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Modeling Agency:  The Gift of a Father’s Inspiration, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Jun

My father would take me to the playground, and put me on mood swings. Jay London

I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdomUmberto Eco

Beauty is not who you are on the outside, it is the wisdom and time you gave away to save another struggling soul like youShannon Alder

I should no longer define myself as the son of a father who couldn’t or hasn’t or wouldn’t or wasn’t.  Cameron Conaway

A few weeks ago in this space, I posted an essay honoring mothers for their sometimes heart-wrenching task of accompaniment — helping children to overcome the challenges that we can no longer “fix” for them.   The images of refugee mothers dragging their children across hostile terrain, away from everything familiar but no longer safe, is a gut-clutching narrative that is repeated, in tone if not in substance, millions of times over in our fragmented world.

Fathers, of course, are hardly excluded from such painful and emotionally-draining experiences.  Indeed, two images in these past days have moved me beyond the dull ache that often results from long days in UN conference rooms.  The first is perhaps the more familiar:  a Honduran man who brought his child across the US border only to have them immediately separated by US agents. The man was subsequently taken to some sort of prison facility where he apparently hanged himself, taking with him we can only assume portions of shame and remorse for daring and then failing to seek a safer and perhaps even more prosperous environment for his family.

As angry as this story of separation made me, the other image was in some ways even more tragic.  A young Syrian boy awakens after surgery to discover that the landmine that prompted the surgery in the first place has left him dazed and confused, but also blind.  As he flails away in his makeshift bed, his father attempts to comfort that which might never be comforted, a boy who must now deal with the double trauma of injury and darkness, and the father who knows that, despite the destruction all around punctuated by the threat of more landmines, his son will now need more from him – and for a longer period — than he ever imagined.

The insights here for me are twofold and apply to most all parents and caregivers. The first is the extraordinary violence and indifference that characterizes our treatment of so many children in this world. How do we rationalize children forcibly separated from parents, having to play in a field with un-exploded landmines, recruited into armed insurgencies and brothels, forced to beg for provisions that might sustain their lives but won’t allow their brains – let alone their hearts – to grow?

And the second insight is the burdens that all of this places on caregivers – on fathers who take their protective and provider responsibilities seriously – parents and others who must bear to watch an often heartless world plunging their children into darkness and despair.  As many parents now recognize, we can stand sentry on the porches of our homes, but the storms that make more of our eyes suspicious and our souls frustrated are unlikely to be frightened away.  The wolves, it seems, have gained strength of wind and a more strategic predatory interest since they first appeared in our fables.

And our now-apparent propensity for short-term policy fixes is only likely to make our long term prognosis more alarming; that time, past our time, when our collective lack of vision and kindness that jeopardizes any sustainable peace will come home to roost.

I am not a father myself, and many of my closest father-friends know to take some of my reflections on fathering as worth only the smallest grain of salt.  But I think most would agree that if we want children of character, children who care about things other than themselves, children who have the courage and resilience both to face up to the threats from storms and rebuild better in their aftermath, then we have much that we now need to model for them.

The best fathers and others who accompany children known to me do this as a matter of course.  They eschew the “do as I say not as I do” method of child influence for lives that are transparent and accountable, lives that seek to demonstrate the perseverance, resourcefulness, kindness, duty and integrity that they would be pleased to see more of in the world, certainly more of in the children they raise and know.  These fathers and others inspire lives of sustainability and service by living lives of sustainability and service, lives of strength and resilience by adapting and persevering.  They know to fill an increasingly barren and distracted landscape, not with words but with active hands and a big heart.

If there was ever a time for us to reboot our responsibilities to the next generations, this just might be it.  As it turns out, the “little scraps of wisdom” that fathers impart are often the very scraps that get children out in the world rather than shrinking in the corner, that help them create circles of concern as large as their hearts can bear, that help them cash in their anxiety and suspicions for a curious, compassionate and confident engagement with life.

Today is the World Day to Combat Desertification, a day for me to reflect on both the reality and the metaphor of our creeping deserts; the lands that can no long support a harvest, the souls that can no longer sustain meaningful connection, sometimes not even to our closest of kin. In our climate-damaged world, we are losing more and more precious land by the day, thus sending more and more families on a perilous journey to find safe spaces for children, land that will yield its fruits and strangers willing to risk becoming neighbors.

At the end of our days, as those of us who dare to make policy for others will also discover, our children are unlikely to ask why we didn’t buy them the latest gadgets to distract them from life, but why we didn’t do more to fix what’s broken in our world and why we didn’t prepare them better to fix things once we’re gone?

For all the fathers out there who are prepared to fully and lovingly answer those questions, we are forever in your debt. Through your strength of character and willingness to model, you are doing your part to make the desert bloom again.

