Youth and the Limits of Inspiration, Soren Hixon

7 Jun

Editor’s Note: Soren recently completed an internship with Global Action and shared with us this reflection (lightly edited) on some of the frustration he (and others passing through our office) have experienced in their interaction with youth-focused events at the UN.   Like many of his peers, Soren is a serious young person seeking to participate in serious policy discussions.

On May 30, the UN held an event to discuss the importance of youth involvement and empowerment. The meeting had great potential to be a driving force for youth-oriented policymaking worldwide, but some of the potential was squandered due to how the event organizers chose to run it.

The meeting opened with a statement that gave me great hope that the next few hours would be a whirlwind of discussion on better policies and laws concerning globally accessible education that meets predetermined standards of quality as well as ensuring availability of jobs that build off of skills taught in school.

But the meeting veered away from policymaking as Pita Taufatofua took the stage. He spoke passionately about his work with youth in Australia and shared some inspirational words about “becoming your own superhero.” Any talk of policies and reform was absent from his speech. The next speaker to take the stage was a young singer from Iraq named Emmanuel Kenny who had been orphaned and eventually sung his way to the X-Factor, becoming a YouTube celebrity along the way. He sang inspirational songs and spoke about his journey from “zero to hero.”

While these two speakers were both uniquely passionate and inspirational, the fact that they were chosen to be the focus of this youth dialogue highlights a problem with the mindset of the United Nations when it comes to engaging youth. The belief that applying inspiration like a Band-Aid to a gaping wound believing it will resolve the issues facing young people is a bit short-sided. It does not matter how inspired today’s youth might be if policies are not in place to allow youth together with their elders to modify their circumstances positively. Youth cannot do it on their own. They need the assistance of policy leaders who realize what a severe problem the lack of education is and then do what is needed (with the participation of youth) to rectify the problem sustainably and permanently.

This meeting was an opportunity to present a convergence of minds and power with potent ideas and strategies for policies to resolve global issues impacting youth. Instead it was largely wasted by providing youth only with what seemed like misplaced and superfluous inspiration. The problems facing youth will only continue to escalate as the population mounts. The number of young people is going up, not down. Next time the UN has the chance to hold meeting like this, hopefully, they will make it less about inspiration and more about policy change.

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Service Contract:  Sharing the Burdens of a World At Odds, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Jun

Service

You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. Martin Luther King Jr.

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.  Rabindranath Tagore

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

I’m starting to think this world is just a place for us to learn that we need each other more than we want to admit. Richelle Goodrich

The UN had its moments of schizophrenia this week:  An historic decision to approve by consensus the Secretary-General’s proposal for reform of the UN Development System occurred on the same day that the chairs of the UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies held a rare and important discussion on the crucial role of these treaties in fulfilling our sustainable development goals, a discusson that few bothered to attend.   The Security Council, due in part to a US veto, fumbled away an effort by Kuwait to ensure a measure of international protection for Palestinians enduring deprivation and violence –especially in the Gaza strip– on the same day that the UN highly honored peacekeepers who sacrificed their lives attempting to stabilize and offer protection in what have become increasingly volatile and unpredictable conflict zones.

This particular honoring of fallen peacekeepers through the Hammarskjöld Medal Award Ceremony had special significance, both because of this being the 70th anniversary of UN peacekeeping and because the list of casualties to which we all properly call attention seems to be growing longer each and every year.  From Tanzania and Pakistan to Ethiopia and Morocco, troops volunteer to be placed in harm’s way to stabilize and protect only to find themselves on the receiving end of a bullet or explosive device.  As is well known, Mali (MINUSMA) has been a place of particular vulnerability for peacekeepers.  As explained by USG Lacroix during the honoring ceremony, MINUSMA forces directly experience one violent incident on the average of every five days.  These forces, much like their counterparts in places like the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo, are not “keeping peace” so much as buying time for political agreements to be reached and take full effect, for armed elements to lay down their weapons and for national governments to assume not only control but also responsibility for the well-being of their citizens.

This is not the time or place to review in any detail the current status of peacekeeping operations, including ways in which such operations must be more tightly bound to “good faith” political dialogue, as well as the degree to which “protection” measures run the risk of appearing to be a “partisan” rather than a neutral activity, “taking the side” of the state or a particular party to the conflict.  There are also issues regarding troop reimbursements and equipment procurements that continue to plague at least some of these operations. But what is more important in this space (without assuming motives) is the remarkable sacrifice, the decisions that some make to place themselves in situations where they can remind the desperate and victimized that they are not alone, who choose the service of peace in settings where there is little or no “peace to keep.”

The notion of sacrifice itself now seems “old school” to many, in part because we have allowed ourselves to be overly determined by “preferences,” personal to be sure but also professional.   There is a Subway sandwich commercial now playing over and over on the few television shows I have the time to watch, in which the words “I want” crop up endlessly in the jingle accompanying the imagery.  Far beyond the food industry, “wants” it seems are being reduced at an accelerated pace to the immediate objects of our desire, more about fulfilling a craving than defining a relationship let alone a purpose.

