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Home Depot: Reliable Spaces to and From Familiar Places, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Dec

A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended. Ian McEwan

He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none. Madeline Miller

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

There can be few situations more fearful than breaking down in darkness on the highway leading to Casablanca. I have rarely felt quite so vulnerable or alone. Tahir Shah

The UN spent the week meeting in far-flung corners on issues that in some key ways would have fit nicely together.  In New York, a special event called to mind the special needs and special potentials of persons with disabilities.  Despite the fact that as many as 1 billion of our species has a recognized (if not always recognizable) disability, we continue to organize the world around those who can demonstrate more than a modicum of mobility, emotional restraint or sensory normalcy.   Even more insidious, we still look upon persons with disability through the lens of that disability, as though they could somehow be reduced to the “thing they don’t have,” as if “normal” was the objective to be aspired to rather than placing the unique set of skills one does possess – sometimes in abundance – into productive use in the world.

The failure to accommodate persons who don’t, through no fault of their own, conform to some arbitrary notion of “normalcy” has implications beyond access to education, employment or social services.   Indeed at two major events “off campus,” the reluctance to factor difference into our planning was on display, specifically our reticence to recognize that our current, severe and common vulnerabilities provide distinct opportunities and challenges for persons who perhaps “can’t keep up” in one sense but can contribute much in another.

These major events – one in Poland (on climate change) and the other in Morocco (on migration) could well have been organized in tandem as the failure to satisfactorily address one crisis directly exacerbates the other.  While there was some attempt to address issue linkages, especially in some of the Poland side events, it isn’t clear that the international community completely grasps the degree to which severe storms and unprecedented drought (not to mention bombs and landmines) drive often dangerous and chaotic migration flows of persons who can no longer make a go of it in the places they call home.  The Global Compact on Migration, which is scheduled to be signed by many high officials as this essay is being posted, is not completely silent on climate and disability challenges, but neither does it recognize the degree to which our planet has become a starting gate of sorts for all kinds of persons racing (if they can) towards borders and makeshift ports in the hope of escaping the effects of lakes turned to sand, schools and hospitals reduced to rubble.

If they can: There is no wheelchair access at the embarkation points.   There is no foam to brace the falls from clumsy ascents of border walls on legs that simply cannot hold the weight.   There is no security for those forced to run from border guards but who cannot see the flimsy trails to freedom or safety.  In every respect the desperate path to the possibility of a better life is made more difficult, more treacherous, more frustrating, more dangerous by “difference.”

And while the Global Compact’s concern is with establishing consensus principles of migration governance (which it does well by the way), it is less focused on persons for whom migration is essentially coerced, driven by circumstance at least as much as by voluntary will.   On one afternoon during an exposure in Marrakesh with Churches Witnessing With Migrants (CWWM), an event on the margins of the Global Compact signing, we sat with a courtyard full of (mostly men) who had fled from violence and economic uncertainty in several African countries, but primarily from the Anglophone regions of Cameroon where I have spent some good time in the past.  The circumstances in the courtyard were dire, but the people themselves were not.   While they waited for blankets and basic provisions with a stoicism that occasionally leaked anger and frustration we talked about the places they had come from, the places they hoped to go, the skills they sought to share, and the myriad of obstacles that seemed to block every point of potential access.

The mood in the courtyard, despite the remarkable efforts of the local church staff, was subdued, even resigned.  Were it not for the few children running around, making up their games, the life energy of these people would have suggested that they were at an impasse – unable to go further and yet unwilling for now to go back.  They all shared scars from violence endured and family support forfeited but the blind and the lame were not among their numbers.  This was not a journey for them to make.  They have little choice but to remain behind with hopefully enough of a safety net to keep them afloat until the political crises abate and the soils regain their fertility.

The people who made it to the courtyard were described as alternately angry and frustrated, in part because they were persons of some honor before their world caved in, persons who likely never imagined they would find themselves in an alleyway waiting for someone to distribute a few provisions so they could make it through another cold Marrakesh night. Even if these people had not been torn from their communities by a state and security establishment that couldn’t leave well enough alone, it is still disconcerting to discover that doors are more often closed than ajar – doors to basic necessities but also to the jobs and dignity they left behind many miles ago.

While some of us in Marrakesh tried to think through our responsibilities to a world increasingly pushed out of homes and livelihoods, the news coming from Poland was little short of grim.  We are not making our collective climate targets.  Indeed, due in part to influential climate skeptics and the millions who continue to live as though massive storms and mass extinctions are mere anomalies, this past year set a dubious and dangerous record for emissions.  Despite all the warnings, despite weather maps that resemble Hollywood-produced alien invasions, we mostly continue on our merry way, keeping our credit lines open and our borders closed.

Our CWWM event had moments of good policy insight though such were sometimes buried in the clear and present responsibility to meet the needs that manifested themselves (in this instance) at the church door, to feed and cover and comfort and refer, and even to make the stories of those on almost unimaginable journeys speak to the unconvinced or merely indifferent, journeys in this age of climate shocks, state-sanctioned violence and discrimination that are only likely to increase in number and dimensions of difficulty.

What most of these journeys have in common is that those making them exhibit limited trust levels, occasionally of the churches and other caregivers, certainly of governments and their multilateral Compacts.  To be fair, this Compact certainly has some wise referrals, including to fulfill our 2030 Development responsibilities so as to minimize the incentives for people to leave their homes as well as an injunction to do more to make a public case that, as with those in the Marrakesh courtyard, most migrants have skills that can contribute much to sustainable development whether in transit, at their intended destination, or back in their preferred communities.

But in this current matrix of mistrust, NGOs and churches are left to do what they so often try to do – fix the broken, bandage the wounded, satisfy some of the empty stomachs and even emptier souls, doing just enough to address the miseries and fill the voids such that government officials and their five-star entourages don’t have to feel too badly about migrant-related agreements that are largely government driven, government negotiated and –when it suits their purposes– government neglected.

