Tag Archives: climate

Risky Business:   Finding the Right Button to Push on Climate Change, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Jul

Monkey on Ice

The second they stopped caring for each other is when they sealed their fate.  Courtney Praski

Anger, confusion, and a willingness to engage in bullying to get one’s way; these are all results of the current hot house climate we find ourselves in.  Diane Kalen-Sukra

Chad could put a solar panel on every roof in the country and yet become a barren desert due to the irresponsible environmental policies of distant foreigners.  Yuval Noah Harari

To save all we must risk all.  Friedrich von Schiller

All choices are fraught with peril, but inaction is the most perilous of all.  Frewin Jones

I’m spending much of this long holiday weekend sitting in front of both a computer and a fan running at full speed.  Though the most severe heat promised over the next two months has not yet come here, this current, muggy iteration is energy-sapping enough.

A quick indulgence of my Weather Channel obsession gives some indication of where we in New York might soon be headed.  From Japan to Western Europe and from India to Australia, devastating heat waves have brought much of life to a standstill.   In Anchorage, Alaska temperatures this week climbed to record levels evoking images of far-away Florida more than of the nearby Arctic.  And in Greenland, so much ice has melted that residents are now assessing the economic opportunities of selling sand to fortify the coastlines of other climate-impacted communities.

And it is not only the heat, but the storms that inevitably follow in its wake.  Already in this summer season we have followed Hurricane Barbara off the Pacific coast of Mexico. And while the Atlantic is relatively quiet so far, forecasters have predicted at least a dozen “named” storms for late summer and fall, with perhaps as many as four of these causing significant damage to places like Haiti and Puerto Rico which have only barely recovered from the destruction of last year’s hurricane season.

As temperatures and sea levels rise, as storms form more frequently and violently, the external risks to “communities of life,” human and other, become more apparent.   What is less obvious, perhaps, is the internal dimensions of risk, finding and acting on the fortitude and courage to match the severity of a deteriorating physical environment with what could only be called a fierce response, a fierceness that is not unlike how parents respond to a gravely sick child, or how neighbors respond to a catastrophic fire or flood.

This is not quite the same as the “panic” recently called for by youth activist Greta Thunberg.  Panic short-circuits a healthy and engaged relationship between our cognitive and emotional faculties.  Panic tends to freeze attention on threats in ways that undermine helpful responses.  It is an emotion well-suited to Hollywood horror films, but not as much to mobilizing the broad and determined public actions – from mass plastics removal and tree planting to ending our fossil fuel addictions – which the current “extinction rebellion” in which Greta is so prominent rightly demands of us.

Like most large institutions, the UN exists largely as a “panic-free zone.”  There is little hand-wringing here, few fiery speeches or raw emotions that might endanger diplomatic relations or resolution negotiations.   Indeed, one piece of consistent feed-back from the many young people with whom we have shared UN space over the years is the surprising lack of emotional content of most UN messaging.  What we collectively seem to be communicating, or hoping to communicate in any event, is that “we’ve got this,” that our strategies and assessments are at levels appropriate to the threats we now face.

Such messaging is not without its truth.  This past week alone, two events highlighted the strengths of UN policy response to the gravest of our current threats.   One of these was a dialogue on “special political missions” convened by Liberia as chair of the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee.  As budgets for UN peacekeeping are being slashed, SPMs are touted as the “one of the most effective tools…to advance preventive diplomacy, conflict prevention and peacebuilding” in partnership with national governments and regional organizations.   For us and for many in the room, the hope is that field-based SPMs can both help keep the peace and provide another pipeline of local knowledge and perspectives on how, as one example, threats from climate change are affecting local residents in real time – the storms and flooding, the droughts and related water emergencies – threats provoking local misery and forcing displacement on a vast scale.

In a smaller UN conference room, Switzerland and the UN’s office for Disaster Risk Reduction held a session focused on a review of the 2019 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction.  With remarks from UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, the event underscored the need for broader, more inclusive risk assessments that utilize the best available science and promote institutional and community resilience in the places most likely to be directly affected by climate-related threats.  Most important to us was the expressed view that “risk is complex and systemic, and can no longer be addressed hazard-by-hazard.”  Such systemic risk, as underscored by Swiss Ambassador Lauber, can best (and perhaps only) be managed within multi-lateral frameworks.

But management strategies on climate alone, no matter how clever and science-based they might be, are unlikely to stem this toxic and urgent tide.  Unless we are prepared to explain to our children why “adaptation” is the best our fragile societies are now capable of, we must keep our focus on climate change mitigation, on raising both our level of urgency (not panic) and the fierceness of our individual and collective responses.   We must change more behavior (beginning with our own), fix our broken politics, plant more trees, diversify our agriculture, create opportunities for greater citizen engagement, and tell more of the truth about the distances our clever, modern societies have fallen, and how we keep contributing to the decline.

And we must insist that our leadership embraces in its pronouncements and policies more clear-eyed and action-oriented assessments of the messes we have collectively gotten ourselves into.

This coming week, as many as 2000 academics, journalists and civil society representatives will descend on the UN for the 2019 High Level Political Forum (HLPF), a time to assess levels of progress (and deficiencies) related to our 2030 Development Agenda commitments at both national and international level.  Notwithstanding the deep ecological footprint associated with conducting this assessment, it is critical that we make the best effort we can to move beyond funding requests and organizational mandates, to remind diplomats of the virtual absurdity of sustainable development in a world where seemingly-intractable conflict rages, human rights are gleefully trampled upon, and more and more societies bake to a golden brown under a relentless sun.

