Archive | Uncategorized RSS feed for this section

A Distant Dawn: Sustaining Agency in Disconsolate Times, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 May

Deep Web 2

But there is nothing more beautiful than being desperate.  And there is nothing more risky than pretending not to care.  Rachel C. Lewis

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. T. S. Eliot

As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. Carl Jung

One of the blessings of this small office – indeed perhaps the only real reason to keep it open – is the extraordinary range of people who regularly grace it.  Scholars and diplomats, policymakers and activists, people from all over the world come for a bit of conversation, advice on how to navigate the UN system, or to share ideas for projects or publications that can open more space for productive policy engagement in the global community.

Many of these visitors are young people, young not only by my standards (which more or less includes everyone now in existence) but young in the sense of being on the cusp of challenges and responses that will be “momentous” for their own lives at least and quite possibly also for the planet as a whole.

Thankfully, if tentatively, most of our visitors seek a larger version of momentousness; they have bills to pay and obligations to family to meet, but they also want their lives to matter in a broader sense.   They come to offices like ours (and to the United Nations) in part to test their skills, in part to assess the state of the world, in part to see if and how they can best direct their energies so they can sustain both their livelihoods and the health of the planet on which those livelihoods ultimately depend.

So they walk through UN security, passes in hand, and they sit and they listen.  Some of what they hear is interesting; some is hopeful. Some makes them wonder if the (mostly older) people who manage the global community and dominate policy discourse inside and outside the UN are committed enough – perhaps even desperate enough — to change what needs to be changed, fix what needs to be fixed, such that peoples and cultures worldwide can survive the current gloom and even thrive once a fuller light finally returns.

The verdict on all of this is mixed. This week alone, our current group of young people participated in UN events as hopeful as the redesign of cities and the promise of new technology for sustainable development and as troubling as the acidification of our oceans, sexual violence in conflict zones, the abuse of children in detention facilities, and the implications of diminished funding for Palestinian and other Middle East refugees.

Perhaps most disturbing of all was a Security Council Counter-Terror Directorate (CTED) briefing on ways to prevent terrorists from acquiring deadly weapons.   The event focused in part on the so-called “dark web,” a largely invisible part of the internet devoted to promoting clandestine access to all kinds of illegally trafficking goods, including of course weaponry.   This excellent event (as are virtually all CTED briefings) was almost a metaphor for our times:  helpful strategies to combat access to weapons and funding by terrorists and other “spoilers” while failing to note other hard (and relevant) questions – including those related to the quality and potency of our governance structures and the reckless enormity of our collective weapons production. In the end, there was for our interns a lingering sense that the dark and ominous forces seeking to undermine what remains of our social order seem to be moving more nimbly than those seeking to stop them.

Though this is clearly belaboring the obvious, current global circumstances are more than a little overwhelming.  There are so many needs to be met, so many issues to interrogate, so many tensions to resolve, so many “fires” to manage.   There seems to be darkness of one sort or another lurking in every corner, layers below layers,  making it both difficult to trust the light but also one’s own ability to help shine light on those dark places (in the world and in ourselves) that threaten even the best of our treaties, resolutions and other policy responses to global threats.

One of the challenges of befriending and mentoring younger people in this space is how to modulate the input, pointing out hopeful signs without over-selling them, sharing the occasional dis-ingenuousness of our multi-lateral system without reinforcing cynicism, introducing them to the full “truth” about our current unsettled circumstances without motivating them to “abandon ship,” to retreat into narrower career and personal interests that are more “bite-sized” and then convincing themselves that “bite size” is all they can handle.

Sometimes the UN does the little things to help us make this “sale.”   Other times not so much.

This past Friday, the UN hosted an event on “Investing in African Youth” that offered some promise that the aspirations, skills and frustrations of some of the young people from this largest-ever generation on our youngest global continent would help inform our policy direction.   The event focused on the African Union Roadmap on Harnessing the Demographic Dividend, based on the contention that “a peaceful and secure Africa requires an empowered generation of youth.”

While voices of such “empowered” youth did eventually take the stage – one in particular was particularly “put off” by the proceedings – the opening panel had already drained the room of much of its energy.  One after another, older persons (mostly male dignitaries) had ignored the call for brevity to such a degree that this panel alone set the schedule back by a full 80 minutes!

When it was finally time for younger voices, they were all on yet another tight leash, having now to share their views in an “august” UN setting while also compensating for older people who, quite frankly, had abused both their positions and the protocols of their “pulpits” in ways that are simply too common in UN conference rooms.   As a result, we were honoring youth by stifling their voices; we were collectively admonishing ourselves to listen to younger people while dominating their space, stealing their time, blunting their opportunity to make their case and not simply air their impatience.

Watching with us this past week was Lin Evola, the founder of the Peace Angels Project which (among other things) has mastered the art of reuse – in this case transforming the metal from used weaponry into compelling and hopeful images.   While she was with us, Lin took copious notes which she turned into drawings that represented the vast disturbances of the week, the crises we have yet to resolve.

