Tag Archives: human rights

Inconvenient Truths: Spinning Obligations to our Planet and Each Other, Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Apr

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Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin. Barbara Kingsolver

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.  Flannery O’Connor

The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth.  Lao Tzu

This was an often interesting and generally head-spinning week for the world and for the UN.  Alongside a bevy of unwelcome political and military tensions, one highlight for us was the scientific community (and supporters) taking the streets in support of facts, in part as an appeal to a society that too often believes what it wants to believe and prefers shiny branding and pious reassurances to the truths – about science, about the health of our planet, about ourselves — that disrupt our ambitions and inconvenience our personal schedules.

The marches were also an appeal to our political leaders who seem to believe that unless and until something is 100% settled (and much in science is not quite that), they are “free” to make up what they wish about our past and present, to carve whatever narrative they can use to convince people of things about which they would do better to be skeptical.  For too much of our leadership, truth more and more is about the capacity to convince based on pre-determined ideologies than about the weighted importance of evidence or the intrinsic value of curiosity – being open to new ideas, the next question, perspectives that can complete and enrich our own cognitive circles.

If we think we know everything that needs to be done, every lens that needs to be examined, every fact and challenge that needs to be integrated, we are probably too comfortable with small or incomplete perspectives; embracing half-measures when the recipe calls for a full portion, spouting stereotypical clichés when the times call for an honest disaggregation of the “truths” we espouse that might apply to some contexts in some measure but not to all contexts in all measure.

Despite our proliferating school degrees and professional certificates and across our political spectrum, we have seemingly never been so vulnerable to spin. As we are reminded on this World Book Day, we would all do well to read more and talk less, to think harder and argue softer.

While the science marches weren’t directed at the UN per se, we have plenty of our own “spin” in this space, officials too often embracing aspects of the truth that serve national (or bureaucratic) interests while ignoring elements that call for more flexible political or institutional positions. In the UN building as a whole, certainly in the Security Council, things unspoken are often more important than what is actually shared.  Delegations will often make perfectly valid but willfully incomplete contributions to policy, in more than a few instances hoping that the truth they convey will be enough to satisfy listeners, will distract people from all that is still needed if we are to complete the policy circle.

An example of this selectivity occurred this past Tuesday when US Ambassador Haley (serving as Council president for this month) introduced a Security Council discussion focused on “Human rights and prevention of armed conflict.” This was, as she noted, the first time that the Council had ever met to discuss as a stand-alone the “red flags” of human rights abuse that spill within and across national borders, a surprising if accurate claim to many (us included) who have long assumed (and pointed out) a consistent relationship linking human rights violations and the potential for armed violence.

Secretary-General Guterres was the primary briefer for the session. He restated his own personal commitment to work more closely with the Council on this and other issues, while also pointing out the “grave challenges” associated with efforts to reduce the “wounds of war.”   Guterres was clear, as Italy and other states were later in the afternoon, that the only way to address such wounds is to make war less likely. Thus attention to gross human rights violations — what France called the “sowing of hatred” — as a major contributing factor to armed conflict is therefore fully warranted.

But Guterres (and later Kazakhstan and Uruguay) also made plain the need to “depoliticize” both human rights and the related promotion of sustainable development.  It didn’t take long for this warning to be disregarded.   Amb. Haley herself used the occasion to lump together Cuba, Iran and the DPRK as human rights violators from which troika will arise “the next crisis.”  Shortly thereafter, the deputy foreign minister of Ukraine alleged Russia’s “phobia” on rights stemming in part from its military adventurism and occupation of Crimea.

Egypt was one of several states (including Russia) citing double standards and false interpretations lying at heart of our responses to many global issues.  They urged the Security Council to respect and work closely with other UN agencies (such as the Human Rights Council) specifically tasked with promoting human rights and –through the special rapporteurs, special procedures mandate holders, and direct examinations by the Human Rights Committee and other treaty bodies – working with states to improve their human rights performance.

In the end, the issue for the Council was not whether human rights should have a firm place in their deliberations.  As Sweden noted, there is no denying that rights violations are core contributors to social instability and violence; nor can we deny that our enduring “culture of impunity” and growing disregard for international law constitute major flaws in our peace and security architecture.   The question has to do with the proper role for the Council, a body that too often preempts effective action elsewhere in the global system and which too often exempts from criticism those very same Council members all too willing to point the finger beyond their own borders.

