Storm Surge:  The UN Avoids Turning Obstacles into Impediments, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Apr

daffodils_glowing_199026

Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.  Epictetus

Storms make the oak grow deeper roots.  George Herbert

Last month, an early spring storm and unusually cold stretch created a major challenge for March flowers.  The UN’s own daffodil patch suffered significant damage, made clear only as the snows finally receded.  But as some flowers lay dormant, victims of an unpredictable climate, other daffodils sprang to life.  For them, the snow and sub-freezing temperatures seemed more an obstacle to navigate and less an impediment to blooming.

Indoors, the UN faced storms of another sort, rocked by recent terrorist violence in Sweden, Somalia, Russia and (now) Egypt, and even more egregious violence in the form of sarin attacks orchestrated by the government of Syria’s Assad that left dozens dead and filled our media with images of children taking what might well have been a final breath.

Among its other sordid consequences, the attack laid bare (as France duly noted) the failure of that government to honor its commitments to eliminate its chemical weapons stockpiles;  indeed its apparent ability to deceive UN inspectors whose job it was to certify weapons removal has many sobering implications for other weapons inspections and removal efforts.

The Assad chemical attack was followed, as we all know, by another unilateral military response – cruise missiles fired from a US ship at the air base from which the sarin attack was believed to be originally launched.  That attack seems now to have been as much about “sending a message” as it was destroying a base, especially given that the air strip was reported “open for business” the following day.

Nevertheless, the US attack was the backdrop for an emergency Security Council meeting on Friday that brought more than a bit of simmering hostility into the open.  Such hostility threatened to undermine what was otherwise a period of relative Council consensus on matter related to Mali, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. It also threatened to obscure the impact of events elsewhere in the UN – including the honoring of 20 years of service by the UN Mine Action Service and preparations for major international conferences to promote Ocean health and the rights of migrants – which should have provided fresh evidence to the international community of the UN’s enduring value.

The attack on the Syria base — while relatively benign in comparison to the consequences of Assad’s chemical attack (a point made strongly by the UK and others) not to mention the massive air raids conducted by Assad and Russia on civilian infrastructure for much of the past six years — represented for some members another significant blow to the UN’s Charter and its seemingly ever-perilous reputation.  Bolivia perhaps was the most articulate in denouncing this latest unilateral measure by the US, citing concerns regarding the degree to which human rights are sacrificed at the altar of national interest; also that chemical weapons use might become the pretext for another, Iraq-style armed intervention. From our own standpoint, this attack is one with the potential to widen the already significant divide between permanent and elected Council members, one which the US has publicly threatened to repeat with or without UN support, and one which comes on the heels of other statements by the US implying that any future support for the UN – provided by this administration at least – is contingent on allowing the US to “fix” some things.

Certainly there are things that need fixing around the UN including as the US rightly suggested and which SG Guterres affirmed in the Council on Thursday as part of his “9 Point” areas of reform, the need to ensure that the UN’s peacekeeping operations are relevant and flexible such that mandates remain “faithful” to shifting security contexts.   Guterres also called for a new “surge in diplomacy for peace,” while ensuring gender balance in peace operations undertaken with the full participation of relevant regional and sub-regional stakeholders.

At this same session other Council members made their own reform suggestions on force generation (Kazakhstan), access to helicopters and other military equipment (Senegal), the slippery slope of peacekeepers taking on one or more aspects of counter-terror operations (SG and others), and the need for clear political objectives to which peace operations are then expected to contribute (Uruguay).

The concept note provided by the US for this particular meeting was helpful at several levels, though it does seem as though there is too much emphasis on the cost of peacekeeping and not enough on preserving and affirming what the UK’s Ambassador Rycroft called the “human face” of the UN.

And peacekeeping is not the only area where the US now appears to be “pulling up” some of the UN’s carpet.  From initiating a cutoff of aid to the UN Population Fund to insisting on its own (under-qualified) candidate to run the UN’s World Food Programme, this US administration has significantly upped the ante on costs, seeking new concessions from the UN to “fix” itself largely in accord with US wishes.  The US is certainly not the only country that throws its weight around the UN, nor is it by any stretch the only country that flaunts the values it has otherwise pledged to uphold; but it also tends to do more than its share of arm twisting albeit rarely in the form of such a “public dare.”

And so the UN now faces obstacles analogous to a major, early spring storm – Charter values under siege, disenchantment with our security-related performance, threats of funding withdrawal, stubborn power imbalances, inflexible and often unfeasible peacekeeping mandates, endless requests for humanitarian funding in response to conflicts we should have been better able to prevent (or at least contain) in the first place.

Beyond these, people continue to face discrimination, deprivation and despair in many global regions.  And the policy community has not yet demonstrated that we have listened long enough – certainly deeply enough – to grasp just how unequal our global systems of security, economy, education and health truly can be.

But even in the midst of unfulfilled global expectations and highly contentious discussions about chemical attacks and armed reprisals, there remain signs of recognition that we might just have the temperament to manage these stormy times. The UK’s Rycroft affirmed that, despite appearances, the UN remains “the place to negotiate when peace seems out of reach.”  Uruguay’s Ambassador Rosselli urged Council members to “keep calm, carry on, and continue to do our work.” And Italy’s Ambassador Cardi asked colleagues to “look ahead” and find more effective ways to hold offending states accountable to their obligations under the UN Charter and existing Security Council resolutions.

