Ode to Inspiration:   The Challenges of UN Leadership on the Run, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Sep

Leadership is not about a title or a designation. It’s about impact, influence and inspiration. Robin S. Sharma

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Leadership is not about the next election, it’s about the next generation. Simon Sinek

One of the trickiest aspects of our (mostly self-authorizing) mandate is the assessment of the contributions of outgoing presidents of the UN‘s General Assembly.   Part of this is a function of timing – with three months to prepare and only one year to implement, the gap separating the end of the institutional honeymoon and the crossing of the institutional finish line is thin indeed.

The accelerated pace at which this office must attempt to make its mark is made more complex by the sheer volume of policy activity for which the office of the president is responsible.  On more and more matters of global governance, including at times matters directly affecting international peace and security, the full General Assembly membership is demanding a voice and expecting the president to enable and magnify that voice.

And finally there is the nature of leadership itself.   More and more, it seems, everyone in our overly-schooled cultures is now presumed to be a “leader” in some fashion or other.   This leadership “saturation” has many implications, not all of them problematic, but one troubling implication is the reticence of erstwhile “leaders” to agree to be led by others.   The “herding cats” analogy is probably overused, but the “forging of consensus” which is such an important component of modern leadership is made more complex in a setting where so many of us “know differently” and so often  claim to “know better.”

Into this cauldron of expectation and impediment stepped Fiji’s Peter Thomson, elected president of the UN General Assembly on June 13, 2016 in the closest of votes over Cyprus Ambassador Mavroyiannis.  In his acceptance speech, and with the personal humility and Hollywood-quality voice to which we have all become accustomed, he cited this “great moment” for the Pacific Small Islands Developing States (SIDS), pledging to keep their voices and their issues –especially ocean health and climate impacts – at the top of his agenda.   He also pointed to the critical need to ratchet up our engagement with all Sustainable Development Goals – perhaps the most important promise that the UN has ever made to its global constituents. He subsequently pushed to ensure that all aspects (even the controversial ones) of what is now known as the 2030 Development Agenda – national ownership, inclusive participation, reliable (real-time) data, predictable finance – received urgent and adequate consideration.

His catholic vision was embraced by many of the top diplomats in the UN system who lent their own expertise and leadership to a range of issue critical to the future of the planet, from climate impacts and migration governance to human trafficking and improving modes of participation for women, youth, indigenous people and other persons whose skills and aspirations have spent far too much time already isolated on our global margins.

All the while, a core focus was maintained on the alleviation of global poverty as well as on the implementing health of the UN system itself.   In the latter instance, Thomson and colleagues understood that as the demands on the UN grow and resources remain problematic, it is essential that key UN bodies encourage clear, efficient and scandal-free expectations.   Though it is fair to quibble (as we have done ourselves) over priority reforms for the UN system, the attention of the PGA and other top diplomats to how the General Assembly does its business – and how the office of the president enables and facilitates that business – has been most appreciated.

The abiding question for us here, beyond the specifics of policy investments, is what lessons of leadership can be gleaned from the Thomson presidency?   We would like to suggest the following.

  • Keep focus on the most urgent crises: While there has been over the past year a bit grousing from the disarmament community about Thomson’s level of commitment in this area, for the most part he has invested the energies of his office on the crises that are most likely to undermine human dignity and threaten our common future.  He has recognized, as we all should, that it is important to keep the kitchen clean but less so when the house is burning.
  • Keep relevant issues and issue stakeholders connected: While there is much talk at the UN about “eliminating silos,” we continue to allow bureaucracy and politics to stifle broader policy responsibilities. Connecting the policy dots has been a hallmark of our office’s work for over a decade. Having a president who has been so visibly committed to full spectrum policy engagements, including and beyond SDG goals and targets, has been highly encouraging, both for the UN and the world surrounding it.
  • Be present: This president brought exceptional personal energy to the UN system.  With help from his policy advisers and speech writers, he was seemingly everywhere in and out of headquarters.  My interns often found it remarkable that he could make his presence felt in so many diverse policy settings, sharing relevant remarks both humble and impacting, but also lending credibility to UN discussions that might otherwise have remained in the policy shadows.
  • Promote hope and agency in others: In many ways, Thomson’s signature achievements were a function of his devotion and loyalty to the people and leaders of the small island developing states.  Their voices have rarely enjoyed the volume and resonance that they have over this past year. But beyond the SIDS, welcoming and growing participation by women and indigenous peoples was high on the president’s agenda.   And our young people – the largest generation in human history — were consistently invited to the UN by this president in a manner that was inclusive without being patronizing.  He was able as few are to recognize the skills and energy of youth and endorse their urgency and even skepticism; all while reminding them that they still have much to learn and that there are generations behind their own for whom we will also need to find productive and participatory spaces.

In remarks shared at one of the many high level events he has sponsored over the past year, Thomson concluded this week’s Culture of Peace dialogue with the following: “Let us work to build bridges of understanding amongst our people; to create environments that foster inclusion and mutual respect; to develop education systems that teach harmony; and to raise children and grandchildren who will safeguard a global culture of peace. “

Amen, Mr. President.   During one short and frenetic year, you and your office have set a high bar for Slovakian Foreign Minister Lajcak who is set to take over your duties. Indeed you have raised the bar for all UN leadership as they seek to rally the skills and energies of this system needed to clean up our messes, eliminate our habituated discrimination, armed conflict and wastefulness, and fulfill our urgent policy promises to those next generations now looking anxiously over our shoulders.