Put simply, we need to risk more, to care more, if we are to restore more.   Inaction, or even action that is simply not commensurate with our current challenges, will not get us to a better world by 2030, a world where guns are silent, storms are milder, the displaced have recovered their homes, and panic is no longer an option.  We have a decade left to demonstrate the fierce commitments that can forge a genuinely sustainable path linking the management of climate crisis and its (for now) still-possible mitigation.

Of all the buttons on our policy console, this is the one that now needs to be pushed.

Lonelier Planet: Keeping the Natural World and Each Other at Arms-Length, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Jun

UN Signing

Broken vows are like broken mirrors. They leave those who held to them bleeding and staring at fractured images of themselves. Richard Paul Evans

The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.  F. Scott Fitzgerald

Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.  John Steinbeck

Even for me life had its gleams of sunshine. Charlotte Brontë

We’re all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding.  Rudyard Kipling

As some of you already know, I have often asked younger folks, including interns here, to find and read a newspaper from the day they were born, to get a clearer (and perhaps more empowering) sense of how much has changed on their still-youthful watches — for better and for worse — opportunities seized and neglected, promises fulfilled and ignored, connections strengthened and severed.

My own family had a habit of holding on to old newspapers, especially those with headlines that seemed to convey more than short-term importance.  As a result, I have in my possession (and have added myself) original papers from some of the key moments of my now-longish life, including the assassination of key political figures from Kennedy to King, the Iranian hostage situation that turned the US presidency over to Ronald Reagan in 1980, the multiple successes of the US space program leading to a first-ever moon landing, the shocking images of oil-stained wildlife that led to the early environmental movement, nations arming and disarming, and much more.

Beyond the headlines, the newspapers – some now over 50 years old — reveal the fabric and narrative of life in those times: a different set of consumer choices and sometimes petty political disagreements, of course, and certainly plenty of long-outdated technology, but also events and movements that shaped more than the generation of which they were a part. These would include a vicious war in Vietnam and marches for racial justice on the streets of US cities; the stubborn persistence of colonial rule, of discrimination against Palestinians and of the apartheid system in South Africa; a Cold War that simmered for years and divided us (including at the UN) beyond geographical boundaries; women (primarily but not exclusively in the west) who were starting to bust out the cultural straightjackets that defined those eras.

I am not a sentimental person by nature, but I do appreciate the glimpses into our human habits and complexities as revealed through these newspapers.  That the papers are discolored and badly frayed now is highly symbolic, for our world is a bit like that now – still harboring human possibility but also crumbling at the edges, badly discolored and threatening to disintegrate altogether.  We’ve largely forgotten where we came from, what has connected and distanced us as nations and peoples, the foolishness of those earlier times that has not had nearly enough impact in mitigating the foolishness of these current times.

Inside the UN, we still struggle with echoes of mistakes past, including the last vestiges of colonial rule focused on challenging and contentious issues around the Malvinas (Falklands), Western Sahara, Gibraltar and Puerto Rico. In this same week, the Security Council renewed/expanded robust mandates for MINUSMA in Mali and MONUSCO in DR Congo as well as a 4 month extension on the drawdown of UNAMID in Darfur, all while three permanent members conspire separately to reduce funding for peacekeeping operations.  The General Assembly hosted a moving discussion on anti-Semitism, but with the backdrop of our collective reluctance to bridge divides and end discrimination in a sustainable manner.  A meeting with the chairs of human rights treaty bodies failed to properly acknowledge the creeping disregard for human rights norms and international law obligations that makes the task of these (volunteer) chairs almost unmanageable.  The deadlock in the Security Council over the Iran Nuclear agreement (JCPOA) threatens to unravel remaining compliance levels while fresh violence in Idlib (Syria) in the name of “countering terrorism” is creating new levels of displacement among many already displaced by previous violence.

And then there is the matter of climate, an “emergency” of epic proportions that has yet to be declared as such by most UN member states that have heard the warnings but have been slow to adjust mindsets and policies.  Indeed, at an event this week on “water and disaster risk reduction,” speakers lamented the growing and largely unaddressed threats from rising sea levels and climate extremes — from severe drought to massive storms.  Such extremes threaten coastlines and, in some cases, entire nations, but also impact access to now-scarce fresh water in ways that, as one speaker noted, “constitute a major and growing threat to states.”  A presenter from Japan put it even more bluntly, suggesting that cooperation levels on water, climate and disaster risk/response will tell us much going forward about “whether or not we have become a global community.”

The testimony on all of this is sobering.  It appears that we may have already transitioned from climate mitigation to adaptation, leaving us with the challenge of adjusting to new global circumstances without making matters for planetary life much worse. As our newspapers and “smart” phones have made plain for some time, we are certainly a clever (if not particularly wise or reflective) species, able to build back from disaster and create new technologies to solve problems “on spec” if not always on time.

But cleverness may not be enough. The current dilemma for us is related both to our current isolationist dispositions and to the fact that our own adaptive pace is not reflected in the rest of the natural order.  Animals don’t have the capacity to adjust quickly to disruptions in their food supply.  Plants can’t magically find the means to self-pollinate or self-hydrate.   If indeed we are at or near an adaptive tipping point, we might well find ourselves increasingly alone as we witness a chain reaction of natural extinctions with prospects for global community and solidarity as remote as ever.

