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Editor’s Desk: Moving the UN Closer To its Masterpiece, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 May

The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason. T. S. Eliot

Growing a culture requires a good storyteller. Changing a culture requires a persuasive editor.  Ryan Lilly

Focus on making yourself better, not on thinking that you are better.  Bohdi Sanders

Edit your life frequently and ruthlessly. It’s your masterpiece after all.  Nathan W. Morris

One of the satisfactions of being inside the UN each day is to see the multilateral system generating effective outcomes:  elevating the formal status of indigenous people and persons with disabilities; calling practical attention to our (so far) too-tepid responses to threats from our plastic-filled oceans, our rapidly warming climate and our shrinking biodiversity; dodging bombs and bullets to reach literally millions from Yemen to the Central African Republic with humanitarian aid; helping states like the Gambia transition to more inclusive governance, Burkina Faso hold the line on a fresh wave of terror attacks, or Bangladesh manage its Myanmar-responsible refugee crisis.

But we also recognize that world remains messy with so divergent policy goals, so many values and expectations, so many vested (and often unacknowledged) interests.  It is also “messy” in the sense that the institutions which have been in the forefront of efforts to navigate and even “referee” the mess, including the UN of course, have been and remain intensely political in nature, not only in terms of the “politics” of negotiating some version of consensus, but “political” in the sense of telling less than the truth we know, the truth that serves the interests of our national policy hierarchies but not necessarily the needs of the global commons we allege to represent.

We have made this point before, but it bears repeating here:   we have enabled formation of a “culture” within our multilateral settings where “straight talk” is too-often at a premium, where norms and resolutions are not expected to be implemented, and where articulated policy preferences and recommendations mask as many dimensions of our sometimes existential problems as they clarify.

This past week at the UN was in part an exercise in why the system where we spend our days could use an editor of sorts for organizational culture.   The General Assembly discussion this past Wednesday on “inequalities within and between nations,” especially in the introductory session, outlined  a growing crisis that many at the UN believe rivals climate and weapons of mass destruction as existential threats to our future.  As often this year, GA president María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés set a tone that was part restating the UN’s commitment to fulfilling SDG 10 and part potentially culture-shifting storytelling, noting that we live in a world where some children are fortunate to eat once a day while others eat “whatever and how often they wish.”  She also quoted an African proverb that “injustice is like a snake that only strikes those who are barefoot.”

But what gave this session its “legs,” moving the room beyond mere outrage at the growing gaps between the rich and the rest, were the specifics provided by other speakers to address in practical terms the Egyptian Minister’s call for the rapid, intentional “removal of obstacles” to the reduction of poverty and inequalities.  States and other stakeholders shared diverse practices designed to improve domestic revenue streams, eliminate corruption, improve access to education and other public services, and even consider income floors for citizens.  With due regard for national context, what the session lacked was someone to clarify and distill common priorities and help build specific lines of support for hopeful and replicable initiatives by states and other stakeholders.  As the “operational activities” segment of the UN’s Economic and Social Council opens this week, we hope that more persuasive “editing” of the activities that can incarnate our development goals is on the near horizon.

But of course inequalities are not confined to the vast spaces separating barrios from corporate board rooms.  There are also inequalities – sometimes vast – when it comes to how states are able to manipulate the levers of power and influence the narrative in multilateral settings.  The Security Council is often “ground zero” for the display of such inequalities — permanent members who cast blame but rarely accept it; members who make statements that share a portion of the global truth, but mostly the portion that serves more parochial interests; members who adopt resolutions for others but are all-too-willing to bend international obligations to suit themselves and their allies; members who resist efforts at significant reform that could alter the very fabric of the Council’s  culture and working methods, including how it engages with the rest of the UN system.  The culture of the Council is not even remotely “edited frequently and ruthlessly” nor is there now any candidate for the task who would be trusted by more than a handful of members currently serving.

To find examples of the varying levels of policy effectiveness in a largely “unedited” Council, one would only have to consult last week’s meetings:  a largely successful review of the G5 Sahel Force with the Foreign Minister of Burkina Faso; an urgent session seeking to preserve what remains of the cease fire in Idlib, Syria in the hopes of preventing the renewed bombing that would signal a humanitarian disaster beyond what the UN and other agencies could possibly handle; a session on Yemen which celebrated the demilitarization of the Hodeidah ports while continuing to blame only Iran and Houthi rebels by name for the still-considerable violence across Yemen, mentioning Saudi Arabia only in praise for their generous donations to ease the suffering of the many thousands of Yemenis put at deadly risk by Saudi bombers (with weapons from the US, UK and others) in the first place.

And then there was the discussion on Cameroon, held outside the formal chamber in an Arria Formula format, but which nevertheless represented a breakthrough of sorts regarding a conflict with many victims that has directly impacted our office and that we and others have been warning about for many months.  Convened by the US, the session was noteworthy for the sometimes-gruesome truth-telling of USG Lowcock and two Cameroon briefers, especially the director of Reach Out Cameroon who was known to us from previous trips to the country and who gave what she called a “human face” to the vulnerabilities of so many living in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon – including those who have “lost it all” and are now “trapped in the bushes” or “living in petrol stations.”

