Tag Archives: development

Budget Busters:  The UN Leverages Peace and Development in Leaner Times, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 May

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If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace.  John Lennon

Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.  Gloria Steinem

Problems do not go away. They must be worked through or else they remain, forever a barrier to the growth and development of the spirit.  M. Scott Peck

Among the many memorable things that happened at the UN this week, the highlight for me came courtesy of the Uruguayan Foreign Minister during an important Security Council debate on protection of health care facilities in conflict.   Calling the UN to invest more in inspiration to better honor the trust for a peaceful and sustainable world that others have placed in it, he noted that Martin Luther King was never once known to utter “I have a strategic plan today…”

The Minister’s comment, which evoked considerable applause in the Security Council chamber, was not intended to denigrate planning nor the difficult logistical and financial decisions that must be made every day in order to sustain this complex institution and its expanding agendas.   But it was good for participants in this Council meeting to be reminded that some of the “slog” of this place – its excessive statement making and consensus building, its endless discussions on finances and working methods – is tied to a larger vision, a higher purpose, a dream if you will of a cleaner, fairer, more peaceful, more prosperous planet where people spend more time sharing than scheming, more time listening than condemning, more time facing and addressing problems than pushing them off on others.

Disconnected from the larger dream that connects its three “pillars” and animates with urgency the numerous studies and resolutions that emanate from this place, the UN risks becoming just another multilateral bureaucracy, just another talk shop for states looking for change mostly on their own terms, just another institution yielding tepid and largely predictable responses to the unique crises (mostly of our own making) currently lapping at our shores.

For many of us, as we have noted on other occasions, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their 169 targets represent this sort of dream: a world where agriculture is sustainable, governance is trustworthy, education is accessible, oceans and forests are healthy, migrants and refugees are respected, women speak their own policy voices, climate is stable, weapons are restricted and poverty is relegated to the history books.   We are a long way from this dream; indeed we may well need to raise trillions of dollars to meet the goals we have set out for ourselves, an overwhelming figure exceeded only by the trillions more we would need to spend in a last-ditch effort to save our species if we fail our current sustainable development responsibilities.

This week in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), delegates and experts to the Forum on Financing for Development wrestled with the logistics of raising such vast sums in an uncertain climate.   In plenary sessions and numerous side events, Forum participants hit many important notes, including:

  • Mobilizing (and retaining) domestic resources, including through more equitable tax policies, better data disaggregation, and an end to government corruption
  • Creating investment partnerships with for-profit entities that encourage “triple bottom line” policies and reaffirm the applicability of human and labor rights frameworks
  • Reaffirming the importance of “remittances” to many developing countries and urging stabilization and even reduction in “remittance costs”
  • Increasing access to banking and other financial services, especially for too-often excluded women and the rural poor
  • Noting the risks to fragile economies of excessive debt and urging review of existing debt sustainability frameworks
  • Urging the growth of “south-south” cooperative frameworks to complement north-south funding and capacity support

Despite these and other hopeful measures, the Forum’s Outcome Document also took note of a series of challenging contexts – climate change, armed conflict, humanitarian crises, natural disasters and environmental degradation – whose remedial costs could easily overwhelm our most creative and constructive, development-related fiscal policies.  Such challenges are both urgent and vast in scope; each in their own way calls into question that elusive, “predictable” social and fiscal environment which makes fulfillment of the SDGs much more likely.

Indeed, current funding needs in settings from Yemen to Somalia — much of it tied to armed conflicts that we probably did not do enough to prevent in the first place – have created conundrums for global assistance.   In my time at the UN, I have never seen so many “pledging conferences,” so many requests for states to support efforts to ease misery borne of armed violence and terror; of climate-related drought and flooding; of forced migration and the human trafficking that too often follows in its wake.

While the human misery of our age often seems inexhaustible, the remedial funding is not.  In many instances, it is politically and fiscally taxing for states to address immediate crises while keeping funds in reserve to support their longer-term development responsibilities.   Something has to give.

Added to this, of course, is a US administration that has signaled its willingness to cut back on virtually all of its diplomatic commitments, including to the UN.  While it is unlikely that president Trump’s budget priorities will survive Congressional scrutiny as submitted, the threat of cuts has many in the UN on their heels.  And while we are skeptical of the publicly-articulated notion that the UN simply can’t function unless the US keeps writing large checks, any substantial US cutbacks will certainly complicate funding thresholds for each and every one of our sustainable development promises.