Thankfully, there are competent and inspirational voices inside and outside the building where we work every day who understand the degree to which the fraying of our climate  and our normative structures is pulling us further and further apart, leaving us to stare endlessly at our own “fractured images,” encouraging our retreat behind physical walls and into virtual realities, making us unreflective consumers of both endless reassurance and almost intolerable levels of suspicion – about our leadership, yes, but about most of the people and policies that are not in our obvious self-interest.

In one attempt to revive pragmatic hope, the president of the General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, convened an event on Wednesday for which we have long advocated – a “renewal of vows” by UN member states.  The event was reminiscent of the original charter signing in San Francisco almost 75 years ago; indeed the backdrop for this event was a film depicting the original signing.  And much like that first signing,  the PGA invited states, one-by-one, to ascend to an area in front of the podium and reaffirm through signature their commitment to the UN Charter and the values it espouses.

It was a moving event, but the PGA is no fool. There are no “blank stares” in her repertoire.  She sees up close the fraying of institutions and relationships, the retreat from norms and practices that affirm the “common good” to places where an often self-protective and rights-indifferent version of national interest predominates.  But she was also able to point to “echoes of San Francisco” in the 2030 Development Agenda, the Paris Climate Agreement and other multilateral policy measures.  As threats multiply, she maintained, “we must rekindle the spirit of 1945 and our service to the world’s people.”

A collection of state signatures is not going to save us from the self-inflicted loneliness of a world barren of species save for the survivors of wary, fearful and distracted humans.   But it is important for states and stakeholders to recall why a group of (almost all) men once sat in a California city and declared their intent to save us from the scourge of war.  As the PGA noted on Wednesday, these UN’s founders “were not dreamers but pragmatists, well aware of the unacceptable costs of conflict.”

If anything, the costs and consequences of our conflict and related challenges are higher now.  Our weapons are more destructive and seemingly omnipresent.  Our oceans are struggling to hold the life on which we depend.  Our politics are increasingly “seas of misunderstanding,” and our climate is functioning more like a microwave than a thermostat.  Thus the question remains:  Have we or have we not become a global community?   The well-being of millions of species as well as human generations to come will likely depend on how (and how quickly) we respond.

Women’s Wear:  Sharing the Burdens of Those Who Defend and Inform, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Mar

Afghan II

 

To stand up for someone was to stitch your fate into the lining of theirs. Tom Rob Smith

Every human is fated to have one moment in their lives in which they can change their own destiny. Takayuki Yamaguchi

If I don’t help the women in Afghanistan, they won’t be around to help me. Cheryl Benard

It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women; that the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The end of this past work week was dominated by images that pointed human potential in vastly opposite directions.  In New Zealand, a mass killing in two mosques grabbed world headlines and caused many institutions – including the UN Security Council – to pause for a moment of silence, a moment that underscored both concern for victims and viceral unease at our collective inability to address — let alone eradicate — this “other terrorism.”  Indeed, the relative indifference evidenced by the government of the UN’s host nation stood only partially in contrast with the mostly muted levels of shock emanating from other states, shock perhaps due more to the startling location of this violence than to its severity.   We are collectively becoming numb to the incessant carnage, it appears, renouncing violence only when it hits too close to home, and often not even then.

On the same day, many thousands of teen-aged young people prepared to leave their classrooms and fill the world’s streets, taking adults like me to task for our negligence on climate threats.  Despite the warnings of insufficient responses, despite the scientific consensus on a threat more immediate and widespread than previously thought, we have mostly gone about our regular business as though our concerns were primarily grounded in rhetoric rather than in survival.  Moreover, we have inflicted this “business” on succeeding generations mostly stuck in classrooms and consumed with admission to next educational levels while the planet melts, millions are on the move, rights are being violated with impunity, and violent tensions are on the rise.

That said, it is especially good for all of us that young people take to the streets to protest some portion of the absurdity of “preparing for life” on a planet that might not be able to sustain life as we know it for that much longer.  Among their contributons, their presence on our avenues and boulevards is a reminder to the rest of us that the greatest gift to climate deniers is the lifestyle indifference of we who claim to accept the “reality” of climate threats, our unwillingness to reduce our ecological footprint, to care for the displaced and discriminated, to hold erstwhile “leadership” accountable for what is coming and not only what is.

The UN of course takes regular notice of threats from terrorism and violence even if it must often wait for states, especially powerful ones, to take up their own portions of global responsibility.  For this week, however, threats to and opportunities for women dominated the UN during the 63rd convening of ECOSOC’s Commission for the Status of Women (CSW), ably chaired by Ireland.  Thousands of women from around the world made the trek to New York, filling virtually every available UN space in plenary sessions and copious side events to discuss the merits of “social protection” and link “women’s empowerment” to sustainable development goals previously promised to the world through the 2030 Development Agenda.

The CSW is both a major branding opportunity and a bit of a “mixed bag” for the UN, which failed once again to secure guarantees from the host state for access by all the women registered, while also largely failing to provide levels of hospitality that women who have traveled long distances to participate surely deserve.  What these CSW delegates found instead is endless lines for coffee and basic sustenance, standing room only side events, and rest room configurations that had not been adjusted in any way to accommodate the thousands of women now in the building.  The security officers tasked with screening and providing direction for these women have often been no less stressed than the visiting women themselves.