We have sat with many of these images already; no doubt some of the diplomats have also. However, despite the concerns of the UK that the Council is now at risk of having to “discuss Cameroon more often,” there seemed to be little other interest in taking this matter on to the formal SC agenda.   There was no plan floated (let alone agreed upon) to confront Cameroon whose representative remained defiant throughout.  Some states were concerned about jeopardizing Cameroon support for counter-terror operations around Lake Chad and for the care of refugees from the Central African Republic.  Others were concerned about putting Cameroon on the formal Council agenda when risks to International Peace and Security were not yet persuasive.  Still others expressed concern about placing yet another African state on the Council’s agenda without clear strategies for entry and exit.

We were dismayed to note that despite the compelling testimony, especially from the Cameroon briefers, not a single other speaker directly referenced any segment of their stories.   Not one.  Caveats to a deeper involvement by this Council appeared to win the day.  “Partnership” with Cameroon commanded a higher priority than rescuing women and children from the bushes.

Beyond the Cameroon briefers, there were certainly truth-tellers in the Council this week – including ASG Keita on fresh threats from terrorist violence in the Sahel, USG Lowcock on the incontrovertible links between violence, deprivation and displacement in Cameroon and NW Syria, Special Envoy Griffiths on the “corrosive nature of extended war” and the still-perilous, still-fragile security and political context in Yemen. Added to that has been the constant and welcome refrain from May president Indonesia that the primary purpose of this Security Council is “to save lives.”

But if this SC as to achieve this “masterpiece” of a purpose going forward it must focus more energy on “making this better,” to  embark towards what could represent a profound cultural shift, one in which states are expected to take responsibility more often than they cast blame; a shift that encourages the “right deeds for the right reasons,” that confesses more often the “mixed” that constitutes motive, that not only consults the truth on the ground but allows such truth to fully infuse its policy decisions, that honors security alliances which don’t require women and children to hide out in petrol stations.

In our current, hyper-active and crisis-defined system, one that is driven by state interests and large state interests above all, I don’t know from whence that fully “persuasive editor” of our institutional culture is most likely to emerge. But for the rest of this year and perhaps beyond, our small team of interns and fellows will remain on the lookout.

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Mother Load: Easing the Burdens of Clinging and Mourning, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 May

Tapestry

It’s the one job where, the better you are the more surely you won’t be needed in the long run. Barbara Kingsolver

Children are knives, my mother once said. They don’t mean to, but they cut. And yet we cling to them, don’t we, we clasp them until the blood flows.  Joanne Harris

No one is ever quite ready; everyone is always caught off guard. Parenthood chooses you. And you open your eyes, look at what you’ve got, say “Oh my gosh,” and recognize that of all the balls there ever were, this is the one you should not drop.  Marisa de los Santos

I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, Mother, what was war?  Eve Merriam

There is a part of her mind that is a part of mine. But when she was born she sprang from me like a slippery fish, and has been swimming away ever since. All her life, I have watched her as though from another shore. Amy Tan

As virtually everyone recognizes here in the US and in much of the rest of the world, today is the “designated day” to honor mothers in ways both concrete and, at times, overly sentimental.

It’s been a while since I had a mother around to fuss over, but I am mindful this week of those in my life for whom the pain of mother-loss is still fresh, persons now immersed in a bit of holiday-inspired wondering if they did enough, said enough, honored enough while mother was still with us to ease and enrich her transition from this life to whatever might come next.

And then there are those new to mothering, including persons close to me, mothers who understand the challenges of the moment, who wince at the ubiquitous news stories about some of the issues on the UN agenda this week:  weapons of mass destruction and mass deforestation, climate-related displacements and the violence and lawlessness that seems to be engulfing places like Libya.  And yet, despite the possibility of bringing into the world a life filled more with challenges than satisfactions, these mothers have decided to bet on a human future in the most tangible manner possible – a life to which a mother will surely and steadfastly cling, even when it cuts.

Amidst the flowers and Hallmark cards, the birth notices and family brunches, there is yet another dimension of truth to Mother’s Day – the times when mothers must say a final and mournful good-bye to those “slippery fish” of children later felled by disease or armed violence, by circumstance or service.  This past Monday, the UN held its annual event honoring some of those “children,” those serving under the UN flag who perished while pursuing with often great courage what we all fervently strive to ensure even if we’re not always sure how:  a world at peace.

As one might expect, many of those honored fallen were serving as UN peacekeepers, including in some of the most dangerous conflict zones on earth – in Mali and South Sudan, in Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.   The list of the fallen was painfully long again this year, a point also taken up in earnest the following day in the Security Council under Indonesia’s leadership, during which delegations explored the means – especially through better training and equipment – to more effectively ensure the safety of the women and men mandated within peace operations to protect others under circumstances that are uncomfortable at best. Delegations on Tuesday clearly reaffirmed their full support and respect for those who serve in peacekeeping operations or in related assignments such as in Hodeidah port (Yemen). Such support was aptly summarized by Ireland whose Ambassador proclaimed that “we are as proud of the blue helmet as we are of the Shamrock.”