At the UN this week, there were at least two side events that offered some cross-cutting encouragement.  At a small Forum-related side event hosted by Norway and Indonesia, representatives of the UN’s development and peacebuilding sectors came together to stress the need for better use of existing resources to “catalyze” innovative responses and actions, as well as to clarify our responsibilities as a community in light of shifting conflict, climate and development threats.  All were in agreement that the development and peacebuilding communities need to “root harder” for each other and prioritize their interlinked mandates.  There was also broad recognition of the futility of development assistance in situations of active conflict as well as the irony of the UN’s essential but “under-resourced” peacebuilding architecture when so much funding is currently being poured into often unsuccessful “crisis response,” such as in the Central African Republic.

Also this week, Croatia led a “GA 4th Committee” discussion focused on the preventive value of Special Political Missions (SPMs), “special” in the sense that they are “upstream” responses that are carefully adjusted to context.   One delegation after another lauded the potential and cost-effectiveness of SPMs, “good offices” and other political and diplomatic tools designed to minimize prospects for larger conflict.  While offering his own validation, Ambassador Kamau of Kenya underlined the vast disparities between UN peacekeeping funding (which is largely oriented to conflict response) and the still-limited support available for full-spectrum peacebuilding and other conflict-prevention measures.

The UN prides itself (rightly so) on its many efforts to help states cope with a variety of shocks – including those related to climate change and threats of terror.  The test for this system now is whether it can swallow its own medicine, whether we can successfully prepare to meet our growing responsibilities in a time of fiscal shocks, to do all we can with what we have at our disposal.  While the Financing for Development community searches for its “trillions,” reducing conflict threats through effective peacebuilding and related tools would constitute an important, cost-effective contribution to the dream of peaceful, fair, inclusive and healthy societies underlying practical implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Traffic Circles:  Addressing the Loops that Fuel Conflict and Undermine Dignity, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Mar

Enslave the liberty of but one human being and the liberties of the world are put in peril. William Lloyd Garrison

Do something wonderful; people may imitate it.  Albert Schweitzer

This week at the UN was a bit of an “odd coupling” with legions of blue Smurfs showing up to promote the Sustainable Development Goals while Washington added to the UN’s funding anxieties and Pyongyang created new nuclear proliferation headaches.

It was also the first week of the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), a massive (and in our view too often un-strategic) gathering that, in its best iterations, reminds us of the still-unfinished work of gender justice as well as of the many areas of policy and practice which are yet to become “women’s business.”

One area that has long been “women’s business” – as both advocates for change and tragically more often as victims of abuse — is that of trafficking.   This week, both in the context of a CSW side-event and in the Security Council under the UK’s leadership, the UN attempted to steer a more hopeful path that promises genuine forward momentum on this stubborn scourge beyond our conventional cycles of response.

The “complexities” of trafficking – so described by one inspiring Somali activist — were very much on display this week.   Diplomats and NGOs called attention to the multiple (and as Egypt and others noted) mutually-reinforcing networks that traffic in weapons, narcotics, cultural heritage and, worst of all, in persons themselves.   For his part, UN Secretary-General Guterres made additional reference to the “shine of some skyscrapers” in our cities that were dependent on “forced labor.”

What all these violations have in common of course is their assault on human dignity, putting persons in what many of us would deem impossible situations and then offering options going forward that are likely to accomplish little other than snuff out the last vestiges of self-respect.   This creates a pattern all too familiar and all too insidious – people risking (and too often finding) unacceptable vulnerability in an attempt to escape conditions of unacceptable vulnerability.

At CSW, it was noted again and again the degree to which trafficking and the “modern slavery” that so often follows in its wake constitute “money making machines” for transnational criminal networks, terrorist groups, unscrupulous government officials, and others simultaneously skilled in exploitation and dismissive of human value (and especially the value of women and girls) beyond their own limited circles of malfeasance.

The complexities of modern trafficking have contributed to responses that seem more like endless circles of frustration than pathways to progress.   This week at the UN, diplomats and NGOs alike commented on the degree to which armed violence creates breeding grounds s for trafficking in all its dimensions.   In the Security Council, Panama made linkages between armed violence and child marriage.  Nigeria noted the conflict-related misuse of captured girls as “baby making machines.”  In more general terms, the European Union cited the “spillovers of insecurity” that are caused by armed conflict and which very much include the enabling of hard-to-address trafficking networks.

At the same time, others in the Council made clear that the inequalities and vulnerabilities of societies create conditions ripe for human slavery and trafficking, but also for the perpetuation of armed conflict itself.  As Greece explained, trafficking in all its aspects remains a major factor in sustaining the “economy of war.”  And Bolivia was (as they have been since they joined the Council in January) insistent that the pervasiveness of inequalities is symptomatic of a larger systemic problem — that our economics and politics privilege competition over dignity, acquisition over equity.  We humans have spent too much of our collective history “taking what we want” even if it means (as it often has) lowering the threshold of our common humanity in the process.