Moreover, it seems, we have become more and more disconnected from the people who have made these often difficult choices to serve and protect. We might take the time to “honor” those who fight our fires, drive our emergency vehicles, report on dangerous conflicts and human rights abuses, or keep erstwhile “enemies” at bay, but we generally have little interest in the practical details of their lives, what it takes for men and women — often inspired by those who love and support them—to choose to place themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others, including “others” choosing to pursue “what they want” with hardly a second thought.

Even in the small sessions this week with the UN Treaty Body chairs, people who have indeed made choices to serve and defend the rights of others, there was evidence of this tendency to petition the skills and authority of others without sharing their sometimes considerable burdens. Indeed, some of the few NGOs who attended the Treaty Body meetings this week got a bit of blowback from the chairs, one of whom remarked a bit tongue-in-cheek that every time NGOs share their thoughts “we end up with more work to do.” The human rights pillar of the UN’s mission continues to buckle, in part because a lot of genuinely good and talented people have yet to fully master our “sharing of service” burdens, the requirement to participate more directly in the challenging and at times even dangerous activities undertaken “in our name.”

Over and over during the Hammarskjöld honoring ceremony, attention was given to the urgent need to increase peacekeeper safety including highlighting all that DPKO is proposing to better ensure that troops and other personnel sent to the field are returned intact to their families and communities.  Appropriate equipment would help.  Flexible command authority in the field would as well.   And certainly the Security Council can do more to ensure that peacekeeping mandates are clear, attainable and tied to both viable political negotiations and timely exit strategies.

But there is more to examine here, the culture behind the logistics.  We have written often (as have others) about the UN’s general propensity for being “slow on the uptake,” in terms of its attentiveness to potential conflict situations.  For instance, we and colleagues have been calling attention for some time to the still-ignored dangers of a wider conflict in Cameroon, but also to the cultural issues that prevent situations like this one from receiving UN attention at a stage when conflict is most likely to be contained.

Some of this problem will hopefully be resolved as the SG’s reform proposals for the UN’s peace and security pillar are rolled out.  But some is related to the institutionalized resistance of the UN system to invest in domestic security concerns until they have clearly reached a boiling point.  In this instance, the creeping tensions within states like Cameroon can be likened to someone with a smoking addiction.  Smokers might be told over and over by doctors, friends and others to quit their habit, but refuse the advice until the first cancer screens come back positive, at which point they frantically seek assistance from the very persons whose advice they originally scorned.

This pattern, one which has permitted so much pain and grief in the wider world, must give way to a system characterized by greater levels of institutional trust, better early warning and conflict prevention skills, and a greater commitment to the service which is indeed at the heart of the joy and meaning of life, helping to ensure that smokers can lay down their cigarettes before they need to consult an oncologist.

One of the most “liked” lines on our twitter feed this week came courtesy of the Department of Field Support which reminded the Hammarskjöld Ceremony audience that “the best way to honor the memories of fallen peacekeepers is to renew the commitment to peace that motivated their sacrifices.”  But beyond that, we should consider expanding our commitment to the service of others, service that the times now calls for and on which our own lives depend, service that can make available the skills and “grace” needed to build the sustainable peace that many millions worldwide now long for.

State Fair:  The UN Tries to Take another Bite out of Corruption, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 May

Srebrenica

The future which we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people’s children. Marian Wright Edelman

He did not care for the lying at first. He hated it. Then later he had come to like it. It was part of being an insider but it was a very corrupting business.   Ernest Hemingway

When honor and the Law no longer stand on the same side of the line, how do we choose? Anne Bishop

Global betterment is a mental process, not one that requires huge sums of money or a high level of authority. Change has to be psychological.  Suzy Kassem

I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.   Mahatma Gandhi

This past Wednesday, the UN General Assembly payed tribute to the 15th anniversary of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, a seminal moment in the multi-faceted history of UN efforts to provide pragmatic and regulatory  coherence in global efforts to address crimes from state bribery to terror financing.  This Convention has many facets, some of the most important of which have clear implications for peace and security as well as for our sustainable development priorities, including the recovery of diverted assets, enhancing the fairness and transparency of national judiciaries, and eliminating economic crimes such as identity theft.

Wednesday’s high-level event brought together senior UN officials and minister-level representatives from several  states who shared insights on their own anti-corruption efforts which (they hoped) would inspire other states to both learn from successful national practices elsewhere but also to commit more deeply to coordinated efforts within the broader UN system to stay one step ahead of (or at least better than one step behind) the evolution of contemporary criminal activity — what has become an evil cousin of our otherwise extraordinary ability to manipulate the external world.

If nothing else, our species continues to demonstrate the maxim that if not always wise, we are most certainly clever, an attribute that seems to be in our DNA and that allows the more malevolent among us to run one step (and sometimes many) ahead of our global regulatory capacity. As with weapons development and climate impacts, we often seem often to be running breathlessly in an effort to “catch up” to the latest iteration of criminality:  cyber-crime and off-shore financial shelters; “dark web” trafficking networks and clandestine markets for cultural artifacts pilfered by terrorists.   This race is made more challenging — and perhaps even more urgent — by the fact that enforcement agencies have an important obligation to “play by the rules,” to respect the human rights of persons some of whom have turned the exploitation of human greed and our other physical and character vulnerabilities into an art form.

