Tag Archives: General Assembly

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.

 

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Reflections on a Summer UN Sojourn, Ruth Tekleab Mekbib

11 Jul

Editor’s Note:  Ruth came to us from the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program as a somewhat last-minute but most welcome member of our summer cohort.  An Ethiopian by birth, she has shown great interest in the African issues that often punctuate the UN’s agenda, especially in the Security Council.  Ruth’s perspective on the UN has proven highly valuable to us.  Indeed, seeing the UN through a fresh lens of those who will inherit the successes and failures of this system gives purpose and energy to our work. 

This past month, I’ve had the opportunity of attending high level meetings at the U.N. covering a wide range of topics including peace and security, human rights and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to name a few. These meetings gave me a new insight and deeper understanding of the U.N. system and how it functions as an organization made up of more than 190 countries. On my first day, I witnessed a historical moment as the next president of the General Assembly, the current foreign minister of Ecuador, was elected. She becomes the fourth woman to hold this position since the creation of the United Nations and it was indeed a cause for celebration. I was surprised to see that the U.N. uses a paper ballot system for general elections but with all the technological advancements, they should be using an electronic voting system because it would be time efficient and environmentally friendly. Despite the archaic way of conducting votes, it was interesting to see how the vote of each member state proved crucial in determining who the next president should be.

During my time at the UN, I have been especially interested in attending meetings addressing concerns on the African continent in part because of my family connection to Ethiopia. I attended numerous Security Council meetings concerning the continent including countries such as South Sudan, Mali, Rwanda and Central African Republic (CAR) to mention a few. In my opinion, the Security Council is the most interesting place at the U.N. because you can see how the diplomats interact with one another closely. Before meetings starts, you can see diplomats hugging each other and conversing amicably even though that they may have opposing views. Once the meeting starts, each representative reads out a prepared statement that argues for one cause or another. However, after the meeting ends you can see the diplomats go back to being friendly to one another and maintaining close ties with not just their allies but also their “enemies”. This showed me the importance of diplomacy in maintaining peace and security and how it is important to foster friendly relations even with those who may not agree with your position. It is a great lesson to learn and I only hope that more people would choose to act similarly.

There were also interesting side events to participate in on a diverse range of topics including a recent meeting on the reintegration of child soldiers. One of the panelists in this meeting was from Sierra Leone who himself was a child soldier and discussed the difficulties of reintegration into society due to stigma and discrimination. I learned a lot about the efforts by U.N. agencies such as UNICEF in creating programs to help children reintegrate into society despite the permanent psychological trauma they may face. Another panelist highlighted how girls are particularly disadvantaged because of sexual abuse and other gender-based violence. In this meeting, there were conversations in the impact of race, gender and socio-economic background, all of which are important topics to discuss in an organization such as the U.N.

I also attended a meeting on financing the SDGs where several private sector companies were invited to speak about how their resources could help achieve the SDGs by 2030. What intrigued me in this meeting was the fact that some representatives were claiming that there was no lack of money for sustainable development while others refuted this, arguing that governments alone cannot achieve the SDGs and that they need the help of the private sector and multi-lateral lenders. Interestingly, most of the panelists in this meeting were from Europe with a clear lack of representation of speakers from regions such as Africa or Latin America who might have been better able to demonstrate the current disparities in wealth that must be overcome. One member from the audience voiced this concern with inequalities, posing the question “Why are we not redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor?” to which none of the panelists were able to fully answer his question. In my opinion, his question was valid and shows how, at the U.N., these issues are often overlooked and not prioritized, which only threatens to weaken the credibility of the institution among the world’s peoples.

All in all, through my experience I was able to see that despite the lack of inclusivity in some policy discussions, the U.N. still tries to be an organization responsive to the needs and concerns of all. It is actively working towards closing the gender gap, which was demonstrated by the election of the female PGA, and it gives sustained and priority attention to some of the most critical challenges facing our planet. There is still a long way to go to achieve balanced representation in U.N. policy discussions, but I am encouraged by current efforts to achieve equality. If such efforts continue, I might see a female Secretary General in the fairly near future which will inspire many young people around the world to achieve their full potential.