It was Ethiopia that seemed to offer the most concrete and sensible way forward, a way that combines receptivity to fact-finding from other UN colleagues; a pledge to support rather than undermine other relevant UN agencies; and attention to dimensions of “fairness” in the investigation and application of human rights concerns. In addition, Ethiopia urged what it called the “overdue” commitment of Council members to regular self-reflection and assessment regarding their mandated responsibilities, including the degree to which Council members uphold in their own practice the same Charter values they insist on for others.

Amb. Haley noted that there is “so much more to be done” in the Council on human rights, and at one level she is right.   But that “much more” is not about trying to control another core UN obligation, not about selectively and/or righteously beating up political adversaries for alleged abuses – as though any state is blameless on the rights scale. Rather it is about promoting and sharing the best information from across the UN system and beyond, ensuring that abuses can be identified and then addressed in their early stages as one means to head off conflicts whose resulting wounds are now far beyond our capacity to heal.

And also offering better protection to the vulnerable when our preventive efforts fail: Facts and information on the one hand; policy resolve and compassion on the other.

In the discussion’s aftermath, one of the most respected academic voices on Africa, Paul Williams, pointed out on twitter that the same person who chaired the Council meeting advocating for a larger role on human rights, including as a priority for peacekeeping operations, is an official of the very same government actively seeking to reduce those operations.  This highlights part of the obligation to truth-telling in the international community that offices like ours scrutinize and that lurks beyond the province of our carefully-crafted narratives – not just the truth that serves national interests, but the truth that reflects the general interest; the truth that is beholden to the full picture not simply the corner of the canvas that reinforces our national or organizational aesthetic.

 

Highlighting the Gender-Disability Nexus, Felix Balzer

13 Apr

 

Editor’s Note:  The following is from Felix Balzer, a graduate student in the Global and European Studies Institute at the University of Leipzig in Germany.  He spent the month of March at Global Action’s office (courtesy of FIACAT) with lots of time spent across the street at UN Headquarters. Felix came to us with a passion for disabilities rights, and here he reflects on a relationship that deserves higher-profile policy attention from both the gender and human rights communities. 

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You can not be strong at the expense of the weak. Hanan Ashrawi

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.  Friedrich Nietzsche

The difficulty of formulating policies of universal validity within the United Nations can at times be considerable. Finding common ground between actors is often complicated by the need to vindicate national or personal interest in ways that impede the creation of synergies between parties. When this is the case, clear and honest discourse can take a back seat to statements that prove of too-little value in inciting dialogue, but rather concretize the status quo when a larger and more connected vision is urgently needed.

Given this need, the present contribution seeks to raise attention towards a synergy that could prove crucial for the implementation of future strategies for sustaining peace. The example to be cited here was vividly discussed at a recent UN side event and shows in my view a viable approach towards a vital discourse within the UN that is capable of revitalizing a crucial linkage for the UN’s broader human rights and sustainable development agenda.

The event, “Working to improve our own future,“ took place on the sidelines of last month’s 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The event stressed the need to strengthen networks of women with disabilities through the promotion of their human rights and economic empowerment, with the larger aim of fostering their participation and independence. This attempt included assessments of the responsibilities of governments, international agencies, and civil society that are involved with one or more of the stakeholders in this important but generally neglected relationship.

The current president and CEO of World Learning, Donald Steinberg, who was also past Deputy Administrator to USAID and a former US Ambassador, moderated the side event. He initiated the discussion by rendering a slogan pertinent to the movement for the political rights and participation of people with disabilities, a movement that seeks to alter often prejudicial views on disability: “Nothing about them without them“ or as the original slogan goes: “Nothing about us, without us.“

The first speaker on the panel was Ms. Sarah Costa, Executive Director of the Women’s Refugee Commission. She emphasized that the largest problem migrants with disabilities face is the stigmas they experience from others, especially but not only in “destination communities.“  At the same time, she criticized the lack of funding for institutions that can research needs and issues affecting women with disabilities, urging creation of more robust advocacy and service institutions and agencies that can “walk the talk” for people (and especially for women) with disabilities.

The next speaker on the panel was Stephanie Ortoleva from the Women Enabled initiative. Her group promotes advocacy strategies and legal advice to enhance women’s rights and disability rights globally. Stephanie stressed that 19.2% of women in the world are also persons with disabilities; thus complementary efforts to improve the social acceptance and general status under the law for these women are urgently needed. Further, she identified one of the key problems hindering the implementation of effective social policies in this area: the pervasive “siloing” of gender and disability rights communities rather than their mutually-supportive engagement. .