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STEM Cells:   The UN seeks an Elusive Balance on Human Innovation, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Jun

Medicine Bottle

If you are too careful, you are so occupied with being careful that you are sure to stumble over something. Gertrude Stein

A single decision can spawn a thousand others that were entirely unnecessary or it can bring peace to a thousand places we never knew existed. Craig Lounsbrough

Don’t sail out farther than you can row back.   Danish saying

This was an interesting week at the UN punctuated by important elections for the UN Security Council and for the president of the General Assembly.   The new Council members – Belgium, Dominican Republic, Germany, Indonesia and South Africa – will bring considerable policy savvy and expertise to the Council oval as well as well-crafted positions on how the Council can be reformed to more effectively serve the interest of the membership and more skilfully address peace and security challenges.

As for the incoming president of the General Assembly, we have high hopes for María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, currently Ecuador’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.  Our own twitter feed has been on overload all week as people reacted to the sound of a strong woman’s voice set to lead the UN’s most democratic chamber.  Ms. Espinosa Garcés, as has been noted often, is only the 4th woman to hold this post in the history of the UN.  But what excites us is the range and strength of her policy priorities – disarmament and indigenous rights, gender and environmental health, including ocean health.  She is well-positioned to continue the recent history of successful GA presidencies while keeping a watchful eye on challenges that now threaten a vibrant multilateralism.

In these and other policy matters, she has her work cut out for her.

Among the many policies elevated by the UN this week – from migration and criminal tribunals to counter-terror and the drive to end tuberculosis – the state of our environment took center stage. Of particular concern was the urgency of eliminating single use plastics that have created toxic islands larger than France in the middle of our oceans, endangering all marine life including (as noted in a side event) the birds that must rely on a now-plastic-infested and declining ocean bounty.

Former GA president Peter Thomson of Fiji is now heading the UN’s efforts on ocean policy and he held a series of meetings with diplomats and other stakeholders to promote a more urgent engagement with ocean health, including support for Law of the Sea treaty obligations and his own plans for a conference in 2020 to assess ocean-related progress.  Thomson, as per his reputation, did not mince words, noting that “we are losing the battle” on oceans, though at least now “we know we are losing” due to a series of dismal ocean indicators.  One can, he suggested, “plead indifference, but not ignorance” to the science that paints an uncertain future for human life as ocean life continues its own downward trajectory.

Later during one of his multiple engagements, Thomson suggested, much more hopefully, that we are all “ocean people” in this room, citing “snowballing commitments” to policies that can address an array of ocean related threats – desalination and depleted fish stocks, plastics pollution and commercial dumping – while we still have the opportunity to reverse conditions.

The question for us had something to do with ocean policy but more to do with the science which must direct such commitments, ensuring that remedial policy measures are correctly targeted, robust in their application, and sufficiently engaging of the widest range of global stakeholders.  As with other existential threats to our children’s future, we are long past the point where half-hearted, token gestures will reverse our current stable of “dismal indicators.”  For too long, we have ignored the scientific evidence of ocean decline.  But more than that, we have resisted the call to better understand the benefits and limitations of the scientific community. We have resisted allowing scientists to help create communities of learning in policy settings, in which global innovation and global ethics can combine to guarantee global health.

Ironically perhaps, as the state of ocean health was being debated in one UN conference room, the STI Forum (Science, Technology and Innovation) sponsored by the UN Economic and Social Council was taking place in another.  In the STI plenary meetings and side events, participants heard much about innovations that promise more accurate and comprehensive data to drive policy response on some of the crucial issues facing the planet.  Of particular note for us was the “integrated system” developed by the World Meteorological Association that seeks to ensure high-quality, real-time information on weather-related shifts and potential climate disasters necessary to accurate forecasting in a time of increasing climate volatility.

But much of what interested us at the STI is the interplay of those for whom technological innovation is now essential to our very being as a species and those who cast a wary eye at any innovation not attached to clear warning labels.  Indeed, the gap between these erstwhile “camps” seems to be widening a bit as more and more people place their bets on technology to solve global problems while others cringe at the increasing complexity of personal and institutional technology which is already running far apace of regulatory policies and structures of governance.  As a representative from Alibaba Group admitted, we are now “being split,” in part because we fail to recognize that all technological developments “are a two-edged sword,” a reassuring breeze in some instances, a tornado in others.

As someone probably more Luddite than acolyte, I have an innate sympathy with those with “stick up their noses” at the enticements of innovation that few actually seem to be asking for and that promise benefits as likely to increase inequalities as level them.   As Brazil urged this week, regarding this “4th Industrial Revolution,” we must “learn the lessons” from the 2nd and 3rd Industrial Revolutions.  Why are inequalities still so pervasive in this world?  In this “tech rich” (and tech-obsessed) age, how is it that so many people are still without toilets?  These are the questions that continue to preoccupy our office, even as our high regard for scientific inquiry remains unbroken.

There are important questions to ask regarding this seemingly widening gap, a gap in part driven by technological enthusiasm, in part driven by a neglect of growing global inequalities, in part driven by public disconnect from the science that can provide indicators of trouble at a moment when trouble can still be diverted.  With climate and ocean threats taking center stage, how do maintain the “culture” for scientific inquiry that keeps us creatively innovating but also mindfully regulating? How do we ensure that the regulation we endorse is robust and flexible enough to keep from “stumbling” over the next iterations of scientific advance?  And perhaps more relevant to the security policy community, how do we keep from running further and further behind the pace of technology for which “dual use” continues to communicate both the promise of progress and of existential threat?