 

 

State Fair:  The UN Tries to Take another Bite out of Corruption, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 May

Srebrenica

The future which we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people’s children. Marian Wright Edelman

He did not care for the lying at first. He hated it. Then later he had come to like it. It was part of being an insider but it was a very corrupting business.   Ernest Hemingway

When honor and the Law no longer stand on the same side of the line, how do we choose? Anne Bishop

Global betterment is a mental process, not one that requires huge sums of money or a high level of authority. Change has to be psychological.  Suzy Kassem

I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.   Mahatma Gandhi

This past Wednesday, the UN General Assembly payed tribute to the 15th anniversary of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, a seminal moment in the multi-faceted history of UN efforts to provide pragmatic and regulatory  coherence in global efforts to address crimes from state bribery to terror financing.  This Convention has many facets, some of the most important of which have clear implications for peace and security as well as for our sustainable development priorities, including the recovery of diverted assets, enhancing the fairness and transparency of national judiciaries, and eliminating economic crimes such as identity theft.

Wednesday’s high-level event brought together senior UN officials and minister-level representatives from several  states who shared insights on their own anti-corruption efforts which (they hoped) would inspire other states to both learn from successful national practices elsewhere but also to commit more deeply to coordinated efforts within the broader UN system to stay one step ahead of (or at least better than one step behind) the evolution of contemporary criminal activity — what has become an evil cousin of our otherwise extraordinary ability to manipulate the external world.

If nothing else, our species continues to demonstrate the maxim that if not always wise, we are most certainly clever, an attribute that seems to be in our DNA and that allows the more malevolent among us to run one step (and sometimes many) ahead of our global regulatory capacity. As with weapons development and climate impacts, we often seem often to be running breathlessly in an effort to “catch up” to the latest iteration of criminality:  cyber-crime and off-shore financial shelters; “dark web” trafficking networks and clandestine markets for cultural artifacts pilfered by terrorists.   This race is made more challenging — and perhaps even more urgent — by the fact that enforcement agencies have an important obligation to “play by the rules,” to respect the human rights of persons some of whom have turned the exploitation of human greed and our other physical and character vulnerabilities into an art form.

Many of these challenges (and successes) were on display during the main Wednesday event as well as in a couple of excellent side events including one on “wildlife trafficking” sponsored by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and states including Germany and Gabon.  For instance, a judge from Italy took the floor to cite what he feels are “profound” and positive changes within and beyond his country  due to its participation in the Convention, including transparency in public procurement, protection of “whistle-blowers” and what he deemed “better asset recovery measures.”  On the other side of the ledger, Uganda lamented that the power of money to motivate law enforcement and other officials “to turn a blind eye” to bribery, trafficking and other corrupt practices seems to be holding its own.  And yet there was virtual unanimity regarding claims by UNODC of the degree to which eliminating corruption positively impacts virtually all development and peace and security responsibilities. These include our ability to create and enforce fair and transparent tax codes as well as to regulate access to natural resources and other public goods in ways that preserve and enhance the ability of states to preserve domestic revenue for domestic needs.

As a representative from the Mexican government claimed this week, if we truly wish to honor these responsibilities, our “only option” as an international community is to cultivate more engaged citizens and more transparent and honest governance.  In implementing this “option” it is important to examine a few assumptions.   When many of us think about corruption, we have images from popular media in our heads:  secret payoffs to law enforcement, blatant manipulations of our court systems, corporate bribes to heads of state, the “laundering” of formerly public assets and the creation of safe havens for those ill-begotten gains.  It is about the power of money and might to divert us from any semblance of fairness, a principle which has largely fallen on hard times, but one which still has currency in our modern culture, especially by those who face discrimination or whose well-being has been undermined by select “dirty dealing” from corporate interests, from officials of governments large and small, even from schools and cultural institutions.

Beyond our video screens, it is apparent that corruption is not only a problem for states and the financial vultures that circle around them, but also for our local cultures and communities.  The damage to our societies – and now perhaps even to our planet – though the diversion of public assets to private interests, but also through our inability to rigorously apply principles of fairness in our public policies, is of course most dangerous when the offending party is a state agency or multinational corporate interest.