The central focus of the drawing Lin contributed to Global Action was of people – including young people — standing mostly emotionless behind barbed wire, surrounded by warnings of famine, violence, forced migration and abuse.  For me, and for the current and past interns with whom I have already shared the drawing, the irony was apparent.  People bearing the brunt of crises, but lacking agency; people whose legitimate voices have been isolated, even barricaded; people who can barely adjust to the storms that surround them, let alone contribute to minimizing global shocks.

Such all-too-common constraints on human agency are, for me, more frightening than the dark web, more disturbing than any Security Council briefing.   When we overwhelm instead of support; when we allow others to slip blithely into complacency or cynicism; when we stifle the energies and voices that can help us reach the dawn, we are merely extending the reach of our own collective darkness.  If they are to locate and sustain their own agency in these difficult times, the many talented people — young and not-so-young — who pass through offices like ours need and deserve better from the rest of us.

Shake Shack:  Mothering in an Unpredictable Age, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 May

My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it. Mark Twain

My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent. Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Motherhood was the great equalizer for me; I started to identify with everybody… as a mother, you have that impulse to wish that no child should ever be hurt, or abused, or go hungry, or not have opportunities in life.  Annie Lennox

Yesterday on my way to the office I stood on the subway near a seated mother –my guess is she was from somewhere in the Caribbean — and her young son. They were both visibly fatigued – it was early on a rainy and chilly Saturday and the boy was now becoming a bit agitated.  Without saying a word, without apparently being prompted by the son, the mother carefully fashioned a pillow on her lap and then gently coaxed the child to put his head down.  He was asleep within seconds.

Such acts as these, small but consequential, are much of what we honor on a Mother’s Day.  The comforting and feeding, the diapers and disinfectant, the telling of stories and issuing of warnings, the granting of untimely requests and the mediation of endless sibling squabbling, all of this and more in whatever form it takes is necessary for young vulnerable people of need to grow into older vulnerable people of promise.

Much mothering – whether conducted by biological mothers or “other mothers” – is intended in part to create secure and stable family environments, predictability that is still elusive for far too many children, and that now seems mostly to occur (when it does) within individual domiciles.  We know “where things are” in our homes, but in the world at large, peoples and cultures are now being tossed about as though we were living through a perpetual hurricane.

This represents part of the agony for many mothers I know. We can balance our children’s diet, tell them stories, buy them proper clothes and send them off to school, all the while holding our breath, praying hard and crossing our fingers; hoping that the center will hold long enough in these unstable times for our children to have a happy and productive adult life, that our multitude of small acts consistent with concerned parenting will somehow add up to prospects for prosperity and purpose.

But this hope, as it has for mothers across time and space, has one major caveat:  Most of what we teach our children, most of what we long for their future, depends for their fulfillment on a predictable social and security environment.  And whether or not we’ve actually ever had such a thing, we clearly don’t have that now. Despite what too many of our schools and advertisers and technological gurus need us to believe, the veil of predictability has been pulled back in so many ways, revealing a world that is shuddering if not shaking, increasingly fierce motions that are testing the nerves of both parents and the political leadership who now grace (or dis-grace) our halls of state.

Perhaps it is enough for mothers to teach what they know and hope for the best.   Perhaps that is the very best that can be done.  Or perhaps that is simply the recipe for yet another mother’s heartbreak, and another, and more after that.  Perhaps this recipe needs tweaking just a bit.

This week, in a UN building filled to the brim with talented women, three with lofty gravitas made high-profile appearances representing all three of what the UN calls its policy “pillars.” From the human rights and justice pillar was Ms. Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, who briefed the Security Council on the difficulties in securing prosecutions for crimes in Libya and also met with her “friends” group to discuss ways to eliminate state “non-cooperation” and bring more diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds into the work of the Court. UN Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed, the custodian of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals promises, provided an inspirational message to the “integration segment” of the Economic and Social Council devoted to meeting the “greatest global challenge” of poverty reduction. And on the peace and security front, High Representative of the European Union, Federica Mogherini, addressed the Security Council on the importance of expanding UN-EU security cooperation. Her remarkable presentation included a soft jab at the United States to both abandon its threatened withdrawal from multi-lateral engagements and to “find its own way” regarding commitments to heal our climate-threatened planet.

What all three of these remarkable women had in common this week is their vocal, passionate commitment to ensuring that our collective promises on justice, development and security will be met; that whatever can be done to calm our shaking planet will somehow become our collective priority.

They all have something else in common – they are all mothers.

I don’t know what kind of mothers they are, and I wouldn’t want to assume.  While you wouldn’t always know it from reading UN policy documents, there are thankfully many ways to be a woman, many ways to mother, many ways to nurture and inspire, many ways to mentor. Our pious certainties regarding “what mothers do,” or “what women want and need” can obscure any number of important struggles (and related conversations) on identity and responsibility.

