Tag Archives: children

Compound Fracture:  Addressing Poverty’s Multiple Wounds, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 May

ICRC

Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.  Mother Teresa

The frustrations, hostility and anger generated by abject poverty cannot sustain peace in any society. Muhammad Yunus

Love conquers all things except poverty and toothache.  Mae West

The Chibok Girls, at least 82 of them, were released by Boko Haram this week. We’ll no doubt hear much more about this, including we hope from the ICRC: the stories of their captivity, the brutality and isolation they experienced, perhaps some of the despair and frustration they felt from having spent three long years of their relatively short lives wondering who if anyone was looking for them, why it seemed that they had been so completely abandoned?

As I stare at this ICRC photo and others, there is sadness, certainly in the faces of many of the girls, but in me as well.  This ordeal is not over for them.   They are thankfully freed from terrorist control, and they will be for a time the focus of international attention and support.   But the support will fade, most probably sooner than needed, and the girls will be left with their questions for families and government officials, their recurring nightmares and pervasive insecurities, their struggles to find meaning and material sustenance with psychic impairments as severe as any physical deformity.

And they will never get their childhoods back.

Many diplomats and observers at the UN rightly insist that poverty reduction must become what India this week called the “unrelenting focus” of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Though poverty reduction per se is first in the listing of the SDGs, it is not the only SDG concern for the international community.  Climate and oceans, employment and gender discrimination, corruption and violence, health and employment all need attention and are all interlinked.   While the Security Council was away assessing the peace agreement in Colombia, the rest of the UN in New York was engaged in a dizzying array of events focused in whole or in part on diverse aspects of the poverty reduction challenge.  From global health and the health of our forest communities, to the rights of indigenous persons and the need for the UN (as noted clearly on Friday by UN Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed) to streamline mechanisms for better coordination of poverty responses (including its conflict prevention dimensions), the UN’s grasp of the magnitude and diversity of its poverty-related challenges seems to be growing by the week.

Though relatively few persons in the UN community have endured poverty or lived in communities of material or psychic deprivation, the UN’s current levels of interest in all aspects related to poverty reduction are thankfully more than rhetorical, even more than material. Diplomats now widely grasp the peace and security implications of a world of large and growing inequalities, disparities which rightly annoy and largely inconvenience some but condemn others to an often-disheartening life with too few options.  As populations in global regions grow disproportionately, as drought and desertification expand their reach, and as water and other resource scarcities reach epidemic levels, our ability to manage stresses related to our systems of governance and security is certainly under strain.   So too is our ability to respond to the collective psychological needs of children and other victims of violence and deprivation.

And much of that need lies beyond the headlines. I recall vividly from my time in a Harlem parish in the 1990s some of the many ways in which poverty subtly and unhelpfully diverted the attention and energies of the community.   People didn’t dare to dream too much; they largely coped – with losses of income and relatives, with often unresponsive and even dismissive government bureaucracy, with schools that seemed design to keep students in their places rather than opening doors to a better place, with drug-induced street violence that erupted almost without warning.  Coping, adjusting, shielding, standing on endless lines, cutting your losses: It wasn’t always that dire, it wasn’t the plight of the Chibok Girls or of the families fleeing violence in Mosul, but it was often dire enough, disheartening enough.

For the children of Harlem at this time, it was also the dawning of the social media age and its multiple messaging.  On the one hand, cellular technology has opened new worlds for people and helped them overcome some of the pervasive limitations of the still-applicable digital divide.  The other side of course is that the new technology represents a handy medium for keeping close track of all that some people have that others do not.   The relentless marketing by “smart” phones that seem mostly “smart” for advertisers brings a world of affluent consumption into the personal spaces of so many millions, serving as a constant reminder of what it is possible to own and have in this world and, perhaps more insidiously, invites people to assess their own lives in accordance with the prevailing standards of luxury.

For a generation of Harlem children, let alone the Chibok girls and others fleeing violence without their families in makeshift life rafts, such reminders are most likely to aggravate their wounds, to compound their anger and frustration, to grow their sense of isolation and doubt that they are worthy of love and material support in a fair, predictable and secure global environment.

