Tag Archives: General Assembly

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.

 

 

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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.

Passion Play: The UN’s Drowsy Acknowledgement of Racist Violence, Dr. Robert Zuber

31 Mar

Old Man

It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.  Audre Lourde

No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them. Elie Wiesel

Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.  Ta-Nehisi Coates

We first crush people to the earth, and then claim the right of trampling on them forever, because they are prostrate.  Lydia Maria Child

White privilege is an absence of the consequences of racism: an absence of structural discrimination, an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost.  Reni Eddo-Lodge

Three hundred years of humiliation, abuse and deprivation cannot be expected to find voice in a whisper.  Martin Luther King Jr.

This past week at the UN was reminiscent of some of the energy surrounding the opening of the General Assembly in September.  Many heads of state and foreign ministers were in the building weighing in on climate change and sustainable development, on peace prospects for Mali and its Sahel neighbors, on pledges to enhance the UN Secretary-General’s Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative, on collaborative actions to stem the financing of terrorism, on ways that the General Assembly and the Peacebuilding Commission can collaborate on conflict prevention and building “national ownership for sustaining peace,” and on the largely-US-initiated controversy around sovereign jurisdiction over the Golan Heights.  Beyond the rooms where the political dignitaries could be found, the UN also hosted some excellent side events on the preservation of biodiversity in the ocean waters beyond national jurisdiction, one piece of a larger treaty-based effort to promote global ocean governance in the vast, threatened, open ocean.

It was all breathtaking and challenging for us to process while running from one conference room to another to catch and share (@globalactionpw) the most important moments of too-often parallel events .  Much of the energy of the week, especially on peacekeeping and peacebuilding, was positive, though in some instances not always sufficiently urgent.  As was duly noted in several conference rooms, both our climate and our oceans are deteriorating more rapidly than our collective responses are ratcheting up, threatening small island states and regions such as the African Sahel, the latter of which is already groaning under burdens of drought, weak institutions of governance, and unwelcome external interference including in the form of pervasive violence from armed groups operating across multiple borders.

With all that was taking place in the worlds inside and outside the UN, there were three distinct images from this past week that touched a not-particularly-happy chord.  One of these, courtesy of CNN, was of the town hosting the so-called “doomsday vault” (Svalbard Global Seed Vault) that is apparently now warming faster than anywhere else on earth, threatening the integrity of the vault’s precious storage.  Back at the UN, the Security Council discussion on the validity of what Israel called the “just proclamation” by the US on the Golan deteriorated at the end into a bit of a shouting match with the Syrian and Israeli Ambassadors attempting to “shame” one another, as though there isn’t already plenty of unacknowledged and unconfessed shame at the UN to go around, certainly by these two states but also by myself and others who need to do more than the modest part we are playing now to help keep this UN ship steered in the right direction.

The third disturbing image for me was not about melting and shaming, but about absence.  After two weeks of crowded hallways, overflow conference rooms and passionate speeches from UN officials courtesy of the Commission on the Status of Women, the General Assembly held two events on Monday, essentially back to back, ostensibly to reflect with the international community on the scourges of racial discrimination and the slave trade, including its grave contemporary manifestations.

For both events, the GA Hall was largely empty at all seating levels, including the section where we were stationed. Only a half-dozen or so non-diplomats were witness to the first morning conversation in a level of the Hall that can seat hundreds.  One of those was an elderly African-American woman seated in one corner of what was otherwise a vast sea of empty seats. We wondered if all the open space disturbed her.  It disturbed us.

Some salient insights were communicated during this day though the speeches were often uttered without much passion, “whispers” easily swallowed up by vast, empty spaces.   There were exceptions: participating states including Cuba, Kenya, San Marino and Guyana exposed “doctrines of racial superiority” and the “hatred that could lead to genocide” while insisting that the UN take the lead in educating people about what Guatemala called “pernicious” and all-too common racism and discrimination.

The president of the General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés added some important dimensions to this discussion in what, for her, became quite a remarkable week of events and interventions. She underscored that the UN has not kept its “never again” promise; that “stereotypes and micro-aggressions” persist and inflame conditions that lead to racial intolerance.  And she restated the commitment of the General Assembly to the 2030 Development Agenda and its promise to eliminate the gaps that leave space in our world for race-based discrimination and abuse, for the hate crimes, abuses of authority and family-separated children that stain our very souls.