As the presentations came to an end, the panel stood in agreement that holding together the concerns of gender and disability can assist communities in bridging the development – humanitarian divide in the particularly challenging situations that often befall migrants; and even help to strengthen community resilience during times of unusual stresses and “shocks.“ People with disabilities are often in danger of being overlooked in our development and humanitarian assistance planning, despite the many contributions they are capable of making to more just and sustainable societies. This “overlooking“ appears to be even more pervasive when those persons with disabilities are women.

The event also demonstrated the need to “de-silo“ as much as possible all research and advocacy related to the rights and freedoms of persons. In the case of women with disabilities, the hope is that mutual engagement of their needs and rights could serve as a model motivating advocates to seek and find common ground in other emancipatory struggles for equality and human rights. Further research and policy deliberation focused on this gender-disability nexus is therefore needed to build knowledge and insight capable of informing human rights and development policy from a yet under-developed, but certainly rich perspective.

Through the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the  Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and political gatherings such as the CSW, the UN is determined to do everything possible to guarantee the human rights of women and persons with disabilities.  The side event described above was a call to the communities surrounding those conventions to pool their considerable energies and talents for the common good.

The Courage of Good Questions, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Mar

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Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas. – Marie Curie

I’ve always been really curious about things and slightly confused by the world, and I think someone who feels that way is in a good position to be the one asking questions. -Terry Gross

I spent many years in school, but it was rarely a happy or satisfying place for me. There were simply too many times when the “who said so” of ideas trumped the complexities behind what was actually being conveyed.   For me, school was full of ideas that seemed beyond reproach when they left the mouths of the instructors, only to be revealed as incomplete and at times even misleading down the road.

And such a long road it was.  It was not until my doctoral program that I literally “lucked into” mentors who were more passionate for their ideas than for their careers, who were far more curious than defensive, who understood at the deepest levels that most of the problems soon to confront the world had not yet been faced, let alone overcome.

These mentors pushed me hard, beyond trying to impress others with my edgy “cleverness,” towards a place of rigor and kindness – rigor characterized by attentiveness and the willingness to “ask the next question,” and kindness grounded in the (hopefully) humble recognition that all of us, even the most accomplished in worldly terms,  have much still to learn.

Part of what Global Action seeks to accomplish (and occasionally does) is to embody that all-too-rare combination of attentiveness and curiosity, understanding that the best questions make good use of existing context and help to examine not only what has been “settled,” but to preview the ground soon to move under our feet, requiring more of what Jeremy Taylor once referred to as “the incontinency of the spirit.”  In our office, we don’t often abandon attentiveness for chatter, but we do at times try to ask good and hard questions at the UN, not to draw attention to ourselves but rather to the unresolved matters of policy that are both far from consensus and close to undermining our current, fragile stasis.

The UN can be a remarkable place, filled to the brim with experience and expertise on the widest possible range of policy concerns.   It provides, in some ways, an education like no other.   But it also harbors noticeable intellectual deficits.  There are few opportunities for genuine open-ended discussion on policy needs and responsibilities.   There are few questions posed that genuinely push “authorized speakers” to signal new space for potential policy shifts.   We are a building full of consensus-builders and (on the NGO side) campaigners, useful skills to be sure, but skills not ideal for breaking up our superficially optimistic mood or reminding people of the hard truth that some of the consensus resolutions they worked so hard on are unlikely to accomplish much in the world beyond First Avenue.

Two examples from this past week highlighted the pedagogical frustrations and opportunities of this very political space.  On Wednesday, the UN University organized an excellent discussion on the problem of modern slavery.  The keynote speaker made learned and helpful background remarks which emphasized distinctions between the “prohibition” of slavery and its “eradication.”   The pitch was, as is often the case in UN conference rooms, for the provision of national legislation that parallels and supplements international legal obligations to prohibition.

Fair enough, though as we pointed out, there is a deep conundrum attached to this approach.   Within the Human Rights Committee, for instance, a frequent response given by states whose human rights record has been called to account is something along the lines of, “this can’t be happening here, we have laws to prohibit it.”  But as NGOs in Geneva are fond of reminding Committee members, the presence of laws does not by any means guarantee eradication of the practice.  Thus our concern that a focus on legislation alone is insufficient to end the scourge, while a focus on eradication might make states more reluctant to sign on to human rights agreements in the first place.    How to navigate this problem?