For their part, I suspect that each of these three mothers of distinction has experienced in her own way more than a few moments of anxiety, perhaps even remorse, given that the demands of their high-order positions make absences from their children’s (or grandchildren’s) daily lives all too frequent.  Many professional women feel this, of course, immersed in meetings rather than in bedtime stories, eating on the run while children text that “daddy’s pancakes don’t taste right.”

But there is something about these particular mothers, something compelling about their vocal and pragmatic resolve to make a better world, one fit for all children not only their own.  Despite responsibilities in the world that place restrictions on family time, there remains the expectation — when their growing progeny have gotten some distance from social media addictions and raging hormones — that they will one day be able to look their children square in the eye and let them know that they did all that they knew to do to ensure a more stable, secure and sustainable world in which –collectively–their dreams and choices can continue to matter.

This is a powerful gift that, like inoculations and braces and homework, children might only be able to appreciate fully when they are old enough – and fortunate enough – to bear children of their own. There are no Hallmark cards devoted to mothers who help “stop the shaking.”  Perhaps there needs to be.

The many young people of diverse backgrounds who pass through our office each year have an eerily similar take on the world they are soon to inherit.  When I ask them if they feel prepared for all the chaotic motion characteristic of this current planetary phase, they almost always and without hesitation respond “no.”  It is difficult to know to what extent this is in response to the diverse threats they experience with us at the UN on a daily basis – wars and rumors of wars, climate change and our often tepid responses, traumatized children and families on makeshift rafts or reeling from the effects of famine. But it is unsettling that after so much parenting and so much schooling, even children of privilege feel inadequate to act on a stage that feels perpetually unsteady.

Also on this dreary New York weekend, I had a long Skype chat with a former colleague struggling in Mexico with the manifold contemporary responsibilities of being a mother – meeting her daughters’ needs, comforting their wounds and guiding their preparation for life outside the home while contributing in a larger sense to the stability of a world in which her parenting can hopefully have some impact.  Thankfully, she is finding that way, not on a global stage like Mohammed or Bensouda perhaps, but in community settings that matter and in ways that communicate – to both her children and the wider society – that there is still a sound basis for hope in our common future.

And like these three women of international prominence, the commitments of my former colleague will allow her one day to look her daughters in the eye and let them know that she also did her part – beyond the packed lunches and bandaging of scraped knees — to secure an unsteady planet.

Compound Fracture:  Addressing Poverty’s Multiple Wounds, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 May

ICRC

Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.  Mother Teresa

The frustrations, hostility and anger generated by abject poverty cannot sustain peace in any society. Muhammad Yunus

Love conquers all things except poverty and toothache.  Mae West

The Chibok Girls, at least 82 of them, were released by Boko Haram this week. We’ll no doubt hear much more about this, including we hope from the ICRC: the stories of their captivity, the brutality and isolation they experienced, perhaps some of the despair and frustration they felt from having spent three long years of their relatively short lives wondering who if anyone was looking for them, why it seemed that they had been so completely abandoned?

As I stare at this ICRC photo and others, there is sadness, certainly in the faces of many of the girls, but in me as well.  This ordeal is not over for them.   They are thankfully freed from terrorist control, and they will be for a time the focus of international attention and support.   But the support will fade, most probably sooner than needed, and the girls will be left with their questions for families and government officials, their recurring nightmares and pervasive insecurities, their struggles to find meaning and material sustenance with psychic impairments as severe as any physical deformity.

And they will never get their childhoods back.

Many diplomats and observers at the UN rightly insist that poverty reduction must become what India this week called the “unrelenting focus” of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Though poverty reduction per se is first in the listing of the SDGs, it is not the only SDG concern for the international community.  Climate and oceans, employment and gender discrimination, corruption and violence, health and employment all need attention and are all interlinked.   While the Security Council was away assessing the peace agreement in Colombia, the rest of the UN in New York was engaged in a dizzying array of events focused in whole or in part on diverse aspects of the poverty reduction challenge.  From global health and the health of our forest communities, to the rights of indigenous persons and the need for the UN (as noted clearly on Friday by UN Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed) to streamline mechanisms for better coordination of poverty responses (including its conflict prevention dimensions), the UN’s grasp of the magnitude and diversity of its poverty-related challenges seems to be growing by the week.

Though relatively few persons in the UN community have endured poverty or lived in communities of material or psychic deprivation, the UN’s current levels of interest in all aspects related to poverty reduction are thankfully more than rhetorical, even more than material. Diplomats now widely grasp the peace and security implications of a world of large and growing inequalities, disparities which rightly annoy and largely inconvenience some but condemn others to an often-disheartening life with too few options.  As populations in global regions grow disproportionately, as drought and desertification expand their reach, and as water and other resource scarcities reach epidemic levels, our ability to manage stresses related to our systems of governance and security is certainly under strain.   So too is our ability to respond to the collective psychological needs of children and other victims of violence and deprivation.