These suggestions by respected Council members are helpful.  When storms threaten the UN it isn’t necessary for us to choose between urgency and thoughtfulness, nor need we permit obstacles to become impediments to the changes our constituencies expect and need.   Instead, storm-related obstacles can become occasions for us to “test our mettle,” to build our stable of skills —- including in mediation and conflict prevention — and to nurture deeper, more reliable and more enduring institutional roots.

Compound Interest: Amplifying Attention to the UN’s Security Architecture, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Apr

People who have lived through a terrible conflict may be hungry and desperate, but they are not stupid. They often have very good ideas about how peace can evolve, and they need to be asked.  Leymah Gbowee

History is littered with the wars everybody knew could never happen.  Enoch Powell

Peace is not an easy prospect–it requires greater bravery than does conflict.  Ozzie Zehner

This week at the UN was, at least from a peace and security standpoint, more interesting than most.  In addition to consensus resolutions in the Security Council on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the Lake Chad Basin region, and on protecting cultural heritage from terror threats, the energy of the building was dominated by negotiations toward a Treaty to “Ban” nuclear weapons.

The quotation marks in the last sentence have mostly to do with the absence of over 40 states from these initial negotiations, an absence that included the states now in possession of these weapons.  A press conference initiated by US Ambassador Haley to underscore the decision to “boycott” the negotiations got a fair amount of press coverage, but largely fell flat.  If the assumption of the Ambassador and those joining her at the podium is that boycotting states have been and are now negotiating nuclear disarmament in “good faith,” they have clearly been sitting in different meetings and reading different press reports over these past years than I have.

Indeed, the effect of the boycott was to leave the largely “like-minded” states and NGOs in charge of what was at times a powerful, table-setting event.  Indeed, to the extent there is an upside in trying to “ban” weapons without the weapons possessors in the room, it is that conversations can push forward in the absence of friction in ways that would be difficult otherwise.   Anyone who has tried to run distance into the teeth of an Oklahoma wind can appreciate the blessing of having wind at your back.

The problem is that, when the wind is blowing in a favorable direction, people tend to conclude that they are faster and in better shape than is actually the case.  The “Ban” treaty deliberations, typical of such discussions, ranged full-spectrum from the highly insightful to the borderline cultish, at times minimizing certain challenges in attempting to “ban” weapons over which they have little operational jurisdiction. And there was perhaps insufficient attention to the many promises which have arisen previously from the disarmament community, promises which have been kept incompletely at best.  Overcoming the “fool me once, fool me twice” legacy of so much UN disarmament activity will require more comprehensive security conversations beyond the remit of disarmament affairs, beyond the slogans of disarmament campaigners, beyond the needs and political aspirations of the like-minded states.  As OPANAL (Tlatelolco) and other voices noted during the week, prohibiting things and eliminating them altogether remain – oftentimes and certainly in this instance – quite some distance apart.

In other UN rooms this week, headwinds were definitely the order of the day in two security-related events where progress is equally uncertain but critical to achieve.  Wednesday, the Peacebuilding Commission held an organizational meeting ably and kindly chaired by the Republic of Korea’s Amb. Cho Tae-yul.  In addition to reports from the chairs of the PBC’s country configurations (minus Swiss Ambassador Lauber who was in Burundi), the discussion focused on the “place” of the PBC within the UN’s broader security architecture, with more specific reference to the steadily evolving but seemingly ever-suspicious relationship between the PBC and the Security Council.

The Chair’s emphasis on consolidating “one peacebuilding commission” resonated with PBC members as it fits as a snug reinforcement for the Secretary-General’s “sustaining peace” concept; but also because it promises the possibility for the PBC to move beyond country-specific, post-conflict configurations and towards a mission that is preventive in its orientation and available to any in the full UN membership interested in tapping the PBC’s considerable and growing expertise in all conflict phases.

Post-conflict reconstruction is certainly an important and specialized expertise, but the general sense of the diplomatic talent here at the UN, certainly including talent which is organized through the PBC, is that we are spending too much energy and money responding to aftermath of conflicts that could (and should) have been anticipated and addressed at earlier stages.  This is, after all, not a “peace rebuilding commission” though that is the role to which the PBC has primarily been assigned and, in the minds of more than a few PBC delegates, one which the Security Council permanent members – including those also serving on the PBC — seem overly committed to preserving.

Some practical reform-minded suggestions were made, including Council member Sweden urging that the PBC have a larger role in consultation with Council “pen holders” while resolutions are in their formative stages and another Council member – Egypt – urging closer coordination linking country visits by PBC configuration chairs and relevant country discussions taking place within the Council.  For its part, Belgium urged more “repetition” of PBC-Security Council meetings as a contribution to eliminating what Morocco alleged as the P-5’s “annoyance” towards the PBC and its presumed evolution.

