Tag Archives: General Assembly

School Break: Learning Strategies Fit for our Future, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Jan

Outdoor2

It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.  Albert Einstein

I am not a teacher, but an awakener.  Robert Frost

When the roots are deep, there’s no reason to fear the wind. African Proverb

Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.  Socrates

The holes in your life are permanent. You have to grow around them, like tree roots around concrete. Paula Hawkins

I’ve seen how you can’t learn anything when you’re trying to look like the smartest person in the room. Barbara Kingsolver

There is no school equal to a decent home and no teacher equal to a virtuous parent.  Gandhi

The UN had a relatively quiet week but not one without its disappointments.   A General Assembly preparatory meeting for the 2020 Oceans Conference exhibited little energy despite the urgency of ocean health in an age of melting ice caps and our self-inflicted “plastics Armageddon.”  In the Security Council a debate on the Middle East during which the US and Israel attempted to divert attention away from Palestine and towards Iran was accompanied by an Arria Formula discussion chaired by Russia and devoted to undermining the conclusions of investigators probing the use of chemical weapons in Douma, Syria.  As is so often the case, what could well have been an opportunity for “staying with the questions” of chemical weapons use became just one more political football as most members had made up their minds long before this Arria commenced and the Russians seemed determined (and largely failed) to use Douma report inconsistencies to call other chemical weapons allegations into question.

We have said this many times previously, and we say it again each semester to our new (and returning) cohort of interns – the UN represents an extraordinary learning opportunity but is not in any sense an extraordinary learning community.   We politicize questions and reporting with regularity. We rarely if ever ask the “next question” or stay with the questions on the table long enough to exhaust more than a portion of their significance. We generally fail to link the questions in one room with those taking place in others, nor do we ever examine the pedagogical limitations of the conference rooms in which our wilfull neglect of curiosity takes place, rooms that are much better suited to predictable political discourse than to kindling the flames we must light if our own and our children’s futures are to be secured.

Such pedagogical limitations within this UN space have implications for our efforts to promote SDG 5 and thus insure “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” This goal is a particular priority for the current General Assembly President, HE Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, and he incarnated this priority in an all-day, High-Level, International Day of Education event this past Friday to promote SDG 5 implementation.  In his opening remarks, the PGA made reference to the gap between current levels of school enrollment (especially for girls) and the “skills” we will need to tap if we are to successfully pursue our sustainable development responsibilities.  Enrollment gaps matter, to be sure, and the PGA made a special plea to the international community to consider how to better serve (and finance) the educational needs of all children, particularly those “trapped” within zones of conflict.

In that same vein, Japan (speaking on behalf of the Group of Friends) noted that even improvements in “basic reading skills” can have positive implications for goals such as poverty reduction ane the promotion of “sustainable peace.”   And always-thoughtful Ireland highlighted the importance of “empowerment through learning,” and its “opportunity schools” that intentionally “break down cycles of disadvantage.”

Though I probably would never have said so when I was a teenager, classrooms clearly do have a role to play in securitng a more peaceful and sustainable future.  There are skills — including those related to “literacy” in all its forms — that classrooms are well suited to develop.  And in many parts of the world, classrooms represent a welcome escape for young people, escape from the problems in their communities but also an escape from the limitations endemic to those communities.   Classrooms managed by gifted teachers (of which there are thankfully millions around the world) can help young people work around “the holes in their lives” and kindle flames that will serve youth (and the rest of us) in ways that they can sustain for much of the rest of their lives.

But as much as we might value classrooms and advocate for more and better funded schools, there are also significant caveats, some of which were raised during the opening segments of this High Level event.  Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed herself noted the prevalence of classrooms in which “children don’t learn much of anything.”  She called for a “transformation in the way we interpret and value knowledge,” noting specifically the importance of learning which addresses hate speech and extremism and that can do much to narrow technology gaps.  The DSG understood that alongside the need to place underserved children in classrooms is the larger responsibility of schools and communities together to “prepare children for the world they are set to inherit,” including those aspects of the world that they may not be so keen to embrace.

As many of Friday’s morning speakers intimated, this preparatory task is one much easier said than done.   Once we shift our focus from merely expanding school enrollment numbers to addressing those millions of other children in danger of being left behind in this “decade of action,” the complexities of our educational task become apparent.   Schooling has positive implications for literacy and poverty reduction and can help narrow some technology access gaps.  Moreover, classrooms can provide stability — a comforting routine — where it is safe for some to open their minds and even their dreams in the presence of skilled and trustworthy educators.

But classrooms have several downsides which those committed to sustainable development must interrogate.   They can be places of competition rather than collaboration where the “winners” are able to escape the confines of their communities and build their own brands in far-away places.   Moreover, classrooms are only one of the places where children can learn what those on Friday agreed are worthy pedagogical objectives. Indeed, some of the most engaging educational encounters I have experienced — in most cases through the sheer brilliance of friends and colleagues — took place not in classrooms but in prisons, around campfires, in church basements, in art museums and cultural sites, around family breakfast tables.  Indeed, if we want children to build their base of knowledge and curiosity, we have to engage more of the places (and the “teachers” who occupy them) where children seeking to learn can learn best.