Moreover, there is a sense in which delegates seem to have been led to believe that the CSW is breaking new ground for the UN in terms of ending impunity for sexual violence in conflict, ensuring women’s participation in political and peace processes, and guaranteeing educational opportunity and social protection for women and girls.   These matters already constitute a significant portion of our regular discourse here at the UN.  This is as it should be, with the caveats that our gendered jargon (how do we know when someone is “empowered?”) might actually impede a deeper, connected understanding of the many layers of exclusion that infect our collective interests.  For all the barriers faced by women in diverse cultural contexts, theirs is but one ample portion of a number of often-interlocked exclusions associated with race, religion, ethnicity, poverty, disability and social class. These factors contribute to complex and multi-layered patterns of discrimination that impact women to be sure, but hardly women alone.

It is in the CSW side events where the complexities of human lives – women’s lives – are mostly likely to find their voice.  Two such side events stood out for us this past week.  The first, “Current Challenges and Opportunities for Women Human Rights Defenders,” featured women from Syria, Myanmar, Sudan, Nicaragua and elsewhere who literally put their lives on the line to defend rights and public interests in places where most of us – including many who reside in our UN safe spaces – would not be anxious to tread.  The powerful and largely humble testimony of these women did not downplay either the threats they face in the field (including gender-specific threats) or the limited reach of UN protections against reprisals for their activities (duly acknowledged by the UN officials present).  Women defenders are expected to “navigate layers of power” while insisting that their own “layered” and often-traumatic experiences inform what one defender referred to as women’s rights discourse that has become “too predictable,” a “tool for repressive states,” alienating for many women on the front lines of change.

Another side event this week, “Journalism and the empowerment of women,” featured women journalists whose difficult work is both facilitated and imperiled by their deep connection to and reliance on “social media.” Such platforms have become havens for “anonymous” and mean-spirited trolling of the journalists who tell the public things they would rather not know, trolling sometimes accompanied by gendered threats of overt violence that, in some instances, morph into physical attacks against individuals and families.  One of the free-lance panelists who is dedicated to covering right-wing movements cited “staggering” amounts of anti-Semitic, derogatory responses on social media in response to her body of reporting. Another journalist capably extended the discourse on exclusion and abuse, noting that when you examine issues of race, “you put a target on your back,” a target for which there is scant protection, especially from online assaults. Male journalists, it was noted, are also subject to abuse, but are generally regarded as “hated equals,” a courtesy rarely extended to women in the profession.

I was so grateful for the women on both these panels who were generally able to speak clearly about the extraordinary pressures they face without demonizing others or minimizing the generalized impacts of the recrimination and violence that characterize much of our current social climate.  But I also wondered: What keeps them going when their energy and hope have worn thin?  What allows them to do their work, day after day, knowing that they and their families risk being “hung out to dry” by those of us in much safer spaces who can simply redirect our energy to other matters?   Is it pride and determination? Have they simply “stitched their fate” with those serially oppressed?  Do they feel the hurt that can only be healed through intention?   We need to know more about their motivations and feed off their examples.

With an absence of essentialist jargon and with the recognition that too much global policy is like rain that forms in the clouds but never reaches the parched earth, women defenders and journalists are boldly sharing stories and contexts that some want to kill and too many others ignore.  If we want a world where families are safe to worship and children are confident in the health of a planet that will house their adult aspirations, we must all pledge to do whatever it takes to offer mechanisms of protection and solidarity with the eye-opening and often life-saving work of these people of courage.

 

 

 

Cool Spa:  Endorsing Emotions Appropriate for Urgent Times, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 Jan

panic

It was like when you make a move in chess and just as you take your finger off the piece, you see the mistake you’ve made, and there’s this panic because you don’t know yet the scale of disaster you’ve left yourself open to.  Kazuo Ishiguro

But there’s another sort of terror: the terror of failure, of being blamed for some disaster, or of assuming responsibility.  David Weber

The two of them, the smart ones, the clever ones, the great defenders of truth and fairness and justice, had done nothing while others had worked themselves to exhaustion.  Michael Grant

It’s a cruel fact of war that it takes little more than applying pressure to one finger to end another person’s life. More than that, it’s a cruel fact of life that we are hardwired to follow the crowd in a moment of panic.  Trevor Richardson

This was potentially a tide-turning week for the world and the UN found itself at the epicenter of much of it.

Yesterday the Security Council held a rare Saturday session to focus on the situation in Venezuela.  The conversation attracted numerous ministers and other senior diplomats, both Council members and many interested regional states, and featured the presence of US Secretary of State Pompeo who stuck around long enough to bash Cuba and issue a warning to countries still on the fence regarding the legitimacy of the Maduro presidency that it is “time to choose.”  He was replaced around the oval by Elliot Abrams of Iran-Contra infamy who was making his debut as chief adviser on Venezuela to the current US president.

The optics of this were not ideal for the US, for whom the presence of Abrams and the bullying tactics of Pompeo underscored fears of some states that the US is now resurrecting a modernist version of the Monroe Doctrine and its “backyard” justifications for aggressive intervention.   There is still vast, lingering pain throughout the region regarding prior “arrangements” between the US and its client states, governments at times willing to throw their own people under the bus to enable the policy objectives of its larger neighbor over which they essentially have no say.

And yet, many states were clear that the current situation in Venezuela, one which has resulted in mass displacement, rights violations and widespread economic ruin, has conspired to delegitimize the Maduro government.  European states at this meeting went so far as to propose an “eight day” window within which Maduro must arrange for new elections, a proposal subsequently mocked by the Russians.  Others preferred the “path of negotiations” approach with facilitation offered by Mexico and Uruguay.  Regardless, emotions were raw during much of this five hour session. Tensions among states seeking to transition the situation in Caracas and do justice to the many thousands of currently displaced (and the neighboring countries hosting them) as well as among states fearing the return of a more hostile US “backyard” remained consistently high.