But there is also a fear, and not unfounded, that too many state officials are both enabling and benefiting from societies full of persons and institutions that also don’t or won’t commit to “play it straight.”  We have collectively become too comfortable with the smaller and seemingly  less consequential ways in which we cheat others, manipulate the truth, and even elevate the competitive advantages associated with our narrow self-interests.  We rightly lament those who use money and power to “cut the line” with impunity, but such lament is often two parts jealousy to one part indignation as we are less concerned about ending the practice of “line cutting”  and more about the strategies we must pursue to ensure our own place at the front of the queue. We must not deceive ourselves here: corruption at local levels is an equal opportunity corroder of our collaborative potential.  And much like Smokey Bear urges about forest fires in the US, “only we” can prevent our further collective slide into an abyss where we expect too little of our leadership and much too little of ourselves as well.

During the wildlife trafficking event on Wednesday, UNODC noted somberly that “we won’t get a second chance” to eliminate wildlife crimes, a warning made more poignant by recent stories of human-exacerbated extinctions that reach far beyond the species targeted by poachers.   But in some sense we might not get a second chance on any corruption-related matters.  If we are to make the best of the chance we still have, we will all need to play our part – as attentive critics of state practices, but also of our own local cultures of corruption. The “engagement” of citizens on corruption to which Mexico rightly pointed this week is partially about the ways we insist that officials in national capitals and multilateral institutions like the UN “play it straight,” and partially about how “straight” the rest of us are willing to play as well.

This weekend in the US is a time to reflect on those who lost their lives in wars of greater and lesser legitimacy.  However one assesses such conflicts and the damage they caused (or prevented), and despite the diverse motivates that drove people to “don the uniform,” we can presume that my relatives and the many others whose often obscure graves mark their sacrifices did not perish so that honor and law could go their separate ways, so that corrupt officials could line their own pockets, so that others could “cut the line” of their surviving family members, or so that the best of our minds and characters could be trampled on by the “dirty feet” of others.

 

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

6 May

Handcuffs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storm Front:  The UN Stakes a Claim on Fresh Water Access, Dr. Robert Zuber 

25 Mar

waterlicht_un-8925-1

Image By Daan Roosegaarde

The mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water. Sigmund Freud

The tree that is beside the running water is fresher and gives more fruit. Saint Teresa of Avila

Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation… even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind. Leonardo da Vinci

All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Toni Morrison

There were several events of considerable potential consequence for the well-being of the world at the UN over this past week.

The General Assembly continued its own process of revitalization with suggestions for eliminating lengthy statements and redundant resolutions as well as doing more to ensure that resolutions once passed actually alter circumstances on the ground consistent with the promises embedded in our resolution language.

In another room, delegations prepared for the upcoming review conference on the UN mechanism (UNPoA) intended to help states and other stakeholders halt the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. The sessions featured some spirited reflections on the importance of cooperative activities to control the diversion of and illegal access to weapons (and the ammunition which renders them lethal) by unauthorized actors.

And in the Security Council, the current president (Netherlands) convened a series of important briefings on violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the still-dire humanitarian challenges in the Lake Chad Basin of Africa, and on the many linkages between food insecurity and conflict, including the millions forced to flee the “fire” of violence into the “frying pan” of deprivation and anxiety.

But for us the week’s highlight was back in the General Assembly, the launch by the presidents of the GA and Tajikistan of the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development, complemented by a World Water Day demonstration of the extraordinary Waterlicht by Daan Roosegaarde. This hopeful sequence of policy and artistic events nevertheless called out a series of difficult realities:  the huge number of children and others for whom sipping water is an invitation to immobilizing disease; the vast quantities of water that are utilized by industries whose products we also take for granted, such as meat and automobile production; the high percentage of rainwater that flows into gutters or remains untreated for other productive or even essential uses; the growing number of natural disasters, including sea rise, that are related to water melted and then churned up by an angry climate.