Many at our CWWM event have often been in this difficult place, with needs staring us in the face while the responsibilities to make good policy that can impact the many beyond the courtyard also beckon.  We are not so callous that we can step over and around those facing acute need, even with the consequence of enabling governments to care less in the process. But neither can we leave policy entirely to the governments, the same governments who claim a sovereign right to keep internally displaced persons out of the Compact’s protections, the same governments that hesitated to meaningfully integrate special accountability for migrants with disabilities and others facing acute vulnerabilities, the same governments which relegate churches and NGOs to meeting the needs of those in their gaze while state officials grant themselves de facto permission to turn their own gaze towards other “pressing” matters.

The lessons for me this past week are clear:  We must provide care as best we can but not enable other persons and entities to withhold their own.  We must protect the right of movement but also do more to ensure that those wishing to stay in their homes can do so.  We who are able must contribute more to policies of protection and accompaniment for displaced persons remaining within national borders and not only people crossing over.  And we must ensure that persons with disabilities and others facing multiple vulnerabilities are given special attention, that their “right to migrate” is also honored.

We all have our scars; we have all faced metaphorical abandonments on dark and lonely roads.  Moreover all have contributed in some way to a violent, over-heated world where so many need “mending,” need accompaniment, need tangible reminders that they are more than the provisions periodically extended to them. These messes we’ve made; these vulnerabilities we’ve ignored; these will become the tests of our collective character, our collective attentiveness, our collective promise to heal as best we can the wounds of the legion of persons from many cultures and walks of life now on the move.


Graduation Day:  Alleviating the Anxiety of Transition, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Dec

Aral II

Aral Sea 2018

Graduation can be a day on which we turn back and trace our steps to see how we ended up where we are. Taylor Mali

A graduation ceremony is where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that “individuality” is the key to success. Robert Orben

Now is the time to make sure we have the strings of all the balloons we want to keep before they all float away.  Maggie Stiefvater

The world is waiting for us to graduate from ourselves.  Shannon L. Alder

Later this month, my sweet niece is graduating from college, a bit later than she might have wished but with a diploma that will help her develop further a life with already clear contours. I’m proud of her for many reasons, one of which is that she did not wait to graduate to set her life on what already seems to be a thoughtful and responsible course.

But as with other graduates, hers is not a simple course.  Higher eduction, for many of those fortunate enough to matriculate, has become a safe and predictable womb, where everyone is roughly the same age, seems to be on a similar track, and where the consequences of missed assignments and raunchy parties are mostly kept under wraps. Unlike the world at large, especially in this overly-intrusive, cell phone-obsessed social environment, what happens on campus largely stays on campus.

But even those longing to gain some distance from the social limitatons and passive learning of many schools understand that graduation itself poses hard questions and exposes serious risks. Can we make it in the world beyond classroom deadlines and “In loco parentis” oversight?  Can we cope in a world where both safety nets and government competence are often uneven at best and hostile at worst?  Can we make decisions we can live with about the “balloons” we let go and the ones we hold on to?

There is anxiety in graduation, anxiety connected to both how much we trust the world and how much we trust ourselves.  Do we trust the current caretakers of the planet to do right by us, by others beyond our “tribe,” or by those who will hopefully come after us?  Will we find meaningful life activity that can sustain our bodies and souls while helping to reverse trends that threaten oceans and coastal health, that embolden traffickers and insurgencies, that push millions from homes they would prefer to remain in?  Do we trust that our leadership can create enough stable spaces such that many millions of young people will one day be able and willing to look back with some satisfaction at how far their talents and character were able to take them?

And it is not only young people who face graduation-related anxieties.  Nations do also.

In a fine event on the margins of the South-South Cooperation EXPO which took over large swaths of UN conference rooms this week, the Department of Economic and Social Affairs launched the “Handbook on the Least Developed Country Category.”  The discussions within the UN and the Handbook itself are both remarkable in their comprehensiveness – metrics for both defining what “Least Developed” looks like but, more importantly, ensuring  “special support measures” for states set to “graduate” from Least Developed to Middle-Income status.  Such measures include what the report calls “last-mile finance,” as well as “preferred market access” and continued entrée to the “technology bank” established to move resources and best-practices between and among the Least Developed States.

The complementary goals of these discussions and metrics are, on the one hand, to reassure states that the support to which they have become accustomed will be adjusted in a rational and, as much as possible, contextual manner, that the negative consequences of transition will be managed as smoothly as possible. But the larger goal is to ensure that states that have “graduated” do not slip back into “Least Developed” status, that states are able to maximize and manage domestic revenue, protect their resources, engage in productive and reciprocal trade relations, continue to address what the UN once deemed their “severe structural impediments,” and ultimately fulfill their responsibilities to the 2030 Development Agenda.

During the report launch, there was a bit of legitimate grousing from a couple of member states worried about context, specifically the apparent inflexibility of the three-year timeline to complete “graduation requirements.”  But it would be hard to walk away from that meeting or after perusing the report and not conclude that the UN has done due diligence in preparing states to function effectively in the international community under a “graduated” economic status.

And yet the anxiety of states is not the only anxiety that needs to be addressed.   Residents of many states, and certainly within “Least Developed” contexts, also have need of assurance.  While the quality and trustworthiness of governance was not a major concern for the report, it is a concern for many who will be affected by graduation-related decisions made largely by governments in collaboration with donors and major policy partners.   And there are legitimate trust issues directed at many governments and international institutions which become, as with college students soon to graduate, particularly acute during times of transition.