But as Ambassador Cho Tae-yul made clear, the PBC should worry less about fixing the Council and more about fixing itself.  “Fixing” in the sense of refining its own working methods, including a commitment (as noted by Indonesia) to more “cross cutting” concerns; taking the lead (as urged again by Morocco) in inviting the Heads of affected states to discussions in New York; and (as Bangladesh noted) sustaining a more “hands-on” approach to peace. But this also implies “fixing” (as highlighted by Colombia) in the sense of seeking out the most relevant opportunities for the PBC to share its expertise with the full UN community — with the welcome cooperation of the Council, but not necessarily with its permission.

Ironically, perhaps, one such opportunity occurred this week as Ukraine convened a Security Council “Arria Formula” discussion on the growing threat of “Hybrid War.”  While the concept admittedly has some miles to travel on definition and focus, and in this instance was largely focused on Russian behavior in and around Crimea, the notion underscores the use of allegedly “non-lethal” tools, including from the media and cyber realms – to “wage war” in more subtle ways than the mere imposition of military means, to use diverse forms of media to distract and distort in ways that are at times “more destructive than bombs.”  As the conversation ensued, both Ukraine and Sweden referred explicitly to an evolving and dangerous “grey zone” blurring common (if now outmoded) distinctions between “war and peace,” such that warfare can reasonably be presumed to exist well before the first gun shots are actually fired.

The implications of this new (if still somewhat vague) genre of subtle coercion were not lost on the audience.  Latvia noted that Hybrid War further undermines the notion that states and their military operations alone can protect us from attack.  Egypt asserted that the distortions and manipulations of Hybrid War are pervasive, including within some of the states now complaining loudly about their use.  For its part, Japan was most explicit in urgently rejecting expansion of the “you use it therefore I use it” mentality.

In addition, current Council member Italy rightly urged that we engage in more comprehensive analysis of Hybrid warfare to guide a more comprehensive policy response.   In our view the Peacebuilding Commission is the ideal and most relevant setting in which to conduct and disseminate such an analysis.  The PBC’s conceptual flexibility, its close connections to the Peacebuilding Support Office and Trust Fund, its ability to access diverse NGOs and other stakeholders beyond the usual suspects, this and more makes it well suited to continue analysis of a trend that, as Ukraine put it, represents both an “ambiguous” and “escalating” threat for which we are simply not sufficiently prepared.

To stay in top of evolving security threats, from the most destructive weapons to the most cunning coercive strategies, the active policy interest of all sectors of the UN community is paramount.   The times now require a bit of institutional bravery from each of us, a commitment to fulfill our stated mandates but in ways that encourage new policy ideas and the “compounding” interest of diverse stakeholders.  In our view, the PBC increasingly represents a distinctive culture within the UN from which to cultivate such policy attention.

Water Logged:  Maintaining Water Threats on the UN’s Collective Radar, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Mar

Empty Chamber

Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation… even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind.  Leonardo da Vinci

Time is short and the water is rising.  Raymond Carver

Earlier this week, I agreed to contribute to an informal project the theme of which has long informed our larger work but not dominated our attention for some time:  the “state of play” in NGO relations with one another and especially with the issues and resources of the UN system.

Key to this effort, of course, will be the willingness of other NGOs to join us in what we trust will be an honest process of assessment.   The assumption of this community often is that our deficits – where they exist at all — are about our resources, not our energy or discernment.  We have attempted to bureaucratize this work but not taken account of the emotional toll it takes on all of us, inside the UN but in especially in diverse communities; not only because of the injustices and abuses we constantly engage, but also because of glacial pace at which meaningful change occurs. We do this work because we can and because we must; but we also want to be able to look our children and grandchildren in the eye and tell them that we did all we could to reverse levels of global threat.

Time indeed is short; and more than the waters are rising.

As with the UN itself, we in the NGO world spend much time branding the things we’ve done while ignoring those many things left undone, the questions we’ve misplaced, the policy connections we’ve refused to draw, the voices we have all-too-intentionally muted, the doors of innovation and reform we have simply refused to walk through.

The photo at the top of this post, taken by one of our longtime mentors in this work, could well be the starting point for an honest assessmen of our practices and priorities.  The photo was taken in the Trusteeship Council chamber in which the president of the General Assembly was hosting a system-wide dialogue on water-related goals and targets within the Sustainable Development Goals.

The photo shows the top (NGO) section completely empty.  There were a few water activists (bless them) in our row of seats below that section, but the blue seats were, for most of the day, completely and utterly vacant.

Granted it was an unusually busy week at the UN, with the Commission on the Status of Women and its focus on economic empowerment; two other important General Assembly dialogues on oceans (SDG 14) and climate (SDG 13); Security Council ministerial events on conflict in South Sudan and the protection of Cultural Heritage from terrorist trafficking; a special event to recall the moral darkness of the trans-Atlantic slave trade; and preparations for Monday’s opening of a conference to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.   While we were directly engaged with these and other events this week, we do understand that there are times at the UN when our metaphorical logs simply get saturated, when the volume of issues, options and injustices simply overwhelms our responsibility to be in all the rooms where our skills and attentiveness are needed.