Surprisingly a bit less “raw” was Friday’s Council debate on the climate-conflict nexus organized by January’s Council president the Dominican Republic.  In a discussion that spanned eight uninterrupted hours and involved 82 state speakers, both the urgency and the politics of climate response were on display. While there were no “climate denying” statements made (the US spoke effectively on disaster response but failed to utter the “C” word), many states (including Germany and some Council colleagues) noted that while climate change might not be the cause of conflict, its impacts have a “multiplier” effect on political and security tensions, adding flooding, drought, storms and other “disasters” to a worrisome global mix characterized by still-too-high levels of poverty and mass displacement, too much plastic in our oceans, and too many hands grabbing at the “cookie jar” of dwindling natural resources.  While some states shared concern about Council energy being “diluted” by excess attention to this particular “thematic obligation,” the Fiji representative rightly noted that we have reached the “tipping point” on climate, echoing Japan’s call for climate considerations integrated “throughout the conflict cycle” and Ireland’s call to explore the climate-conflict nexus across the spectrum of UN policymaking.

Beyond the UN this week was the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, bringing together the elites of the planet –complete with their copious entourages and private jets — to deliberate on the fate of a world they (in the aggregate) have done much to destroy on behalf of global citizens about whom too many of these “leaders” seem to actually care little.  This toxic (in my view) event which draws media attention as though this were the policy equivalent of a Super Bowl or Academy Awards, provides yet another reminder of the residual “vertical” dimensions of global governance, placing on display guardians of the planet who, so far as we can tell, are principally skilled at guarding their own privilege.  Media coverage this year focused on the “gloom” of Davos as elites contemplated the uncertainty of these times – as though much of the rest of this largely “exhausted” planet doesn’t cope with higher levels of uncertainty all the time!

But something did come out of Davos this year that grabbed considerable media interest and not without reason.  Perhaps my favorite quotation of the entire week came from a Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, whose warning to the Davos elites seemed to prompt at least a bit of soul-searching:

Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.

Preaching panic and culpability to generations (including diplomats and elites) that so often go out of their way to “keep cool,” that too-often misconstrue the difference between “keeping your head” and willful indifference to anything that might cause someone to actually and practically care, surely seems like risky business.  But in these times it is also essential business.

Let’s put this “panic” in some perspective.  The “playing it cool” game, like most other games we now indulge, has positive and negative repercussions.  To the extent that it implies keeping your head while others around you are losing theirs, this is surely a skill worth cultivating.  But the degree to which “cool” and its attendant platitudes become the mask behind which we hide from seeing, from feeling, from responding, then such “cool” becomes merely the latest iteration of a narcissistic pattern that too-easily hardens into inattention and dismissiveness; indeed into a potential “disorder” in its own right.

A similar distinction can be attributed to “panic.”  If panic is, as it so often is these days, a sub-set of our now-chronic anxiety, then it is related primarily to our perceived incapacity to control outcomes and/or to recover our brand from ill- advised movements “on the chess board.”  Panic in this sense is more likely to drive an irrational herd than to drive productive outcomes, concerned more with finding “spas” and other niches of personal relief and escape than urgently using those skills and capacities available to help resolve whatever crises make their appearance before us.

As much as we might like to think otherwise within our bastions of “cool,” there are many times when “panic” represents the more accurate reading of circumstance: the parent hovering over a desperately sick child; the homeless person on the cusp of a deadly hypothermia; a family evading traffickers as they seek fresh water and arable farmland, or escape from political instability; an entire nation watching helplessly as melting ice caps raise ocean levels, breeching fresh water supplies with salt and shifting fish stocks away from the access on which local populations depend.  These circumstances are not diminishing in frequency; indeed they threaten to carry us to our collective demise unless we grasp both the urgency they represent and our still-potent (for now) capacity for contructive response.

If some of the “small island” and other states who participated in Friday’s Council debate on climate change and conflict are correct; if their growing and still-unheeded concerns are indeed justified by circumstance; if the warnings uttered in Davos by Greta Thunberg have the merit that many seem to think they do; then “panic” in its most urgent and productive sense is fully warranted.  Not the panic of the herd, but neither the “cool” detachment of persons who don’t (or refuse to) understand that the metaphorical house fire whose potential and implications they fear has long been burning.

 

Weather Vane: Gauging Directions of Multilateral Threat, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Sep

Weather

Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.  Benjamin Franklin

We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice; we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dislike in yourself what you dislike in others. Hazrat Ali Ibn Abu-Talib

When culture is based on a dominator model, not only will it be violent but it will frame all relationships as power strugglesbell hooks

This has been a tough week for many.  As storms in the Atlantic and Pacific lined up like aircraft at an international airport, two of them created a special havoc – one in the Carolinas and another in the Philippines, two of the seemingly growing number of places in the world frequented by storms that, over and over, undermine lives and livelihoods.

Though my own inconveniences are minimal, I like others have friends and family in these stormy places.  I have also done work in those places and helped others do their own.  In many of these communities, a lifetime of struggle to raise families and improve living conditions has been drowned and battered yet again by forces that humanity as a whole has done plenty to unleash but to which these residents, themselves, have contributed little.  For them, displacement might become their storm-driven outcome.

The uneven misery from these climate events was underscored by a local reporter covering what is now only the first wave of Florence’s impacts on the Carolinas.