Other UN events this week principally involving Burundi (Least Developed) and Uzbekistan (Middle Income) illustrate dimensions of trustworthiness that affect more than a few states.  For Burundi, which has been seeking to transition off the agenda of the UN Security Council while remaining tethered to the UN Peacebuilding Commission, their strategy seems focused on simultaneously seeking development assistance while keeping the UN and other international agencies at arms-length when it comes to fulfilling human rights obligations, ensuring safe return of displaced persons or managing corruption.  In this, Burundi is clearly not yet on the same page as many of its donors (nor the many Burundians who occasionally debate their future on our twitter page).  The government’s argument is a bit like the teenager who demands their allowance and then insists that parents “stay out of their business,” not the best formula for trustbuilding, in our view.

As for Uzbekistan, they presided over a fine meeting this week on the Aral Sea, what was once the largest lake in the world is now reduced over the course of a single generation into what the distributed report referred to as a “lifeless wasteland” with major implications for biodiversity and human well-being. While much of the session was focused on initiatives to “restore optimism,” stimulate livelihoods and push back desertification, some spoke openly of “moving populations” who had prospered in the Aral Sea region for many generations and who had little or nothing to do with the ecological carnage that now surrounds them.  Moreover, there were no apologies issued for the delays in response, no clear assessment of the “steps” that led the Aral region from water to dust, no convincing explanation of how the “environmental consequences” of what the SG referred to as one of the great “ecological catastrophes” of our time could have escaped our collective attention for so long.

Collectively, we were tardy and even negligent on the rescue of the Aral Sea just as we have been on Syria, on Yemen, on climate threats, on weapons proliferation and a host of other issues that have serious consequences for how much trust governments – especially governments in transition – can reasonably expect from their own people. And unless we are prepared to pay as much attention to the trust dimensions of graduation as to its metrics, unless we are willing to “trace our steps” while preparing to step out again, we will continue to struggle getting states to transition their contracts with UN and funding agencies into a broader and more fruitful contract with their own people.

Back to campus, we all remember graduation speeches filled with pious declarations about the future and sometimes-ironic advice about how to get there.  Here’s another, perhaps-also-pious suggestion for individuals and states alike:  If we want to ensure progress on development and conflict, on human rights and environmental decay; if we want to ensure that developing states stay “graduated” and can build stronger bonds of trust with their constituencies; then it is important that we elevate our commitment to start on time and remain thoughtful throughout. While most of us continue our struggle to “graduate from ourselves” so to more effectively embrace an uncertain future, we must also insist that our leaders do likewise.

Ukraine’s Multi-Faceted Saga, by Claudia Lamberty

29 Nov

Editor’s Note:   Since May upon her graduation from Skidmore College, Claudia has been a frequent presence in UN conference rooms, including in the Security Council chamber. While she and her GAPW cohort continue to assess the value and relevance of the UN for their generation’s future, all have been encouraged to think and write about areas of special interest.  For Claudia, the situation in Ukraine is one of those areas. 

The Russian occupation of Ukraine continues to fuel hostility in an already adversarial international climate. In late October, then Security Council President Bolivia organized a meeting to address the situation in eastern Ukraine – the first of its kind since May 2018. The meeting was followed by a side-event to further elaborate on human rights abuses in Crimea. Despite the supplementary meeting’s low attendance the event organized by Ukraine was poignant and persuasive. When it comes to permanent members of the Security Council, there simply is no room for systematic violations of the UN Charter and other relevant frameworks. And yet, less than a month after this meeting, Security Council President China was forced to confront the latest of Russian provocations.

In October’s Security Council meeting the Undersecretary of Political Affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, briefed the council on the situation in eastern Ukraine. Since 2014 Russia’s occupation of Crimea and its fueling of conflict in the Donbas region have fostered social unrest and impeded efforts towards a sustainable peace. The meeting was organized to hold Russia accountable for the humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine and scale up efforts in the aid process. Despite expressions of decisive support towards reconciliation and while noting a general decline in levels of violence, the situation continues to breed uncertainty and instability in the region. Ambitions to demilitarize the zone of conflict in Donbas must not lose momentum among Security Council members.  

Ukraine’s objections to the preparation of elections in Crimea and elsewhere in the east of the country remain consistent. The Minsk Agreement (2014), the first negotiation of peace regarding Russia-Ukraine, dutifully addresses the scheduling of elections. According to DiCarlo’s briefing, “Any measures taken outside of Ukraine’s constitutional framework would be incompatible with the Minsk Agreement.” Russia cannot demonize our democratic modalities in order to gain or maintain control.

Infringement on Ukrainian political will is only exacerbated by the humanitarian crisis faced by local residents in the region. According to the Assistant Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 70 disruptions of local water supplies have occurred since 2017. Deliberate destruction of infrastructure obstructs civilian access to resources. The safety and health of civilians must be a priority for all parties to the conflict and Russian collaborators have failed to prioritize the needs and livelihoods of at-risk families. It was made clear that more can and should be done to support civilians and the internally displaced.

Russia’s occupational and administrative tactics in the region continue to violate measures intended to preserve human rights and thwart international aggression. As highlighted in the Security Council and the related side-event, accusations against Russia appear to be firmly supported by its violations of the Minsk Agreement, the Paris Charter, International Humanitarian Law, the Helsinki Accords, Law of the Sea, and the Law of Occupation. During this turbulent time it’s unfortunately starting to feel like commitments to multilateralism are too much to ask for. Russia must be held to the highest standards of international diplomacy as a permanent member of the Security Council. Instead military occupation seriously impedes diplomacy and the dwindling integrity of the UN continues to be fueled by the P5.