And much of that need lies beyond the headlines. I recall vividly from my time in a Harlem parish in the 1990s some of the many ways in which poverty subtly and unhelpfully diverted the attention and energies of the community.   People didn’t dare to dream too much; they largely coped – with losses of income and relatives, with often unresponsive and even dismissive government bureaucracy, with schools that seemed design to keep students in their places rather than opening doors to a better place, with drug-induced street violence that erupted almost without warning.  Coping, adjusting, shielding, standing on endless lines, cutting your losses: It wasn’t always that dire, it wasn’t the plight of the Chibok Girls or of the families fleeing violence in Mosul, but it was often dire enough, disheartening enough.

For the children of Harlem at this time, it was also the dawning of the social media age and its multiple messaging.  On the one hand, cellular technology has opened new worlds for people and helped them overcome some of the pervasive limitations of the still-applicable digital divide.  The other side of course is that the new technology represents a handy medium for keeping close track of all that some people have that others do not.   The relentless marketing by “smart” phones that seem mostly “smart” for advertisers brings a world of affluent consumption into the personal spaces of so many millions, serving as a constant reminder of what it is possible to own and have in this world and, perhaps more insidiously, invites people to assess their own lives in accordance with the prevailing standards of luxury.

For a generation of Harlem children, let alone the Chibok girls and others fleeing violence without their families in makeshift life rafts, such reminders are most likely to aggravate their wounds, to compound their anger and frustration, to grow their sense of isolation and doubt that they are worthy of love and material support in a fair, predictable and secure global environment.

For us, there has always been truth in the maxim that assessment is largely a function of expectation.  And even in this increasingly climate stressed, resource scarce and violence-riddled environment, expectations for affluence have perhaps never been higher.  Nor have the many gaps of education, income and health care separating the affluent and those on the margins been so obvious.  If “inequalities” are permitted to herald our collective undoing, if our “share and care” capacities are left buried under mounds of trauma and material envy, if we can do no better than simply manage violence and “comfort” its many material and psychological impacts, then the carnage that currently fills our media screens will only become more frequent. The cycles of destruction and deprivation will tend to spin ever faster.

A World Health Organization representative on a UN General Assembly panel this week highlighted that agency’s “no regrets” model of detection and treatment, referring primarily to pandemics such as Ebola that, like armed violence and drought, both push people into poverty and dig a deeper hole for those already there.

This model seemed like a hopeful metaphor to inspire much of our sustainable development activity. “No regrets” on ending inequalities of rights and opportunities.  No regrets on efforts to prevent armed violence, genocide and war.  No regrets on creating conditions for safe and healthy communities. No regrets on ending assaults on the dignity, confidence and psychic integrity of our children.  No regrets on our messaging to next generations that balances acquisition and almost infinite distraction with a genuine hopefulness for the future and our own deep resolve to fix what we’ve broken.

Slowly but surely, our policy communities are coming to full recognition that lonely, angry, abused, unwanted children and youth can scuttle our development agenda as surely as super typhoons and cluster bombs.  We must resolve to keep all these challenges to the human spirit together at the center of our development policy and practice.

Community Watch: Localizing our SDG Responsibilities, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Apr

If the government is big enough to give you everything you want, it is big enough to take away everything you have.  Gerald R. Ford

I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.  Will Rogers

If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

This past week, we were privileged to welcome Ms. Thalassa Cox from the office of the Solicitor-General of St. Lucia.  Thalassa has come to explore the UN, but also to learn what we are hopefully well-suited to teach – what the UN can and cannot do well, and how best a small state government can participate in (and in turn influence) global policy in this highly-complex and often self-referential institution.

And what a week it was for her to come.  The Security Council took on South Sudan, Syria and especially North Korea, in the latter instance drawing an oval punctuated with Foreign Ministers, some of whom (especially the US) seemingly determined to “act” instead of talk, but without a plan for managing the (perhaps dire) consequences that an as-yet-undetermined plan of action might itself create.  At the same time, the General Assembly was deeply engaged in its own revitalization, including its sponsorship of major upcoming discussions focused on human migration and the health of our oceans. The Peacebuilding Commission endorsed a peacebuilding plan for Liberia that can serve as a model for other states emerging from conflict. The Committee on Information met to review how the UN tells its story and in which languages it chooses to tell it.  And the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues brought splashes of color and moral resolve to the UN, including the presence of women in tribal costume holding their babies, reminders both of our collective, gendered responsibility to “First Nations” and, in the case of the babies, of precisely on whose behalf we do our policy work.

After years in this multilateral space, I am convinced that a more regular presence of persons representing different human abilities and cultural contexts — and their babies — would help us make better policy, and become better people as well.  People wearing headdresses or in wheelchairs, people walking with guide dogs or facing unique forms of discrimination; these and more come from families and communities with their own dreams, some of which can occasionally find expression at the UN, but others of which are even larger and more poignant than what we can routinely appreciate in this space.  