Not only peacekeepers were honored at this solemn Monday event but also fallen humanitarian workers and food security experts; people providing shelter and provisions for refugees and other victims of violence and natural disaster; people facing “unfriendly fire” during the course of their service or simply reserving a seat on a malfunctioning airplane. Indeed, people who for various reasons were now being saluted and mourned at the UN by mothers and other family members, not because they were perfect but because they were loved; and because they willingly put themselves in harm’s way, at least we believe, not so much for the sake of the UN or other institution, but so that a world could be birthed in which armed conflict and its consequences are more a childhood curiosity than the pervasive threat we now experience in far too many places on this planet.

During this annual honoring, I often find myself wondering what it would be like to sit in a UN conference room and mourn the loss of a child, even a child who long-since “swam away” and might only have acknowledged episodically the place from which their life first arose. I can wonder but simply can’t imagine what it must be like to have the ball “you should not drop,” being dropped instead by a too-often violent and indifferent world.   What do you say in response to that?  Indeed what can anyone else say to narrow this chasm of “missing?”

The UN surely does not honor enough and often not appropriately.   As a community, we are too focused on protocol and position to recognize in the way we should the many who actually uphold the large and small promises that still take up residence in this place. But this Monday ceremony conveyed genuine dignity as well as the insistence that we will collectively, somehow or other, continue to “answer the call” until our yearning for peace, our dream of a war-free world, have finally been realized.

In this age of digital scheduling, I carry around (and actually use) a small paper calendar courtesy of a modest donation I made recently to the remarkable St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Inside that now-scribbled calendar are pictures of children in some cases stricken by cancer even before experiencing the diseases we more commonly associate with childhood. In some of those pictures are the parents, mostly mothers who, like so many others, must find within themselves the means to bear this deep wound, to remain strong and resolute amidst this existential threat to children who, much too often, have not yet learned how to ride a bicycle or tie their shoes.

The reason that we do what we do, despite the ever-apparent absurdity associated with limited resources and even-more-limited wisdom, is because we know that for every mother whose child is given a ray of hope by places like St. Jude’s, millions of others must watch – often helplessly –as violence and disease, hunger and displacement exact their horrible toll.  At the Monday ceremony, several speakers expressed “pride” that so many are still willing to take risks for the sake of global peace. Indeed, more risks will be required of all of us if we are to emerge only semi-scathed from this difficult period in our collective history. But for many of the mothers in the room, I suspect, pride was less in play than wishing for that day when no mother would ever again be required to sit and mourn the loss of her own flesh, the loss of one to whom she once clung tight.

For us and for many others around the world, the possibility of that day makes what we do every day worth our best effort. Blessings to all whom we honor and all who mourn on this Mother’s Day.

Endgame:  Enhancing Trust in the UN’s Complex Strands of Truth, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 May

Brands

At the least, we should leave flowers; at the least we should leave songs. Xiuhtezcatl Martinez

The Dreaming is now. The Dreaming is always; forever.  Kate Constable

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

After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.  Philip Pullman

We live in a fragmented civilization with fragmented indoctrinations.  Talismanist Giebra

This was another breathtaking week at the UN.  From nuclear weapons and Syrian reconciliation to depleted fish stocks and the “re-deployment” of the UN development system, seemingly every available conference room was tied up with one policy urgency or another.

There were three other events this week that might seem disparate on the surface, but which are related to questions about means and ends regarding how the UN both communicates its own messages and also allows those who communicate differently to “have their say” in an appropriate and respectful manner.

These events were the plenary of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Committee on Information and the annual event promoting safety and protection for what has become (at least beyond the celebrity journalists who now fill our airwaves) a largely besieged journalistic community.

The Indigenous Forum took up a number of issues that have dominated prior events and that still resist resolution, including inclusion of indigenous languages at national level, modalities for full participation in the work of UN entities, land and water rights (including protection for those who defend those rights), health care (including attention to youth suicide rates) and respect for what many referred to as “indigenous knowledge.” Such knowledge highlights a way of relating to our decreasingly-biodiverse natural order that is more intimate and more interactive than our data-driven and abstracted policymaking. Our UN policy spaces have conferred on us the option of simultaneously “branding” our urgency regarding theis current “extinction moment” while turning at least a partial blind eye to the “business as usual” that props up our own lifestyles but endangers all that deign to come after us.

In the Committee on Information, the issue of languages was again front-and-center.   There has been a movement afoot for some time to within the UN to ensure both the full use of all six “official languages” and to increase sensitivity to those forced to learn one of these languages (primarily English) in order to be able to communicate in a wide range of diplomatic functions and participate fully in UN deliberations.