For us, there has always been truth in the maxim that assessment is largely a function of expectation.  And even in this increasingly climate stressed, resource scarce and violence-riddled environment, expectations for affluence have perhaps never been higher.  Nor have the many gaps of education, income and health care separating the affluent and those on the margins been so obvious.  If “inequalities” are permitted to herald our collective undoing, if our “share and care” capacities are left buried under mounds of trauma and material envy, if we can do no better than simply manage violence and “comfort” its many material and psychological impacts, then the carnage that currently fills our media screens will only become more frequent. The cycles of destruction and deprivation will tend to spin ever faster.

A World Health Organization representative on a UN General Assembly panel this week highlighted that agency’s “no regrets” model of detection and treatment, referring primarily to pandemics such as Ebola that, like armed violence and drought, both push people into poverty and dig a deeper hole for those already there.

This model seemed like a hopeful metaphor to inspire much of our sustainable development activity. “No regrets” on ending inequalities of rights and opportunities.  No regrets on efforts to prevent armed violence, genocide and war.  No regrets on creating conditions for safe and healthy communities. No regrets on ending assaults on the dignity, confidence and psychic integrity of our children.  No regrets on our messaging to next generations that balances acquisition and almost infinite distraction with a genuine hopefulness for the future and our own deep resolve to fix what we’ve broken.

Slowly but surely, our policy communities are coming to full recognition that lonely, angry, abused, unwanted children and youth can scuttle our development agenda as surely as super typhoons and cluster bombs.  We must resolve to keep all these challenges to the human spirit together at the center of our development policy and practice.

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Future Shock:  Traumatized Youth and Prospects for Sustaining Peace, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Jan

save-the-planet-for-me

Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children, Sitting Bull

As many of your recognize, part of our task in these weekly missives is to blend events at the UN that are too-rarely blended – to help people inside the UN become more conscious of policy linkages and to help people outside the UN discern what this institution is uniquely suited for – and perhaps not so terribly well suited for.

In both aspects, this week presented multiple venues and options for reflection.

The highlight of the week was probably the 1+ days devoted by the President of the UN General Assembly (PGA) to “sustaining peace,” a welcome effort to link implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), arguably the UN’s most ambitious current project, to the promotion and maintenance of peace, arguably the UN’s most important overall mission.

The events, including a relatively uninspiring, pre-event, “brainstorming” session, attracted the highest levels of officials across the UN system.  Brainstorming is not what we do best here, but this particular session at least put on the table the notion that funding the SDGs will require some adjustments to our rapacious patterns of military spending, and that such adjustments are more likely if we can demonstrate as much capacity to prevent armed conflict as we currently expend to clean up the debris left behind in armed conflict’s aftermath.

The main “sustaining peace” event in the Trusteeship Council was devoted in part to what GA President Thompson called the “disastrous consequences” that conflict inflicts on development prospects. On his last day as chair of the Peacebuilding Commission, Kenya’s Ambassador Kamau urged capacity development for what he called a “diplomatic surge” that could help all UN member states address threats in their earliest and most manageable stages.  And Switzerland’s Minister Baeriswyl was one of several voices advocating for an end to our policy “fragmentation” so that we can impact the security and development fragility of states with greater efficiency and effectiveness.

By the end of these sessions, there was a bit more clarity on what “sustaining peace” means in theory, especially regarding the reinvestment of our energies more towards conflict prevention and less towards the rehabilitation and reconstruction that have proven so costly and with uneven consequences for human and ecological well-being.  Nevertheless, the Mexican Ambassador made his own plea – urging that we quickly move beyond “beautiful political concepts” to embrace the hard, practical work of peacemaking whose success has eluded our grasp in more instances than we are publicly willing to acknowledge.

And much of the failure of that work directly impacts future prospects for our children.

During both the main and side events on “sustaining peace,” states as diverse as Cambodia, Jordan and Andorra all advocated for education to raise levels of SDG awareness among youth.  Such education is welcome especially if it then leads to more direct participation by youth in the implementation of these diverse goals.  And indeed speakers did advocate more pathways to involvement, led by the PGA himself who noted that youth have a greater “skin in this game” since they are the ones who will inherit the fruits of our policy labors, for good or for ill.   In that context, the PGA lamented what he called the “selfishness” of too many adults that inhibits gender balancing and other hopeful prospects for his own (and for many others’) “female grandchildren.”