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Labor Pains:  The UN Undermines Some Key Stakeholders, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Sep

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Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity, and to liberty. Rebecca Solnit

People with courage and character always seem sinister to the rest. Hermann Hesse

The only kind of dignity which is genuine is that which is not diminished by the indifference of others. Dag Hammarskjold

On Friday as I was preparing to speak to a group of Bard College students about the UN and the ways in which it does and does not promote human dignity among the world’s peoples, I discovered an announcement on the UN Website informing NGOs like ours that access to UN Headquarters was being restricted for the entire month of September.

In that same announcement, NGOs were offered the option of huddling around a nearby street corner to (essentially) “beg” UN staff tasked with the onerous duty of providing half-day-only event passes to NGOs so that they could attend events – like one produced by UN Habitat and another sponsored by the Office of the PGA on a “Culture of Peace” – to which we and others would normally be invited as a matter of course.

There was no prior discussion known to us regarding this change to NGO access, no obvious consultations or negotiations amongst our erstwhile UN/NGO leadership.   Moreover, I would be shocked to discover that any member state – including those who routinely lift their voices in bland and non-specific praise of NGOs, had bothered to invest any political capital in preserving our access during a September period for which our presence has traditionally not been – and should not now be – an issue.

On that same day, on another part of the UN’s website, I discovered that tourists visiting the UN will be allowed access through September 18.  The “plan” for such access is the same arrangement that we and other NGOs had become accustomed to (and more or less accepted) in the past – a two-week hiatus in late September while Heads of State occupy the UN space for the opening of the General Assembly and seating (even for UN-based diplomats) is at a premium.

But let this sink in for a moment:  The money collected from tourists is apparently more important to the UN than the monitoring work of the handful of NGOs (including our own overseas guests) that bother to be present during important UN discussions, many of which do in fact take place in the days before the General Assembly formally opens. Aside from inspiring fresh allegations of hypocrisy regarding how the UN too often treats non-state actors, this move is likely to accelerate a trend which we have long rejected – NGOs that bypass the occasional indifference and indignities of this system by ingratiating themselves to governments – often as well their funders – governments that then ensure access by these NGOs as needed via their own credentials. These quasi-state NGO agents will find their seats at the table and will surely not be milling around on street corners waiting perhaps in vain for some magic entry pass.

Given all of the discouraging news in the world and the many millions of people under immanent threat from armed violence, flooding and starvation, it is imprudent at best (and a serious diverse at least) to worry excessively about one’s own deficits of access and respect.   We do routinely acknowledge both our privileges and our limitations.  But we also understand that access restrictions impact persons far beyond our own office, people who are seeking (and deserving) their own seat in UN policy space, but also the people who depend on folks like us to identify policy niches and opportunities into which a more diverse set of policy actors can hopefully become immersed.

And these manifestations of disregard or indifference are hardly confined to NGOs.  In the General Assembly this week, several states (including Mexico and Singapore) took the floor to complain that the annual Security Council report was both late in arriving to delegations and contained (once again this year) little analysis or reflection on how and why the Council made the decisions it did, and why more peace and security didn’t emerge as the result of so many of those decisions.

In the Council itself, during a week which featured an excellent debate on peacekeeping operations and a powerful statement by Uruguay’s Ambassador Rosselli in response to briefings on the political and humanitarian tracks in Syria, working methods frustrations also flared.  For instance, during a contentious renewal of the mandate for the UNIFIL peacekeeping mission (Israel-Lebanon), Italy’s Ambassador Cardi took the unusual step of chastising the resolution negotiations process – which apparently included veiled criticisms of the mission itself — in the name of the large contingent of Italian forces without which UNIFIL itself could barely function. Japan, which has ably chaired a committee on Council working methods, presented agreed recommendations that stressed matters such as briefers’ brevity and preparations for newly elected members rather than perhaps more fundamental deficits in communications and negotiations that raise frustration levels needlessly.

Like a number of states at the UN, we are fully committed to a framework wherein tradition assumptions of security – based primarily on weapons systems and power-politics – evolve steadily into a more “human security” perspective.  This evolution implies several important transitions, including the willingness to address security-related dimensions across issue frameworks as well as the determination to place human well-being at the center of our policy objectives, well-being that is fully inclusive of cultures and conditions, and that recognizes policy goals resonating far more with sustainable development than with arms races and endless “asymetrical” warfare.

But human security requires more than people promoting more inclusive, progressive policies. The key to successful human security is bringing out the best versions of human beings themselves, people of dignity and purpose who understand and nurture their connections to the communities around them, people who can and do contribute to secure futures in ways other than fearing adversaries, trading in explosive weapons, defending narrow national interests, appropriating resources not their own, or politicizing the application of rights and legal standards that could otherwise help to create fairer and more predictable social environments.

