Tag Archives: armed violence

Community Foundation: The UN Slowly Localizes its Conflict Responses, Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Jun

Violence and

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius- and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction. E.F. Schumacher

Extreme violence has a way of preventing us from seeing the interests it serves. Naomi Klein

Evil turned out not to be a grand thing…It was selfishness and carelessness and waste. It was bad luck, incompetence, and stupidity. It was violence divorced from conscience or consequence. It was high ideals and low methods.  Joe Abercrombie

Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them. Flannery O’Connor

The tales of death were in their homes, their playgrounds, their schools; they were in the newspapers that they read; it was a part of the common frenzy — what was a life? It was nothing. It was the least sacred thing in existence and these boys were trained to this cruelty.  Clarence Darrow

During what seemed to be a particularly gloomy week in New York and a particularly hectic week inside the UN, I found myself reflecting on some of the logistical and personal complexities and distractions of life that have consumed so many of the people I know and know about: The people forced to confront their own mortality or caring for others forced to confront the same.  The family livelihoods hanging by a thread, drowning in paperwork and regulations that only the well-off can effectively manage.  The endless drone of advertisers and others attempting to seduce us into purchases and activities we’ve forgotten we can neither handle nor afford.

And these are just some of the problems and stresses facing those of us who are relatively “well-off” in this increasingly unequal world.

More and more, our brains seem victimized by a conspiracy of sorts, a conspiracy too often “divorced from conscience or consequence,” a conspiracy to make our economic and social contexts seem more powerful, more complex and more violent than they need to be. In the name of some combination of status, comfort, thrill-seeking and self-interest, we continue to burden our own lives and make it harder on those who will come after us. We create messes that that we have been resigned in the past to merely mopping up after the fact, but which now gush rather than trickle, “spills” that now threaten to overwhelm both our increasingly distracted brains and the standard institutional capacities we’ve authorized to mitigate unwanted impacts.

The UN this week took up a myriad of mostly-familiar, conflict-related messes from the Gaza and Afghanistan to Idlib (Syria) and the Central African Republic.  All of these conflicts have “spilled over” for some time and represent places where UN and regional efforts to quell the violence have so far been only minimally successful.  In sitting through these sessions and their seemingly endless “speechifying” (to quote the Dominican Republic), our thoughts extended to the people who have known little but conflict and violence in their lives, including the children who may not have experienced life on a consistent basis other than with homes, schools and medical facilities reduced to rubble, and with burials and explosions more prevalent than play dates.  How have all these conflict-related stresses affected their brains? How have they impeded their collective capacity to contribute one day to building that elusive “sustainable peace” that we talk about endlessly in UN settings?  How do we ramp up urgency to meet current security challenges given the diminished capacity that our violence, our distractions, our damaged politics and economics have inflicted on so many, young and old alike, worldwide?

Perhaps the best response to these problems in our recent hearing was articulated this week by the South Sudanese monitor and activist, Merekaje Lorna Nanjia, one of the speakers at an event on Security Sector Reform (SSR): Local Participation and Ownership of Reform Efforts, organized by South Africa on behalf of the Security Council Working Group on Conflict Prevention and Resolution in Africa.  Nanjia urged the designers of SSR programs to “learn from their mistakes,” including their frequent insistence that Reform is only focused on “hard” security matters involving combatants and not also about the skills and capacities that more directly impact that ability of communities to cope with the threats and consequences of violence.  She was one of several voices this week advocating for more attention to how violence diminishes human health and social possibility in myriad local settings.  She reminded the audience that in promoting security, the value of social “inclusiveness” can hardly be overemphasized.  And perhaps most important, she called for “demilitarization” that is in part about disarming those who create conditions of violence, but also in part about healing the minds of those for whom militarism has become the default standard for organizing daily life.

Slowly, thankfully, the UN is coming around to recognize that the damage inflicted on communities from armed violence is both pervasive and deep-rooted, and that effective SSR must accommodate the “mindset of citizens who have already had too much contact with militarized communities and instances of armed violence,” persons who have already had their capacities diminished and perhaps even their brains rewired through habitual trauma inflicted largely through the instruments of human conflict.