As we pursue the goals and targets of SDG 4, we need to ask more questions and sit longer with the questions we pose.  Are our classrooms well-suited, for instance, to teach empathy for those in need or those with less?  Are they places that can properly promote “place-based” learning — deeping the familiarity of young people with home environments and cultures — and then encourage youth to make local changes?  Can they help young people develop “deep roots” such that they no longer need to fear the winds which they will surely encounter over what we hope are long and fruitful lives? Are they places where young people can successfully overcome their limitations and practice the curiosity that will keep them learning long after their time in classrooms has ended?

Perhaps they can, but this is unclear.  Whhat is clearer, to us at least, is that education for sustainable development requires more from each of us and will likely require even more going forward. Indeeed much of what it requires is in our hearts and minds beyond our policy matrices and spread sheets.  We  must find a way to inspire caring in an increasingly indifferent world; to promote civic engagement and conflict resolution at a time when our politics seem so degraded; to encourage doing the right thing even when no one is watching; to help others to learn and succeed rather than incessantly calling attention to our own “accomplishments;” to see more clearly the links between how and what we consume and the fate of persons escaping flood waters from our denuded forests and melting icecaps or from the toxic remnants of our polluted waterways; to prepare people for the community responsibilities and employment opportunities to come and not simply those of the present.

The “future” that we ask schools, families and other educational influences to help prepare young people for is uncertain at best and, at the very least, such uncertainty is not to be laid at their doorstep.  If it is to be truly transformational, part of this “preparation” must involve a deeper commitment to modeling by the rest of us: modeling the civic and environmental engagement that we seek to inspire in the young; modeling mindfulness regarding the implications of how we live and what we share with others; modeling an “awakening” in ourselves of empathy and solidarity that we hope to arouse in our students; modeling a commitment to solving the problems on our watch rather than running out the clock and shuffling the game along to the next generation.

If truth be told, we’re not doing particularly well in this regard.  Friday’s sesssion embraced some elements of the “transformation” called for by DSG Mohammed, but largely without an examination of the “educators” in homes and communities that have been marginalized amidst our school-focused policy obsessions as well as the diverse contexts for successful learning that we have yet to fully embrace. Such contexts can change what young people know and how young people learn, making space for those who will never be able to grasp in classrooms more than a portion of what they will need to know and experience, feel and share, if their contributions to a more inclusive, just and sustainable world are to be fully experienced and duly recorded.

A flame not a bucket.  This is the educational agenda that the SDGs call for and that will take more than classrooms and their teachers to achieve.  If indeed we are committed to providing “inclusive and equitable” education for youth (as we must), then we need also to promote the duty of older folks beyond school walls (including at the UN) to help awaken youths’ best selves.

