Tag Archives: conflict

Words of Wisdom: Raising the Bar on Council Culture, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Jan


Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life. Immanuel Kant

It’s easier to resist at the beginning than at the end. Leonardo da Vinci

The less you talk, the more you’re listened to. Pauline Phillips

Never interrupt someone doing what you said couldn’t be done. Amelia Earhart

If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. Abraham Maslow

It’s early on a frigid Sunday in New York, the sort of morning that gives one a new appreciation for hibernation – slowing down the collective metabolism for a season to refresh and restore beyond the bitter elements; but in our case also to reflect on how we ourselves and the institutions we interact with can better fulfill our collective responsibilities.

The UN has been quiet this week, not quite hibernating, but certainly rebooting what had become by mid-December some badly frayed circuits.  The one significant exception was Friday’s “emergency” meeting in the Security Council called for by the US.   The meeting seemed less about how Iran is treating its demonstrators (the alleged and controversial topic of this first session under Kazakhstan’s presidency) and more about undermining confidence in the JCPOA – the Security Council endorsed agreement to restrict Iran’s development of its own nuclear weapons program.

The US has in the recent past used the Security Council as a platform to undercut the credibility of Iran – not only as an alleged sponsor of regional terror but as a state thus incapable of fulfilling agreements such as those embodied in the JCPOA.   The rationale appears to be that if Iran cannot be trusted in all things, it cannot be trusted in this thing either; in this instance despite the firm conviction of the IAEA that Iran is in compliance with its JCPOA obligations, a conviction which is accepted by most Council members including US “allies” France and the United Kingdom.

Meetings of this type are particularly frustrating for us; not only because of their “politicized” implications, but also because of the many conflicts that remain unresolved (such as in Yemen and Myanmar) or that, in instances such as Venezuela and Cameroon, barely seem to register on the Council’s scale of concern.  There is little doubt, as noted on Friday by ASG Zerihoun, that some official reactions to the protests in Iran were excessively violent, a matter of serious interest for Council members beyond the US, which itself had been accused of “grotesque intervention” by Iranian authorities.  But “serious interest” does not in itself justify an “emergency meeting” of the Council, nor does the hostile rhetoric focused on Iran’s at-times misguided policy decisions and human rights performance justify stubborn skepticism regarding Iran’s JCPOA-related compliance.  And it certainly does not justify time taken from interrogating and addressing other looming sites of violent conflict.

Honestly, it felt a bit jarring to emerge from a brief time of winter reflection into the midst of a Council discussion that frankly appeared more than anything else to be lacking in basic wisdom.  Jarring, but not a huge surprise. Council discussions are often more about scoring political points and feeling out the political limitations of national preferences than about full disclosures of national interest, placing policy preferences in their proper context, or the “clear-headed analysis” urged by new Security Council member Peru.

Indeed, wisdom seems to have become a largely discredited phenomenon in policy, in part because more claim it for themselves than exhibit its fruits and in part because of our tendency to keep things discrete – our personal lives from our professional lives, our politics from their personal and real-world implications.  Wisdom is born of experience but is not hostage to experience.   As implied by the quotations above, wisdom is about holding relevant things together, cultivating a long and engaged attention span, exercising self-restraint during times of stress or temptation,  seeing a bigger and richer picture, keeping our bearings when so many around us are losing their own.  It is about describing the (sometimes grave) obstacles in front of us and persistently calling attention to our collective responsibilities, especially to those who are distracted by less urgent matters.  It means talking less and listening more while ensuring that the words we employ have impact beyond their ability to brand preferences and manipulate outcomes.  Especially in the Council’s context, wisdom is about taking preventive measures to resist the outbreak of conflict which can minimize the need for remedial measures in conflict’s aftermath. It implies refraining from a preoccupation with one grievance such that our duty to identify and address grievances of equal or greater significance is compromised.