Also this week, in a mid-sized conference room and under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council, the Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA) met in session to explore, among other matters, the role of local governance in the fulfillment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  While we have covered a bit of CEPA in past years, we were gratefully present for more of the discussion this year, in large part due to Thalassa’s enthusiasm for the learning which the diverse CEPA experts were well-suited to provide.

As we have mentioned often in this forum, the SDGs represent a promise that we have made to the economically poor, the politically marginal and even to generations yet to come; a promise to define and implement a plan to level the social, political and economic playing fields, to eradicate persistent poverty, to empower women and cultural minorities to kick open doors to participation, to remove the dangerous masses of plastics and other toxins poisoning our oceans, to preserve our dwindling biodiversity and fresh water access,  and to create structures of sustainable production and consumption that can help reverse climate change and create desperately needed jobs for youth and families.

This grand promise holds direct and compelling implications for peace and security.   In our view, if we can collectively make our “best faith” effort on the SDGs, our chances of “sustaining peace” will improve dramatically.  But if our effort falls short of “best” then the crises that now overwhelm our existing peace and security architecture will only grow in numbers and complexity.  Moreover, and given our stubborn reliance on ever-more-sophisticated military arsenals, what is left of our credibility on conflict prevention and peace will likely have eroded as well.  Serial promise breakers are generally not highly sought after as conflict mediators.

We and our office colleagues often ask what else is needed if the promises of the SDGs are to find a satisfactory fulfillment.   The UN is working hard on appropriate stakeholder arrangements, on predictable funding (including increased and corruption-free domestic revenue), on comprehensive data and robust technology transfers.   All of this is necessary, though none by itself is sufficient.

What else is missing?  Some clues were offered by CEPA itself, which included the quite sensible notion that, as important as global norms can be, the promises embedded in the SDGs must attract large numbers of local champions if they are to succeed.  Such “champions” can provide context-specific remedies for habitats in need of restoration, lifestyles that need to be healthier, economies that can better respond to local consumer needs, schools that promote knowledge of hometowns and not only of other towns – even government officials who can back commitments to “open, inclusive” governance with specific measures to protect media and information freedom, promote access to justice, and guarantee fair and competent government services.

As the Moroccan expert in CEPA made clear, there is a need to “decentralize” our approach to the SDGs, not so much because the largest structures of global finance and multilateral governance are deemed serially indifferent, but because constituents in real danger of being “left behind” by behemoth institutions can more easily be identified and their development needs addressed through responsive local structures. In addition, from our own vantage point, such decentralization points the way to perhaps the most essential and largely missing ingredient in SDG implementation; the willingness of people worldwide, in areas rural and urban – including right here at the UN – to “up our game” in response both to immediate crises “created on our watch” and to warnings of disasters that would, if not prevented, weigh so very heavily on the skills, resources and dreams of future generations.

Local government can and does have its own limitations regarding accountability to the public and its financial obligations, as well as to genuine openness and fairness.  As obsessed as we sometimes are by globally-impacting events emanating from places like Washington and Beijing, there is plenty to watch and report on at local levels as well, some of it equally frightening and/or even at times a bit humorous.  But fear and laughter aside, unless we can improve at local levels standards of government transparency and inclusive service delivery; unless we can enable citizen-centered governance where people have a role to play and not just a complaint to lodge; unless we are willing to defer to local testimony regarding who actually remains “left behind;” then the SDGs will remain an elusive promise at best.  And the conflict potential emanating from a damaged planet and its chronically disappointed people will continue to grow.

In the often “nomadic” world of global diplomacy it is relatively easy to lose sight of local rhythms, those that promise social progress and others that impede it.   Despite the relatively small audience for its UN deliberations, CEPA is helping pave the way for closer and more effective SDG interactions among all levels of government, while continuing to insist that efforts at local level to eradicate poverty and fulfill other SDGs offer the most direct, most personal “diagnoses.” Moreover, as CEPA certainly recognizes, local initiatives are best suited to encourage and unlock opportunities for people from diverse cultures and with wide-ranging capacities to contribute directly to the fulfillment of a large and complex SDG promise, a hopeful dream for a better world that we simply cannot afford to ignore.

Inconvenient Truths: Spinning Obligations to our Planet and Each Other, Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Apr

25MARCH40-superJumbo

Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin. Barbara Kingsolver

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.  Flannery O’Connor

The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth.  Lao Tzu

This was an often interesting and generally head-spinning week for the world and for the UN.  Alongside a bevy of unwelcome political and military tensions, one highlight for us was the scientific community (and supporters) taking the streets in support of facts, in part as an appeal to a society that too often believes what it wants to believe and prefers shiny branding and pious reassurances to the truths – about science, about the health of our planet, about ourselves — that disrupt our ambitions and inconvenience our personal schedules.