But it was two other insights from the president that particularly piqued our interest:  her lament that “inhumane subjection” continues to take so many ugly forms in our modern world, and her call to honor the (trans-Atlantic) slave women who endured “physical exploitation” but who nevertheless reached beyond their own suffered indignities to “uphold the dignity of others.”

In the aftermath of the CSW (whose side events we regularly attended), the implications of these two comments seemed clear.   First that “inhumane subjection” now casts a broad and nefarious shadow over the entire human condition, affecting too many women to be sure; but a shadow that engulfs and shrouds persons of many racial and religious backgrounds, including indigenous people of course but also persons with disabilities and disabling diseases, the chronically poor and politically marginalized. And second, that if “physically exploited” women can find it within themselves to uphold the dignity of others, then surely the rest of us privileged folks have far fewer excuses for neglecting this fundamental duty towards the building of a world of genuine reconciliation and sustainable peace.

For all the chatter about “intersectionalities” around the UN, we seem to have misplaced a good portion of that (probably now overused) term’s implications.  It is not just about multiple forms of discrimination experienced by such as indigenous women, as pervasive as those forms are. It is also about extending meaningful solidarity to other “sections,” identifying with their diverse humiliating and abusive contexts, supporting their calls for justice and reconciliation and, as with this past Monday, showing up at events where the abuse and discrimination of focus are not focused specifically on “us.”

At the end of a week of so many UN discussions both exhilarating and frustrating, the most hopeful image for me was the one at the top of this post, a 95 year old man who traveled on four buses to make an appearance at a rally to show support for New Zealand’s mourning Muslim community, thereby adding his voice to what must become our common call to take racial, ethnic and religious discrimination – and the multi-layered “crushing” and “trampling” which it now spawns in all parts of our world – with greater seriousness.

We could have used his presence and inspiration in the General Assembly Hall this past Monday.

Fort Worth:  The UN Presents Diverse Lenses on Human Potential, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Feb

Mother Earth

Most of us must learn to love people and use things rather than loving things and using people. Roy Bennett

We know that we are the ones who are divided; and we are the ones who must come back together, to walk in the Sacred Way.  Ojibway Prayer

Isn’t it sad that you can tell people that the ozone layer is being depleted, the forests are being cut down, the deserts are advancing steadily, that the greenhouse effect will raise the sea level 200 feet, that overpopulation is choking us, that pollution is killing us, that nuclear war may destroy us – and they yawn and settle back for a comfortable nap. But tell them that the Martians are landing, and they scream and run.  Isaac Asimov

Cover my Earth Mother four times with many flowers.  Zuni Prayer

And certainly, the mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it.  George Eliot

Teach us to walk the soft earth as relatives to all that live.   Sioux Prayer

We think we know what we are doing. We have always thought so. Michael Crichton

In beauty it is finished.    Navajo Chant

As many of you have gathered from even occasional readings of these Sunday missives, the UN offers what at time represent an equally dazzling and frustrating lens on global policy but also on the people who, among other things, establish its norms and responses.  This week alone, saw government experts convene to establish the basis for a framework to address the growing threat posed by the militarization of outer space, a well-organized briefing on Yemen to “hold the fort” on humanitarian response until a viable political process to end the conflict can be established, and a joint presentation by the presidents of the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council respectively in an attempt to ratchet up both funding pathways and diplomatic urgency to keep our collective commitments to the 2030 Development Agenda at least somewhat on track.

We do lots of “holding the fort” at the UN, trying to maintain global attention on the difficult (non-Martian) issues that cause many constituents to turn their gaze away or “settle back for a comfortable nap,” but also to gather resources within the UN and in member states to support “good faith” responses to what are at times ugly manifestations of the human condition. The UN does what it can, in many instances keeping the focus on often-ignored matters of planetary urgency while organizing competent and strategic responses in the hope that various forms of “reinforcements” — of funding, capacity support and political will — do not lag too far behind.

Of all the “ugly manifestations” of human conduct that the UN highlighted this week, perhaps the most discouraging was an event on human trafficking organized by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime.  The event itself was very well done, focusing on the launch of two related reports, UNODC’s full assessment of global trafficking and a second report covering much of the same ground but focused specifically on trafficking in the context of armed conflict.

