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Weather Vane: Gauging Directions of Multilateral Threat, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Sep

Weather

Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.  Benjamin Franklin

We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice; we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dislike in yourself what you dislike in others. Hazrat Ali Ibn Abu-Talib

When culture is based on a dominator model, not only will it be violent but it will frame all relationships as power strugglesbell hooks

This has been a tough week for many.  As storms in the Atlantic and Pacific lined up like aircraft at an international airport, two of them created a special havoc – one in the Carolinas and another in the Philippines, two of the seemingly growing number of places in the world frequented by storms that, over and over, undermine lives and livelihoods.

Though my own inconveniences are minimal, I like others have friends and family in these stormy places.  I have also done work in those places and helped others do their own.  In many of these communities, a lifetime of struggle to raise families and improve living conditions has been drowned and battered yet again by forces that humanity as a whole has done plenty to unleash but to which these residents, themselves, have contributed little.  For them, displacement might become their storm-driven outcome.

The uneven misery from these climate events was underscored by a local reporter covering what is now only the first wave of Florence’s impacts on the Carolinas.

In most disasters, the poor suffer disproportionately, and it is no different here. The neighborhoods struggling to rebuild after Matthew are the same neighborhoods most at risk to flood again. Haggins was barely getting by back then, crashing with friends. After the water receded, she tried to go collect the little she owned from her friends’ houses, but they’d all flooded and everything she had in the world was gone.

Most of us — even those of us who should know better — have a hard time grasping the concept of “everything gone,” indeed often have a hard time grasping the degree to which those bearing the brunt of horrific storms this week were barely “making it” while the sun was still shining and the breezes were gentle.  There is little justice where climate shocks are concerned, no court to hold the likes of Florence and Mangkhut accountable.  There is mostly just a bevy of folks trying to save what’s left amidst the sobering outlook of more storms revving up their deadly engines and blowing away any reasonable prospects for recovery.

But while we can’t hold these storms and their climate incubators responsible, there are mechanisms of justice  (however imperfect they might be at present) that promise some hope for persons victimized by neighbors, insurgents and governments — humans whose collective predation seems recently to have exceeded in intensity and intentionality anything that we have yet witnessed elsewhere in the animal kingdom.  Inside the UN, there has been a steady recognition that impunity for the most serious crimes represents a stain on our collective system of justice; that the failure to hold individuals and states accountable for their crimes – committed against many of the same people victimized by climate shocks – is a glaring mark against the rule of law that undermines what remains of our robust multilateral system of governance.

To its credit, the UN recognizes the danger and is doing its part to build or restore competent, impartial justice systems and create special criminal tribunals from Haiti to Central African Republic, partially in keeping with the general belief that such justice competence is essential for building a world consistent with the our 2030 Development Agenda aspiratons.   The UN has also pushed for accountability on chemical weapons use in Syria through the General Assembly; has created a “residual mechanism” to handle pending cases from the criminal tribunals established for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia; and has (largely through the Security Council) worked to ensure that the use of coercive sanctions is more carefully targeted to punish perpetrators without endangering civilians. The UN and many member states have also continued to vocally support the International Criminal Court despite challenges (including some testy moments with the ICC Prosecutor) from some permanent members of a Security Council which issues ICC referrals and (ostensibly) ensures that states cooperate with the Court’s investigations and warrants.

Unfortunately, we are now in danger of turning our current political “climate” of ethno-centrism, border defensiveness and general suspicion into an art form, leading to a host of double standards – including at the UN – regarding divergent levels of accountability for actions undertaken by powerful states relative to “lesser” countries that simply find it hard to protect themselves from large-state whims.  As evidenced by this week’s tirade by John Bolton, the US is fully committed to joining the ranks of prominent states seemingly “doubling down” on advocacy for an international “justice system” predicated less on the rule of law and more on narrow perceptions of national interest.

Efforts by the International Criminal Court to level the accountability playing field has incurred the wrath of some of the more powerful governments seeking to justify and preserve that age-old entitlement utilized in a somewhat different form by parents content to push their children into a lifetime of therapy – “we do what we want, you do what we say.”

Through dedicated efforts from states (including current and soon-to-be Council members) and civil society organizations, the ICC has in fact improved its investigative and prosecutorial procedures while expanding its focus into the realms of conflict-based sexual violence and, most recently, the crime of aggression.  It has successfully prosecuted criminals such as in the recent (albeit controversial and expensive) case of the DRC’s Bemba Gombo, and has recently accepted jurisdiction on matters related to the forced deportation of Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh.  It’s Trust Fund for Victims has reinforced on the international agenda (despite current funding limitations) the need to ensure reparations and psycho-social support for those victimized by the atrocity crimes that are still much too pervasive in our world.

The ICC’s limitations and growth edges are widely known, and include the aforementioned limitations of state and Security Council cooperation and the Court’s inability to gain traction on crimes committed by the world’s major powers.  That said, it must be noted that the ICC is intended to be a “court of last resort,” to be invoked only in situations where domestic courts are unable or unwilling to prosecute war criminals and other purveyors of mass atrocities.  If John Bolton, for instance, were more interested in ensuring that the conduct of US military operations was in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights law, the alleged jurisdictional threats and related “power struggles” involving the ICC would be quite less alarming.

Nevertheless, these attacks on the ICC remain dangerous at multiple levels. They undermine confidence in international law, especially on the part of victims whose avenues for redress are already far-too-limited.  They undermine confidence in international peace and security still the province of largely unaccountable state powers.  And they undermine confidence in the international system that now seeks to build commitments to action on a wide range of fronts – and specifically to address the climate threats which have this week turned fertile areas of the Carolinas and the Philippines into unusable swaths of water and mud, motivating many to consider abandoning communities that had nurtured their families for many years.

