Tag Archives: Climate Health

Temperate Zones:   The UN Celebrates its Climate Covenant, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Apr

This past Friday the UN once again made history.   Heads of State and other High Officials from 175 states added their signatures to the Paris Climate Agreement, the largest number of states ever to sign a UN agreement on any single day.

The opening ceremony was mostly a lovefest and not without reason.   To create this consensus agreement was a truly massive undertaking, one that required states to overcome latent climate skepticism while working through some intense political considerations, including the concern that states finally finding their economic footing are being asked to break their carbon habits while the large states make only modest efforts to combat their own carbon addictions.   That states were able to overcome (or at least overlook) these and other obstacles to reach this agreement will go down as a truly historic undertaking in this age of climate trouble.  People outside the UN can only imagine the degree of difficulty associated with bringing a large number of diverging state interests together in an agreement of this complexity and magnitude, albeit with its multiple, notable limitations.

The ceremony was not entirely about hugs and congratulations.  There were warnings as well from inside and outside the UN.   In addition to the seemingly endless “we must move to action” yearnings, several more pointed critiques were made.   For instance, Bolivia was noteworthy in calling attention to the root causes of the climate crisis which in the mind of its president are linked to individualism, greed and militarism and which will allegedly require a thorough re-acquaintance with indigenous lifestyles if the Paris agreement has any chance to succeed.   Special guest Leonardo DiCaprio was equally blunt in urging states to “leave the carbon in the ground,” and transition more rapidly than at present to a more sustainable energy matrix.

Beyond UN confines other warnings abounded, often with greater intensity.  While the ceremony was taking place in the UN General Assembly hall,   twitter was exploding with images of melting ice caps, “bleached” coral and other difficult – if-not-impossible problems to reverse.  The Stimson Center in Washington DC was referring to our oceans as “the world’s largest crime scene.”   As I’m sure was the case with many others, our twitter account was engaged by groups far from New York weighing in on the “temperate” measures being suggested by UN member states for a planet besieged by massive storms and droughts, a planet now thought by many in the scientific community to be at a dangerous tipping point.

Indeed, early on, the negotiations for the Paris Climate agreement exposed an uneven sense of urgency, as large industrial (and polluting) states hedged their bets, newly developing states sought to continue their growth trajectories, and small island states sought to counter what for them is more akin to an existential threat, even in the very near term.   And despite urgings on Friday from French President Hollande for states to overcome what remains of “narrow interests,” there is legitimate concern about how much agreement implementation will actually be able to transcend the rhetorical and self-referential.  During the opening ceremony, it was only Canada’s Trudeau who specifically called for special support for the most vulnerable states, the states which, as a group, bear the least responsibility for the climate mess we now find ourselves in.

During the daylong activities, several states – quoting from the Secretary General’s climate agreement assessment – also noted that “the unthinkable has become the unstoppable.”   As I watched the ceremony, I thought about what is needed – beyond the agreement itself – to keep up our sense of urgency to reverse current trends and replace climate crisis with climate health.  And as is often the case, my mind wandered to concerns that are mirrored in more common human practices.

For instance, in counseling it is common to speak of “bargaining,” clients who agree to make changes that are not so terribly important while escaping responsibility for the more fundamental changes that they really need to make.   This tendency to focus on what matters less in order to avoid commitment to what matters more occurs in many contexts and creates numerous, well-documented problems for families and communities.

In the context of the climate agreement, bargaining by states might well spell the end for life as we know it, substituting carefully-crafted by largely token gestures for the more fundamental shifts on which, as Italy and others noted, the existence of our children and grandchildren depends.   The gifted Tanzanian youth who spoke to the assembled UN dignitaries made clear the stakes of the moment noting, almost as a warning, “I am not alone.”   If the climate agreement is to meet its full potential, states (and other stakeholders) will have to suspend all vestiges of bargaining and be willing to live with some of the highly inconvenient consequences of a climate challenge created largely on our watch.

It is also important, as several states noted during the opening ceremony, that climate health is seen as a full-spectrum responsibility and not merely one of state and even corporate concerns.    The refrain from within the UN of “common but differentiated responsibility” can be put in somewhat more familiar terms – unless we get many more capable and committed hands on deck, this “ship” will take on more and more water, agreement or no agreement.

Easily said, but there are many obstacles to filling this deck – including deep, well-cultivated habits of consumption and media distraction that impede both the development of skills that can contribute meaningfully to address the current crisis, and the strength of character to push us to continue contributing through disappointments and setbacks.  Much like teenagers behave with parents, it is just too easy for all of us to externalize blame on to states and other stakeholders, eschewing the full-spectrum engagements and commitments that bring into sharp relief just how difficult and complex the climate mitigation task actually is. Reversing habits that threaten our survival is every bit as energy and time consuming as forming those habits in the first instance.  There is no time like the present to get started on this difficult but life saving work.

