Land of Promise:  The UN Takes Stock of an Underestimated Continent, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Oct


Where a woman rules, streams run uphill.  Ethiopian proverb

Do not let what you cannot do tear from your hands what you can.  Ashanti proverb

I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself.  Nelson Mandela

There is always something new out of Africa. Pliny the Elder

This was “Africa Week” at the UN, a time for this entire community to stake stock of our debts to African peoples but also to celebrate the many ways in which Africans are truly developing and then implementing home-grown solutions to their own problems.

Despite the many responsibilities associated with the six General Assembly Committees that meet all this month, most all UN hands were “on deck” for all or part of this week long assessment of the roads that African states have tread and what they might still become.  This included as well the UN Security Council, which bears the brunt of responsibility for resolving conflicts from South Sudan (on which it met this past week) and Mali to Nigeria and now Cameroon. The Council is currently in the Sahel region (today in Mali) on mission to assess the status of the P-5 Sahel Force which it authorized and which is intended to bring stability to a region threatened by a “cocktail” whose ingredients include insurgency, climate stresses and food insecurity.

The stated goals for Africa week, “an integrated, prosperous, people-centered and peaceful Africa” draws heavily on the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda as well as Africa’s own Agenda 2063.  These goals were articulated in a thoughtful manner throughout the week, avoiding clichés and “quick wins” in favor of clear sighted examinations of what African states and their peoples need and what stands in the way of their progress.    Part of that discussion is related to finance, not only to the preservation of essential remittances, but to the ways in which states can better protect their own natural resources from exploitation and increase sources of domestic revenue, including through reducing “tax avoidance and profit shifting.”

Beyond finance, the week highlighted a variety of challenges, including forced migration patterns exacerbated by climate-related drought and multiple iterations of armed violence.   There were also important discussions on creating more opportunities for affordable credit and “decent work” — in many instances highlighting the degree to which the African labor force is now both robust and youthful  — as well as on the challenges in harnessing Africa’s unprecedented “demographic dividend.”

The implications of this “dividend” go well beyond employment. Over the years at Global Action, I have been blessed to visit and work in most every region on the continent, including Egypt in the north, South Africa in the south, Senegal in the west, Kenya in the east, Cameroon in the center.   And while all of these countries have much cultural and ecological diversity to commend, one of the things they seem to have in common is young people who are anxiously and even impatiently prepared to assume mantles of economic and political leadership.   There is a “leadership dividend” across Africa as well, people who hope to soon turn their aspirations into higher offices, people who refuse to choose between integration and sovereignty, between economic development and environmental protection, between reliable governance and local participation. These are people with the fresh ideas about how Africa might be and are prepared to make the changes needed to ensure that the goals enumerated in the UN’s Africa Week are more than just another set of multilateral promises.

The Concept Note for this Africa Week highlighted two particular challenges for this new generation of African leader.  The first of these is “integration” of a continent divided by deserts and jungles, but also by culture and language, even at times by levels of openness to continent-wide initiatives focused on security, trade and other matters essential to sustainable development.  Despite positive efforts by the African Union on security and sub-regional entities such as the Southern African Development Community on African trade, optimal levels of integration remain impeded by a series of issues that have long resisted resolution, including providing dependable access by land-locked countries to seaports in neighboring states and creating a more reliable transportation network linking those states.   In this regard, the ambitious (and costly) proposal floated this week for an Integrated High Speed Train Network is welcome, especially by persons who have long struggled to move themselves (and their agricultural products and other commodities) around Africa’s vast spaces.

And then there is the security (threatened by both insugencies and excessive state responses) on which all intra-and inter-state development depends.  On numerous occasions, reference was made this week to the African Union initiative Silencing the Guns by 2020, with outcomes considered by many (rightly in our view) as essential to a sustainable future.  Many African states are now awash in weapons both licit and illicit.  And as the AU’s “Silencing” report notes, “the continent has hosted, and continues to be home to, a number of deadly conflicts that jeopardize human, national and international security and defy efforts to resolve them.”  Such conflicts involve state and non-state actors, and often draw on sources of weapons located far from the scenes of the violence.   The “fuel” for these conflicts often takes the form of governance that is unfair or even unjust; food, water and health insecurities that force families into heartbreaking choices; exploitative employment in sectors such as extraction that provide little economic relief and poison local ecosystems;  and rights violations that keep so many women, youth and indigenous persons locked into senseless, disempowering social roles.