Power Strip: Opening Spaces for Accountable Governance, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Jan
They joined hands.  So the world ended.  And the next one began. Sarah J. Maas
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Martin Luther King, Jr.
If people get hungry they will eat their rulers. Protest Banner on the Streets of Beirut.
Take the power to love what you want in life and love it honestly. Susan Polis Schutz
Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power.  John Steinbeck
Power changes everything till it is difficult to say who are the heroes and who the villains.  Libba Bray
On a snowy afternoon in New York, I tried to find an appropriate image for the heading of today’s post, an image of power that was not linked to destruction or subjugation or any of the other dystopia/rescue fantasy images that we so often link power with now.
I failed. Image after image I consulted was devoted to superheroes vanquishing one thing or another, skyscrapers under construction that block the sun, weapons firing and smokestacks smoking, all symbolizing conquest or “progress” that seemed predictive in their own way of a world hurdling towards its own reckoning.
I could hardly find any image that close to signified what our little Global Action tree tries to convey — the preservation and abundance of life, a bit of shady respite from the numerous coercive elements, a place of wisdom and reflection to help sort out the chaos of our inner and outer lives.  And so, this tree that many have found confusing or misleading, an image that has perhaps strayed a bit far from the hard security origins and purposes of this now middle-aged non-profit, our “tree” is the best symbol I could find to discuss a dynamic that has become vexing to some and hopeful for many.
I speak here about the slow, inexorable, sometimes painful shifts in global power, a dynamic that is hardly linear and is replete with its own inconsistencies and hypocrisy; a movement which we find encouraging at several levels but which is also generating significant, even violent resistance in many quarters of the globe.
In setting after setting, people are taking to the streets and demanding a voice on governance, on women’s rights, on climate; resisting in many instances the slide into authoritarianism and its style of leadership which insists that the restraints which they advocate for their political adversaries simply do not apply to themselves.  These power grabs are often encouraged and enabled by much of the populace, especially people who have long felt disrespected and neglected by their erstwhile “democratic” leadership and who believe, though probably without cause, that association with power harboring a pretension to absolutism will convey absolute benefits for themselves and their “tribe.”
This form of association with power seems more closely aligned with fear than any other single emotion.  And to be sure there are plenty of reasons to be fearful given the range of future-compromising global threats that we at the UN seek to mitigate on a daily basis.
But there is more for us to consider, beyond the polar melting, terror attacks and doomsday fortresses. Egged on by numerous forms of media that understand well our almost genetic attentiveness to car wrecks — metaphorical and actual — we are being fed a steady diet of images that drive larger wedges between already distant community interests.  We who already live too often in bubbles beyond the direct impact from what offends us or makes us uncomfortable are increasingly convinced that people are “coming for us,” coming for our families, coming to compromise our dignity yet one more time, coming to corrupt our children and immobilize their breadwinners, coming to impose their will on us in ways that merely patronizes our faith and values, that offers only a path back to an “old normal” and then discriminates (sometimes fiercely) against any who seek to fashion new social options.
And yet in the midst of this externally-motivated fear, in the midst of all the mistrust currently masquerading as enlightenment, the anger that only pretends to have a larger social purpose, there are signs of movement that can make the world more sustainable, more inclusive, even more democratic.
Just on our twitter feel this week, we have been regaled often by the determination of people to shift global circumstances without waiting for official permission.  Perhaps the best example came courtesy of Emmanuel Niyoyabikoze, a young person from Burundi who has been organizing tree planting (#GreeningBurundiProject) with other young Burundians as a practical contribution to climate change.   But more than that, he is enabling participation by young people in the future of his country, a country compromised in recent times by governance issues and human rights abuses, by electoral-related violence and the related exclusion of ethnic groups not aligned with the interests of the dominant political party.  The trees now being planted in Burundi thus herald a country that is slowly, inexorably becoming greener, but also we must anticipate, more inclusive and accountable to diverse citizen interests.
Another example spoke directly to this age now dripping with anti-Semitic venom. A touching video was re-circulated this week of Sir Nicholas Winton being honored by the many (now-adult) children he once rescued during the Holocaust, a remarkable process of rescue about which he remained silent for almost 50 years of his life.  For me the video was a moving reminder that the people who defend the defenseless and protect the innocent — from Auschwitz to Haiti and South Sudan — may not be “perfect” in any conventional sense, but they are incarnating the capacities that we possess in greater abundance than we have recently shown, capacities to re-weave our “garment of destiny” and also re-fashion human relations (including on power) in ways that can inspire rather than compromise our collective survival.
In its own cautious manner, the UN is also feeling some of the pressure to invest more in democratic accountability and move away from “consensus” structures that still freeze patterns of committee memberships and leadership in ways both gender-restrictive and Euro-centric.  Aside from the pervasive and well-documented (by us and others) determination to reform the Security Council, there were several events this week that underscored still-subtle but visible shifts in UN power dynamics.  For instance, the leadership handover of the Group of 77 and China from Palestine to Guyana was a chance for the UN to demonstrate the value of what Azerbaijan referred to as the “unity” of developing states, countries that represent the majority of UN membership but have yet to create a base of power that can ensure viable, inclusive, sustainable human security for more of the world’s peoples.
But they’re trying.  Earlier in the week the General Assembly took up a resolution opposed by the US and most European states, to expand what is known as the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ).  The resolution sponsored by the G77 sought to redress geographic imbalances in the Committee which have remained stubbornly in place for many years.  Despite budgetary implications in a time of fiscal limitations, G77 members affirmed in this resolution that inclusiveness long-deferred simply must be addressed, that the struggle to re-imagine and then incarnate power at the UN was worth the temporary fiscal inconvenience.
Closer to home for us, we continually honor the young people who grace us with their presence and who are ready and willing to share their skills and talents in ways that are neither competitive nor sentimental, that are not about grasping power but about shifting how we understand it’s functions and limitations, about ensuring that policy discussions more actively seek out the direct involvement of the people most likely to be impacted by policy decisions too often taken “on their behalf.”
These are relatively small windows towards broader participation, but (like our tree) they are symbolic of changes that seem to be pushing up through what are still relatively narrow openings.  At the briefing this week on preparations for the next G20 Summit convened by the president of the General Assembly, Germany and others noted the almost unimaginable concentrations of financial and political power in the hands of a few countries that control 90% of global wealth while being responsible for 80% of global emissions. This prompted fresh calls by member states for eliminating gross inequalities as well as fears from Japan and others regarding the potential of our under-scrutinized and rapidly “digitalizing economy” to increase inequalities even further.
The current march of political and economic power consolidation that many now largely accept as inevitable or even take for granted is now showing welcome cracks. But we will need plenty of courage and wisdom to widen those openings further and insist that the power structure that emerges is more inclusive of diverse aspirations, more enabling of mutual interest, more transparent and trustworthy, more devoted to planting trees than producing arms, more prone to joining hands and setting in motion a world in which we can all contribute, all participate, all survive (and perhaps even thrive).
This is neither a “soft” nor sentimental plea, but rather a realistic one.  If we have learned anything from this age of unaccountable governance and hegemonic economics, it is that where legitimate demands are repeatedly ignored, illegitimate demands are soon to follow.

