Tag Archives: General Assembly

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.”

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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.

 

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

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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.