Around and around we go – conflict fueling trafficking networks which exacerbates existing inequalities and discriminations which creates (as Morocco noted this week) new breeding grounds for conflict.  It is a cycle that frustrates, a loop we cannot easily escape, a ride from which we cannot seem to dismount.

But there are strategies afoot to help us fortify what Pakistan this week referred to as our “spasmodic” responses to the violence and criminality of trafficking. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime is doing its part to help strengthen domestic law enforcement and border controls.  Ireland and other states are actively exploring ways to improve legal accountability at national and international levels as one means to prevent future abuses.   UN Women and many of the participants of CSW are holding up the gender dimensions of abuse and insisting that policy accommodates each and every one of them. The Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee is helping to disrupt the financial incentives for trafficking networks and undermine their internet-based recruiting.  At the same time, at least some of those Council members understand that trafficking response must involve all relevant UN stakeholders; that one UN organ cannot presume responsibility for an issue that takes so many forms, impacts so many development and security processes, traumatizes so many global citizens.  All are initiatives and insights worthy of “imitation.”

But the Council (together with the Peacebuilding Commission and other stakeholders) can take welcome leadership in one additional area. This week, UK Ambassador and current SC president Rycroft cited our collective duty to end the “instability” in which trafficking thrives.  Much of this instability, we would argue again, is a function of the armed violence that flares up and drags on in so many global regions.  With threats to UN funding looming, with assaults on human dignity seemingly as pervasive as ever, with so many illicit arms fueling so much unaccountable criminal violence, the Council must become smarter and especially more proactive in its security responses.   As Indonesia noted well this week during the debate, fresh efforts directed towards a more upstream “de-escalation” of conflict threats would be the ideal next step.

The Courage of Good Questions, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Mar

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Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas. – Marie Curie

I’ve always been really curious about things and slightly confused by the world, and I think someone who feels that way is in a good position to be the one asking questions. -Terry Gross

I spent many years in school, but it was rarely a happy or satisfying place for me. There were simply too many times when the “who said so” of ideas trumped the complexities behind what was actually being conveyed.   For me, school was full of ideas that seemed beyond reproach when they left the mouths of the instructors, only to be revealed as incomplete and at times even misleading down the road.

And such a long road it was.  It was not until my doctoral program that I literally “lucked into” mentors who were more passionate for their ideas than for their careers, who were far more curious than defensive, who understood at the deepest levels that most of the problems soon to confront the world had not yet been faced, let alone overcome.

These mentors pushed me hard, beyond trying to impress others with my edgy “cleverness,” towards a place of rigor and kindness – rigor characterized by attentiveness and the willingness to “ask the next question,” and kindness grounded in the (hopefully) humble recognition that all of us, even the most accomplished in worldly terms,  have much still to learn.

Part of what Global Action seeks to accomplish (and occasionally does) is to embody that all-too-rare combination of attentiveness and curiosity, understanding that the best questions make good use of existing context and help to examine not only what has been “settled,” but to preview the ground soon to move under our feet, requiring more of what Jeremy Taylor once referred to as “the incontinency of the spirit.”  In our office, we don’t often abandon attentiveness for chatter, but we do at times try to ask good and hard questions at the UN, not to draw attention to ourselves but rather to the unresolved matters of policy that are both far from consensus and close to undermining our current, fragile stasis.

The UN can be a remarkable place, filled to the brim with experience and expertise on the widest possible range of policy concerns.   It provides, in some ways, an education like no other.   But it also harbors noticeable intellectual deficits.  There are few opportunities for genuine open-ended discussion on policy needs and responsibilities.   There are few questions posed that genuinely push “authorized speakers” to signal new space for potential policy shifts.   We are a building full of consensus-builders and (on the NGO side) campaigners, useful skills to be sure, but skills not ideal for breaking up our superficially optimistic mood or reminding people of the hard truth that some of the consensus resolutions they worked so hard on are unlikely to accomplish much in the world beyond First Avenue.

Two examples from this past week highlighted the pedagogical frustrations and opportunities of this very political space.  On Wednesday, the UN University organized an excellent discussion on the problem of modern slavery.  The keynote speaker made learned and helpful background remarks which emphasized distinctions between the “prohibition” of slavery and its “eradication.”   The pitch was, as is often the case in UN conference rooms, for the provision of national legislation that parallels and supplements international legal obligations to prohibition.

Fair enough, though as we pointed out, there is a deep conundrum attached to this approach.   Within the Human Rights Committee, for instance, a frequent response given by states whose human rights record has been called to account is something along the lines of, “this can’t be happening here, we have laws to prohibit it.”  But as NGOs in Geneva are fond of reminding Committee members, the presence of laws does not by any means guarantee eradication of the practice.  Thus our concern that a focus on legislation alone is insufficient to end the scourge, while a focus on eradication might make states more reluctant to sign on to human rights agreements in the first place.    How to navigate this problem?