We fully support this movement.  An English-obsessive environment such as exists at UN Headquarters places undue pressure on UN interpreters but also opens undeserved pathways to participation for essentially monolingual persons such as myself who can barely order meals in another language let alone function without interpretive earphones in the complex policy environment of the UN.  And the commitment to function in all of the official languages of the UN is more than a matter of national or regional pride, more even than upholding the UN Charter.  It is about making space for different ways of knowing the world, the nuances of reality that are largely couched (and sometimes obscured) in the English that dominates this policy space; nuances which bear potential in all languages (certainly including indigenous ones) to cut through our measured bureaucracy-speak and give people stories and metaphors that are suggestive rather than definitive, that enable dialogue rather than merely instruct or even coerce.

This brings us to another core agenda of the Committee related to how the UN “sells itself” and its activities to governments and global constituencies.  While not all delegations are comfortable with what often seems like nothing more than a sophisticated UN branding exercise, few are willing to make the case for truth-telling, for communicating not only what the UN does (which is considerable to be sure), but also what it does not do, what it fails to do and, perhaps most importantly, what it is not well equipped to do.  Here we advocate again contextualizing our narrow “truth zones” to identify the promises made and not kept, but also to highlight the (too many) times we have willfully raised expectations beyond what the system is prepared to fulfill.

A cursory review of US (and now most other cultures) reveals that our current  obsession with branding ourselves, our products and our corporate and career interests has abandoned a more balanced and context-responsible outreach to a veritable feeding frenzy of (at best) half-truths designed to win followers and cultivate “rooting interests.”  What is true, as we have said before, is essentially what you can convince others to be true, obsessing on “facts” at one level but mostly only the “facts” that help make our cases.  And we cleverly avoid context, including the “context” that implicates us in the illusions that have given rise to our current crises.  Indeed, our many hours each week in UN conference rooms indicates that a failure to acknowledge the “contributions” we make to the very ills we are mandated to resolve constitutes a major impediment to the fulfillment of globally-essential tasks that no amount of positive branding can erase.

Collectively, we mostly now assume that we are being manipulated in the public sector to such a degree that it no longer piques our interest, at least on the surface.   We trust less and less of what we are told, but the implications of a so-called “information environment” that at its best now “informs” with willful selectivity remains largely unexamined.  Information, more and more, is a subset of our addiction to entertainment, often celebrating individual and corporate self-promotion, certainly enabling the epidemic need to have our biases and limitations confirmed rather than challenged.  To the extent that any of this is part of what the call for better UN “branding” implies, we need to study the implications for trust and truth more carefully.

And finally, we were present (as in years past) in the annual commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, a time to recall the many journalists worldwide who face harassment, prison, even death for sticking their noses (and their cameras) in the middle of illicit activity that people in power are all-too-willing to punish in order to keep private.  While the president of the General Assembly rightly lauded journalists for “holding up the mirror” to society, for telling the stories that no one else will tell, and for confounding the rumors that proliferate in this world, Lebanon’s Ambassador also lamented the “hyper-partisan” environment that we have created for ourselves, an environment that turns mirror-holding into a potential capital offense and provides cover for agendas that only barely (if at all) reference the “public interest.”

Perhaps the best address at this event came from the African Union’s Ambassador Mohammed, who advocated for “conflict-sensitive” journalism supported by international efforts to pursue the truth that can keep our policies on a steady and humane path.  The key here for me is the “pursue the truth” aspect, which I understand as the best available information set in the broadest possible human and policy contexts.  If we at the UN cannot achieve this level of truth-telling, if we cannot find the means to issue statements and tell stories that seek to enhance and inspire rather than recruit and isolate, we will in the end only strike more blows to our own credibility. As Warren Hoge noted at the same event, part of our essential (and courageous) task in this time of threat from authorities of all stripes remains to “debunk falsehoods.”  A good place to start, for we in the media and policy communities alike, would be with our own.

As many of you know, Avengers: Endgame (which I likely won’t see) has been breaking the internet for weeks complete with its staggering box office success in the US and in other countries.   For those who chalk this up to our endless search for the next big distraction, you might be missing half the point. It is also, I suspect, part of a deep and largely unfulfilled yearning for stories, stories that compel attention and invite people to dream, stories that connect people to larger realities than their ordinary lives ordinarily permit, stories that bridge the ever-widening gap between “our cosmos and us.”

I would prefer to have more of those stories coming from places like the UN.  But do we know how to tell them? And do we have the courage to ensure that the UN plays its part as an antidote to the “fragmented indoctrination” that defines our times?

Turning the Page:  Recovering the UN’s Relevant Responses, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Apr

UN Stamp

If we don’t all row, the boat won’t go. Unknown

If everyone helps to hold up the sky, then one person does not become tired. Askhari Johnson Hodari

Laugh as long as you breathe, love as long as you live. Nujeen Mustafa

Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving.  Albert Einstein

In the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism.  Naomi Klein

While contemplating the content for this post, I took a walk in a nearby Manhattan park in what has been a particularly lovely season for flowers and blossoms.   While strolling and admiring I came across a Parks Department worker and thanked her for making all of this wonder possible.

She looked a bit stunned, as though this simple recognition was akin to a message from Mars.  But I remember well a time when my jogs through this very park were exercises in reckless risk taking, when park benches and pathways screamed out for repair, when “security” was largely based on “street smarts,” when flowers bloomed in defiance of neglect rather than as the result of loving care.