It has been a theme of this space for some time, but it bears repeating here.  We are responsible not only for what we propose, but for what our proposals enable for others, the consequences that ensue when others “take up our cues” and apply them in other contexts.   This week’s ICC-focused “cue” from Bolton is one that the causes of international justice and multilateral effectiveness on climate and other global threats could well have done without.

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Sorry Day:  The Security Council’s Misplaced Vision, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Sep

This Way

No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from.   George Eliot

You have the power today to reset your boundaries, restore your image, start fresh with renewed values and rebuild what has happened to you in the past.  Shannon Alder

And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment.  Herman Melville

The question is not, are we sorry? The question is, what lesson have we learned? The question is what are we going to do now that we are sorry?  J.M. Coetzee

Like many others, this past week pulled the UN in diverse directions.  An important inter-governmental conference to protect Marine Biological Diversity and a mood-altering celebration of “staff day” was offset for us by some controversies over NGO access during a busy September and a couple of Security Council sessions which underscored divisions both political and normative.

The US has taken over the presidency of the Security Council for September and thus will be in the chair during the soon-to-open 73rd session of the UN General Assembly, a time when heads of state and their ministries fill the UN building beyond capacity.   US Ambassador Haley, who has made her reputation as someone willing to speak her mind — even when that mind at times deviates from her political superiors – as well as someone who is often dismissive (and least in formal settings) of contrary points of view, is handling the presidency deftly to date.

But deft leadership is surely not sufficient in these perilous times, not for the US delegation nor for the others who, given the Council’s “provisional” acceptance of seemingly endless, largely repetitive statements in “national capacity,” fail to address the need for a larger, more reassuring narrative on peace and security.  “Where is this going,” is a concern uttered by our interns at various points, young people who appreciate their access to the space where the Council muses over its puzzle pieces but who also wonder what the end game is, what the puzzle would look like if all the pieces were finally made to fit?

As many of you know, the current Monthly Programme for the Security Council was issued late due to a controversy over including Nicaragua on the agenda in accordance with US wishes.  The issue here was not whether images of unrest in Nicaragua warranted the attention of the international community, but whether or not such unrest has risen to the level of a threat to international peace and security, thus demanding Council attention?  On this there was serious disagreement among members, in part because there is no clear guiding definition for such a threat level, and certainly no definition that presumes to encapsulate transgressions committed by the permanent Council members themselves.   Why are Kosovo, Guinea-Bissau and Liberia still matters of recent Council attention when events in Nicaragua and Cameroon struggle for recognition and Yemen needed to be shoved on to the agenda after a long and bloody wait?   And why do Council members, especially the permanent ones, continue to soft-pedal their own violations of Charter provisions while (often selectively) holding other UN members to theirs?  Why do they (and other states of course) continue to bend the arc of justice to suit national interests and then claim that they are simply upholding some version of the “rules-based international order?”

And in areas this week where the Council rightly recognized clear implications for international peace and security – the use of banned chemical agents as weapons and the fate of the already-displaced residents of Idlib, Syria who now anxiously watch the skies to see if they are to become the next to be sacrificed in the “war on terror” – the Council has threatened much but delivered only modestly.   We still have no ironclad method for ensuring compliance regarding the use of banned weapons.   We still have no method for ensuring that counter-terror measures are conducted in accordance with human rights standards.  We still have no method for ensuring that the erstwhile “guarantors of the international order” also abide by its prescriptions and limitations.

Indeed, as many others have noted, we have no way to ensure that those tasked with maintaining Charter values on peace and security are actually demonstrating a commitment to their fulfillment. For all the talk by most Security Council members (and rightly so) about the importance of ending impunity for international law violations, impunity still persists among Council members themselves.  For all of the diplomatic skill and at times good will around the Council oval, that body remains the most political and least-accountable space in the UN system and probably well beyond.  There remains this palpable sense that the Council continues to prioritize rearranging the furniture – albeit tastefully at times — while the house continues to leak from above and rot from below.

If the Council were to hold occasional discussions focused on fulfilling the vision of the 2030 Development Agenda, surely the broadest and most hopeful vision this system now embraces, members might be compelled to examine the ways in which inaction and mis-action on peace and security jeopardize the fulfillment of that Agenda as little else.  Unless we can stem the current propensities to violence in all its forms – from economic inequalities and gross rights abuses committed against civilians to out-of-control arms production and modernization – the odds are that no amount of corporate funding, big data or ocean-cleaning technology is going to rescue us.  Council effectiveness is critical to what has become the UN’s most comprehensive and inspirational vision, whether it wishes to acknowledge that in formal session or not.

In a few hours New York time, Rosh Hashana will begin, a time of repentance for our Jewish sisters and brothers with much to teach the rest of us. A good bit of the commentary I have read early this morning points to the great difficulty we have enacting what should be a regular element of work and personal life.   It is, indeed, hard for us to admit our wrongs, to grant those we have aggrieved the acknowledgment they deserve.  But it is especially difficult to move beyond the rhetoric of repentance to the practical matters of amendment, to use our mistakes as the text for a shift in our attitudes and priorities that is more sustainable than ceremonial.

Repentance in its best and most sustainable sense is partially about shifting our vision, but even more about shifting our course, about resetting our boundaries and priorities.  The person who seeks forgiveness but fails to adjust direction toward a more accountable and hopeful horizon, who fails to plot a viable “escape” from the lazy and hostile habits of the past, is more likely to find rejection than relief.  This is true of our institutions as much as our families and communities of faith.

Repentance, in the end, requires a larger vision of who we are, what we are capable of, and what we can become.   The 2030 Development Agenda – an agenda not imposed on states but painstakingly negotiated by them — provides evidence that the UN system understands both the momentousness of the times and our still-potent capacity to adjust our ways.   The Council simply must find a way to bring its sometimes petrified mandates and politicized policymaking into conformity with that vision, at least to understand their own pivotal role in making that vision achievable.