Ms. Nanjia was perhaps the most engaging speaker this week to raise the need for inclusive community involvement in security sector reform and conflict prevention initiatives.   But there were other recent clues that we are becoming more systemically successful at carving spaces in our own brains for more thoughtful and people-centered responses to our security-related responsibilities.  From the UN’s Rule of Law Unit urging both public dissemination of “basic information” about security and peace processes and more local agreements that can improve security in the shorter term, to the Former Ambassador of Fiji’s statement in the Treaty Body on the Law of the Sea advocating for greater attention to the “precautionary principle” in policy, there is a growing consensus regarding what one speaker noted at an African Refugees event this week, that we must learn to more effectively “tap into what makes us human.”

From discussions by force commanders on reshaping (and gender-mainstreaming) UN peacekeeping priorities to reflections on a Security Council resolution highlighting the needs of persons with disabilities in conflict situations, the UN this week demonstrated that it is slowly coming on board with the notion that the negative impacts of armed violence do not end when the guns are silenced; and that many of the assets to prevent violence, address its cerebral inflexibilities, and restore genuine hope for communities, are embedded in large measure within communities themselves.  As Poland explained in the session on the Council resolution which it co-sponsored, “persons with disabilities are often forgotten in times of peace and are even more likely to be ignored during times of conflict.” Given this resolution there is now a framework for change on a human scale, as Poland noted, change that local communities and stakeholders are generally best suited to make.

This represents an important insight and the pace of its acceptance must accelerate.  We simply cannot afford more security policy that ignores community, more security sector “reforms” that impede local participation, more violence that blocks out hope and possibility in local settings for the many who suffer its consequences.  In this “frenzied” moment of our collective history when human cruelty seems to be finding its new level,  we need the courage to take a collective deep breath, examine the “low methods” that too often accompany our high ideals, assess the interests that this current age largely services, and find new impetus for change within the communities that know best both their own people and what can most effectively heal their physical and emotional wounds.

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Sounds of Silence: The Security Council Endorses Ambitious Disarming, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Mar

Guns at Rest

Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?  Lawrence Durrell

And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.  Audre Lorde

People never expect silence. They expect words, motion, defense, offense, back and forth. They expect to leap into the fray. They are ready, fists up, words hanging, leaping from their mouths.  Silence? No. Alison McGhee

Talk, talk, talk: the utter and heartbreaking stupidity of words.  William Faulkner

The UN this week, much like the world at large, was replete with motion and “talk” on a variety of related fronts.  From dueling Security Council resolutions on Venezuela with acrimony to match, to renewed resolve (under the Kimberley Process) to turn remaining pockets of “conflict diamonds” into “peace diamonds” (as Romania and others insisted), the UN and those seeking to cover its many events had our collective hands full.

We of course welcomed all of this week’s interest by diplomats in security in all its diverse manifestations.   From a Norway-sponsored event to honor the 20th anniversary of the highly effective Mine Ban Treaty to a Japan-led event to commemorate the 25th anniversary of “human security” –an integrative concept beyond “hard security” preoccupations with weapons and alliances — we support (as most of you already know) holistic initiatives that seek to impact both over-produced weapons and under-inclusive governance; initiatives that seek to reduce weapons-related threats in part by addressing complementary challenges related to state corruption, climate-induced disasters and the persistent rights abuses and social inequities that provide too-easy rationales for so many to acquire and use weapons in the first place.

We urge states to address, as Poland mentioned this week in the Security Council, the “destabilizing acquisition” of weapons by states which cannot easily control their movements nor guarantee that weapons replaced by such acquisitions will not fall into the hands of non-state actors.  But we also urge action on the “destabilizing production” of weapons, the shiny new toys that are unlikely to provide any more “human security” than the toys states have already grown tired of.  To these ends, we have doubled down on support for efforts such as the Peace Angel’s “USA Weapons Destruction Campaign,” an initiative which seeks to repurpose weapons used to kill into works of art that can both inspire more peaceful communities and help identify ways to address the “triggers” of conflict that lead too many in these unsettled times to believe in the power of weapons more than in the power of the human spirit.

From the standpoint of a more secure world, this week’s main event was Wednesday in the Security Council where many delegations and a few civil society voices addressed the successes and gaps of the “Silencing the Guns in Africa by 2020” initiative.  Under the leadership of the Foreign Minister of Equatorial Guinea, the Council session was noteworthy for its verbal and active support of an aspiration that has proven to be more ambitious and complex than was perhaps originally envisioned, but which has inspired actions likely to accrue lasting benefits for more secure African societies going forward.