The importance we attach to enabling better people as well as better policy systems will lead us to “double down” this coming year on some evolving commitments in the US and beyond, including on “servant leadership” with colleagues at the Business School of Georgia Tech University; and on “Inner Economy” with a group on the US West Coast associated with Women in International Security, in the latter instance specifically on examining “the inner resources one gains, uses, and loses in the exchanges of daily life.” These and other commitments will hopefully help leverage and inspire more of the traits of character needed to build both sustainable communities and more trusthworthy state and international institutions.

While pursuing these aims, we won’t go begging for access this month on any Manhattan street corner.  As we gaze from this now uncomfortable distance at the policy drama soon to unfold across the street, we will however do our best to discern how yet another UN promise – this time to a cooperative and transparent relationship with non-governmental organizations both around and far beyond UN Headquarters — is currently being undermined.

We remain in this UN community, year after year, because we believe that this essential policy space can be healthier and more highly regarded as it better honors its commitments both to its global constituents and to diverse stakeholders beyond the diplomats: those like us who critique, compliment, cajole and complement the often good work which the UN does in the world; but also those who serve our coffee, clean up after our many messes, keep the heat and lights working, and provide a helpful, steadfast security presence, day after day.

This and more is labor worthy of the day we celebrate tomorrow. It is also labor that deserves more than bureaucratic indifference from an institution whose essential presence in the world we still very much acknowledge.

Glass Cleaner: Reflecting the Inspiration We Find in the World, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 Aug

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There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it. Edith Wharton

It is never too late to be what you might have been. George Eliot

Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world. Desmond Tutu

We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us. Joseph Campbell

I’m sitting in the office early on a beautiful Sunday morning in New York, sifting through seemingly endless lists of “inspiring” quotations, hoping to locate one or more offering a bit more insight into what “inspiration” actually requires — why we in the NGO world need to address our own inspiration needs; but also why it is such an important (if often overlooked) aspect of our work that we are willing to offer inspiration for and/or “reflect forward” the inspiration provided by others.

This might seem like an odd topic to take up in a setting like the United Nations, a place that most people who have not given up on us entirely think is literally dripping with inspiration.  Look at all the good work that emanates at least in part from this space; the disaster relief supplied, pandemics overcome, landmines disabled, refugees housed, impunity challenged. Under the UN flag, people risk their own lives daily to protect and provide provisions to civilians in horrific conflict zones.   Under the UN flag, people doggedly pursue elusive political agreements and even more elusive justice.  Under the UN flag, people rally stakeholders to stave off the grave consequences associated with a warming planet, staggering levels of armament and vast populations on the move, risking much in the search for safer havens. Under the UN flag (and with excellent leadership from the current President of the General Assembly, Fiji’s Peter Thomson), dozens of small island nations have banded together in common cause, gathering allies powerful and humble from other parts of the world and then lodging urgent, science-based appeals for ocean health.

There has never been any doubt in our minds about the value of this policy space.  While the UN might never live up to the standards established by its often-incessant self-branding, there is little reason to believe that any of the (more and less) existential messes we have inflicted on ourselves are more likely to be resolved in its absence.

But while the UN is (to our view) very much necessary to global healing, it is also, equally clearly, not sufficient.  Those of us who walk these policy corridors many hours each day quickly become familiar with this system’s limitations:  the restrictive power imbalances among states; the conflict-related messes we struggle to clean up that didn’t need to be messed up in the first place; the promises on development, armaments and more that we so often make to the world and that we know, at face value at least, we are unlikely to keep; the amount of time we spend “condemning” state conduct without any prospect of meaningful follow-through; the often competitive and non-transparent manner in which we engage with other stakeholders, certainly including within and towards the “community” of NGOs.

As with its many successes, there is more to the UN’s “insufficiency” of course, more reasons for people to question if UN and government officials truly grasp the implications of the precarious moment we find ourselves in. Are our levels of attentiveness, dedication and urgency appropriate to the challenges of our times?   Are we doing all that we can with the opportunities presented here, including doing enough to inspire others to fill in our gaps and raise expectations for our collective performance? Do we have both the courage to keep our own candle of inspiration alive and (perhaps more important) the humility to learn from and properly reflect forward the light of inspiration offered by so many others?

This week we in the office (and far beyond) mourned the death of Tony De Brum, the former Foreign Minister of Marshall Islands and a formidable voice for sanity on many issues, but especially on the threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change.  As BBC and other media tributes this week (along with a few personal stories told by our close colleague, John Burroughs) made clear to all, De Brum was heavily and persistently motivated by his life experiences – including witnessing the “Bravo” nuclear test in 1954 while fishing with family – to become a “legendary” advocate for his people and the small islands that still conceal poisons from the early nuclear era and are now threatened by seemingly relentless sea level rises.  The “coalition of high ambition” that De Brum helped to create was instrumental in bringing about the unprecedented Paris Climate Agreement.  As he would no doubt recognize, such a coalition is now needed in many other policy areas where the greed and carelessness of all of us have placed the future of our children (and so many other life forms) in considerable peril.

As with current PGA President Thomson, De Brum demonstrated in full measure that it is not necessary to be a major player from a powerful state to have meaningful impact.  Nor are big-ticket contributions from the most powerful institutions necessarily what are now needed most.  Around the world, from Harlem to the Marshall Islands, there are gardens to tend, children to teach, conflicts to mediate, coastlines to clean, rights to defend, refugees to shelter, poverty to eradicate.  And today, as on too many climate-affected days, flood victims to rescue from the rooftops.