Indeed, the “selfishness” of adults currently takes so many insidious forms that result in long-term physical and psychological damage to our young.   At a small side event this week seeking funding pledges for a badly-needed “Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty,” a roster of UN and NGO experts highlighted the horrific and lasting impacts on children who find themselves in often inhumane, punitive detention facilities: some who have been victims of organized crime and traffickers; some who were living on the street having been separated from their families; some exhibiting clear signs of mental illness or drug dependency; some seized by government or insurgent forces during armed conflict.  These “invisible and forgotten” children include many who had already been victimized through sexual violence or recruitment into criminality, a second-helping of trauma for lives that are literally being drained of promise.

We can now only guess how many children are currently deprived of liberty in facilities that are dispiriting at best.  In this as in other areas of children’s rights, we need better data to guide our policy and focus our concern.  But what we are already able to predict is the long psychic climb that these deprived children must make if they are ever to live “healthy and constructive” lives, if they are ever to achieve their full capacity to help guide this planet through what remain treacherous waters.

As is noted often at the UN, this generation of youth is the largest in human history.   But it is also a generation characterized by deep distress in many of its sub-groupings.  When damage in the world is mirrored by — — even at times surpassed by — damage absorbed by our children and young people, both education and participation are sure to be negatively impacted by a trust- and confidence-eroding trauma that we can and must collectively do more to prevent.

The UN already recognizes its responsibility to promote “mental health for all” in part through SDG-related initiatives led or supported by several member states including Panama, Belgium, Canada, Liberia and especially Palau.  Indeed, at a UN side event this week co-hosted by the NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, Palau’s Ambassador Otto reiterated his plea for mental health services and priorities, noting that it is not only in places like Aleppo and Sana’a where services are needed, but also in the midst of our own hometowns.  Otto recognizes the value of spiritual resources in mental health, but also acknowledges the longer-term threats to peace and development that present themselves when youth and families are abandoned to cope with the impacts of trauma and mental illness that, if anything, are clearly still on the rise, still represent a distressing “shock” to a collective, sustainable future.

In a not-so-charming opening gambit, the new US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley began her tenure here with a threat – that the US would be “taking names” of states that do not “watch the back” of the US and its interests.   We’d like to suggest that the “names” that Ambassador Haley should take first are those of agencies and governments that deliberately inflict – through policy and practice — traumatic damage on children and youth, thereby creating deprivations of mental health that will impede “sustaining peace” efforts long past the tenure of any of our UN offices – or national administrations.

Away in a Manger:  The UN Sends a Christmas Message to the Displaced, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Dec

It’s Christmas Eve morning and on a table near my computer is a dusty wooden crèche, a replicated space apparently large enough to hold a holy family, a couple of onlookers, a barn animal or two and some early-arriving dignitaries.  The crèche is guarded by a host of other creatures courtesy of my many trips abroad – a camel, a hippo and a variety of cats – lots of cats.  Atop the crèche is a cross tied together with palms from the previous Lenten Season – a reminder of where this particular birth, indeed all of our births are ultimately headed.

In part because we are so desperate for vindication of our optimisms, we have somehow managed to sentimentalize the manger event.  Oh sure it must have been cold.   And it really isn’t anyone’s fault that there was no room at the Inn.  And the travel to Bethlehem couldn’t have been THAT treacherous.  And the manger doesn’t appear to be THAT uncomfortable.

On an on it goes, trivializing the scene, apply the “Hollywood gloss” to the lives of persons who were in essence displaced.   Persons with few tangible assets.   Riding a donkey across treacherous pathways while coping with the uncertainties of an immanent birth event.   Fleeing violence and rumors of violence for a mostly uncertain future. Showing up at an Inn with a keeper who might well have had every reason to believe that a cleaner, higher class of folks would soon arrive to purchase what were probable (still) empty beds, folks ready to eat and drink without bringing with them the drama and danger that so often accompanied birth in those times.

The manger is not a film set, nor should it constitute an occasion to celebrate the holy baby while ignoring the unholy circumstances.  This was hard, harder than most everyone who will bother to read this missive will have ever experienced in their lives.

There are millions of people this very day who also find themselves on the treacherous move – fleeing conflict they had no role in starting, walking many miles without being able to quench their thirst or reassure their children, bearing the load of the most essential provisions while, in some instances, carrying within them the multiple “weights” of a new life.

For some, the actual manger from this Christmas season would be a relief:  a donkey to ride when feet are weary, some hay to provide minimal comfort while waiting along hostile borders, the hope that the same Innkeeper who provided the manger space might also show some mercy and provide nourishment for the new mother.