None of this is news to people who are paying attention.  We have been warned about drought and sea level rise, but sometimes simply forget how little safe drinking water remains and how much of what does remain is located in rapidly-melting polar regions.   We have collectively “soiled our own waterbeds,” polluting essential waterways through sub-standard sanitation or in the name of “progress” and then ignoring the petitions of those left to cope with the significant health and well-being consequences of our collective neglect.  And we in the policy community sometimes bury awareness of our own blessing, in this case (as noted by the GA president) the blessing of working in a building with abundant drinking fountains and even toilets using water of higher quality than much of the “developed” world, let alone the billions who take their lives in their hands to fetch water for families or quench an intolerable thirst at the nearest open pipe.

In thinking about this post for much of the week, I recalled some of the petty inconveniences of my life that have been associated with water – the times on a sports field when I claimed to be “dying of thirst;” the times when my “precious” schedule was thwarted by late-winter snow and ice; the times when fishing expeditions or other leisure were postponed by churnings seas; the times when my “need” for bottled water on long overseas trips resulted in spare suitcases full of plastic to recycle back home.

But beyond my pettiness are echoes of the profound:  the access needs of so many, of course, but also the degree to which water dominates our conscious metaphors and unconscious longings, in part because our water connectivity resonates so deeply.  Our art, our poetry, our religion all invoke images of water that can bring us together as a people, help us to explore our human condition and its limitations, certainly to cleanse our bodies and even purify our souls.   It is remarkable to consider how our common human journey has been impacted, inspired, humbled and challenged by what water is and represents. As India noted during the launch of the decade, water access has often been more important than armaments “in the rise and fall of kingdoms.”

And yet in this and so many other areas of life, we have learned not to ask too many questions; we aren’t curious enough about the impacts and consequences of our water and other resource choices, in part because curiosity so often beats a path to responsibility.  When we refuse to inquire, we might have fewer worries at least in the short term; we might not feel so compelled to divert our course, to veer around the barely visible iceberg.  Moreover, the incurious often (quite curiously) claim to have more answers than they have any right to profess, a claim secured in large measure through their stoic determination to deny the relevant questions.

But if water is to become that place, as delegates from Vietnam, Ghana and elsewhere suggested this week, where competition must come to yield to cooperation; then hard questions and relevant actions must stay fixed in our minds and prominent in our monthly planners.  For as our damaged climate is shifting locations of water scarcity and relative abundance; as the toxicity of our waterways sickens children and shortens the lifespans of the rural poor; as this archetypal resource become more scarce with greater numbers of hands and mouths reaching out to secure some portion, then impediments to water-related cooperation may well become fierce.  We are in for a potentially rough ride and, as with so many other current challenges, a ride of our own choosing.

Many years ago I wrote a poem called The Skater, about a man who glided blithely across the frozen water without a care about the dangers to his own well-being that lurked just below the surface, ice that seemed firm but was actually punctuated by thin spots to which he was resolutely inattentive and that threated to engulf his arrogance.

After all these years, we continue to skate on thin ice.  But we don’t need to fall through.

As this water decade unfolds, and as some of the initial enthusiasm from the launch threatens to dissipate, we must resolve to keep our focus on saving and enhancing the fresh water that is left: planting more trees along waterways, finding new uses for recycled water, constructing catchments that can prevent urban rainfall from being washed away to sea, using fewer of the industrial and agricultural products that over-utilize and/or pollute so much of our dwindling fresh water supplies.  As more than one activist noted during this week’s sessions, water health and access are compelling tasks for now, not yet another responsibility to be passed along to the young.

All available evidence here at the UN suggests that our human journey is now impeded by unprecedented levels of aquatic peril. If we fail to heed this call, if we refuse to share our best cooperative energies and ask the hard questions, if we don’t do more to help our precious water “get back to where it was,” the last memory of our collective sojourn on this planet might well be a deep and agonizing thirst.

 

Inquiring Minds:  Questions at the Heart of the UN’s 2018 Priorities, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Jan

Questions

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’  Martin Luther King, Jr.

Questions are the breath of life for a conversation. James Nathan Miller

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask.  Albert Einstein

It’s another frigid Sunday at the UN, a day when (typically) the trains are not running close to properly and the most important news items of the day included a (thankfully) false missile warning for Hawaii, the dangers to youth from swallowing pods of detergent and the possibility that one of those leftover pods might be needed to “wash out” the insensitive mouth of the US president.