At one point during the opening ceremony, the Secretary-General noted that “we are running behind schedule,” thus delaying the actual agreement signing.   For some, this seemed almost metaphorical – a response to climate threats that many fear might be just a bit too little and just a bit too late.   Others commented on the “footprint” of the signing ceremony, a huge UN room full of officials and their entourages who chose, yet again, to fly in rather than Skype in to express their climate concerns.   Like citizens and their governments, the UN also has habits to address, habits that motivate some to turn their backs on a problem we simply cannot solve without them.   People – skeptical and otherwise — need to know that the policy community, too, is willing to wrestle with and amend our habits for the sake of our common future.

As the Prime Minister of the small island state of Tuvalu made clear at the UN, climate impacts are now a global phenomenon.    Sea waters in every ocean are rising, storms are intensifying, drought and flood zones alike are expanding, traumatized climate refugees are desperately seeking safer ground.   We’re all in this now.   We must all be in this now.  GA President Lykketoft specifically cited the role of civil society groups (like our own) in keeping states on track regarding their climate responsibilities.  Clearly, we on the non-governmental side also have our own, long road to walk on climate impacts before any “all clear” signals are likely to be heard.

The aggregate message conveyed on this Climate signing day was simple and clear:  This is going to be a hard task.  The hour is getting very late.

Let’s get busy.

Weathervane: The UN Forecasts the next Phase of El Niño Impacts, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Jan

weather (2)

Like many people in the US (and certainly in other parts of the world) I am beginning this morning by switching on the weather forecast.  In so doing, I discover that it is going to be a warm, wet and windy January day in New York, but also learn about the deep freeze in the center of the US and Canada, ongoing drought in southern Africa and Central America, un-seasonal tropical depressions in the Pacific, and much more weather-related information that is of interest to some and a warning to others.

The fascination that many of us have with weather goes beyond strategic matters such as how many layers of clothing to put on or whether or not to pack an umbrella.   As farmers know better than most of the rest of us, weather represents one of the major variables of our daily lives, a variable to which we must adjust but over which we have virtually no control.  As my weather-attentive grandmother used to share with me (ad nauseam), “whether it’s cold, or whether it’s hot, there’s going to be weather, whether or not.”

In the temperate zones, our weather adjustments are largely confined to manageable temperature and precipitation variations, though there are also increasingly dangerous weather configurations that command our interest and even our awe – hurricanes/cyclones along the coasts of states large and small; tornados, lightning storms and other violent and erratic weather systems; major shifts in surface temperatures, sometimes during the course of a single day;  patterns of drought punctuated by torrential rains creating flooding in areas where parched soil is simply incapable of absorbing so much water; rising tides caused in part by melting ice caps.

Weather can be a significant social leveler within states though not necessarily between them.  Funnel clouds don’t know to avoid wealthy neighborhoods and massive ocean weather systems do considerable damage to the largest (and smallest) shoreline homes. Our growing collective fascination with challenging weather patterns also transcends social class limitations, though we cannot emphasize enough that levels of resilience regarding weather’s effects vary dramatically, sometimes to life threatening degrees.

This past Thursday, the UN convened an event to help assess and address some of the effects of the El Niño system and its warming ocean waters that has scrambled any and all of our comfortable assumptions regarding weather patterns and their seasonal variations.  Chaired by USG and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien, and involving representatives from the World Meteorological Association (WMO) and administrators of UN country teams in Guatemala, Lesotho, Ethiopia and other affected regions, the meeting was designed to bring more international attention to, as the representative of Fiji put it, “the slow onset disaster,” set in motion by this particularly robust iteration of El Niño.

The UN discussion hit many important notes.   O’Brien himself noted that this version of El Niño is not a product of the climate distress that recently resulted in the Paris agreement, but that the consequences from this weather phenomenon, as the WMO also noted, are being felt “at a higher level” because of climate change.  O’Brien stressed the growing threats of food insecurity from severe drought, from flooding, and from cyclones in and around small island states, and he called for closer partnerships between development and humanitarian officials to mitigate weather-related distress and help “under-funded” states prepare “for what we know is coming.”

For their part, the UN country team representatives focused less on what is coming and more on the damage that has already taken place, from looming malnutrition in Ethiopia and disease outbreaks in Fiji to fresh water scarcity in Lesotho that is having profoundly negative implications for health care in that country.   At the same time, Guatemala’s UN field representative cited factors such as inequality, corruption and “institutional discrimination” that continue to impede otherwise critical efforts to respond to the country’s current, weather-related vulnerabilities.

As the representative of WMO demonstrated, this El Niño event will not last forever.  Apparently, there will likely be some return to “neutral conditions” mid-year, after which we are likely to have to cope with La Niña impacts.  But it was also made clear that El Niño impacts, perhaps even the most severe of them, have not run their course, and thus significant, sustained attentiveness at UN level to emergency response preparedness is more than warranted.

As is so often the case in this world, it is the poor and marginalized who generally suffer most from chaotic, dangerous weather systems.  The UN, specifically USG O’Brien, is to be commended for holding this briefing and for fully integrating perspectives from both weather scientists and officials from already affected regions. However, given that so many states are, indeed, “already affected” by current weather emergencies, we urge UN colleagues to find ways to get further ahead of the weather curve; helping to ensure that all of us – especially the vulnerable, the disabled and the politically marginal — are sufficiently prepared to cope with a range of potentially deadly (albeit at times fascinating) weather threats.