Many of these challenges (and successes) were on display during the main Wednesday event as well as in a couple of excellent side events including one on “wildlife trafficking” sponsored by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and states including Germany and Gabon.  For instance, a judge from Italy took the floor to cite what he feels are “profound” and positive changes within and beyond his country  due to its participation in the Convention, including transparency in public procurement, protection of “whistle-blowers” and what he deemed “better asset recovery measures.”  On the other side of the ledger, Uganda lamented that the power of money to motivate law enforcement and other officials “to turn a blind eye” to bribery, trafficking and other corrupt practices seems to be holding its own.  And yet there was virtual unanimity regarding claims by UNODC of the degree to which eliminating corruption positively impacts virtually all development and peace and security responsibilities. These include our ability to create and enforce fair and transparent tax codes as well as to regulate access to natural resources and other public goods in ways that preserve and enhance the ability of states to preserve domestic revenue for domestic needs.

As a representative from the Mexican government claimed this week, if we truly wish to honor these responsibilities, our “only option” as an international community is to cultivate more engaged citizens and more transparent and honest governance.  In implementing this “option” it is important to examine a few assumptions.   When many of us think about corruption, we have images from popular media in our heads:  secret payoffs to law enforcement, blatant manipulations of our court systems, corporate bribes to heads of state, the “laundering” of formerly public assets and the creation of safe havens for those ill-begotten gains.  It is about the power of money and might to divert us from any semblance of fairness, a principle which has largely fallen on hard times, but one which still has currency in our modern culture, especially by those who face discrimination or whose well-being has been undermined by select “dirty dealing” from corporate interests, from officials of governments large and small, even from schools and cultural institutions.

Beyond our video screens, it is apparent that corruption is not only a problem for states and the financial vultures that circle around them, but also for our local cultures and communities.  The damage to our societies – and now perhaps even to our planet – though the diversion of public assets to private interests, but also through our inability to rigorously apply principles of fairness in our public policies, is of course most dangerous when the offending party is a state agency or multinational corporate interest.

But there is also a fear, and not unfounded, that too many state officials are both enabling and benefiting from societies full of persons and institutions that also don’t or won’t commit to “play it straight.”  We have collectively become too comfortable with the smaller and seemingly  less consequential ways in which we cheat others, manipulate the truth, and even elevate the competitive advantages associated with our narrow self-interests.  We rightly lament those who use money and power to “cut the line” with impunity, but such lament is often two parts jealousy to one part indignation as we are less concerned about ending the practice of “line cutting”  and more about the strategies we must pursue to ensure our own place at the front of the queue. We must not deceive ourselves here: corruption at local levels is an equal opportunity corroder of our collaborative potential.  And much like Smokey Bear urges about forest fires in the US, “only we” can prevent our further collective slide into an abyss where we expect too little of our leadership and much too little of ourselves as well.

During the wildlife trafficking event on Wednesday, UNODC noted somberly that “we won’t get a second chance” to eliminate wildlife crimes, a warning made more poignant by recent stories of human-exacerbated extinctions that reach far beyond the species targeted by poachers.   But in some sense we might not get a second chance on any corruption-related matters.  If we are to make the best of the chance we still have, we will all need to play our part – as attentive critics of state practices, but also of our own local cultures of corruption. The “engagement” of citizens on corruption to which Mexico rightly pointed this week is partially about the ways we insist that officials in national capitals and multilateral institutions like the UN “play it straight,” and partially about how “straight” the rest of us are willing to play as well.

This weekend in the US is a time to reflect on those who lost their lives in wars of greater and lesser legitimacy.  However one assesses such conflicts and the damage they caused (or prevented), and despite the diverse motivates that drove people to “don the uniform,” we can presume that my relatives and the many others whose often obscure graves mark their sacrifices did not perish so that honor and law could go their separate ways, so that corrupt officials could line their own pockets, so that others could “cut the line” of their surviving family members, or so that the best of our minds and characters could be trampled on by the “dirty feet” of others.

 

Animal Planet:  The Rule of Law and the Recovery of What Makes us Human, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 May

Orangutang

People often claim to hunger for truth, but seldom like the taste when it’s served up. George Martin

The technical revolution has turned us into a virus consuming all living organisms. Edward Burtynsky.

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

We have a problem when the same people who make the law get to decide whether or not they themselves have broken it. Michelle Templet

When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them. Hilary Mantel

There were so many highlights (and lowlights) in our policy centers this week, actions that fed the soul competing with others that reminded us (or should have anyway) that we are not quite as clever or virtuous as we might otherwise be tempted to believe.

One lowlight for me was a statement by the US president (doubled down by his press secretary) referring to some illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes as “animals.”