The response we received was unfulfilling at best, almost as though the expert hadn’t considered this conundrum previously (surely he had) or failed to appreciate it being brought to his attention during a session that was being webcast. Moreover, no one in the audience approached us afterwards (or even made eye contact) to continue the conversation.  Apparently, ours was not a polite, courteous question, despite the fact that it seemed well within the band-width and interests of the speaker to respond and reflect.

This is what the UN is like too often – implicit and even excessive deference to “experts” and “authorities” who are often, but by no means always, on the best possible policy track.

Fortunately, there are bursts of healthy curiosity to be found if one is open to them.  One such occasion was on Tuesday when Ecuador ably convened a gathering to discuss prospects for a Fourth Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD).  There has been no such “special session” for 29 years now and delegates spent most of this morning discussion debating the scope of a possible meeting, whether to focus on one of the many stubborn areas of disarmament dysfunction or instead authorize a thorough review of all disarmament-related processes.

At one point, the Ecuadorian diplomat intervened, wondering aloud (lamenting perhaps) why the word “disarmament” so rarely is heard now across UN headquarters?   The question was simultaneously simple and brilliant.  For if disarmament has been downgraded in at least some quarters from a core UN priority, can a “special session” possibly help to restore its luster?

Despite the fact that disarmament matters attract some of the most capable diplomats in the UN system, the topic itself has never had a lower profile in my entire UN-based tenure.  Part of this is due to the discipline itself – inflexible architecture, low levels of state trust, treaties that are disregarded or are full of loopholes that uncooperative states are happy to exploit, invitations to weapons manufacturing states to hide behind consensus as a way of undermining disarmament agreement, a focus on managing the flows and modernization of weapons rather than reducing their volume and “footprint.”

But part of this low profile is due to successes in other parts of the UN, successes that have spawned a series of new, interesting, policy-rich discussions on conflict prevention and sustainable peace, conversations that often explore the implications of omnipresent weapons for development, climate, trafficking, even gender based violence.   Disarmament practitioners are only rarely present for these discussions; indeed SDG 16 on “peaceful and inclusive societies” was drafted and adopted with almost no involvement from disarmament-focused diplomats or related UN resource persons.

Whether another SSOD can resurrect the UN disarmament priority is debatable. What for us is less debatable is that our collective task here remains not to get things settled so much as to get them right.  Good questions – probing and respectful – are important contributions to ensuring timely and credible responses to constantly evolving global challenges, including human rights and disarmament challenges.

The most-curious Ralph Waldo Emerson once prodded teachers that when your students correct your mistakes, “hug them.”   There is little reason to believe that hugging will become common practice inside the UN, but a bit more curiosity regarding gaps yet to be filled — and perhaps even a modicum of gratitude for those who expose such gaps — would help keep us all on a more progressive policy path.

The Sounds of Silence:  The Current UN DSG Makes an Enduring Appeal on Human Rights

11 Dec

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. Desmond Tutu

As the holiday season approaches, the UN is racing to a year-end finish line characterized by significant transitions and activity across all three UN pillars.  The activity has been intense, ranging from a new General Assembly resolution to help resolve the Syria carnage and efforts to sharpen our financial and communications tools to combat terrorism, to discussions on how to improve global taxation policies and ensure political participation for migrants and refugees.

So, too, have been the transitions.  On December 12, the UN community will witness the oath of office administered to António Guterres as the next UN Secretary General.   And, if current rumors are to be believed, the Deputy Secretary General post will soon be offered to Amina Mohammed of Nigeria, a woman of great substance who worked tirelessly in her previous UN iteration to bring the Sustainable Development Goals to fruition.  Guterres, the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and Mohammed will hopefully make a formidable team, especially regarding core UN responsibilities for sustainable development, humanitarian assistance and refugee protection.

These two will step in for the current team of SG Ban Ki-moon and DSG Jan Eliasson whose joint UN legacy will surely be assessed at length over the coming years.  The departure of SG Ban has garnered most of the UN’s attention to date and so I would like to focus a bit here on some recent contributions of the Deputy Secretary General, a man in possession of one of the most storied careers ever to have played out within UN confines, a career that has greatly shaped how the UN understands its responsibilities to promote human rights and build sustainable peace.