A Papal Pilgrimage:  Ramping up Hope at the Center of Global Governance, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 Sep

As the Pope’s FIAT pulled up to UN Headquarters last Friday, it slowed just a bit so that Francis could wave at a group of children dressed in white and sitting on the stairs of (ironically perhaps) the Trump Building.  This was only the beginning of an outpouring of attention, enthusiasm and even yearning, the likes of which most of us have never seen at UN Headquarters.

Many have written about the Papal visit to the UN.  Twitter literally exploded with comments of all sorts, almost all of the ones I saw falling anywhere from cautiously positive to positively gushing.  The newspapers proclaimed that “hope had come to New York.”  (God knows we need it.) These reactions cannot be attributed to our embrace of celebrity or fame; neither are they a function of the rarity of papal visits.

This outpouring of positive energy was more likely related to a long-suppressed search for meaning as well as for the encouragement to abandon cynicism and despair, to recalibrate our emotional depth, to provide a genuinely viable future for our children, not merely an education, an IPad, and an allowance.

The Pope said some very helpful things from the podium in the UN General Assembly.   He took up the challenges of healing our climate and eliminating our weapons of mass destruction.   He spoke about us as biological beings that need to stop soiling the beds that we still need to lie on.   He reminded us that no policy, regardless of its textual nobility or comprehensiveness, is likely to succeed unless we recover the practices of listening and caregiving, while committing in policy and practice to the pursuit of fairness and an end to inequalities.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Francis on the substance of issues, it was clear from his speech that he sees in those many souls clamoring to hear his words what most of the rest of us at the UN cannot.   Francis was not trying to be clever or even strategic.  He was not “purchasing the surfaces” of things nor was he caving in to political expediency.   His words were largely measured, urgent, kind.   But most important, it was clear that he is looking at the world and its people differently.  His vision seems to penetrate deeper – deeper than our pretense and personal branding, deeper than our compromises and our rationales for each, deeper than our professional titles, entitlements and immunities.

This ability to see differently is extraordinary and most worthy of emulation. And to my own eyes, the speech was not the only extraordinary aspect of the Papal visit. Watching Francis move from one responsibility to another inside the UN, navigating the crush of well-wishers including political dignitaries seeking a momentary ‘audience’: the press of flesh and the multiple distractions of noise and perpetual movement seemed overwhelming.

And yet the Pope maintained his attentive gaze.  He didn’t look as tired as he must have been.  If he has any vestiges of claustrophobia, he found the grace to overcome them.   If he found all of the noise and crowding annoying, he never let on. Perhaps Francis throws things around his prayer room to re-establish his emotional equilibrium and vent his frustrations.  His time at the UN gave no evidence that he has this urge.  (His visits to both Harlem and Philadelphia have seemed downright joyful.)

Amidst the diplomatic chaos, Francis even made time to thank UN staff for their dedication and service, paying special attention to peacekeepers and members of UN country teams who lost their lives in the service of the institution, its values and constituents.

In some important ways, this demeanor of Francis was even more telling than his words.   If anything, the latter made the former more believable, more compelling.  There is a lesson here for all of us.   As our colleague Annie Herro reminds GAPW often, all of us at the UN are in one way or another “norm entrepreneurs.”   As such the success of our work, perhaps ironically, has less to do about money and status and more to do with trust building and other character concerns – the ability to be where we say we’ll be, to resist unthoughtful policy solutions that are destined to unravel, to practice courage and kindness so that we can get better at both, to be willing to give to others what we expect from them in return, to communicate hope to persons and communities in ways that do not excessively raise expectations to levels that we know are unlikely to be fulfilled.

Character issues are largely out of fashion, but they are not beyond relevance for good policy. At the UNGA on Friday, we had an example of someone whose demeanor prior to his UN speech – as well as the “depth” at which he routinely casts his gaze – gave added power to the words that eventually came out of his mouth.   The “social fragmentation” to which Francis pointed with alarm is closely related to a fragmentation of personal character that manifests itself as a proclivity to “dispose” of things and people, as well as to horde what we should share and destroy what we cannot easily replace.  These are some of the implications of our current policy and personal choices that Francis, by virtue of the quality of his living and his seeing, was particularly well placed to highlight.

The hope displayed by Francis at the General Assembly podium is imperfect. It does not by itself resolve political differences and logistical challenges, nor does it guarantee that we will find the courage to turn away from our predatory and self-interested actions to save this planet – and ourselves along with it.

But the thousands waiting for hours for a glimpse of the Pope in the Fiat, not to mention the many diplomats who rose to their feet to celebrate a man who presides over a faith often not their own, if these are any indication, then the hope of Francis is truly a hope we can believe in.

Dog Days:  The UN Catches its Breath as Global Challenges Fill its August Calendar, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Aug

For those of you who follow US baseball, the “Dog Days of August” represents that time when (now mostly overpaid) players are on the field virtually every day, in the hot sun, with no prospect of time off, let alone occasions for mountain hikes or naps by the pool.  It is a time when tempers are short, thoughtfulness is largely absent and trust in humanity (let alone in umpires) is at a premium.