For many of the millions of displaced who are today on the move, such mercy is hard to come by.  Despite the misery of their often torturous journeys, they encounter closed and closely guarded borders, hostile governments and their electorates, and sometimes very cold hearts.

Too many of us nowadays wouldn’t let the displaced get close enough to knock on our doors let alone to direct them to a relatively comfortable and safe landing.

For all its warts, the UN is taking the needs of the displaced seriously.   The UN has not always done enough to stop the bombing or alleviate the poverty and drought that drive so much global displacement, but neither has it minimized the immense physical suffering and psychological trauma that displacement occasions.  In resolution after resolution, the UN has urgently highlighted the multiple burdens of displacement – from physical deprivation and hostile countries of destination to increased vulnerabilities to criminal elements, including and especially from traffickers.

One example of this concern was this week in a (much too small) UN conference room within which the UN Office for Drugs and Crimes’ 2016 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons was launched.  The event was sponsored by France and included UNODC’s director Yuri Fedotov and the Yazidi activist Nadia Murad.  It also included many states affirming commitments made in aforementioned resolutions and through the New York Declaration, a seminal document that outlines challenges and obligations towards the displaced by both states and diverse, additional stakeholders.

There were many insights from this event, one of which is that states are being more thoughtful about the particular vulnerabilities of displaced persons, especially to traffickers — those soliciting victims for forced prostitution, for child labor, even for child soldiers.  It was Mexico that most clearly acknowledged the preponderance of “push and pull” factors that promote displacement noting that, for all the attention that the displaced now rightly receive, both raw numbers and vulnerabilities continue to rise.  Such discouraging data, as noted by UNODC director Fedotov, must inspire us to more thoughtful, comprehensive commitments to the victims of displacement, including as noted by Iraq, commitments to help those seeking to return to their homes to do so.

One of the longer-term lessons of Christmas for me has been that in settings such as the manger-turned–delivery-room — settings of uncertainty and discomfort, settings of weariness and fear — a child can be born bearing the capacity to literally change the world.

On this Christmas, along many militarized borders, in many makeshift refugee camps, on many cramped crafts that are anything but sea-worthy, there are children about to leave the womb, children who also bear the capacity to make change and bring hope in our world.  Given the violent, melting state of our planet and the unbridled confusion and anger of so many of its current inhabitants, we would be foolish and grossly negligent to do anything other than welcome and nurture their promise.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place:  The Decisions Mothers Must Make, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 May

In many communities on this Mother’s Day weekend, people worry about whether their children will remember them with flowers or chocolate, whether they will still appreciate their sacrifices, whether the sentimentality of this occasion will translate into genuine gratitude, real recognition.

But today in other parts of the world, as this week’s Security Council meeting on violence perpetrated against medical facilities underscored, mothers also wonder if the hard and often painful decisions they have had to make for the sake of their children will pan out – if the hospitals to which they take their children seeking safety and healing will somehow become their gravesites; if the rafts on which their families have boarded and for which they have mortgaged their material futures will set their children on a new life course or literally drown every ounce of their potential.  At this meeting, Council members themselves were rightly deemed complicit by both the ICRC and MSF in at least part of this pattern of displacement and carnage; but lost in the inevitable blame game that accompanies our long and gruesome conflicts are the many decisions that mothers make in an attempt, sometimes wholly in vain, to protect children from dangerous circumstances that lie fundamentally beyond their control.

And the pain that comes from trying to be a nurturing, protecting mother when so many options are blocked, so many decisions fraught with peril, is by no means confined to the realm of geo-politics.  I was in a middle school in Edmonton, Canada this week at an “attendance board” meeting convened by an old friend of mine.   Across from the board sat a mother – with responsibility for three children while living in a modest hotel awaiting housing that might take many months to clear – and her 9th grade son, a quiet boy with a limited interest in school who had apparently just recovered from gall bladder surgery.

The board members were kind and attentive, asking the right questions and doing their best to keep the mother and son engaged.  But the looks on their faces, looks I have seen so many times in the Harlem parish in which I used to work, communicated palpable discouragement.   The mother had clearly been through this routine before, perhaps many times, based in part on life decisions that she made for herself and her children, decisions that turned out to be — at best– only partially effective. Her somewhat stunned and subdued presence at the attendance board signified many things, one of which was likely a painful doubling back on the hard choices she felt she had to make to give her struggling children a fighter’s chance.