This is a toxic formulation that was common in the blue collar households of my childhood.  “Animals” constituted a label that could be placed on anyone who behaved in a manner inconsistent with what “we” believed was right and appropriate.  “We” after all were the guardians of the good, the ones on whom had been bestowed special divine favor, the ones whose “civility” was under assault from hordes of uncouth, ill-mannered, lazy “others.”  “We” generally lacked the wherewithal to remove such people from our midst; so we regularly, it seemed at the time, removed ourselves from theirs.

We are living in a time when such demons that had been allegedly bottled up for years have now made a stark reappearance; indeed many have been shocked to discover that the tops on those bottles had not been screwed nearly as tight as we had imagined.   Some of us have openly scrutinized the limitations of the “polite culture” of which we have long been suspicious, only to discover that our recovering “honesty” is too-often leading, not to opportunities for intimacy, innovation and personal growth, but to occasions for brutality, selfishness and distrust.   What we have released from these bottles is more venom than virtue, more condemnation than compromise.

The irony of this otherwise cruel and debased “animal” characterization is that, to some degree or other, it applies to all of us.   We all seem to participate, one way or another, in predispositions to predation and self-interest.  We often crave predictability, comfort and attention. We tend to feel threats even when no threats are imminent, and ignore most of the challenges threatening to blow our metaphorical houses to the ground.  We often cave in to yearnings and addictions.  We see what we want to see or, more and more, what we have been externally manipulated to see.

And yet there are times when being an “animal” would probably elevate our collective practice.  Animals after all don’t kill for pleasure.   Animals don’t systematically destroy the habitats on which they depend.   Animals don’t enable the extinction of other species that form the food chain that ensures their own survival.  Animals don’t diminish the savvy or “intelligence” of the life forms with which they share an ecosystem.

As we know, much of the history of philosophy and religion in both “west” and “east” has struggled with the “human” dimensions of human nature.  Are we merely animals with larger brains and the appetites to match, or is there something different about us, something that we should cherish and practice more, something that gives us hope that we can stifly our violent proclivities and avoid the extinction that we have so callously set in motion elsewhere on our fragile planet?

This is no time to rehearse this struggle (though I would be happy to do so with any of you off-Blog), but it is worth noting here the degree to which, in my own faith tradition at least, “sanctification” has impeded thoughtful practice.   My tradition has too often adjudicated our disjointed “nature” by alleging and emphasizing our divine entitlements.  Much like our claims for moms and dads, “God” apparently really does like us best, even when we bury the memory, reason and skill under a cloud of suspicion and acrimony.  Under this rubric, “God” apparently forgives of our behavior a priori, even when such behavior leads to gross injustices and abuses for which forgiveness is rarely sought.  “God” apparently exempts some from scrutiny by virtue of some cache of unearned blessing, a form of plenary indulgence that allows we so endowed to believe that the laws and norms that seek to regulate and even inspire the human community simply don’t apply to us, that our “exceptionalism” (a term not confined to the US) allows us to indulge ourselves what we vigorously refuse to others, to demand apologies from others as we too-often dodge the responsibility to acknowledge our own transgressions.

This “do as I say, not as I do” reflection of our erstwhile “providential” exemptions holds many consequences for UN practice.   After all, the UN functions most effectively when it provides consensus norms to guide and rationalize state conduct and when it upholds what many diplomats referred to this week in a Security Council debate on rule-of-law as our “rules-based order.”  Such an order, at and beyond face value, posits many positive implications for peace and security, even when that order is being willfully abrogated. Such implications include the following:

  • Helping to inspire collaborative and supportive activity among state and non-state actors in areas such as migration governance, ocean health, pandemics and counter-terror;
  • Helping to identify and address threats to the peace towards which the international community has a fully legitimate and compelling interest, such as the use of chemical weapons, the commission of mass atrocities or the destruction of a healthy climate;
  • Helping reassure states that all are playing by the same rules, addressing trust deficits caused by power imbalances, economic inequalities and discriminations of many varieties, while also ensuring (as Ireland did this week) that the rule-of-law is not subtly (or visibly) replaced with the considerably less attractive “rule-by-law”;
  • Helping restore confidence in all but the most cynical that we retain the human capacity to rise above narrow, partisan interests and predatory practices and affirm a world where respect, cooperation, thoughtfulness and generosity proliferate.

This is quite a “haul,” and all much needed.  But as this week’s discussions in various UN conference rooms made plain, we still have work to do to create a policy framework that can reinforce and utilize the best of our “human nature.”

There was much in the recent Council debate on rule of law –convened perhaps a bit ironically by Poland’s president Duda — that provided good insight, including Italy’s assertion that disregarding international norms is particularly dangerous in a world awash in weapons, South Africa’s reminder that the rule of law itself does not protect people but only its implementation, Mexico’s insistence that we reject the creeping notion of an “acceptable level” of civilian casualties, Greece’s assertion that “good neighborly relations” is a “common duty” of states, and Brazil’s concern to address the lack of conceptual clarity in international law that leads some states to conclude that armed violence and gross rights abuses can somehow be justified in practice.