The marches were also an appeal to our political leaders who seem to believe that unless and until something is 100% settled (and much in science is not quite that), they are “free” to make up what they wish about our past and present, to carve whatever narrative they can use to convince people of things about which they would do better to be skeptical.  For too much of our leadership, truth more and more is about the capacity to convince based on pre-determined ideologies than about the weighted importance of evidence or the intrinsic value of curiosity – being open to new ideas, the next question, perspectives that can complete and enrich our own cognitive circles.

If we think we know everything that needs to be done, every lens that needs to be examined, every fact and challenge that needs to be integrated, we are probably too comfortable with small or incomplete perspectives; embracing half-measures when the recipe calls for a full portion, spouting stereotypical clichés when the times call for an honest disaggregation of the “truths” we espouse that might apply to some contexts in some measure but not to all contexts in all measure.

Despite our proliferating school degrees and professional certificates and across our political spectrum, we have seemingly never been so vulnerable to spin. As we are reminded on this World Book Day, we would all do well to read more and talk less, to think harder and argue softer.

While the science marches weren’t directed at the UN per se, we have plenty of our own “spin” in this space, officials too often embracing aspects of the truth that serve national (or bureaucratic) interests while ignoring elements that call for more flexible political or institutional positions. In the UN building as a whole, certainly in the Security Council, things unspoken are often more important than what is actually shared.  Delegations will often make perfectly valid but willfully incomplete contributions to policy, in more than a few instances hoping that the truth they convey will be enough to satisfy listeners, will distract people from all that is still needed if we are to complete the policy circle.

An example of this selectivity occurred this past Tuesday when US Ambassador Haley (serving as Council president for this month) introduced a Security Council discussion focused on “Human rights and prevention of armed conflict.” This was, as she noted, the first time that the Council had ever met to discuss as a stand-alone the “red flags” of human rights abuse that spill within and across national borders, a surprising if accurate claim to many (us included) who have long assumed (and pointed out) a consistent relationship linking human rights violations and the potential for armed violence.

Secretary-General Guterres was the primary briefer for the session. He restated his own personal commitment to work more closely with the Council on this and other issues, while also pointing out the “grave challenges” associated with efforts to reduce the “wounds of war.”   Guterres was clear, as Italy and other states were later in the afternoon, that the only way to address such wounds is to make war less likely. Thus attention to gross human rights violations — what France called the “sowing of hatred” — as a major contributing factor to armed conflict is therefore fully warranted.

But Guterres (and later Kazakhstan and Uruguay) also made plain the need to “depoliticize” both human rights and the related promotion of sustainable development.  It didn’t take long for this warning to be disregarded.   Amb. Haley herself used the occasion to lump together Cuba, Iran and the DPRK as human rights violators from which troika will arise “the next crisis.”  Shortly thereafter, the deputy foreign minister of Ukraine alleged Russia’s “phobia” on rights stemming in part from its military adventurism and occupation of Crimea.

Egypt was one of several states (including Russia) citing double standards and false interpretations lying at heart of our responses to many global issues.  They urged the Security Council to respect and work closely with other UN agencies (such as the Human Rights Council) specifically tasked with promoting human rights and –through the special rapporteurs, special procedures mandate holders, and direct examinations by the Human Rights Committee and other treaty bodies – working with states to improve their human rights performance.

In the end, the issue for the Council was not whether human rights should have a firm place in their deliberations.  As Sweden noted, there is no denying that rights violations are core contributors to social instability and violence; nor can we deny that our enduring “culture of impunity” and growing disregard for international law constitute major flaws in our peace and security architecture.   The question has to do with the proper role for the Council, a body that too often preempts effective action elsewhere in the global system and which too often exempts from criticism those very same Council members all too willing to point the finger beyond their own borders.

It was Ethiopia that seemed to offer the most concrete and sensible way forward, a way that combines receptivity to fact-finding from other UN colleagues; a pledge to support rather than undermine other relevant UN agencies; and attention to dimensions of “fairness” in the investigation and application of human rights concerns. In addition, Ethiopia urged what it called the “overdue” commitment of Council members to regular self-reflection and assessment regarding their mandated responsibilities, including the degree to which Council members uphold in their own practice the same Charter values they insist on for others.

Amb. Haley noted that there is “so much more to be done” in the Council on human rights, and at one level she is right.   But that “much more” is not about trying to control another core UN obligation, not about selectively and/or righteously beating up political adversaries for alleged abuses – as though any state is blameless on the rights scale. Rather it is about promoting and sharing the best information from across the UN system and beyond, ensuring that abuses can be identified and then addressed in their early stages as one means to head off conflicts whose resulting wounds are now far beyond our capacity to heal.

And also offering better protection to the vulnerable when our preventive efforts fail: Facts and information on the one hand; policy resolve and compassion on the other.

In the discussion’s aftermath, one of the most respected academic voices on Africa, Paul Williams, pointed out on twitter that the same person who chaired the Council meeting advocating for a larger role on human rights, including as a priority for peacekeeping operations, is an official of the very same government actively seeking to reduce those operations.  This highlights part of the obligation to truth-telling in the international community that offices like ours scrutinize and that lurks beyond the province of our carefully-crafted narratives – not just the truth that serves national interests, but the truth that reflects the general interest; the truth that is beholden to the full picture not simply the corner of the canvas that reinforces our national or organizational aesthetic.