The response we received was unfulfilling at best, almost as though the expert hadn’t considered this conundrum previously (surely he had) or failed to appreciate it being brought to his attention during a session that was being webcast. Moreover, no one in the audience approached us afterwards (or even made eye contact) to continue the conversation.  Apparently, ours was not a polite, courteous question, despite the fact that it seemed well within the band-width and interests of the speaker to respond and reflect.

This is what the UN is like too often – implicit and even excessive deference to “experts” and “authorities” who are often, but by no means always, on the best possible policy track.

Fortunately, there are bursts of healthy curiosity to be found if one is open to them.  One such occasion was on Tuesday when Ecuador ably convened a gathering to discuss prospects for a Fourth Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD).  There has been no such “special session” for 29 years now and delegates spent most of this morning discussion debating the scope of a possible meeting, whether to focus on one of the many stubborn areas of disarmament dysfunction or instead authorize a thorough review of all disarmament-related processes.

At one point, the Ecuadorian diplomat intervened, wondering aloud (lamenting perhaps) why the word “disarmament” so rarely is heard now across UN headquarters?   The question was simultaneously simple and brilliant.  For if disarmament has been downgraded in at least some quarters from a core UN priority, can a “special session” possibly help to restore its luster?

Despite the fact that disarmament matters attract some of the most capable diplomats in the UN system, the topic itself has never had a lower profile in my entire UN-based tenure.  Part of this is due to the discipline itself – inflexible architecture, low levels of state trust, treaties that are disregarded or are full of loopholes that uncooperative states are happy to exploit, invitations to weapons manufacturing states to hide behind consensus as a way of undermining disarmament agreement, a focus on managing the flows and modernization of weapons rather than reducing their volume and “footprint.”

But part of this low profile is due to successes in other parts of the UN, successes that have spawned a series of new, interesting, policy-rich discussions on conflict prevention and sustainable peace, conversations that often explore the implications of omnipresent weapons for development, climate, trafficking, even gender based violence.   Disarmament practitioners are only rarely present for these discussions; indeed SDG 16 on “peaceful and inclusive societies” was drafted and adopted with almost no involvement from disarmament-focused diplomats or related UN resource persons.

Whether another SSOD can resurrect the UN disarmament priority is debatable. What for us is less debatable is that our collective task here remains not to get things settled so much as to get them right.  Good questions – probing and respectful – are important contributions to ensuring timely and credible responses to constantly evolving global challenges, including human rights and disarmament challenges.

The most-curious Ralph Waldo Emerson once prodded teachers that when your students correct your mistakes, “hug them.”   There is little reason to believe that hugging will become common practice inside the UN, but a bit more curiosity regarding gaps yet to be filled — and perhaps even a modicum of gratitude for those who expose such gaps — would help keep us all on a more progressive policy path.

Evacuation Route: Mapping a Common Exodus from Multiple Global Threats, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Feb

Up and down the lanes, the last unevacuated townspeople wake, groan, sigh. Spinsters, prostitutes, men over sixty. Procrastinators, collaborators, disbelievers, drunks. Nuns of every order. The poor. The stubborn. The blind.” ― Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

I have just completed a (very late arriving) flight to Mexico City soon to join regional diplomats and civil society representatives to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Tlatelolco and its key implementer, the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL).

As is widely known, the Treaty of Tlatelolco sets out protocols and responsibilities for a nuclear weapons-free zone that has been both stable and in its own right and critical to the development of other regional security arrangements within and beyond the region.  These include zones in other parts of the world that are helping to “shrink” the political and logistical space far-too-long occupied by nuclear weapons and their possessor states.  Moreover, from the security frameworks set in motion by UNASUR to the more normative security platform organized at the United Nations known as CELAC, Latin American states have to a remarkable degree taken advantage of their relative stability and prosperity to create collaborative security that informs and inspires practices worldwide. These collaborations have simultaneously helped preserve critical policy distance from dependency on nuclear weapons and their security doctrines while deepening regional commitments to address the poverty, trafficking in weapons and narcotics, gender-based violence, and social inequalities – often the result of numerous, intimidating interventions from non-regional states — that have tangibly jeopardized the security of too many in the region for far too long.

At the same time, OPANAL is widely regarded as the gold standard for weapons-free zone implementers, a reliable and visible mechanism to keep governments focused on their own disarmament responsibilities while advocating for measures such as “negative security assurances” to help protect regional states from attack from the nuclear armed states as well as encouraging states to monitor their dependencies (and even at times enabling actions) regarding the protective nuclear “umbrella” offered by the US which the treaty itself seeks to disown.