We don’t need sack cloth and ashes.   We don’t need wailing and gnashing of teeth.  What we need (as noted by the SG and others) is a clear, consistent and actionable understanding of the ways in which the impediments and inconsistencies in our peace and security architecture compromise larger commitments to a healthy and prosperous planet.   What is arguably still the single most important room in the world would do well to incorporate (not seek to control) the larger vision of the 2030 Development Agenda and the conflict prevention and resolution strategies that will give humanity the best chance of saving us from ourselves.

 

Chain Gang:  Tightening the Screws on our Global Labor Force, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Sep

The economics of industrialized countries would collapse if women didn’t do the work they do for free. Naomi Wolf

What you’ve got is a huge number of idle hands, a vast amount of work that ought to be done, and an economic system that is incapable of putting those two things together.  Noam Chomsky

Labor history was pornography of a sort in those days, and even more so in these days. In public schools and in the homes of nice people it was and remains pretty much taboo to tell tales of labor’s sufferings. Kurt Vonnegut

When capital has more freedom than people, serious democratic deficits are guaranteed.  Patrick Iber

This is Labor Day weekend in the US, a time when we “celebrate” workers by giving those who punch a clock for a living or provide “services” within our dangerously unbalanced economy a few hours of relief from their relative monotony and powerlessness.  For the UN community in New York, this might be another occasion to contemplate the many challenges that affect global labor, including new threats to remittances, the “unwelcome mats” laid out for more and more economic migrants, the physical and emotional abuses faced by domestic workers, and the employment crunch that could gravely impact this current, largest-ever generation of young people.

We have only begun to wake up to these and related challenges. Indeed, we are living through a time of vast and logistically-complex consumer options coupled with limited consumer regard for the sometimes cruel and unjust origins of the products we use, the toll inflicted on so many of the people who have little options other than to fuel our lifestyles.  Too many of us in the “developed” world have sanctified the relationship between our wallets and the objects of our desire.  Too many of us have given in to the notion that we are consumers first and foremost;  and we un-apologetically employ the tools of our privilege, including elite connections and educational institutions, to enhance our “competitive advantage” in the marketplace — thereby ensuring that the growing inequalities that marginalize many millions of working people worldwide won’t take a bite out of our own pre- and post-retirement options.

Like many others of my advancing age, I grew up in a family where people made a living by performing tasks such as climbing telephone poles and selling ball bearings once their military service had concluded. Our neighbors didn’t necessarily want to do those jobs themselves, but they wanted their phone lines to survive wind storms and they wanted the products they used around their homes to be functionally effective and dependable.   And, for better or worse, they knew at a personal level many of the people who were making those contributions.  They knew more than we generally know now about the skills and values of their neighbors, the ones they liked and the ones they didn’t.  Folks knew who to call when the milk deliveries were late or the sink was clogged.  There might have been a minimum of consumer “bling” in those times, but economic activity maintained a decidedly human face.

One of the reasons why the labor of my more immediate forebears maintained dimensions of dignity is the scale at which such labor was offered.   As most politics is local, to cite the cliché, most economics was “municipal.”   Even as large (and sometimes exploitative) corporate entities were consolidating and streamlining their authority, people could still work out their “service” problems and interests face to face.   Moreover, people could still bargain to maintain and even enhance their collective interests.  Most folks who I grew up with still found their corporate employers dependable and fair enough, partners more than “masters.” This was due in part to the ability of government at that time to facilitate discussions that often resulted in reasonable levels of both corporate profit and labor loyalty.  Such loyalty might not result in affluence, but it generally guaranteed that children could be clothed, fed and educated and maybe, just maybe, able to find a different destiny.  It wasn’t always pleasant, of course, but neither was it the relentless dead-end that characterizes so many of our modern employment options at many points on the production and consumption chain.

The municipal model had its limitations, many of which became apparent as people embraced consumerist identities that privileged standardization and predictability of the consumer experience.   Such “expectations” went hand in hand with an increasing number of top-down corporate regulations that communicated to workers that their only job is to enact company policy, not enrich or critique it.   And while enacting policy about which the “experiences” of workers were of less and less practical relevance, the stability and organizing power of labor was completely undercut. There was little protection to be found at local level once this assault was fully under way.

Indeed, as capital flees its corporate homelands in greater and greater amounts for new and often unregulated adventures, the ability of governments of all sizes to regulate flows and impacts, even in the largest economies, has long been compromised.  And in an age when corporate money fuels so much political opportunity, there seems to be less and less state interest – all rhetoric to the contrary  — in controlling and then balancing fiscal excesses.

And so we have this Labor Day which, in the US at least, takes on the character of a Columbus Day or even Memorial Day – ceremonies that few attend, reflection in short supply, a time that some can use to their advantage – for errands or leisure – largely on the backs of workers for whom even this holiday is often denied to them.  We who do so little for ourselves that doesn’t involve credit cards or phone apps, we are free to dismiss and ignore the many people who must work on this day so that we have to “endure” only a minimum of material inconvenience.  In cities like New York, as in much of the rest of the world, every day now is a day for labor, even if some of us have found a way to exempt ourselves from those demands.

This is no rant in support of “socialism,” a term that has lost its flavor as it has been reduced to one piece of a largely vapid argument about whether corporate board rooms or government agencies are most likely to operate in our collective best interest. Nor is this an advocacy piece for a return to a municipal economic framework that is unmindful of some of its own limitations, especially its oft-tepid embrace of cultural, religious or gendered diversity.   Moreover, given how distracted and even obsessed most of us are by our personal technology and enveloping video streams, it isn’t clear any longer that we are paying that much more attention to each other in smaller communities than in mega-cities.