Part of the “care” of this park now is a function of a largely-unfortunate gentrification. We didn’t “deserve” a functioning green space, apparently, until the neighborhood became “safe” enough to absorb copious quantities of downtown money.  But even so, the park is now a place where flowers are planted and benches painted, where playgrounds are truly playful for children rather than being the dangers they once were for their parents, where teenagers play ball near a pond with turtles, egrets and feral cats, and folks trying to get in better shape are encouraged to jog around the now-even pavement meandering around the park’s edges.

And I contributed to virtually none of these improvements, as I tend to contribute too-little to so many of the things I use and (too often) take for granted.

This is intended less as a “confession” and more as a punctuation to what was an exhausting and instructive week of UN business.   From indigenous people straining to protect biodiversity and achieve formal UN recognition to some policy-challenging conversations on identifying and addressing what the UN Office of Drugs and Crime called “chilling” threats from nuclear terrorism and the increasingly convergent interests of terrorists and organized crime, it was difficult for us to keep track of (let alone contribute to) these multiple challenges or identify threads of what might constitute an effective response.

Fortunately, there were other UN events this week where the positive potential was easier to spot.

One of these was in the Security Council where Germany (April president) reinforced a discussion on the security and humanitarian issues affecting Syria by scheduling a poignant briefing from Nujeen Mustafa, a remarkable young woman with a disability who, from her wheelchair, schooled Council members on the many persons much too “invisible” in times of peace who become even less visible in times of conflict.  She reminded all in the Chamber that the figures quantifying humanitarian need have human faces, and that some of these faces already experience grave difficulties in this world which armed conflict merely intensifies.

And in the General Assembly, President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés convened the first International Day for Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace.  While some delegations rightly lamented that such a day would even be necessary, and some used the opportunity to settle political scores, most understood that ours is a system that needs to be fixed rather than cast aside.  The president herself understands that a future for the UN lies in its ability to help build “a fairer world in practice, beyond our UN rhetoric,” a world that reaches persons living with poverty, with disabilities, with grave discouragement. And, as noted by the Finnish Foreign Minister, a world pointing to a future that does not belong only to “the rulers and the strong.”

In preparation for this post, I looked through my grandfather’s collection of UN stamps from 1951, the first year that UN stamps were issued.  The themes were revealing:  stamps highlighting the work of UNICEF and the ILO, stamps honoring the commitment of the UN to human rights.   And there were two others from 1951 of direct relevance to this post – one touting the UN’s commitment to capacity support and the other (at the top of this post) implying that the doors of the UN are open to all peoples of the world, and that it is the “common” people – and not only their diplomats and bureaucrats – who must be able to find something akin to an attentive and respectful haven in this place.

Taken together, this combination of hopefulness and tangible support is a legacy that is worth preserving, a legacy that certainly demands more of each of us, more thoughtfulness, more tangible contributions, more honesty, even more compassion.  It requires many more of us to commit to “hold up the sky” and row the boat, but also a willingness to burden-share, to refuse to “hog the oars” or avoid getting near the boat in the first place.

I recognize every day the degree to which our own little project has become a bit of a dinosaur, wedded to obsolete technology and pushing values that are important at one level but haven’t always served the global interest well as they should have. I also recognize that there is significant interest now in many corners of the globe to simply turn the page, to move on from rowing and holding, to dismiss the institutional arrangements of the past that have led to undeniable progress but also to exclusion and broken promises; arrangements that have allowed existential risks to become near-certainties, and that have extended cooperation with one hand while hording power and resources with the other.

Our fervent wish is for people to read the page before they turn it.

Read the page about the many issues – from sexual violence in armed conflict and nuclear terrorism to climate change and pandemics – for which the UN remains an indispensable point of policy reference.  Read the page about the people like Nujeen Mustafa whose “invisibility” is steadily giving way to recognition and respect.   Read the page about the many delegations reminded of their responsibility to both contribute more to the world they want and offer more tangible encouragement for the contributions of others.  Read the page about those who have dedicated their lives to protect human rights for those who labor and those who protest, for those who are mere bystanders to conflict and those whose vulnerabilities have compromised their very agency.   Read the page where coordinated pressure from UN agencies and member states has created conditions for the dramatic reduction of numerous human scourges, from torture and malaria to state corruption and the recruitment of child soldiers.

This page certainly contains its share of hypocrisy and protocol substituting for genuine gratitude and compassion, but it also contains evidence of a willingness to grow and change, to give a good-faith attempt to resolve its lapses of effectiveness and address the legitimate skepticism of some of its global public. We routinely spend 10 hour weekdays inside the UN, and there are days when we shake our heads so often that our necks become strained.  But we know that this place retains some capacity for self-reflection, occasionally even humor. Together we can fix this place, making it more effective but also more human, insisting that its constituent parts contribute more to the global commons and uphold more fully the values that gave rise to its existence 74 years ago.

At the General Assembly this past week, the Irish Ambassador spoke of the “problems without passports” for which the UN is uniquely if not yet fully equipped to address.  Hers is the section of the page we need to be sure to bookmark.