The last time we attended a major OPANAL event was three years ago under its previous Secretary-General.   Our contribution at that time – which we may have occasion to repeat this Tuesday at the Mexican Foreign Ministry but will surely highlight during workshops later in the week with our welcome partner Instituto Mora – is the importance of simultaneously affirming activities to fulfill treaty obligations while promoting more reliable security and development arrangements within and beyond the geographic zone which the treaty helps to define.

Such arrangements include many of the policy norms, practical program and fiscal obligations embedded in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

As we noted in another publication on the 2030 Agenda, and about which we have been motivated to take our own action, there has to date been insufficient interaction between development and security actors.  Specifically, as noted by Laura Pereira and others at the UN, disarmament experts were noticeably uninvolved in the formulation of Sustainable Development Goal 16, the so-called “peace goal.”  And while Goal 16 does suggest a responsibility to curb the small arms proliferation and trafficking that negatively impact development processes – a key element of Latin American security undertaken with welcome assistance from the UN regional disarmament office in Lima – Goal 16 makes no mention of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction.

This omission is noteworthy given the devastating impacts from the use of nuclear (or other weapons of mass destruction) on any viable strategies for development .   As the nuclear weapons community is fond of reminding the rest of us, the “humanitarian consequences” from the use of these weapons is likely beyond our capacities to respond.  We are already painfully aware of the high costs of conflict in Latin America and elsewhere – so many diverse lives traumatized, ruined and often ended by insurgencies, by indiscriminate bombing raids, by landmines and other explosive remnants of war.  When nuclear weapons themselves become a lively option for use, the costs of conflict could literally bankrupt the human treasury.

But the other side of this policy interaction also demands more attention.  In the two days of events to celebrate the long history of effective OPANAL actions on behalf of Tlatelolco, little mention will be made of the political, social and economic contexts in which weapons of mass destruction could become, once again, attractive options for states.   Even in the program for the international seminar organized for the first day of the Tlatelolco celebration, the words “development” or “human rights” do not appear on the schedule at all.  Climate is mentioned but simply as a way of “ranking” existential threats, not as the basis for building common policy frameworks for eliminating those threats.

Clearly not every event can cover every eventuality.  The seminars we will conduct with Mora later in this week will also evidence conceptual gaps, will also fail to capitalize on openings for growth and response.  That said, people in these anxious times are also anxious to know how things “fit” and we must do a better job of helping them make connections, as a first step through a demonstrable willingness to seek out and make those connections ourselves.

A development agenda that does not find a way to “flag” existential threats, including from weapons of mass destruction, is engaging in wishful thinking.  So too is a disarmament agenda that does not rigorously interrogate the manifold threats to peace and security from poverty, trafficking, discrimination and a myriad of other factors. We need to be in dialogue with the threats we do not directly address, not to solve them all so much but to be attentive to, support and encourage those attempting to transform the world – to evacuate the threatened, if you will — in ways other than but complementary to our own.

There was a discouraging news wire that the US president was recently having a discussion with his Russian counterpart regarding nuclear weapons policy commitments, specifically those embedded in the START treaty.  At one point, apparently, the US president had to pause the call to ask others standing in the oval office what START was.  While this president may well set the bar for policy incuriousness, the fact that so many nuclear weapons are now in the hands of volatile governments and their leaders is of grave concern.  So too are the relatively tepid commitments from these states to contribute to sustainable security frameworks that (they say) are needed in order to make nuclear weapons obsolete.

Nuclear weapons need to go, regardless of other circumstances.  But circumstances in these difficult times require more from all of us; certainly more from those of us in the security field:  more solidarity and communication with the marginalized, more attentive policy linkages, more tangible encouragement for the important work of others.   As many within our “sector” are thankfully recognizing, this is not the time to “double down” on our issue silos or on our self-serving proclamations about the way things “ought to be.”  If we are to successfully apply a healing balm to our deep social wounds – those that threaten our very existence and those that daily eat away at our collective dignity and resolve – we are simply going to have to raise our game. We will endeavor to accomplish exactly that during our busy policy week in Mexico.

 

The Sounds of Silence:  The Current UN DSG Makes an Enduring Appeal on Human Rights

11 Dec

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. Desmond Tutu

As the holiday season approaches, the UN is racing to a year-end finish line characterized by significant transitions and activity across all three UN pillars.  The activity has been intense, ranging from a new General Assembly resolution to help resolve the Syria carnage and efforts to sharpen our financial and communications tools to combat terrorism, to discussions on how to improve global taxation policies and ensure political participation for migrants and refugees.