We all should pledge to do more in these times, including providing reassurance and inspiration for all who seek to help “overwhelm” our common, stubborn challenges.  But lest we forget:  many are already doing deeds to promote sustainable peace and justice, often beyond the spotlight of national media and the recognition of international organizations. And as much as we might like it otherwise, it is through reflecting those many deeds, rather than through promotiong our own actions, that inspiration and hope for meaningful, sustainable change can have its greatest impact.  To magnify the light for these murky times, the mirror is likely more potent than the candle.

Oxygen Tank: Finding the Fuel to Stay on Mission, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Aug

Oxygen

Basic human contact – the meeting of eyes, the exchanging of words – is to the psyche what oxygen is to the brain.  Martha Beck

Even the laziest person will fight for oxygen when drowning.  J.R. Rim

No one can find the rewind button, boys, so cradle your head in your hands. And breathe, just breathe.  Anna Nalick.

It is coming on late August in New York and the light of summer is beginning to wane, certainly more quickly than either the humidity or the bus fumes.  Along with the tourist-clogged sidewalks, endless construction (including outside my home windows) and mass transit that elevates sweat glands and blood pressure more effectively than it honors its public service obligations, it is hard to truly breathe here now, even harder than is usually the case.

In its corner of this breath-challenged city, the UN has been a bit quiet again this week. However, World Humanitarian Day was aptly commemorated on Friday both to honor those who have died in the service of those enduring armed violence, catastrophe or abuse, and to reaffirm in the strongest terms that civilians (and those who assist them) are not and must not become “targets.”

In the Security Council this interplay of armed violence and humanitarian risk was also in focus.  On Thursday, an otherwise predictable discussion on civilian protection and election preparations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was enriched by a report by Egypt on its “resource trafficking” initiative as well as by the participation in chambers of family members of two UN Experts — Zaida Catalán and Michael Sharp – brutally murdered in the DRC.  The promise of justice extended to these families is one that we should all do our part to ensure it is kept.

On Friday, the discussion on the grave humanitarian emergency that is Yemen seemed a bit more typical of the tenor of recent Security Council meetings.   Outgoing OCHA head Stephen O’Brien described a “maelstrom of death and destruction” in Yemen that does not seem to be improving despite his belief (shared by some around the oval) that this conflict is “deliberate” and well within our power to prevent. Outrage by the Council has had “little impact” on the misery of Yemen’s civilians as both O’Brien and Bolivia’s Ambassador Llorenti duly noted.   Outrage in and of itself rarely does.

This particular Council session was attended by Yemen’s Minister of Foreign Affairs who ignored Uruguay’s call for UN monitoring of entities deliberately endangering Yemen’s women and children, seeking instead to expose only the abuses committed by the Houthi “coup masters” who have “brought war to Yemen” and seek to spread Iranian-inspired “ethnic division” throughout the country. The occasional conciliatory tones expressed by the MFA were directed towards the Council and its resolutions rather than towards political opponents or the growing legion of victims in Yemen in need of healing and reconciliation.

As the meeting was gaveled to a close, a couple of my younger colleagues were taken aback. Is that it?  Is that all?   No firm commitments of human or material resources?  No concrete resolve to end the bombing and sustain a political process? No confession of the failed political maneuverings and reckless arms sales that have directly contributed to human carnage on a scale that relativizes even the sieges of Syria and famine-like conditions in Somalia and the Sahel?

There are times when UN meetings inside and out of the Security Council leave us literally gasping for air, wondering how diplomats and NGOs like us can sublimate so much of what we know about the precariousness of our world within statements and responses that are at times clever but not particularly compelling, insightful but not particularly urgent. In these UN buildings, in the city that surrounds, there is simply too much gasping, too much agitation and distraction, in part because we are not, literally not, “in our right minds.” We are running on fumes too much of the time, fumes which metaphorically represent the dregs of our remaining oxygen supply, the desperate need for which our ubiquitous challenges and frenetic paces have largely obscured.

Here at the UN we have our well-appointed buildings and conference rooms.  We have the respect of many based in part on the carefully-negotiated and heavily-scrutinized normative frameworks needed to stave off at least some of the catastrophes that verily threaten human possibility.  But something essential is missing here; its almost as though we have wilfully misplaced the advice of airlines stewards to, more often than is our habit, place on our own oxygen masks before assisting others.

At a small weekend retreat in New Jersey this weekend hosted by Adora and Levi Bautista, a small group of persons in various “caring contexts” took our own first steps towards oxygen replenishment, not only to enhance our own clarity and well-being, but to help refresh the people alongside whom we identify and address challenges both local and global.  As we slowly felt able to take deeper breaths, some truths hopeful and uncomfortable revealed themselves.  We became a thoughtful and engaged group who recognized that we, too, have not invested sufficiently in “eye contact,” attentiveness and other manifestations of human connection that can create the oxygen we need to clarify, to solve, to thrive.   We have neither “honored” nor shared sufficiently as our partial antidote to the cautiousness and competitiveness that ultimately rob us all of air.