 

Hedging Our Bets:  Tepid Responses to Existential Challenges, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Apr

Haiti

With so much evidence of depleting natural resources, toxic waste, climate change, irreparable harm to our food chain and rapidly increasing instances of natural disasters, why do we keep perpetuating the problem? Why do we continue marching at the same alarming beat?  Yehuda Berg

The average person is a conformist, accepting miseries and disasters with the stoicism of a cow standing in the rain. Colin Wilson

Economic disasters or foolish wars are hardly guaranteed to bring about large-scale individual self-examination or renew the appeal of truly participatory democracy. Pankaj Mishra

It’s Easter Sunday and outside in UN Plaza it is likely to reach 85 degrees F today.   This July-like warmth, following a spell of January weather in March and a dramatic cool-down predicted for later this week, is what the climate change models I’ve seen routinely predict:  a lack of predictability and on a growing scale.  At a metaphorical level, we no longer know from one day to the next whether to put on sun-screen or grab the scarf.

But we can draw at least one predictable linkage between the Christian resurrection narrative and our rising global seas:  we tend not to take either seriously enough.

I’ve long maintained that participation in the Easter ritual should result in a greater tangible impact, certainly for Christians whose very faith is premised on a sacred hope.   This hope of resurrection, what Fox News apparently referred to today as “the greatest truth,” should mean more, change more, be more visible in our behavior and discourse, punctuate more of how we prioritize our time and action.  People shouldn’t have to guess if attentiveness, compassion, kindness and respect lie behind our Easter rhetoric and seasonal fashion statements; they shouldn’t have to wonder if our Easter devotion is anything more than simply “hedging a bet” on the possibility that at least some aspects of the resurrection narrative just might be turn out to be true.

And what about climate, another bet resolutely “hedged” by some governments and many global citizens but affirmed by a growing consensus of scientists, religious leaders and government officials?  At a policy level, the jury is still out.  As much as climate change is discussed at the UN and within many of its member states, it too easily gets crowded out of consciousness by more “hard” security concerns, including military confrontations and terrorist acts.

For example: While the failed Security Council resolution this week in response to chemical weapons use in Syria produced its share of sparks and grabbed several of the global headlines, plenty of news space was also reserved for the “mother of all bombs” used in Afghanistan, and even more for the escalating, potential “cloak and dagger” hostilities taking shape in the Korean peninsula.   In this last instance, the unpredictable story line is enhanced due to the erratic personalities in the US and North Korea (DPRK) leadership as well as some in the policy community who seem more concerned about how we’re going to respond to the humanitarian needs stemming from a potential conflict than our responsibility to prevent the conflict’s occurrence in the first place.

As hard as it is to sit in the Security Council and cover statements by members unified in theory over the DPRK’s nuclear ascendency but largely stifled in practice, it must be so much harder to sit in front of television screens and watch a major potential crisis unfold about which one can do virtually nothing.   This in some ways is the great paradox of our time:  more information pertinent to specific global emergencies – mostly security related — in response to which we remain essentially powerless.

But there are clear pathways to meaningful participation on climate health as there are pathways to a more thorough reflection on our responsibilities to the promise of Easter.  At individual and community levels, we do have power to take stock of ourselves, to examine lifestyles and personal choices, to demand less and give more, to renounce old patterns of consumption and march to a simpler beat, to find communities of concern and allow ourselves to “go on record” with our own, to live Easter values such that they become identifiable habits no longer constrained by the rhythms of a spring ritual.

At a policy level we can also do more and better.  At the UN, the Mission of Ukraine was quite visible this week, hosting both a Security Council “Arria Formula” discussion on the multiple interactions of climate and conflict, and another event linking environmental and human health with a focus on oceans.  Both were insightful, though our primary interest was in the discussion examining the multiple ways in which climate change and conflict interact, a growing concern within diverse sectors of the policy community, including notably by Refugees International.  As we now widely recognize, climate change can drive mass human mobility, but also exacerbate tensions over increasingly scarce water and other resources.   We also recognize that climate-inspired incidents such as massive, over-water storms are increasing in number and ferocity, threatening any and all efforts to rebuild state institutions or stabilize populations in vulnerable states already ravaged by poverty, corruption and conflict.

But when it came time this week for the full Security Council to discuss the downsizing of the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), such climate insights were surprisingly scarce.  The new mission (MINUJUSTH) will focus on important outcomes for a country that has been battered by earthquakes, invading forces and patterns of state corruption for so many years:  policing and security sector reform, rule-of-law institution building, and human rights monitoring and reporting.  But as Senegal was almost alone in pointing out, all of this good work presumes stable ground and clear skies – prospects for new earthquakes and ominous storm clouds can foretell massive setbacks for people who have already and often endured the worst.  And there is every science-supported reason to assume new and more dangerous levels of climate assault – for Haiti and for many other island nations.