So, too, have been the transitions.  On December 12, the UN community will witness the oath of office administered to António Guterres as the next UN Secretary General.   And, if current rumors are to be believed, the Deputy Secretary General post will soon be offered to Amina Mohammed of Nigeria, a woman of great substance who worked tirelessly in her previous UN iteration to bring the Sustainable Development Goals to fruition.  Guterres, the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and Mohammed will hopefully make a formidable team, especially regarding core UN responsibilities for sustainable development, humanitarian assistance and refugee protection.

These two will step in for the current team of SG Ban Ki-moon and DSG Jan Eliasson whose joint UN legacy will surely be assessed at length over the coming years.  The departure of SG Ban has garnered most of the UN’s attention to date and so I would like to focus a bit here on some recent contributions of the Deputy Secretary General, a man in possession of one of the most storied careers ever to have played out within UN confines, a career that has greatly shaped how the UN understands its responsibilities to promote human rights and build sustainable peace.

For the past 4 + years, my various groups of diverse interns and fellows have often commented on the DSG’s special appeal.  He uses his voice to full effect, not as a battering ram, but as a way of reminding delegations and NGOs why we’re here in this policy space, why it matters that we’re here.  He understands the need to inspire as well as to contextualize – helping all of us to recognize that our lofty ideals and values cannot be taken for granted as we so often do, cannot become the equivalent of tiny candies we sprinkle on top of an ice cream cone that is slowly melting before our eyes.

My office colleagues have also understood that the DSG is much more than a cheerleader for the UN Charter that he claims to always carry in his coat pocket.  Eliasson well understands the complex and anxious times that we find ourselves in, citing in recent remarks at NYC’s Roosevelt House the “fear factor” that must be forthrightly addressed, the anxiety that too often results in “us vs. them” scenarios and the suggestion of quick, blame-filled solutions to problems that are clearly more systemic in nature.

We acknowledge that the rhetoric of human rights can and has been misapplied by many –by those elites unconcerned by violations beyond their neighborhoods and media of choice; by those who overly-personalize rights to mean “doing what I want to do” –mostly without consequence; by those rightly passionate about the protection of their own rights but indifferent to those suffering from other discriminations.   We ourselves know too many people who utilize the language of “rights” in much the same way that children in my old neighborhood once used the language of “cooties” – creating artificial distance based on fears real and imaginary rather than pathways to human communion.   As Eliasson noted recently at Roosevelt House, we must all recommit to creating a trustworthy, positive narrative about our common humanity, a narrative that has clearly been misplaced amidst our pervasive social grievances, cultural distractions and populist passions.

If the current wave of populist politics has taught us anything – and the jury on this is still out – it is that we have not suitably “sold” populations on a “common” system of values, laws and commitments that ostensibly has the best interests of all at heart.  These persons have not been “sold” in part because we have not always lived up to the high expectations of policy leadership.  Despite the efforts of the DSG and many others, we have not properly supported the UN’s human rights pillar nor highlighted its many practical achievements; we have bestowed selective outrage on horrific tragedies like Aleppo while keeping our policy distance from other horrors, such as in Yemen.   We have reached deeply into some communities desperately needing a dignity boost while overlooking that dignity is a common aspiration, a common need, a common pursuit.  If populists are suspicious of our “universal” values, as the DSG has maintained they are, it is in part because we caretakers of those values have been careless about their application – “politically correct” perhaps, but much too political in any event.

Human dignity, as Eliasson affirmed recently at a UN side event hosted by his native Sweden, is indeed that irreplaceable “starting point” for our peace and development commitments.  If we cannot find the means and the will to hold each other in higher regard; if we cannot uphold those facing particular discriminations without also rushing to demonize those allegedly doing the discriminating; if we cannot speak up for the rights of strangers in the same way we support those in our tightest social circles, then prospects for peace among nations and peoples, as well as for sustainable human development, will remain in serious jeopardy.

These current “trying times” will not be resolved solely by getting our accounts in order or through pious proclamations of universal values.   We will all need to raise our game: to accompany others on their search for dignity; to stand up and speak out for others in times of great need; to advocate for fair access to education, economics and politics; and above all to pay more attention to each other such that – as Eliasson recently urged – when we come across something gone wrong, we can and will “act early.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the fundamental document defining the UN community’s human rights commitments, remains as a powerful testimony to our common responsibility to each other.  But as Eliasson noted at Roosevelt House, the ills to which the Declaration points are “largely still with us.”  If we want that world envisioned by the Declaration, we will all need to sound off and sound wisely.  The “silent treatment” is simply not a remedy adequate for what now threatens us.

Our new SG Guterres, building on the longstanding efforts of Eliasson and so many others, has already proclaimed that “human dignity will be the core of my work.”  But if dignity is to prevail, this will take more than the SG, more even than fair and competent international institutions.  This will require all of us to replace the “sounds of silence” with voices of compassion, attentiveness and care.  As with the UN and its new leadership, this is likely to become our defining moment as well.