The latter report was directly requested by the UN Security Council and is perhaps more germane to Global Action’s organizational priorities; but both “booklets” paint a sordid picture of the willingness of human beings in diverse circumstances to contribute to brutality, abuse and “exploitation” that contexts of armed violence merely magnify.  Highlighted within booklet 2 is the recruitment of children into armed groups to serve as everything from porters to suicide bombers, and victims trafficked for purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation.  In addition to copious statistics on trafficking demographics, law enforcement responses and conviction rates, mention was made often of the particular vulnerabilities of displaced persons — including those many thousands displaced by armed violence — and the often-desperate people, mostly women and children, who sign on to what are certain to become exploitative arrangements in the complete absence of viable options, arrangements perpetrated by those who, at the very least, “love things and use persons.”

One can (and we often do) laud the efforts of law enforcement, peacekeepers and UN officials to provide urgent perspectives and high-quality data on this soul-crushing issue. At the same time we also lament the “blows” inflicted by traffickers to any sense of optimism about the ability of human beings to do any better than to “hold down the fort” as our norms of international order prove themselves “thinner” than we imagined and predation in many forms continues to flourish; traffickers, yes, but also an economic system that allows some to build massive wealth casting dismissive shadows on the many millions resigned to running (if they can) from people and institutions content to treat them mostly as “things” to be used, rather than beings to be cherished.

For many younger people, even those around Global Action’s orbit contemplating careers in international affairs, one can perceive a pervasive sense of cynicism about the human condition, a sense that self-interest is fully entrenched as our collective guide-star, that narcissism has become a social expectation and, moreover, that there is really not much that people can do – UN resolve notwithstanding — to “turn this tide” characterized by too much ugliness, too many people content to sleep through crises or turn a blind eye to the inequities that are actually within their power to change.

This assessment of “human nature” – less a science-based lens for exploration of both our warts and potential, and more an excuse for not changing what we are able to change – must also be countered.   After all, the forts we “hold” will not stay held forever.  We see evidence throughout that the walls are cracking, that provisions are scarce and unequally distributed, that communications are increasingly vexing, that promises of reinforced capacity are too-often unreliable. We simply cannot go on the way we are, cannot reverse our current slide while simultaneously enabling (often unintentionally) the forces committed to an unequal and rapacious exploitation of what little is left to exploit.

As the gorgeous group of quotations above makes plain, there is another path that integrates honor and gratitude, that upholds the dignity of human beings while rejecting indignities directed towards our natural home. The UN also knows this other path.  On Friday in the General Assembly Hall, the UN launched the International Year of Indigenous Languages, an event that included powerful statements from President Morales of Bolivia and the President of the General Assembly Maria Fernandez. The event also highlighted indigenous representatives who spoke directly to the multiple benefits of indigenous language preservation – not only the safeguarding of indigenous culture itself but the life given to forms and depths of expression to which indigenous languages are particularly well suited – expression that links people to each other and to the many blessings of creation, that reminds us of the power of beauty to inspire our better selves, that urges us to cover our “mother” with flowers of her own making rather than with bulldozers and space weapons of our own.  As Ecuador’s minister affirmed, the words of indigenous languages “have a soul, a memory, a heart.” They tie together those who live where their sounds are uttered, binding the human and non-human, ties of gratitude and what the PGA called “symbols of belonging,” all held together with pledges to walk more “softly” on a planet that too many of us have conspired to treat much too roughly for much too long.

This event was not designed to romanticize indigenous culture, to promote the soul-energy embedded in indigenous languages as the singular antidote to modernism’s excesses. Indigenous leaders are all-too-aware of the “divisions” that need to be reunited in their own communities, the many sources of pain (including the self-inflicted variety) that require a more robust healing response.  And yet there is so much richness embedded in these language forms, so much beauty, connection and “will to cherish” that culturally-homogenous modern societies — too comfortable in what they “know” and too resolved to “have their own way” — need much more of.