Instances of censorship and non-commitment to transparency are also serious red flags in the escalation of conflict.  For example, Russia’s refusal to accept UNHCR monitoring of the Donbas and Crimea regions opens the door to new violations of what are legally binding frameworks.  The silencing of Ukrainians seeking their full entitlement to land, resources and ethnic identities will only lead to a worsening of conditions. When given an opportunity to defend itself in the Security Council, Russia responded with blatant and stubborn rejection of any accountability. As the Ambassador to Ukraine poignantly stated, “Elections are only a stepping stone to a new cycle of Russian aggression.” The broader UN community must not allow the continuation of textbook human rights abuses especially when the accused sits in the Security Council chamber every day and evaluates the behavior of others.

Very recently at the UN, an emergency meeting in the Security Council addressed the latest act of alleged Russian aggression against Ukraine. The event in question took place on November 25th under a Russian-built bridge in the Kerch strait. The strait is the only passageway between the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, which is located northeast of Crimea and borders both Russia and Ukraine. Russian warships blocked the strait and proceeded to ram into and open fire on 3 Ukrainian vessels. Several Ukrainian seamen were injured in the attack. The event proved to be another chapter in Russian’s persistent annexation of Crimea and disregard for Ukraine’s navigational rights. According to the Ambassador of Ukraine, the incident was a clear violation of the Law of the Sea, as well as other treaties that assert the neutrality of the Azov Sea. Ukraine has officially declared martial law for thirty days as a result of escalating aggression: a political strategy that will perhaps only further summon Russian militancy. 

Once again, Security Council members scrutinized Russia’s provocations and its refusal to take responsibility. When given an opportunity to address the situation, Russia denied any references to Crimea within the Minsk Agreements and yet again played victim. The current situation continues to jeopardize the integrity of legally binding agreements and calls into question UN handling of fragile circumstances. Unfortunately, the outcome of the meeting did not measure up to its urgency. While Security Council members condemned the act of violence, little progress was made in scheduling consultations or providing tangible measures to mitigate the conflict. Hoping for political solutions is not the same as creating the conditions for them.

The weakening integrity of our political infrastructure can only be curtailed once our permanent Security Council members stop pointing fingers and take responsibility for their own actions. During this divisive moment in our global politics, acts of operational, administrative, and economic aggression in the name of one or another major power are increasingly common and unfortunately fail to surprise. The dwindling integrity of our global institutions cannot afford to be fueled by the P5. Existing legal and political instruments can be better utilized to prevent conflict and restore the dignity of those who continue to be bullied by powerful states.



The Gift of Anticipation:   An Advent Reflection, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Nov


For Jim Torrens

If you come at four in the afternoon, I’ll begin to be happy by three.  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This present hour of joy should run at half the speed of those long hours of waiting. Albert Camus

It is desire that can live with deferral, an embrace of the God-shaped vacuum in us and a commitment to stop trying to make it full, a healthy hunger that is content to wait for the feast.  Amy Simpson

It is no exaggeration to say that the suffering we most frequently encounter is the suffering of memories.  Henri Nouwen

I was like a child leaving a gift unwrapped, the anticipation more exciting than the reality.  Karen White

We in the West have an odd relationship to anticipation.  Our current worldview is based so much on control – of circumstances, of our own brand and the narratives that define it – that anticipation for us mostly drives our anxiety.  And anxiety tends to push the envelope of self-referential aggressiveness, burying envelopes labeled “kindness” and “self-reflection” deep within our shelves.  Anxiety also tends to distort vision for both our challenging present and a more promising future, a bit like the dark lenses some of us choose to wear around town on an already gloomy day.

I have reflected a bit this week on the scene around the manger where, in Christian lore, the shepherds gathered to witness the coming of the Christ child.   Some of the greatest painters in western history have tried to capture this scene – but for me none quite like Rembrandt and his studio.  In London, in Munich and elsewhere, this precious scene and its affects are given the care and attention they deserve.  The results are neither sentimental nor quizzical.  The look in the eyes of the shepherds suggests that this dusty manger is where they belonged. The setting in which their anticipation became incarnate was surely not entirely what they expected.  But somewhere deep inside they expected the arrival of this energy, this hope, this message emanating from both beyond and within, a signal that life now stood a fundamentally better chance than was the case only one cold evening before.

Through the brush-strokes of Rembrandt, it seems clear (to me at least) that the shepherds had prepared to experience such a moment. They were not mere passers-by, indulging a curiosity, taking the antiquities-version of a selfie in case what they were seeing turned out to be “likeable.”  They were there because somehow or other they had prepared to be there.  They were in deeply moved by what they were witnessing, as well they might have been.  But they who spent much of their lives working their flocks had somehow anticipated this moment, anticipated that life could not go on as it had, that the hope represented by the manger child was one that had to be embraced and lived before it could be directly (and fully) experienced.

Were it otherwise, this scene might never have had the impact it did, an impact that a great painter and his best students could capture anew many centuries on.  Instead the effect would have been closer to “just one more baby born in a barn,” one more baby facing a life on the run, under occupation, with meager provisions and opportunities, a baby whose only option would be to line up alongside the legions already consumed by the demands of the present, including the “suffering of memories,” not the anticipation and wonder associated with a potentially renewed creation.

As most of you recognize, I spend a lot of time at the United Nations, perhaps more than my psychological and spiritual resources can manage.   And we who are focused mostly  on security threats and arrangements have also been preoccupied with the Sustainable Development Goals,  perhaps the most comprehensive and far-reaching promise that we human creatures can make to ourselves and our children — that by 2030 the world will be cleaner, cooler, safer, healthier, more just and more peaceful.

The 2030 Development Agenda has engendered many important discussions at and beyond the UN on key elements that will determine whether this promise becomes incarnate on a planet that might not be able for much longer to continue indulging our foolishness if we fail: securing real-time data and concessional funding, promoting good governance and development cooperation, ensuring inclusiveness and biodiversity.