Bu there were also reminders of how far we still must travel to create a reliable and robust system that is both trusted by and adhered to by many.  In this, at least two things come to mind, the first of which builds on the strong claim by Ethiopia and others that the Security Council has often “failed miserably” in its responsibility to uphold international law. This failure is due in part to the Council’s imbalanced and sometimes “politicized” application of its own responsibilities, especially in its levels of commitment to the implementation of its own resolutions.  But more than this is the failure of the permanent members to ascribe in practice to the principles of international law that they proscribe for others.  The “exceptionalism” that drives some national policy has its peculiar iteration within this Council in a manner which at times jeopardizes both its own credibility and respect for the Charter of which it is guarantor.

But there is another dimension to note in this context: This week I and others received an important post from the ever-thoughtful Paul Okumu of Kenya, who chided NGOs and others for obsessing on the low hanging fruit of how we use technology to do our organizational bidding while failing to see the mass consolidation of power now well underway within the realm of big data, what Kevin Plank has described as “the new oil.” Indeed, big data seems poised to replace capital as the latest essential medium of global power, a power that can, in the words of Toomas Hedrik Ilves, “deduce more about you than Big Brother ever could.”

For all of the benefits of the current data revolution, even given all the people who now register more faith in “code” than in their neighbors, it is sobering to think of the vast concentration of power that can accrue from turning people into digitalized caricatures of human beings, persons willfully accepting manipulation at the hands of those who know more about our material predispositions than we know ourselves.  In this realm as with others, we must insist that the rule of law be proactive as well as protective, helping us anticipate and then address threats such as this one which might otherwise simply overwhelm the remaining vestiges of our common humanity.

For me and our interns, one of the most moving moments of the week was when Bolivia took the floor in the context of the Security Council discussion on the shootings by Israeli forces at the Gaza fence, the meeting at which the now-infamous photo was taken of US Ambassador Haley walking out of the Council chamber as the Palestinian Ambassador began his remarks. Bolivia’s Ambassador didn’t walk out nor did he deem to lecture the Israelis or his Council colleagues.  Instead he sought forgiveness from the Palestinian people for the “humiliations and deprivations” they have experienced over so many years, noting that Monday’s “moment of silence” was for these victims, but equally in mourning for the “ineffectiveness” of the Council’s application of internatonal law.

We who have accepted the responsibilities of policy have much forgiveness to ask. We have failed to always adhere to the laws we promote.  We have failed to point clearly and forcefully to emerging challenges that directly compromise our children’s destiny. And we have largely failed to inspire a higher and more difficult calling in each other, one in keeping with a genuinely human striving to be better protectors, better stewards, better predictors of a common future that we simply must not let slip through our grasp.

We can do better.

Accompanied Minors: The Gift of a Mother’s Presence, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 May

Africa

Being a parent wasn’t just about bearing a child. It was about bearing witness to its life.  Jodi Picoult

The human heart was not designed to beat outside the human body and yet, each child represented just that – a parent’s heart bared, beating forever outside its chest.  Debra Ginsberg

It’s come at last, she thought, the time when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache.  Betty Smith

It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.  L.R. Knost

There is much discussion at the UN on a regular basis focused on the horrible circumstances that some children in this world must endure because of the foolishness of older people much like me.  How do we rationalize, inside and outside of policy communities, the fears and abuses that inflict deep scars on the young and that threaten to make in their adult years people more dependent on care – and less able to give it – than could ever be in our best interest?  What should our response be to children when sometimes cruel and heartless life challenges throw a wet blanket over their capacity to alleviate cruelty for others in their latter parts of their life cycle?

But even more common –perhaps less heartless–circumstances also bring pain and uncertainty for the young – the scraped knees, the verbal intimidations at school, the agony of unrequited desire, the moves away from happy homes to cramped and unfamiliar quarters due to declining economic circumstances.   And then there are the children for whom serious disease or accident threatens to snuff out at least some of the potential of lives that have just barely gotten off the ground.

Some of this might sound a bit like “first world problems,” but it also points to a common experience of so many mothers in this world – to kneel at the foot of the metaphorical cross, as it were, able to accompany the pain of a child’s crucifixion but unable to significantly impact its circumstances.  This accompaniment can be both a great gift and an extraordinary act of courage –easing the necessary and often difficult transitions through the mere grace of presence.

We focus much attention – though probably not enough – on the physical pain and psychic disability that life’s conditions inflict on too many children.  But what of the ones who have committed to bear witness to those lives?  What of the mothers who must engage the eyes of children seeking relief from fear and pain that is beyond their singular capacity to deliver?   Indeed, what of the mothers who can do little but watch in sorrow as the world turns their babies into soldiers, or victims of abuse, or hustlers on unpredictable and even unforgiving streets?

These are the sorts of things I think about when sitting in meetings such as last week’s Security Council Arria Formula discussion intended to review policy progress on ending abuses against children in African states, including and especially their vulnerability to recruitment into such “adult” activities as armed conflict.  Such progress is welcome, of course, as we have clearly not done enough to reassure and protect children from powerful, if metaphorical earthquakes followed by what seem to be for too many, a series of connected aftershocks – the bombing that leads to displacement, that leads to food insecurity, that leads to border hostility and even family separation.