On the table where I am writing sits a bottle of pills that I am “required” to take as part of my long-term recovery from my genetically-mandated heart surgery.  In many ways, these pills (and the complex surgery that preceded their use) represent a culminating moment in my personal interaction with science and technology, having been at least temporarily “cured” of a problem that apparently killed many of my ancestors, a cure that highlights the plight of many of my global contemporaries who, in this stunningly unequal world, do not have access to the high-tech, life-saving measures that I do.

This pill bottle, like many other of life’s affairs, comes attached to both a promise and a warning.   Take the pills as instructed and I am more likely to reap health benefits.  Take them otherwise and not only are the benefits threatened but other complications could ensue – including in this instance liver damage.  When medicines enter a complex organism such as the human body, it is essential  that we do our best to assess risk factors.  What can possibly go wrong here and how can we minimize adverse impacts?

The global community represents complexity on a scale that much more vast, and thus the responsibilities raised by our “ingestion” of technological innovation become more complex as well.  As the World Economic Forum’s Philbeck noted during the STI, we must “avoid language directed towards technology that either fears or romanticizes it.” Other speakers warned of the dangers of taking a passive stance towards technological innovation, noting that as science continues to move past conventional boundaries, we must ensure that any new resulting “tools” enhance sustainable development  rather than take us in another, less inclusive, less participatory direction.

As Philbeck also interjected, trust must be earned in the technological realm as in others, but trust must be grounded in our attentive awareness of potentials and pitfalls.  In an age where so many people are still denied access to the “fruits” of science and technology, where elites eagerly horde both the capacity and application of those “fruits,” and where regular folks increasingly demand the benefits of technology independent of any responsibility to assess its impacts and avert its addictions, we risk exacerbating a crisis of our own making.   We may, indeed, have already sailed further and faster on these technological “waters” than is in our best collective interest.

This is not the time for timidity or the excess caution that might cause us to stumble, to be sure, but it might be wise to slow down the pace of our sailing a bit and recalibrate our distance from the shore.

 

 

 

 

Youth and the Limits of Inspiration, Soren Hixon

7 Jun

Editor’s Note: Soren recently completed an internship with Global Action and shared with us this reflection (lightly edited) on some of the frustration he (and others passing through our office) have experienced in their interaction with youth-focused events at the UN.   Like many of his peers, Soren is a serious young person seeking to participate in serious policy discussions.

On May 30, the UN held an event to discuss the importance of youth involvement and empowerment. The meeting had great potential to be a driving force for youth-oriented policymaking worldwide, but some of the potential was squandered due to how the event organizers chose to run it.

The meeting opened with a statement that gave me great hope that the next few hours would be a whirlwind of discussion on better policies and laws concerning globally accessible education that meets predetermined standards of quality as well as ensuring availability of jobs that build off of skills taught in school.

But the meeting veered away from policymaking as Pita Taufatofua took the stage. He spoke passionately about his work with youth in Australia and shared some inspirational words about “becoming your own superhero.” Any talk of policies and reform was absent from his speech. The next speaker to take the stage was a young singer from Iraq named Emmanuel Kenny who had been orphaned and eventually sung his way to the X-Factor, becoming a YouTube celebrity along the way. He sang inspirational songs and spoke about his journey from “zero to hero.”

While these two speakers were both uniquely passionate and inspirational, the fact that they were chosen to be the focus of this youth dialogue highlights a problem with the mindset of the United Nations when it comes to engaging youth. The belief that applying inspiration like a Band-Aid to a gaping wound believing it will resolve the issues facing young people is a bit short-sided. It does not matter how inspired today’s youth might be if policies are not in place to allow youth together with their elders to modify their circumstances positively. Youth cannot do it on their own. They need the assistance of policy leaders who realize what a severe problem the lack of education is and then do what is needed (with the participation of youth) to rectify the problem sustainably and permanently.

This meeting was an opportunity to present a convergence of minds and power with potent ideas and strategies for policies to resolve global issues impacting youth. Instead it was largely wasted by providing youth only with what seemed like misplaced and superfluous inspiration. The problems facing youth will only continue to escalate as the population mounts. The number of young people is going up, not down. Next time the UN has the chance to hold meeting like this, hopefully, they will make it less about inspiration and more about policy change.

Service Contract:  Sharing the Burdens of a World At Odds, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Jun

Service

You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. Martin Luther King Jr.

