Tag Archives: environment

Deprivation Nations:  The UN Struggles to Measure a Sustainable Life, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Mar

species

An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language. Martin Buber

Your cravings as a human animal do not become a prayer just because it is God whom you ask to attend to them. Dag Hammarskjold

We’re simply not as different from the rest of the animal kingdom as we used to think. Jane Goodall

You have to steer a course between not appalling people, but at the same time not misleading them. David Attenborough

Today we stand with the brains of hunter-gatherers in our heads, looking out on a modern world made comfortable for some by the fruits of human inventiveness, and made miserable for others by the scandal of deprivation in the midst of plenty.  Richard Leakey

The UN completed yet another busy and, from the standpoint of effective policy, uneven week.   The Security Council held its collective breath as it contemplated a way forward for peace in South Sudan, but also warmly welcomed back H.E. Miroslav Lajčák, former president of the UN General Assembly, who is now responsible for, among other things, coordinating the work of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) with that of the UN more generally and the Security Council more specifically.  In addition, several Council members sponsored a side event on the protection of health workers and facilities in armed conflict, a core tenet of international humanitarian law literally under assault in recent times.

Earlier in the week, the Peacebuilding Commission struggled with what seems to be an endless dilemma over how to navigate the challenge that is Burundi, specifically how to balance development and human rights commitments within a political and security environment that clearly (as evidenced by the conversations taking place on our twitter feed) alarms many stakeholders in Burundi at much higher levels of urgency than those of us in the policy community here in New York.

The week also witnessed abundant (and mostly welcome) references to International Women’s Day.  Amidst a few awkward “tributes” and near-zero-sum attributions of “exclusion,” the events and testimonies this week served as prelude to this week’s high-profile Commission on the Status of Women and also perhaps a bit of a blueprint for how we might successfully navigate other pervasive exclusions in economics, politics and peace processes that are directly related to ethnicity, race and social class.

Even more than these other concerns, the UN was dominated in recent days by ECOSOC’s Statistical Commission. Commission discussions can appear dry and disconnected at times, but are essential if we are to accurately track our collective responsibilities under the Sustainable Development Goals.  Some Commission side events — specifically one on “Knowledge and Politics in Setting and Measuring the SDGs,” hosted by the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung and the UN Development Programme and another on “Measuring Child Poverty in Sierra Leone” hosted by UNICEF —  were noteworthy for their acknowledgement of the statistical burdens that accompany fulfilment of the Sustainable Development Goals, but also of some of the pitfalls that occur when we employ reductionist data modeling, allow our investigations to be tainted by political considerations or access limitations, or fail to innovate data collection to respond to evolving understandings of community needs and expectations.

In this regard, the Sierra Leone event was a special breath of fresh air.   Moving beyond poverty indexed almost exclusively to household income, the speakers in this event spoke instead of “deprivations” that collectively provide a more accurate lens on conditions of poverty than income figures alone.  By attempting to measure a wider range of factors associated with the “quality of life” of children and families – housing, nutrition, education, vaccination rates, clean water access, even “connectivity” to the wider world — statisticians and UN officials together can insist that the data they now collect is much better able to contribute to more comprehensive and sustainable reductions in poverty, especially for children.

The skilled presenters also seemed mindful of the fact that their expansive indexes don’t necessarily capture all of the “deprivations” from which children in diverse urban and rural settings need to be protected.  Indeed, one deprivation that largely eluded “capture” is related to the need for a healthy environment, certainly for clean air and water, but also for healthy forests and the biodiversity they support – from large mammals to the exponentially more numerous (and equally-threatened) insects — essential to maintaining environmental well-being for current and future generations.