But this particular GA session was about access to water, our most indispensable and (now) threatened resource, an issue that is as cross-cutting as the gender discussions that were happening in rooms below us, as grave an impediment to peace and security as the machinations of ISIL, as potentially existential a threat to our common survival as our most powerful weapons and damaged climate.  As our largest sources of planetary fresh water melt into the sea; as what remains of our domestic water supplies become ever-more subject to corporate hijacking and cross-border struggle; as water inequalities become even more pronounced than those involving personal incomes; as scarce coastal fresh water is contaminated, more and more, by climate-induced rising sea levels; the threats to agriculture, to public health, to security, to life itself continue to grow.

You might think that a conversation on such matters would have warranted a bit more attention, certainly from the communities that have formed around the UN to promote gender justice, sustainable development or international peace and security.   The photo leading this post tells a somewhat different tale.

Fortunately, the diplomats seemed to have a handle on at least some of the urgencies at hand.  For his part, PGA Thomson emphasized the implications of our current water crisis for all three core UN policy pillars.  The UN Secretary-General’s water Envoy made his own strong case for why water deficits must be understood as primary peace and security concerns.  The event’s co-chair, Ambassador Bogyay of Hungary reminded delegates that “acting now on water is a matter of human dignity, justice and survival.”  Both Brazil and the European Union specifically highlighted the gendered dimensions of our water policy, citing the degree to which water access burdens excessively impact the health, nutrition and safety of women most often responsible for water gathering tasks.  And the Holy See, ever blunt, made clear that “unresolved water issues are a likely cause of future war.”

Other experts and delegations highlighted the dramatic impacts of water in our evolving, climate-damaged reality: severe drought in some areas such as Somalia; severe flooding in others such as in Peru; both posing grave challenges to the health and food security of families and communities.  In response, Slovenia called on more effective “early warning” to help us anticipate water-related disasters.  Vietnam, Kazakhstan and other states urged greater regional and international cooperation and, in some instances, more robust forms of water governance to help states head off what Guatemala called “tragedies from water misuse.”   For his part, PGA Thomson linked all measures for such water governance to ongoing reviews of the overall effectiveness of the UN Development system.

To our mind, the event left dangling some important considerations related to the funding of capacity support as well as the most cost-effective structures to keep states fully focused on their collaborative water challenges.  Moreover, we agree with Cuba that protection of water resources would more effectively be grasped as an integral part of a more generalized responsibility to “protect the full richness of nature,” including our forests, oceans and wildlife.

But the urgency of our expanding water crisis – including its gendered, peace and security dimensions – thankfully very much survived the morning.   As Ambassador Bogyay reminded the gathering, “there is no life without water.”  Thus, failure to cooperate on water “is simply not an option.”  Hopefully such cooperation will not struggle to fruition in conference rooms with vast empty seats symptomatic of the insufficient attention of the UN’s NGO community.

Traffic Circles:  Addressing the Loops that Fuel Conflict and Undermine Dignity, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Mar

Enslave the liberty of but one human being and the liberties of the world are put in peril. William Lloyd Garrison

Do something wonderful; people may imitate it.  Albert Schweitzer

This week at the UN was a bit of an “odd coupling” with legions of blue Smurfs showing up to promote the Sustainable Development Goals while Washington added to the UN’s funding anxieties and Pyongyang created new nuclear proliferation headaches.

It was also the first week of the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), a massive (and in our view too often un-strategic) gathering that, in its best iterations, reminds us of the still-unfinished work of gender justice as well as of the many areas of policy and practice which are yet to become “women’s business.”

One area that has long been “women’s business” – as both advocates for change and tragically more often as victims of abuse — is that of trafficking.   This week, both in the context of a CSW side-event and in the Security Council under the UK’s leadership, the UN attempted to steer a more hopeful path that promises genuine forward momentum on this stubborn scourge beyond our conventional cycles of response.

The “complexities” of trafficking – so described by one inspiring Somali activist — were very much on display this week.   Diplomats and NGOs called attention to the multiple (and as Egypt and others noted) mutually-reinforcing networks that traffic in weapons, narcotics, cultural heritage and, worst of all, in persons themselves.   For his part, UN Secretary-General Guterres made additional reference to the “shine of some skyscrapers” in our cities that were dependent on “forced labor.”

What all these violations have in common of course is their assault on human dignity, putting persons in what many of us would deem impossible situations and then offering options going forward that are likely to accomplish little other than snuff out the last vestiges of self-respect.   This creates a pattern all too familiar and all too insidious – people risking (and too often finding) unacceptable vulnerability in an attempt to escape conditions of unacceptable vulnerability.

At CSW, it was noted again and again the degree to which trafficking and the “modern slavery” that so often follows in its wake constitute “money making machines” for transnational criminal networks, terrorist groups, unscrupulous government officials, and others simultaneously skilled in exploitation and dismissive of human value (and especially the value of women and girls) beyond their own limited circles of malfeasance.

The complexities of modern trafficking have contributed to responses that seem more like endless circles of frustration than pathways to progress.   This week at the UN, diplomats and NGOs alike commented on the degree to which armed violence creates breeding grounds s for trafficking in all its dimensions.   In the Security Council, Panama made linkages between armed violence and child marriage.  Nigeria noted the conflict-related misuse of captured girls as “baby making machines.”  In more general terms, the European Union cited the “spillovers of insecurity” that are caused by armed conflict and which very much include the enabling of hard-to-address trafficking networks.