Mothers (and their mates if they are so endowed) make many hard decisions over the course of a child’s life, some of which bear unforeseen consequences, others of which are beyond their innate capacities of control or discernment.  The women riding the seas with children on substandard “life” rafts or appearing for the 10th time in front of well-intentioned social workers don’t love their children any less than other mothers; but they certainly live with the daily, grim reality that they cannot fully protect them, nor nurture them to full health, nor always guarantee them predictable nutrition or education.

There are smaller rocks and softer “hard places” than these to get trapped between, to be sure, but all carry with them the burdens of life as it wasn’t intended to be.   Many mothers report that they can barely remember a time in their life when they weren’t mothers.   When their decisions end in painful or even ruinous circumstances for children, that nightmare is equally persistent.  It is more difficult than we might imagine to make the “right” call for children (or even for ourselves) when bombs are flying, crops are failing, schools are crumbling, abuses are pervasive, living allowances are at a premium.

We need to do much more, in policy and practice, to support all who spend too much time living in those spaces between the rocks and the hard places, mothers trying to make the most out of bad options and then living with the painful (and almost inevitable) compromises for their children.  Today, as all days, we should recall the many millions of mothers who have little say in policies – many still shockingly gender/social class exclusive — that routinely result in conditions that disrupt the pursuit of family normalcy and often dash their collective dreams.

Indeed, as we give in to the duties of today’s mostly sentimentalized ritual, it is important to recall the human costs of our inadequate social and security policies, pausing as we pick up the flowers or the restaurant check to recall the plight of mothers who must bear the brunt of finding safe passage for children in some of the roughest seas of my lifetime.

No Time for Child’s Play: The UN Hones its Child Protection Responsibilities, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Jul

This past Friday, the UN held a celebration of the 10th anniversary of UN Security Council resolution 1612 on Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC).

The most direct institutional consequences of resolution 1612 are the Working Group on CAAC originally chaired by France, later by Germany, Mexico and Luxembourg, and now by Malaysia.  In addition, an office for CAAC was established, headed first by Olara Otunnu and now by Leila Zerrougui.  This office has had its share of controversy over 10 years, in part due to its (at the time) groundbreaking relationship to the work of the Council, and in part because of its methods (including listings) to expose states’ willful tolerance or even direct mistreatment of the children under their jurisdiction.

Both the WG and Office for CAAC successfully expanded global interest in the security dimensions of the broader children’s rights outlined in the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The Convention boasts record setting state ratifications. Moreover, virtually all other development, peace and security resolutions now highlight the special care and protection needs of the most vulnerable of persons.  The Convention itself was not without controversy, especially among those who feared the ability of children to assert rights in direct contradiction of parental wishes or who were concerned with an expansion of “compelling state interests” that ostensibly prioritized “the best interests of the child” over the wishes of family members or other guardians.  Nevertheless, the Convention and Resolution 1612 together have done much to address some of the residual “instrumentalizing” of children as mere extensions of adult expectations and needs that still exists within many societies.  In addition, as the UN’s responsibilities to protect civilians have evolved, the special protection needs of children have more readily been identified if not always addressed with sufficient urgency.

At Friday’s celebration, assessments of past practices and expectations regarding future objectives were mixed.   Many speakers representing a broad array of member states and UN agencies, including Ms. Zerrougui herself, highlighted the “architecture” that now exists to help promote CAAC objectives at country level, including national task forces and action plans, and what Luxembourg referred to as the “global horizontal note”. Along with child protection officers in peacekeeping missions and CAAC office efforts to identify and publicly list offending parties – a particular concern in this session for both Myanmar and Israel – this architecture represents elements of an evolving, system-wide commitment to end abuses committed against (and by) youth at the tip of a gun or edge of a blade.

In this instance as in others, child protection is impacted by some of the limitations characterizing our general “protection of civilians” assumptions and strategies.  We sometimes forget, as Morocco reminded event participants, that child soldiers must always be seen as victims (rather than as enemies) regardless of the crimes they were coerced to commit.   Sometimes, though thankfully in rare instances, those mandated to protect children are guilty of adding to their abuse.  Sometimes, efforts of child protection advisors to peacekeeping missions are compromised or overlooked by virtue of overstretched, under-resourced and increasingly coercive operations.  And our lack of a viable preventive strategy too often results in placing response capacities in the field long after such placement is optimal, with implications for the emotional and physical safety of children even more dire than for their guardians.