While threats to climate and oceans rightly dominate UN conference rooms, “other” environmental issues too-rarely appear on our common agenda.  This changed a bit this week as meetings to examine the role of “corruption” in the illicit wildlife trade and to prepare for the upcoming UN Forum on Forests brought together a number of stakeholders concerned with shrinking biodiversity and the forests (among other ecosystems) that support such life.  The corruption discussion was more elaborate, citing examples of the profligate and illegal wildlife trade made more profitable by virtue of the ability of traffickers to purchase inattentive silence from officials ranging from park rangers to environmental ministers.  Moreover, efforts to arrest and prosecute wildlife trafficking are impeded by funding limitations, themselves a product of an often indifferent public sentiment willing to endorse protection for only the most visible and iconic species – as though such species can possibly thrive independent of numerous “non-iconic” life forms on which their survival ultimately depends.

The original title of this piece was to be “animal crackers,” a form of warning about that time when our relationship to even the most visible parts of the current natural order will be confined to flour-concocted replicas rather than to direct and nurturing experiences.  Our current efforts to “save wildlife,” noble at one level, fail to communicate adequately the degree to which we are only “saving” what we ourselves have brought to the brink of extinction; moreover that we are “saving” mostly the top end of food chains that are literally disintegrating at lower levels, victims of our pesticides, our deforestation, our addiction to plastics, but mostly our collective indifference.

As I look out from the kitchen window of my apartment of many years on to a street that has been gentrified and layered in concrete almost beyond recognition, I can see only a couple of tired-looking pigeons and one solitary tree, and then only if I strain my neck.  While my neighborhood probably has more accessible “green options” than most in this city, the view out my window surely reflects deprivation conditions of a too-common kind, our too-often-unrequited longing to connect with the “great language” of the natural world of which we have so-far proven to be a mostly predatory component.  Thankfully, this “comfortable for some, deprived for many” world we still conspire to create lies in the “cross-hairs” of the 2030 Development Agenda, an agenda which reminds us that we are now well past the point where our planet and the human communities it labors to support can be healed with half-hearted or single-lens measures. Such measures fail on data quality but also fail to promote a vision for a world capable of shifting the “green” that enables our “cravings” into the green that nourishes and sustains our children, indeed our collective soul.

The ability and willingness of these national statistical experts to name and count the world that can nourish and sustain, that can underwrite hopeful policy for children and other living things facing often-unique configurations of deprivation, was among the most encouraging and gratifying aspects of a packed policy week.

 

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Storm Center: The Bookend Messes Defining Modern Armed Conflict, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Oct

Storm

 

What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.  Chris Maser

What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?  Henry David Thoreau

We’re in a giant car heading towards a brick wall and everyone’s arguing over where they’re going to sit. David Suzuki

Who would want to live in a world which is just-not-quite fatal?  Rachel Carson

Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me; how could you be my enemy?  Erich Maria Remarque

One of the welcome aspects of our work is watching the peace and security agenda expand beyond specific weapons systems and country-specific conflict configurations to examine the spectrum of causes and consequences that bracket the horrors of armed violence.

This is no mere academic exercise.  As we have noted often and colleagues of ours have more recently been emboldened to acknowledge, our task in this policy space is not manage armed conflict, not to soften its often horrific impacts, but ultimately to eliminate it.  This objective may well be the stuff of some fantasy-induced misinterpretation of the human condition – based on an assumption that human beings are actually capable of walking back from the brink of ruin, that we are capable of loving this planet as much as we love our aspirations and aggressions on it — but such is the lot we’ve chosen.

And this lot requires a lot – including a willingness to examine both causes and consequences, to assess and profess the things that we do collectively that compel (or excuse) people to pick up arms as well as the often-devastating consequences to people and planet in conflict’s aftermath.  Indeed, if armed violence and the evermore sophisticated weaponry with which it is conducted are ever to be put to rest, those causes and consequences must be burned into our consciousness in much the same way as the health of our own child towards whom we rightly invest much practical worry, hoping to sidestep illnesses with consequences that can run the gamut from inconvenient to heartbreaking.

The bad news here is that we seem more determined in these recent days to let our predatory nature run wild, eschewing legal and legislative restraints on our acquisitive and competitive dispositions and pushing concern about a possible day of reckoning to the furthest reaches of conscious life.