In most disasters, the poor suffer disproportionately, and it is no different here. The neighborhoods struggling to rebuild after Matthew are the same neighborhoods most at risk to flood again. Haggins was barely getting by back then, crashing with friends. After the water receded, she tried to go collect the little she owned from her friends’ houses, but they’d all flooded and everything she had in the world was gone.

Most of us — even those of us who should know better — have a hard time grasping the concept of “everything gone,” indeed often have a hard time grasping the degree to which those bearing the brunt of horrific storms this week were barely “making it” while the sun was still shining and the breezes were gentle.  There is little justice where climate shocks are concerned, no court to hold the likes of Florence and Mangkhut accountable.  There is mostly just a bevy of folks trying to save what’s left amidst the sobering outlook of more storms revving up their deadly engines and blowing away any reasonable prospects for recovery.

But while we can’t hold these storms and their climate incubators responsible, there are mechanisms of justice  (however imperfect they might be at present) that promise some hope for persons victimized by neighbors, insurgents and governments — humans whose collective predation seems recently to have exceeded in intensity and intentionality anything that we have yet witnessed elsewhere in the animal kingdom.  Inside the UN, there has been a steady recognition that impunity for the most serious crimes represents a stain on our collective system of justice; that the failure to hold individuals and states accountable for their crimes – committed against many of the same people victimized by climate shocks – is a glaring mark against the rule of law that undermines what remains of our robust multilateral system of governance.

To its credit, the UN recognizes the danger and is doing its part to build or restore competent, impartial justice systems and create special criminal tribunals from Haiti to Central African Republic, partially in keeping with the general belief that such justice competence is essential for building a world consistent with the our 2030 Development Agenda aspiratons.   The UN has also pushed for accountability on chemical weapons use in Syria through the General Assembly; has created a “residual mechanism” to handle pending cases from the criminal tribunals established for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia; and has (largely through the Security Council) worked to ensure that the use of coercive sanctions is more carefully targeted to punish perpetrators without endangering civilians. The UN and many member states have also continued to vocally support the International Criminal Court despite challenges (including some testy moments with the ICC Prosecutor) from some permanent members of a Security Council which issues ICC referrals and (ostensibly) ensures that states cooperate with the Court’s investigations and warrants.

Unfortunately, we are now in danger of turning our current political “climate” of ethno-centrism, border defensiveness and general suspicion into an art form, leading to a host of double standards – including at the UN – regarding divergent levels of accountability for actions undertaken by powerful states relative to “lesser” countries that simply find it hard to protect themselves from large-state whims.  As evidenced by this week’s tirade by John Bolton, the US is fully committed to joining the ranks of prominent states seemingly “doubling down” on advocacy for an international “justice system” predicated less on the rule of law and more on narrow perceptions of national interest.

Efforts by the International Criminal Court to level the accountability playing field has incurred the wrath of some of the more powerful governments seeking to justify and preserve that age-old entitlement utilized in a somewhat different form by parents content to push their children into a lifetime of therapy – “we do what we want, you do what we say.”

Through dedicated efforts from states (including current and soon-to-be Council members) and civil society organizations, the ICC has in fact improved its investigative and prosecutorial procedures while expanding its focus into the realms of conflict-based sexual violence and, most recently, the crime of aggression.  It has successfully prosecuted criminals such as in the recent (albeit controversial and expensive) case of the DRC’s Bemba Gombo, and has recently accepted jurisdiction on matters related to the forced deportation of Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh.  It’s Trust Fund for Victims has reinforced on the international agenda (despite current funding limitations) the need to ensure reparations and psycho-social support for those victimized by the atrocity crimes that are still much too pervasive in our world.

The ICC’s limitations and growth edges are widely known, and include the aforementioned limitations of state and Security Council cooperation and the Court’s inability to gain traction on crimes committed by the world’s major powers.  That said, it must be noted that the ICC is intended to be a “court of last resort,” to be invoked only in situations where domestic courts are unable or unwilling to prosecute war criminals and other purveyors of mass atrocities.  If John Bolton, for instance, were more interested in ensuring that the conduct of US military operations was in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights law, the alleged jurisdictional threats and related “power struggles” involving the ICC would be quite less alarming.

Nevertheless, these attacks on the ICC remain dangerous at multiple levels. They undermine confidence in international law, especially on the part of victims whose avenues for redress are already far-too-limited.  They undermine confidence in international peace and security still the province of largely unaccountable state powers.  And they undermine confidence in the international system that now seeks to build commitments to action on a wide range of fronts – and specifically to address the climate threats which have this week turned fertile areas of the Carolinas and the Philippines into unusable swaths of water and mud, motivating many to consider abandoning communities that had nurtured their families for many years.

It has been a theme of this space for some time, but it bears repeating here.  We are responsible not only for what we propose, but for what our proposals enable for others, the consequences that ensue when others “take up our cues” and apply them in other contexts.   This week’s ICC-focused “cue” from Bolton is one that the causes of international justice and multilateral effectiveness on climate and other global threats could well have done without.

A Credible Path Forward for ASEAN on Climate Risks, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Jul

Legitimacy is based on fairness, voice and predictability.  Malcolm Gladwell

A superior person is modest in speech, but exceeds in action. Confucius

Every action or perceived inaction shapes credibility. Mindy Hall

Claiming that you are what you are not will obscure the strengths you do have while destroying your credibility.  Tom Hayes

Thanks to the excellent organizing work of Dr. Catherine Jones of St. Andrews University, Scotland and colleagues from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, Indonesia, Global Action was pleased to participate in a two-day seminar, “Peacekeeping, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief.”  The seminar specifically looked at the relationship between peacekeeping assets and the growing humanitarian burdens facing Indonesia and its regional neighbors from a variety of natural disasters increasingly attributable to climate change.