At the same time, others in the Council made clear that the inequalities and vulnerabilities of societies create conditions ripe for human slavery and trafficking, but also for the perpetuation of armed conflict itself.  As Greece explained, trafficking in all its aspects remains a major factor in sustaining the “economy of war.”  And Bolivia was (as they have been since they joined the Council in January) insistent that the pervasiveness of inequalities is symptomatic of a larger systemic problem — that our economics and politics privilege competition over dignity, acquisition over equity.  We humans have spent too much of our collective history “taking what we want” even if it means (as it often has) lowering the threshold of our common humanity in the process.

Around and around we go – conflict fueling trafficking networks which exacerbates existing inequalities and discriminations which creates (as Morocco noted this week) new breeding grounds for conflict.  It is a cycle that frustrates, a loop we cannot easily escape, a ride from which we cannot seem to dismount.

But there are strategies afoot to help us fortify what Pakistan this week referred to as our “spasmodic” responses to the violence and criminality of trafficking. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime is doing its part to help strengthen domestic law enforcement and border controls.  Ireland and other states are actively exploring ways to improve legal accountability at national and international levels as one means to prevent future abuses.   UN Women and many of the participants of CSW are holding up the gender dimensions of abuse and insisting that policy accommodates each and every one of them. The Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee is helping to disrupt the financial incentives for trafficking networks and undermine their internet-based recruiting.  At the same time, at least some of those Council members understand that trafficking response must involve all relevant UN stakeholders; that one UN organ cannot presume responsibility for an issue that takes so many forms, impacts so many development and security processes, traumatizes so many global citizens.  All are initiatives and insights worthy of “imitation.”

But the Council (together with the Peacebuilding Commission and other stakeholders) can take welcome leadership in one additional area. This week, UK Ambassador and current SC president Rycroft cited our collective duty to end the “instability” in which trafficking thrives.  Much of this instability, we would argue again, is a function of the armed violence that flares up and drags on in so many global regions.  With threats to UN funding looming, with assaults on human dignity seemingly as pervasive as ever, with so many illicit arms fueling so much unaccountable criminal violence, the Council must become smarter and especially more proactive in its security responses.   As Indonesia noted well this week during the debate, fresh efforts directed towards a more upstream “de-escalation” of conflict threats would be the ideal next step.

City Harvest, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Mar

Forget the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends.  Lewis Mumford

A city isn’t so unlike a person. They both have the marks to show they have many stories to tell. They see many faces. They tear things down and make new again.  Rasmenia Massoud

I was in Atlanta, Georgia part of this week speaking with student groups at Georgia Tech University, mostly about their uncertain futures and the promises represented by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development made to their largest-in-history generation.

The students were mostly attentive, if at times a bit underwhelmed.  They’ve heard promises from older folks before of course, including the promise that if they do what they’re told, get good grades, stifle their passions, and defer their dreams — perhaps forever but certainly until their mountains of educational debt can be fully serviced — things will ultimately be well for them.

This generation of students can be a skeptical lot and not without reason.   Despite our insistences even those with “elite” educational backgrounds have already experienced a dearth of employment options, working long hours, doubling up on housing, sacrificing any semblance of a social life for the sake of success that is anything but guaranteed.   Many of these young people avoid the mainstream news; but the issues that underscore the need for the 2030 Agenda in the first place – the security and ecological threats we have introduced into our world, the genies we have released to wreck their signature havoc – remain very much on their minds.

Theirs are largely “first world problems,” many would admit.   Fulfilling professional goals and personal expectations might prove elusive, but these young people aren’t going to starve or die from the failure. And at some level, they seem to understand that in a world of growing inequalities, their needs will likely be addressed well beyond minimum levels.  They might not hit the jackpot, but they have skills and flexibility; they can choose to revise their trajectories with a reasonable chance of finding meaning and perhaps even a measure of abundance.

But they also know that things can and must get better. While most were no doubt skeptical about some of the promises embedded in the 2030 Agenda, some expressed interest in its ambitions and in the capacities needed to turn this promise – this one above all of the others – into a predictable blueprint for their common future.

This won’t be an easy chore. We made brief mention of the precarious health of our oceans; the accelerating extinction of global species; the stubborn pervasiveness of discrimination against women and girls; the crippling poverty we have every means and still-too- little intention to eliminate; the corruption that bleeds societies of domestic resources and stifles public trust: the staggering employment deficits that we must overcome commensurate with this generation’s size and the impacts of human migration and ever-more-sophisticated robotics; the urban settings set to house the dreams and aspirations of so many millions more young people while housing and employment remain in crisis, and while current residents struggle with pollution, substandard transportation and green space as rare as a bargain Manhattan apartment.

It’s a large and formidable list, a testament both to the depth of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves and the genuine willingness of the international community to face – without sugarcoating — the challenges of the next 15 years.  What the students wanted to know more about is how to move goals and targets beyond rhetoric.   What are all of us prepared to do – and change – with our institutional structures and personal commitments in order to make this happen?

