Tag Archives: Disappearances

A Wobbling Stool: Stabilizing the UN’s Human Rights Obligations, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 May


The purpose of torture is not getting information. It’s spreading fear. Eduardo Galeano

Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.  Elie Wiesel

We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought. Kathryn Stockett,

Human rights are praised more than ever – and violated as much as ever. Anna Lindh

The UN witnessed a few positive milestones this week, including the presentation of “vision statements” by candidates to become the next president of the General Assembly.  In this rare instance the candidates (from Honduras and Ecuador respectively) were both women, thereby guaranteeing that this often fiscally-challenged and programmatically-burdensome office – a point reinforced earlier this month by current president Lajčák – will transition to female leadership  for one of the few times in the UN’s history.

For its part, the Security Council under Poland’s presidency went on mission to Myanmar and Bangladesh to survey first-hand the human wreckage from abuses we collectively did not do enough to prevent.  Such missions serve as a “reality check” for this Council that is increasingly (and appropriately) under pressure from the general membership to up its game – to invest more in conflict prevention, leave politics at the chamber doorways, and work more collaboratively with the UN agencies tasked with bring core “triggers” of conflict – including rights abuses – to heel.  The Council is not as hostile to human rights as is sometimes claimed, and attention to context in places like Cox’s Bazar and the Lake Chad Basin reinforces for members that development, rights and security deficits represent urgent, interlinked and comprehensive responsibilities.

But the past week also brought difficult issues to consider and lessons that we still need to learn, poignant reminders of how many people remain under threat in this world and how much further we need to travel in order to make a world that is more equal, more inclusive, more respectful of each other and our surroundings, even more mindful of our own “contributions” to a world we say, over and over, is actually not the world we want.

Institutional dimensions of this threat were evident on Wednesday in a small UN conference room filled mostly with NGOs. At that meeting, two officials of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) — ASG Gilmour and NY office director Mokhiber – led a somber discussion on what they referred to as a “human rights backlash,” citing in this regard resistance to human rights by some Security Council members, an unwillingness to address the core funding needs of the human rights “pillar,” member state inattentiveness to requests for investigations by special rapporteurs, and attempts by a shocking number of states to link the activities of human rights advocates (and even in some cases of UN officials) to those of the “terrorists.”

Also expressed was the concern with “double standards” on human rights, including the proclivity of many states to scream about some abuses while remaining utterly silent about others, a cocktail of righteous indignation and willful indifference too-often characteristic of UN culture within and beyond the Security Council. A version of this, of course, could apply to much of the NGO community as well, defending our positions in the rooms where “our” issues are under consideration but withholding the contributions we could be making to policy interlinkages and even at times acting as though three-legged analysis and advocacy is an interesting fad rather than a core dimension of our Charter-based responsibility.  As stressed by OHCHR at this meeting, the human rights community needs some sort of “firewall” to protect it from unwarranted state influence. We NGOs need to invest more in building that wall and otherwise commit to protecting the integrity of each other’s (and the UN’s) advocacy space.

But that firewall is still very much a work in progress as was clear during this week’s World Press Freedom Day, a sobering affair given the recent bombing of journalists in Kabul alongside a spate of other threats to journalists around the world – threats to the integrity of their work but also to their physical safety.

This was not at all a happy event.  Speaker after speaker reminded the audience of the shrinking safe space for journalistic activity, and of the extent to which threats to the press are often mirrored by (or are a precursor for) the erosion of other rights and civil liberties.   Journalists who have lost their lives while pursuing important stories were rightly honored and special mention was made of the often-courageous role of “fixers,” those with knowledge of the local “terrain” who provide guidance and safety for outside journalists, but often with significant personal and family risk.  And there were stark reminders, including from a CBC journalist, that “lies and propaganda” are most likely to fill the gap left when journalists are jailed or otherwise intimidated. As Austria’s Ambassador Kickert chimed in, “power intoxicates” and “un-harassed” journalists are essential if we are to finally curb corruption and other rights abuses as well as fulfill our responsibilities to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Finally of note regarding the complexities of our current human rights responsibilities, there was the event on Thursday sponsored by Japan on rights abuses in North Korea (DPRK),  an event that focused on the often heart-rendering pain of persons who have lived through the abduction of family members by DPRK agents.  The sorrow and uncertainty of “disappearances” is something we address through our affiliation with Paris-based FIACAT and it is no small matter to much of the human rights community.