Monster Mash: Vanquishing a Generation-Defining Conflict, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Nov

Godzilla

At the heart of all anger, all grudges, and all resentment, you’ll always find a fear that hopes to stay anonymous.  Donald L. Hicks

Hiding from the monsters only made them stronger.  C.L. Wilson

May we find the language that takes us to the only home there is –one another’s hearts.   Ibtisam Barakat

We need an immunization program, one that injects people with respect, dignity, and equality, one that inoculates them against hatred.  Izzeldin Abuelaish

Occupation exposes us very young to the extremes of our emotions, until we cannot feel except in the extreme.  Susan Abulhawa

Why don’t they want to let others in? Well, sometimes because they’re shy, and sometimes because they’re convinced of their own superiority. But those aren’t the only reasons. Sometimes it’s because they have something to hide.  Lauren Myracle

This was one of those weeks at the UN when there was so much to reflect upon and write about:  the role of special procedures in the upholding of human rights; the conditions of prisons that inflame the extremism we must do more to suppress; the carnage in Syria made even more complex by Turkish forces, Russian targets and US oil grabs; the street protests from Hong Kong and Iraq to Bolivia and Lebanon that are exposing once again the trust deficits that define so much of modern governance.

One of our interns is now preparing a piece on the protest movements that will soon appear in this space.  I am instead going to dive into a space that is both raw and crowded, a space that has resisted policy correction for as long as I have been alive, a space full of hundreds of policy wonks and many thousands of oft-muted voices who can now only “feel in the extreme;” these along with others who make a living highlighting abuses and offering policy alternatives to this wound that simply will not heal and, indeed, that too many of the rest of us will not allow to heal.

I’m speaking of course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I am fully aware of the pitfalls of wading into this space.  Our twitter and email accounts are already filled with people struggling (often-legitimately) over land, over rights, over governance, over control of a narrative that has too often been appropriated by people like me.  From Myanmar to Cameroon, we are often – and legitimately – chided for our incomplete understandings, for our erstwhile failures of courage and conviction, for the gaps we minimize between our allegedly bloated access and our generally deficient experiences.   We plead “no contest” to all of that.

And yet we do have a responsibility to reflect as we sit in rooms (such as with the General Assembly Fourth Committee this week) where diplomats take up the “Palestinian cause” with both intermittent vigor and a narrative that heralds few, if any breakthroughs.  We do have a responsibility to comment (as do others) on discussions that are mostly about, as Senegal noted earlier this week, indulging a “longstanding UN habit of passing resolutions designed to improve the lot of the Palestinians, and then failing to implement them,” the consequence of which is to leave the youth of Palestine (and many other regional youth) “forever marked.”

Indeed, one by one, delegations take the floor in these settings to highlight and condemn abuses in well-worn formulas.  Surely there is little news here, aside from the “news” that, session after session and year after year, we are failing in our responsibility to put an end to a conflict that attracts significant diplomatic energy but little diplomatic resolve.  And every year that we fail in our duty, the “political horizon” embedded in so many GA statements recedes further and further behind the clouds.

Indeed, having sat through literally hundreds of sessions like those this week, there is a sameness of perspective and approach that is as likely to deaden resolve as inflame its potential.  As South Africa noted this week referencing its own path to freedom, “we were able to liberate ourselves,” in part because of the “indignation that is largely absent” in the instance of the Palestinians.  Indeed, the statements read out during these sessions, often by younger diplomats who are not responsible for their content and who are commenting on a conflict that long predates them, often share too much text “condemning” the occupying power without taking a longer view on a responsibility that is also shared, the “monsters” that are also about us and from which we continue to hide.

Some of the things that strike my interns when they sit through these discussions are, I think, germane to this current discussion.  They note, for instance, the frequency with which Israel is admonished (and rightly so) for its practices but by states guilty of some of the very same practices.  For instance, the statement delivered this week in the 4th Committee by Saudi Arabia on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement rejecting the practices of “torture and assassination” by Israel was the right call but the wrong look.

Our interns often and rightly highlight the lack of concrete suggestions, let alone commitments, on the part of most of the delegations which take the floor.  And they also have come to recognize that “condemnation” is not in any way a valid commitment.  Indeed, it is an indulgence that has little to no practical impact aside from driving a deeper wedge of distrust between the parties, lengthening the distance to language that “takes us to the home of one-another’s hearts.”  Moreover, while condemnation might evoke some acknowledgment of guilt in the short term, its impact decreases as its use increases.  This is true with individuals and even more so with states.