A UN version of “dog days” might refer to this current time between the energy-draining but successful adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals outcome document and the frenzy that is sure to characterize the September opening of the 70th UN General Assembly.

Despite a relentless (and sometimes frustrating) workload this year and given the longing that some might have for family picnics and time at the beach to read something other than policy briefs, the UN is still very much open for business. Nigeria’s August presidency of the Security Council promises to keep diplomats in their seats as events in Mali, Central African Republic (CAR), Yemen and elsewhere require vigilance, the recent resolution to investigate culpability for chlorine and other chemical weapons use in Syria seeks operational clarity, and important work continues on establishing more trusting relations with regional security mechanisms.

Outside the Council, the UN has been wrestling this week with ways to integrate (and provide full access to) global geospatial data, a key element in assessing shifts in land use patterns, waterfront erosion, climate patters and other matters essential to successful implementation of the recently-adopted Sustainable Development Goals.  Attacks on UN peacekeepers by “spoilers,” murky elections in some host states, and unresolved scandals involving soldiers who are duty bound to protect civilians provide ample fodder for consultations and response planning.   And annual events dedicated to youth and indigenous people are reminders to all of us that equal rights to health care, education and other necessities remain elusive for millions, and that the legitimate needs and goals of future generations are still being compromised by too many short-term decisions made by the current generation of authorities.

And for many, thoughts in August turn to Japan and the annual ritual surrounding those whose lives were ended now 70 years ago in a flash – two flashes actually – from nuclear explosions authored by US authorities. As the surviving Hibakusha and their direct testimony depart this world, we are left with endless arguments about the necessity of weapons use as a means of ending WWII.  More importantly perhaps to current and future generations, we are also left with nuclear stockpiles that are decreasing in size at a snail’s pace while having their capacities modernized at a rapid one.

GAPW closely follows the work of groups such as the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and thus we leave most of the policy advocacy on these weapons to them.  But given that UN headquarters failed to hold a ceremony on Hiroshima Day for the first time in recent memory, and that Nagasaki day falls (today) on a Sunday, a few comments from our own security policy vantage point seems appropriate.

After 70 years of production, threatening gestures and now deliberate, expensive modernization, nuclear weapons remain for most possessor states an addictive element of their national security doctrines. Like alcoholics recovering from a drinking binge and pledging never to drink again, there is episodically bold talk among nuclear weapons possessors of “getting to zero,” of eliminating these weapons once and for all.  And yet, disarmament structures and treaties designed to facilitate elimination are routinely ignored or even deliberately undermined.  Moreover, modernization processes for nuclear weapons are underway (as far as we know) in all current national arsenals, with a price tag according to some reports significantly exceeding a trillion dollars.

Here is a trillion dollar tip:  States don’t modernize weapons if they plan to rid themselves of them.

As many nuclear weapons activists worldwide have noted repeatedly, the consequences of detonation of such massive weapons would be enough to permanently disrupt, if not existentially threaten, life as we know it.  Such detonations would be sufficiently destructive such that survivors might well envy the dead; that the “dog days” following such blasts would make most survivors long for anything approaching normalcy or basic sufficiency, even those hot, sticky, low-energy August days around UN headquarters. Despite the “humanitarian consequences” aptly described over several generations, we continue to play with this nuclear fire, keeping the nuclear threat at or near the top of a deadly list of self-inflicted “wounds” which much of our species seems unwilling to heal, let alone bind.

And here is another trillion dollar tip:   The almost inconceivable amount of money that we waste on nuclear and other weapons systems continues to rob future generations of funds to achieve sustainable development, reverse climate impacts, and guarantee health and educational opportunity for themselves and their own children.

The too-often horizontal, addictive and narcissistic dynamics of our defense and security policies are a source of discouragement and even anger for many, as a spate of news stories from Nagasaki and around the world today make clear.  It is almost beyond imagination that smart, caring, savvy adults can consistently craft policies that might succeed in easing a bit of global pressure but that fail to provide longer-view leadership for anxious people – including the young and indigenous persons who will fill the UN this month – who properly cringe at the thought of inheriting an overheated, bio-compromised, politically-polarized and overly militarized planet.

As ice caps melt, ocean storms intensify, areas of severe drought expand, specie extinctions accelerate and groups armed with second-hand weapons show first-hand contempt for the governments that have too-often neglected their interests, nuclear weapons in their current or modernized iterations represent one crisis waiting to happen that we simply can live without.  The lingering justifications for maintaining (let alone modernizing) these weapons are quickly eroding. Only the policy addictions (and their high price tags) remain intact.

In these “dog days” of August it might be wise for all of us still at work at the UN to spend a bit of time inside this week’s events focused on the needs, aspirations and skills of youth and indigenous persons.  These people, by tradition or generational temperament, demand a longer view on security and development policy, something wiser and less addictive than merely responding to the next alarm bell.  By indigenous standards, we have long since failed the “seventh generation” policy test.   Perhaps this month,on nuclear weapons and other global threats, we can find more of the wisdom and means needed to at least pass the “next generation” one.