100 days: South Africa’s Uncertain Direction on the UNSC, by Benji Shulman

26 Apr

Editor’s Note:  Benji Shulman is a resident of South Africa, was an intern with Global Action in the summer of 2014, and has been a colleague of longstanding through our Green Map affiliate.  This reflecton on South Africa’s early tenure on the UN Security Council reflects the policy thoughtfulness we have come to expect from Benji. 

The minister of the Department International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO) of South Africa, recently gave an address to a local think tank on their policy positions for the UN Security Council (see here). South Africa is over three months into its role as a non-permanent member of the council, for the period of 2019-2020. What is immediately apparent is that South Africa’s tenure will bring with a number of opportunities to advance multi-lateral agenda items that are on the UNSC bucket list. However, its ability to deliver these may be hampered by some of its bilateral approaches to international relations.

Two multi-lateral issues of significance in the minister’s statement provide especially good opportunities for South Africa to provide meaningful engagement on the Council.

The first, is that of arms control. The minister noted that from its first term on the Council (this is now its third), it was proud of its achievements in this area. It has also stated that in its role as chair of the African Union, this will also be a priority.  Given the Council’s recent focus on this area, as well as the upcoming NPT “Prep Com” in New York, South Africa’s perspective from a continent where arms control is a serious challenge will be welcome.

The second issue is that of gender. South Africa has pushed this agenda at the UN for a while now, engaging in frameworks for the greater participation for women in peacekeeping mandates and other peace and security responsibilities. A key part of its stated aims will be the support and encouragement of women’s full participation, not just at the UNSC, but also in its own diplomatic corps. In an age where gender campaigns have been gaining prominence, this should continue to receive strong support from member states and NGO’s.

Despite this positive approach, South Africa may find that the above focusses and programmes on their agenda might run into challenges because of some of its bilateral foreign policy priorities. Take for example, two of the country’s stated objectives for its current term:

  • South Africa upholds in the strongest terms the principles of the UN Charter without biastoward any country.
  • We support the peaceful resolution of conflicts, with a focus on prevention, the utilization of mediation approaches, and the promotion of inclusive dialogue.

Three months into its UNSC tenure these objectives are already coming under strain. The first instance, was its voting pattern on the UNSC vote on Myanmar, where South Africa abstained from voting on a resolution condemning that government’s actions against the Rohingya minority. The minister has said, that in effect, this was a “technical error” based on a voting strategy which was adopted before being elected onto the Council.

Nonetheless, other Council members will have good cause to be suspicious of South Africa’s potentially partisan stances.  Members will no doubt be aware of the country’s reputation for a being a “rogue democracy”, voting with the Council’s more autocratic members on various UN resolutions.  South Africa’s minister has been stung by criticism that its standing in the international community has dropped considerably in the last ten years and is clearly looking to restore its moral authority.  The minister’s statement is replete with language about “imperialism” and accusations that western countries are “undermining” regional powers. This will perhaps make member states wonder if South Africa is coming to its Council responsibilities with a more divisive agenda than they have let on so far.

More evidence of this kind of division can be seen in the minister’s posture toward the state of Israel. The statement suggested that South Africa would be looking to downgrade its relations with Israel in the coming term. Most countries on the current Council have been working in the opposite direction in regards to their relationship with Israel, especially the P5. Even Kuwait, which has no official ties with Israel, has seen informal improvements in relations of late. A move by South Africa to distance itself further from Israel could be diplomatically counter-productive and might especially annoy the United States, which already has a poor “UN relationship” with South Africa.

If the current Council members see South Africa’s inclusion on the Council and its behaviour as embracing a too-narrow agenda in terms of its diplomatic relations, then this could prove to be an alienating influence on other members.  This, in turn, would threaten to undermine Council support for South Africa’s aforementioned and quite welcome multi-lateral goals.  Three months is a short time to be on the UNSC but South Africa will have to work out some of these contractions as it goes forward in promoting its agenda.

Money Matters:  An Easter Reflection on the World We Don’t Yet Have, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Apr

Make the World Better

A fine glass vase goes from treasure to trash, the moment it is broken. Fortunately, something else happens to you and me. Pick up your pieces. Then, help me gather mine.  Vera Nazarian

Be aware of the place where you are brought to tears.  Paulo Coelho

With age, gone are the forevers of youth. Gone is the willingness to procrastinate, delay, to play the waiting game.  Joe Wheeler

Change won’t happen because everyone wishes it happens. It happens only when people decide that we’ll never stop digging until we find our gold.  Israelmore Ayivor

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

On a rare spring weekend when the end of the Christian Holy Week and the beginning of the Jewish Passover coincide, I was at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, a place where I did ministry many long years ago.

Amidst the beautiful choral interludes and reflections on crucifixion – a practice which we would now unhesitatingly characterize as torture – a member of the clergy read a long prayer, known as the “Collects.”   Half way through, I heard something that piqued my interest beyond the beautiful petitions that I had once come to know intimately.

We pray for the “members and representatives of the United Nations.”