It’s all good but, as many are whispering in the corridors outside UN conference rooms, it doesn’t yet seem to be enough.   We’re not making progress in many key areas and in some we are actually losing ground.   We’re not hitting our climate targets.  Hunger is on the rise as is nationalism-fueled discrimination.  Our appetite for weapons and fossil fuels seems at times insatiable, while our appetite for justice is easily appeased and our collective priorities seem mired – at least for the time being — in predatory economics and cynical politics.

What is the matter here?  Why are even our best efforts not resulting in better metrics?  The message of Advent seems clear on this point:  We have adjusted our policies, but so far failed to adjust our expectations, our commitments, even our appetites.  We have made our noble promises but so far largely failed to embrace —-in our energies and values — the peaceful and balanced world to which these promises point.  Too often, we are waiting for change without living the change.

Many certainly acknowledge the challenges, but too-often conclude that they have nothing to do with us or, more frequently, that we will adjust as little as possible about ourselves and our priorities, simply hoping to ride out this storm.  Ironically, perhaps, the very governments and international institutions that many now say they don’t trust are nevertheless being entrusted with the responsibility to turn this world around – largely, still, without our involvement let alone our practical commitment.

Something is clearly missing. We have this glorious blueprint for sustainable change, but few of us (and certainly few in power) have put their personal adjustments on the table.  What have those of us who work with these issues on a daily basis, who witness the current decline and the limits of our capacity to reverse it, what have we pledged to change in our own lives?  How are we living in anticipation of the world that can sustain the life which is currently under such severe threat?  How have dimensions of our participation in the current culture of predation evolved into a “healthier hunger?”

These are not snarky questions.  Indeed, the answers are more than instructive and could even be inspirational.  If the world we inhabit is not substantially different by 2030, it will be in large part because we have not prepared sufficiently for the hope that the Sustainable Development Goals represent.  As a species, we are not yet resolved to live out the promise of a healthier, fairer more peaceful world in anticipation of its eventual fulfillment.  What will the world look like if we get what we say we want?  Will it convey all (or most) of the benefits that we have promised?  And how can those benefits possibly convey in the absence of the best of ourselves–our willingness to live in anticipation of a world that, in several key ways, must look little like the current order, to recognize that this is more about us than about policy and technique, that 2030 is not the starting line for our planetary hope, though it may become its terminus?

If one searches “living in the power of the future,” one of the very first items you get back is an article about living off the grid.  Indeed, the current “grid” which holds us in its grasp is technologically sophisticated but often morally barren and mostly uninspiring.  It is a grid that demands as little from us as possible, that discourages us from thinking hard about the world to come, what that world will look like, and what it will require of us; indeed what it requires of us now.  Getting distance from such a grid, renouncing some of its uninvited power over our lives, might well be our own “manger moment.”

The baby in the hay is, for this unworthy servant at least, the place where anticipation meets incarnation, where the recognition that we simply “cannot go on this way” meets the energy and grace that can get us through to a better place. But there is no magic moment here, no point at which a world capable of sustaining our lives going forward simply appears.  The manger may represent a divine promise, but it’s one which we who pretend to hear it have never done enough to keep.  Despite our past malfunctions and sometimes anguished memories, we must do our part and do it with greater resolve.

If the world we seek is promised to arrive at 4PM then we must commit, in aspiration and in practice, to being happier and better-prepared by 3.

Gun Running: New Prospects towards Silencing the Weapons, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Nov

Ignore those that make you fearful and sad, that degrade you back towards disease and death. Rumi Jalalud-Din

Why do we call all our generous ideas illusions and the mean ones truths?  Edith Wharton

Grief does not change you.  It reveals you.  John Green

Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.  George Bernard Shaw

This past week, I was honored to team-teach a course at the NATO School, located in the German Alps.  The School attracts military and diplomatic personnel from NATOs 29 members, but also from other states which are considering membership or which have training needs that cannot routinely be fulfilled at national level.

To say the least, NATO isn’t the usual stomping grounds for Global Action.  Indeed, we were one of the voices (rightly or not) that questioned the existence of NATO as the Cold War subsided, assuming that the continued existence of such a partisan, militarily-focused organization in the absence of a clear security threat (“enemy” as they would say) would likely stoke future tensions as sustain their elimination.

And then Crimea happened, and whatever we imagined to be the trajectory for a thaw in global tensions had to be recalibrated.  Moreover, and despite the occasional Russia-obsessive policy responses within NATO countries, there appeared other visible, credible threats to international peace and security in the form of climate degradation, famine in Yemen, insurgencies across the Sahel, DPRK missile launches as well as nationalist and racialist resurgences inside several NATO states on both sides of the Atlantic.

And then there are the weapons which we continue to develop and then deploy in every corner of our proximate universe: modernized nuclear weapons, weapons in outer space, autonomous weapons, new generations of rapid-firing small arms, more target-efficient shoulder mounted weapons, all of which push from prominence previous generations of arms, weapons that are still deadly, still a major generator of grief in our communities, still threatening to civilians and protection forces alike.

The concept note for the course stressed two matters seemingly unrelated but integral nonetheless.  The first is an opening to leverage the impact of a large alliance that NATO created in June at the review of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons, an opening for greater collaborative engagement as stressed in the statement written by the widely-respected Roman Hunger (also the primary director for this NATO course).  The second piece is the recognition that our agreements and resolutions, at the UN and beyond, have largely failed to alleviate a problem that seems to get more serious by the month – weapons being “improved”, trafficked over borders and through port facilities, leaked from storage, sold on the black market and on the dark web, printed 3-D or created as “craft weapons” or improvised explosives.  This arms activity creates gaps between what we have promised global constituents and what we have so far been able to deliver.  It is this need for better “promise keeping” together with enhancing prospects for NATO as an honest broker on arms production, destruction and trade within its alliance that created the incentive for our own participation.