A Climate Conducive to Peace:  The UN Confronts its Exterior and Interior Spaces, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Jul

The unofficial theme of this past week at the UN was ‘climate week,’ from the High Level Political Forum in ECOSOC and a General Assembly High Level event, to numerous side events ranging from Oceans to Migrants and an Arria Formula discussion in the Security Council, led by Malaysia and Spain, focused on climate as a ‘threat multiplier.”

Among the features of this week’s events, in addition to momentum-gathering efforts to counter what the Secretary-General referred to as a “snail’s pace” of urgent UN action on climate health, was the high-level presence of policy leaders from the Small Island Developing States (SIDS).

SIDS political and civil society leadership have long called for urgent measures to stem the tide of an eroding climate, a “tide” that is causing mass flooding, the destruction of fish stocks, the pollution of ocean habitats, even what Kiribati activist Alofa cited in the Security Council as the “great sadness” occasioned by the very real possibility of eventually having to abandon her family home.  As Seychelles noted, the SIDS must be considered as a “special development case,” but many states are coming to realize the degree to which SIDS crises have both been ignored and are increasingly being mirrored in other global regions.  As an Italian Minster warned, climate threats “know no borders, require no visas.”

Despite this growing awareness, progress on firm, remedial measures remains stilted. In the General Assembly, Kiribati’s President Tong cited a “loss of hope” from telling the same story over and over and wondering if anyone is listening.   As noted by Palau Minister Beck in the “One Ocean” event, whether we are prepared or not, the dire predictions of last generations’ climate scientists appear to be coming true.  And as Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Debrum prodded the Council (which had last taken up climate 2 years ago), “what has really changed” in our collective response? The answer echoing through all the week’s events was, clearly not enough.  As DSG Eliasson lamented with a good deal of off-the-cuff passion, “we are not at peace with nature.”  We have not, as Sweden shared in the Arria meeting, done our part to “supplant national red lines with nature’s red lines” nor have we fully grasped, as noted by Poland, the full relationship between the health of oceans and other ecosystems and the success of our development efforts to eradicate poverty once and for all.

And while some states wondered if the Council should be heavily invested in climate issues apart from interactions with ECOSOC and other relevant UN agencies and programs, the peace and security implications of climate were also laid bare.  Lithuania was one of several states which highlighted the degree to which a damaged climate can be a “driver of insecurity.”  And Chile provided its own thoughtful statement that underscored climate’s role in bringing otherwise latent conflicts, especially over water access, into the open.  In this context, Chile wisely reinforced the human rights and gender dimensions to any Security Council or other UN actions designed to counter or even reverse climate-related security threats.

All of this discussion – in the Council, in ECOSOC and the General Assembly, in some extraordinary side events – was welcome if perhaps a bit late in the game.  But all of it also pointed to another ‘climate’ dimension, the climate we have created within our diplomatic and UN walls, a climate that equally needs attention and even healing if we expect the global public – and especially younger generations – to trust our ‘strategic sincerity’ to manage this planet-threatening  crisis.

Why indeed, many wonder, is it taking so long for the international community to respond to what is such an obvious external threat, risking an overheated and contaminated bequest to future generations of which we should be at least alarmed and probably also ashamed?  We have our own analysis, but many of the answers lie in the words of the diplomats whom themselves are authors and products of an interior version of our ‘climate’ challenge.

Part of this struggle of internal climate is related to the habits, some helpful some destructive, that we dutifully cultivate but rarely interrogate.  In ECOSOC it was Romania’s MP Borbely who noted how the most “beautiful” sustainability plans are undermined by our “stubborn mindsets.”    South Africa chimed in at the same event, noting our collective consumer culture that has gotten “out of hand,” a habit that is difficult to break but which must somehow be tamed if we are to convince skeptical publics that UN climate policy can truly inspire altered behaviors on the scale needed.

Then there are the other messages we send, often incidentally, that undermine public confidence in our internal climate and the decisions that proceed from it.  For instance, in a discussion in the Security Council this week on Darfur and the International Criminal Court, as is protocol in such matters, the Sudanese Ambassador was given the final word, attacking the professionalism of Prosecutor Bensouda and allowing those who were witness to the statement to come away thinking that the Sudan government was a victim of a witch hunt rather than a perpetrator of abuse on a mass scale.  As is their habit, the Council members had already spoken.  None came to the defense of Bensouda’s mandate amidst the Sudanese assault, and protocol granted no permission for her to come to her own.

The next day in the Council’s monthly ‘wrap up” session the UK’s Ambassador Rycroft called attention to another sometimes dispiriting aspect of our institutional habit – the endless reading by officials of policy statements, largely in impersonal and dispassionate tones. His concern seemed to be in part with presentations that are repetitive, abstract, do not respond directly to other state positions and are, as New Zealand noted during the same meeting, a means of “scoring points” rather than solving problems in places like Yemen, Syria or Palestine. Such failures of political resolve, as Malaysia noted, undermine confidence in a fundamental responsibility of the UN system, and this confidence is eroded further as states address in monotone while onlookers seek some passion.  As someone new around the Council table Amb. Rycroft’s statement suggested, perhaps against hope, that Council members can communicate a more personal, caring and even urgent engagement in their dealings with each other and with respect to the billions of people living at the edge of our policy decisions.