But what is clear is that the burdens of our recent economic inheritance are rendering more and more of us ill-equipped either to care for the  material needs of our families or to participate in the large issues and decisions that affect family futures – the climate sickness that isn’t responding to our prescriptions; the out-of-control weapons production seemingly focused on the next school or hospital to bomb; the employment “opportunities” offered to most of this largest-generation-in-history that ask too little of our minds and souls, and pay even less; the rank competitiveness of the “educated classes” that seem to think that they have enough “earned” privilege to weather a gathering storm to which they mostly give furtive but uncommitted glances.

We have said this on many occasions and will say it on many more: that the growing inequalities which characterize New York and other centers of insufficiently restrained capital mobility are fueling anger and frustration, political cynicism and an increasing susceptibility to suspicion even of those in the next apartment or work cubicle.  As owners continue to own more, our reaction is more fealty than fight, hoping to grab enough of the crumbs dropping from the table that we can keep our own automobiles serviced and our cable bills paid – and that if we are fortunate enough to have such.

Here is news that shouldn’t be news at all: Even if we find the money and work out the data needed for our sustainable development (SDG) commitments, we will not fulfill our promises without the skills, participation and encouragement of many millions of people at local level.  Thus, we must find ways to involve more of the people whose hands are temporarily “idle” but also those who now tend our farms and green spaces, educate our children, provide our municipal services, drive our trucks and vans, and maintain our roads and bridges.  These are the workers – once at least locally respected and now just mostly taken for granted – who make the lives of the rest of us possible. If the SDGs are to succeed, we must focus more than normal of our practical and policy attention on those who haul away our trash, bag our groceries or make our daily cappuccinos.

Through the UN and especially the International Labor Organization, we have made some progress on labor-related issues such as the ethics of supply chains; on codifying and ensuring the rights of economic migrants; on identifying and addressing child labor, forced labor and other “chain gang”-like abuses; and on eliminating gender imbalances in pay and appointments.   But we have miles yet to travel, and the road seems to get rockier at every turn.

On this Labor Day weekend, let us please take at least a few moments to reflect on our unmet personal and policy responsibilities to the workers on whom we depend and whose plight in our overly scripted, technologically-dense, top-heavy economies is becoming more and more perilous.

Only the Lonely:  A Call to Revitalize Tactics and Connections, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Aug

(With gratitude once again to Goodreads which, week in and week out, provides me with both content and helpful leads to insightful quotations from thoughtful people.)

Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager.  Susan Sontag

Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.  Brene Brown

Whatever is rejected from the self appears in the world as an event. C. G. Jung

We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep. William James

This was another relatively slow week at the UN, punctuate by a Security Council review of counter-terror collaborations, a Working Group of the General Assembly devoted to preparations for the 2nd Global Ocean Assessment, and a two-day event focused on the work of the many non-governmental organizations (such as our own) that made their way to UN Headquarters this week in larger than usual numbers. And of course the tributes kept coming in for the late Kofi Annan as well as remembrances for the UN staff in Iraq killed in a 2003 truck bombing.

Both ocean health and counter-terror measures are regular “covers” for us, both with major peace and security implications and both with obligations (sufficient urgency of action on the one hand, sufficient regard for human rights protections on the other) that need scrutiny, including some of it from ourselves. But the NGO event, coupled with other conversations that we have had around UN Headquarters about the state of civil society in UN settings, make this a topic of significant, if not urgent concern.

The theme for this event, organized by the UN’s Department of Public Information, was Together Finding Global Solutions for Global Problems. Numerous side events complemented what were occasional bursts of insight and enthusiasm by plenary speakers, including UN officials. In addition to attending a bit of the plenary and a few side events (the ones on poverty reduction were of particular interest to us), we spent quite a bit of time in the UN cafes this week talking to folks we knew and listening to those we didn’t, taking in (albeit often at some distance) the mostly friendly banter and determined NGO sales pitches.

There was nothing wrong with the event, but also little new.  Many sessions seemed to be sparsely attended and yet still often cleaved to the UN format of choice – podium driven presentations that made some time for questions (and rants) from the audience, but little in the way of what we would characterize as genuine dialogue leading to commitments more likely to survive this event once the demands of home and office take over.

Amidst all the valid concern expressed this week for our sustainable development goals obligations – from smart cities and universal educational opportunity to poverty reduction and good governance – the one item that continues to cry out for sustained attention is related to our collective working methods.   We and others have spent much (hopefully productive) time exploring how our sector can adjust its methods and temperament to conform to a new generation of challenges, including the challenge of ensuring that the widest range of civil society voices – often more isolated than we might realize in their difficult and even “lonely” work –finds viable pathways to policy influence.

But beyond the voices is the need for attention to how we seek to make change in the first instance, how we utilize increasingly scarce assets and more formalized “work relationships” in an attempt to influence some admittedly weighty trends, from economic inequalities and declining oceans to rampant xenophobia and a new generation of weapons-related threats.

In our own investigations into some (for us) obvious limitations and deficiencies in our sector, we have relied heavily on others, including Lester Ruiz and Paul Okumu.  Both do their own important work in the world and, apropos to this discussion, both are generous in sharing a critical and inspirational eye with our communities of practice, posing hard questions to both our tactics and our character. Okumu has chimed in more recently in response to the quite-legitimate concern over the recent apprehension of South Sudanese activist Peter Biar, noting that his is merely a high-profile tip of the proverbial iceberg as activists, religious leaders, journalists and others face abuse and “legal” charges that are often anything but.

Okumu goes on to question whether our tactics of choice are actually relevant to the power dynamics that characterize the modern world – one characterized by massive, often unaccountable fiscal flows and states more and more willing to turn their backs on the normative arrangements which their own delegations have painstakingly negotiated. Is there evidence to suggest that what Okumu refers to as “our online campaigns or the mobilization of solidarity groups” is actually able to shift anything?  Is there any reason to believe that those of us who remain attentive to these global “arrangements” are able to provide anything more than familiar patterns of resistance?