The good news, though, is that there are pockets of policy resistance to this trend, states and their representatives that both seek to grasp the full complement of causes of conflict and work to highlight the consequences to future generations of “looking away,” consequences both psychological and ecological as our capacity to humiliate and destroy continues to exceed our skill in healing traumatized children and restoring denuded landscapes.

The UN was the scene this week of good faith efforts to explore both causes and consequences of conflict, focusing in this instance on environmental dimensions that attracted considerable and welcome interest.  On Tuesday, Bolivia (current president) directed the UN Security Council on a discussion of how “the control, exploitation and access to natural resources have been a catalyst for the outbreak, escalation and continuation of armed conflicts.”  In a hard-hitting concept note, Bolivia acknowledged the “multidimensional and complex” roots of conflict but also noted the long history of conflict that has been fueled by disputes over the control, exploitation and access to natural resources, highlighting “foreign interests, multinational companies, elite actors and armed groups monopolizing control over resource revenues at the expense of local citizens.”

In fairness, there have been solid international efforts to curb state corruption (through the UN Office of Drugs and Crime and other entities) and apply human rights standards to the potential exploitation of natural resources including with regard to the diversion of profits to organized crime and terror groups, and the forced labor of people fueling the supply chain in ways that mostly serves to make life more comfortable and abundant in national capitals.  Australia and other states are promoting standards that address what have been for much too long abundant violations of rights in supply chains, standards that promise better governance, fairer labor standards, reduced incentives to conflict, an end to the human trafficking and even slavery that have long stoked hostility and frustration at local level.

At the other end of this spectrum are the environmental consequences of the conflict we fail to prevent, the ruined homes and farmlands, the denuded forests and polluted water supplies, the damaged infrastructure and wasted social capital that compromise any reasonable hope of healing and restoration.   The sometimes-devastating “ecological footprint” of military activity – from basing and training to illegal occupation and full scale military assault – has long been a concern of our policy community.  And, thanks in large measure to leadership from Finland and the International Law Commission, this linkage has remained acutely in our collective policy consciousness.

This matter includes but goes beyond remnants of war that include the ongoing impact of landmines and other explosive devices whose lurking presence deters persons displaced by conflict seeking to return home and “save what’s left.”  Indeed, as armed conflict becomes more resistant to legal restraint and more destructive in its creativity and technological flexibility, its environmental and other “human security” impacts are increasingly pushing us across the threshold of remediation in all its aspects.  The displaced have less and less to “save” at home, the traumas of conflict deepen and too-often remain untreated, and more people feel that they have little choice but to turn their backs on their now-contaminated fields and domiciles-in-rubble for uncertain futures elsewhere.

In an all-day seminar this past Thursday, the “protection of the environment in relation to armed conflict” kept a small group (including my interns) riveted for hours.  This event covered environmental impacts across the conflict cycle, including the issue of establishing “liability” for conflict-related environmental harm.  Highly-qualified speakers highlighted the tools at our disposal to monitor and assess environmental degradation related to armed conflict, as well as the degree to which increasingly scarce natural resources such as water and precious minerals – a major conflict trigger in our time – might actually increase the incentive for cooperative discussions on how to manage resources fairly and effectively prior to conflict such that the potential for such conflict is effectively minimized.  And while there were calls to the international community to prepare better for the environmental impacts of climate and conflict threats, there was also a sense in the room that viable, cross-border conflict-prevention measures together with normative principles and legal mechanisms of accountability for environmental damages — including often-grave damages inflicted by occupying forces — is likely to constitute our most productive way forward.

The point of which we must constantly remind ourselves is that the misery of warfare does not end once the guns finally go silent.  No matter how we might justify recourse to armed violence in political or strategic terms, the fact remains that once the missiles fly and the bombs drop, our capacity to address already-strained human and environmental challenges diminishes significantly.  The “mess” of armed conflict perists amidst even our best, good-faith efforts to restore what we have been quick to destroy.