The sometimes tired, habitual  and even mean-spirited messages that can be experienced in many UN meeting rooms may seem unrelated to climate policy, but such messages can collectively undermine public confidence in our ability to adjust institutional habits in constructive ways to fit the world’s urgent circumstances. If we at the UN — people of education and privilege — cannot (will not) shift the energy of the structures and protocols of our institutions and their (in this instance) climate-related decisionmaking, there is little reason to believe that the more modestly situated will be able and willing to do so.  Especially on climate, it is discouraging at best to see stakeholders fussing over ice cream that is seconds away from melting on the floor.

Back at the General Assembly event, the Secretary-General virtually begged delegations to “quicken your pace and raise your ambitions.”   That an existential threat such as climate change would require such a plea is perhaps more telling than the plea itself.   We understand full well that science-generated data sets alone do not drive policy, let alone its consensus.   But the circumstances to which this data points will require all of us one day to answer for any and all vestiges of our stubborn neglect.   By not changing our messaging and (more importantly) our policy content on climate, we risk being roundly scorned in our absence by another generation that will be forced to cope with a crisis that may no longer be able to be resolved.

In that same General Assembly event, President Tong of Kiribati expressed his longing, one day soon, to be able to say to the world’s children “you don’t need to worry anymore” about climate health.  Getting to this ‘peace of mind’ (not to mention ‘peace with nature’) will take more compassion from all of us, as Elder HE Mary Robinson explained during a recent side event; but also an institutional commitment to “prioritize the most vulnerable and least responsible.”  In other words, we must commit more to encouraging that hopeful combination of less change in our external climate, and more change in our internal one.

No Culture Left Behind: Ensuring Indigenous Rights ‘take root’ in the UN’s post-2015 Development Agenda  

12 May

Editor’s Note:   This piece by GAPW’s Human Rights Fellow, Karin Perro, explores the growing sustaiinability, human rights and climate implications for the health of indigenous communities. In many UN commissions and conference rooms, including the current Forum on Forests, respect for indigenous rights is growing in promience as are the worldviews that ground indigenous communities. As Perro makes clear, no successful post-2015 development strategy can neglect the aspirations and contributions of indigenous peoples.

As winter relinquished its final hold on UN Headquarters, springtime’s colorful cherry blossoms and tulip buds vied for attention with the vibrant hues and textures of traditional native attire embellishing UN corridors. The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues kicked off on April 20, 2015 under the capable leadership of Australian Chair Megan Davis, who began the fourteenth session urging full participation of indigenous representatives in shaping the Forum’s agenda.

In his introductory statement DSG Jan Eliasson eloquently set the Forum’s tone, calling for a collective embrace of indigenous peoples’ visions and aspirations while reaffirming the UN commitment to indigenous rights, including the right to health, education, land, and self-determination. Imploring a global ‘peace negotiation with nature’ and respect for all living things, Eliasson invoked (for many) indigenous spiritualism as embodied by an inviolate ‘Mother Earth’, and emphasized the need for safeguarding the world’s environmental health that is so vital to both indigenous community and global development.

The right to ancestral lands was a tenuous thread woven throughout the Forum proceedings, with significant indigenous clamoring for ‘free, prior, and informed consent’ in matters of land rights and development initiatives. And rightly so – depletion of land fertility, dumping of radioactive waste, deforestation, and contamination of waters by extractive industrial processes are all byproducts of multinational corporations’ circumvention of prior and informed consent mandates, too often with state complicity and ineffective regulation enforcement.

There are, of course, other social and environment forces at play that adversely impact indigenous land rights and usage, beyond the prescience or control of well-meaning governance bodies or human agency. Natural disasters, climate change, and soil and water defamation due in part to illicit crop cultivation leave indigenous people dispossessed of land and land-dependent livelihoods, reduces tourism revenues, and decimates traditional medicine and food resources. As the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Issues noted, indigenous peoples compromise 5% of global population but 15% of the world’s poor.   Eradicating indigenous poverty, hunger and malnutrition can only be attained if proactive measures are funded and enforced to protect vulnerable lands, forests, oceans and coastlines and halt all forms of environmental degradation.

Increasingly the UN has recognized the undeniable connection between natural resources, environmental health and sustainable development. This is good news for indigenous communities that rely on local natural resources for subsistence and food security. However, potentially irreversible environmental consequences lead many disaffected indigenous youth to abandon traditional practices and seek alternative employment beyond ancestral territories.  Assimilation erodes the link to cultural identity and knowledge, as limited opportunities for traditional livelihoods encourage youth migration to urban centers. Once there, pervasive discrimination and inadequate education create barriers for entry into the mainstream workforce.