An aboriginal woman from Australia told the diplomats in the GA Hall of the joy it brings her to “whisper into the ears of her grandchildren words from my ancestral language.”  We owe our children and grandchildren more than smart phones and foolish owners, more than forts buckling under the strain of assaults coming from predatory humans in many forms.  We owe them, as one indigenous speaker on Friday noted, the chance “to sing the songs of the earth,” songs that in too many corners of this planet “have simply grown silent.”

Tuesday’s Child: Leadership to Inspire Next Generations, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Jan

Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon. E.M. Forster

We must desire to see people rising in life, rather than looking for ways to contribute to their fall. Bamigboye Olurotimi

Youth and elder meet where the pressure of the future meets the presence of the past. Michael Meade

He had a courtly way of exclaiming over whatever was exclaimable in people – especially kids. Susan Cain

The UN sprang back to life this week with several key events and with the faces of diplomats and secretariat staff looking fresher and more eager than they did a few short weeks ago.

Our own interns, with one notable exception, have largely scattered, soon to be replaced by others.   Some of what took place this week would have been really good for all of them to experience, the enthusiasm of a system that has taken some lumps over the past years, led by people who are determined to make that system not only work more effectively, but work for all.

One of the things that we ask of the young people who pass through our program is that they give a good-faith effort to understand the UN in all its policy facets – from the Security Council and the work of the GA committees to specialized bodies focused on the rights of women, the care of children, the health of oceans and agriculture, the sustainability of cities, and much more. At the same time, we ask them to evaluate (not judge) the personalities sitting at conference room podiums, to interrogate which UN leadership is most believable, which is keeping his/her eyes focused on the issues of greatest significance for the planet, but also has a plan for how to enable and promote meaningful and sustainable change among the UN’s diverse constituencies.

The rationale for these requests is twofold.  First, we want interns and fellows to, in essence, rub the interests and priorities that they come to us with up against the priorities and interests of a system that is now weighing in at so many significant policy levels.  While the UN is still some ways from being a viable learning community, learning opportunities abound, both diverse and of high quality.  Indeed, in much of the 20 years of Global Action’s existence, we have “mined” the many nuggets of learning available throughout UN system – its security crises and cutting-edge side events, its pandemic responses and gender justice sessions, as the best means available for keeping our minds focused and our vision sharp.

Some of the most interesting events have also been a bit of a welcome surprise – the Arria Formula meetings organized by Security Council members outside the Council’s formal structure, the impact-filled side events such as a fall briefing on the crisis of the Aral Sea region presided over by the president of Uzbekistan, or this past Monday’s multi-stakeholder discussion on finance for development presided over by the highly-regarded and able-listening president of the Economic and Social Council, Ambassador Rhonda King.

Given the vast and high level learning opportunities that abound in UN conference rooms and to which they have access, many of our interns leave the UN with a different passion than they entered with.  They take advantage of the “front row seat” provided for them to review their potential contributions over the frustrations and opportunities that punctuate virtually every UN policy discussion.  Do I want to contribute to policy or to direct humanitarian response?  Do I want to assist with development finance, with humanitarian risk assessment, with efforts to control our hunger for new and improved weapons?

But the second aspect of this UN journey is equally important, the assessment of the many “players” in the UN system who set agendas and guide negotiations, whose voices have an outsized importance in terms of how the UN directs its internal energies and engages external audiences.

Our interns, with few exceptions, have not been successful in cultivating relationships with diplomats and UN officials that go beyond the merely “professional.”  Thus, there have been few opportunities for them to experience what we would consider to be “mentoring” in UN contexts beyond commitments to their growth and well-being available through our own office and “community of peers.”  The balances that constitute mentoring in the best sense – a combination of character and skills development made possible through an invitation to explore the struggles and successes of life “up close,” is elusive for many in this policy space.

And yet there are occasions when bits of personality leak through the formalities of UN protocol, giving all of us – but especially young people – glimpses of human agency and possibility in these challenging times.   The interns might not know in any detail what makes UN leaders tick, or more importantly, the stories that lies behind their commitments, the life circumstances that gave rise to a career of service in multilateral settings. But despite these personal limitations, they can make observations of value in a time of great uncertainty.  After all, young people are gazing towards a future that can spin in a variety of directions, some of them quite discouraging.  Does UN leadership grasp this discouragement or even share it?  And beyond discouragement itself, which figures at the front of the room truly inspire?  Who is really listening to others?  Who respects contributions beyond the status limitations of diplomatic protocol? Who are the leaders grasping the momentousness of the times, calling us to cooperatively focus our intellectual, moral, diplomatic and technical energies on the problems that threaten our existence?