If the UN can continue to shine a bright light on both the environmental causes and consequences of violence, highlighting the degree to which armed conflict is and remains a major inhibitor of sustainable development and human well-being, we will be further along in our quest to create a planet fit for children and other living beings, a planet filled with people who finally and firmly grasp their diverse “contributions” to armed conflict as well as the increasingly scant prospects for healing and wholeness that follow in modern conflict’s wake.

I sometimes worry that too many of us seem resigned now to live in a world that “is not quite fatal.” It is still possible to reverse this pessimistic course, but the brick wall towards which we have been blithely hurdling looms closer than ever. We must quickly slam on the brakes, recover our enthusiasm for what can still be an exciting and abundant journey, and find a safer route to our collective destination.

Green Day: The UN Seeks the Means to Defend Environmental Rights Defenders, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Oct

 

activists

Environmental human rights defenders are at the heart of our future and the future of our planet.  2016 Report of the UN Secretary General on the “Situation of human rights defenders”

At the UN, as in much of the world as a whole, the policy news on a daily basis seems to run the gamut from hopeful to dreadful:

  • Some extraordinary progress on ocean preserves is offset by rapid polar melting and massive ocean storms
  • A breakthrough on negotiations to eventually “ban” nuclear weapons is compromised by reckless arms transfers and illicit arms movements that endanger civilians, destroy schools and medical infrastructure, and threaten an already fragile negotiating trust
  • Global progress on ending capital punishment is undermined by states citing drug trafficking and terrorism as “justifications” for continuing state-sanctioned executions
  • Policy gains on women’s equality are stymied by institutional sexism and political systems more comfortable with making promises on gender than keeping them

Perhaps nowhere at the UN is this schizophrenic path to progress more apparent than in the 3rd Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) of the UN General Assembly,  one of six GA committees meeting throughout October (and sometimes beyond). Chaired this year by Colombia’s Ambassador María Emma Mejía, the 3rd Committee embraces a stunning, ambitious schedule of rights-related issues that span a full spectrum of UN concerns – from persons with disabilities facing discrimination or journalists under siege to persons forcibly “disappeared” by governments or executed without due process.

Over the month, an extraordinary lineup of independent experts, Special Rapporteurs and Special Procedure Mandate Holders appear before the 3rd Committee to describe the progress they’ve made, the obstacles still to be overcome, and the reasons why attentiveness to the issues of their respective mandates still matters so much to the world.  This was also (and sadly) a time to honor extraordinary experts whose mandates (though not the issues themselves) are set to expire, including Juan Mendez (torture), Rita Izsak (minority rights), Maina Kai (peaceful assembly) and Fabian Salvioli (Human Rights Committee Chair).

My fall interns are forced (by me) to experience all facets of UN policy, but they seem to have a special interest in the skillfulness and diverse interests represented by these mandate holders.  As painful and even horrifying as some of their testimony surely is, interns are amazed (as well they ought) at the range of substantive UN human rights concerns – trafficking and child pornography, health care and adequate housing, the land rights of indigenous people and the plight of displaced children.  Despite limited implementation successes in a number of instances, these rights stand as almost “sacred” obligations of states parties, obligations that are not compromised — let alone disappear — because some states refuse their full acknowledgment.

But these rights obligations need champions outside the UN as well as within, as has been noted often by Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders.  And as we have all come to know, the dangers faced by these “outside” champions show few signs of abating. Last Monday, in a side event –“Empower environmental defenders, safeguard our future” – Forst joined with Norway’s Ambassador May-Elin Stener and an activist from Honduras (CEHPRODEC) to chronicle some of the grave threats experienced by environmental rights activists seeking to organize communities to safeguard health and livelihoods in the face of aggressive corporate predation, state corruption and broad international indifference.