Indeed, such condemnation could be viewed (and we would do so) as a “substitute” for meaningful engagement.  One thing that observers to these discussions become aware of quickly is their utter lack of practicality. We are reminded of the old adage that “everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it.”  There is a deep suspicion among those of us who follow the dialogue regularly, both in the GA and in the Security Council, that the desire to actually resolve this conflict, to actually move beyond settlements and blockades and rocket launches and generations forsaken, that desire, that “indignation” against the perpetuation of the long stalemate, is simply lacking.  We hear the reports of fresh violence, fresh settlements, fresh assaults on human dignity by UN Special Coordinator Mladenov and others, and we will do so again in the Security Council this week; but the stories largely fail to nourish our categorical condemnations or push us to try differently on political settlement; to move beyond our well-worn statements, even beyond the welcome support for Palestinian relief, to find just and durable solutions that genuine indignation would insist upon.

And our interns are discouraged (as should we all) that an organization with so much attention focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been able to make only intermittent progress (much of it sadly reversible) within a time-span that is longer than their own lifespans.   Indeed, one of the most moving aspects of this week’s discussions on Palestine were the honest frustrations shared by both ASG Gilmour and the Deputy PR of Palestine, both of whom reflected on what for both has been a “professional lifetime” of engagement on this tragedy. Gilmour lamented the “”unremitting injustices” that have accompanied his entire career inside the UN, injustices that have done much to drive worldwide the “extremism” we presume to reject.  As for the Ambassador, she expressed frustration that she must come to these discussions highlighting the violent oppression that we all recognize “year after year, speech after speech,” without a viable political horizon.

As Iraq noted this week amidst its own protests and repressive responses back in capital, it is important to maintain services for the Palestinians “until a final status solution can be reached.”  And we are grateful for those who donate to UNRWA relief as well as those working to address its recently-highlighted managerial issues. But surely it is at least as important to re-invest in the search for creative political solutions, to confess the many conspirators that covertly impede political progress of a sort that could permit a conflict that serves far too many politicized interests to focus once and for all on the only “interests” that matter – the security and dignity of the parties.

As the UN prepares tomorrow to take up a long-deferred promise on a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone for the Middle East, it will soon become apparent, if it isn’t already, that the “monster” we have co-authored in this region will not easily agree to occupy a seat at this negotiating table. The wounds now are both too deep and too fresh. And in the absence of a viable “immunization program” against hatred and mistrust, we are left only to ourselves and our capacities.  Regardless, it is long past time for states and the rest of us to stop feeding this beast, to bring the motives we so skillfully hide into the diplomatic light, to expose our still-largely “anonymous” fears, and to bring a viable horizon for dignified peacemaking back into view.

Frighteningly enough, the vast misery suffered by Palestinians is not the worst conflict-related humanitarian disaster now facing the world.  But it has clearly been one of the defining tragedies of my generation.  It must not be allowed to define another.

Blame Game: Lowering the Heat on Policy Acrimony, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Nov

Recognize that the treachery of one member of a house does not taint all born within it. Jacqueline Carey

The world can use more light and less noise.   Steve Goodier

No state can combat disease, climate change, or international terrorist organizations on its own–but any state can play a destructive and destabilizing role on its own.  Rosa Brooks

Was it you or I who stumbled first? It does not matter. The one of us who finds the strength to get up first, must help the other.  Vera Nazarian

Some people’s blameless lives are to blame for a good deal.  Dorothy Sayers

Despite a few controversies that threatened to boil over, this was an unusually satisfying week at the UN.   It was satisfying inasmuch as the UN seemed to be addressing what we consider to be topics of high value if we are to get past the current financial and policy impasses that threaten confidence in multilateral structures.

Much of that “getting past” in our view has two distinct (and related) requirements.   The first is to eliminate the incessant blaming indulged in by states and their representatives, the “treachery” associated with the pervasive compulsion to “shift responsibility” from oneself or one’s country on to some other entity whose behavior ostensibly “justifies” harsh criticism and/or even harsher punitive measures.

There were two major blame-rich episodes this week that caught our attention:  The unfortunate denial of visas by the US as host country to Russian delegates seeking to attend the UN General Assembly First Committee (disarmament) caused the Committee to suspend deliberations for a time and resulted in both numerous acrimonious exchanges and a resolution offered by Russia (but not adopted) to move Committee functions out of New York altogether.  The second was a contentious General Assembly debate on a resolution (supported by all UN members but Brazil, Israel and the US) insisting that the long US blockade of Cuba be lifted, a blockade which the US Ambassador expressly and relentlessly blamed on what she interpreted as “freely chosen” repression by various iterations of the Cuban government.  Whatever else might have been intended, neither of these blaming exercises did much to inspire confidence in UN deliberations.