The major political and economic powers that influence our multi-lateral institutions have, as Okumu suggests, largely stopped listening to us, largely stopped worrying about any power that we might once have had to reign in their excesses; in part because they don’t need to, and in part because they more or less know what we are going to say and how we will go about doing our “business.” They have come to understand that we are no threat to their ambitions and narratives; that we can scream about “what we’re doing” from the sidelines of conversations that are increasingly cut off from our scrutiny; that the gaps separating their seemingly-supportive rhetoric from effective civil society engagement are growing, not shrinking.

We are not their adversaries; indeed there are diplomats, civil servants and social investors here in New York who represent some of the kindest and most genuinely committed people I know anywhere in the world. But diplomats, secretariat officials and their growing array of high-end “partnerships” here in New York have to navigate their own limitations of bureaucracy, competition and authority, and thus we cannot in good faith accept the notion that they are the definers of our work, nor do we accept that our value lies solely in our willingness to promote what they have handed out for us to promote, as though only “cheerleaders” are now worthy of a place in this multi-lateral game, and not also the referees, analysts and commentators.

And yet the things we choose to promote must be defined by more than a habituated defiance, more than snarky retorts to diplomats, UN officials or “business leaders” who surely already recognize that they are sometimes misrepresenting the story that lies behind the text they are reading, misrepresenting somewhat through what they say but (mostly) through those things about which they have chosen to remain eerily silent.

Indeed, we have work to do here in filling out the unfinished sentences, in providing a fuller accounting of policy progress than those which are routinely authorized to be spoken in this place.  But as Okumu suggests we also need to fix our own working methods, to address the heavily-worn tactics that have too-little impact on journalists who still can’t escape unjust prison sentences, refugees still treated as political fodder rather than as sisters and brothers, sustainable development goals that are still too slow on the uptake, peace and security policies that still serve too many political interests and too few human ones. And, of course, there are the activists like Peter Biar who join with so many others in suffering beyond the reach of well-meaning responses that are often more appropriate to power structures gone-bye.

We sometimes damaged and lonely people who are drawn to this work for reasons known best to our mothers and therapists; we retain an obligation to ensure that this work makes more durable connections, takes more risks, sees beyond the horizons of our own limitations, commits to the eagerness born of attention, and takes the time to analyze what we, sometimes thoughtlessly, project into the world as a substitute for the healing with is our primary charge.

So long as we continue to occupy places of privilege and influence, no matter how modest they might seem to us, we have a clear responsibility to global constituencies beyond the words in our mission statements, beyond our tactical habits of choice and our often-shallow “networks” and “partners.” There is an attentiveness that is also required, a willingness to discern the times and align our tactics and energies with both our deepest values and the world’s deepest needs, to correct “the record” but also interrogate the ways in which our own invitation to healing is compromised both by the things we failed to correct in our societies, and by those things we are insufficiently “eager” to fix in ourselves.

Our values and tactics must be aligned in the world – the world that exists in real time and not simply in our institutional memories – such that injuries inflicted (including on ourselves) are “acknowledged, healed and rare.”

Construction Zone:  The SG Report’s Overlooked Obstacles and Inspirations, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Aug

Under Construction

The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but no vision. Helen Keller

Nothing is more imminent than the impossible . . . what we must always foresee is the unforeseen.  Victor Hugo

We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper. Isaac Bashevis Singer

The task of the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope. Leonora Carrington

If you need a reason to get involved in world politics, all you need to do is watch a playground of children.  Laurance Kitts

This has been one of the slower weeks at the UN in recent memory.  Aside from an excellent, first-time event to honor victims of terrorism, the highlight of the week was probably the release of the Report of the Secretary-General on the work of the Organization, the latest in an annual exercise that gives those who take time to read it a sense of how the UN system – seen almost exclusively through the lens of UN secretariat leadership – is adjusting its processes and priorities in an attempt to address the too-frequent, darkening clouds which daily permeate our news feeds.

The report promises a “frank and realistic” appraisal of UN and global challenges. As is the case with many prior SG reports, I would exercise caution in using such terms to describe this document.   As I will allude to below, such an appraisal would require the SG to talk less about his own “launchings” and more about the efforts of the complex system of which he is a part – including work already done to lay the groundwork for his own tenure; the many stakeholders inside and outside the UN system that create complementary and essential frameworks for change; even the unsung heroes “in the field” who help restore faith in the “work” of the UN.  That faith, we fear, is routinely compromised by several un-named factors, including the political maneuvering of powerful states and officials inside UN Headquarters, certainly within in the Security Council, maneuverings currently as likely to maintain the “stasis” of deadly conflicts (and their many implications for the other UN “pillars”) as to resolve them.

Indeed, these reports increasingly are neither particularly generous of spirit nor “frank” in terms of naming political, fiscal and institutional impediments to achieving the “world we want,” the world as noted several times in this report is promised by the Sustainable Development Goals.  Indeed, at points, these “reports” reminded me a bit of funding proposals that small NGOs like mine might submit – long on “what we’re doing,” and reminders of “what more remains to be done” (with additional funding of course) and short on assessments of what barriers lie in the way of achieving our desired ends, including of course the sometimes unhelpful ways in which we, ourselves, conduct our own business.   Indeed, this SG report (as with others) seems deliberately “pitched” to funders, in this instance to the member states who must “sell” the value of the UN to national capitals; also to the many “partners” of the UN characterized increasingly by multilateral lenders, multi-national corporations and large NGOs who already exercise an outsized influence on current UN policies.  The world may seem to be quite a mess in the eyes of many constituents, but the message to funders and key partners is that we at the UN have the goods to clean it up or, at the very least, are developing the tools and protocols (at the direct urging of the SG and with proper support) to clean better.

