Home Alone: Making Space for Human-Scale Sustainable Development, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Feb

Home is where my habits have a habitat. Fiona Apple

I think what you notice most when you haven’t been home in a while is how much the trees have grown around your memories. Mitch Albom

Home isn’t where you’re from; it’s where you find light when all grows dark. Pierce Brown

The Commission for Social Development has taken up its annual presence at the UN.  It is an outlier body in some ways that seeks to take a more holistic (and welcome) view of human well-being, beyond the metrics of consumption and production, beyond the reach of military might and trade balances. The Commission is a place within the UN where really smart people can talk about human respect and “happiness” as freely as they discuss big data and digital access.

Social development is to some degree about how people organize themselves and how certain attributes – poverty, aging and disability among them – impact social cohesion, that is the ability of people to find meaning, identity and fulfillment in the places where they live: and in the best of circumstances, to master how to thrive in each other’s presence without conflict or discrimination.

There are some delegations that seem to take this Commission very seriously including a number of the European states as well as some from the Arab region.  But others express unease with some of the agenda items for the Commission, which include a focus on poverty eradication in Africa that already has “home bases” elsewhere in the UN system. In some instances, there seems to be a concern that the “softer” tones of the Commission lead to value commitments that are perhaps not as inclusive as they seem and that some states have trouble accepting, let alone controlling.

Although it represents a bit of a departure from the hard security and even harder development concerns that preoccupy our office –including this past week ongoing sieges in parts of Syria and peacebuilding in Burundi that suffers from a lack of consensus on what is happening on the ground — I have a soft spot in my heart for this Commission.  I am especially heartened by its attempts to promote human well-being through a wider lens than the “big ticket” items of global security and climate health, though our uneven successes in these domains certainly impact prospects for each and every aspect of social development.

This lens is wide indeed. Family life seeks a home in this Commission.   So do people with disabilities.  So do people facing chronic poverty and homelessness.   So do those facing “old age” without sufficient means to sustain their remaining lifespans. So do people seeking dependable levels of social protection for their children.   So do those seeking to overcome their various addictions.  So do those seeking to open small businesses or secure micro-loans.  So do people – especially youth — seeking employment opportunities in a sometimes unforgiving market.

And so do those recognizing the growing problem of economic and social “inequality.” Indeed, at a side event prior to the opening of the Commission, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Iceland (current Commission Chair) raised the possibility of this Commission becoming the “home base” for this critical and oft-cited concern as we together gear up to meet our sustainable development responsibilities.

In speaking later in the week with a few of the NGOs around UN headquarters, it seems that there is divided opinion on how (or even whether) our expanding inequalities can find a proper seat at the Commission table. Inequalities are, to many of us, critically important obstacles to overcome if the sustainable development goals are to be achieved in anything like a timely manner. So long as wealth and power continue to consolidate, so long as people continue to concentrate on their status rather than their contributions, so long as inequity becomes the price we are willing to pay for consumer access and digital convenience, this problem will remain a most difficult nut to crack.

In such circumstances, for such a “home” within the UN system to matter it must create and then sustain that elusive balance between habit and competence.  It must cultivate the capacity to seize attention within a UN community that is largely distracted by humanitarian emergencies, ocean degradation, nuclear weapons and terrorism.   And it must have the bandwidth to address this singular, complex challenge without losing sight of the many other issues and dimensions of social development to which diplomats and NGOs attached to the Commission are rightly demanding focus.

A home, we must be reminded, can surely be a place of comfort and familiarity, but it is also a focal point of meaning and adaptability to circumstances.  Home is the place where we become who we are, creatures of habit but also creatures of competence and, hopefully, of reliability, honesty and other aspects of character as essential to healthy communities as technological access and the metrics of economic development.  Home often represents a sentimentalized attachment, but one that is tied to real human capacity, to the relationships and contexts that makes it possible for us to get through our hardest days, to push our lives to matter, and then perhaps to matter even more.

Maybe the UN doesn’t have the bandwidth for concentrated attention on concerns such as these.  Maybe the Commission is simply not robust enough to put things like inequalities on the international agenda and then ensure that these issues continue to find the spotlight they deserve. Maybe it is not yet equipped to fully assert the human dimensions of the sustainable development agenda which is now our hallowed task. Maybe the Commission will never be able of itself to generate sufficient light to crowd out the darkness of poverty, discrimination and listlessness that infect too many corners of our world and for which people are increasingly demanding relief.

The ability for any UN agency to meet the demands of a proper home – security and engagement, habit and challenge – is essential. It is important that our work here does not succumb, as duly warned by a former Chilean colleague Juan Somavia in a quote provided by our friends at Global Policy Forum, to the easy virtue of “mechanized” policies that fail to respect “the dignity and value of the human being.” Such elements are absolutely essential both to a life worth living and to the goals of sustainable development that can, once fully implemented, provide a sturdier and more inclusive platform for human well-being.   These are the elements that we would do well to pursue and that this Commission might in some near future be best suited to lead.

If the Commission can find the tools and the narratives to help us all humanize our policy tasks; if it can offer a “home base” for all aspects of social development, including the formidable challenges related to eliminating inequalities; if it can ensure that its core issues are never confined behind locked doors or, as was intimated during this week’s ECOSOC Youth Forum, used as a pretext to keep women and youth in habituated spaces rather than inspiring their full participation in the sometimes uncomfortable world beyond; then its value to the full and timely implementation of the sustainable development goals will be beyond all reproach.