On Monday, the moon will slide between our home planet and our sun in a once-in-our-lifetime occurrence, an anticipation that has people reaching out who might otherwise keep each other at a distance.   With any luck, this burst of eclipse-inspired human connection will also create a bit more oxygen, even in this city, even in these policy halls, allowing us to breathe a little easier for a little longer.

As I found out in the months before my heart surgery, it is hard to think clearly or fully appreciate our assets and blessings when we are habitually oxygen deprived.  Clarity and gratitude will be needed as never before as we seek to fulfill our global responsibilities and reassure the young and vulnerable that the current turbulence that shakes their confidence will eventually subside.

As the wonderful song by Anna Nalick reminds, we simply cannot hit the “reset button” on either our personal lives or our policy choices. But we can ensure that we learn what we can from both our mistakes and successes, that we seek to integrate more human kindness and connection into our policy work, and that we magnify opportunities for ourselves and others to connect the world to which we aspire to the people we aspire to become.

Just breathe.

Hunger Pangs:  Local Pathways to Famine Reduction, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Aug

There is no humiliation more abusive than hunger. Pranab Mukherjee

I find by my calculations, which are according to revealed inspiration, that the sword of death is now approaching us, in the shape of pestilence, war more horrible than has been known in three lifetimes, and famine. Nostradamus

These past two weeks, under Egypt’s presidency, the UN Security Council has issued presidential statements (non-binding urgings) on various matters pertaining to international peace and security, including last Wednesday’s statement on the threat of famine now looming in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and northeast Nigeria. The statement follows an Arria-Formula meeting in June on the same subject hosted by the three, current African Security Council members – Senegal, Ethiopia and Egypt.

In this week’s statement, the Council noted from the outset the “devastating impact on civilians of ongoing armed conflict and violence,” famine as a direct consequence of both the armed conflict itself and of the barriers imposed by state and non-state actors to “an effective humanitarian response in the short, medium and long term.”  The Council’s statement underscores that bombs and military barricades do, in fact, lead to famine and risks of famine, a term recently invoked by the UN in the context of South Sudan to describe conditions far beyond “food insecurity,” in this instance the very real threat of starvation by as many as 100,000 South Sudanese.

The Security Council ostensibly focused on these four geographic areas – and not others that could have easily been included – due to the frequency with which they appear on the Council’s agenda on top of the utter gravity of their current humanitarian situations.   And yet, however one assesses the degree to which any Council statement is actually binding in practice, this presidential statement bears no legal implication for states.  In this instance, the Council seemed to be reaching out with some urgency to the Secretary-General to use his good offices and other tools at his disposal to help bring an end to these four conflicts and open reliable humanitarian corridors.  The Council also, as it has done in the past, urged states with “influence” to help resolve the seemingly endless emergencies rendered by armed conflict and related impediments to humanitarian response.

While this statement was neither read out by Egypt’s Ambassador nor discussed in chambers, you could almost hear Russia and a few other Council members grousing about its content. Despite its own uneven (at best) performance in promoting peace and security, Russia has long lamented the expansion of the Council’s work into areas that it deems inconsistent with its mandate and for which there are relevant UN agencies already heavily vested with responsibilities for analysis and response.  That the statement made no mention of the UN’s FAO or WFP reinforced the concern of a Council moving on issues beyond its core mandate without several key UN partners.

All Council members can agree that famine properly understood is among the most devastating conditions that can befall human beings, especially children.   Given its thoroughly immobilizing impacts on families and communities, famine in and of itself is not a threat to international peace and security but rather the horrific aggregate of other threats: discriminatory political decisions and weak structures of governance; states that simultaneously lament human misery but double-down on its complicity through their copious weapons production and arms shipments; climate change about which some states are in denial while others have made tepid responses akin to denial in other garb, responses that neither address the threat directly nor promote resilient local communities to do so in their stead.

In these unsettled times, we would be wise to seek out (or perhaps merely be reminded of) other solutions, other directions, other visions.

Of all the writers within my own intellectual orbit, perhaps no one has been as sensitive to the multiple benefits of local knowledge of land and related environmental processes as Wendell Berry.  A poet and Kentucky farmer who just celebrated his 83rd birthday, Berry has written eloquently about our modernist inclinations to bureaucratic inertia, to media distractions public and private, to our apparent tolerance of, and even preference for “broken” economics such that many of us now “would prefer to own a neighbors farm than to have a neighbor.”

Berry has warned that, in more and more contexts worldwide, every natural landscape, every remaining parcel of arable land, now cries out metaphorically, “When?”   When will the speculators come?  When will the bulldozers appear over our horizons?  How long before the monoculturists with their heavy handed technologies and geo-engineering erode yet another functioning ecosystem under the false pretext of sustainable abundance?

And when will those who know and love those natural areas best, who can respond kindly and with discipline to their rhythms and seasons; those with the skills to “(re) build the earth under the dead leaves;” where will those people go who have learned to feed and nurture communities in the places to which bombs and landmines and climate-related drought have now so violently denied them access? And what happens to their communities once those with all of this local knowledge of natural rhythms and processes have no choice but to abandon the land they know intimately and love practically for land that is likely owned, managed and even exploited by others?