In fairness to this report, its release could hardly have been timed more awkwardly – having to compete with the death of former SG Kofi Annan, a man much beloved and of great wisdom and stature who, increasingly over the course of his two terms, found his inspirational voice and helped the UN system increase its global credibility while recovering from a series of scandals and reckless policies related to abuses by UN personnel, “oil for food,” the invasion of Iraq and, surely the most significant failure of his era, the inability to prevent the Rwanda genocide. It is imprudent at best to compare SGs when one has reached the end of his life and the other is in the midst of adjusting to often-grave political and institutional challenges, but it is perhaps noteworthy that our widely-utilized Global Action twitter feed towards the end of this week was filled with hundreds of diplomatic and civil society tributes to Annan while the SG report was referenced less often than the number of fingers on one hand.

Again in fairness to the report, there is much of value in it to the UN and, hopefully, the global community, work that has already taken place “on the watches” of SG Guterres and DSG Mohammed (the latter of whom is noted only in a photo).  The report makes clear that there has been some UN-led progress on countering terrorism,  on improving the safety of peacekeepers, on promoting “free trade” among corruption-free African states, on ensuring participation and leadership by women and youth,  on reform of the UN development system (including the UN’s resident coordinators), on ending abuses perpetrated against women and children, on ocean health, on providing services for victims of terror, and on increasing the “footprint” of a revamped UN Peacebuilding Commission and Peacebuilding Fund, offices for which the SG is thankfully seeking a “quantum leap” in funding support in acknowledgement of the PBC’s growing role in promoting the SG’s desired linkage between “prevention and protection” on the road towards sustainable peace.

The SG also highlighted the more-looming existential threats of climate and nuclear weapons as well as the vast numbers of “people on the move,” in part driven by climate and conflict impacts. But again, there is little to be found regarding “what is in the way” of urgent progress on such matters, nor is there sufficient “frankness” regarding how another “climate summit” and a barely-functional disarmament architecture (including barely-binding treaty obligations) are likely to get us close to anything like the “promised land” as more scientists predict that we are likely to miss our climate targets and more observers note (with great regret) the degree to which weapons spending and production continue to expand despite our hard-fought resolutions and treaties. There is also little assessment regarding how (or if) the well-crafted, soon-to-be-endorsed and purely voluntary Global Compact on Migration can help counter the growing nationalism, xenophobia and intolerance that jeopardize the welfare of migrants and undermine the credibility of our rule-based system.  Again, and especially for an institution that sits at the very center of global governance, “what is in the way” of life-affirming progress is as important to communicate as “what we are now doing.”

One other item of note before closing pertains to the “mood” of the UN building,  Our own take on this after many years of watching and reflecting is that the “culture shift” inside the UN rightly advocated for by the SG must go beyond breaking up the “silos” of secretariat offices to enable and embrace a new appreciation for all UN stasff and stakeholders.   One manifestation of this “culture” would be the ability of the UN system and its leadership to honor the “whistleblowers” within its walls that this SG report seeks to honor outside of them.   Those who expose “shady dealings” are enablers of a healthier UN and not its enemies.  Those who report on the limitations of the UN system and not merely regurgitate its pre-prepared and highly-branded news releases are doing their part to make the UN truly “fit for purpose” in a world of frightening conflict and climate risks.  Those who commit themselves to pay close attention to the UN and member states – not only what they say but what they do – and who read lessons-learned back to its talented decisionmakers — are helping in their own small way to cleanse the system of its inconsistencies, its excesses, its occasional confusions regarding the difference between “construction and completion.”  It is thus with regret that this SG report paid so little attention to the health and welfare of civil society and journalists, those operating in the increasingly tightly-managed spaces within UN headquarters, but especially those who have “watched children on the playground,” and subsequently chosen to risk their lives in otherwise forgotten places to fortify the food-insecure, defend the defenseless, share stories and warning signs we would otherwise overlook, and uphold the values of the UN Charter to which we at headquarters too-often seem to give lip-service.

SG Guterres is correct to stress in his report the importance of multilateral engagement to “solve problems together than we cannot solve alone.”  He is also right to attempt to enhance the UN’s “capacity to operate as a convener of people, a proponent of ideas, a catalyst for action and a driver of solutions.”  But for this to continue, we need several things from our UN leadership, including more frequent demonstrations of inspiration and generosity of spirit, fresh levels of “frankness” regarding internal and external barriers to fulfilling our multilateral obligations, and increased attention to those on the margins of our increasingly high-end “partnerships” who need the UN to be better at anticipating the challenges of the future while addressing what the SG called “remaining gaps” and honoring the SDGs and our other, pending, policy promises.  We must together do a better job of “keeping one eye on the telescope and the other on the microscope.”

Long before the release of his next annual report, we encourage the SG and other senior staff to take some long walks through the building they ostensibly manage, to listen to those who fill up seats in UN conference rooms and cafes, or provide security and other assistance to the many UN visitors who still – justifiably I think – look to this institution to define a path out of collective despair.  Beyond the influences of powerful states, multilateral lenders and NGOs with the fiscal structure of small nations, beyond the many hopeful initiatives both honored and misplaced within this SG report, there is a growing sense – even within this UN building — that we are simply not doing enough to give life a chance.  Clearly, there is more to say, more to do, more to inspire than appears in these SG pages.  Let those missing dimensions permeate our words and actions leading up to the next report’s release.

Moving Day:  Protecting the Rights of Indigenous Migrants, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Aug

We’ve got to think now, in real terms, for that seventh generation . . . We’ve got to get back to spiritual law if we are to survive. Oren Lyons

The purpose of any ceremony is to build stronger relationship or bridge the distance between our cosmos and us.  Shawn Wilson

Something happens to Aboriginal people who work in hierarchies, whether bureaucracy or academic… You get to the top and find it bereft, bereft of passion, bereft of intuition, of emotion.  Amanda Sinclair

From a human rights standpoint, this was a less than stellar week for the UN.  We welcome a new High Commissioner for Human Rights, former Chile president Michelle Bachelet, someone of considerable gravitas and well known throughout the UN community.  The departure of her predecessor Prince Zeid was a blow to many of us who have witnessed the suppression of many outspoken voices, the domestication of what should otherwise be a forceful and candid human rights concern, the politicizing of rights guarantees for citizens that should no longer be subject to debate.  The human rights community faces new threats, opportunities and discouragements, and we hope that Ms. Bachelet will be successful both in resisting large-state pressures and in insisting on the importance of the human rights pillar for any sustainable successes the UN is likely to achieve on the peace and development fronts.