The “leadership dividend” which we have seen first-hand in many African regions seems capable of both drying up access to weapons and healing many of the social and economic causes that cause people to reach for weapons in the first instance.  This “dividend” must remain at the center of any UN discussions on African issues and capacities going forward.

The World Economic Forum noted this week the strong possibility that by the year 2100 one third of all people on earth will reside in Africa.   Assuming that we don’t bomb or melt ourselves into extinction before then, this is a staggering statistic, one that will impact every aspect of African governance, security, economy and ecology.   The “strongly intertwined challenges” that currently characterize areas such as the Lake Chad Basin, the Horn of Africa, and the Central African states will evolve in unforeseen ways across the continent, calling for gender and culture-balanced leadership that can inspire hands and hearts that “know what they can do” and commit to doing it.

For the rest of us — during Africa Week and every other week – we must do what we can and all that we can to ensure that Africa has every opportunity to be at peace and, as Mandela noted, to be at peace with itself.




What about Us?: The Children We Need, the Children We’ve Ignored, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Oct

Puerto Rico

Those who have virtue always in their mouths, and neglect it in practice, are like a harp, which emits a sound pleasing to others, while itself is insensible of the music. Diogenes

When the human race neglects its weaker members, when the family neglects its weakest one – it’s the first blow in a suicidal movement. Maya Angelou

Last evening, I sat in a Harlem church, in a row filled with former members of my now-closed parish, and listened to the wonderful East Coast Inspirational Singers led by the equally remarkable (and former music director at my parish) John Stanley.

The music was both deafening and completely on key.   The audience was active and engaged, soaking in the music and the message, waving and shouting both their approval and their conviction that something continues to go terribly wrong in our world, something that they have at least a bit of resources and the will-power to help fix.

The “something” in this particular instance is the slow pace of response to the hurricane-related needs of the people of Puerto Rico (and other Caribbean communities).   This concert was meant to inspire donations to augment what many felt has been a pattern of government neglect, leaders taking credit for responses that have left most families still in the dark, children without schools to attend, health deficits made worse as residents consume contaminated water in the absence of any cleaner alternatives.

Some of these Harlem folks brought their children along, in some cases to fortify the impression that people still care about others down on their luck and that the plight of children living within and far beyond Harlem is deserving of more attention by others.  The concert raised almost $3000 out of pockets that I know in some cases to be mostly empty.  No one imagined that this gesture would be sufficient, would substitute for the oft-lacking determination by government agencies to fulfill their commitments to their own people.  But they had to do something.  And they did.

And they also painfully understood that if the message to the children brought to that concert was one of agency and concern, what message must the children of Puerto Rico take away from a crisis that has both profoundly disrupted their lives and possibly also confirmed their worst fears about how much (or little) they are valued by others?

Such questions gnawed at much of the UN all week as well. The “Third Committee” of the General Assembly heard from special rapporteurs about the often-heartbreaking circumstances endured by children in diverse global regions, especially the children displaced by violence, storms or drought, children on the move with or without their families, sometimes falling victim to traffickers eager to sell them off to sexual predators or even to harvest their organs.

At the same time, the rapporteurs also reminded states of their near-universal commitments to preserve the rights and dignity of children, to do everything in their power to ensure that next generations are capable and enabled to manage complex future challenges, including doing a better job of preventing the conflicts that continue to ravage prospects for future generations.

Beyond the 3rd Committee, the UN honored the International Day of the Girl Child with a quite upbeat Wednesday afternoon event featuring UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed.    The theme of the event, “Empowering girls—before, during, and after crises,” was an important reminder of both the many skills of girls and the responsibilities of states. And yet, as with so many UN events, this one was also of no particular comfort to Caribbean children struggling with their families and communities to adjust to circumstances that they could not foresee and with no insurance agents standing ready to offer assistance like the ones they (when the power was still on) have seen on TV.  Nor is it of comfort to the girls who have reportedly been sold into marriage by Yemeni parents who see no other way to get their children away from the bombing and cholera to which they have daily been subjected.

The Security Council had its own engagements with the often-unsettling circumstances of the world’s children.   On Friday afternoon, the Council in an Arria Formula format welcomed back former SG Kofi Annan to discuss recommendations for addressing violence and discrimination against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority still to be found streaming into neighboring Bangladesh.   Calls by Council members to end violence committed by the Myanmar military, to address documentation and citizenship concerns of the Rohingya, and to conduct an official mission to Rakhine state (as suggested by Ukraine) were all most welcome, but again were surely of no comfort to the children fearfully separated from families, desperate for food and shelter, and struggling to shake off the horrific effects of the traumatic violence to which they have already been witness.