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.  Rabindranath Tagore

One of the most important things you can do on this earth is to let people know they are not alone. Shannon Alder

I’m starting to think this world is just a place for us to learn that we need each other more than we want to admit. Richelle Goodrich

The UN had its moments of schizophrenia this week:  An historic decision to approve by consensus the Secretary-General’s proposal for reform of the UN Development System occurred on the same day that the chairs of the UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies held a rare and important discussion on the crucial role of these treaties in fulfilling our sustainable development goals, a discusson that few bothered to attend.   The Security Council, due in part to a US veto, fumbled away an effort by Kuwait to ensure a measure of international protection for Palestinians enduring deprivation and violence –especially in the Gaza strip– on the same day that the UN highly honored peacekeepers who sacrificed their lives attempting to stabilize and offer protection in what have become increasingly volatile and unpredictable conflict zones.

This particular honoring of fallen peacekeepers through the Hammarskjöld Medal Award Ceremony had special significance, both because of this being the 70th anniversary of UN peacekeeping and because the list of casualties to which we all properly call attention seems to be growing longer each and every year.  From Tanzania and Pakistan to Ethiopia and Morocco, troops volunteer to be placed in harm’s way to stabilize and protect only to find themselves on the receiving end of a bullet or explosive device.  As is well known, Mali (MINUSMA) has been a place of particular vulnerability for peacekeepers.  As explained by USG Lacroix during the honoring ceremony, MINUSMA forces directly experience one violent incident on the average of every five days.  These forces, much like their counterparts in places like the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo, are not “keeping peace” so much as buying time for political agreements to be reached and take full effect, for armed elements to lay down their weapons and for national governments to assume not only control but also responsibility for the well-being of their citizens.

This is not the time or place to review in any detail the current status of peacekeeping operations, including ways in which such operations must be more tightly bound to “good faith” political dialogue, as well as the degree to which “protection” measures run the risk of appearing to be a “partisan” rather than a neutral activity, “taking the side” of the state or a particular party to the conflict.  There are also issues regarding troop reimbursements and equipment procurements that continue to plague at least some of these operations. But what is more important in this space (without assuming motives) is the remarkable sacrifice, the decisions that some make to place themselves in situations where they can remind the desperate and victimized that they are not alone, who choose the service of peace in settings where there is little or no “peace to keep.”

The notion of sacrifice itself now seems “old school” to many, in part because we have allowed ourselves to be overly determined by “preferences,” personal to be sure but also professional.   There is a Subway sandwich commercial now playing over and over on the few television shows I have the time to watch, in which the words “I want” crop up endlessly in the jingle accompanying the imagery.  Far beyond the food industry, “wants” it seems are being reduced at an accelerated pace to the immediate objects of our desire, more about fulfilling a craving than defining a relationship let alone a purpose.

Moreover, it seems, we have become more and more disconnected from the people who have made these often difficult choices to serve and protect. We might take the time to “honor” those who fight our fires, drive our emergency vehicles, report on dangerous conflicts and human rights abuses, or keep erstwhile “enemies” at bay, but we generally have little interest in the practical details of their lives, what it takes for men and women — often inspired by those who love and support them—to choose to place themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others, including “others” choosing to pursue “what they want” with hardly a second thought.

Even in the small sessions this week with the UN Treaty Body chairs, people who have indeed made choices to serve and defend the rights of others, there was evidence of this tendency to petition the skills and authority of others without sharing their sometimes considerable burdens. Indeed, some of the few NGOs who attended the Treaty Body meetings this week got a bit of blowback from the chairs, one of whom remarked a bit tongue-in-cheek that every time NGOs share their thoughts “we end up with more work to do.” The human rights pillar of the UN’s mission continues to buckle, in part because a lot of genuinely good and talented people have yet to fully master our “sharing of service” burdens, the requirement to participate more directly in the challenging and at times even dangerous activities undertaken “in our name.”

Over and over during the Hammarskjöld honoring ceremony, attention was given to the urgent need to increase peacekeeper safety including highlighting all that DPKO is proposing to better ensure that troops and other personnel sent to the field are returned intact to their families and communities.  Appropriate equipment would help.  Flexible command authority in the field would as well.   And certainly the Security Council can do more to ensure that peacekeeping mandates are clear, attainable and tied to both viable political negotiations and timely exit strategies.

But there is more to examine here, the culture behind the logistics.  We have written often (as have others) about the UN’s general propensity for being “slow on the uptake,” in terms of its attentiveness to potential conflict situations.  For instance, we and colleagues have been calling attention for some time to the still-ignored dangers of a wider conflict in Cameroon, but also to the cultural issues that prevent situations like this one from receiving UN attention at a stage when conflict is most likely to be contained.

Some of this problem will hopefully be resolved as the SG’s reform proposals for the UN’s peace and security pillar are rolled out.  But some is related to the institutionalized resistance of the UN system to invest in domestic security concerns until they have clearly reached a boiling point.  In this instance, the creeping tensions within states like Cameroon can be likened to someone with a smoking addiction.  Smokers might be told over and over by doctors, friends and others to quit their habit, but refuse the advice until the first cancer screens come back positive, at which point they frantically seek assistance from the very persons whose advice they originally scorned.