Among the current disappointments this week has to be news reports on Saudi Arabia, both for a spat with Canada over rights guarantees for Saudi women and for the horror of a bus full of children bombed by Saudi jets with military hardware supplied by more than one UN Security Council member.   Last week’s tepid Council meeting on Yemen –with its welcome announcement of upcoming political negotiations – nevertheless kept the door ajar for fresh recrimination and violence for which the bus bombing will likely remain as a particularly galling symbol of our conflict resolution failures.

Less disappointing from a rights standpoint was an event this week on “Indigenous Peoples’ Migration and Movement” (on the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples).  With the signing of the Global Compact on Migration scheduled for December in Morocco, this event had considerable relevance not only as a “test” of the ability of the Compact to address challenges relevant to indigenous peoples, but also as a reminder of state practices that undermine the rights of indigenous peoples to move themselves – but also their cultural ceremonies and languages – back and forth across state lines.

The event itself was rightly described as a bit “tired” by a couple of the participants we spoke with who stayed for the entire event.  Nevertheless some good insight was conveyed both applicable to the Global Compact and consistent with discussions held at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.  The always thoughtful Miriam Wallet Aboubakrine, current Chair of the Permanent Forum, highlighted the non-binding nature of state and multi-lateral commitments to indigenous peoples and urged states to do more to combat host-state “fear” while “enhancing the skills” of indigenous migrants such that their migratory pathways can be safer and also more productive for themselves and those back home relying on their success.

Part of the reason why the event seemed flat at points is related to the difficulty in getting the full richness of indigenous cultures on policy display.  The discourse, especially from the indigenous activists in the room, tends to focus — at times obsess — on North American indigenous concerns.   There was certainly some effort to paint a broader picture, including from a representative from Thailand who cited the “traditional symbiotic relationships” that people in his region have with forests that were amply supplying local needs long before they were largely appropriated by state and corporate interests.  He also criticized government policy advocating state forms of education for indigenous children, bureaucracies that neglect indigenous languages, cultural expressions and often-passionate relationships with the natural order.

But much of the anguish was from sources geographically more proximate to New York. Indeed, perhaps the most compelling testimony of the afternoon came from Ms. Amy Juan whoseTohono O’odham community occupies the border regions between Arizona and Mexico.   Ms. Juan, a self-described activist without “academic credentials,” spoke eloquently about the struggles of indigenous communities living in the frontiers between sovereign, modern states.  Juan referenced the “restrictions on freedom of movement” that have intensified in this age of border walls and unwelcoming rhetoric emanating from our political leadership.   She even described pressures her community experienced from the US Border Patrol to refrain from providing water to persons traversing the harsh US desert “illegally.”  Juan noted that, beyond solidarity and humanitarian concerns, a “right to water” must take precedence over national politics and host-country inhibitions.

Beyond the sometimes compelling testimony there were two key takeaways for the Global Action folks in the room.  The first was related to the issue of the day – the impact of climate change on indigenous migration patterns.   As more than one speaker noted, but which was most clearly articulated by the representative from the International Organization on Migration, indigenous communities uniquely “attached to the land” have the most to lose from negative climate impacts, but are also under considerable pressure to abandon their ancestral lands once those lands can no longer sustain families and livelihoods.  Our current, collective efforts on behalf of climate health may still be enough to save our species, and we will know we have done our best work when communities – including indigenous ones – are no longer driven from lands made unproductive from drought, flooding and the violence that so often follows.

The other takeaway is more spiritual, if you will, more about continuing to bring together the extraordinary diversity and what Panama referred to as “dynamism” of indigenous communities to forge a new policy path and ensure that international agreements such as the Global Compact and 2030 Development Agenda take full account of diverse indigenous needs and circumstances.  Indeed, speakers were calling for a revitalized “brotherhood/sisterhood” to more effectively link indigenous communities on the move, one which prioritizes the need of women and children indigenous migrants, but one which more broadly commits to alleviating what the El Salvador Ambassador described as the “toxic” dissolution of identity experienced by so many indigenous migrants, persons struggling (often unsuccessfully) to avoid what Ecuador described as the “double discrimination” of being both “foreign and indigenous.”

I have been blessed over the years to have interactions with many indigenous communities from Canada to the Philippines and from Guatemala to the Western United States. I have seen first-hand the commercially-appropriated cultural symbols, the “reservations” characterized by lands largely unfit for agriculture or other sustainable livelihoods, the schools that make children fit only to abandon the cultures of their birth, the suspicion communicated from so many sources beyond the borders of ancestral lands. I have also been extremely fortunate to be connected to the late Terry Whitcomb, a family tie who spent much of her extraordinary life exploring – mostly through art and architecture — the often treacherous interplay in what is now California between indigenous communities and the Catholic friars who sometimes assisted, sometimes encouraged, sometimes humiliated, sometimes subjugated them.

As our climate continues its decline and our distance from fulfilling our sustainable development goals remains daunting, we can afford no more delays in ensuring the rights, dignity and freedom of movement of our indigenous migrants. Indeed so many indigenous persons can still claim that the “heavy handed treatment” they too often receive — born of fear, anxiety and ignorance—serves only to rob indigenous migrants of security and confidence,and the rest of us of their many life-affirming contributions.