Of course these seismic shifts impact more than just children themselves. What toll do they also take on those parents who seek truly to accompany the lives of these children, who have hopes for their children as we have for ours; who have dreams for their children that they will do well to meet only by fraction?  How do we better support those parents – those mothers – whose hearts have been laid bare through their deep connection with those whom they have born, hearts which are so often in grave danger of being broken in two by the endless shaking of their fragile world?

During the Arria Formula discussion on “action plans” to prevent violence against children, the Netherlands smartly noted the growing disregard for international law that creates the backdrop for so many child abuses, which they then rightly identified as threats to international peace and security.  In the same vein, Sweden (which has been a leading member of the Security Council in calling attention to children’s issues) reminded other members that progress on children’s well-being now will significantly enhance our longer-term efforts to sustain the peace.

Fortunately, as Chad and a few other states noted, we have in fact made some progress on ending child recruitment into the “service” of armed violence, freeing more children from such “service” in both government and non-government forces.  We are also doing a better job at disarming children and reintegrating them into society, providing them with educational and psychological opportunities necessary to growth and healing.  This is all good and hopeful, and many parts of the UN system, including UNICEF, the office for Children and Armed Conflict, and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, should rightly take a bow.

But the circumstances that cause children to plead for comfort and relief from their parents – their mothers – can run far deeper than recruitment.

The accompaniment chosen by so many mothers; a consistent presence through the various stages of child dependency and continuing past the time that we can still deliver those we love from life’s heartaches; this is the special gift and responsibility that we honor on this day.   A commitment by the rest of us to alleviate the miseries of children who must one day assume leadership for our threatened planet is essential for children themselves, but also for those parents– those mothers– who too often are left to suffer in silence the burdens that accrue from a fully exposed heart beholding the pain and longing of children that at times must simply seem too difficult to bear.

More than flowers and cards, more than running a load of laundry and emptying the sink of dishes, many mothers could use a hand – including by all who try to make good policy at places like the United Nations– to do more to calm the tremors that create so much fear and anxiety for so many children, quakes to which those who accompany their journey are compelled to respond but for which there is often no effective or satisfying answer. Today is a good time for all of us to pledge to make a world better fit for children, but especially to honor the mothers who skilfully accompany their young – in all of their joy, pain and anxiety — until that elusive calm is reached.

A Wobbling Stool: Stabilizing the UN’s Human Rights Obligations, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 May

Handcuffs

The purpose of torture is not getting information. It’s spreading fear. Eduardo Galeano

Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.  Elie Wiesel

We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought. Kathryn Stockett,

Human rights are praised more than ever – and violated as much as ever. Anna Lindh

The UN witnessed a few positive milestones this week, including the presentation of “vision statements” by candidates to become the next president of the General Assembly.  In this rare instance the candidates (from Honduras and Ecuador respectively) were both women, thereby guaranteeing that this often fiscally-challenged and programmatically-burdensome office – a point reinforced earlier this month by current president Lajčák – will transition to female leadership  for one of the few times in the UN’s history.

For its part, the Security Council under Poland’s presidency went on mission to Myanmar and Bangladesh to survey first-hand the human wreckage from abuses we collectively did not do enough to prevent.  Such missions serve as a “reality check” for this Council that is increasingly (and appropriately) under pressure from the general membership to up its game – to invest more in conflict prevention, leave politics at the chamber doorways, and work more collaboratively with the UN agencies tasked with bring core “triggers” of conflict – including rights abuses – to heel.  The Council is not as hostile to human rights as is sometimes claimed, and attention to context in places like Cox’s Bazar and the Lake Chad Basin reinforces for members that development, rights and security deficits represent urgent, interlinked and comprehensive responsibilities.

But the past week also brought difficult issues to consider and lessons that we still need to learn, poignant reminders of how many people remain under threat in this world and how much further we need to travel in order to make a world that is more equal, more inclusive, more respectful of each other and our surroundings, even more mindful of our own “contributions” to a world we say, over and over, is actually not the world we want.

Institutional dimensions of this threat were evident on Wednesday in a small UN conference room filled mostly with NGOs. At that meeting, two officials of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) — ASG Gilmour and NY office director Mokhiber – led a somber discussion on what they referred to as a “human rights backlash,” citing in this regard resistance to human rights by some Security Council members, an unwillingness to address the core funding needs of the human rights “pillar,” member state inattentiveness to requests for investigations by special rapporteurs, and attempts by a shocking number of states to link the activities of human rights advocates (and even in some cases of UN officials) to those of the “terrorists.”

Also expressed was the concern with “double standards” on human rights, including the proclivity of many states to scream about some abuses while remaining utterly silent about others, a cocktail of righteous indignation and willful indifference too-often characteristic of UN culture within and beyond the Security Council. A version of this, of course, could apply to much of the NGO community as well, defending our positions in the rooms where “our” issues are under consideration but withholding the contributions we could be making to policy interlinkages and even at times acting as though three-legged analysis and advocacy is an interesting fad rather than a core dimension of our Charter-based responsibility.  As stressed by OHCHR at this meeting, the human rights community needs some sort of “firewall” to protect it from unwarranted state influence. We NGOs need to invest more in building that wall and otherwise commit to protecting the integrity of each other’s (and the UN’s) advocacy space.