So on this overly-heated Easter Sunday, we note with urgency the need for reflection in the policy community as well, within but also much beyond the Security Council. We must insist that climate impacts permeate our conflict prevention and resolution strategies.  We must make climate resilience a higher priority within our peacebuilding and migration-related policy planning and implementation.  And we must make full use of all capacities to address our current, urgent climate challenges, identifying and breaking bread with as many stakeholders as possible who demonstrate the will and skills to help heal a natural world under considerable siege.

For many and various reasons, climate health is a bet we cannot afford to hedge.  If we do, and if we lose, there may well be no resurrection narrative sufficient to rescue us from the condemnation and scorn of succeeding generations.

Highlighting the Gender-Disability Nexus, Felix Balzer

13 Apr

 

Editor’s Note:  The following is from Felix Balzer, a graduate student in the Global and European Studies Institute at the University of Leipzig in Germany.  He spent the month of March at Global Action’s office (courtesy of FIACAT) with lots of time spent across the street at UN Headquarters. Felix came to us with a passion for disabilities rights, and here he reflects on a relationship that deserves higher-profile policy attention from both the gender and human rights communities. 

Womenanddisability

You can not be strong at the expense of the weak. Hanan Ashrawi

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.  Friedrich Nietzsche

The difficulty of formulating policies of universal validity within the United Nations can at times be considerable. Finding common ground between actors is often complicated by the need to vindicate national or personal interest in ways that impede the creation of synergies between parties. When this is the case, clear and honest discourse can take a back seat to statements that prove of too-little value in inciting dialogue, but rather concretize the status quo when a larger and more connected vision is urgently needed.

Given this need, the present contribution seeks to raise attention towards a synergy that could prove crucial for the implementation of future strategies for sustaining peace. The example to be cited here was vividly discussed at a recent UN side event and shows in my view a viable approach towards a vital discourse within the UN that is capable of revitalizing a crucial linkage for the UN’s broader human rights and sustainable development agenda.

The event, “Working to improve our own future,“ took place on the sidelines of last month’s 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The event stressed the need to strengthen networks of women with disabilities through the promotion of their human rights and economic empowerment, with the larger aim of fostering their participation and independence. This attempt included assessments of the responsibilities of governments, international agencies, and civil society that are involved with one or more of the stakeholders in this important but generally neglected relationship.

The current president and CEO of World Learning, Donald Steinberg, who was also past Deputy Administrator to USAID and a former US Ambassador, moderated the side event. He initiated the discussion by rendering a slogan pertinent to the movement for the political rights and participation of people with disabilities, a movement that seeks to alter often prejudicial views on disability: “Nothing about them without them“ or as the original slogan goes: “Nothing about us, without us.“

The first speaker on the panel was Ms. Sarah Costa, Executive Director of the Women’s Refugee Commission. She emphasized that the largest problem migrants with disabilities face is the stigmas they experience from others, especially but not only in “destination communities.“  At the same time, she criticized the lack of funding for institutions that can research needs and issues affecting women with disabilities, urging creation of more robust advocacy and service institutions and agencies that can “walk the talk” for people (and especially for women) with disabilities.

The next speaker on the panel was Stephanie Ortoleva from the Women Enabled initiative. Her group promotes advocacy strategies and legal advice to enhance women’s rights and disability rights globally. Stephanie stressed that 19.2% of women in the world are also persons with disabilities; thus complementary efforts to improve the social acceptance and general status under the law for these women are urgently needed. Further, she identified one of the key problems hindering the implementation of effective social policies in this area: the pervasive “siloing” of gender and disability rights communities rather than their mutually-supportive engagement. .

As the presentations came to an end, the panel stood in agreement that holding together the concerns of gender and disability can assist communities in bridging the development – humanitarian divide in the particularly challenging situations that often befall migrants; and even help to strengthen community resilience during times of unusual stresses and “shocks.“ People with disabilities are often in danger of being overlooked in our development and humanitarian assistance planning, despite the many contributions they are capable of making to more just and sustainable societies. This “overlooking“ appears to be even more pervasive when those persons with disabilities are women.

The event also demonstrated the need to “de-silo“ as much as possible all research and advocacy related to the rights and freedoms of persons. In the case of women with disabilities, the hope is that mutual engagement of their needs and rights could serve as a model motivating advocates to seek and find common ground in other emancipatory struggles for equality and human rights. Further research and policy deliberation focused on this gender-disability nexus is therefore needed to build knowledge and insight capable of informing human rights and development policy from a yet under-developed, but certainly rich perspective.

Through the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the  Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and political gatherings such as the CSW, the UN is determined to do everything possible to guarantee the human rights of women and persons with disabilities.  The side event described above was a call to the communities surrounding those conventions to pool their considerable energies and talents for the common good.