For the past 4 + years, my various groups of diverse interns and fellows have often commented on the DSG’s special appeal.  He uses his voice to full effect, not as a battering ram, but as a way of reminding delegations and NGOs why we’re here in this policy space, why it matters that we’re here.  He understands the need to inspire as well as to contextualize – helping all of us to recognize that our lofty ideals and values cannot be taken for granted as we so often do, cannot become the equivalent of tiny candies we sprinkle on top of an ice cream cone that is slowly melting before our eyes.

My office colleagues have also understood that the DSG is much more than a cheerleader for the UN Charter that he claims to always carry in his coat pocket.  Eliasson well understands the complex and anxious times that we find ourselves in, citing in recent remarks at NYC’s Roosevelt House the “fear factor” that must be forthrightly addressed, the anxiety that too often results in “us vs. them” scenarios and the suggestion of quick, blame-filled solutions to problems that are clearly more systemic in nature.

We acknowledge that the rhetoric of human rights can and has been misapplied by many –by those elites unconcerned by violations beyond their neighborhoods and media of choice; by those who overly-personalize rights to mean “doing what I want to do” –mostly without consequence; by those rightly passionate about the protection of their own rights but indifferent to those suffering from other discriminations.   We ourselves know too many people who utilize the language of “rights” in much the same way that children in my old neighborhood once used the language of “cooties” – creating artificial distance based on fears real and imaginary rather than pathways to human communion.   As Eliasson noted recently at Roosevelt House, we must all recommit to creating a trustworthy, positive narrative about our common humanity, a narrative that has clearly been misplaced amidst our pervasive social grievances, cultural distractions and populist passions.

If the current wave of populist politics has taught us anything – and the jury on this is still out – it is that we have not suitably “sold” populations on a “common” system of values, laws and commitments that ostensibly has the best interests of all at heart.  These persons have not been “sold” in part because we have not always lived up to the high expectations of policy leadership.  Despite the efforts of the DSG and many others, we have not properly supported the UN’s human rights pillar nor highlighted its many practical achievements; we have bestowed selective outrage on horrific tragedies like Aleppo while keeping our policy distance from other horrors, such as in Yemen.   We have reached deeply into some communities desperately needing a dignity boost while overlooking that dignity is a common aspiration, a common need, a common pursuit.  If populists are suspicious of our “universal” values, as the DSG has maintained they are, it is in part because we caretakers of those values have been careless about their application – “politically correct” perhaps, but much too political in any event.

Human dignity, as Eliasson affirmed recently at a UN side event hosted by his native Sweden, is indeed that irreplaceable “starting point” for our peace and development commitments.  If we cannot find the means and the will to hold each other in higher regard; if we cannot uphold those facing particular discriminations without also rushing to demonize those allegedly doing the discriminating; if we cannot speak up for the rights of strangers in the same way we support those in our tightest social circles, then prospects for peace among nations and peoples, as well as for sustainable human development, will remain in serious jeopardy.

These current “trying times” will not be resolved solely by getting our accounts in order or through pious proclamations of universal values.   We will all need to raise our game: to accompany others on their search for dignity; to stand up and speak out for others in times of great need; to advocate for fair access to education, economics and politics; and above all to pay more attention to each other such that – as Eliasson recently urged – when we come across something gone wrong, we can and will “act early.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the fundamental document defining the UN community’s human rights commitments, remains as a powerful testimony to our common responsibility to each other.  But as Eliasson noted at Roosevelt House, the ills to which the Declaration points are “largely still with us.”  If we want that world envisioned by the Declaration, we will all need to sound off and sound wisely.  The “silent treatment” is simply not a remedy adequate for what now threatens us.

Our new SG Guterres, building on the longstanding efforts of Eliasson and so many others, has already proclaimed that “human dignity will be the core of my work.”  But if dignity is to prevail, this will take more than the SG, more even than fair and competent international institutions.  This will require all of us to replace the “sounds of silence” with voices of compassion, attentiveness and care.  As with the UN and its new leadership, this is likely to become our defining moment as well.