Moreover, if this Commission could somehow manage to rally the full UN system to eschew an overly-“mechanized” policy dynamic, efforts beyond holding aloft – at times virtually alone — the mantle of human dignity and community well-being, then its status as a proper “home” to help all of us holistically identify and address threats to social development will be assured.

And then we will then have that much a better chance of taming the inequalities beast that now threatens to disenfranchise and de-value us all.


Bucket Shop:  The Security Council Tries Again to Inspire Confidence, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Jan


All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.  Mark Twain

Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, and justice.  Spinoza

Time heals all wounds, unless you pick at them. Shaun Alexander

The fight against this age is in no small measure a fight against the apocalyptic criticism of the age.  Peter Berkowitz

This week provided many moments of hopefulness and regret.  In the US, the squabbling of our erstwhile leadership and the shutting down of many government operations had as its counterpoint the massing on streets within and beyond the US of women (mostly), men and children calling for, among other things, an end to violence, to deportations, to racist and sexist jargon emanating from our highest political levels, to inequities of access in our systems of economics and politics.

Of all the photos from the diverse marches, perhaps my favorites were from Whitehorse, Yukon where even the dogs donned sweaters to protest the complicity of so many in  violence that must no longer be allowed to demean our values and undermine our collective resolve.

At the UN Security Council this week, another dimension of confidence building was on display, with typically mixed results.  At the behest of January’s president Kazakhstan, a group of high level representatives – led by the Polish and Kazakh presidents as well as Foreign (and other) Ministers from Russia, Kuwait, the Netherlands and elsewhere – came together to discuss measures to build “confidence” in efforts to stem the tide of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) including nuclear weapons.

“Confidence-building” is no new concept when it comes to the possession and proliferation of weapons, and as such appears regularly on the agendas of the UN’s Disarmament Commission and the UN General Assembly’s First Committee.  But neither is it a concept that generally inspires significant, practical movement.   In that regard, the presidential statement (PRST) issued on Thursday in conjunction with the discussion in Council chambers said some practically helpful things, including recognition of the “profound need” to engage all tools of preventive diplomacy and, where necessary, “measures to rebuild trust.”

But the statements within the packed Council chamber, most (as is typical) written in advance of the briefings by SG Guterres or Kazakh president Nazarbayev, fell collectively short of the sentiments in the PRST.  There were to be fair a few good moments:  the Kazakh proposal to make it more difficult for states to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is worth considering further.  The Netherlands wisely noted that successful “confidence building” requires reflection and action by a wider range of multilateral actors.  China (as often) called for an end to “double standards” on security that erode interstate confidence.  Ethiopia and Sweden both called directly for Council “unity” as a pathway to promoting disarmament, easing global tensions and minimizing risks from “human error.”  Peru offered direct support for the SG Guterres’ priority on preventive diplomacy and urged more transparency in our “crisis resolution mechanisms.”  Bolivia made clear that grossly excessive military spending undermines the ability of the international community to overcome “coercion” and guarantee our best-faith effort to honor our Sustainable Development Goals promises.

Unfortunately, though, the lasting “take away” from this event, might well have been the squabbling among the US, Russia and the UK regarding blame for the failure (so far) to properly name and then hold accountable perpetrators of chemical weapons use in Syria.  There is no space here to recount the stages that led to what has become for the Council a bit of an open “wound,” but that permanent Council members would use this session to “pick at” that wound rather than focus more broadly on what might need to change in the culture and working methods of the Council to avoid new breeches of international law and security was discouraging to many onlookers.

As this Syria diversion reminded us, the entire notion of “confidence” has taken on a distinctly self-referential tone in recent times, especially in the west.  It is now associated primarily with overcoming personal limitations, achieving personal goals, fulfilling personal desires.  It is considered by many to be an indispensable accessory for building either a career or a social life.  Many report being especially attracted to confident people who appear to “know what they want” and can navigate personal and logistical obstacles to ensure that they “get it.”   The notion (mostly faux, in my view) of people “becoming anything they want to be” is both a symbol and a symptom of cultures (including my own) that assumes an outsized role for personal confidence in the logistics of impact and success.

For multilateral settings, the building of confidence takes a somewhat different track, taking the form of an often-uncomfortable balance between national interest and what Thursday’s PRST upholds as the “striving for sustainable peace” that involves “managing shared challenges and opportunities along the way.”  It also involves another balance – between the well-documented urgency of the times and the need to communicate the will and resolve of our policy centers to face challenges squarely and insist that the resolution of those challenges – and not our national policy preferences or personal anxieties — be the focal point of our collective energies.

It also requires us to assert the importance of human agency in these difficult times. Despite our melting glaciers, widespread ethnic and gender-based violence and threats from newly-modernized weapons, all in this age is not doom and gloom.   If it were otherwise, there would be little reason to spend our days fussing in Security Council and other policy chambers.   Given that hopeful options still present themselves, part of “confidence building” for our times must be in part to remind others (and ourselves) that there are still viable alternatives to “fiddling while Rome burns,” and then invite us all to pick up our buckets and help put those fires to rest.  This is not quite the same track as “nailing” a job interview or “scoring” a date with someone “out of your league,” but it is so much more relevant to the future of the planet.   One only had to scroll through yesterday’s photos of so many streets swelling with engaged women or hear the confident testimony in another Council session last Wednesday from young Libyan activist Hajer Sharief to appreciate once again how many women and men worldwide stand ready and able to pick up their own “buckets” and inspire others to do likewise.