At the UN, it was a slow but important week – slow because of most of the missions are still catching up from the burdensome workloads of late 2017, but important because this is the time when senior UN officials reveal their plans and priorities for the year.   SG Guterres will take the floor on Tuesday to lay out the 2018 priorities of the Secretariat, though he provided an important preview this past week during the launch of his Making Migration Work for All report.  During this well-attended session, Guterres rightly called for “canons of international cooperation” that can increase opportunities for legal migration and eliminate unrealistic restrictions.  Migration is “inevitable,” the SG noted, and if something is inevitable it makes sense to attempt to “properly manage it;” this as part of a call for all delegations to negotiate “constructively” a Global Compact on Migration before the end of this year.

On Friday, the President of the General Assembly, Miroslav Lajčák, took his turn to outline priorities for 2018 within the UN’s most democratic chamber, underscoring the SG’s emphasis on protecting rights and maximizing benefits of migrants, those who migrate voluntarily and those many migrants pushed out of their homes by drought and other climate impacts, discrimination and human rights abuses, and of course armed conflict.

The PGA had other things on his mind as well that his office will hope to impact before turning over the gavel in September 2018:   He is seeking to focus attention on Sustainable Development Goal 6, overcoming the “indignities” that so often accompany a lack of access to safe drinking water.  He is seeking to broaden stakeholder involvement in 2030 Development Agenda implementation.  He is seeking ways for the UN to “keep up with a changing world,” including through stronger linkages between the UN’s human rights and development communities.  He is seeking to continue the process of General Assembly reforms, including institutionalizing participation by indigenous communities and raising levels of transparency regarding the process for choosing his successor.  He made a special appeal for a dramatic increase in delegate attention to the health of our oceans, the challenges of global terrorism and the threat of new pandemics.

And he seeks to elevate the SG’s “sustaining peace” initiative, including pathways to greater participation in peacebuilding by women and youth.   Lajčák affirmed, as he has done in the past, the value of a prevention-oriented peace agenda, urging the UN to act sooner on conflict threats while there is still a “peace to keep.”  Towards the end of his remarks, he also acknowledged (as well he should) threats to our multilateral system that risk “overburdening” the UN system, “drowning out” the voices of smaller states, and undermining progress towards previously agreed peace and development goals. To address challenges such as these, he urged delegations to “talk more and learn more.”

And perhaps even to ask better questions.

Despite his expressed desire to focus on the quality of goals, not their quantity, Lajčák understands that the clock is ticking, both for our planet and, more locally, for his tenure as PGA.  We are already now 1/3 of the way through that tenure, one which has successfully promoted the priorities of his predecessor, Fiji’s Peter Thomson, while seeking to inject some new urgency into a building that sometimes seems content with development and security measures that (while often impressive in their own right) offer insufficient relief for a world staring at a future that could well be characterized by wider social unrest, more missile alerts (false and otherwise), accelerated polar melting, growing insurgencies, an increasingly degraded biodiversity, and perhaps even greater erosion in the confidence that the global public places in governments and multilateral institutions.

PGA Lajčák seems to grasp this multi-faceted urgency.  He knows that the office he now holds has a limited tenure and many burdens, some related to internal UN drama and others related to the positioning of the UN’s considerable successes as a trustworthy antidote to the existential threats which daily assault the PGA and his staff.   Even in his sometimes understated way, Lajčák seemed proficient at communicating the UN’s core responsibilities in this sometimes treacherous period.  Was it enough on Friday?

We weren’t able to tell, frankly, because as quickly as it began the session was over.  By my calculation, delegations were in their seats perhaps 30 minutes for a session which had been allotted three hours.  There were (thankfully) no pre-prepared statements from delegations, no attempts to “comment” on what they heard before they heard it.  But neither were there any questions from the floor: Not a single one.