Consequently, the damage inflicted upon the collective indigenous psyche is staggering.  According to cited research reports, rights curtailments and the continued denial of self-determination has led to an alarming acceleration in youth self-harm, suicides, and alcohol abuse. Substandard or scant mental healthcare facilities are often ill equipped to provide culturally sensitive care, treatment or support.  As a result, indigenous youth representatives expressed feeling disaffected, disempowered and ‘spiritually broken’.  Hopelessness now thrives where once pride and dignity proliferated, rooted in a spiritual connection to nature that engendered vibrant culture diversity and a richness of cultural heritage.

For many, past injustices still inflict fresh wounds and reopen unhealed scars. Proud indigenous representatives condemned the persistent remnants of colonialism, casting an uneasy (and in some corners unwelcome) spotlight on the insidious legacy of Western dominance, born from arrogance and greed, and fed on ignorance and fear. Treaty violations, unfulfilled promises, contested spaces, political exclusion, and cultural genocide remain stubbornly resistant to the implementation of fair and equitable policies. Where fragile incipient democracies struggle for survival, dormant seeds of dissention now sprout and propagate largely unimpeded, supplanting rule of law and strong governance. Many of the world’s indigenous are now perilously caught in the chaotic interstice between regional armed conflicts and nationalism, xenophobia and ethnic cleansing, forcing their displacement and threatening their cultural existence.

In spite of the identifiable commonalities within the global community of indigenous peoples, there are also substantial distinctions among and between groups that preclude a one-size-fits-all policy approach.   The Forum’s kaleidoscopic cultural display often reflected the diverse – and often divergent – grievances expressed by indigenous participants. If too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth, will too many diverse indigenous issues on the Forum’s platter undermine their fully realized inclusion in the upcoming post-2015 sustainable development goals?

For indigenous activist leaders seeking commonality of causes within the indigenous movement as a means of pooling resources for greater political leverage, a force-fitting of group-specific goals into overarching umbrella targets may inadvertently create policy vacuums for already isolated or less vocal indigenous groups. Many smaller indigenous communities already have societal burdens too great to shoulder without also having to contend with the ‘double-whammy’ of additional marginalization within an already marginalized community.

That said, aligning indigenous interests with other rights-based groups, particularly those having garnered significant visibility and influence, could prove useful in gaining an indigenous foothold in the pre-September 2015 scramble to endorse a set of SDGs. Indigenous solidarity may well increase pressure in international forums to comply with their general demands, but pressuring of regional and national institutions will still be crucial in promoting singular or specific needs-based targets unique to discrete indigenous communities.

To the outside observer, there was a noticeable (if unsurprising) unwillingness to acknowledge the competing needs of coexisting, non-indigenous groups suffering from the same (or similar) inequities that require redress in both developing and developed states. Impoverished indigenous and non-indigenous populations often compete for the same limited financial aid, social programs, and government resources.  State obligations to uphold the respective rights of all citizens often lead to internal conflicts of interest that can be difficult to reconcile.Moving forward will require clear targets and enforceable monitoring, and transparency mechanisms. Also troublesome is state non-compliance with UNDRIP and other non-binding international instruments. The UN system suffers from inadequate mechanisms to enforce what is ultimately a state responsibility to its people, including state duty to consult with indigenous peoples on policies and legislature that directly impact their maintenance of traditions and cultural heritage.

The UN is (arguably) at its best when providing aspirational goals and normative frameworks and (it is hoped) creating concrete policy guidelines; less so in their implementation and financing of those goals and frameworks. As reiterated in the Forum, indigenous rights are human rights. Civil society and private sector stakeholders, in unison with governmental agencies and institutions, will ultimately be tasked with implementinguniversal development goals. To date, scant mention has been given to indigenous concerns in the post-2015 SDGs.  If we truly envision an inclusive human rights based development agenda, we must ensure indigenous issues are fully addressed by member state governments. States must be held accountable for inclusion of indigenous people in data aggregations to formulate more inclusive national action plans that provide fair redress to legitimate grievances and close socio-economic gaps.  For its part, the UN and other international governing bodies must fully integrate indigenous rights within the human rights based SDG framework.  Only through a conscious (and conscientious) cultivation of fair and equitable policies will indigenous societies be allowed to re-establish their cultural roots and assure their survival.

 Karin Perro, Human Rights Fellow, GAPW

Masters of Disaster:  The UN Gives Hope a Chance, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Mar

Far from the inspiring stories, crowded hallways and rhetorical flourishes of the Commission on the Status of Women, the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) is now taking place in Sendai, Japan (http://www.wcdrr.org/conference/programme/documentation).

We don’t normally comment on events where we aren’t physically present, but this United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) event is highlighting issues germane to virtually all UN policy priorities.   Moreover, several of the disasters featured at the conference are related to dangerous shifts in climate health which has become, rightly if belatedly, a major focus of UN concern.

The backdrop for the WCDRR event is a high-profile natural disaster which, as reported by Al Jazeera and others, is well underway after Cyclone Pam tore through Vanuatu early Saturday, “packing winds of 168 miles per hour, and leaving a trail of destruction and unconfirmed reports of dozens of deaths.” In quite an irony, the President of Vanuatu, Baldwin Lonsdale, found himself stranded at WCDRR along with some of the country’s top disaster management officials while a state of emergency had  been declared back home.