This requires a less self-referential type of confidence, one based on a belief that people of energy and good will still matter, that getting out of our homes and on the streets (even in the frigid Yukon) can turn the tide of hatred and self-interest from which many of our current global challenges stem. In these times, this belief is more likely to be a gift from people to their leadership than the reverse.

Despite the seemingly habitual clumsiness of the Council’s efforts at confidence building, there is value in their growing, collective recognition that the remedial energy of states and constituents is indispensable to effective multilateral governance in times of excessive stress that is in no small measure related to WMD threats.   If the Council expects states and citizens to “do more” of the heavy lifting to address this and other global challenges, we at the erstwhile center of global governance must lift heavier as well.  Indeed, a key message from this week is that sustaining peace requires a more benevolent, cooperative and (especially) determined disposition — especially by those residing in policy chambers — towards sustaining confidence.


Inquiring Minds:  Questions at the Heart of the UN’s 2018 Priorities, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Jan


Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’  Martin Luther King, Jr.

Questions are the breath of life for a conversation. James Nathan Miller

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask.  Albert Einstein

It’s another frigid Sunday at the UN, a day when (typically) the trains are not running close to properly and the most important news items of the day included a (thankfully) false missile warning for Hawaii, the dangers to youth from swallowing pods of detergent and the possibility that one of those leftover pods might be needed to “wash out” the insensitive mouth of the US president.

At the UN, it was a slow but important week – slow because of most of the missions are still catching up from the burdensome workloads of late 2017, but important because this is the time when senior UN officials reveal their plans and priorities for the year.   SG Guterres will take the floor on Tuesday to lay out the 2018 priorities of the Secretariat, though he provided an important preview this past week during the launch of his Making Migration Work for All report.  During this well-attended session, Guterres rightly called for “canons of international cooperation” that can increase opportunities for legal migration and eliminate unrealistic restrictions.  Migration is “inevitable,” the SG noted, and if something is inevitable it makes sense to attempt to “properly manage it;” this as part of a call for all delegations to negotiate “constructively” a Global Compact on Migration before the end of this year.

On Friday, the President of the General Assembly, Miroslav Lajčák, took his turn to outline priorities for 2018 within the UN’s most democratic chamber, underscoring the SG’s emphasis on protecting rights and maximizing benefits of migrants, those who migrate voluntarily and those many migrants pushed out of their homes by drought and other climate impacts, discrimination and human rights abuses, and of course armed conflict.

The PGA had other things on his mind as well that his office will hope to impact before turning over the gavel in September 2018:   He is seeking to focus attention on Sustainable Development Goal 6, overcoming the “indignities” that so often accompany a lack of access to safe drinking water.  He is seeking to broaden stakeholder involvement in 2030 Development Agenda implementation.  He is seeking ways for the UN to “keep up with a changing world,” including through stronger linkages between the UN’s human rights and development communities.  He is seeking to continue the process of General Assembly reforms, including institutionalizing participation by indigenous communities and raising levels of transparency regarding the process for choosing his successor.  He made a special appeal for a dramatic increase in delegate attention to the health of our oceans, the challenges of global terrorism and the threat of new pandemics.

And he seeks to elevate the SG’s “sustaining peace” initiative, including pathways to greater participation in peacebuilding by women and youth.   Lajčák affirmed, as he has done in the past, the value of a prevention-oriented peace agenda, urging the UN to act sooner on conflict threats while there is still a “peace to keep.”  Towards the end of his remarks, he also acknowledged (as well he should) threats to our multilateral system that risk “overburdening” the UN system, “drowning out” the voices of smaller states, and undermining progress towards previously agreed peace and development goals. To address challenges such as these, he urged delegations to “talk more and learn more.”

And perhaps even to ask better questions.

Despite his expressed desire to focus on the quality of goals, not their quantity, Lajčák understands that the clock is ticking, both for our planet and, more locally, for his tenure as PGA.  We are already now 1/3 of the way through that tenure, one which has successfully promoted the priorities of his predecessor, Fiji’s Peter Thomson, while seeking to inject some new urgency into a building that sometimes seems content with development and security measures that (while often impressive in their own right) offer insufficient relief for a world staring at a future that could well be characterized by wider social unrest, more missile alerts (false and otherwise), accelerated polar melting, growing insurgencies, an increasingly degraded biodiversity, and perhaps even greater erosion in the confidence that the global public places in governments and multilateral institutions.

PGA Lajčák seems to grasp this multi-faceted urgency.  He knows that the office he now holds has a limited tenure and many burdens, some related to internal UN drama and others related to the positioning of the UN’s considerable successes as a trustworthy antidote to the existential threats which daily assault the PGA and his staff.   Even in his sometimes understated way, Lajčák seemed proficient at communicating the UN’s core responsibilities in this sometimes treacherous period.  Was it enough on Friday?

We weren’t able to tell, frankly, because as quickly as it began the session was over.  By my calculation, delegations were in their seats perhaps 30 minutes for a session which had been allotted three hours.  There were (thankfully) no pre-prepared statements from delegations, no attempts to “comment” on what they heard before they heard it.  But neither were there any questions from the floor: Not a single one.