The seminar group included Indonesian government officials tasked with national peacekeeping policy and scholars skilled in dissecting regional peacekeeping assets and policy concerns.  Assumptions were made – rightly I think though barely interrogated– that the already great burdens of humanitarian response to either emergency or “slow onset” disasters is only likely to increase across the region.  The questions then become:  How do we better prepare communities to face this growing threat? What role might peacekeeping play in emergency response and resiliency building? What other skills, capacities and “partnerships” (a term that came up often at these meetings) might we need to develop in order to ensure timely, comprehensive, competent and (dare we say) rights-based responses?  And in that light, how do we (to quote one of the participants) “capture” more of the stories of how local communities are responding to these evolving climate threats?

The backdrop for this discussion was ably articulated by several participants in this “Chatham House” format.  As readers of these postings are already familiar, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member Indonesia is set to join the UN Security Council in January to begin its 4th stint as an elected member.  Much has changed in the 10 years since Indonesia was last on the Council, including prickly conflict dynamics regarding Iran nuclear and Syria chemical weapons; peacekeeping mandates which are now generally more coercive, more protection-oriented and (thankfully) tied more closely to political processes; and formal consideration of a wider range of security-related global problems (including those related to climate), thematic obligations which demand attention from the entire international community.

As Indonesia is well aware from its leadership roles in the non-aligned movement, disarmament affairs and the Peacebuilding Commission, the UN system faces daunting challenges both in the world and within its own conference rooms.  Recent pleas for overdue assessed funding from the UN Secretary-General along with public threats to muiltilateralism from heads of some member states underscore the precarious nature of some of the UN’s most important commitments – to ocean and climate health, to the fulfillment of the sustainable development goals, to the maintenance of an effective human rights system, to timely and effective peacekeeping and peacebuilding, and to the resolution of conflicts from Yemen to Central African Republic that continue to drain funds and political will from the international community and compromise (at least for some states) the credibility of the very Security Council that Indonesia is set to join.

Amidst this uncertain policy climate, there appear to be growing calls for collaboration between the states of ASEAN and the UN along the lines of peace and security partnerships already well established with the African Union and European Union.  This is not the space to assess the pitfalls that a too-hastily-engaged alliance might ultimately expose, but seminar participants were right to point out the “long shadows” currently cast by China and the US over virtually all aspects of regional security, UN partnership or no.  What we would wish to see going forward is more analysis of the inter-sectional, climate- security risks facing small regional states as well as some of the current impediments to creating genuinely horizontal, inclusive, credible partnerships between the UN and regional bodies such as ASEAN. As a cautionary tale on partnerships, exhibit A might be the recent Council decision to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan over the objections of African Union and IGAD officials who have been at the center of efforts to broker a sustainable peace in that country.

Indeed, a case could be made that any ASEAN or other regional partnership with the UN should look beyond the alleged prestige from such arrangements to some of the functional limitations that would need to be overcome if such partnerships are to become context appropriate – sensitive both to the threats to be addressed and the most culturally-appropriate tools and methods for addressing them.  Rather than replicating the ambitions of regions that seem to have garnered “insider status” at the UN within and beyond the Security Council, ASEAN states and scholars such as those at this seminar would do us all well to help guide discussions that seek to preserve strategic autonomy, explore benefits and limitations in a more systemic manner, clarify inter-relationships among core regional threats –including climate events, nuclear  perils and super-power posturing and “ad hoc” policymaking– and examine the fitness of existing resources (sometimes presenting in “friendly” military garb) to create stability and integrate more fully than at present the skills and energies of community-based stakeholders.

Comprehensive peace arrangements sufficient to this vast region must account for many factors. The way forward to credible regional agreements and partnerships with the UN and other international organizations characterized by reliability, transparency, trust-building and attentiveness to political and cultural context lies still beyond the horizon.  Indeed, one valuable next step to bring the horizon closer might be a thorough examination of the “Plan of Action” to implement the Joint Declaration on Comprehensive Partnership between ASEAN and the United Nations (2016-2020).  This “plan” is under-developed and under-utilized to be sure, but it also contains elements that intentionally link peacekeeping, civil-military coordination and disaster management/response. Properly handled, this document could help ASEAN states “practice” forms of cooperation that both effectively address climate impacts and lay the groundwork for developing or deepening other forms of bilateral and multilateral security cooperation. Such “practice” is, from our standpoint at least, time well spent.

Our consistent view has been and remains that we have reached a dangerous tipping point on climate that is sure to result in an increased number of “events” – more and more of them catastrophic — that will test virtually all current response capacities and security arrangements.  From this point, we must do more to ensure that the right tools and capacities are available to stave off slow-onset crises and stabilize communities in the face of those less predictable, rapid-onset emergencies.   If the collective security will of ASEAN states affirms the need for deeper UN security and climate partnerships, these states should at least ensure that such partnerships focus on (as one participant noted) their credibility and effectiveness in addressing threats such as those from climate more than on establishing their “legitimacy” in the eyes of the international community.  ASEAN, to our eyes at least, already seems quite legitimate enough.