Justice Matters:  The UN Explores Multiple Pathways to Human Dignity, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Jul

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On July 14, Judge Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi, president of the International Criminal Court (ICC), spoke to a packed conference room at UN Headquarters.  The event was chaired by Italy’s Ambassador Cardi and was intended as part of the UN’s acknowledgment of the International Day of Criminal Justice which falls each year on July 17.

The president hit many important notes during her address, including reminding the audience that the ICC is a court of “last resort” for the “crimes against humanity” under its jurisdiction, including the use of child soldiers, sexual violence as a tactic of war, the wanton destruction of cultural property, and soon the crime of aggression.  It is up to member states, she rightly noted, to help the ICC establish a “consistent pattern of accountability” for international crimes, in part by taking greater national responsibility for the investigation and prosecution of such crimes and in part through efforts to deter and punish those who seek to undermine the administration of justice through the ICC, including the interference with/harassment of witnesses.

The president did not take up several questions that some of us might otherwise have expected.  The ICC’s relationship to the Security Council, for instance, has been a contentious one that has included untimely referrals, massive security restrictions on investigations, significant budgetary limitations, and the Council’s refusal to sanction states that fail in their responsibilities to arrest indicted criminals.  Moreover, the president chose not to ‘call out’ states parties which have hosted – rather than captured – those very same criminals.

But what she did suggest was important: that credible international justice is essential to the restoration of rule of law, to human development, indeed to the dignity of victims.   She recognized that a “global system of justice” has many facets that are tied to the activities of courts, certainly to the vigorous promotion of internationally recognized human rights but also to a development and conflict prevention system that can uphold dignity and help ensure that the worst of crimes can be addressed in their potential before they unfold in grotesque practice.

As the president also recognized, other UN events during this past week touched on key elements of a global system of justice.   In the General Assembly, PGA Lykketoft convened a high level event to assess the human rights performance of the UN as it concludes its 70th year.   Fittingly, states used the occasion to promote the need to, as New Zealand and others noted, examine the implications of human rights across the three UN “pillars.” States from Panama and Chile to France and Estonia noted the many rights dimensions that affect people in overt conflict situations, but also highlighted those suffering from torture, discrimination, incarceration-related abuses and many other violations.   And while Liechtenstein rightly lamented that disregard of the ‘rules of war’ seems now to be reaching epidemic proportions, there was broad agreement with the Netherlands and others that we can do more  — and must do more — to ensure that people can finally live in a world “free from armed conflict.”

Last Wednesday in another small conference room, an “A” list of UN officials was brought together by Uruguay and Portugal to discuss the economic and social rights implications of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  ASG Šimonović set a collaborative tone, urging all of us “to bring human rights to the core of our development work.”  ASG Gass went ever farther, noting that the SDGs represent a “new social contract,” while lamenting a “shortage of tools” with which we can hold states (and others) accountable to their SDG promises.   Happily, Gass rightly suggested that the integration of human rights into the SDGs would help make accessible the more fully developed capacities within the human rights community which are already doing much to hold states accountable to rights-based obligations.  As it turns out, tools for SDG accountability need not be created.  They can be borrowed.

As for the convening states, there was enthusiasm for SDG-rights linkages but also cautious tones.  Uruguay’s Ambassador responded to those who see economic and social rights as “vague,” noting that genuinely sustainable development requires ‘dignity work’ in the form of ending gross social and economic inequalities.  Portugal’s Ambassador urged member states to show more leadership on core Charter values while simultaneously urging NGOs to help ensure that values espoused are values enacted.  But he also painfully referenced the many millions of persons in our world for whom rights and dignity remain only “a mirage.”

During his report on Friday in the UN Security Council, Special Representative Jan Kubiš made reference to the upcoming efforts by Iraq and its military partners to liberate the city of Mosul from ISIL control.   While clearly supportive of reducing all manner of ISIL’s influence, Kubiš also predicted that such liberation would likely trigger a humanitarian crisis that could dwarf the already horrific stories of deprivation and rights abuses (including by Iraqi forces) now emanating from Fallujah.  In many instances, it seems, “liberation” bears the potential to create and magnify trauma and deprivation in the name of eliminating them.  The Council, the government of Iraq and the entire UN community must leverage additional capacity to address the psychological and physical dimensions of victim’s assistance in all their aspects.

And of course to do more to ensure that the “pipelines” of trauma are effectively sealed, that relief is more than a fleeting mirage.

As the week’s events underscored, the struggle for sustainable human dignity is a long road, easier to claim than to protect.  As the ICC president noted, we live in a world in which “many perpetrators continue to be untouched.”  Sadly, there are millions more victims in our conflict zones who also remain “untouched.”   Our commitment – on sustainable development and international justice, on poverty reduction and trauma response – is to find the means and the will to touch them all.