We had plenty of questions, though protocol prohibits us from asking them in these sessions.  We wanted to probe further the PGAs assertion about “quality commitments,” including how he will use the final 8 months of his tenure to press delegations to “talk more and learn more” about the global challenges for which they have tacitly accepted remedial responsibility?  We wanted to know more about how a “voluntary” compact on migration can successfully overcome nationalist resistances?  We wanted to know how a UN system can effectively prevent conflict when peace and security are often addressed in such a politicized fashion and sovereignty reigns supreme until the fires of internal conflict have burned too many innocents?   We wanted to know how a more “transparent” selection process for the next PGA would actually impact the means by which the new president would eventually be selected?   We wanted to know how the office of the PGA can be better fortified to provide system-wide leadership to address a bursting roster of global expectations?

We had questions for virtually every phrase in the PGA’s presentation, questions that sought clarification and offered opportunities for the PGA to share more of his personal concerns and commitments, to lift a portion of the policy veil for a community that recognizes the value of strong leadership from the PGA despite the impediments from an often-underfunded, one-year tenure.  But from the heads of delegations, there was only a bit of mild applause and a reach for coats and brief cases.  Questions, if at all, were left for another time.

For us, this event was a reminder that the key to “learning more” is not primarily through statements and presentations but through questions – not primarily the kind that seek to “catch” people in their errors and hypocrisies — though there is certainly a place for those — but the kind that illuminates personal and institutional commitments, and that binds questions and answers in a common inquiry to find viable solutions to the problems that plague us.   This is not about letting others (or ourselves) “off the hook,” but acknowledging that, in some real sense, we are all now dangling from the same one.

We are collectively not in that place of recognition.  For too many of us, questions are a threat rather than a blessing, a challenge to our branded narratives rather than an ocassion to examine the truths we hold, and sometimes hold in common.  More and more, we don’t ask good questions, in part because we haven’t practiced asking them in the first place.  And even when we have practiced, we don’t ask good questions because we don’t want to risk having to deal with the answers we receive.  We don’t question because we recognize the degree to which, in our sometimes aloof and self-referential policy world, questions are occasions much more for defensiveness than for exploration. We don’t ask questions at times because we don’t care enough to know and at times because we don’t want to appear in a “public” setting not to already know what a question might imply that we don’t.

But then there are those of us yearning to hear good questions, ones which are neither self-referential nor blatantly accusative but attentive invitations to explore, to collaborate, to support, to learn.  Many of us recognize the potential benefits of such questions, but we hear them too seldom and offer them too sparingly.   Thus, GAPW has made a commitment this year to practice asking better questions — more open-ended, utilizing kinder language, and based on higher levels of attentiveness to process and context.  Our hope is that such questions – from us and from others– can lead to better prospects for community learning, more honest disclosures, and even a lowering of our collective emotional guard.  Such outcomes might even pave the way for global constituents to more fully endorse UN proposals to address the many challenges that keep too many people around the world awake, night after night.

Ode to Inspiration:   The Challenges of UN Leadership on the Run, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Sep

Leadership is not about a title or a designation. It’s about impact, influence and inspiration. Robin S. Sharma

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Leadership is not about the next election, it’s about the next generation. Simon Sinek

One of the trickiest aspects of our (mostly self-authorizing) mandate is the assessment of the contributions of outgoing presidents of the UN‘s General Assembly.   Part of this is a function of timing – with three months to prepare and only one year to implement, the gap separating the end of the institutional honeymoon and the crossing of the institutional finish line is thin indeed.

The accelerated pace at which this office must attempt to make its mark is made more complex by the sheer volume of policy activity for which the office of the president is responsible.  On more and more matters of global governance, including at times matters directly affecting international peace and security, the full General Assembly membership is demanding a voice and expecting the president to enable and magnify that voice.

And finally there is the nature of leadership itself.   More and more, it seems, everyone in our overly-schooled cultures is now presumed to be a “leader” in some fashion or other.   This leadership “saturation” has many implications, not all of them problematic, but one troubling implication is the reticence of erstwhile “leaders” to agree to be led by others.   The “herding cats” analogy is probably overused, but the “forging of consensus” which is such an important component of modern leadership is made more complex in a setting where so many of us “know differently” and so often  claim to “know better.”