Green Day: The UN Seeks the Means to Defend Environmental Rights Defenders, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Oct

 

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Environmental human rights defenders are at the heart of our future and the future of our planet.  2016 Report of the UN Secretary General on the “Situation of human rights defenders”

At the UN, as in much of the world as a whole, the policy news on a daily basis seems to run the gamut from hopeful to dreadful:

  • Some extraordinary progress on ocean preserves is offset by rapid polar melting and massive ocean storms
  • A breakthrough on negotiations to eventually “ban” nuclear weapons is compromised by reckless arms transfers and illicit arms movements that endanger civilians, destroy schools and medical infrastructure, and threaten an already fragile negotiating trust
  • Global progress on ending capital punishment is undermined by states citing drug trafficking and terrorism as “justifications” for continuing state-sanctioned executions
  • Policy gains on women’s equality are stymied by institutional sexism and political systems more comfortable with making promises on gender than keeping them

Perhaps nowhere at the UN is this schizophrenic path to progress more apparent than in the 3rd Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) of the UN General Assembly,  one of six GA committees meeting throughout October (and sometimes beyond). Chaired this year by Colombia’s Ambassador María Emma Mejía, the 3rd Committee embraces a stunning, ambitious schedule of rights-related issues that span a full spectrum of UN concerns – from persons with disabilities facing discrimination or journalists under siege to persons forcibly “disappeared” by governments or executed without due process.

Over the month, an extraordinary lineup of independent experts, Special Rapporteurs and Special Procedure Mandate Holders appear before the 3rd Committee to describe the progress they’ve made, the obstacles still to be overcome, and the reasons why attentiveness to the issues of their respective mandates still matters so much to the world.  This was also (and sadly) a time to honor extraordinary experts whose mandates (though not the issues themselves) are set to expire, including Juan Mendez (torture), Rita Izsak (minority rights), Maina Kai (peaceful assembly) and Fabian Salvioli (Human Rights Committee Chair).

My fall interns are forced (by me) to experience all facets of UN policy, but they seem to have a special interest in the skillfulness and diverse interests represented by these mandate holders.  As painful and even horrifying as some of their testimony surely is, interns are amazed (as well they ought) at the range of substantive UN human rights concerns – trafficking and child pornography, health care and adequate housing, the land rights of indigenous people and the plight of displaced children.  Despite limited implementation successes in a number of instances, these rights stand as almost “sacred” obligations of states parties, obligations that are not compromised — let alone disappear — because some states refuse their full acknowledgment.

But these rights obligations need champions outside the UN as well as within, as has been noted often by Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders.  And as we have all come to know, the dangers faced by these “outside” champions show few signs of abating. Last Monday, in a side event –“Empower environmental defenders, safeguard our future” – Forst joined with Norway’s Ambassador May-Elin Stener and an activist from Honduras (CEHPRODEC) to chronicle some of the grave threats experienced by environmental rights activists seeking to organize communities to safeguard health and livelihoods in the face of aggressive corporate predation, state corruption and broad international indifference.

Many in the room were still mourning the death of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, not the only activist to lose her life defending land and community in states such as Honduras and, given the current state of our limited protective mechanisms, unlikely to be the last.  Within the Global Action orbit, we have also mourned friends and colleagues who have paid the ultimate price for our collective indifference.  We have watched families torn apart as land-owning corporations pay family members to shoot their “trespassing” kinfolk. We have seen first-hand the effects of logging and mining that bring few local benefits but inflict staggering local hardships.  We have seen activists’ reputations rent asunder by forces eager to label them as “criminals” or “terrorists” while exempting their own actions from virtually all means of accountability.

As states prepare to assemble in Morocco to assess the early stages of implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement, they would do well to confess this schizophrenic policy moment – on the one hand, urgency to control emissions and create a more healthful planet characterized by peaceful and inclusive societies; on the other hand, business as usual under cover of states underwhelming in their commitment to protect their own citizens – and those who seek to defend them — from external threats of diverse human origins.

As the UN Secretary-General has intimated, human rights defenders are the essential link between sound global policy and community resiliency.  We cannot do without their tireless and courageous commitments.  We cannot fulfill our “leave no one behind” promises while abandoning communities – especially their women and indigenous — to defend legitimate local interests while their leadership languishes in prisons or even in morgues.  We cannot hope to inspire stable, healthy communities when the voices of so many of its citizens are mute – or facing a dangerous backlash.

As Rapporteur Forst himself noted during this side event, the world is characterized by growing “power imbalances” that imperil rights defenders and the community interests they seek to defend.  There is, he warned, a “crisis of retribution” which the Honduran activist asserted almost never results in punitive legal judgments.  As we seek a fairer, greener and more just planet, it is important to honor and sustain the community-based courage that must be part of any viable pathway to change.  As Ambassador Stener noted, state, corporate and community interests will not always align, but respectful dialogue –not threats– is the only sustainable way forward.  The international community can and should do more to guarantee that such dialogue takes place, and that it takes place on a more level playing field.