Addressing famine in our time has largely become a technical challenge; getting food from the places it is produced to the places where it used to be produced.  Such responses are largely in keeping with our heavily bureaucratic systems through which we attempt to address the vast devastation from famine but without being able to ensure its non-recurrence. Such a system makes honorable use of copious amounts of human planning, courage and decency; but it too often heaps dependency on top of misery, too often keeps people alive to behold the wreckage of once-vibrant communities that can now only be “saved” by some version of the technology that often encouraged the wreckage in the first instance.

The dimensions of “local life aware of itself” that have been so appealing to Berry have found their share of (perhaps unwitting) sympathizers.  Even those mega-environmental organizations that have been traditionally hostile to place-based learning and action have gotten religion on “local eco-awareness” in recent times.  And at the UN last week, it was comforting to hear “nerdy” statisticians under the guise of ECOSOC speak of the importance of land tenure and land rights to which many of those participants hoped their statistical work could contribute.

But if this hopeful movement is to restore the roots on which our future sustenance depends, we must simply and resolutely stop the bombing; we must take our climate responsibilities more seriously; and we must recover a real (not assumed) solidarity with the rhythms of life beyond our bureaucracies and arbitrary national barriers.  These are the duties of leadership for our times. Communities simply cannot cope, let alone thrive, given the impacts of armed violence, of abstracted social and economic policies, of agriculture graded on its volume not its quality or relevance to those who prepare and consume its bounty.  Such communities require a “truce” from the more toxic aspects of modernity and our leadership should do more to make that available.

But while addressing these demands, we must also pay closer attention to the connection between our livelihoods and those of succeeding generations, practicing skills that offer a more hopeful path to sustainability even as our planet bakes and explodes and fills with plastic waste.   One example of this concern, as Berry once noted with little changing since, is that we in the “developed” world have simultaneously dissociated eating from agriculture while solidifying the ties between eating and economics. How many of us any longer know how to grow edible things, let alone healthy edible things?  How many know (or care) about the origins (or impacts) of what we so eagerly stuff into our mouths?

Unless we can more effectively preserve access to the land by those who know and love it best; unless we can get some distance from the mindset that knows the price of everything but the value of little; unless we can create social policy that enhances rather than undermines the capacity of local communities to feed (and largely fend for) themselves, we will surely confront the desperation and humiliation of famine over and over again.

One key here is to jar our memories every day that eating matters much more than bombing; and that in a world with both populations and inequalities still on the rise, the land we have destroyed will somehow, some way, need to return to productive uses.   Only the hands of those who know a land, who know its needs, potentials and cycles, can make that happen.  Despite forces turning them into a bit of an endangered species, these planters and harvesters of local life probably represent our best hope for a sustainable future.

The Council’s Bully Pulpit: Resolving Tensions Without Inflaming Them, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Aug

Bully

The sanctions will not kill us. It’s apartheid that’s killing us. Oliver Tambo

Knowing what’s right doesn’t mean much unless you do what’s right. Theodore Roosevelt

On this date in 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped by a US war plane on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.  Three days later, a similar bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.  Since that time, endless debates have ensued among some in the academic and policy communities regarding the “necessity” of those bombings (a less persuasive “necessity” in the case of Nagasaki) to bring about a final and decisive end to that Pacific war.

There is no time or place to pursue that discussion here, though it should be noted that a consensus of the learned on the precise motives, objectives and moral equivalences related to those atomic bombings continues to elude.  What we know with greater certainty is the multiple, long-term, devastating effects that emanated from what would today be considered quite modest-sized nuclear explosions.  Indeed, even major nuclear-weapons states that are committed to modernizing their nuclear arsenals and which continue to resist efforts to prohibit or even greatly reduce those arsenals understand the grave (even irreparable) damage their weapons can cause.

One would have to go no further than the Security Council chamber during a rare Saturday afternoon session to see fresh evidence of this concern.   During yesterday’s session, Council members unanimously adopted resolution 2371 which imposes harsh new sanctions (banning exports worth as much as $1 Billion) on the government of North Korea (DPRK) in response to its defiance of previous Council resolutions, specifically regarding its continued testing of ballistic missiles likely now capable of reaching several current Council members with devastating nuclear warheads.

This was the second time in this first week of Egypt’s Council presidency that the matter of sanctions took center stage.   On Wednesday, Egypt convened a discussion on a full range of sanctions-related issues that broke little new ground while holding at least some of the concerns of Council members in sharp relief.  Despite enthusiasm for sanctions as a significant aspect of the Council’s coercive options, and with due respect for the ways in which sanctions regimes have become – slowly but steadily – more accurately “targeted” and more transparent in their criteria (for addition and removal from sanctions lists), many gaps in knowledge, application and trust remain.  Bolivia, for instance, joined with other states in locating sanctions as a measure of “last resort,” with sufficient “due process” for those facing sanctions threats and a rejection of sanctions as a means of “punishment.”  And Ukraine joined with others in insisting on human rights-based sanctions impositions with full, prior attention to the inherent risks of sanctions to civilian populations.