Earlier that day, with logistical and program support from Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch and others, the Council held still another Arria Formula event, this time focused on the grave (and seemingly growing) problem of attacks on schools by state and non-state military forces, including the forced dislodging of students and teachers such that schools might become “zones of occupation” for armed combatants.

The highlight of this event for many in the room was the address by Joy Bishara, one of the Chibok Girls who managed to leap to safety after Boko Haram attacked the school and herded girls on to a get-away truck.  Joy is now a student in Florida (thanks to the intervention of a US Congresswoman) and shared her story in a clear and determined manner, evoking some emotional responses from Council members who lauded her courage and pledged to do more to keep this from happening to others.  One concrete outcome from all this “pledging” (we hope) is for more Council members to formally endorse the Safe Schools Declaration to prevent armed violence from compromising educational facilities and impeding student access to those facilities.

This was my second time listening to Joy (with her Chibok friend Lydia) and, while her talks were meant to share a story rather than critique a process, I was struck by the trust deficits that permeated much of that story — at least between the lines.  Where were the school guards on the night of the attack?  Where was the government security sector as the girls were being carted away?  Where was the international community as the rest of Joy’s classmates remained in a dismal captivity month after month?  Joy spoke of running for help after jumping from the truck and then “not trusting” those who offered it.   I’m guessing that her deficits of trust will turn out to be more pervasive than those directed at a Nigerian boy with a motor scooter in the middle of that night.

Returning to Saturday’s Harlem concert, one highlight of the event was a Gospel selection familiar to me and others, the key line being “what about us?”  What about those promises, those commitments?  What about those international resolutions and treaties, those constitutional protections and national implementing agencies? What about those state services missing in action? What about all that?

There might be no determination quite like that displayed by people of modest means and solid values who know the consequences first hand of our collective failure to ensure safe and productive passage for children.  Many of the older folks at this concert had lived through the ravages of crack cocaine and broken down schools, of sub-standard health care options and a hands-off attitude by police and other public servants.  They had shielded children not their own from bullies and bullets, but mostly from the creeping fear that they might not be worthy of empowerment, of a chance to have a voice and make a difference, even of the possibility of trusting the public institutions that rhetorically purport to have their best interests at heart.

This damage to the physical and emotional well-being of children has the potential to undermine our common future every bit as much as “competing” existential threats, including those related to weapons and climate.   We can and must do more at community and policy levels to reverse the “slow suicidal movement” wherein we pass on our unresolved crises to a new generation, too many of whom have already had their hopes and dreams senselessly impaired.

What about us?

Another Eyewitness Account of Deteriorating Conditions in Cameroon

8 Oct

“The crisis has been converted into a huge money making machine for the men in uniform. They organize random arrests and each arrested person seeking his or liberty pays between 25000 and 500000 francs including in some cases sexual favors. It’s sad and urgent.

The national and international community must stop talking and take action now.
Tomorrow may be too late.

Each arrest and killing is not weakening voices or determination but is fast radicalizing thousands and recruiting more into the struggle.

Today a large number of youths on their way to church from Mike 16 in Buea were intercepted, some ask to sit in the mud and others taken to where we do not know.

These are confirmed eye witness accounts.”

Bucking Inevitability:  Putting Technology in its Place, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Oct

Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. Gertrude Stein

Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road. Stewart Brand

It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity. Albert Einstein

I have spent a good bit of this past week in the community of Georgia Tech, a university whose rise in quality and prominence is mirrored by the city of Atlanta of which it is a prominent part.

I come here in part at the urging of Professor Robert Thomas and in part because I get to speak to – and with – some very talented students (including former interns) who ply their wares in fields far removed from my own but in no way irrelevant to what we and others try to accomplish in New York.

It is not irrelevant because, of course, the skills they now cultivate are essential to fulfilling our sustainable development promises.   These are people who can design sustainable cities, not just talk about the need for them.  These are people who can help create funding strategies that might actually support healthier oceans and gender-balanced schools.  These are the people who can engineer transportation systems that can reduce both emissions and rider frustrations.

It all sounds quite positive.  What could possibly run this train off the tracks?

To answer this fairly, we should take a step back.  Earlier this week at the UN, Kazakhstan sponsored an event that focused on technological advances and their impacts on weapons systems and disarmament prospects.  Among the presentations was one focused on the increasing speed with which (hypersonic) missiles will be able to find their targets and the knowledge and response deficits that this speed helps create.  The scenario was painted of leaders having to take action without definitive knowledge about the payload or intent of the incoming threat, and the sometimes grave mistakes that can proceed from such “decision-making on the fly.”