This pattern, one which has permitted so much pain and grief in the wider world, must give way to a system characterized by greater levels of institutional trust, better early warning and conflict prevention skills, and a greater commitment to the service which is indeed at the heart of the joy and meaning of life, helping to ensure that smokers can lay down their cigarettes before they need to consult an oncologist.

One of the most “liked” lines on our twitter feed this week came courtesy of the Department of Field Support which reminded the Hammarskjöld Ceremony audience that “the best way to honor the memories of fallen peacekeepers is to renew the commitment to peace that motivated their sacrifices.”  But beyond that, we should consider expanding our commitment to the service of others, service that the times now calls for and on which our own lives depend, service that can make available the skills and “grace” needed to build the sustainable peace that many millions worldwide now long for.

State Fair:  The UN Tries to Take another Bite out of Corruption, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 May

Srebrenica

The future which we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people’s children. Marian Wright Edelman

He did not care for the lying at first. He hated it. Then later he had come to like it. It was part of being an insider but it was a very corrupting business.   Ernest Hemingway

When honor and the Law no longer stand on the same side of the line, how do we choose? Anne Bishop

Global betterment is a mental process, not one that requires huge sums of money or a high level of authority. Change has to be psychological.  Suzy Kassem

I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.   Mahatma Gandhi

This past Wednesday, the UN General Assembly payed tribute to the 15th anniversary of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, a seminal moment in the multi-faceted history of UN efforts to provide pragmatic and regulatory  coherence in global efforts to address crimes from state bribery to terror financing.  This Convention has many facets, some of the most important of which have clear implications for peace and security as well as for our sustainable development priorities, including the recovery of diverted assets, enhancing the fairness and transparency of national judiciaries, and eliminating economic crimes such as identity theft.

Wednesday’s high-level event brought together senior UN officials and minister-level representatives from several  states who shared insights on their own anti-corruption efforts which (they hoped) would inspire other states to both learn from successful national practices elsewhere but also to commit more deeply to coordinated efforts within the broader UN system to stay one step ahead of (or at least better than one step behind) the evolution of contemporary criminal activity — what has become an evil cousin of our otherwise extraordinary ability to manipulate the external world.

If nothing else, our species continues to demonstrate the maxim that if not always wise, we are most certainly clever, an attribute that seems to be in our DNA and that allows the more malevolent among us to run one step (and sometimes many) ahead of our global regulatory capacity. As with weapons development and climate impacts, we often seem often to be running breathlessly in an effort to “catch up” to the latest iteration of criminality:  cyber-crime and off-shore financial shelters; “dark web” trafficking networks and clandestine markets for cultural artifacts pilfered by terrorists.   This race is made more challenging — and perhaps even more urgent — by the fact that enforcement agencies have an important obligation to “play by the rules,” to respect the human rights of persons some of whom have turned the exploitation of human greed and our other physical and character vulnerabilities into an art form.

Many of these challenges (and successes) were on display during the main Wednesday event as well as in a couple of excellent side events including one on “wildlife trafficking” sponsored by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and states including Germany and Gabon.  For instance, a judge from Italy took the floor to cite what he feels are “profound” and positive changes within and beyond his country  due to its participation in the Convention, including transparency in public procurement, protection of “whistle-blowers” and what he deemed “better asset recovery measures.”  On the other side of the ledger, Uganda lamented that the power of money to motivate law enforcement and other officials “to turn a blind eye” to bribery, trafficking and other corrupt practices seems to be holding its own.  And yet there was virtual unanimity regarding claims by UNODC of the degree to which eliminating corruption positively impacts virtually all development and peace and security responsibilities. These include our ability to create and enforce fair and transparent tax codes as well as to regulate access to natural resources and other public goods in ways that preserve and enhance the ability of states to preserve domestic revenue for domestic needs.

As a representative from the Mexican government claimed this week, if we truly wish to honor these responsibilities, our “only option” as an international community is to cultivate more engaged citizens and more transparent and honest governance.  In implementing this “option” it is important to examine a few assumptions.   When many of us think about corruption, we have images from popular media in our heads:  secret payoffs to law enforcement, blatant manipulations of our court systems, corporate bribes to heads of state, the “laundering” of formerly public assets and the creation of safe havens for those ill-begotten gains.  It is about the power of money and might to divert us from any semblance of fairness, a principle which has largely fallen on hard times, but one which still has currency in our modern culture, especially by those who face discrimination or whose well-being has been undermined by select “dirty dealing” from corporate interests, from officials of governments large and small, even from schools and cultural institutions.

Beyond our video screens, it is apparent that corruption is not only a problem for states and the financial vultures that circle around them, but also for our local cultures and communities.  The damage to our societies – and now perhaps even to our planet – though the diversion of public assets to private interests, but also through our inability to rigorously apply principles of fairness in our public policies, is of course most dangerous when the offending party is a state agency or multinational corporate interest.