Our group of 18 consisted of active military and equally active diplomats.   NGOs and NATO representatives were brought in to cover both the status of international small arms agreements and the “state of play” on technical matters from arms destruction and landmine clearance to addressing arms trafficking and the need for more comprehensive data on arms movements, especially in areas such as the Balkans where circulating arms too-often seem to hone in on unauthorized and unstable users.  We also spent time on the gendered dimensions of the arms trade in the process reaffirming the non-negotiable premise that all security sector dimensions must be better balanced by gender.

As one might expect, there were disagreements among participants regarding where and how to push, largely due to their positioning in the world.   While diplomats wrestled with how to better engage NATO in all areas of disarmament, including in the often-neglected area of small arms, active duty military had a somewhat different interest – how to protect themselves and those they in turn were tasked with protecting from small arms ambushes or makeshift explosive devices while on patrol.   Some of these differences of focus were narrowed during “syndicate” meetings which allowed participants and their “coaches” to debate and share recommendations for NATO on how the world we collectively inhabit can be made safer, fairer and more fulfilling for persons within and beyond the NATO orbit.

Perhaps the one thread that most linked course discussions beyond the weapons themselves was the need for accurate, timely data on small arms throughout their (often lengthy) life cycle.  Given the vast numbers of “second hand” weapons that have been dumped on our streets and in otherwise unstable societies, and given the “lust” of governments (of more or less corrupt dispositions) for state-of-the-art armaments, the challenges of monitoring weapons flows, weapons storage and weapons availability is vast.  Once ammunition is thrown into this mix — and as the “oxygen” of weaponry it needs to be there — these data challenges merely multiply.

Two highlights (for me) emerged from the many insights in our discussions. First, that while data is essential to evidence-based policy, we might also consider producing a “user’s manual” for data in terms of its reliability, its comprehensiveness of scope and relevant disaggregation, its timeliness in unfolding ever-evolving security contingencies.  In addition, as noted by one of the more senior military officials in the course, we must ensure that data does not become a substitute for action or even an impediment to it.   Getting the numbers right and getting the world right are overlapping but not identical tasks.

The other learning of high note had to do less with numbers and weapons, and more with ourselves.  We seem now to have greater insight into our tools and toys than the humans behind the controls.  We routinely have better success (though not enough of it) manipulating the outside world than fixing our inner spaces.  We recognized through this course that, regardless of our disarmament views, we must do a better job of ensuring that future procurement is relevant to civilian protection, a better job of making security from weapons fully beholden to the goal of security for communities.

This weekend before boarding a plane for home, I was privileged to visit the Alte Pinakothek in Munich and its extraordinary collection of paintings by Rubens, including one of his “Allegory of Peace” series along with many other of his graphic images of war and even interpretations of Armageddon that routinely sent shivers down my spine. Yes, we might indeed have come a considerable way as a species in terms of our thirst for violence, lust and revenge, but we have also created new threats to our very existence that we have not properly prepared for.  Moreover, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, we are in the midst of a cynical cycle of half-hearted actions and half-baked solutions.  More than we might recognize, we need to find the path to believe again in life-upholding change, to reaffirm our ability to prevent and transform threats of violent conflict.  We need to believe that the thin coating of civilization that barely now protects us from the worst of our predatory impulses can be fortified and made more sustainable with additional layers of varnish.

Our best impulses on moving (carefully as many of our students warned)  to a world of fewer arms made, fewer arms sold, fewer arms trafficked, fewer arms used to intimidate and abuse are not at all “illusions.”  These impulses are necessary to creating stable environments from which we can address our other sustainable goals commitments – from governments we can trust to oceans that can continue to support the life on which we all depend.   Terror and other threats notwithstanding, these and related promises simply will not come to pass at the tip of a gun.  For all the weapons we have convinced ourselves we need, we will never be able to shoot our way to a sustainable future for our children.  Our grief will some day overcome us if we think otherwise.

What became clear from this course amidst all the technical guidance and skepticism about peaceful change is that the ingredients to sustain ourselves and our planet are still available to us.  Our task now is in part about us:  to refuse to settle, to ask the next questions, to keep pulling metaphorical spices from the shelves until the recipe for our common survival is satisfying for all.   We can do this, but it will take more caring and flexibility from each of us in all our diverse deployments, more resistance to the current degrading of our humanity which promises little more for our common future than “disease and death.”

Hunger Pangs: Cooperating on the Things People Long For, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Nov

Blog Photo Please

Let him who has not a single speck of migration to blot his family escutcheon cast the first stone. José Saramago

Once you set out from shore on your little boat, once you embark, you’ll never truly be at home again. What you’ve left behind exists only in memory, and your ideal place becomes some strange imaginary concoction of all you’ve left behind at every stop.  Claire Messud

Human traffickers are simply vectors of the contempt which exists at the two poles of the asylum seeker’s journey; they take their cue from the attitudes of warlords and dictators, on the one hand, and, on the other, of wealthy states whose citizens have learned to think of generosity as a vice. Jeremy Harding

At times it seems as if the whole world has become a refugee and the few of us, who are privileged enough to wake up to the sound of an alarm clock instead of a siren, those of us who are enveloped by a veil of safety many of us fail to appreciate, have become desensitized to the migrating numbers, to the images of the dead, shrugging them away as a collective misery that this ailing part of the world must endure.  Aysha Taryam

This past Tuesday, the UN convened a special meeting bringing together the President of the General Assembly (PGA), María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, and the heads of various UN agencies tasked with addressing food insecurity and promoting Goal 2 of the Sustainable Development Goals – End all forms of hunger and malnutrition by the year 2030.