As is the case in some of the more intimate UN “side event” discussions, the train of thought moved in even more productive directions, inspired in part by a comment that much of what technology demands, in domains far beyond military defense, is rapid response.   In the personal realm, for instance, we tend to react immediately and at times thoughtlessly to the messages on our smart phone; we respond to email messages at a rapid fire rate in an attempt – usually futile – to keep those messages from dropping on our screens past the point that they are visible enough to prompt action. We feel the urgency to “get back to people,” those hostile or not, before we have thought through the longer-term implications of our shorter-term communications blasts.

And it’s not just our smart phones that are motivating responses that lack a concern for the longer-view. Indeed, the demand for short-term gain, for instant investor gratification has become something of a hallmark of our modern economic system.   Despite the obvious threats that our economic choices can unleash, we continue to make “business decisions” without considering the impacts on prospects for our children – the stable, secure and healthy environment that we all could do more to ensure and in which they might find productive and socially-useful pathways for talents that have often come at the considerable cost of time, effort and even tuition.

At the UN where we sit each and every day, such a stable environment is at best a patchwork of possibility. Success in Colombia and Liberia is offset by new patterns of misery in places like Syria, Myanmar and now Cameroon.   Determination on sustainable development is contextualized by armed violence that destroys community infrastructure and saps hope.  Progress on global migration governance is stifled by governments erecting walls of all sorts and even inciting otherwise generous souls to turn their backs on forcibly displaced.

And there is another alarming back story to our current technological preoccupations, a second, discouraging dimension of “dual-use.”   The dual use of our common policy discourse is unsettling enough – technology that appears to serve civilian uses but is actually a platform for more military-friendly applications.  Here we are thinking of space-based, communications technology that covers for military intelligence gathering, or drones that can deliver consumer packages and annoy neighbors but are equally well-designed to deliver remote-controlled explosives.

But “dual use” has another dimension, one that the engineering and science majors working on grant-related research often come to understand well.   In the US as with many other parts of the world, the major “investor” in research and development are Departments of Defense.   As a result, initial applications following successful research are often military in significance.   Consumer applications come later, often in the form of new products that can generate significant revenue and are frequently presented (and accepted) as some form of inevitable imposition, akin to death and taxes, and invoking a similar sense of resignation.  Are we really clamoring for driver-less cars?   For robots that make products we no longer have the revenue to purchase? For yet another generation of phones that rob us of self-directed skills, stoke our narcissism and anxiety, and fill our heads with other peoples’ nonsense? For computer applications that reveal all sorts of juicy tidbits about other people that we really have no business knowing?

This is dual use with an unsettling twist.  The military establishment gains the benefit of the skills of many of our brightest minds and the rest of us get the shiny dregs in the form of too many products and “services” of convenience for which “desire” and “need” have been relentlessly stoked; that can violate most of what remains of our privacy; and that can increase the complexity and anxiety (and ecological footprint) of our lives more than bring us closer to a sustainable future.

Needless to say, not all of the students I am with this week choose to take on the implications of this dissonance.  Some prefer to stay in their labs, their DNA fully intertwined with their technology, letting the world take care of itself.  But if you probe a bit, there are cracks even in this narrative, cracks occasioned in part by the unlikelihood that any of the real-world implications of technology carefully developed will stay, at least to some degree, in the hands of its developers.  Indeed, few of the academicians who teach engineering or technology and who make chunks of their living from grant-related research in these areas have any illusions regarding their ability to control the consequences of their research beyond the confines of their labs.

Fortunately, there are many other young people who are questioning this inevitability-producing system, who demand more control of the implications of their labors, who seek ways to use their considerable skills to make a safer, saner, more predictable world for all, having an impact greater than simply developing technologies to service military objectives and line the pockets of their consumer counterparts.

Technology has proven itself to be what Einstein and others have long predicted – a great blessing on the one hand, a potentially toxic and dis-empowering addiction on the other. We have showered our technologists with well-deserved admiration but also with excessive deference.  We too often treat technology like some approaching tsunami, something we feel compelled to watch from an unsafe distance and for which we are largely unprepared as the water reaches threatening levels.

We must find ways to do more than manage the technology that is positioned to “flatten” us, more than merely “give way” to its seductive allures.  Later this week at the UN, we will attend an event entitled The Future of Everything – Sustainable Development in the Age of Rapid Technological Change. But we know this already: that any such “future” must be characterized by a deeper commitment to get better control of technology’s “pace,” to ensure that any future innovation has more than a “puncher’s chance” of being placed in the service of a safer, healthier and more equitable world.