Also lingering in the background are the still-unresolved effects of the ‘triple whammy’ that affected Japan’s Fukushima, not far from Sendai – earthquake followed by tsunami, followed by radiation leakage.   Such multiple disasters seem hard to fathom but are actually becoming more and more plausible as levels of human damage to the planet rise.

On Sunday (Japan time) a WCDRR session was held to introduce the 2015 Global Assessment of Disaster Risks Report. The report provides “an update on global risk trends and patterns based on results from the first ever probabilistic risk assessment covering the world.” Participants were informed about current and emerging risks and projected economic losses associated with exposure and vulnerability to hazards, including cyclones, earthquakes, floods, landslides, tsunamis and volcanic ash.

This is quite a list which doesn’t even specify concerns like drought and the forced social mobility this causes.  These are all concerns we would do well to avoid but, failing that, to prepare for with sufficient urgency and thoughtfulness.

When I was younger, I lived in a part of the US that frequently ‘welcomed’ tornadoes.  While most failed to hit the ground, many uprooted trees, tore off the roofs of barns and houses, and greatly damaged homes and property, often in working-class neighborhoods that could ill afford the losses.

A feature of those times was that the most effective response was often in the aftermath of disasters – insurance agents processing claims, the Red Cross serving soup and assisting with health emergencies, crews helping to restore communications and navigable roads, police providing a reassuring presence.

But we soon realized that rebuilding capacity was not sufficient, that we needed more time and resources to prepare better for what, in some years, was literally a ‘parade’ of funnel clouds.   And, indeed, the focus slowly shifted, not away from disaster response but to more balanced approach that brought science and civics to bear on local preparedness.  Weather-related technology was able to warn us in time of impending crises so that authorities could be mobilized and valuables and loved ones protected.

But this doesn’t happen, can’t happen everywhere. As noted in the Al Jazeera story on Vanuatu, “People are really upset and it’s really hard, just because for the last couple of years, we haven’t received a really big cyclone like this one,” said Isso Nihmei, Vanuatu coordinator for the environmental and crisis response group 350.  Most people right now, they are really homeless.”

In such circumstances, many of us would want to know: Where were the weather forecasters?  Where were the warnings?   Where were the preparations that could have provided more resilient options to ‘weather’ the coming storm?

If we know anything with certainty, it is that the ‘holiday’ from disaster that Vanuatu apparently experienced is unlikely to be repeated soon.  Between increases in tropical depressions, widening areas of drought, flooding from land whose forests have been denuded, the erosion of shorelines, and other hazards – and this on top of the more obvious human-made disasters from armed violence, trafficking and other calamities – trouble is brewing in far-flung corners of the globe.

People facing such the prospect of such disaster need reassurances at two levels.   First, that there are competent professionals able and willing to respond when disaster strikes; and second that all possible efforts have been made to warn residents and promote resilience before trouble strikes.

Forecasting that ‘trouble’ can be tricky business.  But we have suffered greatly in the security sector from assistance – in the form of peacekeepers or military response to mass violence – that arrives too late to stem the violence in its earliest stages.   Disaster relief that arrives too late can also jeopardize lives needlessly.   As noted in the literature of the HOPEFOR initiative (Qatar, Dominican Republic, Turkey and others) to which GAPW has been attentive, when crisis response is needed, timing is always of the essence (http://hopeforinitiativedr.org).  Given extraordinary improvements in disaster technology, improved forecasting must be an integral part of any disaster response.

Not all disasters can be averted.  There are some tornadoes in the south of the US so massive that resilience is almost futile.  Earthquakes and tsunamis can devastate communities and landscapes in what seems like an instant.  And, as noted by several experts in Sendai, technical warnings can fail to reach the right people, or reach them in a way that is confusing in terms of preferred responses.   Or people can choose to ignore warnings (as we in the US sometimes do with hurricanes and floods) or simply have no viable response options to looming threats.

But for many natural disasters, there are warning signs that are far less expensive to heed than the price tag resulting from disasters’ aftermath. This is especially true given the disasters that will likely intensify as our climate continues to deteriorate.  In response to the tragedy of Vanuatu, the president of Seychelles was quoted as saying “Today it is the South Pacific, tomorrow it could be us.”

Indeed it could well be.

Disaster response is in part about running several races against time almost in tandem. We need better forecasting and more quickly.  We need funding to support greater resiliency and more viable options for communities in the face of disaster.  We need more civilian-based response services on high alert to get to the scenes of crises rapidly and even before any crises unfold.  But most of all, we need dramatic diplomatic movement on climate health and other human interventions to give hope to communities suffering from disasters of a magnitude that they simply could never manage alone.

The UN is well positioned to help states meet the challenges, changes and resource needs for highly competent, trustworthy Disaster Management.   Such management is no substitute for a political agreement to reverse climate damage.   But at least until such an agreement is forthcoming — hopefully soon in Paris — and made fully functional, disaster management must maintain this high priority for states and the international system.