But there is also a fear, and not unfounded, that too many state officials are both enabling and benefiting from societies full of persons and institutions that also don’t or won’t commit to “play it straight.”  We have collectively become too comfortable with the smaller and seemingly  less consequential ways in which we cheat others, manipulate the truth, and even elevate the competitive advantages associated with our narrow self-interests.  We rightly lament those who use money and power to “cut the line” with impunity, but such lament is often two parts jealousy to one part indignation as we are less concerned about ending the practice of “line cutting”  and more about the strategies we must pursue to ensure our own place at the front of the queue. We must not deceive ourselves here: corruption at local levels is an equal opportunity corroder of our collaborative potential.  And much like Smokey Bear urges about forest fires in the US, “only we” can prevent our further collective slide into an abyss where we expect too little of our leadership and much too little of ourselves as well.

During the wildlife trafficking event on Wednesday, UNODC noted somberly that “we won’t get a second chance” to eliminate wildlife crimes, a warning made more poignant by recent stories of human-exacerbated extinctions that reach far beyond the species targeted by poachers.   But in some sense we might not get a second chance on any corruption-related matters.  If we are to make the best of the chance we still have, we will all need to play our part – as attentive critics of state practices, but also of our own local cultures of corruption. The “engagement” of citizens on corruption to which Mexico rightly pointed this week is partially about the ways we insist that officials in national capitals and multilateral institutions like the UN “play it straight,” and partially about how “straight” the rest of us are willing to play as well.

This weekend in the US is a time to reflect on those who lost their lives in wars of greater and lesser legitimacy.  However one assesses such conflicts and the damage they caused (or prevented), and despite the diverse motivates that drove people to “don the uniform,” we can presume that my relatives and the many others whose often obscure graves mark their sacrifices did not perish so that honor and law could go their separate ways, so that corrupt officials could line their own pockets, so that others could “cut the line” of their surviving family members, or so that the best of our minds and characters could be trampled on by the “dirty feet” of others.

 

Animal Planet:  The Rule of Law and the Recovery of What Makes us Human, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 May

Orangutang

People often claim to hunger for truth, but seldom like the taste when it’s served up. George Martin

The technical revolution has turned us into a virus consuming all living organisms. Edward Burtynsky.

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

We have a problem when the same people who make the law get to decide whether or not they themselves have broken it. Michelle Templet

When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them. Hilary Mantel

There were so many highlights (and lowlights) in our policy centers this week, actions that fed the soul competing with others that reminded us (or should have anyway) that we are not quite as clever or virtuous as we might otherwise be tempted to believe.

One lowlight for me was a statement by the US president (doubled down by his press secretary) referring to some illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes as “animals.”

This is a toxic formulation that was common in the blue collar households of my childhood.  “Animals” constituted a label that could be placed on anyone who behaved in a manner inconsistent with what “we” believed was right and appropriate.  “We” after all were the guardians of the good, the ones on whom had been bestowed special divine favor, the ones whose “civility” was under assault from hordes of uncouth, ill-mannered, lazy “others.”  “We” generally lacked the wherewithal to remove such people from our midst; so we regularly, it seemed at the time, removed ourselves from theirs.

We are living in a time when such demons that had been allegedly bottled up for years have now made a stark reappearance; indeed many have been shocked to discover that the tops on those bottles had not been screwed nearly as tight as we had imagined.   Some of us have openly scrutinized the limitations of the “polite culture” of which we have long been suspicious, only to discover that our recovering “honesty” is too-often leading, not to opportunities for intimacy, innovation and personal growth, but to occasions for brutality, selfishness and distrust.   What we have released from these bottles is more venom than virtue, more condemnation than compromise.

The irony of this otherwise cruel and debased “animal” characterization is that, to some degree or other, it applies to all of us.   We all seem to participate, one way or another, in predispositions to predation and self-interest.  We often crave predictability, comfort and attention. We tend to feel threats even when no threats are imminent, and ignore most of the challenges threatening to blow our metaphorical houses to the ground.  We often cave in to yearnings and addictions.  We see what we want to see or, more and more, what we have been externally manipulated to see.

And yet there are times when being an “animal” would probably elevate our collective practice.  Animals after all don’t kill for pleasure.   Animals don’t systematically destroy the habitats on which they depend.   Animals don’t enable the extinction of other species that form the food chain that ensures their own survival.  Animals don’t diminish the savvy or “intelligence” of the life forms with which they share an ecosystem.

As we know, much of the history of philosophy and religion in both “west” and “east” has struggled with the “human” dimensions of human nature.  Are we merely animals with larger brains and the appetites to match, or is there something different about us, something that we should cherish and practice more, something that gives us hope that we can stifly our violent proclivities and avoid the extinction that we have so callously set in motion elsewhere on our fragile planet?

This is no time to rehearse this struggle (though I would be happy to do so with any of you off-Blog), but it is worth noting here the degree to which, in my own faith tradition at least, “sanctification” has impeded thoughtful practice.   My tradition has too often adjudicated our disjointed “nature” by alleging and emphasizing our divine entitlements.  Much like our claims for moms and dads, “God” apparently really does like us best, even when we bury the memory, reason and skill under a cloud of suspicion and acrimony.  Under this rubric, “God” apparently forgives of our behavior a priori, even when such behavior leads to gross injustices and abuses for which forgiveness is rarely sought.  “God” apparently exempts some from scrutiny by virtue of some cache of unearned blessing, a form of plenary indulgence that allows we so endowed to believe that the laws and norms that seek to regulate and even inspire the human community simply don’t apply to us, that our “exceptionalism” (a term not confined to the US) allows us to indulge ourselves what we vigorously refuse to others, to demand apologies from others as we too-often dodge the responsibility to acknowledge our own transgressions.