The second requirement in our view is to successfully transition the UN from a preoccupation with conflict management based on military force generation to “softer” and more prevention-oriented security measures which this week focused on UN police capacity, international justice and what the UN calls “special political missions.”

While the UN remains properly preoccupied with its coordinating role on terrorism response, it is not at all clear that robust, heavily-militarized missions undertaken by “blue helmets” are warranted in most instances. And while “protection” remains at the core of UN commitments to civilians in conflict zones, it is also increasingly clear that what the UN does quite well — better than it is often given credit for — is helping to stabilize pre-conflict and conflict settings with mediation resources, police capacity and training, and the “good offices” of the Secretary-General and his regional offices and representatives.  While USG DiCarlo this week acknowledged the mighty challenges associated with reintegrating combatants and persons displaced by conflict, she also noted that the UN is improving in its ability to “match mandates and resources with challenges,” helping to ensure that competent and (gender and ethnically) diverse capacities such as UN Police and mediators are made available to prevent conflict, preserve the rule of law, and ensure that peacebuilding tools and resources are fully integrated into all conflict-responsive strategies.

Such strategies are still unevenly applied in some conflict settings, including Myanmar, Libya and Cameroon, but the UN is under increasing pressure – rightly so – to make good on its promise to engage all conflict actors in all conflict settings as it is now enabling in South Sudan, Yemen, Syria (with the formation of the constitutional committee) and other conflict spots.  As one dimension of this response, the role of criminal justice in ensuring accountability for the most serious international crimes is paramount.

While there is broad acknowledgment that the primary responsibility for the investigation and prosecution of what are known as “atrocity crimes” rests with states, there is also considerable recognition of the importance of complementary international legal capacities to assist states in bringing the most serious criminals to justice. As noted this week in the Security Council by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court ICC), “perpetrators of serious international crimes are emboldened when they believe they will never face justice.”   This point was echoed earlier in the week by the ICC president who remarked to the General Assembly that “even the most powerful can no longer be certain that they will escape unpunished” for their heinous acts.

The ICC as most readers know is not the only legal entity connected to the UN and established to investigate, attribute, try and punish perpetrators of the worst of crimes.  The “residual mechanism” for the international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia; the Special Criminal Court created for the Central African Republic and contemplated for other settings where grave abuses have occurred;  the investigative mechanisms established to assess chemical weapons use in Syria or Iranian compliance with nuclear weapons program obligations; the extraordinary network of human rights experts seeking remedial access to prisons and other settings of potential abuses – these and other capacities lend hope to those seeking a world where questions of guilt will eventually be answered, where victims will eventually be vindicated.

The UN indeed has an increasingly robust set of eyes and ears to both assess the most serious challenges to a rules-based order and build pathways to accountability.  These pathways are essential both to the recovery of victims and to the credibility of multilateralism. But even here support from states, including some of the largest and most powerful, is often wanting. As ICC Prosecutor Bensouda presented her 18th report on Libya to the Security Council, nearly a decade after the Security Council originally referred the situation in Libya to the ICC, resistance to the Court was yet again evident.  Council members Russia, China and Equitorial Guinea flatly refused to endorse the role of the Court while the US took a more nuanced but no less troubling position – pushing the Court to end impunity while explicitly refusing jurisdiction of that same Court over alleged abuses committed by US personnel, including those committed in Afghanistan.

This manifestation of the UN’s blame game — mostly powerful states willing to hold the less powerful to account but not themselves– is a major contributor to the mistrust simmering around our fiscally-challenged system of global governance.  We see evidence on a regular basis of the willingness of large and some not-so-large states to flaunt the rules, to engage in “destructive and destabilizing” behavior that undermines the multi-lateral confidence needed to solve the problems that now threaten the entire planet.

The UN has the tools, especially policing and other “soft power” capacities, to help states resolve conflict, promote justice, and restore stability and development in conflict’s aftermath. What it has not yet located are the words to convince all of its member states to play by the same rules, to commit to ending impunity for themselves and not only for others, to cease all self-interested attributions of blamelessness and thus hold themselves accountable for responsibilities too-often deflected but rightfully theirs.

This is a high bar, indeed.  But we know from our own lives that there are simply too many instances of persons and institutions advocating for others what they reject for themselves, casting blame on those who appear to stumble rather than asserting a common responsibility to better behavior.  Clearly at this precarious moment in our collective history we need “more light and less noise,” more honesty and less treachery, more reflection and less projection. The tools and capacities created by the UN to help fulfill our peace and justice mandates are compromised as much by self-interested judgments and assertions of blame as by the funding and confidence deficits now looming over our entire system.