On the surface, and given some of the complexities of funding and indicators afflicting other SDGs, this one would appear to be an utterly achievable goal.   Supermarkets in the US and Western Europe are bursting with fresh and prepared foodstuffs, and those foods are trending in the direction of fewer pesticides and greater nutritional value.   Agricultural technology offers the promise of crop yields even on lands that have long since been abandoned. It seems difficult to imagine that there is another side to food access that is actually growing and, in the case of Yemen, becoming more and more grotesque as military assaults and climate-related events gouge any and all prospects for local food security.   While walking the aisles of our superstores, it is more challenging than it should be to think about the often-devastating impact of bombing raids and rainless seasons on small holder farmers, male and female alike, whose labors are essential to the stability of local communities from the Sahel to Syria.

There are times when heartbreak where we have made our homes simply becomes too much to bear.  As we see now in the midst of the California inferno, this can be true even for people in more affluent settings. For those in settings closer to the margins, we find many family members and neighbors doing all they can to ensure stability and nourishment for the children in the places they come from. But for millions, when the sea waters rise and the tsunamis come ashore, when the landmines explode and the rains refuse to fall for yet another year, they simply can do no more to keep those places.

Tuesday’s UN event was based in large measure on a resolution of the General Assembly supplemented by some excellent (if a bit more abstract) analysis on the conflict and climate triggers of our growing hunger challenge offered by senior UN officials from the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development as well as from several member states led by Italy.  The resolution covers these triggers in good detail (as did many event speakers) and lays out a strategy that involves more innovative support for rural areas, including for small holder farmers, such that people can better cope with political and environmental hazards and increase the chances that families can somehow remain in their communities of origin.

What was new about this particular event, and happily so, was the migration-focus of much of this discussion. The aforementioned resolution does not mention migrants at all, but this omission was rectified as speaker after speaker made the migration-hunger connection. As PGA Espinosa Garcés, put it, we are in serious need of a “course correction” when it comes to our global commitment to end hunger, more specifically to eliminate food security among migrant families, with a special concern for forced migrants. This requires adoption of a formula that more than a few who labor within the policy world of the UN would advocate: offering mindful hospitality , ensuring  consistent, comprehensive and rights-based migration governance, and doing more to end violence and mitigate risks that undermine even the most ardent attempts by farmers and families to maintain the homes of their youth.

These are responsibilities, like so many others in the world, that mandate a careful blend of national ownership and implementation together with cross-border and multilateral cooperation.  The “go it alone,” “take care of our own” mentality that seems to be spreading like the plague in these times sounds tough-minded but mostly ensures that families will experience the miseries of migration compounded by malnutrition, and that children will face the option of being rejected at borders or abandoned in detention facilities in societies “that have learned to see generosity as a vice.”

The gist of this insight was reinforced by my colleague at Global Action, Claudia Lamberty, who has given quite a bit of thought recently to the decisions by several states, most notably the US, Austria and Hungary, to reject the upcoming Global Compact on Migration which will be signed by (hopefully) many ministers and heads of state in Morocco in just a few weeks.  In a document which she produced to help us prepare for our own GCM participation, Claudia listed potential economic and political factors that might lead states to make a decision like this about a “compact” which is comprehensive in scope but has no legally binding authority.  Her conclusion is that this decision is as much about multilateralism as about migration itself, in essence a “poke in the eye” to a system that has been long on promises and, at times, short on results, a system which seems to some governments intent on trespassing on the affairs of small and mid-sized states (but mostly not the large states) in matters that are highly sensitive to some national governments.  Inadvertently, the now vast movements of migrants and their many needs – including for food security – have provided some of the fuel for this multilateral backlash, this seemingly appealing choice in some national capitals to promote “protection over principle.”

As we have written previously, the UN is taking pains to counter such threats to its core legitimacy.  This week in fact, the Security Council itself got in the act as China (November president) hosted a debate on effective multilateralism during which state after state took the floor to affirm the importance of the UN to resolving a range of thorny global problems – albeit with occasional interjecting (spoken and implied) of migration-related caveats.

But affirmation itself (with or without caveats) is insufficient to cure the suspicion of some states that the UN’s structure and culture innately privilege powerful governments thus ensuring that many core promises for which the world literally hungers are more likely to go unfulfilled.  Indeed, if the human race is not to dissolve back into some nationalist-stimulated tribalism, we must demonstrate – over and over – the tangible benefits of a system of cooperating states and stakeholders, governments that resist the temporary allures of nationalism and stakeholders who insist that they do just that.  As with migration itself, food security is both a global challenge and a national policy responsibility. As noted in the aforementioned GA resolution, as important as global consensus on such matters is (and it is), plans for addressing these challenges must be “nationally articulated, designed, owned, led and built.”

I am in Germany now about to join a team of experts in reviewing our options and responsibilities in the area of small arms and light weapons.  Increasingly, there is recognition of a symbiotic, if nefarious, relationship between our common insecurity courtesy of a world awash in both weapons and political enmity and the food insecurity courtesy of major external factors that affect harvests — especially for small holder farmers – including climate related events such as drought and flooding that can diminish yields beyond the tipping point; but also armed violence and landmines which can render farmland useless and ratchet up vulnerabilities impacting all community members, especially so for women.

There are many things in the world now for which people legitimately hunger:  for an end to violence, for meaning and purpose, for basic security of food and domicile, for adventure beyond the familiar, for potable water and accessible health care, for justice when abuses occur.  But as the PGA reminded delegates on Tuesday, “eating is a special act,” a fundamental and even primordial right.  As so many in “developed” societies build their fat reserves and clog their arteries through what Italy referred to on Tuesday as “suspect” food choices, we find ourselves in a world of deepening and evermore complex food insecurity that turns the act of eating for millions — including millions of migrants — into an ultimate “hit or miss” proposition.

Fortunately, this complexity is still within our competency to resolve successfully – together as nations and multilateral stakeholders — both for the sake of those who seek to remain at home and those who are driven to follow the promise of more fertile pastures elsewhere.