We had plenty of questions, though protocol prohibits us from asking them in these sessions.  We wanted to probe further the PGAs assertion about “quality commitments,” including how he will use the final 8 months of his tenure to press delegations to “talk more and learn more” about the global challenges for which they have tacitly accepted remedial responsibility?  We wanted to know more about how a “voluntary” compact on migration can successfully overcome nationalist resistances?  We wanted to know how a UN system can effectively prevent conflict when peace and security are often addressed in such a politicized fashion and sovereignty reigns supreme until the fires of internal conflict have burned too many innocents?   We wanted to know how a more “transparent” selection process for the next PGA would actually impact the means by which the new president would eventually be selected?   We wanted to know how the office of the PGA can be better fortified to provide system-wide leadership to address a bursting roster of global expectations?

We had questions for virtually every phrase in the PGA’s presentation, questions that sought clarification and offered opportunities for the PGA to share more of his personal concerns and commitments, to lift a portion of the policy veil for a community that recognizes the value of strong leadership from the PGA despite the impediments from an often-underfunded, one-year tenure.  But from the heads of delegations, there was only a bit of mild applause and a reach for coats and brief cases.  Questions, if at all, were left for another time.

For us, this event was a reminder that the key to “learning more” is not primarily through statements and presentations but through questions – not primarily the kind that seek to “catch” people in their errors and hypocrisies — though there is certainly a place for those — but the kind that illuminates personal and institutional commitments, and that binds questions and answers in a common inquiry to find viable solutions to the problems that plague us.   This is not about letting others (or ourselves) “off the hook,” but acknowledging that, in some real sense, we are all now dangling from the same one.

We are collectively not in that place of recognition.  For too many of us, questions are a threat rather than a blessing, a challenge to our branded narratives rather than an ocassion to examine the truths we hold, and sometimes hold in common.  More and more, we don’t ask good questions, in part because we haven’t practiced asking them in the first place.  And even when we have practiced, we don’t ask good questions because we don’t want to risk having to deal with the answers we receive.  We don’t question because we recognize the degree to which, in our sometimes aloof and self-referential policy world, questions are occasions much more for defensiveness than for exploration. We don’t ask questions at times because we don’t care enough to know and at times because we don’t want to appear in a “public” setting not to already know what a question might imply that we don’t.

But then there are those of us yearning to hear good questions, ones which are neither self-referential nor blatantly accusative but attentive invitations to explore, to collaborate, to support, to learn.  Many of us recognize the potential benefits of such questions, but we hear them too seldom and offer them too sparingly.   Thus, GAPW has made a commitment this year to practice asking better questions — more open-ended, utilizing kinder language, and based on higher levels of attentiveness to process and context.  Our hope is that such questions – from us and from others– can lead to better prospects for community learning, more honest disclosures, and even a lowering of our collective emotional guard.  Such outcomes might even pave the way for global constituents to more fully endorse UN proposals to address the many challenges that keep too many people around the world awake, night after night.

Words of Wisdom: Raising the Bar on Council Culture, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Jan


Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life. Immanuel Kant

It’s easier to resist at the beginning than at the end. Leonardo da Vinci

The less you talk, the more you’re listened to. Pauline Phillips

Never interrupt someone doing what you said couldn’t be done. Amelia Earhart

If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. Abraham Maslow

It’s early on a frigid Sunday in New York, the sort of morning that gives one a new appreciation for hibernation – slowing down the collective metabolism for a season to refresh and restore beyond the bitter elements; but in our case also to reflect on how we ourselves and the institutions we interact with can better fulfill our collective responsibilities.

The UN has been quiet this week, not quite hibernating, but certainly rebooting what had become by mid-December some badly frayed circuits.  The one significant exception was Friday’s “emergency” meeting in the Security Council called for by the US.   The meeting seemed less about how Iran is treating its demonstrators (the alleged and controversial topic of this first session under Kazakhstan’s presidency) and more about undermining confidence in the JCPOA – the Security Council endorsed agreement to restrict Iran’s development of its own nuclear weapons program.

The US has in the recent past used the Security Council as a platform to undercut the credibility of Iran – not only as an alleged sponsor of regional terror but as a state thus incapable of fulfilling agreements such as those embodied in the JCPOA.   The rationale appears to be that if Iran cannot be trusted in all things, it cannot be trusted in this thing either; in this instance despite the firm conviction of the IAEA that Iran is in compliance with its JCPOA obligations, a conviction which is accepted by most Council members including US “allies” France and the United Kingdom.

Meetings of this type are particularly frustrating for us; not only because of their “politicized” implications, but also because of the many conflicts that remain unresolved (such as in Yemen and Myanmar) or that, in instances such as Venezuela and Cameroon, barely seem to register on the Council’s scale of concern.  There is little doubt, as noted on Friday by ASG Zerihoun, that some official reactions to the protests in Iran were excessively violent, a matter of serious interest for Council members beyond the US, which itself had been accused of “grotesque intervention” by Iranian authorities.  But “serious interest” does not in itself justify an “emergency meeting” of the Council, nor does the hostile rhetoric focused on Iran’s at-times misguided policy decisions and human rights performance justify stubborn skepticism regarding Iran’s JCPOA-related compliance.  And it certainly does not justify time taken from interrogating and addressing other looming sites of violent conflict.