I don’t know if I technically fit that description, but I do know that many people have “prayed for me” over the years, most to highlight things I was doing that they didn’t like or those times when I was leading myself –or others – astray.   Occasionally I was also “prayed for” in the hope that I would somehow reach my “potential,” would get beyond the childish ways that I dragged far too long into adulthood and assume the responsibility that my education and privilege would suggest and my peers had a right to demand. Mostly in my case, unfortunately, people seemed to assume that they were praying for a “lost soul” rather than for the rapid completion of my somtimes-jagged path towards maturity.

It was in this second sense that this prayer for the UN was intended, “that they may seek justice and truth, and live in peace and concord.” No lost cause here, but rather the fulfillment of an essential and even planet-healing potential.

Surely, this is one hefty solicitation, one which the UN and its diverse stakeholders have yet to reach.  We have, in fact, been a bit too complacent as respect for the rule of law has become an endangered species.   We have too-often replaced jargon and bureaucracy-speak for honest discussion about the future we want and, perhaps more importantly, what stands in our way.   We have allowed politics to taint our primary responsibility to prevent conflict and maintain the peace.  We have refused to play fair in matters of finance and trade thus pushing smaller states into client relationships that force “bargains” that are anything but grand.

At times, the great privilege of working in this policy space for the sake of all life on this stressed planet gets buried under orders from capitals and home offices, and by a “bubble” culture that allows those of us who should know better to believe that the good we are doing is somehow good enough.  Despite frenetic UN activity, despite the many global challenges that rightly find our way into our reports and conference rooms, there is as the Collect goes “too-little health in us.”  As we have noted often, beyond the inspiration of these holy seasons, institutional reform must be accompanied by personal reform; in this instance, the courage to crawl out from under our respective mandates and insist that the good the UN and its member states already do evolves into the good that the times demand.

Such a struggle of potential was on display in several UN venues this week, including a mostly compelling Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) session with Sri Lankan officials on progress made in the realms of development and justice.  As many of you know, the often-horrific violence from earlier this century that officials have already done much to overcome, reappeared this weekend in the form of a series of deadly bomb blasts that tore through churches and hotels.  This is no time or place for second-guessing, but it is worth noting that during this PBC, while the Sri Lankan Finance Minister lauded the “cultural diversity” of his country and praised PBC and other international support for this “maturing democracy,” he and others from the government harshly referenced the “extremists” who pronounce “unfounded criticism” of government development and reconciliation efforts, including the pace of accounting for those still “missing” from the long war. Clearly, the political “co-habitation” envisioned by the Minister in the PBC session still has many miles to go.

And then there was the Financing for Development Forum organized by the president of the Economic and Social Council, Ambassador Rhonda King.  Four days of packed programming, including numerous side events, examined options (with varying degrees of effectiveness) for financing the 2030 Development Agenda, an agenda both daunting and indispensable if we are to emerge from our current malaise of distrust and apathy and forge a healthier, fairer, more secure world.

We were not present for many of the plenary discussions which we were thankfully able to follow through the Global Policy Forum and other of our policy friends.  Some of the side events held greater interest for us, including on “gender-lens impact investing,” on “financial inclusion for the forcibly displaced,” and a hopeful, humble discussion led by El Salvador on creating “feminist foreign policy.”  But the plenary discussions we were able to follow revealed some interesting fault lines on development financing. Some (like us) continued to point out that, despite some success in increasing domestic revenue streams through tax policy reform and the elimination of state corruption, global financial investment is still heavily tilted towards those with incomes, with collateral, with infrastructure already well into development.  Moreover, as noted by several NGOs, the international trading system is similarly skewed towards those states with power and leverage to set the rules.  As some states and civil society worried, the current fiscal ledger for the 2030 Agenda leaves too many inequalities intact, too many skills and voices stranded on the margins, too many waiting for someone to help them “pick up the pieces” before they can move forward.

For all of the well-meaning talent gathered in the Trusteeship Council chamber, it was quite possible to come away from the discussions wondering if this UN commitment is headed in the direction of too many others, a commitment led by people who know well how to “manage” this development race but who apparently have little enough stomach to do what is needed for all of us to reach the finish line.

As the four days of financing for development talk ended, both hopeful and cautionary tales were shared. The eloquent Zambian Ambassador who co-facilitated the draft outcome document eventually approved at this meeting, cited the “beautiful commitments” of the SDGs for which there is surely “enough money in the world.” Without citing bloated defense budgets or other untapped funding sources, he made plain that “we can fund the SDGs if we really want to do so.”  He was followed by Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed who cited 2030 Agenda funding gaps “larger than we had anticipated” while warning against any hint of abandoning yet another promise, this truly grand promise of sustainable development which is tethered to peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, the respect for rights and the rule of law, the nurture of our children and care of our oceans, and ultimately (as she well noted) the vitality and credibility of the multilateral system itself.

We return to the prayer of this holy weekend, a prayer to remember where our collective treasure truly lies: in justice and truth, in peace and concord.  This is the agenda for which delay and procrastination are no longer an option.  This is the gold for which we must never stop digging. This is the place of responsibility and service that must “move us to tears” until our jobs are finally done.