Many in the room were still mourning the death of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, not the only activist to lose her life defending land and community in states such as Honduras and, given the current state of our limited protective mechanisms, unlikely to be the last.  Within the Global Action orbit, we have also mourned friends and colleagues who have paid the ultimate price for our collective indifference.  We have watched families torn apart as land-owning corporations pay family members to shoot their “trespassing” kinfolk. We have seen first-hand the effects of logging and mining that bring few local benefits but inflict staggering local hardships.  We have seen activists’ reputations rent asunder by forces eager to label them as “criminals” or “terrorists” while exempting their own actions from virtually all means of accountability.

As states prepare to assemble in Morocco to assess the early stages of implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement, they would do well to confess this schizophrenic policy moment – on the one hand, urgency to control emissions and create a more healthful planet characterized by peaceful and inclusive societies; on the other hand, business as usual under cover of states underwhelming in their commitment to protect their own citizens – and those who seek to defend them — from external threats of diverse human origins.

As the UN Secretary-General has intimated, human rights defenders are the essential link between sound global policy and community resiliency.  We cannot do without their tireless and courageous commitments.  We cannot fulfill our “leave no one behind” promises while abandoning communities – especially their women and indigenous — to defend legitimate local interests while their leadership languishes in prisons or even in morgues.  We cannot hope to inspire stable, healthy communities when the voices of so many of its citizens are mute – or facing a dangerous backlash.

As Rapporteur Forst himself noted during this side event, the world is characterized by growing “power imbalances” that imperil rights defenders and the community interests they seek to defend.  There is, he warned, a “crisis of retribution” which the Honduran activist asserted almost never results in punitive legal judgments.  As we seek a fairer, greener and more just planet, it is important to honor and sustain the community-based courage that must be part of any viable pathway to change.  As Ambassador Stener noted, state, corporate and community interests will not always align, but respectful dialogue –not threats– is the only sustainable way forward.  The international community can and should do more to guarantee that such dialogue takes place, and that it takes place on a more level playing field.

Green Lantern: UNGA Informal Debate on ‘Harmony with Nature”

23 Apr

As a nod to Earth Day 2013, the UN General Assembly was the setting for an ‘informal debate’ focused on ways to more effectively promote planetary ‘harmony’.

A half-full conference room listened to a short presentation from the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and more passionate speeches by the UN General Assembly President, Mr. Vuk Jeremić of Serbia, and by Ministers from Bolivia and Ecuador, two ‘left-leaning’ governments that tend to exercise a great deal of control over national economic outcomes.

There were some valuable reminders shared by these four speakers during what was a bit of an ideologically-imbalanced opening session.   From our own organizational standpoint, it is good to be reminded that consumption in the developed world is largely optional and has increasingly deleterious impacts on natural health in all global regions.  In addition, we should recognize that too much of the ‘green’ movement has been co-opted by those who seek to institutionalize levels of developed world consumption while attempting to ‘manage’ levels of growth in less developed nations.

At the debate, there were also renewed calls for a ‘universal declaration’ of the rights of nature tied to an alleged, if helpful, ‘right to recovery’ for nature that has been ravaged by a preponderance of short-term economic resource use disconnected from any reasonable capacity for future generations to access (and preserve) the same resources.

Our economic situation has been increasingly dark in recent times – inequities and shortages abound, as do the toxic effects of our mindless exploitation.    While it is not yet clear how ‘nature rights’ could be properly identified and enforced, nor is it clear how economic reform would result in locally based economies rather than state structures attempting to micro-manage large scale economic development, it is critically important to shine a light on alternatives that are urgent, viable and fair.  Needless to say, we don’t have sufficient alternatives at present. We need to keep the lantern lit as much as possible.

An office like ours has very limited access to deliberations on economic futures.   From our experience in meetings such as this one, it is clear that States too have limited options, more limited than they generally acknowledge.  Economic decisions, more and more, take place beyond the reach of states in board rooms and investment houses.  Whatever one thinks of “Occupy’ and other movements to expose economic inequities, including in economic decision making, it is clear that this current system is being driven by self-interested and unaccountable forces.   If such forces were merely accumulating wealth, there would be sufficient cause for general concern.  That accumulated wealth is driving so much planetary dysfunction should be cause for the loudest general alarm.

