Tag Archives: hope

Exit Memo: The UN’s Struggle to Inspire Next Generations, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Aug

Rising Plant

The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. Barbara Kingsolver

You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming. Pablo Neruda

It’s the children the world almost breaks who grow up to save it. Frank Warren

At what point do you give up – decide enough is enough? There is only one answer really. Never. Tabitha Suzuma

A great hope fell; You heard no noise; The ruin was within. Emily Dickinson

Global Action has had another group of wonderful interns this summer – smart, engaged, funny, diverse.   Thanks to all of you who have provided support or hospitality to make it possible for them to experience all of the potential and contrariness that is the contemporary UN.

One of the questions that gets posed to them before they commence their wanderings around the building is the same one that greets them at the end – has your time at the UN made you more or less hopeful about your future?

It is not a frivolous charge.  Our interns are not here to participate in “youth events” where older people talk about younger ones as though they are the “saviors” of something or other beyond the capacity of the people who raised, educated and subsidized them.   Ours are not here to “save” but to discern, to find their place and even their passion by studying up close the institution that is still largely synonymous with multilateral progress, an institution that holds global policy conversations that could hardly be held beyond Turtle Bay, but an institution that also promises more than it often can deliver and even, at times, impedes the hopefulness that can sustain a commitment to a safer, healthier world.

My groups of interns can at times be a suspicious bunch, investing energy in self-protection and promotion that could be spent taking risks – connecting and exploring beyond comfort zones.   The world that barely bothers to welcome their adulthood, presenting issues and threats that they attempt to discern for many hours a week at UN headquarters, certainly reinforces a protective posture.   Between vicious attacks on journalists and plastics filling our oceans to unresolved violence in Yemen and Central African Republic and climate-induced drought, food insecurity and forced migration, there is plenty to suggest that the future of this generation and those to follow is likely to be a bit of a rough ride, surely rougher than it needs to be.

And so these young people who come to survey the UN policy premises with passions to identify and hope to live out “under its roof,” these young people need to know that this system is committed to more than “involving youth” in its discussions but that the governments which are the UN’s priority understand that they are holding levers to a future that they, themselves, will likely not be around to experience.   They need tangible reminders that the UN and its member states can do more – will do more – than simply kick problems down the road where solutions will only  become more elusive.

One of the venues that alternate excites and frustrates our young people the most is the Security Council, what we have described elsewhere as the most political space within a highly political building.   The issues that draw the interns to the Council chamber are often the ones most resistant to resolution, in part because of the way the Council conducts its business. Briefings are carefully composed and often drained of urgency.  Statements by Council members put the best possible face on national interest — which it is not at all clear they are seated on the Council to promote. Such statements often leave out key information, including information regarding the culpability of Council members for some of the very same security violations they are mandated to address.   The statements read in chamber are too-often redundant, more than occasionally toothless, and rarely (if ever) concede the points made by policy challengers, accept national responsibility or offer apologies.

In what is arguably the single most important room in the world, Council members too often choose to “go small,” to treat the chamber as a forum for branding national positions rather than a deliberative body with a mandate to deliver binding (and enforceable) decisions to bring the gravest threats to international peace and security to heel.

For some of the interns, this week’s Council discussion on Yemen, presided over by the UK, was their last attempt to find some reassurance that the powers presiding over this room have a plan and the commitment to “resolve” a conflict such as this one that has already claimed many thousands of victims, ushered in a catastrophic epidemic of disease and food insecurity, and where some of the world’s pre-eminent arms merchants have more than a bit of context-specific blood on their hands.

There was some good news: UN Special Envoy Griffiths, who has been given some credit for diverting a widely-feared, full-scale assault on the Yemeni port of Hodeidah, announced the launching of a Geneva-based negotiating process in the hope of ending this long-running conflict.  “We know what can work,” he insisted, noting that “relationship building is key to reaching a permanent political settlement.”

For his part, UNOCHA’s Ging ticked off elements of the ever-growing humanitarian emergency in and beyond Hodeidah while rightly highlighting the extraordinary courage of aid workers seeking to bind the gaping wounds that the international community – and especially this Council – has so far failed to stop.   “Conflict affects every aspect of life in Yemen,” Ging noted, and the impacts from the unresolved political strife, incessant (and often reckless) air attacks, and what Ging described as “harassment” of aid workers have together generated trauma and “threats to dignity” that can and might well last a lifetime.

While the interns seemed to be anticipating high-energy and urgent responses, they were treated to a bevy of subdued and even off-point interventions by Council members. The US Ambassador alleged a “new phase” in the Yemen conflict as though the recent Hodeidah port bombings were the first attacks in Yemen to raise the specter of war crimes.   Kuwait, which in previous meetings, described its national position as standing “shoulder to shoulder” with the Saudis, condemned “material losses” from Houthi missile strikes on Saudi territory while seeming to ignore the vastly larger impacts from coalition air assaults.  Other members lamented the growing humanitarian crisis as well as the extention of the conflict into the Red Sea without offering any firm analysis of its causes or suggetions for relief.

Peru did raise the grave threats to children from coalition air strikes and Kazakhstan noted the urgency of trust-building if negotiations are to have any viable future, trust which will be harder to come by as the Yemeni Ambassador was accusing the Houthis of “genocide” while denying any coalition involvement in the recent Hodeidah bombings.  Under this cloud of acrimony and half-truths, Kazakhstan’s concrete suggestion to form a “de-escalation” zone to help protect water and other civilian infrastructure from further attack seemed akin to a tiny plant emerging from an otherwise parched landscape.

Perhaps the fault here is mine for insisting that a Council meeting on Yemen would be an appropriate exit for young people who have mostly given the UN building their best attentions, who came looking for hope that this often parched policy soil can sprout new life, who came seeking encouragement to help them hold fast to their still-evolving commitments to make a better world.   For all our limitations, we try never to forget on whose behalf we are working, whose “turn” it is to clean up messes and set the world on a more sustainable policy course.  As Council members craft their next iterations of national positions on security matters, we urge greater consideration for the “roof” under which the hopes and aspirations of new generations can find their energy and inspiration.