In that vein, mention was made of efforts underway to reform taxation and end corruption; to eliminate trafficking in weapons, narcotics and persons that inflame risks to violence; to create viable indicators of the full 2030 performance based on data that is robust, flexible, context-specific, and able to help us track risks and trends beyond “snapshots” of the present.

And we must do this and more while taking the shifting needs of cities – the settings where so many of this current generation of young people will choose to find their way — fully into account. Among the many helpful resources available to participants in this week’s interesting UN Statistical Commission was a UN publication entitled “The World’s Cities,” This summary report provides a brief look at urban growth during the period defined by the 2030 Agenda; the “megacities” continuing their expansion and the many other cities on the cusp of joining their ranks, especially in what some still refer to as the “global south.”  The report makes plain that people will continue to pour into urban areas such as Bogota and Bangkok, Mumbai and Lagos; and when they arrive they will need housing for their families, reliable transportation to seek and sustain livelihoods, places to educate themselves and their children, even guidance on managing the complexities of a new urban home.

These ”mega” cities and many others are places of growing diversity that almost defy existing data;  places of ever-growing complexity of social groupings, expectations, aspirations;  most often including growing social and economic inequalities as well.  Cities worldwide are demonstrating their capacity to become breeding grounds for violence or hubs of cooperative innovation.  They can help us manage our ecological footprint or push us over the climate threshold. They can exacerbate existing social divisions or help to forge a more hopeful, sustainable consensus for “lovers and friends” in keeping with the 2030 Agenda goal of “peaceful and inclusive societies.”

At one point towards the end of one of the presentations, the professor in charge (a good friend) asked me what I was currently most concerned about in this world?  I answered then as I usually do, speaking not so much about threats to the planet as the status of capacities within ourselves.  Do we have what it takes to get through this rough patch?  Are our pathways to social and political participation sufficiently fair and inviting?  Do our often violent and consumption-laden lifestyles posses the wiggle room to change the ways we invest our energies and resources?   Are we ready to join this harvest of potential of which we must take advantage, despite the metaphorical thin soils and unpredictable rains that gave rise to it?

Whether we acknowledge it or not, there is so much potential still to be realized in even our often-chaotic and overly impersonal urbanized settings.   If we have the most comprehensive and widely disaggregated data; if we have the necessary buy-in from local and national stakeholders, if we have governments and international institutions willing to do what is needed to restore public trust; if we have more dependable and transparent sources of domestic and other funding; then this next period in our collective history will surely yield a more abundant harvest.

But will the harvesters be many or few?  Will we have the hands (and brains) we need to gather and organize the best of what is now available to us for future use?  Will our talented young people sit passively on the sidelines and hope the raging storm won’t ruin too many crops, or will they help us harvest the best of what is now in the field and then plant some new and even better seeds?

We have a case for involvement to make to these people, but we must seize more of those precious and previously squandered opportunities to inspire them to life projects that are larger than their careers and social media feeds.   Our urban areas – many bursting at the seams – are the places most of this generation will choose to call home.  If we can make that more convincing case, then an efficient, equitable and passionate care of urban spaces, a core objective of the 2030 Agenda, might well become among this generation’s most notable contributions.

The Courage of Good Questions, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Mar

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Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas. – Marie Curie

I’ve always been really curious about things and slightly confused by the world, and I think someone who feels that way is in a good position to be the one asking questions. -Terry Gross

I spent many years in school, but it was rarely a happy or satisfying place for me. There were simply too many times when the “who said so” of ideas trumped the complexities behind what was actually being conveyed.   For me, school was full of ideas that seemed beyond reproach when they left the mouths of the instructors, only to be revealed as incomplete and at times even misleading down the road.

And such a long road it was.  It was not until my doctoral program that I literally “lucked into” mentors who were more passionate for their ideas than for their careers, who were far more curious than defensive, who understood at the deepest levels that most of the problems soon to confront the world had not yet been faced, let alone overcome.

These mentors pushed me hard, beyond trying to impress others with my edgy “cleverness,” towards a place of rigor and kindness – rigor characterized by attentiveness and the willingness to “ask the next question,” and kindness grounded in the (hopefully) humble recognition that all of us, even the most accomplished in worldly terms,  have much still to learn.

Part of what Global Action seeks to accomplish (and occasionally does) is to embody that all-too-rare combination of attentiveness and curiosity, understanding that the best questions make good use of existing context and help to examine not only what has been “settled,” but to preview the ground soon to move under our feet, requiring more of what Jeremy Taylor once referred to as “the incontinency of the spirit.”  In our office, we don’t often abandon attentiveness for chatter, but we do at times try to ask good and hard questions at the UN, not to draw attention to ourselves but rather to the unresolved matters of policy that are both far from consensus and close to undermining our current, fragile stasis.

The UN can be a remarkable place, filled to the brim with experience and expertise on the widest possible range of policy concerns.   It provides, in some ways, an education like no other.   But it also harbors noticeable intellectual deficits.  There are few opportunities for genuine open-ended discussion on policy needs and responsibilities.   There are few questions posed that genuinely push “authorized speakers” to signal new space for potential policy shifts.   We are a building full of consensus-builders and (on the NGO side) campaigners, useful skills to be sure, but skills not ideal for breaking up our superficially optimistic mood or reminding people of the hard truth that some of the consensus resolutions they worked so hard on are unlikely to accomplish much in the world beyond First Avenue.