Into this cauldron of expectation and impediment stepped Fiji’s Peter Thomson, elected president of the UN General Assembly on June 13, 2016 in the closest of votes over Cyprus Ambassador Mavroyiannis.  In his acceptance speech, and with the personal humility and Hollywood-quality voice to which we have all become accustomed, he cited this “great moment” for the Pacific Small Islands Developing States (SIDS), pledging to keep their voices and their issues –especially ocean health and climate impacts – at the top of his agenda.   He also pointed to the critical need to ratchet up our engagement with all Sustainable Development Goals – perhaps the most important promise that the UN has ever made to its global constituents. He subsequently pushed to ensure that all aspects (even the controversial ones) of what is now known as the 2030 Development Agenda – national ownership, inclusive participation, reliable (real-time) data, predictable finance – received urgent and adequate consideration.

His catholic vision was embraced by many of the top diplomats in the UN system who lent their own expertise and leadership to a range of issue critical to the future of the planet, from climate impacts and migration governance to human trafficking and improving modes of participation for women, youth, indigenous people and other persons whose skills and aspirations have spent far too much time already isolated on our global margins.

All the while, a core focus was maintained on the alleviation of global poverty as well as on the implementing health of the UN system itself.   In the latter instance, Thomson and colleagues understood that as the demands on the UN grow and resources remain problematic, it is essential that key UN bodies encourage clear, efficient and scandal-free expectations.   Though it is fair to quibble (as we have done ourselves) over priority reforms for the UN system, the attention of the PGA and other top diplomats to how the General Assembly does its business – and how the office of the president enables and facilitates that business – has been most appreciated.

The abiding question for us here, beyond the specifics of policy investments, is what lessons of leadership can be gleaned from the Thomson presidency?   We would like to suggest the following.

  • Keep focus on the most urgent crises: While there has been over the past year a bit grousing from the disarmament community about Thomson’s level of commitment in this area, for the most part he has invested the energies of his office on the crises that are most likely to undermine human dignity and threaten our common future.  He has recognized, as we all should, that it is important to keep the kitchen clean but less so when the house is burning.
  • Keep relevant issues and issue stakeholders connected: While there is much talk at the UN about “eliminating silos,” we continue to allow bureaucracy and politics to stifle broader policy responsibilities. Connecting the policy dots has been a hallmark of our office’s work for over a decade. Having a president who has been so visibly committed to full spectrum policy engagements, including and beyond SDG goals and targets, has been highly encouraging, both for the UN and the world surrounding it.
  • Be present: This president brought exceptional personal energy to the UN system.  With help from his policy advisers and speech writers, he was seemingly everywhere in and out of headquarters.  My interns often found it remarkable that he could make his presence felt in so many diverse policy settings, sharing relevant remarks both humble and impacting, but also lending credibility to UN discussions that might otherwise have remained in the policy shadows.
  • Promote hope and agency in others: In many ways, Thomson’s signature achievements were a function of his devotion and loyalty to the people and leaders of the small island developing states.  Their voices have rarely enjoyed the volume and resonance that they have over this past year. But beyond the SIDS, welcoming and growing participation by women and indigenous peoples was high on the president’s agenda.   And our young people – the largest generation in human history — were consistently invited to the UN by this president in a manner that was inclusive without being patronizing.  He was able as few are to recognize the skills and energy of youth and endorse their urgency and even skepticism; all while reminding them that they still have much to learn and that there are generations behind their own for whom we will also need to find productive and participatory spaces.

In remarks shared at one of the many high level events he has sponsored over the past year, Thomson concluded this week’s Culture of Peace dialogue with the following: “Let us work to build bridges of understanding amongst our people; to create environments that foster inclusion and mutual respect; to develop education systems that teach harmony; and to raise children and grandchildren who will safeguard a global culture of peace. “

Amen, Mr. President.   During one short and frenetic year, you and your office have set a high bar for Slovakian Foreign Minister Lajcak who is set to take over your duties. Indeed you have raised the bar for all UN leadership as they seek to rally the skills and energies of this system needed to clean up our messes, eliminate our habituated discrimination, armed conflict and wastefulness, and fulfill our urgent policy promises to those next generations now looking anxiously over our shoulders.