Bad Optics at the UN, by Rex Collins

19 Apr

Editors note:  For the past couple of months, New Orleans native Rex Collins has provided attentive commentary on a range of UN processes largely through his twitter feed:  .  Rex came to us, as have many excellent interns over the years, through the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program.   It’s been valuable for us to “see” the UN through his eyes, as the following post attests. 

In January I attended my first UN event as a Global Action intern: a Peacebuilding Commission meeting to elect new chairs and outline the 2019 work plan. As PBC members presented their aspirations for the new year, I carefully took notes; I was shadowing my new supervisor, Dr. Robert Zuber, and I wanted to make a good impression. But a few hours into the meeting, Dr. Zuber caught me off guard with a simple question: what’s missing? I had no idea, so I was relieved but embarrassed when he quickly revealed the now-obvious answer. Women, said Dr. Zuber. He was right. Almost two hours had passed, and not a single woman had presented a statement. The newly-elected PBC chair eventually recognized the first female presenters of the meeting–the EU representative followed by the Irish ambassador–but only after more than a dozen men had shared. Pardon the expression, but the optics were not great. After witnessing this unfortunate display in the PBC on my first day, it has been surprisingly easy to spot similar scenarios at the UN–scenarios that the outside viewer would perceive as awkward or contradictory to core UN values. In fact during my last two months at the UN, this concept of ‘bad optics’ has emerged as an inescapable, recurring theme.

The next time I observed ‘bad optics’ at the UN was just a week after the PBC meeting. I was sitting across from Dr. Zuber in the Vienna Cafe, checking my emails and enjoying a banana. When I finished my snack, Dr. Zuber asked for the peel so that he could bring it to a composting facility later that evening. This request puzzled me; surely the eco-conscious UN provided compost bins in its dining areas. But when I surveyed the cafe, there were none to be found. This was a surprising revelation, considering the UN recognizes composting as a viable tool for climate action and sustainable development. The UN SDGs website even encourages “average” people to compost in a subsection labeled “The Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World.” The UN advocates for composting and evidently thinks it requires minimal effort, so it would only make sense for the headquarters building to enable staff and guests to responsibly dispose of their compostable waste. But instead, the options are: 1) stuff briefcase with food scraps to be composted later, or 2) dump food waste in super convenient trash bin. Sure, it’s possible that many of the diplomats, security guards and interns opt for the former, but my guess would be that a good majority take the easy way out. I mean, I know where my banana peels would end up if Dr. Zuber didn’t take them off my hands every day. It’s embarrassing that in the same building where member states affirm their national commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the hallways and dining areas are filled with misplaced banana peels and apple cores, just waiting to burn in landfills and release more harmful gasses into the atmosphere. Not a good look.

A more consistent example of ‘bad optics’ that I have encountered at the UN is low attendance at events that should definitely have high attendance. In February, for example, the General Assembly kicked off the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The event was an opportunity to celebrate indigenous populations and the new 2019 Year Theme, but several delegations apparently had better things to do. Dozens of empty chairs and unclaimed placards lined the floor of the GA Hall. I was clearly not the only one who noticed, because the president of Ecuador began his own statement by criticizing the member states that skipped the meeting.

Other events at the UN have suffered from an embarrassing lack of participation by diplomats and other UN stakeholders. This was the case for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, observed last month. You would think a General Assembly meeting to honor victims of intolerance and prevent future discrimination would draw a sizeable crowd, but I was literally the only audience member in the balcony for a good portion of the event. To be fair, the GA Hall is a difficult room to fill, but the scale of the venue made the weak turnouts all the more visible and embarrassing in both cases. Besides, these events did not end up on the UN’s biggest stage by accident. They embodied themes that the UN prioritizes, at least on paper, so it looked pretty bad when so few people bothered to show up.

So why do optics at the UN matter? Sure, these instances can simply be awkward (e.g., the Russian ambassador highlighting the “femininity” of female colleagues in front of the predominantly male Security Council on International Women’s Day), but they can also have real consequences. For example, the cases I’ve observed reflect what some would see as a pattern of UN hypocrisy that can turn off onlookers. Students, civil society and other observant guests will likely take note of missteps like the gender imbalance in the PBC or the missing compost bins, potentially leading them to question the UN’s commitment to its own principles, including on the 2030 Development Agenda. Furthermore, ‘bad optics’ can be discouraging –for the indigenous guest speaker addressing a half-empty General Assembly, or the young woman and aspiring diplomat waiting too long to hear another woman’s voice. Such displays leave UN stakeholders feeling neglected rather than included or empowered. Finally, these instances normalize bad habits. Employees are more likely to disregard composting altogether when they witness coworkers trashing food waste on a regular basis, and delegations may become inclined to skip events when they see others doing the same.

Sometimes, whether we like to admit it or not, appearances do matter; when the UN appears to take shortcuts or break its own rules, it can lose credibility, alienate its audience and reinforce damaging practices. Optics aren’t everything, but the community of the United Nations would do well to take them more seriously.