This past Tuesday, two events sought to affirm the values of multilateralism, inspire stakeholders to higher levels of collaborative engagement, and focus energies on the problems of our own making that threaten to grind human progress to a halt.  The first of these was a handover of leadership of the Group of 77 (G-77) and China from Egypt to Palestine.  President Abbas made the trip to New York to appear on the dais with senior UN officials and the Egyptian Foreign Minister to affirm the importance of the G-77 to the fair and able functioning of the UN development system, integrating what is promoted here as “south-south” cooperation.    Both President Abbas and the president of the UN General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés of Ecuador, underscored the importance of the G-77 to creating conditions of greater “global solidarity” from which we can tackle poverty and inequalities, climate change and “decent work,” these and other problems critical to a healthier and more just world.

In the afternoon president Espinosa Garcés herself took center stage, outlining priorities for her term in a voice that was both resolute and thoughtful.  She cited the current “turbulent” challenges that require all member states “to reaffirm their fidelity to the values of the Charter and the enduring value of multilateralism.”  She was gracious in thanking states and stakeholders for the many contributions they are already making to a more just and sustainable world.  And she put forth an appropriately ambitious agenda for change – from “fact-based” migration governance and eliminating ocean plastics, to the full inclusion of persons with disabilities and the “common cause” of ending poverty and gross inequalities — that communicated both the scope of her concern for the planet and her willingness to use every “soft power” tool at her disposal (including the convening of a breathtaking range of high-level events) to leverage additional collaborative change.

It fell to President Abbas, earlier on this Tuesday, to remind the large diplomatic audience that “people are the real treasure of nations.” Our people (especially young people) need to be inspired to “rise in life” by leaders who demonstrate both vision and compassion, who understand the challenges of the times and more specifically that such challenges are unlikely to be resolved successfully without the urgent and respectful engagement of all of us.  On this Tuesday, the UN demonstrated to all its stakeholders, young and old alike, that it is getting that message.

Profiles in Courage:  The Heroes we Honor, the Heroes We Know, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Oct

Hero Images

We are all ordinary. We are all boring. We are all spectacular. We are all shy. We are all bold. We are all heroes. We are all helpless. It just depends on the day.  Brad Meltzer

We need not take refuge in supernatural gods to explain our saints and sages and heroes and statesmen, as if to explain our disbelief that mere unaided human beings could be that good or wise.  Abraham Maslow

I am of certain convinced that the greatest heroes are those who do their duty in the daily grind of domestic affairs whilst the world whirls as a maddening dreidel.  Florence Nightingale

She preferred imaginary heroes to real ones, because when tired of them, the former could be shut up in the tin kitchen till called for, and the latter were less manageable.  Louisa May Alcott

In a building that has seen dramatic increases in policy activity over the past few years on issues from oceans to pandemics, the UN’s scheduling of those activities appears to be almost entirely divorced from the pulse of the system – what diplomats and other stakeholders are most concerned about and how to ensure that those concerns are not competing needlessly for space or time slots.

So often over the past years, events are simply miscast, scheduled for small rooms when interest is high and in large rooms where smallish audiences are urged to “come to the front,” ostensibly for better optics.  In the same vein, events are often scheduled in such a way that diplomats and other stakeholders are forced to make choices that they simply shouldn’t have to make, choices between events on similar themes that, each in their own way, convey information and inspiration that we who labor in this space should not be required to do without.

Tuesday morning was one of those schedule-challenged times.  In the ECOSOC Chamber the Mission of India sponsored an event, Non-Violence in Action, dedicated to a review of the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, a legacy that as president of the General Assembly María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés noted might be fading in some of its specifics, but which continues to inspire the current “pulse” of a nation clearly on the move. She also insisted on taking “the longer view” on peace, and reminded all that “non-violence should never be confused with non-action.” The PGA was joined by the Administrator of the UN’s Development Program, USG Achim Steiner, who cited the “remarkable leadership that led people to believe that it was possible to change the world without the use of weapons or other coercive measures.”  He also tied Gandhi’s “overlapping” legacy to the UN’s current work on the Sustainable Development Goals, wondering aloud if our current actions are likely to “make conditions of the vulnerable better or worse?”