But that firewall is still very much a work in progress as was clear during this week’s World Press Freedom Day, a sobering affair given the recent bombing of journalists in Kabul alongside a spate of other threats to journalists around the world – threats to the integrity of their work but also to their physical safety.

This was not at all a happy event.  Speaker after speaker reminded the audience of the shrinking safe space for journalistic activity, and of the extent to which threats to the press are often mirrored by (or are a precursor for) the erosion of other rights and civil liberties.   Journalists who have lost their lives while pursuing important stories were rightly honored and special mention was made of the often-courageous role of “fixers,” those with knowledge of the local “terrain” who provide guidance and safety for outside journalists, but often with significant personal and family risk.  And there were stark reminders, including from a CBC journalist, that “lies and propaganda” are most likely to fill the gap left when journalists are jailed or otherwise intimidated. As Austria’s Ambassador Kickert chimed in, “power intoxicates” and “un-harassed” journalists are essential if we are to finally curb corruption and other rights abuses as well as fulfill our responsibilities to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Finally of note regarding the complexities of our current human rights responsibilities, there was the event on Thursday sponsored by Japan on rights abuses in North Korea (DPRK),  an event that focused on the often heart-rendering pain of persons who have lived through the abduction of family members by DPRK agents.  The sorrow and uncertainty of “disappearances” is something we address through our affiliation with Paris-based FIACAT and it is no small matter to much of the human rights community.

Against the backdrop of high-level discussions on a possible de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the event also served as a rightful reminder that human rights cannot become a “bargaining chip” to a peace agreement, “freezing” past and current abuses in place without an insistence on accountability.  And it is not unreasonable, as has been the case with other peace negotiations, to demand a full accounting and release of those previously disappeared and perhaps imprisoned.  But the sometimes agonizing choices associated with this peace-rights linkage went largely unaddressed under an avalanche of anti-DPRK rhetoric that often sounded more professional and less ideological than it actually was. Where, we wonder, does the abductions issue in all of its heartbreak fit on the scale of human rights concerns to be taken up in the context of peace negotiations? As noted this day by OHCHR’s Mokhiber, while human rights accountability must not be sacrificed to any peace agreement, we must remind ourselves of the centrality of armed conflict to contemporary rights abuses, abuses that a confrontation involving modern nuclear weapons would likely multiply beyond our imagination.

As I am writing this, the Carillion bells of the Riverside Church are pealing yet again, a weekly beckoning to me of the road I have yet to travel – that we all have yet to travel – in order to build a world able to resolve our current conflicts, ensure tolerance and respect among peoples, and offer sustainable options for our children.  Such a world is possible only if we are resolved to tightening the screws on our now-wobbling human rights leg, but are also committed to a fully inclusive agenda that moves closer to “the center of the universe” the safety, health and equity that we have yet to sufficiently and comprehensively promote.  And it means being more thoughtful and interactive as we resolve the sometimes agonizing choices and challenges that call us to consider the policy “forest” and not only the individual trees.

Above all, we must never become content with the mere praise of human rights while so many rights in so many contexts — in prisons and newsrooms, in trafficking rings and First Nations communities – remain so dangerously elusive.

Redesigning Peace: Creative Learning from Diverse Local Actors, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Apr

In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.  Czesław Miłosz

We value virtue but do not discuss it. The honest bookkeeper, the faithful wife, the earnest scholar get little of our attention compared to the embezzler, the tramp, the cheat. John Steinbeck

It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are in some degree independent of men. Mary Wollstonecraft

It isn’t enough to stand up and fight darkness. You’ve got to stand apart from it, too. You’ve got to be different from it.   Jim Butcher

In some ways, this was a hopeful week for the international community.  The images of Korean leaders greeting each other across the DMZ to start mapping out an end to the Korean War and the possible de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula were remarkable.   There is cause for skepticism here, including with regard to the intentions of the big powers to manipulate the current diplomatic opening, but it our hope that the international community can attentively accompany this still-fragile process rather than seek to exploit it for political “credit” or to enhance economic or military alliances.

At the UN, the president of the General Assembly Miroslav Lajčák set off a fresh series of High Level discussions on “sustaining peace,” yet another UN slogan at one level, but also an overdue opportunity to refresh and reset our security frameworks.  In diverse conference rooms (including the Security Council chamber), states and other stakeholders engaged in what Equatorial Guinea this week called the “redesign” of our collective peace and security architecture, getting out in front of armed conflict and its devastating impacts rather than waiting until defenses of state sovereignty give way to what are generally untimely and expensive pleas for peacekeeping operations and conflict-related humanitarian assistance.   As France put it on Wednesday, once the “gears of conflict” are set in motion, we must find the means to respond sooner and better.