Justice Matters:  The UN Explores Multiple Pathways to Human Dignity, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Jul

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On July 14, Judge Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi, president of the International Criminal Court (ICC), spoke to a packed conference room at UN Headquarters.  The event was chaired by Italy’s Ambassador Cardi and was intended as part of the UN’s acknowledgment of the International Day of Criminal Justice which falls each year on July 17.

The president hit many important notes during her address, including reminding the audience that the ICC is a court of “last resort” for the “crimes against humanity” under its jurisdiction, including the use of child soldiers, sexual violence as a tactic of war, the wanton destruction of cultural property, and soon the crime of aggression.  It is up to member states, she rightly noted, to help the ICC establish a “consistent pattern of accountability” for international crimes, in part by taking greater national responsibility for the investigation and prosecution of such crimes and in part through efforts to deter and punish those who seek to undermine the administration of justice through the ICC, including the interference with/harassment of witnesses.

The president did not take up several questions that some of us might otherwise have expected.  The ICC’s relationship to the Security Council, for instance, has been a contentious one that has included untimely referrals, massive security restrictions on investigations, significant budgetary limitations, and the Council’s refusal to sanction states that fail in their responsibilities to arrest indicted criminals.  Moreover, the president chose not to ‘call out’ states parties which have hosted – rather than captured – those very same criminals.

But what she did suggest was important: that credible international justice is essential to the restoration of rule of law, to human development, indeed to the dignity of victims.   She recognized that a “global system of justice” has many facets that are tied to the activities of courts, certainly to the vigorous promotion of internationally recognized human rights but also to a development and conflict prevention system that can uphold dignity and help ensure that the worst of crimes can be addressed in their potential before they unfold in grotesque practice.

As the president also recognized, other UN events during this past week touched on key elements of a global system of justice.   In the General Assembly, PGA Lykketoft convened a high level event to assess the human rights performance of the UN as it concludes its 70th year.   Fittingly, states used the occasion to promote the need to, as New Zealand and others noted, examine the implications of human rights across the three UN “pillars.” States from Panama and Chile to France and Estonia noted the many rights dimensions that affect people in overt conflict situations, but also highlighted those suffering from torture, discrimination, incarceration-related abuses and many other violations.   And while Liechtenstein rightly lamented that disregard of the ‘rules of war’ seems now to be reaching epidemic proportions, there was broad agreement with the Netherlands and others that we can do more  — and must do more — to ensure that people can finally live in a world “free from armed conflict.”

Last Wednesday in another small conference room, an “A” list of UN officials was brought together by Uruguay and Portugal to discuss the economic and social rights implications of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  ASG Šimonović set a collaborative tone, urging all of us “to bring human rights to the core of our development work.”  ASG Gass went ever farther, noting that the SDGs represent a “new social contract,” while lamenting a “shortage of tools” with which we can hold states (and others) accountable to their SDG promises.   Happily, Gass rightly suggested that the integration of human rights into the SDGs would help make accessible the more fully developed capacities within the human rights community which are already doing much to hold states accountable to rights-based obligations.  As it turns out, tools for SDG accountability need not be created.  They can be borrowed.

As for the convening states, there was enthusiasm for SDG-rights linkages but also cautious tones.  Uruguay’s Ambassador responded to those who see economic and social rights as “vague,” noting that genuinely sustainable development requires ‘dignity work’ in the form of ending gross social and economic inequalities.  Portugal’s Ambassador urged member states to show more leadership on core Charter values while simultaneously urging NGOs to help ensure that values espoused are values enacted.  But he also painfully referenced the many millions of persons in our world for whom rights and dignity remain only “a mirage.”

During his report on Friday in the UN Security Council, Special Representative Jan Kubiš made reference to the upcoming efforts by Iraq and its military partners to liberate the city of Mosul from ISIL control.   While clearly supportive of reducing all manner of ISIL’s influence, Kubiš also predicted that such liberation would likely trigger a humanitarian crisis that could dwarf the already horrific stories of deprivation and rights abuses (including by Iraqi forces) now emanating from Fallujah.  In many instances, it seems, “liberation” bears the potential to create and magnify trauma and deprivation in the name of eliminating them.  The Council, the government of Iraq and the entire UN community must leverage additional capacity to address the psychological and physical dimensions of victim’s assistance in all their aspects.

And of course to do more to ensure that the “pipelines” of trauma are effectively sealed, that relief is more than a fleeting mirage.