There was a story this week that the person who created the “Like” button for Facebook decided to delete Facebook altogether from his “smart” phone. Whether or not this is some “declaration of independence,” I have no way of knowing.  The issue is not whether technology is good or bad.  The issue is who controls its development and application, to what ends, at what pace, to whose benefit.   These are questions fundamental to sustainable development, to the inclusive well-being of global citizens, questions that we have barely begun to pose.

If we don’t get the answers we need, we must rethink the inevitability of this current technological wave.  My hope and sense is that there is a new batch of clever young people open to doing precisely that.

A Path Forward for Cameroon: An Interview with the Canadian Broadcast System

7 Oct

The following is the transcript of an interview conducted for the CBC “As it Happens” program with a colleague in Cameroon who has been closely following the street-level frustration and state violence now overwhelming the Anglophone region.   The call here for an immediate and inclusive political dialogue — perhaps best brokered by the UN — coupled with an end to excessive force by state security is one we fully endorse.

Guest: Guest

JD: In Cameroon last weekend, English-speaking protesters gathered to call for independence. Snd for their vocal dissent, 17 people were killed. There sre two English-speaking regions in Cameroon Northwest and the Southwest. The protesters want to separate from the country’s Francophone majority and create a new state called “Ambazonia”. We reached an activist living in the Southwest, who works for a local NGO. At his request, we have agreed to not use his name, because he fears arrest and detention. But we reached him in Buea, Cameroon.

CO: You are in the Southwest region of Cameroon. This is one of the two Anglophone regions, where the military has been heavily deployed following these protests. Can you describe what things are like there right now?

GUEST: After the heavy street protests last Sunday, places are relatively quiet. We do not have protesters again on the streets. But the region is heavily militarized. Arrests are still going on.

CO: And what can you see? What the presence of the military can you actually see on the streets?

GUEST: Basically, there are three categories of military: uniform officers have been deployed, the police and the army are all actively deployed. And they are currently on every street and every junction in the region.

CO: Can you tell us about the protests and what the protesters want? Can you tell us about the movement?

GUEST: The demands of the protesters dramatically change as they are asking now for a full federal system of government that would give them the power to manage the justice and education system.

CO: So it started as a demand for English language rights — for minority language rights to work in English. But now, the protesters are demanding something far larger. They unfurled flags of something they call “Abmazonia”, which would be what? Can you describe what they are now asking for? It’s a separatist movement, isn’t it?

GUEST: Yes. The Southern Cameroons’ gained their independence by joining the French Cameroon in 1961. At that time, the agreement was two states with equal status coming together in a federal system of government.

CO: And so the Anglophones who are leading this protest, what they want, if I understand it. They want an independent state called Ambazonia that would be English speaking?

GUEST: Yes, they want an independent state for Southern Cameroon and they’re naming it Ambazonia.

CO: Security forces shot dead 17 people among those protesters on the weekend. Is there an expectation that there were more deaths or that the toll will rise?

GUEST: The toll is already rising because they are more corpses that have been identified in the bushes where the protesters were followed by the military and some of them killed. We are still getting very, very disturbing reports about a very large number of corpses found around the region. And so the number 17 is likely going to grow.

CO: Security forces are saying we won’t use violence, unless there is a major cause. There are numerous risks even terrorist risks and we’re acting appropriately. Does that match what you are seeing on the streets?

GUEST: No, I don’t think so. Because none of the protesters were armed, and a lot of them had peace plants and branches and were saying no violence, no violence. And so we can also confirm that at one point when they were stopped, there was an exchange of stone throwing between them and the uniform officers when they returned tear gas. But, basically, we do not think that the force used by the protesters can justify why the military should have used excessive the force that they used.

CO: So the government has also shut down the Internet. They’ve closed businesses in the main cities where the protests happened. I understand there are military helicopters overhead. and that they’ve deployed the “rapid intervention brigade”, which is usually used to fight Islamists. So it’s pretty heavy. How do you think the government will proceed from here? How do you think the security forces will deport themselves?

GUEST: We think that they urgently need to demilitarize these regions back to a level that is meant to keep security for normal day-to-day activities to return. But this is not the situation yet.

CO: Is there any chance of returning to mediation? Any way to sit down between protesters and the government? Or do you think it’s gone too far at this point?

GUEST: It may have gone too far, but I think that it is not beyond the possibility for two parties to sit down and dialogue. No matter how dark it may seem today, it is still relatively brighter than tomorrow. A dialogue should not stop now. So we think it will save more lives and save the nation and all the parties will stand to win if dialogue should start now.