As 2019 reaches the “quarter pole” it would be foolish to suggest that gun-related “silence” across this large continent is likely to occur in nine months’ time.   Armed violence in many forms continues to impact African states from Burundi and Cameroon to Libya and Somalia. Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram insurgents are among the non-state actors indulging regularly in armed threats against civilians and government forces, and governments themselves have been responsible for armed attacks in South Sudan and elsewhere.  Moreover, the Security Council has authorized responses to insurgent threats, including the G5 Sahel Force, which have resulted in the importation of yet more weapons into theaters of conflict, albeit weapons lodged in the hands of “legitimate” authorities.  Whatever the merits of such supplemental and robust coercive measures – whether in Mali, South Sudan or DR Congo – at the end of the day these guns must also eventually go silent if the goals of this African initiative are to be fulfilled.

And yet, despite some notable setbacks, we have seen over these past few years an awakening of cross-regional capacity and resolve among Africans and their leadership which, together with UN and other supporters, have shifted at least part of the playing field regarding our responses to threats of armed conflict.  As evidenced by Wednesday’s Security Council meeting, the African Union and regionally-focused organizations such as ECOWAS and IGAD have undertaken a series of important measures to help ensure fair elections, mediate disputes within and between states, promote inclusive sustainable development, uphold the rule of law, and provide incentives for state leaders reluctant to share or relinquish power to rethink their alleged “indispensability.”

In Liberia, Eritrea, Guinea and elsewhere, threats of armed violence and rights abuses have given way to a welcome “silence” of sorts that must be fully utilized to consolidate gains and ensure that such abuses once renounced are not allowed to return.  These and other successes, perhaps even now in the Central African Republic as well, are in part a function of rapidly-evolving security architecture across Africa that will increasingly be able to “flag” emerging conflicts, mediate active conflicts, protect those displaced by conflict, and call attention to the many development and “human security” benefits that could well accrue in societies that have succeeded in finally silencing the guns.

Noteworthy for us in Wednesday’s Council debate were the pointed warnings from ACCORD’s Gounden and even a few diplomats about the need for vigilance in defusing the “time bombs” that tick loudly when guns proliferate in environments characterized by limited employment, governance challenges, unplanned urban growth and criminality.  The Council must, Gounden insisted, remain strongly engaged on the causes of armed violence in Africa.  The danger, he rightly noted, is that the guns will not be silenced but only the active and supportive voices of Council members.

And yet across seven “talkative” hours, it was apparent to most diplomats that “silencing of the guns” must continue and in concert with other “silencings” – of rights abuses and neglect of the rule of law (Belgium); of  discriminatory practices affecting the safety and access of women and cultural minorities (Ireland); of the constant march of development-desperate persons displaced by drought, flooding and conflict threats (Equatorial Guinea); of economic inequalities and illegal efforts to exploit natural resources for criminal gain (European Union); of the failure to include youth in policy decisionmaking, especially on conflict and employment (Botswana and Kenya); of impediments to education and health access (Angola), and much more.   Silencing the guns remains the essential condition that makes these other “silencing” tasks more likely to succeed.  Thus the key, as noted by South Africa, is to ensure that “that countries exiting conflict do not return to conflict conditions,” that guns once silenced are not permitted to roar again.

As the Foreign Minister of Equatorial Guinea noted during his opening remarks, “a conflict-free Africa will likely remain a utopia unless we promote inclusive development and put to use all available conflict prevention and resolution tools.”   This is, of course, sound advice, especially as the year 2020 inches closer.  Through this commitment to “silencing,” African states have sought to move mountains, and in fact have moved a few.  But as Namibia’s Ambassador reminded the Council, “if we want to continue moving mountains” on armed violence in Africa, we must begin by “lifting stones,” by engaging any number of smaller actions that set aside the “stupidity” of too many policy words and set about to build societies that can fulfill more conflict-related promises, end more social inequities, promote more trustworthy governance, and allow the displaced a safe and dignified return home.

As we sit here in March 2019, Africans are unlikely to meet their 2020 “silencing” goals at face value, but they have surely embarked on a path (albeit uneven at times) that offers hope both to their own peoples and to others watching across continental borders.  As this new peace and security architecture for Africa continues its evolution, we must all pledge to stay engaged.  This is simply not the time for the rest of us to withhold our own practical contributions or silence our own supportive voices.

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

15 Oct

Puerto Rico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about us?

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.