Against the backdrop of high-level discussions on a possible de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the event also served as a rightful reminder that human rights cannot become a “bargaining chip” to a peace agreement, “freezing” past and current abuses in place without an insistence on accountability.  And it is not unreasonable, as has been the case with other peace negotiations, to demand a full accounting and release of those previously disappeared and perhaps imprisoned.  But the sometimes agonizing choices associated with this peace-rights linkage went largely unaddressed under an avalanche of anti-DPRK rhetoric that often sounded more professional and less ideological than it actually was. Where, we wonder, does the abductions issue in all of its heartbreak fit on the scale of human rights concerns to be taken up in the context of peace negotiations? As noted this day by OHCHR’s Mokhiber, while human rights accountability must not be sacrificed to any peace agreement, we must remind ourselves of the centrality of armed conflict to contemporary rights abuses, abuses that a confrontation involving modern nuclear weapons would likely multiply beyond our imagination.

As I am writing this, the Carillion bells of the Riverside Church are pealing yet again, a weekly beckoning to me of the road I have yet to travel – that we all have yet to travel – in order to build a world able to resolve our current conflicts, ensure tolerance and respect among peoples, and offer sustainable options for our children.  Such a world is possible only if we are resolved to tightening the screws on our now-wobbling human rights leg, but are also committed to a fully inclusive agenda that moves closer to “the center of the universe” the safety, health and equity that we have yet to sufficiently and comprehensively promote.  And it means being more thoughtful and interactive as we resolve the sometimes agonizing choices and challenges that call us to consider the policy “forest” and not only the individual trees.

Above all, we must never become content with the mere praise of human rights while so many rights in so many contexts — in prisons and newsrooms, in trafficking rings and First Nations communities – remain so dangerously elusive.

Without a Trace:  The Security Council Examines a Trauma that Lingers, Dr. Robert Zuber

31 Jan

Missing things, missing people is a part of life for all of us.   Our popular music is punctuated with the emotional residue from our empty spaces – especially from loves gained and then lost. The singer John Waite once mourned “there’s a storm that’s raging through my frozen heart tonight.”  Sometimes the ache from the loss of a loved one is too much to bear, even when you know where they’ve gone, even when you knew a separation was coming.

In an age characterized by so many scattered peoples – from war and drought, or from seeking economic opportunity in a hopefully more peaceful context – larger and larger numbers of us are separated from much of what we had previously come to love.  Our growing social and economic mobility, for some motivated by a determination to save their children from the ravages of conflict and abuse, has increased the distances separating so many of us from the objects (and subjects) of our hearts’ desire.

This pain is greatly magnified when the separations are imposed, arbitrary and secretive, when people awake to find that one or more of those in their most intimate social circles has disappeared without a trace.  In such instances “frozen” hearts are often accompanied by frozen hands and lips, the consequences of a trauma that can produce almost coma-like effects, sometimes lasting for many years.

This week, in addition to much other Security Council business, Ambassador Rycroft of the UK convened an “Arria Formula” meeting to look into the consequences of these traumatic disappearances as they relate to international peace and security.   The meeting featured the welcome presence of Ambassador Diego Arria of Venezuela who was responsible for the idea of having more Council-sponsored, informal discussions to allow members to examine security linkages and implications without scrutiny from the media or pressure to agree on resolutions.

For his part Ambassador Rycroft affirmed his preference for these sorts of engagements.  Indeed, he has been one of the Council members most inclined to pressure colleagues around the oval to come out from behind their prepared texts and engage each other as policy and learning partners in their essential but highly challenging endeavor – maintaining an often elusive peace. Rycroft noted that the Arria process allows members the “chance to hear from people in the know” and to do so in interactive fashion.  It is hard to disagree that such chances should be pursued as often as possible within the limitations of the Council’s already weighty schedule.