Two examples from this past week highlighted the pedagogical frustrations and opportunities of this very political space.  On Wednesday, the UN University organized an excellent discussion on the problem of modern slavery.  The keynote speaker made learned and helpful background remarks which emphasized distinctions between the “prohibition” of slavery and its “eradication.”   The pitch was, as is often the case in UN conference rooms, for the provision of national legislation that parallels and supplements international legal obligations to prohibition.

Fair enough, though as we pointed out, there is a deep conundrum attached to this approach.   Within the Human Rights Committee, for instance, a frequent response given by states whose human rights record has been called to account is something along the lines of, “this can’t be happening here, we have laws to prohibit it.”  But as NGOs in Geneva are fond of reminding Committee members, the presence of laws does not by any means guarantee eradication of the practice.  Thus our concern that a focus on legislation alone is insufficient to end the scourge, while a focus on eradication might make states more reluctant to sign on to human rights agreements in the first place.    How to navigate this problem?

The response we received was unfulfilling at best, almost as though the expert hadn’t considered this conundrum previously (surely he had) or failed to appreciate it being brought to his attention during a session that was being webcast. Moreover, no one in the audience approached us afterwards (or even made eye contact) to continue the conversation.  Apparently, ours was not a polite, courteous question, despite the fact that it seemed well within the band-width and interests of the speaker to respond and reflect.

This is what the UN is like too often – implicit and even excessive deference to “experts” and “authorities” who are often, but by no means always, on the best possible policy track.

Fortunately, there are bursts of healthy curiosity to be found if one is open to them.  One such occasion was on Tuesday when Ecuador ably convened a gathering to discuss prospects for a Fourth Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD).  There has been no such “special session” for 29 years now and delegates spent most of this morning discussion debating the scope of a possible meeting, whether to focus on one of the many stubborn areas of disarmament dysfunction or instead authorize a thorough review of all disarmament-related processes.

At one point, the Ecuadorian diplomat intervened, wondering aloud (lamenting perhaps) why the word “disarmament” so rarely is heard now across UN headquarters?   The question was simultaneously simple and brilliant.  For if disarmament has been downgraded in at least some quarters from a core UN priority, can a “special session” possibly help to restore its luster?

Despite the fact that disarmament matters attract some of the most capable diplomats in the UN system, the topic itself has never had a lower profile in my entire UN-based tenure.  Part of this is due to the discipline itself – inflexible architecture, low levels of state trust, treaties that are disregarded or are full of loopholes that uncooperative states are happy to exploit, invitations to weapons manufacturing states to hide behind consensus as a way of undermining disarmament agreement, a focus on managing the flows and modernization of weapons rather than reducing their volume and “footprint.”

But part of this low profile is due to successes in other parts of the UN, successes that have spawned a series of new, interesting, policy-rich discussions on conflict prevention and sustainable peace, conversations that often explore the implications of omnipresent weapons for development, climate, trafficking, even gender based violence.   Disarmament practitioners are only rarely present for these discussions; indeed SDG 16 on “peaceful and inclusive societies” was drafted and adopted with almost no involvement from disarmament-focused diplomats or related UN resource persons.

Whether another SSOD can resurrect the UN disarmament priority is debatable. What for us is less debatable is that our collective task here remains not to get things settled so much as to get them right.  Good questions – probing and respectful – are important contributions to ensuring timely and credible responses to constantly evolving global challenges, including human rights and disarmament challenges.

The most-curious Ralph Waldo Emerson once prodded teachers that when your students correct your mistakes, “hug them.”   There is little reason to believe that hugging will become common practice inside the UN, but a bit more curiosity regarding gaps yet to be filled — and perhaps even a modicum of gratitude for those who expose such gaps — would help keep us all on a more progressive policy path.

Justice League:  The UN Hesitantly Manages its Peacekeeping Expectations, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Feb

justice-league

That was the thing about the world: it wasn’t that things were harder than you thought they were going to be, it was that they were hard in ways that you didn’t expect.  Lev Grossman

Expectations are dangerous when they are both too high and unformed.  Lionel Shriver

When I was a child, far back in the last century, I was enraptured by the exploits of a group of superheroes known as the Justice League.   This formidable group – from Wonder Woman and Green Lantern to Batman and the Flash – kept us on the edge of our chairs as they battled the forces of evil, sometimes alone, sometimes together, but almost always successfully.

In retrospect, what made these imaginary heroes so compelling is their complement of imaginary attributes.   They were mighty.  They essentially answered to no one.  They were kind to all but the evil doers.  They responded to crises without hesitation.  They possessed extraordinary skills allowing them to simultaneously fight the “bad guys,” repair damaged infrastructure and reassure nervous populations wondering if the values their make-believe parents taught them any longer had relevance in their make-believe world.

Our real world of “evil doers” is considerably more complex.  The lines that separate the “good guys” and “bad guys” are less obvious than our governments and media make it seem.   We tend to replicate the behaviors of our adversaries more than renounce them, fighting bombs with bombs, offering threatening rhetoric in response to threatening rhetoric,  demonizing those who demonize us.  And when we do renounce this pattern, our collective responses (such as through the UN) are often far slower than is optimal, based on preparations that are political as much as technical, that are often more about “what we can do with what we have at hand” rather than what is actually needed.