This lack of prevention goes beyond unhelpful limitations in UN capacity for early warning and mediation.  It also, as we have written previously, involves insufficient regard for effects of trauma of children in conflict zones for which the only viable remedial strategy is one that ensures their absence from such zones.   Calls during this Friday celebration from UNICEF’s Yoka Brandt, the Russian Ambassador and others for more rehabilitation services were welcome, with Brandt reminding the audience that the release of children from armed groups is only the first step in child reintegration and rehabilitation.  Children can be remarkably resilient, but for many of these abducted, brainwashed or otherwise abused children, attaining anything approaching mental health will require a long and treacherous climb.  The abuses inflicted on children will likely be visited upon their own children as well as the communities of which they are a part. There are only so many tools (and funds) at our disposal to redirect that dangerous course once it has been embarked.

On top of all this, we are often slow to adjust to a rapidly shifting security environment with active child recruiters such as ISIL and conflict-motivated migration patterns that blur lines of individual state responsibility.  The shifts to which we must respond are numerous. The representative of UNRWA highlighted the increasing uses of explosive weapons and the devastation these cause to civilian populations.  The representative of UNHCR highlighted the special monitoring and protection challenges that impact children moving across borders with our without their families.  And of course we are now regularly confronting what the French rightly noted as “shocking” instances in Syria and elsewhere where children are essentially being held hostage to conflicts that cannot even be convinced to pause in order to feed and bandage the desperate.

Despite these challenges, it appeared to be the will of most diplomats that child protection from armed violence, recruitment and related abuses become even more of a cross-cutting, systemic obligation of the UN system and its member states, an obligation assumed to bind permanent Council members as much as other UN stakeholders. Such insistences were part of what made the early work of Otunnu’s CAAC office such a breath of fresh air from the start.  That the consensus promise has yet to culminate in a consensus strategy for successfully ending abuses of children in conflict zones is a situation that many in the global public (including diplomats) can neither understand nor tolerate for much longer.

As Luxembourg noted, we need to do all we can to ensure that CAAC is much more than a “side event” to the core UN agenda, while avoiding what Belgium referred to as a “creeping cynicism” regarding our ability to fully implement the CAAC mandate. Indeed, a bit of cynicism-invoking sentimentality crept into the celebration in the form of one or two presenters saying things such as, “even if we save one child, our efforts were worth it.”  It was Canada who bluntly noted that ending CAAC violations completely and without reservation can and must be our objective.   To employ an over-used UN phrase, we fully align ourselves with Canada’s statement.

We simply must continue to set the bar high for children in armed conflict.  With all the global problems now tugging at our diplomatic shirt sleeves, it is worrying indeed that so many needlessly damaged children will become adults likely to be still reeling from the gaps between their own emotional capacity and the increasing logistical complexities of modern life.  We have full confidence that Malaysia will keep child protection issues in full view of the Security Council during its peacekeeping mandate renewals and related deliberations.  We urge other diplomats, NGOs and child advocates to keep CAAC issues in front of all relevant UN and government actors to whom they have access.

Child’s Play:  The Security Council Seeks to Shelter Youngsters from Abusive Elders, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Mar

In an earlier life when I was arrogant enough to fancy myself a philosopher, I was involved with a transnational group of scholars analyzing what it means to live in a world with children in it, the unique combination of gifts offered and responsibilities mandated that bring value and meaning to our otherwise emotion-starved lives. The ‘poster’ for this work came in the form of an old New Yorker cartoon in which a young girl – perhaps 6 or 7 – is pulling a wagon inside the chambers of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.  One of the generals seated on a dais looks down at the girl and asks a question that many of us might be inclined to ask but which also has enormous irony attached to it.

And what can the Joint Chiefs do for you today little one?

What indeed?  The ironies of this cartoon are at least two-fold:  First the assumption that children only ‘need’ us for things, that they are merely bundles of vulnerability that somehow find strength in the often-silly ‘uniforms,’ structures and speeches that we adults use to impress them.   And second, the assumption that ‘we’ have the wherewithal to deliver the goods for children, that we can somehow find the means to make the world ‘fit’ to sustain their normative and creative ambitions rather than leaving behind legacies of scarcity and violence that make the obsessive refuge of social media seem like a perfectly sane response to global circumstances.