The Race to Nowhere: A Summer Reflection, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Jul

Not Welcome II

Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.  Amelia Earhart

When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,  I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.  Wendell Berry

Every person needs to take one day away.  A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future.  Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence.  Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.  Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us. Maya Angelou

For a day, just for one day, Talk about that which disturbs no one. And bring some peace into your Beautiful eyes.  Mohammad Hafez

Rest and be thankful.  William Wordsworth

On Thursday, the UN’s General Assembly passed a resolution (A/RES/73/328) without a recorded vote that seeks to eliminate intolerance and otherwise increase its footprint towards a “culture of peace.”  In this resolution, the GA “condemned any advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, whether it involves the use of print, audiovisual or electronic media, social media or any other means.”  It also called upon Member States “to engage with all relevant stakeholders to promote the virtues of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, respect and acceptance of differences, tolerance, peaceful coexistence and cohabitation, and respect for human rights, and to reject the spread of hate speech, that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence.”

There is certainly much to be resolved about.  Children stuck in horrific limbo at the US border; LGBT persons facing new waves of open contempt in states from Poland to Brazil; anti-fascist groups being labeled as “terrorists” by authoritarian regimes; fresh threats to journalists and civil society as “space” to confront xenophobia and other social ills constricts; harsh responses to demonstrations on the streets of Moscow and Hong Kong; an internet flooded by images of violence and hatred that serve to recruit as much as to repel; and, in neighborhood after neighborhood around the world, “welcome mats” being pulled up altogether or replaced by messaging that deters and distances, that rejects and self-protects.

In sitting in the GA Hall as this resolution was adopted (without a vote and with little apparent energy), the question crossed our minds:  Who is this for?  Who precisely is the audience that this resolution is directed towards and to what end?  We of course appreciate the need for this GA reminder of our failures of human communion, our temptation to yank up the welcome mat at the first sign of discomfort, but just how many were listening?   And how many actually believe that this text represents a firm commitment by states to amend their ways, to cease the current wave of enabling discourse and discriminatory policies that have released more xenophobic genies from more bottles than we remembered we had stored?

Today in the Washington Post appeared a column entitled “This Week in Racism and Xenophobia.”  Given the power and intrusiveness of contemporary social media, we could surely publish a column like this every day,  full of officials and more ordinary people now-enabled to share sentiments that turn previously-passive xenophobia into a much more active aversion to the other.  But let’s be clear:  as much as we might feel entitled to hurl invectives at those “racist” others, as much as we might like to believe that we are the “children of light” saving the rest of the social order from itself, that light is quite possibly dimmer within each of us than we might otherwise imagine.

For in the end, we ourselves are the object of our own resolutions, we stand at the end of our own accusations of racist intent, we are the ones also needing healing and not just the ideological adversaries for whom we have, more often than we probably acknowledge, laid out our own “not welcome” mats.

This is not some “can’t we just get along” rant, but a call to greater portions of courage and self-reflection, a call to take a stand for the sanity and sanctity of the human race in ways that eschews self-righteousness and that embraces the understanding that neighbor regard is the only viable basis for a sustainable planetary regard.   If we can’t do the first, we will never be credible on the second no matter how much we have convinced ourselves (and our inner circles) otherwise.

Needless to say, as vacation season cranks up in earnest in our baked-to-a-crisp northern countries, we still have a bit of work to do, not the kind that never seems to “withdraw from us,” but the kind that reconnects and restores, that might even bring us back in touch with the “peace of wild things.” And may we allow some of that reconnection to refresh the state of our own being, a being that also secretly longs to “consciously separate the past from the future,” to find a peaceful and grateful place where we can get some distance from the ever-enveloping distractions that permit us to maintain the illusion that we have somehow graduated from schools that others are failing in.

As our northern days grow shorter and (for now) hotter, please pledge to take a day to “talk about that which disturbs no one,” to make some space without “forethought of grief” where we might learn what we must about ourselves, learning that will make us more effective back in the world of resolutions and policies that many of us claim to cherish, learning for a world that simply cannot manage any more rejection, any more enmity, any more negative stereotyping, any more humiliation.

Rest and be thankful.

 

 

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

29 Jun

UN Signing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning the Page:  Recovering the UN’s Relevant Responses, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Apr

UN Stamp

If we don’t all row, the boat won’t go. Unknown

If everyone helps to hold up the sky, then one person does not become tired. Askhari Johnson Hodari

Laugh as long as you breathe, love as long as you live. Nujeen Mustafa

Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving.  Albert Einstein

In the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism.  Naomi Klein

While contemplating the content for this post, I took a walk in a nearby Manhattan park in what has been a particularly lovely season for flowers and blossoms.   While strolling and admiring I came across a Parks Department worker and thanked her for making all of this wonder possible.

She looked a bit stunned, as though this simple recognition was akin to a message from Mars.  But I remember well a time when my jogs through this very park were exercises in reckless risk taking, when park benches and pathways screamed out for repair, when “security” was largely based on “street smarts,” when flowers bloomed in defiance of neglect rather than as the result of loving care.