As some of the greatest minds in our collective history have noted, this wisdom business represents quite a high bar.  Fortunately for us, it is a “bar” that is reached every day by women and men in diverse cultural circumstances, persons with generally limited notoriety but with a demonstrated ability to “organize life,” to step back from the fray in a manner that clarifies options and implications going forward without haughty or self-important aloofness. For us, this “organizing” includes an all-important reminder that most problems needing to be addressed in the world are not akin to an exposed nail in search of some metaphorical hammer.

As France sensibly explained on Friday, it is possible and advisable for the Council to both address “flash points” in the Middle East and honor its JCPOA and related agreements.   Yes it is possible; but what we witnessed Friday was, from the standpoint of wisdom, a clear regression – the JCPOA under senseless threat while “flash points” in Gaza, Yemen, Eastern Ghouta (Syria) and elsewhere within and outside the Middle East region remain stubbornly resistant to Council-initiated resolutions.  As regional and even existential threats to planetary well-being loom large, wiser engagements emanating from this Council would certainly be reassuring.

As we have noted with other issue contexts, Friday’s discussion on Iran summed up many of the problems with the Council’s prevalent “culture” – too many statements, too little listening, too many conflicts ignored, too much political manipulation of those conflicts which are addressed.  The new elected Council members for which Friday was their debut moment – Côte d’Ivoire, Kuwait, Peru, Netherlands, Poland and Equatorial Guinea – have no doubt already experienced several elements of what can be an overly political, wisdom-challenged policy space.   We hope that these elected members will do whatever they can – individually and collectively — to more effectively “organize the life” of the Council.  We promise to support  — certainly not to interrupt — their progress.

Explanation of Vote: Procedures that Clarify and Heal, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Nov


During a week in which considerable energy was expended on responses to a threatened US assault on climate-related multilateralism, UN Headquarters had on display its own controversies and contentions.  The 3rd Committee of the UN General Assembly (human rights) absorbed more than its share of conflict as delegates struggled over resolutions condemning the human rights records of individual states (Iran, Myanmar, Belarus, etc.) as well as the still-contentious matter of capital punishment – how to eliminate the practice (our preference) or at least to extend national moratoriums to minimize its use or threat of use by states.

Global Action’s interns were present for these discussions, the actual votes, and what the UN describes as “explanations of vote,” the opportunity for states to clarify why they supported a particular resolution or – more often – why they did not.  Our interns have been present for many of these “clarifications” and have noticed the diverse manifestations of “no” in UN processes: some states object on procedural grounds (such as believing that country-specific rights resolutions are invalid); others seek to protect their sovereign “ground” (as when deciding on national criminal penalties); still others seek to defend the interests of their political allies.  “No” can embody diverse sentiments, and for all their limitations and associated political drama, the UN’s “explanations of vote” helpfully bring at least some of these to the surface.

Such “explanations” might soften the impact of “no” in our personal lives as well. Small children often come to associate “no” with power, or at least the ability to manipulate or control circumstances – in no small measure because of the frequency with which they hear some variation of “no” from parents and other adults. “Don’t touch the stove.”  “Don’t spit out your food.” “Don’t leave the porch.” “Don’t pull the cat’s tail.”  “Don’t play with that bottle.”  “Don’t poke your sister.”  No, No, No, No, No.

The commands often come from a caring place.   There are many legitimate dangers lurking for unsuspecting children as well as people all-too-ready to judge families because of their ill-behaved progeny.  But for the children themselves, the relentless restrictions and modifications of behavior are often absent of “explanation,” interpreted as much arbitrary manifestations of adult authority than the acts of care that they so often are.  What appears to be mere “defiance” of a world in which desires are routinely thwarted is also a form of mimic – learning “no” as their lives are so often filled with “no.”