Purpose and Repurpose:  The UN Seeks to Recover Its Multilateral Mojo, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Nov

People and Planet 4

I think we have a right to change course. But society is the one that keeps demanding that we fit in and not disturb things. Anaïs Nin

Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.  Parker  Palmer

It is by way of the principle and practice of vocation that sanctity and reverence enter into the human economy.  Wendell Berry

He had been adapted to the verses and had learnt the art of making them to such perfection.  Charles Dickens

Your job is to find out what the world is trying to be.  William Stafford

There was more than a proper portion of bad news this week, including Austria and other states following the US lead by refusing to sign the Global Compact on Migration which promises to streamline migration governance for the millions of people now on the move by choice or (in the case of the Latin America “caravan”) coercion.  Even Morocco, host of the Global Compact signing, is now apparently imposing travel restrictions on nationals from select African states!  In Yemen, the viral image of a young child wasting away in her famine-afflicted environment was a reminder of our collective indifference to the catastrophic consequences of our too-often, weapons-stoked, foreign policy choices.   And the bull-rush of global populations to elect “nationalists” to high office has exposed a pervasive – if not always well-founded – suspicion that the so-called “liberal order” and its multilateral incarnations might never fulfill its promises of inclusion and prosperity beyond the machinations and manipulations of its elites.

Inside the UN enmity reared its head, on and off, in several conference rooms.  In the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, states resisted critiques of their human rights records, including their treatment of human rights defenders, often making the badly-worn argument that because there are laws on the books guaranteeing rights, that rights are surely being upheld.   In the First Committee, weapons-related negotiations were, once again, the pretext for sometimes bitter recitations of deep political division.  And in the Security Council a discussion on the misery that remains Libya with the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court exposed, yet again, the deep divides among members regarding the role of international justice in ensuring international peace.  Finally, back in the General Assembly, the overwhelming support by member states for the lifting of the US blockade on Cuba belied that fact that the US currently has no intention of doing so, thumbing its nose once more at the apparently absurd notion that multilateral institutions can force powerful states to behave themselves or even honor their public commitments to international agreements and principles.

And yet, at least in our little corner of the policy universe, events were held that renewed vigor for the challenges of keeping energized both our bureaucracies and our own souls needed to resolve the complex and difficult challenges that are in part of our own making.

This week, we were honored to participate in the formal launching of the “Peace Angels” sculpture at the World Trade Center in New York.   Led by renowned artist Lin Evola, this was a wonderful day of events which showcased the majesty and promise that can be created through the repurposing of metal from weapons that had once been used to intimidate opponents and spread havoc on our streets.   In the Christian tradition, we speak of baptismal waters transformed “from a common to a sacred use.”  As the Peace Angels project has only begun to remind us, there remains so much for the rest of us to transform as well.  The prospect of deadly weapons repurposed as inspiring monuments to peace should move us all to consider occupying more often this fertile middle ground between the first creation and the final destruction – places where opportunities for repurposing generally reside.

And back in the UN, a little advertised event brought together three current leaders of our still-grand multilateral experiment.   The president of the General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, was joined on the podium by the president of the Economic and Social Council, Inga Rhonda King, and October’s president of the Security Council, Bolivia’s Sacha Llorenti, all making passionate pleas for the preservation and renewal of our now-besieged multilateral system before a modest audience of (as Indonesia gratefully noted) mostly senior diplomats.

What struck me about this session was how personal it became.  Speakers and responders were clear (in ways that we rarely see in this space) that the UN’s many challenges are about our culture as much as our management, about our often misplaced sense of purpose that makes the task of repurposing ourselves and our institutions so fraught with unease and frustration. Some maintained (with Dickens) that we have become “adapted to the verses” but haven’t spent enough time listening to the voices that remind us of the life beyond the texts, the “life beyond our walls” as Egypt stated during this session. Ecuador claimed that delegates “are often running from one room to another” with little sense of the scope of activities of the UN or reminders of “why we came here in the first place.”  Ambassador Llorenti cited the many global challenges such as terrorism and climate change which simply cannot be resolved within national contexts, and chided states that now seem hell-bent to “go it alone.” Common sense, he exclaimed, now seems to be the “least common” of the senses.

One of the questions that comes up from time to time in our small cohort of interns and fellows is “how badly do people here want this to work?”  How much are people really invested in bringing about the world embedded in the UN’s security and human rights resolutions and its promises of sustainable development?   Is UN service merely a stepping stone to some higher career aspiration, or is there reason to believe that people here are truly committed to incarnate in diverse communities the resolution texts to which diplomats devote great energies but which too-often remain mostly in the realm of the aspirational? Do UN stakeholders fully grasp what the GA president said this week –that the UN can and must become the place that better “upholds a rule based order and provides a context for cooperative and equitable relations among states”?  Do we truly believe, as Canada stated, that we must be “here for the world” as much as for our governments and organizations?

Clearly there is an urgent need now to meld purpose and repurpose, to blend a renewed commitment to the aspirations and values that brought us to this place with the courage and creativity to transform the “common” that is killing us into the “exceptional” that might sustain us.  Only from this melding can we listen carefully to “what the world is trying to be” – despite current enmity levels — and then make the best contributions we know how towards helping that world break out.

As the president of ECOSOC noted this week, we are still in command of the resources that allow us to cope with what often seems like an “unforgiving universe,” including our capacities for compassion and creativity.  Zambia likewise reminded delegations that, despite this difficult moment for multilateralism, “we are capable of making the change” we need to make, both in these halls and in the wider world.  But if any of this is to happen, we must more effectively resist going through our motions, running away from disturbance, fitting in merely for the sake of fitting in, or substituting career for purpose. We would do better (for ourselves and the planet) to recover the vocations to serve in this place that can shift our current course, repurpose our working methods and mission statements, and turn draft resolutions into declarations and platforms for sustainable and cooperative change.