CO: Do you support the protest movement yourself?

GUEST: As an organization, we support human rights and we think we support the right for peaceful protest. We think that they have fundamental rights that needs to be respected. The questions that they are raising and the demands are genuine.

CO: We are not identifying you, nor the name of your organization, but you’re not breaking any laws. You’re not part of that separatist movement. You are part of a legal NGO. Why do you want your identity protected?

GUEST: It is because, presently, it’s it seems like a breakdown in order. Because not all those who have been arrested, or killed, or molested and detained are guilty of any crimes. So anybody can be arrested even when you show that this is my identification and stuff. There is indiscriminate arrests and penetration, so it’s not safe at all.

CO: We will leave it there and follow this story. I appreciate speaking with you. Thank you.

GUEST: Thank you very much.

JD: That was an activist living in Cameroon. He requested we not use his name because he fears arrest, but we reached him in Buea.

Crossing the Line: Humiliation and its Online Enablers, Dr. Robert Zuber

1 Oct


We’re not going to hug it out. But we can listen to each other.  Mother of Heather Heyer who was killed in Charlottesville

Genuine dialogue, not rhetorical bomb-throwing, leads to progress. Mark Udall

Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right. Jane Goodall

It is early on a Sunday morning, and I’m in the office monitoring a series of discouraging global events highlighted (or for us lowlighted) by what appear to be indiscriminate attacks by Cameroon security forces against protestors in the largely English-speaking South West, violence breaking out in towns and cities where we have long maintained a supportive presence.

While we wait anxiously for word about friends and colleagues, there are plenty of other matters to engage our small office. Puerto Rico is still largely under water, without provisions and in the dark.   Rohingya efforts to escape abuse in Myanmar have occasioned a series of fresh tragedies amplifying already unimaginable suffering.  Cholera and civilian casualties from bombing in Yemen, human rights violations in an increasingly intransigent Burundi, referendum-related violence in Spain and Iraq and perhaps more to come in South Sudan and the DRC — all find their way on our radar. (And the DPRK looms large for many of us, especially given President Trump’s categorical dismissal of dialogue earlier today.)

What exactly, we wonder often, is the matter with us? Why is so much of our interaction with each other devoted to inflaming grievances or conducted at the point of a gun?

The UN in general and the Security Council in particular are responding to some of this dissonance.  System-wide, we have witnessed hopeful signs including the Human Rights Council’s decision to set up an independent investigation of abuses committed by all sides in Yemen’s now three year conflict. In addition, we followed a solid event organized by the President of the General Assembly on Trafficking in Persons, highlighting the vulnerabilities of forced migrants (such as in Libya and Myanmar) to predators who often and additionally traffic in weapons, narcotics and even cultural artifacts.

The Security Council held its own fruitful discussions this week, including one (finally) on the abuses of Rohingya in Myanmar briefed by the SG Guterres and another looking at the how a freshly coordinated, UN counter-terror effort can help address some of the most difficult challenges facing the system, including terror recruitment and incitement to violence through the clever, if malevolent, use of the internet.

We had what are perhaps predictable reactions to these four events.   On Yemen and Myanmar, we were grateful for the movement and discussion, but also are mindful of how ponderous UN responses can be – how many lives urgently hang in the balance while we in New York and Geneva take our time sifting through the political barriers to meaningful action.  On trafficking, this is an issue that clearly lies within the UN’s leveraging and operational capacities and on which there is considerable consensus among delegations.  If we cannot stop the bombing — and our record here is not always promising — we can at least do more to ensure that those once victimized by war are not victimized yet again through some toxic combination of vulnerability and predation.

On the “whole of UN” approach to countering terrorism and violent extremism, we note with appreciation that the Counter-Terror Executive Directorate (CTED) continues to organize excellent events for Council members and others focused on a range of matters relevant to its mandate; from the value of sanctions and “dark web” threats to the identification and control of foreign terror fighters (especially on the internet) and strategies for squeezing sources of terror financing. CTED in its new “home” under the UN’s Counter-Terrorism Committee is helping states and other stakeholders solve difficult problems, achieve a common framework of understanding and action, and identify outstanding issues that compromise effectiveness.

One of those outstanding issues has to do with our classifications of things about which we disapprove, specifically how we define matters such as “terrorist” and “incitement” and how we establish (and defend) the lines that separate terror from more legitimate dissent, incitement from more garden-variety discord.