 

Exit Memo: The UN’s Struggle to Inspire Next Generations, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Aug

Rising Plant

The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. Barbara Kingsolver

You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming. Pablo Neruda

It’s the children the world almost breaks who grow up to save it. Frank Warren

At what point do you give up – decide enough is enough? There is only one answer really. Never. Tabitha Suzuma

A great hope fell; You heard no noise; The ruin was within. Emily Dickinson

Global Action has had another group of wonderful interns this summer – smart, engaged, funny, diverse.   Thanks to all of you who have provided support or hospitality to make it possible for them to experience all of the potential and contrariness that is the contemporary UN.

One of the questions that gets posed to them before they commence their wanderings around the building is the same one that greets them at the end – has your time at the UN made you more or less hopeful about your future?

It is not a frivolous charge.  Our interns are not here to participate in “youth events” where older people talk about younger ones as though they are the “saviors” of something or other beyond the capacity of the people who raised, educated and subsidized them.   Ours are not here to “save” but to discern, to find their place and even their passion by studying up close the institution that is still largely synonymous with multilateral progress, an institution that holds global policy conversations that could hardly be held beyond Turtle Bay, but an institution that also promises more than it often can deliver and even, at times, impedes the hopefulness that can sustain a commitment to a safer, healthier world.

My groups of interns can at times be a suspicious bunch, investing energy in self-protection and promotion that could be spent taking risks – connecting and exploring beyond comfort zones.   The world that barely bothers to welcome their adulthood, presenting issues and threats that they attempt to discern for many hours a week at UN headquarters, certainly reinforces a protective posture.   Between vicious attacks on journalists and plastics filling our oceans to unresolved violence in Yemen and Central African Republic and climate-induced drought, food insecurity and forced migration, there is plenty to suggest that the future of this generation and those to follow is likely to be a bit of a rough ride, surely rougher than it needs to be.

And so these young people who come to survey the UN policy premises with passions to identify and hope to live out “under its roof,” these young people need to know that this system is committed to more than “involving youth” in its discussions but that the governments which are the UN’s priority understand that they are holding levers to a future that they, themselves, will likely not be around to experience.   They need tangible reminders that the UN and its member states can do more – will do more – than simply kick problems down the road where solutions will only  become more elusive.

One of the venues that alternate excites and frustrates our young people the most is the Security Council, what we have described elsewhere as the most political space within a highly political building.   The issues that draw the interns to the Council chamber are often the ones most resistant to resolution, in part because of the way the Council conducts its business. Briefings are carefully composed and often drained of urgency.  Statements by Council members put the best possible face on national interest — which it is not at all clear they are seated on the Council to promote. Such statements often leave out key information, including information regarding the culpability of Council members for some of the very same security violations they are mandated to address.   The statements read in chamber are too-often redundant, more than occasionally toothless, and rarely (if ever) concede the points made by policy challengers, accept national responsibility or offer apologies.

In what is arguably the single most important room in the world, Council members too often choose to “go small,” to treat the chamber as a forum for branding national positions rather than a deliberative body with a mandate to deliver binding (and enforceable) decisions to bring the gravest threats to international peace and security to heel.

For some of the interns, this week’s Council discussion on Yemen, presided over by the UK, was their last attempt to find some reassurance that the powers presiding over this room have a plan and the commitment to “resolve” a conflict such as this one that has already claimed many thousands of victims, ushered in a catastrophic epidemic of disease and food insecurity, and where some of the world’s pre-eminent arms merchants have more than a bit of context-specific blood on their hands.

There was some good news: UN Special Envoy Griffiths, who has been given some credit for diverting a widely-feared, full-scale assault on the Yemeni port of Hodeidah, announced the launching of a Geneva-based negotiating process in the hope of ending this long-running conflict.  “We know what can work,” he insisted, noting that “relationship building is key to reaching a permanent political settlement.”

For his part, UNOCHA’s Ging ticked off elements of the ever-growing humanitarian emergency in and beyond Hodeidah while rightly highlighting the extraordinary courage of aid workers seeking to bind the gaping wounds that the international community – and especially this Council – has so far failed to stop.   “Conflict affects every aspect of life in Yemen,” Ging noted, and the impacts from the unresolved political strife, incessant (and often reckless) air attacks, and what Ging described as “harassment” of aid workers have together generated trauma and “threats to dignity” that can and might well last a lifetime.

While the interns seemed to be anticipating high-energy and urgent responses, they were treated to a bevy of subdued and even off-point interventions by Council members. The US Ambassador alleged a “new phase” in the Yemen conflict as though the recent Hodeidah port bombings were the first attacks in Yemen to raise the specter of war crimes.   Kuwait, which in previous meetings, described its national position as standing “shoulder to shoulder” with the Saudis, condemned “material losses” from Houthi missile strikes on Saudi territory while seeming to ignore the vastly larger impacts from coalition air assaults.  Other members lamented the growing humanitarian crisis as well as the extention of the conflict into the Red Sea without offering any firm analysis of its causes or suggetions for relief.

Peru did raise the grave threats to children from coalition air strikes and Kazakhstan noted the urgency of trust-building if negotiations are to have any viable future, trust which will be harder to come by as the Yemeni Ambassador was accusing the Houthis of “genocide” while denying any coalition involvement in the recent Hodeidah bombings.  Under this cloud of acrimony and half-truths, Kazakhstan’s concrete suggestion to form a “de-escalation” zone to help protect water and other civilian infrastructure from further attack seemed akin to a tiny plant emerging from an otherwise parched landscape.

Perhaps the fault here is mine for insisting that a Council meeting on Yemen would be an appropriate exit for young people who have mostly given the UN building their best attentions, who came looking for hope that this often parched policy soil can sprout new life, who came seeking encouragement to help them hold fast to their still-evolving commitments to make a better world.   For all our limitations, we try never to forget on whose behalf we are working, whose “turn” it is to clean up messes and set the world on a more sustainable policy course.  As Council members craft their next iterations of national positions on security matters, we urge greater consideration for the “roof” under which the hopes and aspirations of new generations can find their energy and inspiration.