Simply put, there are biological limits to economic growth.   And those limits are not being acknowledged, let alone respected.   As one of the ministers from Ecuador wondered aloud and with some urgency, “Who precisely is going to bell this cat?”  How will that be accomplished? The cat has a defensive, nasty disposition and sharp claws.  It will take some real courage to bell it.  Until that happens, though, the rest of us will largely remain ignorant (willfully or otherwise) of the ways that our lives are about to become more painful and toxic than they need to be!

Our collective disenchantment with our economic system seems to grow daily.   At the same time, our resistance to economic change borders on the neurotic.   We have deep addictions to unsustainable and largely optional patters of consumption that remain stubborn in their remedial application and are also quite devastating to our long-term biological prospects.

On Earth Day, we need to shine more light on the structures and choices that undermine a ‘green’ agenda – unequal economic access, unsustainable (and largely optional) patterns of consumption, and more.  We also need to renew our connections with some of our more ‘intimate’ ecological processes – how our food is grown, where our drinking water comes from, what happens to our waste when we are ‘done’ with it.

Our ignorance of basic environmental processes as well as our insistence that we own everything we use are both planet-defeating attitudes. Our preference for owning a neighbor’s land to having a neighbor undermines community integrity.   Our relentless pursuit of non-essential consumer goods represents a psychologically defective, wasteful application of time and resources.   Our ability to simultaneously express a deep love for our children while contributing to the demise of the system that supports their lives is a dangerous inconsistency.  Clearly, we must continue to shine a light on these and other discontinuities, and then organize a viable, participatory strategy to overcome them.

 

–Dr. Robert Zuber

Remarks from Global Action’s Director at World Order Values Reception

10 Dec

We are here to highlight and celebrate the World Order Values: Peace, Social Justice, Economic Well-Being, Ecological Balance, Positive Identity

These are not values to inspire belief so much as values to guide and inspire practice.

These values have no hierarchy, but they have witnessed shifts in urgency. When I was younger at the World Order Models Project, it was the peace values that preoccupied most of us – more specifically peace in relation to the nuclear arms race.

The priorities have shifted over the years. Our climate now poses even deadlier challenges than our arsenals.

And, as we saw recently in Guatemala and South Africa, positive identity is more and more a requirement for healthy living, as important in its own way as clean air and a reliable security system.

  • No more are people content to remain trapped in self-concepts bequeathed by their captors or those who have otherwise humiliated them.
  • No more are people willing to ‘move on’ from gross abuse without as full an accounting of what happened to them as humanly possible.
  • No more are people willing to accept promises of assistance or respect from governments or corporations or even universities at face value.

The task in this season is not only to practice these World Order Values but to practice them in the right spirit  – a spirit of kindness and hospitality and attentiveness and humility. These values and the tasks associated with them represent a calling that is both high and common. ‘Common’ because everyone can contribute. ‘High’ because they demand so much of our spirits – our souls if you will – more sometimes than we seem willing to commit.

With all of the frustration that characterizes this work at times, all the travel to meetings that don’t result in real policy movement, all the strategic discussions that go nowhere, all the applications for grants or workshop opportunities that come back rejected, we have still – each in our own way and all of us together — helped to make world order values incarnate. We don’t know yet if it will be enough to turn energies and commitments away from consumption and competition and domination. But there is more in place now to help us reach our goals – more diplomatic infrastructure, more public awareness, more treaties and resolutions, more transparency, more skill.  This should reassure us that our task is only formidable, but not impossible.

The world order values have become for us more than candy sprinkles on our ice cream, more than adornments on our holiday trees.   They are the lifeblood of our work, the standards by which we will be judged by our grandchildren — and their grandchildren as well.

And so, a toast, to those children yet to come and to those of us who believe that Peace, Social Justice, Economic Well-Being, Ecological Balance and Positive Identity represent a future that is worthy of our progeny.

 

–Dr. Robert Zuber