Tag Archives: Abuse

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

13 May

Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Sue Me”:   The Council Seeks Belated Traction on Peacekeeper Abuse, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Mar

One of the things we do in our office with interns and fellows is insist that they pay as close attention as possible to as many parts of the UN system as they are able.   The UN offers remarkable learning opportunities beyond international peace and security: from global health to fair employment access, the UN’s conceptual and policy scope is virtually unparalleled.

Despite this robust scope, what our young colleagues learn quickly is that, for all of its conceptual clout, the UN is primarily political space: political in the sense of having to negotiate agreements within diverse and often contested settings, and political in the sense of trying to convince others of positions which might well be misleading.  Thus the job of fellows and interns involves both openness to learning and wariness about the “truth” limitations within any government position or presentation. They come to recognize the “salesmanship” even within the most thoughtful statements; they become sensitive to the fact that what is “left out” of statements is often more important than what is included.

This discernment takes time, but once it happens, lights go on in some creative ways.   For instance, this week in a General Assembly informal on the rights of indigenous peoples, my youngest intern listened intently to statements focused on getting “higher” representation in indigenous forums – by which was meant more duly elected tribal leaders and fewer activists who speak and act “more like NGOs.”  Many statements also noted the need to include indigenous peoples in all issues “relevant to them.”

Shortly after, the intern noted, If delegates are looking to integrate duly elected representatives of indigenous groups, he noted, what is NOT relevant to them?  Health? Security? Human Rights?  Employment?  Water Access?  And if “relevance” has issue limitations, doesn’t that make indigenous representatives a bit like NGOs?  If the GA wants a more formal level of representation at forums, doesn’t this mean extending participation to all aspects of the UN’s work?

The politics impeding such broad participation aside, this is what we want from our people – attentive and supportive, but also discerning and evaluative.  Discerning to improve the UN, not to embarrass it.  Attentive to the hopeful evolutions in government positions, but also to efforts to politicize solutions to the world’s horrors, ignoring or covering up inconvenient elements to a full and complete picture.

Some of those “elements” have been on display this past week as the Security Council succeeded at responding to what has become a persistent blight on the UN system – the abuse by peacekeepers of civilians entrusted to their protective care.  Such abuses may represent a small fraction of the violence taking place in sites of UN operations from Central African Republic to Yemen, but the despair left in the wake of peacekeeper abuse is a strong and pervasive multiplier impacting both civilian populations and UN operations far beyond peacekeeping.  This effect called to mind the impact of techniques used by torturers whereby they surround the victim with persons posing as police and religious clergy who appear to be condoning what they should otherwise be preventing.  Abuse at the hands of erstwhile “protectors” and “caregivers” is doubly traumatic.

During the debate and the subsequent discussion on what became resolution 2272 – which included a rare separate (no) vote on an amendment proposed by Egypt – the Council went on the record, in the words of Japan, to preserve this “last hope” to civilians represented by peacekeepers through measures that include robust state reporting of response to abuses and threats of repatriation for offending units. The Council also, as highlighted by Spain, Uruguay and others, urged greater effort to honor our collective responsibility to victims abused by forces originally generated and then mandated for purposes of their protection.

The passion in the Council chamber on this day was palpable and seemed sincere.  As many members noted, the impacts on the abused and on the reputation of the institution tasked with protecting them is staggering.   Most military people –including my own family members around the dinner table – understand full well that abuse destroys confidence in all aspects of operations, making the task of honorable military (and other) protectors that much more difficult.  As the US, France and others rightly noted, it is appalling when citizens fear the sight of blue helmets rather than see in them a sign that their ordeal might finally have some positive resolution.  Such fear does not easily dispel.

The US – one of several states on the Council that is not a Troop Contributing Country but which served as penholder on resolution 2272 — clearly articulated the manner in which abuse by those trained to protect represents a higher order of offense. Indeed, the US Ambassador used the opportunity provided by the Egypt amendment controversy to address Council members in a lengthy statement that in some ways was among the best of her Council tenure. She was passionate, powerful and mostly off-script.  Unfortunately, she was also dismissive of any who challenged the scope, working methods or motives behind the resolution, as well as of other efforts inside the UN system to confront and address this scourge. “My motive,” she proclaimed at one point, is to address this cancer. “Sue me.”

Indeed.  As the dominant power within the Council, even more so in back rooms than in official settings, the US knows perfectly well that no lawsuits are forthcoming.   No state would dare.  None would be permitted.   States seemed to be biting their metaphorical tongue as they so often do when the US or some other permanent member takes off on an accusatory rant.

And not all the stated cautions regarding this resolution were in bad faith.  As Malaysia noted during the Council discussion, due to an “insufficient” consultative process with Troop Contributing Countries we might have lost the chance for forging genuine consensus on peacekeeper abuse. Senegal was reasonable in urging that notions of “collective punishment” for abuse be avoided at all costs. Venezuela’s formula of seeking “justice not stigma” was wise, if a bit unclear on the implementation.   Russia made veiled references to the (also) unresolved abuse by French forces, not a factor to be taken lightly within these discussions.

Clearly, not all the relevant factors are served by emotive and dismissive bursts.  Why, as the US itself noted, have these abuse investigations taken so long?   Why has no senior official in the Secretariat to date been held directly accountable for what are now longstanding and mostly neglected patterns of abuse?   Why have abuses (and uneven investigations) by French forces in the context of larger peacekeeping operations not been more public?  And what does it mean for the Council (and for future support by Troop Contributors) when a key non-contributing member dismisses the concerns of Council colleagues (not to mention General Assembly “C-34” efforts to deal with this problem) with what seemed to border on contempt?

One of the grave problems of our time, from which the UN is hardly immune, is the confusion of branding and truth-telling – words used as instruments to convince more than as a means to discern and disclose.  The political tensions within the Council, coupled with the need to brand national policies beyond their potential effectiveness, have created conditions in which all positions – including the most forceful, passionate ones – require a closer scrutiny.  All contain elements of truth, but all neglect elements that can turn partial remedies into effective, sustainable international commitments.

For my young colleagues, this is all becoming a sober but challenging occasion for discernment — a positive and badly needed step on peacekeeper abuse undertaken within a scenario characterized by damaging delays, mixed national motives and rhetoric that alternates between passion for victims and the patronizing of UN colleagues.  We are, all of us – victims and diplomats, caregivers and civil society – desperate for that just and lasting solution to the horrific pain which these abuses have inflicted. At this point, we can only hope that resolution 2272 is the starting point for honest, sustained engagement.