When children become teens, more of the complexities of “no” come into focus.   For most teens, some aspects of autonomy cannot arrive quickly enough, though generally quicker than the arrival of personal responsibility.  The all-too-typical teenage pattern in many societies – demanding privacy and separation on the one hand, dependency and an often relentless need for reassurance on the other – often drives parents and teachers to the brink.   Such reactions, it seems, come attached to the disclaimer (an “explanation” rarely uttered) that needs are subject to sometimes wild shifts — that what was perfectly acceptable on Tuesday has somehow morphed into a borderline “human rights” violation by Friday.

For many people, the more nefarious legacies of “no” – manipulating circumstances, creating distance, assuming malevolent intent when desires are thwarted, changing preferences and commitments more often than we change our socks – persist well into adult living.   Too often, we willingly continue on a path of suspicion and a prickly defiance.  Too often we state preferences devoid of real commitments – we want to keep our “options open” above all.  Too often there is an “edge” in our voice coupled with a certain withholding of emotional content that almost guarantees negative reactions from others.  Don’t give away too much.  Don’t reveal too much.  Keep your distance.

We are also now painfully prone to give in to suspicion about almost everything inside and outside our limited circles except what we probably should be suspicious of – and that is ourselves.  We have generalized excess confidence in what we “know” in part based on an excessive reliance on smart-phone mediated judgments.   We “know” what “other people” are thinking and feeling without asking.  We “know” how deplorable the “deplorables” are and how virtuous the intent is of those who share our political or religious judgments.   We know.

In a world where “explanations of vote” — in both the narrow and larger sense — are neither required nor requested, we are left to blithely assume much of the worst about the people and things that offend or allegedly threaten us.  No honest inquiries are made, and none are anticipated.

This edgy, suspicious worldview is neither as clever as we make it out to be nor helpful to the peaceful, inclusive world that many of us say we are trying to build.  And it is by no means inevitable.  Last week, the New York Chapter of Women in International Security held a discussion entitled “Perspectives on Colombia’s Peace Process.”   While there were several helpful interventions of note, the star of the discussion was Laura Ulloa, a woman twice kidnapped in Colombia by the FARC who has worked since at demobilizing combatants and improving life for underserved populations in her country.

As many of you recognize, Colombia went through its own crisis of “no” as the (voluminous) peace agreement that had been negotiated was rejected in its initial iteration.   As with other countries facing similar political turmoil, the recrimination in Colombia was evident as soon as the verdict was clear.  Do “these people” not want peace?   How could so many of “those people” fail to vote?  The questions, if seems, were largely rhetorical, born largely out of pain and frustration from a long war with adversaries obsessed about but little understood.

Laura’s take was refreshing.  She highlighted efforts to revise the agreement prior to its resubmission to voters.  She explained how her time with the FARC, while alarming at times, eventually humanized her feelings towards people whose life experience has largely been about the conduct and consequences of war.   Without condemning the FARC (or the government for that matter), she pointed to the need to put “truth first:” the truth about the violence, to be sure, but also the truth about the years of social neglect, disparagement and displacement.  The full truth is what she sought, not a self-interested version by one or more of the parties.  After all, she noted, we are seeking “agreement” on how to move forward together towards a more peaceful, inclusive society. This is not surrender.

And she communicated all of this seemingly with no traces of anger or bitterness.  She was firm in her convictions, but in a way that invited discussion, learning, flexibility in the face of overly-hardened opinions.  It is clear that she has spent much of her life watching and listening, not assuming and dictating.  She didn’t “know” for certain why people voted the way they did in this initial referendum or why some failed to vote at all; but she was certain that the reasons were diverse and complex, and she believed that those things “wrong” with the agreement – as with the country in which the agreement would be implemented – could (and would) ultimately be fixed.

This all was a wonderful reminder for me and others in the room.   Request more “explanations” and then listen respectfully to the answers.  Speak to others with less of an accusing edge.  Assume less, especially about the motives and intentions of those who appear to “vote” against our interests.

“No” is a complex word that is tied to some of the best and worst in our politics and in ourselves.   More “explanations” solicited and accepted would help heal our many current divides.