This “do as I say, not as I do” reflection of our erstwhile “providential” exemptions holds many consequences for UN practice.   After all, the UN functions most effectively when it provides consensus norms to guide and rationalize state conduct and when it upholds what many diplomats referred to this week in a Security Council debate on rule-of-law as our “rules-based order.”  Such an order, at and beyond face value, posits many positive implications for peace and security, even when that order is being willfully abrogated. Such implications include the following:

  • Helping to inspire collaborative and supportive activity among state and non-state actors in areas such as migration governance, ocean health, pandemics and counter-terror;
  • Helping to identify and address threats to the peace towards which the international community has a fully legitimate and compelling interest, such as the use of chemical weapons, the commission of mass atrocities or the destruction of a healthy climate;
  • Helping reassure states that all are playing by the same rules, addressing trust deficits caused by power imbalances, economic inequalities and discriminations of many varieties, while also ensuring (as Ireland did this week) that the rule-of-law is not subtly (or visibly) replaced with the considerably less attractive “rule-by-law”;
  • Helping restore confidence in all but the most cynical that we retain the human capacity to rise above narrow, partisan interests and predatory practices and affirm a world where respect, cooperation, thoughtfulness and generosity proliferate.

This is quite a “haul,” and all much needed.  But as this week’s discussions in various UN conference rooms made plain, we still have work to do to create a policy framework that can reinforce and utilize the best of our “human nature.”

There was much in the recent Council debate on rule of law –convened perhaps a bit ironically by Poland’s president Duda — that provided good insight, including Italy’s assertion that disregarding international norms is particularly dangerous in a world awash in weapons, South Africa’s reminder that the rule of law itself does not protect people but only its implementation, Mexico’s insistence that we reject the creeping notion of an “acceptable level” of civilian casualties, Greece’s assertion that “good neighborly relations” is a “common duty” of states, and Brazil’s concern to address the lack of conceptual clarity in international law that leads some states to conclude that armed violence and gross rights abuses can somehow be justified in practice.

Bu there were also reminders of how far we still must travel to create a reliable and robust system that is both trusted by and adhered to by many.  In this, at least two things come to mind, the first of which builds on the strong claim by Ethiopia and others that the Security Council has often “failed miserably” in its responsibility to uphold international law. This failure is due in part to the Council’s imbalanced and sometimes “politicized” application of its own responsibilities, especially in its levels of commitment to the implementation of its own resolutions.  But more than this is the failure of the permanent members to ascribe in practice to the principles of international law that they proscribe for others.  The “exceptionalism” that drives some national policy has its peculiar iteration within this Council in a manner which at times jeopardizes both its own credibility and respect for the Charter of which it is guarantor.

But there is another dimension to note in this context: This week I and others received an important post from the ever-thoughtful Paul Okumu of Kenya, who chided NGOs and others for obsessing on the low hanging fruit of how we use technology to do our organizational bidding while failing to see the mass consolidation of power now well underway within the realm of big data, what Kevin Plank has described as “the new oil.” Indeed, big data seems poised to replace capital as the latest essential medium of global power, a power that can, in the words of Toomas Hedrik Ilves, “deduce more about you than Big Brother ever could.”

For all of the benefits of the current data revolution, even given all the people who now register more faith in “code” than in their neighbors, it is sobering to think of the vast concentration of power that can accrue from turning people into digitalized caricatures of human beings, persons willfully accepting manipulation at the hands of those who know more about our material predispositions than we know ourselves.  In this realm as with others, we must insist that the rule of law be proactive as well as protective, helping us anticipate and then address threats such as this one which might otherwise simply overwhelm the remaining vestiges of our common humanity.

For me and our interns, one of the most moving moments of the week was when Bolivia took the floor in the context of the Security Council discussion on the shootings by Israeli forces at the Gaza fence, the meeting at which the now-infamous photo was taken of US Ambassador Haley walking out of the Council chamber as the Palestinian Ambassador began his remarks. Bolivia’s Ambassador didn’t walk out nor did he deem to lecture the Israelis or his Council colleagues.  Instead he sought forgiveness from the Palestinian people for the “humiliations and deprivations” they have experienced over so many years, noting that Monday’s “moment of silence” was for these victims, but equally in mourning for the “ineffectiveness” of the Council’s application of internatonal law.

We who have accepted the responsibilities of policy have much forgiveness to ask. We have failed to always adhere to the laws we promote.  We have failed to point clearly and forcefully to emerging challenges that directly compromise our children’s destiny. And we have largely failed to inspire a higher and more difficult calling in each other, one in keeping with a genuinely human striving to be better protectors, better stewards, better predictors of a common future that we simply must not let slip through our grasp.