Partially in light of such objections, Italy urged sanctions designs that manifest more “coherence” in terms of means and ends.  Sweden noted the importance of properly applying any response tools to context, while France advocated more “education” to inform member states and the wider public of actions the Council has already taken to increase the “precision” of sanctions towards increasing their effectiveness and legitimacy.  An “impatient” US urged Council members to take better stock of how to enforce resolutions once adopted, a point echoed by Kazakhstan and others.

In the specific instance of the DPRK, despite the unanimous support for the sanctions resolution and all of the post-vote “branding” of diplomats and their positions on twitter, there was no unanimity regarding the role of sanctions in effectively diminishing the grave nuclear weapons threat symbolized by the DPRK’s increasingly successful missile tests.  Sanctions, we were reminded once again by several of the members, are one tool to be used alongside others consistent with both Council wishes and circumstances on the ground.  Sanctions must not inflict needless damage on the citizens of the DPRK who were described yesterday by more than one Council member as already being “enslaved.”   Sanctions must not impede the possibility (however unlikely at present) of direct negotiations between the Koreas and/or with other states.   And sanctions must not be seen as a backdoor justification for militarily provocative operations or other unilateral measures (as noted this week by Bolivia and others) that are only liable to make negotiations less likely and increasingly tougher sanctions (or other coercive measures) that much more inevitable.

Especially in a situation as volatile as the DPRK, where so much of what we “know” about this situation is as much supposition as fact, it is important (and recognized as such by at least several Council members) to proceed with some caution on the imposition of sanctions.  Sanctions should not become (much like peacekeeping operations has been) a default response to states that ignore Council resolutions or otherwise threaten international peace and security.   The UN’s conflict-prevention toolbox is still not fully operational, but it is slowly filling up and the Council must do a better job of leveraging all capacities inside and outside the UN that are relevant to the prevention of hostilities and (hopefully less often) the restoration of stability once security has been breached.

Note was taken several times during this Saturday Council meeting of Kim Jong-Un’s “deadly aspirations.”   This notion could also stand a bit of unpacking.   His “aspirations” certainly involve a growing capacity to inflict mass destruction without prior consultation, but there are surely dimensions to his bluster beyond fomenting ruin.

What was a bit perplexing for us is the way in which some Council members seem to question Kim’s personal and policy sanity while at the same time seeking to surround him with provocations at every turn.  (It is important to bear in mind that the Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, owing in part to a desire/demand for peninsular reunification.)  A politically unresolved war, a country surrounded by factions deemed hostile to its interests, provocative military responses off its shores and facing increasingly harsh sanctions regimes – these may all be at some level legitimate policy responses to DPRK defiance, but they also come with great risk.   We know how wildly bullies can lash out when they feel that they have been effectively cornered.  Assuming there are no military plans contemplated to utterly vanquish the DPRK regime, plans that would probably also result in the commission of war crimes, we should be skeptical at the very least about actions goading the DPRK into a military confrontation that is unlikely to follow any our “best options” scripts.

When Council members raise their hands in unanimous support for a resolution, more than policy consensus is on display.   What many states and other Council watchers also hope for is resolutions based on a robust, baseline knowledge of circumstance and consequence as well as a recipe of responses tailored to context and properly mindful (as China notes often) of the primacy of political settlement. That hope is about more than the will to “take action,” but taking action in a determined but modulated manner so to maximize prospects for dialogue conducive to a sustainable peace, avoiding as much as possible any longer-lasting, toxic side effects.

But is this really happening here?   Are we really asking all the right questions?  Are we aware of the gaps that still remain in our grasp of circumstances and consequences?  Are we pursuing the most comprehensive responses to threats beyond the boundaries of national political expediency?  Are we endorsing responses that can promote behavior change, encourage negotiations, and help ensure that citizens in targeted states are not subject to another round of deprivations?  And are we, as Sweden noted on Saturday, taking sufficient stock of the current risks of “miscalculation” which can ignite conflict that can shatter even the most measured of our threat responses?

On this August 6, we would do well to discern just how much higher the stakes have become for everyone on our planet.  Among all of the existential threats which currently absorb our attention and stretch our collective wisdom up to and beyond its limits, a nuclear exchange with our massive and ever-modernizing warheads would make every other threat even more challenging to address.  We applaud those Council members willing to temper their (legitimate) moral and political outrage over DPRK provocations with the wisdom to keep asking (and demanding answers to) questions related to the Council’s coercive measures and refrain from intensifying the bullying instincts of the DPRK through excessive or unhelpful provocative behaviors of their own.

Strangers in the Night:  Recovering the Risks of Friendship, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Jul

Barbed Wire 2

Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.  Helen Keller

Great perils have this beauty that they bring to light the fraternity of strangers. Victor Hugo

The language of friendship is not words but meanings.  Henry David Thoreau

This week at the UN “featured” what appears to be a growing rift between the increasingly abusive and defiant government of Burundi and the concerns of the international community; a lack of “positive news” (ASG Muller) on still-besieged areas in Syria with nothing even approximating positive news on Yemen or Gaza; and renewed violence in the Central African Republic which mourned a new round of peacekeeper casualties.

Given all this, and throw the DPRK into the mix, and it surely must seem like a policy cop-out to reference this International Day of Friendship, one of the UN’s “can’t we just all get along” moments that might well seem superfluous to the serious policy challenges on our plate, including those related to the vast human mobility which seems now to have stretched our resources and caring capacities up to and even past their limit.