Honestly, it felt a bit jarring to emerge from a brief time of winter reflection into the midst of a Council discussion that frankly appeared more than anything else to be lacking in basic wisdom.  Jarring, but not a huge surprise. Council discussions are often more about scoring political points and feeling out the political limitations of national preferences than about full disclosures of national interest, placing policy preferences in their proper context, or the “clear-headed analysis” urged by new Security Council member Peru.

Indeed, wisdom seems to have become a largely discredited phenomenon in policy, in part because more claim it for themselves than exhibit its fruits and in part because of our tendency to keep things discrete – our personal lives from our professional lives, our politics from their personal and real-world implications.  Wisdom is born of experience but is not hostage to experience.   As implied by the quotations above, wisdom is about holding relevant things together, cultivating a long and engaged attention span, exercising self-restraint during times of stress or temptation,  seeing a bigger and richer picture, keeping our bearings when so many around us are losing their own.  It is about describing the (sometimes grave) obstacles in front of us and persistently calling attention to our collective responsibilities, especially to those who are distracted by less urgent matters.  It means talking less and listening more while ensuring that the words we employ have impact beyond their ability to brand preferences and manipulate outcomes.  Especially in the Council’s context, wisdom is about taking preventive measures to resist the outbreak of conflict which can minimize the need for remedial measures in conflict’s aftermath. It implies refraining from a preoccupation with one grievance such that our duty to identify and address grievances of equal or greater significance is compromised.

As some of the greatest minds in our collective history have noted, this wisdom business represents quite a high bar.  Fortunately for us, it is a “bar” that is reached every day by women and men in diverse cultural circumstances, persons with generally limited notoriety but with a demonstrated ability to “organize life,” to step back from the fray in a manner that clarifies options and implications going forward without haughty or self-important aloofness. For us, this “organizing” includes an all-important reminder that most problems needing to be addressed in the world are not akin to an exposed nail in search of some metaphorical hammer.

As France sensibly explained on Friday, it is possible and advisable for the Council to both address “flash points” in the Middle East and honor its JCPOA and related agreements.   Yes it is possible; but what we witnessed Friday was, from the standpoint of wisdom, a clear regression – the JCPOA under senseless threat while “flash points” in Gaza, Yemen, Eastern Ghouta (Syria) and elsewhere within and outside the Middle East region remain stubbornly resistant to Council-initiated resolutions.  As regional and even existential threats to planetary well-being loom large, wiser engagements emanating from this Council would certainly be reassuring.

As we have noted with other issue contexts, Friday’s discussion on Iran summed up many of the problems with the Council’s prevalent “culture” – too many statements, too little listening, too many conflicts ignored, too much political manipulation of those conflicts which are addressed.  The new elected Council members for which Friday was their debut moment – Côte d’Ivoire, Kuwait, Peru, Netherlands, Poland and Equatorial Guinea – have no doubt already experienced several elements of what can be an overly political, wisdom-challenged policy space.   We hope that these elected members will do whatever they can – individually and collectively — to more effectively “organize the life” of the Council.  We promise to support  — certainly not to interrupt — their progress.

Structural Adjustments:  The UN Anticipates an Unsettled New Year, Dr. Robert Zuber

31 Dec

The P-5 make every effort to avoid legal constraints on their actions, and they have been almost entirely successful in doing so. James Paul

If the United Nations is to survive, those who represent it must bolster it; those who advocate it must submit to it; and those who believe in it must fight for it. Norman Cousins

Laziness is nothing more than the habit of resting before you get tired. Jules Renard

Another year has come and gone, and we are about to be inundated with declarations of intent to change our ways: to lose weight, be kinder to strangers, cut back on alcohol, or any number of other “resolutions” designed to fix whatever we have concluded has been “wrong with us.”

Much like the resolutions that proliferate in the multilateral policy space that we inhabit, most of our personal declarations are likely to change little in real time and space, as they seriously misrepresent the degree to which habits can be altered by intention alone.  Rarely can we “talk our way” into change.  The habits which largely define our lives – for good and for ill – are thick and persistent.   They help organize our place in the world and at times even bring us comfort.  But they also divert energies from pursuing the summits that we might otherwise attain, from re-imagining our direction when the current one has lost its vitality, from staring our challenges in the face instead of giving in to the material and technological distractions of the moment.

Habit is not a prison, but we make it seem like one when we stop asking hard questions, when we stop “wrestling with our demons,” when we settle for what is good enough “for us” alone, when we give in to the urge to “relax” before our tasks are complete, indeed even before we feel tired.

This formula applies to institutions as much as individuals.   The UN is one institution that is thick with habit largely in the form of protocol, a place that can barely tolerate those who dare to ask the next hard question, voices for whom the UN in its current form is “necessary but not sufficient” to address looming threats from ever-more-powerful weapons, climate-related shocks and growing economic inequalities. Laziness is generally not an issue for the UN – diplomats and other stakeholders often work long hours and face many deadlines – but so much of the work is directed towards generating statements that are eerily similar to the largely ineffectual statements which preceded them.  Given the nature of the UN and its often-squabbling member states, the tendency here is to “double down” on consensus language rather than ensure that this language – and the tangible commitments which it implicates – are appropriate to the levels of threat we now actually face.

As we enter this New Year, there are significant differences in evidence regarding the direction that this institution should go.   For instance, under significant pressure from the US, the UN’s Fifth Committee recently agreed on a 2018 budget that included $285 million in spending cuts.  The assumption underlying this decision is that the UN is in some respects a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy that needs to better live within its means despite a host of growing global challenges – especially in the realm of peace and security — to which the UN is now expected to respond effectively.