We can do better.

Accompanied Minors: The Gift of a Mother’s Presence, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 May

Africa

Being a parent wasn’t just about bearing a child. It was about bearing witness to its life.  Jodi Picoult

The human heart was not designed to beat outside the human body and yet, each child represented just that – a parent’s heart bared, beating forever outside its chest.  Debra Ginsberg

It’s come at last, she thought, the time when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache.  Betty Smith

It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.  L.R. Knost

There is much discussion at the UN on a regular basis focused on the horrible circumstances that some children in this world must endure because of the foolishness of older people much like me.  How do we rationalize, inside and outside of policy communities, the fears and abuses that inflict deep scars on the young and that threaten to make in their adult years people more dependent on care – and less able to give it – than could ever be in our best interest?  What should our response be to children when sometimes cruel and heartless life challenges throw a wet blanket over their capacity to alleviate cruelty for others in their latter parts of their life cycle?

But even more common –perhaps less heartless–circumstances also bring pain and uncertainty for the young – the scraped knees, the verbal intimidations at school, the agony of unrequited desire, the moves away from happy homes to cramped and unfamiliar quarters due to declining economic circumstances.   And then there are the children for whom serious disease or accident threatens to snuff out at least some of the potential of lives that have just barely gotten off the ground.

Some of this might sound a bit like “first world problems,” but it also points to a common experience of so many mothers in this world – to kneel at the foot of the metaphorical cross, as it were, able to accompany the pain of a child’s crucifixion but unable to significantly impact its circumstances.  This accompaniment can be both a great gift and an extraordinary act of courage –easing the necessary and often difficult transitions through the mere grace of presence.

We focus much attention – though probably not enough – on the physical pain and psychic disability that life’s conditions inflict on too many children.  But what of the ones who have committed to bear witness to those lives?  What of the mothers who must engage the eyes of children seeking relief from fear and pain that is beyond their singular capacity to deliver?   Indeed, what of the mothers who can do little but watch in sorrow as the world turns their babies into soldiers, or victims of abuse, or hustlers on unpredictable and even unforgiving streets?

These are the sorts of things I think about when sitting in meetings such as last week’s Security Council Arria Formula discussion intended to review policy progress on ending abuses against children in African states, including and especially their vulnerability to recruitment into such “adult” activities as armed conflict.  Such progress is welcome, of course, as we have clearly not done enough to reassure and protect children from powerful, if metaphorical earthquakes followed by what seem to be for too many, a series of connected aftershocks – the bombing that leads to displacement, that leads to food insecurity, that leads to border hostility and even family separation.

Of course these seismic shifts impact more than just children themselves. What toll do they also take on those parents who seek truly to accompany the lives of these children, who have hopes for their children as we have for ours; who have dreams for their children that they will do well to meet only by fraction?  How do we better support those parents – those mothers – whose hearts have been laid bare through their deep connection with those whom they have born, hearts which are so often in grave danger of being broken in two by the endless shaking of their fragile world?

During the Arria Formula discussion on “action plans” to prevent violence against children, the Netherlands smartly noted the growing disregard for international law that creates the backdrop for so many child abuses, which they then rightly identified as threats to international peace and security.  In the same vein, Sweden (which has been a leading member of the Security Council in calling attention to children’s issues) reminded other members that progress on children’s well-being now will significantly enhance our longer-term efforts to sustain the peace.

Fortunately, as Chad and a few other states noted, we have in fact made some progress on ending child recruitment into the “service” of armed violence, freeing more children from such “service” in both government and non-government forces.  We are also doing a better job at disarming children and reintegrating them into society, providing them with educational and psychological opportunities necessary to growth and healing.  This is all good and hopeful, and many parts of the UN system, including UNICEF, the office for Children and Armed Conflict, and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, should rightly take a bow.

But the circumstances that cause children to plead for comfort and relief from their parents – their mothers – can run far deeper than recruitment.

The accompaniment chosen by so many mothers; a consistent presence through the various stages of child dependency and continuing past the time that we can still deliver those we love from life’s heartaches; this is the special gift and responsibility that we honor on this day.   A commitment by the rest of us to alleviate the miseries of children who must one day assume leadership for our threatened planet is essential for children themselves, but also for those parents– those mothers– who too often are left to suffer in silence the burdens that accrue from a fully exposed heart beholding the pain and longing of children that at times must simply seem too difficult to bear.

More than flowers and cards, more than running a load of laundry and emptying the sink of dishes, many mothers could use a hand – including by all who try to make good policy at places like the United Nations– to do more to calm the tremors that create so much fear and anxiety for so many children, quakes to which those who accompany their journey are compelled to respond but for which there is often no effective or satisfying answer. Today is a good time for all of us to pledge to make a world better fit for children, but especially to honor the mothers who skilfully accompany their young – in all of their joy, pain and anxiety — until that elusive calm is reached.