Part of the “care” of this park now is a function of a largely-unfortunate gentrification. We didn’t “deserve” a functioning green space, apparently, until the neighborhood became “safe” enough to absorb copious quantities of downtown money.  But even so, the park is now a place where flowers are planted and benches painted, where playgrounds are truly playful for children rather than being the dangers they once were for their parents, where teenagers play ball near a pond with turtles, egrets and feral cats, and folks trying to get in better shape are encouraged to jog around the now-even pavement meandering around the park’s edges.

And I contributed to virtually none of these improvements, as I tend to contribute too-little to so many of the things I use and (too often) take for granted.

This is intended less as a “confession” and more as a punctuation to what was an exhausting and instructive week of UN business.   From indigenous people straining to protect biodiversity and achieve formal UN recognition to some policy-challenging conversations on identifying and addressing what the UN Office of Drugs and Crime called “chilling” threats from nuclear terrorism and the increasingly convergent interests of terrorists and organized crime, it was difficult for us to keep track of (let alone contribute to) these multiple challenges or identify threads of what might constitute an effective response.

Fortunately, there were other UN events this week where the positive potential was easier to spot.

One of these was in the Security Council where Germany (April president) reinforced a discussion on the security and humanitarian issues affecting Syria by scheduling a poignant briefing from Nujeen Mustafa, a remarkable young woman with a disability who, from her wheelchair, schooled Council members on the many persons much too “invisible” in times of peace who become even less visible in times of conflict.  She reminded all in the Chamber that the figures quantifying humanitarian need have human faces, and that some of these faces already experience grave difficulties in this world which armed conflict merely intensifies.

And in the General Assembly, President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés convened the first International Day for Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace.  While some delegations rightly lamented that such a day would even be necessary, and some used the opportunity to settle political scores, most understood that ours is a system that needs to be fixed rather than cast aside.  The president herself understands that a future for the UN lies in its ability to help build “a fairer world in practice, beyond our UN rhetoric,” a world that reaches persons living with poverty, with disabilities, with grave discouragement. And, as noted by the Finnish Foreign Minister, a world pointing to a future that does not belong only to “the rulers and the strong.”

In preparation for this post, I looked through my grandfather’s collection of UN stamps from 1951, the first year that UN stamps were issued.  The themes were revealing:  stamps highlighting the work of UNICEF and the ILO, stamps honoring the commitment of the UN to human rights.   And there were two others from 1951 of direct relevance to this post – one touting the UN’s commitment to capacity support and the other (at the top of this post) implying that the doors of the UN are open to all peoples of the world, and that it is the “common” people – and not only their diplomats and bureaucrats – who must be able to find something akin to an attentive and respectful haven in this place.

Taken together, this combination of hopefulness and tangible support is a legacy that is worth preserving, a legacy that certainly demands more of each of us, more thoughtfulness, more tangible contributions, more honesty, even more compassion.  It requires many more of us to commit to “hold up the sky” and row the boat, but also a willingness to burden-share, to refuse to “hog the oars” or avoid getting near the boat in the first place.

I recognize every day the degree to which our own little project has become a bit of a dinosaur, wedded to obsolete technology and pushing values that are important at one level but haven’t always served the global interest well as they should have. I also recognize that there is significant interest now in many corners of the globe to simply turn the page, to move on from rowing and holding, to dismiss the institutional arrangements of the past that have led to undeniable progress but also to exclusion and broken promises; arrangements that have allowed existential risks to become near-certainties, and that have extended cooperation with one hand while hording power and resources with the other.

Our fervent wish is for people to read the page before they turn it.

Read the page about the many issues – from sexual violence in armed conflict and nuclear terrorism to climate change and pandemics – for which the UN remains an indispensable point of policy reference.  Read the page about the people like Nujeen Mustafa whose “invisibility” is steadily giving way to recognition and respect.   Read the page about the many delegations reminded of their responsibility to both contribute more to the world they want and offer more tangible encouragement for the contributions of others.  Read the page about those who have dedicated their lives to protect human rights for those who labor and those who protest, for those who are mere bystanders to conflict and those whose vulnerabilities have compromised their very agency.   Read the page where coordinated pressure from UN agencies and member states has created conditions for the dramatic reduction of numerous human scourges, from torture and malaria to state corruption and the recruitment of child soldiers.

This page certainly contains its share of hypocrisy and protocol substituting for genuine gratitude and compassion, but it also contains evidence of a willingness to grow and change, to give a good-faith attempt to resolve its lapses of effectiveness and address the legitimate skepticism of some of its global public. We routinely spend 10 hour weekdays inside the UN, and there are days when we shake our heads so often that our necks become strained.  But we know that this place retains some capacity for self-reflection, occasionally even humor. Together we can fix this place, making it more effective but also more human, insisting that its constituent parts contribute more to the global commons and uphold more fully the values that gave rise to its existence 74 years ago.

At the General Assembly this past week, the Irish Ambassador spoke of the “problems without passports” for which the UN is uniquely if not yet fully equipped to address.  Hers is the section of the page we need to be sure to bookmark.