For others, the problem to be addressed is related to the degree to which the UN Secretariat is able to exhort for change, but not to insist upon it, and certainly not to boldly organize the resources of the UN system to address current threats in a timely and effective manner.   The more time we spend inside the UN, and we have spent thousands of hours in its conference rooms and chambers over the past 12 years, the clearer it becomes that the secretariat is still largely beholden to large state interests.   The “leadership” which the global community needs and anticipates from UN officials is  — sadly so – both subject to and compromised by the demands (and even whims) of the states that pay its bills and issue its visas.

For us, it is the power imbalances of the UN system – mostly beyond public scrutiny – that define the UN’s “habit” and limit its potential for the internal changes that can better address external threats.   And nowhere are those imbalances more pervasive – and perhaps hazardous to the overall health of the UN system – than in the Security Council.

As noted in a fine study recently released by James Paul, Of Foxes and Chickens, changes in the dynamics of power characteristic of the Permanent 5 members (and especially of the US and UK) have largely been cosmetic in nature – changes as likely to reinforce existing dynamics as set them on a more hopeful course.  Paul rightly gives the Council credit for (among other things) recognizing climate threats, committing to the full integration of women in peace processes, and engaging in meaningful relationships with regional organizations to address security threats throughout Africa. But he also (like many of his contemporaries) chides the P-5 for their failures to work effectively with other UN agencies and offices; to respond to threats before they erupt into full-scale conflict; turning a “blind eye” to some conflicts currently in motion (such as at the moment in Cameroon, Venezuela and even Yemen); positing humanitarian access as a substitute for hard-nosed conflict resolution which is its primary, Charter-mandated task.

And then there is the “bullying” that Paul identifies – of the elected members of the Council, of other UN states and agencies, of the Secretary-General and (his for now) cabinet.   Moreover, Paul chronicles well the archaic protocols that marginalize all but the P-3 (US, UK, France) and allow politics to stain the language of Council resolutions, the processes that brings such resolutions to a formal vote, even the determination of Council members to ensure that so-called “binding” resolutions are fully implemented.  He also understands better than most that the veto power which is the sole domain of the permanent members is exercised mostly behind closed doors – as yet another means for demanding concessions from elected members without a club of their own to wield.

Perhaps most discouraging is the tendency identified by Paul for the permanent members to hold themselves beyond the reach of the international law that they forcefully proscribe for others. This “do as I say, not as I do” mentality undermines confidence in Council decisions and reinforces the belief that power – not law – is still the guiding premise of global affairs.  As bad a guide to parenting as this mentality is, it has even more serious consequences for international peace and security, as we are likely to experience throughout the coming years.

Finally, Paul recognizes that all this comes at a high cost that dwarfs any budgetary concessions won by the Trump administration or other states.  This “habit” of power imbalances and accompanying bullying discourages bold ideas and initiatives by smaller-states and secretariat officials alike.  It also dampens what gusto remains in the global public to believe that the UN is truly the place to identify and address the wolves baying at the door.  There is truly a high price to be paid – beyond the fiscal ruminations of the Fifth Committee — once global constituents conclude that the “thickness” of the UN’s habits have largely rendered its peace and security promises moot.

It is probably too much, as many commentators have argued, to expect any meaningful Council reform, certainly not in the short term.   But as one small contribution to (hopefully) smoothing out some of what promises to be “rough edges” in the year to come, I offer the following:

In counseling one essential element in shifting habitual behaviors that have long outlived their usefulness is to ascertain levels of personal commitment.  In effect, how badly does the client want this change to happen?   In many such instances, the depth of commitment foretells levels of grit and determination needed to identify and ultimately divert “bad habits.”

Such (important and largely missing) information gleaned from the P-5 and other large states would be helpful for the entire UN community and beyond.   How badly do the major UN “players” want this system to function as an effective means to collaboratively assess and address global threats?  What changes are they sincerely willing to entertain in order for the UN to become what we spend too much energy now trying to convince others that it already is?

As the calendar flips over to 2018, an anxious global public needs to know if our erstwhile guardians of multilateral institutions are playing for keeps or playing largely for themselves.  For unless the powerful states resolve to make the UN more effective and less habituated, to generate healthier balances between global and state interests, the years to come are likely to be rockier and more frustrating for all of us than they need to be.

Baby Face: A Christmas Reflection, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Dec


I don’t need a holiday or a feast to feel grateful for my children, the sun, the moon, the roof over my head, music, and laughter, but I like to take this time to take the path of thanks less traveled. Paula Poundstone

I have accepted a seat in the House of Representatives, and thereby have consented to my own ruin, to your ruin, and to the ruin of our children. I give you this warning that you may prepare your mind for your fate.  John Adams

If we had paid no more attention to our plants than we have to our children, we would now be living in a jungle of weed.  Luther Burbank

Christmas represents an outlier moment for many persons, including those who work on “peace and security.”  After months of pondering solutions to some of the existential threats that we have manufactured for ourselves –the clever ways we have concocted to subjugate and humiliate each other – the attention of many of us turns to a baby in a barn, a baby in whom some invest mountains of hope, but a baby nonetheless; a baby as shocked and bewildered by the profound implications of the short voyage from womb to world as the rest of us were; a baby experiencing its first chills in the evening air, its first experiences of “distance,” its first uncomfortable naps in some seasonally dry hay, its first hiatus between desire and accommodation.

