passionate speeches at the UN in part to brandish our gendered bona fides and in part to cover up our gendered policy limitations; there is still so much for us to learn from others, still so much inspiration “out there” to help us become a better version of ourselves.

We don’t have as many answers here at the UN as we sometimes like to think. With this in mind, It isn’t at all clear to me that we are paying close enough attention to the wind-carved faces of the women behind the plow, the women who daily make the case for “peace and transcendence” to their extended families and communities.  We need to look again.