Tension Headache:  Attending the demands and aspirations of those who still “don’t matter,” Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Jul

This morning on Twitter, we were alerted by Brian Stelter of CNN (a network I rarely watch) about the contents of the front page of this Sunday’s New York Times (a paper I rarely read).  What was remarkable about that front page is that all of the significant pieces of journalism were focused, in one way or another, on the “above the fold” headline:   America Grieves, Tense and Wary.

We rarely in this space venture into “domestic affairs,” though the nonsense emanating from this presidential election season is sometimes so very tempting.   But today is different – the confluence of anger, confusion, discrimination, weapons access, media bias and more has created a situation that some find predictable but many more find intolerable.  The murders of the Dallas police officers have largely stolen the national headlines, and one doesn’t have to accept the recently-offered narrative of “domestic terrorism” to acknowledge the massive pain inflicted on both families and the reputation of a police department that seems at least to be trying.   But in many news services (not the Times per se) Dallas has become both a watershed moment and a bit of a diversion from a season’s worth of mass demonstrations and senseless shootings by and of police, some of which had their own moment in the media, others merely taking their place on a still-lengthening roster of incidences involving people who are more than weary from the many implications of lives “on the margins.”

This aptly designated “tense and wary” scenario is directly related to activities taking place across the street from where I’m sitting, preparations for tomorrow’s important opening of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) of the UN’s Economic and Social Council.

The agenda and assessment activities for this HLPF are clearly focused on one objective:  “leaving no one behind. “  A noble and hopeful objective, to be sure, though one requiring much and strewn with obstacles both identifiable and unforeseen.

As we have written previously, the UN community is doing due-diligence in getting out in front of the massive responsibilities incurred through the goals and targets of the 2030 development agenda: reducing poverty, ending inequalities of economic, educational and political access; saving ourselves from our own relentless assaults on our forests, oceans and climate; and promoting forms of governance and security that offer inclusive participation and rights-based protection.

Despite these welcome UN efforts, we are currently far from these goals, in some cases farther than we dare acknowledge.  Even if we have articulated and assembled the right goals to pursue; even if we are sincere in our financial pledges and fidelity to agreed indicators of success; this 2030 agenda is a daunting business.  It will require sustained commitments by national governments, vigilance by the HLPF and diverse UN agencies and then some; for it will also require more of each of us.  Slogans such as “leave no one behind” can galvanize some measure of our collective responsibility, but their overuse can deaden us to tasks that will, if we are to overcome our current epochal violence and planetary disregard, require greater self-scrutiny and more reliable attentiveness to others than we have so far in our collective history demonstrated.

The discouraging events of this past week are hardly unique but certainly offer yet another reminder of how many people in our world are still left behind, still on the margins, still don’t matter.  From Baton Rouge to Juba, from suburban St. Paul to Gaza, people struggle mightily for respect and relief, for justice and stability.  Tension and suspicion are partially understandable responses to what we see and read about so many human struggles at home and abroad; but these are the reactions that prompt us to seek out stronger locks for our doors but also for our souls.  These are the reactions concerned less about reaching those left behind and more about not getting “dragged” by them ostensibly towards some uncertain and indeterminate bottom.

We can identify the collective mood as the Times and others have done; we cannot give in to it.   The challenges of inclusion characteristic of these times imply that our routine forays into petty self-distraction are not so petty after all.   From the physicist Stephen Hawking to the man in the local Bodega who sells me beer and dish soap, many and diverse voices are wondering if we collectively have what it takes to extricate ourselves from this “tense and wary” swamp of our own making.

The hope of the 2030 development goals is that we do indeed have what it takes but only as a grand and collective endeavor that invites and integrates far beyond those currently on the world’s VIP lists.  In this, it will be especially important to keep at bay all those “locksmiths” seeking access to our personal, cultural and community contexts.

The young (mostly black) men who work alongside our church folks in the food pantry each Saturday morning in Harlem are not at all immune from the tension that now routinely flares into discrimination and violence.   These men work hard early on Saturdays when most of their peers are sound asleep, carrying and stocking huge quantities of provisions, providing service to people who don’t always treat them with the greatest of respect.

But they also know that they need to watch their back.  The news splashed all over this week’s media was not news to them; neither the killings, nor the arrests, nor the tension and suspicion that are so-often and inappropriately hurled in their direction.

These young men have much to contribute perhaps currently more in potential mode; but potential is also inspired by invitations to participate and opportunities to practice — and a commitment from the rest of us not to leave them behind.

We’re going to see what we’re made of over these next 15 years as our 2030 development promises take shape.  Transforming rampant tension and suspicion might well be our species’ next major test.