Yes, that baby: a miracle at one level; a life form struggling to cope with unfamiliar “rules” and surroundings at another.

In the Christian tradition, we tend to sentimentalize this singular newborn.   We just assume that this baby can manage the frosty air filling its lungs; we just assume that this baby has no genetic predispositions to childhood disease, is not allergic to his mother’s milk, is invulnerable to the many germs hovering around the barn to which he has not had nearly enough time to develop a resistance.

This baby apparently is the beneficiary of some divinely-procured pathogen defiance, apparently exhibits some innate ability to tolerate changes of 20 degrees C or more from the womb where it lay snugly only hours before; this baby –with blanket protections but no proper blanket — has taken on sacred significance in ways that have captured the imagination of persons from all monotheistic faiths and a fair number of others besides.

A baby so much like other babies of his time; so much like other babies of our time; yet underscored by such a hopeful and enticing narrative, such a different set of expectations.

This hope is not so different from the hopes we have for the babies born in settings from modern hospitals to tents in refugee camps.  When a child is born, there is a real sense in which the world begins anew.  It begins “anew” because of all the potential locked up in that squirming ball of humanity that has survived perhaps the most dramatic and difficult transition it will ever face over the course of its life, potential that too-often neglected and even traumatized parents must find some way to unlock.

It is this potential that we continue to squander, at times neglectfully at other times intentionally and even murderously.   We cut off health care to children at their most critical developmental moments. We bomb hospital and schools creating mass trauma while eliminating the institutions that might help children recover some measure of their emotional bearings.  We lie to our progeny (and to ourselves) about the future these babies are destined to inherit; a melting, more militarized, more divided world that is virtually guaranteed by the reckless, self-interested decisions that we (and our erstwhile leadership) make each and every day.

With all due respect to the UNICEF team here in New York, it still amazes me after all these years that the human community needs some large multilateral agency (and its numerous national counterparts) to guarantee a modicum of respect and care for children, a modicum which, by the way, we are a long way from ensuring.   What is the matter with us?   How can we pour so much sentimental significance into a long-ago baby in a makeshift manger and then so little into the babies – in Yemen, in Honduras, in rural areas of Central Africa, in urban favelas around the world, even in our own neighborhoods – whose life-enhancing potential is being undermined the second their umbilical cords are severed?

I don’t get this.  It remains for me a Christmas mystery matched only by the star that functions like a GPS device and parents gathering around a manger in rapt attention despite what might well be their own hunger, fatigue, nausea and chills.

In trying to get through this mystery, I have benefited greatly from contributions from two friends of mine (and this office), two of the many women of great substance and thoughtfulness who have helped me (and many others) interpret the times and navigate a way forward in both personal and institutional aspects.

Marta Benavides reminds us frequently from El Salvador about the degree to which “greed and ambition are clouding vision and action,” blinding us to the inequalities we create and the human potential we rob in the name of power and “progress.”  In a similar vein, Lisa Berkley has noted that “If there is one thing the #metoo movement is showing us, it is just how wounded we all are.”

There is, of course, much beyond greed and ambition that clouds our vision, much beyond #metoo that exposes the wounds to which we give so little attention and which are thereby likely to become a most unwelcome slice of our babies’ inheritance.  The greed and personal ambition that we won’t curtail results in decisions that barely benefit the present but surely undermine our prospects.  In the same way, the wounds we will neither confront nor heal in ourselves will surely morph into infections for which no metaphorical antibiotics will ever be sufficient.

Being a baby in this world – not to mention caring for them – is simply too challenging now.  We are as a species, indeed, too damaged, too greedy, too smug; we are too ambitious for our own interests and too little concerned with the general interest.  These deformations of character are things we can address.  Indeed we must, as the consequences of our folly will consume the elders as readily as they will our youngest.

This year, my Christmas prayer for our “lands of confusion” is that our reverence for the manger child becomes not a substitute for, but an enabler of our active reverence for all the babies who enter this world, most entering not under a star but a cloud.

Pick Six:  The Security Council Bids Adieu to some Stellar Elected Colleagues, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Dec

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. Thomas Edison

When we create hope and opportunity in the lives of others, we allow love, decency and promise to triumph over cowardice and hate. Kirsten Gillibrand

If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door. Milton Berle

I’m sitting in the office on a Sunday with my pulled-from-the-dumpster Christmas tree glistening in the background.   The tree is enticing me to pen a Christmas message today, but given that next Sunday is Christmas Eve, that message can wait just a bit.

There are many other messages emanating from the UN community this week that seem a bit more urgent, including new (and heated) discussions on responses to DPRK missile launches, preparatory discussions in Puerto Vallarta on issues affecting global migration governance, a Security Council warning to South Sudan’s leadership to take the renewed “Revitalisation Forum” convened by the InterGovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) with upmost seriousness, the decision by the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court to activate jurisdiction over the”crime of aggresssion,” and an “Arria Formula” UNSC session devoted to the urgent linkages between climate change and global security.   Moreover, in keeping with a bevy of recent discussions and articles chronicling abuses committed against women, including the arbitrary withholding of otherwise well-deserved opportunity, a significant gathering in Lima sought “windows of opportunity” to integrate Latin American women into regional peace and security sectors.