In the end, the value of “sustaining peace” lies in its commitment to both use all the tools and actors at our disposal and to create the capacities and networks that we still need to fully honor our peace and security commitments; commitments considered by many – often tinged with anxiety – constituting what Poland called the “holy grail” of UN policy mandates. As such, one of the most hopeful events of this past week was a side session, hosted by Belgium’s Queen Mathilda, during which women from several African countries made the case for why mediation must command a higher profile in the UN’s conflict toolbox, but also why women are so often well positioned within their communities to adapt such tools to productive conflict prevention ends.

As the GA  High Level event made plain, we have tools still to build and, indeed, a culture of multilateralism still to firm up within which such tools can have power to shift our conflict dynamics.  As evidenced in a speech delivered on Tuesday by H.E. Michael Higgins, the President of Ireland, it is certainly justifiable  to express frustration with our collective incapacity to use the skills already at hand to eliminate violence and poverty, at the same time acknowledging the collective imperative to recover through new tools and urgent actions the “ring of authenticity” of the words we use in this policy space – and sometimes overuse –to lament armed violence and the inequalities and insecurities at community level which too often provide its “oxygen.”

When speaking of the need to overhaul our collective peace and security framework, a favorite term of SG Guterres (as is well known) is “prevention,” a term that is relatively easy to toss around but difficult to apply in practice within an institution where virtually every ray of sunshine is clouded in politics.  We have written much about this notion in earlier years, underscoring the degree to which “prevention” remains a pervasive driver of our family and community lives.  But we have also noted that it has not, except in fits and starts, translated into actionable policy at multilateral levels.  Diplomats who are properly scrupulous about the diet, health care, education and weather-appropriate clothing for their own children are infrequently able to bring those skills and insights into UN conference rooms.

We agree with what the ever-pragmatic Kazakhstan offered this week in the Security Council about prevention:  when we are able to truly implement it, prevention “works, saves lives, and is cost effective.”  And we do understand that drawing analogies from family life to multilateral policy spaces is fraught with difficulty.   Diplomats can be scrupulous with children on the (quite valid) assumption that they are not yet able to make good decisions for their own long term benefit.   With member states, the assumption is closer to the opposite, that states are able and primarily empowered to “handle their own business” until they demonstrate (and then admit) that they cannot manage those responsibilities themselves.  What states want (rightly so) is capacity support for conflict resolution and peacebuilding, but they mostly want it within a framework as noted by many states (and perhaps China most reliably) of full respect for national sovereign interests.

Such is the “dance” that the UN engages as it attempts to honor its diverse peace and security responsibilities.  Despite justifiable hope emanating from Liberia, Colombia and now the Korean peninsula, our peace and security architecture still prompts many to “throw up their hands” at the apparent inability of the system to end settlements in the West Bank, prohibit the bombing of civilians in Yemen and Syria, commit the governments of Mali and South Sudan to honest peace agreement implementation, find justice and relief for the people of Puerto Rico and Haiti, and much more.  The successes are real and most welcome, but the frustrations are numerous and patience with the existing system, at least in some quarters, grows thinner by the week.

But there were encouraging signs this week that we might be on the verge of the kind of renaissance that we have tried in our small way to point towards over several years – an integrated security framework that is as concerned with water as with weapons; as concerned with gender as with the prevention of genocide.  Such a framework is, in some significant ways, the “gift” of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an ambitious “blueprint” for a healthier and more peaceful future wherein by 2030, in our most optimistic expectations, the major triggers of conflict are tamed and the pervasive impacts of violence are healed.

The SDGs give special credence to two important, security-relevant insights to which we probably don’t give sufficient attention:  a practical (and enthusiastic) affirmation of the intrinsic value of multilateralism on the one hand, and the need to make good on our promises to the full integration of global actors on the other.   The first of these was well noted — often with caution—during the dizzying array of events held here in New York this week.  Indeed many states (and many other actors as well) worry  that a “new Cold War” brewing among the major powers, coupled with new concerns over fiscal austerity and the potential escalation of unresolved conflicts, threaten to unravel enthusiasm for behaviors conducive to effective multilateral policy, including as Ethiopia urged this week the reigning in of our “short sided pursuit of national interests.”

But it is the second of these that interests me most, the need to inspire hopeful actions in others, but also to acknowledge and extend the many good works that generally fly under the radar but contribute in their own way to more sustainable futures.  Of all the images of this past week, one of my favorites was the one of truck drivers assembled in formation under a Michigan overpass to deter someone apparently seeking to commit suicide.   Truck drivers, not known as a group for their policy savvy (certainly not when I was driving one), are seen implementing a solution to urgent human need as creative as most of what we routinely accomplish within our policy bureaucracies.   Indeed, these drivers reminded me a bit of the women mediators from Africa and those advocating for justice for Puerto Rico and from indigenous communities – people engaging in hopeful responses to despair or injustice, and likely capable of doing more if we would only set proper places for them at the table.

Despite some appearances to the contrary, there is practical virtue running all through our communities. If a “redesigned” peace architecture is to succeed we must find ways to highlight and enable more of that hopeful and creative energy.