Ultimately, in a state-driven environment like the UN, these lines are largely left to be drawn by state authorities or, in more and more cases, by large corporations that control social media and its access.  And their record in this regard is not particularly reassuring.   Regarding governments, we recall the carnage in Syria justified by unspecific references to “terror” groups as well as the mass suffering in Yemen caused by “terrorists” whom the state now believes can be eradicated through military means. In the US, apparently, white nationalist demonstrations that result in death no longer rise to the level of “incitement” if my own government’s highest officials are to be believed.

And apparently the young girl murdered earlier today by (we assume) Cameroon security forces (small photo at top) crossed some state-interpreted line. Perhaps she unwittingly received controversial material over the internet, a commonplace preoccupation of that government.  Perhaps she was simply standing next to a sign calling for regional independence. Looking at the photo of her mangled face, I can’t fathom what that line might have been, how such a line could possibly be crossed to justify the end of such a young life.

Regarding the internet, a medium of extreme interest for both state and corporate entities, there are lines to worry about here as well.   At a session this week at New York’s Roosevelt House, a UN and university-based panel noted some of the real dangers when human dialogue is replaced by threatening sound bites and vicious trolls. One of the salient features of the modern age of internet-based communications noted on the panel is its impersonal and often anonymous nature, the perfect setting to attack and humiliate people, to as one panelist noted, “bring hate speech into our private spaces.”

The point of much internet “dialogue” is not dialogue at all, but simply a platform to “sell” ideas and attack those which are deemed to be contrary, to create a spider-like web and then devour anything and everything foolish enough to come close.  The larger technology companies which are ostensibly responsible for “monitoring” digital content and use have themselves profited from this online bonanza, one that was described at Roosevelt House as the “burning cross” of our contemporary era, used far too often to intimidate and humiliate, to preserve the prerogatives of cultural and political hegemons but not so much to expand dialogue and understanding among those who might otherwise decide simply to “write each other off.”

States and technology companies seem to have proven themselves – at least to this point — to be less than capable managers of the growing threat from an internet at least as conducive to intolerance and incitement as to fostering genuine dialogue among those with legitimate, if diverse needs and worldviews.  As we examine the lines defining terrorism and incitement, we cannot, we must not, allow ourselves to cross the one which characterizes our willingness to listen and respect.  The many fires that on the UN agenda that currently singe corners across our planet will never fully extinguish so long as we allow mediums allegedly meant to “bring us together” to be used, more and more, to objectify us and tear us apart.

Reform School:  The UN Seeks to Fix What and Where it Can, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Sep

Reform School

In our view, successful reform is not an event. It is a sustainable process that will build on its own successes – a virtuous cycle of change. Abdullah II of Jordan

Someone recently asked what keeps me up at night.  My answer was simple:  Bureaucracy. Fragmented structures.  Byzantine procedures.  Endless red tape.  UNSG Guterres

Don’t marry a man to reform him – that’s what reform schools are for. Mae West

The security and access barriers are starting to come down, the celebrities have left the building and motorcades are less numerous by the day, indicating the immanent end of this year’s High Level Segment at the opening of the 72nd UN General Assembly.

And what a time it has been: Yemen’s president now insisting on a military solution to an already gut-wrenching conflict; another typically slow and tepid response by the international community to Myanmar military abuses of Rohingya; insults hurled at each other by the US president and the North Korean (DPRK) Foreign Minister in which the specter of an “inevitable” attack was invoked, rhetoric mirroring provocations occurring in real time, with real deadly weapons, across the Korean peninsula. At the same time, leaders from Eastern Europe and the Caucuses called attention to still largely-ignored security concerns and the reluctance of Russia to address them forthrightly. And support for the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) was being questioned (mostly by the US) and potentially undermined behind closed doors.

On the plus side a staggering array of events took place in UN conference rooms – from torture prevention and ocean care to Yemen relief and financing for development –often in parallel and generally with too few participants beyond the myriad officials accompanying their Ministers and Heads of State.  A Security Council resolution demanding justice for victims of ISIL abuses in Iraq was highly regarded and another Council session on peacekeeping reform added value – including what appeared to be some Russian openness to a Minsk-focused peacekeeping mission for Ukraine — despite a bit of an “off the rails” statement by the US Vice President which merely highlighted the political and logistical complexities associated with attempts to make already-stretched peace operations simultaneous more security efficient and cost-effective.