There is more to say on the “working methods” implications of this Arria process, but it is also important to acknowledge here the crushing burdens that persons separated from their loved ones and communities due to armed conflict must bear.  The US, which at Council meetings often miscalculates the bonds linking stories of abuse and remedial policy measures, aptly cited in this Arria the “searing pain, trauma and impotence” that accompanies persons who have had loved ones taken from them in situations of armed violence, taken without any apparent rationale or information regarding their whereabouts.

As noted by the ICTJ’s Tolbert, this missing represents a deep ache with broad implications, correctly referencing the “social trauma” that so often takes up residence in communities where people have been “disappeared.”  For his part, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid noted the “grave abuse potential” that exists when women and girls go missing. And he encouraged more “truth telling” by authorities (a point also made by New Zealand) to help loved ones cope with their losses and displace with more concrete information some of the horrific fantasies regarding the whereabouts and treatment of loved ones that often accompany coping efforts. Such information allows for the lifting of the “veil of silence” that reinforces fear and social isolation, subtly perpetuating what Zeid called “the sharp edges of abuse.”

But of course our task in all of this is not to examine this pain but rather, as urged by Mexico rights activist Sr. Consuela, to “ensure that this becomes part of our past.”   And many of the voices in this Arria Formula meeting, including the High Commissioner, Italy, Japan and Uruguay, maintained that the efforts to end the trauma of disappearances is indeed “directly relevant” to the Council’s core responsibilities, that Council attention can accrue tangible benefits towards the final resolution of this agonizing abuse.

That noted, this Arria event was not without controversy.  As they have done previously when discussing other attempts to extend the Security Council’s policy concerns, Russia essentially rejected the relevance of this “disappearances” discussion to those concerns.  Russia is for now the most vocal critic of what it considers to be the habit of “politicized” application and even expansion of core Council principles, resolutions and mandates.  Other Council members, including February’s president Venezuela, have also cautioned against taking on less “central” issues when so much of the core peace and security mandate of the Council (read Syria, Yemen, Mali, etc.) lies unresolved.

In fairness, Russia of course also “politicizes,” also uses the format of the so-called “open” meetings to brand its preferred versions of the truth, rather than truth’s more comprehensive incarnation.   Moreover, it is not uncommon, as core policy matters get in a rut and pressures mount, that persons or governments seek out problems to which they can make a real contribution, hoping perhaps that efficacy in more “marginal” realms can translate somehow into efficacy in core responsibilities.

Having sat through hundreds of Council “open” branding sessions — which January’s president Uruguay (at Friday’s wrap up session) rightly noted produces little in the way of policy movement or even clarity regarding national positions – it almost seems reasonable to share skepticism regarding the motives and politics of Council engagement.  However, the solution to such skepticism is not to cease holding Arria Formula events. It remains important for Council members to consider testimony on issues such as disappearances “from people in the know,” and Arria is the best format currently available to make that happen.

The caveat here is that Council working methods have, as noted frequently by many non-members, long under-estimated the efforts, activities and even mandates of other key UN actors.  Council members are quite grateful to their briefers – who now encompass a wider range of UN issue area interests– but much less often seem conversant with the activities and priorities of the agencies these briefers represent.

There is a significant distinction between “adding value” to the resolution of issues such as the scourge of missing persons, and being seen as undercutting relate efforts of colleagues elsewhere in the system.   This seemingly habitual tendency of the Council to “vacuum up” any and all security-related topics raises concern from many non-member states; those seeking to keep the Council focused on its “primary” responsibilities, yes, but also those understanding that lasting solutions to security problems involve diverse capacities inside of and beyond the UN, solutions not to be found solely within the texts of the Council’s mandates and resolutions. And to be clear, the primary purpose of the Council must be to resolve threats to peace and security, not to bolster its own prerogatives – outcomes not status.

If the Arria Formula option is to reach the potential that Ambassador Rycroft rightly feels it can, the introduction of new issues and perspectives to Council members must be accompanied by a more sophisticated and generous grasp of existing UN agencies and their capacities.  Traumatic abuses such as forced disappearances are likely to be addressed with greater effectiveness when the Council states its clear and primary intention to add value rather than control outcomes.