So much of migration now is what the UN policy community refers to as “irregular,” what the rest of us might well refer to as “forced.”  People on the move less for economic opportunity or a fresh start but to escape horrific conditions of war and its remnants, of drought and its famines, of atrocities and their multiple scars. Families escaping bombs they neither built nor dropped; drought and food insecurity from climate change they did virtually nothing to impact; atrocities perpetrated against them based on culture and genetics more than on any active political resistance or military threat.

And, as we know, the uncertain path forward for many fleeing insecurity is lined with more of the same.  Securing adequate family sustenance can be every bit as much a challenge on the move as it was in the drought and conflict zones from which they fled.  Traffickers abound and prey on vulnerabilities of all kinds, offering false hope to persons otherwise verging on “no hope” at all.   Abuses at the hands of those ostensibly providing “protection” simply magnify the insecurity, especially for children cut off from any modicum of protection that families might otherwise have provided.  And that barbed wire at the end of what is often a long and life-threatening journey is perhaps the strongest sign of people once betrayed by much of global governance and the human family who have been forsaken yet again.

As we have noted often, and as has been carefully and compassionately documented in “Turning Strangers into Friends,” edited by Liberato Bautista on behalf of Churches Witnessing With Migrants (CWWM),  the “regular” migration that is the goal of UN policy deliberations can be fraught with its own dangers: hostility at airports and border crossings; icy stares from persons on the street who believe that any stranger represents a danger;  threats from states to deport even single parents from family units; employers all-too-willing to cheat or abuse employees on the assumption that legal systems are mostly disinterested in migrants’ rights.

And as Bautista and colleagues have summarized in their Talking and Doing Points issued prior to their recent Berlin consultation, these are only a few of the factors that compromise the safety and dignity of “uprooted peoples,” factors that demand good policy from institutions like the UN but also more consistent and person-centered hospitality from those who claim to value dignity for all. The UN is trying to do its part to overcome some residual state resistance to the establishment and dissemination of a Global Compact on Migration that will hopefully facilitate safer, orderly and more “regular” migration patterns.   A Compact-related consultation held at the UN this week, chaired ably by Mexico and Switzerland and featuring Special Representative for International Migration Louise Arbour, stressed a number of important points for the migration policy community including the right of voluntary return, the importance of protecting (and even expanding) remittances, the need for more accurate data on all aspects of human mobility, the value of providing proper “documentation” for migrants and rethinking restrictions on “dual citizenship,” the many cultural and capacity benefits of “diaspora outreach,” and the need to step up “conflict prevention” efforts to help stem the flow of persons who feel that they have no option but to flee bombs overhead and landmines under foot.

There was even welcome discussion of the importance of moving beyond “whole of government” to “whole of society” approaches to addressing migration’s opportunities and challenges.  This point had particular resonance for us. “Turning strangers into friends,” accompanying those in ways we would wish to be accompanied, is not only about having the right national and global policies, not only about having the most progressive words appear in our declarations and resolutions, but about having the proper dispositions in communities; about seeing ourselves, indeed our common survival, reflected in the often fearful eyes of those who now appear as strangers to us.

This disposition remains in distressingly short supply, both within and outside communities of faith.

Even in a city like New York, which prides itself on its many cultures and more recently its resistance to new US federal policies clamping down on migrants of all stripes, there is a need to up our game on the hospitality, “mercy” and friendship called for by the CWWM.  For too many of us, even now, the promise of diversity is only casually engaged.   We sample the food of migrants but rarely share their dreams.   We attend the festivals of migrants but are mostly absent from their logistical challenges and major life transitions.  We are tolerant of migrants’ presence but mostly stick closely (on and off our phones) to our smaller, like-minded circles.

With all due regard for the “compassion fatigue” that seems to be sweeping the planet, and with all blessings extended to those who put their safety on the line every day to care for the otherwise forsaken, hospitality and friendship for migrants must become a long-term commitment for more of the rest of us.  This is not some pious liberal call, but rather stems from a belief — abundant evidence for which emerges regularly from UN conference room — that the factors pushing people to risk the lives of their children to escape the carnage of their daily lives are likely to grow in number and intensity, at least for the time being.

So while we are urgently figuring out a plan to regulate the growing ranks of the  unregulated, while this clock counting down the deadline for our common survival is still ticking, we have urgent work to do ourselves, to do on ourselves.   We have to find better ways to keep our hearts open, to offer friendship and hospitality that is not about charity but about, as noted by Lester Ruiz, “the opportunity to live well together in the context of our shared differences.”   And we must learn how to accompany others recovering from a displacement they so often did not choose, in part as a means of learning how we would wish to be accompanied when it is our turn to face grave insecurity.

This is friendship in the best sense, the friendship that walks in as others are running out, that absorbs anxieties when others are pushing them away, and that elicits practical offers of hospitality beyond the boundaries of personal convenience.   This is the friendship I have been blessed to receive over and over in my life.  This is friendship worthy of our times, practices that can bring deeper meaning to policies directed towards that “fraternity of strangers” longing to find their way home.