At the same time, in the General Assembly Hall, a different voice was being elevated, that of Nelson Mandela whose statue now powerfully resides in the Hall’s public entrance. The Nelson Mandela Peace Summit was first convened on September 24 at the opening of the 73rd UN General Assembly and was completed this past Tuesday as part of the UN’s commitment to “sustaining peace.” This resumed session allowed additional delegations to reflect on another charismatic and epochal figure in our collective past, someone whose extraordinary legacy shone a light on our diverse and collaborative responsibilities to peace (and to each other) across and beyond the African continent.

There were some quite powerful statements in this venue as well.  Latvia, for instance, called attention to the “serious wounds” in the world that require us to step up our commitment to conflict prevention.  German (soon to join the Security Council) along with Chile noted the ways in which the ideas and priorities of Mandela’s life can help us reverse current threats to multilateralism.  The Philippines cited Mandela’s commitment to the “power of reconciliation” and noted that “where the rule-of-law triumphs over prejudice, peace is much more possible.”  And Ukraine affirmed that the “power of personal courage and self-sacrifice” can be even more impactful than the power of a country.  This world is, the Ambassador exclaimed, “hungry for action, not words.”

Pakistan made another important contribution, noting that despite the influences and inspirations of these genuine heroes, “conflicts and abuses now abound, the UN Charter is often ignored, and poverty and exclusion remain blights on the world.”   I and my colleagues did not interpret this as a cynical or despairing assessment so much as a reminder that the Mandelas and Gandhis of our world, as fortunate as we are to still enjoy their legacy guidance, have not in and of themselves resolved our multiple human dilemmas.  As such their words and deeds can still motivate, but are not a substitute for our own engagement, for our own heroism, for our own responses to needs and conflicts occurring within our midst, for our own responsibilities to inspire those around us, especially the children, to pursue a higher calling.

Too many of us seem to prefer our heroes dead and distant, “shut up in the tin kitchen” until we have need of them.  But the times call for something else altogether, for heroes we can honor but also, whenever possible, heroes we can reach out and touch; whose lives beyond the legacies we are fortunate to share in all their complexity, who can share the “daily grind” with us and help sort out the nuances of our own potential heroism such that we are able to maximize whatever goodness and wisdom have been apportioned to us.

In this context, it is important to mention newly-minted Nobel laureate Nadia Murad, a 25 year old Yazidi woman who, in a short period of time, went from being a serial rape victim at the hands of ISIL to a frequent voice at the UN helping all of us to grasp the magnitude of abuses committed by some state and non-state actors in conflict situations.   I don’t know Nadia personally, but I have seen and heard her many times and I have been amazed at  how well she has navigated this difficult stage; how she has tried to inspire greater action by states without bitterness; how she has inspired determination rather than despair in the women who have also lived some part of her difficult life story.  Nadia has never, at least in my hearing, claimed the “ruined life” that we in the “first world” often claim to excess.  This is heroism in real time and space.

But to be fully engaged, it must get even more personal than this. We can be so preoccupied with not being taken advantage of, of not being disappointed yet again by human frailties and inconsistencies, that we respond by shutting ourselves down to possibility, including the possibility that heroic practice – referencing but not reduced to our statues and ceremonies — can be our legacy as well.  There are days, indeed, when all of us are boring and helpless, discouraged and distracted, meaner than we want or need to be.   But on those days when we are bold and “spectacular,” when we are attentive and energized, when we are kind and caring, change that we could not otherwise anticipate becomes wholly possible — even in these stressful and mistrustful times.

Our heroes don’t have to embody a perfectly consistent and intentional life; indeed we would do well if more of our “less manageable” sources of wisdom and inspiration were more directly accessible to us, accessible to accompany our journey, but also to lay bare the personal struggles — even the wrestling matches with demons — from which genuine heroism most often emanates.  And of course to insist on our own commitment to accompaniment as well –to do what we can to help others navigate this “maddening dreidel” of a world in ways that bring out their better angels, and our own.