In real life, there is no Justice League available to resolve our conflicts, no heroes in costume with power on permanent standby, determination in their hearts and kind smiles on their faces.

We have written often in this space about the need for the UN to better manage the full complement of its expectations, which far too often run apace of any relevant strategies or capacities to end conflict and/or sustain peace.  Our public relations pitches, our Security Council mandates, our Commissions and Committees, all seem designed to convince the public (and perhaps ourselves as well) that we actually have what it takes – on hand right now – to discharge fully and successfully the weighty responsibilities to which we have been entrusted.

Within the UN, this burden of expectation falls heavily on peacekeeping operations, the most expensive of UN operations but also the operations that bear grave field responsibilities that are essential both to the UN’s peace and security reputation and to the successful implementation of other UN country team activities – from development to mediation.

Others more focused and knowledgeable on peacekeeping matters have written extensively about the extraordinary and widening responsibilities now laid at the feet of peace operations – seeking out “spoilers,”  interfacing with terror threats, rebuilding entire sectors of states under siege,  enabling access points for humanitarian assistance,  offering protective services to threatened civilians.

And defending human rights, a complex matter under the best of circumstances, but certainly for peace operations facing threats from insurgents in “ungoverned spaces,” staffed by recruits from Troop Contributing Countries” with limited knowledge of (or at times interest in) the intricate political and social circumstances of the places they are mandated to “defend,” seeking to fulfill expectations both robust and multifaceted,  expectations that more than a few commentators would call “unfeasible.”

An example of this “heaping” of responsibilities on peace operations is the last Security Council renewal (2323/2016) of the UNSMIL mandate, the peacekeeping and special political mission in Libya.  Despite a security situation that is so dangerous and unpredictable that many key UN functions (ICC, UNMAS) must operate largely from outside the country, UNSMIL peacekeepers are somehow expected to

  • help consolidate governance, security and economic arrangements of the Government of National Accord;
  • provide support to key Libyan institutions;
  • provide support, on request, for the provision of essential services, and delivery of humanitarian assistance and in accordance with humanitarian principles;
  • monitor and report on human rights;
  • secure uncontrolled arms and related materiel , and counter their proliferation;
  • coordinate the provision of advice and assistance to state-led efforts to stabilize post-conflict zones, including those liberated from Da’esh.

Faced with such daunting difficulties — and this mission’s mandate is not unique — it is miraculous that peacekeepers can be assembled with even a reasonable chance of successful outcomes.   I wonder if even the mythical Justice League would have signed on to such obstacle-laden responsibilities.

This week, in the margins of the (C-34) Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations, some of the inconsistencies of Peace Operations associated with our sometimes grandiose mandates came to the fore.   During an excellent briefing on “human rights at work in peace operations,” Sweden’s Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs noted the many places worldwide in which “dignity is now under pressure,” urging a higher level of rights consciousness in peace operations. A peacekeeper from Somalia cited the damage to the UN when peace operations commit (or fail to respond) to rights abuses, including (as noted by a peacekeeper in the DRC) those committed by host governments.   And, echoing a theme highlighted later in the week at another superb peacekeeping side event, this time hosted by Indonesia, several speakers urged higher levels of women’s involvement in peacekeeping in part to help open new pathways to community communication that could meet Sweden’s request for clear and “early warnings” of impending violence and the rights abuses which so often follow.

The promotion and protection of human rights is an indispensable pillar of UN activity.  And yet, we find that peacekeepers lack sufficient training in these responsibilities, nor are they equipped to manage the sometimes tragic dilemmas for which peacekeeping operations must find a way forward.   Perhaps the most challenging of these dilemmas was mentioned this week by both ASG (DPKO) Wane and ASG (DPA) Zerihoun who cited difficult ethical dilemmas faced by mission command – having to temper actions to defend human rights in order to preserve access granted by the host state; and having to engage in reconstruction activities – including security sector reform and civilian demobilization and disarmament – alongside persons who have themselves committed severe rights abuses.   Coupled with the ongoing tragedy of civilians in the field abused by the very persons (peacekeepers) tasked with protecting them, it is clear that peace operations continue to face human rights challenges that, one after the other, threaten to compromise expectations and undermine our collective credibility.

Our peacekeepers are not superheroes; nor are the government officials that create their mandates, fund their operations and raise (often excessively) expectations.   Given this, we would advocate for more attention to the front end of expectation management rather than the back end — when the unpredictability of politics and conflict intervenes to complicate and restrict performance in ways that, once acknowledged as they were in the C-34 this week, sound a bit too much like excuses for failure.

This past Thursday, a female Indonesian peacekeeper made reference to the “power of smiles” in peacekeeping operations, a power that can in its own way help expand community “access and acceptance” beyond what is granted through formal “status of forces” agreements and other political arrangements.   Perhaps this is one mostly-missing ingredient towards a more realistic merger of expectations and performance within the realm of our peace and security responsibilities?   At the very least, it’s a start.