As the week’s events underscored, the struggle for sustainable human dignity is a long road, easier to claim than to protect.  As the ICC president noted, we live in a world in which “many perpetrators continue to be untouched.”  Sadly, there are millions more victims in our conflict zones who also remain “untouched.”   Our commitment – on sustainable development and international justice, on poverty reduction and trauma response – is to find the means and the will to touch them all.

Throwing a Wrench into Another Father’s Day, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Jun

One of the interesting things for me over the years is noticing the difference in moods leading up to the “days” we set aside to honor parents.   Mother’s Day is a huge emotional and commercial undertaking which fathers, lovers and children ignore at their mortal peril.  Father’s Day, on the other hand, barely registers interest:  somewhat greater than National Gingersnap Day (July 1 in case you care to celebrate) and about the same as the dreaded (for many of us in the US) Columbus Day.

I started Father’s Day weekend in the same way that I start most weekends – with my church family at the All Saints food pantry.   On the pantry line, most of the people (and most of the women) seemed to have little recollection of or interest in this ritual time to honor fathers.   Back home nursing sore muscles, those few TV commercials that bothered at all focused on dad’s apparent unending need for tools – wrenches seem to be a popular choice this year.  I like wrenches, especially their metaphorical capacity for tightening and loosening, but again neither grateful recognition nor other emotional content was present.  Checking my policy-oriented twitter feed it was filled, even on this day, with gendered discourse focused primarily on the (legitimate) concerns of women and girls.

Not much at hand to encourage today’s message. Fortunately, I was inspired to start thinking earlier about fathers during a busy UN week punctuated by persons possessing and/or insisting on attention to an array of physical and mental disabilities.  They came to the UN in large numbers from around the world to advocate for more rigorous and comprehensive compliance by states to their obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

This may be my single favorite event of the UN year, in part because of the compelling messages that people in wheelchairs or “speaking” in sign language are particularly well suited to communicate to the rest of us. Messages about pushing through limitations. Messages about the blatant inadequacies of our notions of success, beauty and perfection.  Messages about seeking equity and inclusion, about reaching beyond comfort zones to touch the needs and aspirations of persons habitually marginalized due solely to limitations of mobility, learning, communications or psychology, limitations that are only more visible than our own and often seen as a bigger “problem” by those around persons with disabilities than by the persons themselves.

During this particular week at the UN, not everyone could go out for buffet lunches or run on treadmills at the gym.  Not everyone could be fitted for clothes off the rack at Saks or drive to the ocean for the weekend.   These delegates on disabilities weren’t here to impress others or see the sights, but rather to see to it that people like themselves matter, and matter fully.

And my how they did so!  The events surrounding the formal meeting of States Parties were among the most issue-diverse and courageous I have seen at the UN, linking persons with disabilities to needs and concerns across the UN’s vast agenda – from sustainable development goals and employment discrimination to war-related disabilities and involuntary limitations on freedom of movement.  Controversies over “consent” were particularly paramount this week, with disabilities advocates seeking to ensure (rightly) that they have control over any and all decisions made about them, including all those decisions allegedly made “in their best interest.”

The quality of discussions and interactions this week within the disability community, in some ways, reminded me of the best of the fathers in my life:  Willing to ask the next question; willing to push through the latest challenge; willing to explore beyond the immediate horizon; willing to work with people’s limitations (we all have such) to put them in the best positions to succeed; willing to accept the obligations that stem from being the responsible party; willing to honor promises (including one this week to gender balance the CRDP) and not just make them; willing to use wrenches (real and metaphorical) to loosen and tighten the screws that bind us together with the goal of ensuring more fair and efficient public institutions, and more competent and inclusive communities.

I know so many fathers who embody such interests and traits of character.  I know so many fathers who also teach other peoples’ children, bind other peoples’ wounds, open doors to the homeless and hungry, mentor youth through difficult times; even attend to jobs that are literally killing them so that their children (and others in their communities) can have a chance at a better life in these challenging and sometimes discouraging times.

I see fathers in my life pushing their children to be better people, to neither give up nor give in, to resist dependencies that convert character into comfort, to stay both humble and focused, to take the risk of pulling others up short when they wander too far off course.

These are a few of the many things that so many fathers (and other nurturing men) in my life – family, friends and colleagues – bring to this world still very much in-progress.  My “Waffle House” cap, the one which I’m now wearing in my office, is hereby and mostly gratefully tipped to each of you.