On Wednesday, amidst a bevy of UN activity on sustainable development goals and targets, peacekeeping recommendations, ocean health and much more – all with ramifications for the safety and well-being of children —  the Security Council held an ‘open’ discussion on Children and Armed Conflict, with a specific focus on child recruitment perpetrated by ISIL and other terror groups.  As Council president for March, France organized the discussion and, it should be noted, was also instrumental in the early development of the thematic office of Children and Armed Conflict then run by Olara Otunnu and now by the Algerian Leila Zerrougui.

As with so many other crisis-laden conversations in Council chambers, this one combined frustration, sadness, righteous indignation, thoughtfulness and even some hopeful energy supplied by a former child soldier in DRC who has managed to thrive despite the horrors he endured, and perhaps even inflicted.  Needless to say, his story was heartwarming, though not necessarily representative.  Behind this ‘theme du jour’ lies the sober reality that so many children in this world may have already lost any meaningful chance to transition from violence-related trauma to creative engagement.  Urgings by Angola, Slovenia and other states for more psychological services for trauma-infected youth is wise policy, but with the caveat that, from a professional standpoint, the only certain way to address trauma successfully is to prevent its occurrence in the first place.

What there was little of during this Council discussion, thankfully, were facile recitations of the intrinsic value of education in countering planetary threats beyond what Lithuania and Save the Children referred to as the restoration of “normalcy” for victims.  Though this community often (and rightly) posits universal educational opportunity (especially at elementary and secondary levels) as one key to social stability and economic success, “getting ahead” in a world that seems to be slowly collapsing under its own hubris might not always be the most attractive option for children and youth, no matter how many school degrees (and school debts) they ultimately accumulate.

After all, what could children need from the adult world beyond the shaky promises of a sustainable future while conferring a bevy of expensive school diplomas representing a misleading assessment of their precious talents?  Isn’t that enough?

It’s not nearly enough.   Nor will solving ISIL’s forced recruiting and conversion madness, as important as that is, be enough.   As evil and civilization- threatening as ISIL and its ilk seems to be, it is not the only crisis for which we have deployed – and will deploy again – robust UN capacity. Nor are terrorists the only forces in the world inflicting suffering and future-deflating trauma on children.   Indeed, as SRSG Zerrougui noted, children are also victims of those of us responsible to protect them, agencies which at times have also demonstrably ‘fumbled the ball.’  Clearly, we have much work to do to ensure that our legacy for children is more hopeful and comprehensive than promoting school skills to help them navigate the coming wreckage.   We can and must do better than this.  As Malaysia and the Secretary General both reminded us, there are simply too many children in the world struggling to recover from the impact of “adult wars.” Too many of these children will simply not be able to handle the transition. The brutality of terrorists confers no plenary indulgences for our own transitional negligence.

As New Zealand sensibly noted this week, there is an irony to Council debates held in a windowless room far removed from any of the scenes of horror our resolutions seek to address.   For its part, Argentina asserted that ‘wisdom’ for dealing with our responsibilities to children is not something we’re born with, but rather something that we must practice with a prevention-oriented eye.   The world simply looks more manageable from the vantage point of a closed room full of overly-crafted policy positions no matter how many somber outside voices are invited to brief. As the human world gets younger, more restless, with values defined more by advertisers than by teachers, with youth more anxious about their collective future, and where stability in childhood is more and more elusive, we can’t jump to assumptions that our current protective preferences are in step with the long-term needs of future generations.  If we are to get in step, we’ll probably need to first ‘turn the heat down’ a bit, finding more time for consultation and prevention and earmarking fewer resources on reaction. We will also need to cultivate more measured wisdom to guide the urgent way forward, with less anger and moral righteousness. Adding a few more windows to the world – real and metaphorical – probably wouldn’t hurt either.

What can the Joint Chiefs, or the Security Council or the IMF do for you today little one?  Perhaps we can start by reminding ourselves of just how intolerable our adult lives would be without the presence of children in them. And once we accept the sublime gift that children represent, perhaps we can then accept the responsibility that the fields we so blithely cultivate now must have enough good soil left so that today’s children will have a realistic opportunity one day to plant and harvest for themselves.

Across programs and sectors, within and beyond the Security Council, the UN has many capable hands in this soil.   It’s incumbent on us to cultivate cooperatively, wisely and with greater earnestness. The children we neglect, abuse or even politicize today are much less likely to manage handling the sometimes grave challenges of their own adult lives.