But the end of 2017 also signifies the end-of-service for six elected (non-permanent) Security Council members:  Egypt, Italy (which is “sharing” a 2-year seat with the Netherlands), Japan, Senegal, Ukraine and Uruguay.  This has been an engaged and often thoughtful group in the midst of many difficult obligations and challenges.  Egypt, for its part, took leadership on many aspects related to the UN’s counter-terror response, including sanctions committees and educational events on related UN member responsibilities often undertaken in conjunction with the UN Counterterrorism Executive Directorate (CTED).  In addition, its public role with regard to stubbornly unresolved conflicts in the Middle East, now including unilateral declarations related to Jerusalem’s status, has been appropriately simmering and measured.

Due in part to its international prestige and excellent mission leadership, Italy was able to make its mark on the Council despite having only one year in this current configuration to do so, applying a steady hand to the urgent matters of preserving the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) and maintaining fair and effective sanctions, as well as drawing careful attention to the peace and security implications of climate change, food insecurity and forced migration. Italy also highlighted a problem it previously identified (with Jordan) regarding the discouraging destruction of cultural property and its resale by terrorists groups to fund their recruitment and resulting abuses.

Japan has been a particularly generous (and under-the-radar) contributor so to many dimensions of UN security and humanitarian relief efforts, and those contributions at times spoke with a more convincing voice than its routine Council statements or even its leadership of the sub-committee reviewing Council working methods.  However, steadily escalating tests and tensions in the Korean Peninsula, including DPRK missile launches provocatively sailing over Japanese air space, forced Japan into the spotlight as a major participant in DPRK-related discussions and, as current Security Council president, into a robust organizing and facilitating role for such discussions.

Senegal handled its Council responsibilities with understated dignity and grace.  Indeed, as so much of the Council’s agenda is focused on sub-Saharan states as well as on solidifying trustworthy arrangements with the African Union, IGAD and other regional players, Senegal’s importance to Council deliberations belied its size.  Indeed, on the many issues negatively affecting the peoples of the Sahel region and Lake Chad Basin, Senegal’s enabling logistics and wise counsel was indispensable, underscoring for us and for others the importance of protecting and enhancing active Council involvement by committed African states.

The quality of Ukraine’s Council participation also grew steadily over their two-year term.   At first, it seemed as though Ukraine’s election was largely a political response to Russia-sponsored military activity first in Crimea and then in Donbas and other areas of Eastern Ukraine.   And Ukraine rarely refrained from referencing “Russian aggression” and the human rights violations that have been (slowly) documented in and around Donbas.  But over these two years, Ukraine’s mission and growing appreciation for, investment in and leadership on a wide range of global security concerns far beyond the Crimea has been noted and appreciated by many.

And then there is Uruguay, one of those Council members to entirely eschew the use of twitter, which has made it a bit more difficult for us to tell them how much we have appreciated their efforts.   Uruguay has been a champion both of Council transparency and of the need to link Council actions to the concerns, interests and skills of the wider UN membership.   Ambassador Rosselli and his colleagues have often requested the floor in “public” session to clarify the stake of non-Council members in Council decisions, to rebuke permanent members for their political maneuvering and manipulation of Council working methods, to compliment and expand on presentations by secretariat briefers, even to debunk the alleged value of the more “secret” informal discussions in the “consultations room” to which Council members often retire.

While not all of their statements hit the mark, this small state took on tough positions in a visible way that, for us, helped to clarify the role we believe elected members can and must play in making the Security Council more effective and accountable.   While there are risks associated with this, risks which some delegations would never be authorized from capital to take, it is important that at least some elected members are able and willing to remind their colleagues that the Council is part of a larger system of states and agencies with which it must work more collaboratively; that statements of national position which fail to reference the testimony of briefers or the concerns of colleagues are little more than time-consuming show and tell; that too many conflicts finding their way to the Council’s agenda (not to mention situations like Venezuela or Cameroon that have trouble getting any traction) are the result of a failure-to-prevent that often predicts long and arduous episodes of violence and recovery; that we must address the unwillingness of states (especially permanent members) to thoughtfully assess decisions that large states have largely pushed for, including confessions of regret and lessons learned when situations (as they have certainly done) go horribly wrong.

To paraphrase an old American Express commercial, “membership does indeed have its privileges.”  But being on the Council is highly demanding work, especially for the smaller states, and most of those “privileges” as we know accrue to the larger, permanent members.   Where windows of privilege are opened for the others, allowing them to shed some light on violence that could have been but was not prevented; peacekeeping that could have protected more civilians but was not properly equipped to do so; tensions that could have been lowered if not for careless and inflammatory rhetoric; women who are often “subject matter” for Council meetings but whose voices around the oval are still woefully under-represented; then we must all do what we can to ensure such opportunities are properly utilized.

We honor these six elected members, as we have honored many of their predecessors over the past dozen years, because of the windows of opportunity they have seized, not only to improve the effectiveness of the Security Council, but to bring the UN closer to honoring its peace and security promises in an ever-more complex global landscape.  It may well be, as some commentators have alleged, that large-scale Security Council reform is mostly a pipe dream.  But it is our contention, born of a long and consistent engagement with the Council, that thoughtful, connected, committed, opportunity-minded elected members can still do much to push all Council colleagues to revisit and better honor the confidence that the UN Charter has placed in their work.

Thanks to all six of you for this important reminder.