Not surprisingly, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) received vast attention from state officials and other UN stakeholders, mostly in a sincere effort to move our collective implementation commitments and energies from the current stroll to more of a full-out sprint.  Most all key aspects of what we now call the 2030 Agenda received ample attention – finance, data, national strategies, private sector engagement.  One of the matters left unaddressed, unsurprisingly, is how we use sustainable development policy to inspire people to modify their eco-footprint, change their habits, interrogate their “needs” for comfort and consumption, do our fair part to build a world that is not only fit for children but fit for their children. That the UN – this particular week and every week – generally fails to blend policy norms with personal commitments to change and modify life habits from its norm entrepreneurs makes the sales job with the global public that much more difficult.  If those closest to sustainable development norms and their various states of urgency don’t particularly feel the need to adjust their lifestyles, it becomes harder to make the case why any of us should do so.

But even more that the SDGs, the preoccupation of the week seemed to be on strategies for UN “reform.”   UN SG Guterres laid out his recommendations to address those “things that keep him up at night” and received much rhetorical support from states and others for his efforts. He outlined administrative reforms to bring service back to the bureaucracy, suggested adjustments to the way in which we deliver development and humanitarian assistance, and offered new tools and ideas to move our peace and security architecture to a more preventive space. Included here are more robust mediation resources, more effective early warning, and (we hope) a broader consultative role for the Peacebuilding Commission and Support Office beyond the post-conflict configurations that have largely defined (and restricted) their role.  We must do more, he as noted often as part of his “sustaining peace” initiative, to get out in front of conflict and, where such strategy fails to prevent, to ensure that any peace arising from the ashes of conflict is sustainable and lasting.

Guterres also acknowledged the degree of difficulty in any UN reform process, one of which is related to reform’s end game.   If the objective, as the US and some other states suggest, is to create a leaner, more cost-effective structure, this is a relatively easy if painful objective to pursue.  The large contributors pull parts of their funding commitments altogether and place much of the rest into earmarked programs that essentially remove discretion from UN leadership.

But if the objective of reform is more along the lines of helping “the UN to better meet today’s complex and interlinked challenges,” then we need to examine priorities and impediments beyond tightening our collective fiscal belts. Money is not always the answer to global problems; but the demands currently being placed on the UN system in the areas of social and economic development, migration governance, humanitarian response, peacekeeping, conflict prevention, human rights, gender violence and much more will require more (not less) of the very same “predictable funding” that the Security Council is now examining seriously with regard to SC-authorized, African Union peace operations.

In the often-sordid environments of reform schools, the emphasis is too often on reform-as-punishment.   “Beating the devil” out of children was a common phrase in my childhood, and apparently the devil was believed to have established quite a productive beachhead within many reform school residents.  “Reform” positioned as a stand-alone, dehumanizing, cost-obsessed project can certainly seem like an institutional Tsunami – jobs are threatened, programmatic relationships are severed, expectations for assistance and relief are dashed.  But the point of reform in UN contexts should not be about punishing an erstwhile ineffective bureaucracy but inspiring the system to ensure, as the SG has noted, that “we are positioned to better deliver for people” and uphold the values in our Charter.   This is the only reform objective worthy of our time and support.

There are many ways in which we can help make this UN system more accountable to constituents, and more inspiring to all who work within its walls.  There are still under-utilized capacities including the Office of Genocide Prevention and the Peacebuiling Commission.  There are “byzantine procedures” to change that might offer a predictable environment for some delegations but that equally reinforce the system’s endless rhetorical replication that dulls the senses and even obscures the best of the changes that our constituents long for.  We can even do a better job of recycling our waste!

There is also an urgent need to address the persistent power imbalances at the UN both inside and outside the Security Council, imbalances that at times seem as entrenched as distrust in a troubled child.  As Guterres has noted, “We don’t need to hear more from the SG.  We need to hear more from the large states that have imposed their will on the UN system, and especially on its peace and security priorities, for too long.”  What we especially need to hear is what these large powers are willing to change, to adjust, even to renounce, in order to make the system they seek to “reform” function in a more inclusive and accountable manner, a system that might actually be able to stop the violence as effectively as it now cleans up messes left in violence’s aftermath.

If “reform” of the UN is to matter to the world, if it is to be about anything more than cost-cutting and control, then the full UN system – including its largest and most powerful states — must reinforce its full commitment to address the urgent and difficult circumstances that plague our planet and endanger the future health and well-being of all our children.  The remainder is mere posturing, using “inefficiency” as an excuse to impose national will on multi-lateral affairs. It is this will to impose, more than any bureaucratic or budgetary excess, that endangers that “virtuous cycle of change” that UN reform could otherwise become. The SG was right to place this responsibility where it most belongs.