Indonesia is sure to deal with its share of Security Council headaches over the next two years. But along with its new Council colleagues, especially Germany and South Africa, Indonesia has the capacity to provide strong and (when needed) contrary policy guidance for a Council that is too often bogged down in its own security duties and disconnected from the duties of its UN colleagues. Helping to develop, test and implement a robust regional capacity for disaster response and stabilization – a capacity that fully utilizes all relevant peacekeeping assets but is not constrained by them — would pave the way for more reliable and trust-worthy security-related collaborations within and across the region.

During our seminar, Indonesia affirmed its commitment to the full integration of gender, conflict prevention and civilian peacekeeping capacities, all towards what one official referred to as a “global ecosystem for peace.”  For all who yearn for an end to armed conflict, and perhaps especially for those within the ASEAN region, it should be clear that sustained attention to the implications of our damaged eco-system must accompany, if not precede, any successful and sustainable peace.

 

Glass Cleaner: Reflecting the Inspiration We Find in the World, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 Aug

flood

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it. Edith Wharton

It is never too late to be what you might have been. George Eliot

Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world. Desmond Tutu

We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us. Joseph Campbell

I’m sitting in the office early on a beautiful Sunday morning in New York, sifting through seemingly endless lists of “inspiring” quotations, hoping to locate one or more offering a bit more insight into what “inspiration” actually requires — why we in the NGO world need to address our own inspiration needs; but also why it is such an important (if often overlooked) aspect of our work that we are willing to offer inspiration for and/or “reflect forward” the inspiration provided by others.

This might seem like an odd topic to take up in a setting like the United Nations, a place that most people who have not given up on us entirely think is literally dripping with inspiration.  Look at all the good work that emanates at least in part from this space; the disaster relief supplied, pandemics overcome, landmines disabled, refugees housed, impunity challenged. Under the UN flag, people risk their own lives daily to protect and provide provisions to civilians in horrific conflict zones.   Under the UN flag, people doggedly pursue elusive political agreements and even more elusive justice.  Under the UN flag, people rally stakeholders to stave off the grave consequences associated with a warming planet, staggering levels of armament and vast populations on the move, risking much in the search for safer havens. Under the UN flag (and with excellent leadership from the current President of the General Assembly, Fiji’s Peter Thomson), dozens of small island nations have banded together in common cause, gathering allies powerful and humble from other parts of the world and then lodging urgent, science-based appeals for ocean health.

There has never been any doubt in our minds about the value of this policy space.  While the UN might never live up to the standards established by its often-incessant self-branding, there is little reason to believe that any of the (more and less) existential messes we have inflicted on ourselves are more likely to be resolved in its absence.

But while the UN is (to our view) very much necessary to global healing, it is also, equally clearly, not sufficient.  Those of us who walk these policy corridors many hours each day quickly become familiar with this system’s limitations:  the restrictive power imbalances among states; the conflict-related messes we struggle to clean up that didn’t need to be messed up in the first place; the promises on development, armaments and more that we so often make to the world and that we know, at face value at least, we are unlikely to keep; the amount of time we spend “condemning” state conduct without any prospect of meaningful follow-through; the often competitive and non-transparent manner in which we engage with other stakeholders, certainly including within and towards the “community” of NGOs.

As with its many successes, there is more to the UN’s “insufficiency” of course, more reasons for people to question if UN and government officials truly grasp the implications of the precarious moment we find ourselves in. Are our levels of attentiveness, dedication and urgency appropriate to the challenges of our times?   Are we doing all that we can with the opportunities presented here, including doing enough to inspire others to fill in our gaps and raise expectations for our collective performance? Do we have both the courage to keep our own candle of inspiration alive and (perhaps more important) the humility to learn from and properly reflect forward the light of inspiration offered by so many others?

This week we in the office (and far beyond) mourned the death of Tony De Brum, the former Foreign Minister of Marshall Islands and a formidable voice for sanity on many issues, but especially on the threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change.  As BBC and other media tributes this week (along with a few personal stories told by our close colleague, John Burroughs) made clear to all, De Brum was heavily and persistently motivated by his life experiences – including witnessing the “Bravo” nuclear test in 1954 while fishing with family – to become a “legendary” advocate for his people and the small islands that still conceal poisons from the early nuclear era and are now threatened by seemingly relentless sea level rises.  The “coalition of high ambition” that De Brum helped to create was instrumental in bringing about the unprecedented Paris Climate Agreement.  As he would no doubt recognize, such a coalition is now needed in many other policy areas where the greed and carelessness of all of us have placed the future of our children (and so many other life forms) in considerable peril.

As with current PGA President Thomson, De Brum demonstrated in full measure that it is not necessary to be a major player from a powerful state to have meaningful impact.  Nor are big-ticket contributions from the most powerful institutions necessarily what are now needed most.  Around the world, from Harlem to the Marshall Islands, there are gardens to tend, children to teach, conflicts to mediate, coastlines to clean, rights to defend, refugees to shelter, poverty to eradicate.  And today, as on too many climate-affected days, flood victims to rescue from the rooftops.

We all should pledge to do more in these times, including providing reassurance and inspiration for all who seek to help “overwhelm” our common, stubborn challenges.  But lest we forget:  many are already doing deeds to promote sustainable peace and justice, often beyond the spotlight of national media and the recognition of international organizations. And as much as we might like it otherwise, it is through reflecting those many deeds, rather than through promotiong our own actions, that inspiration and hope for meaningful, sustainable change can have its greatest impact.  To magnify the light for these murky times, the mirror is likely more potent than the candle.