Tag Archives: human rights

Turning the Page:  Recovering the UN’s Relevant Responses, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Apr

UN Stamp

If we don’t all row, the boat won’t go. Unknown

If everyone helps to hold up the sky, then one person does not become tired. Askhari Johnson Hodari

Laugh as long as you breathe, love as long as you live. Nujeen Mustafa

Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving.  Albert Einstein

In the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism.  Naomi Klein

While contemplating the content for this post, I took a walk in a nearby Manhattan park in what has been a particularly lovely season for flowers and blossoms.   While strolling and admiring I came across a Parks Department worker and thanked her for making all of this wonder possible.

She looked a bit stunned, as though this simple recognition was akin to a message from Mars.  But I remember well a time when my jogs through this very park were exercises in reckless risk taking, when park benches and pathways screamed out for repair, when “security” was largely based on “street smarts,” when flowers bloomed in defiance of neglect rather than as the result of loving care.

Part of the “care” of this park now is a function of a largely-unfortunate gentrification. We didn’t “deserve” a functioning green space, apparently, until the neighborhood became “safe” enough to absorb copious quantities of downtown money.  But even so, the park is now a place where flowers are planted and benches painted, where playgrounds are truly playful for children rather than being the dangers they once were for their parents, where teenagers play ball near a pond with turtles, egrets and feral cats, and folks trying to get in better shape are encouraged to jog around the now-even pavement meandering around the park’s edges.

And I contributed to virtually none of these improvements, as I tend to contribute too-little to so many of the things I use and (too often) take for granted.

This is intended less as a “confession” and more as a punctuation to what was an exhausting and instructive week of UN business.   From indigenous people straining to protect biodiversity and achieve formal UN recognition to some policy-challenging conversations on identifying and addressing what the UN Office of Drugs and Crime called “chilling” threats from nuclear terrorism and the increasingly convergent interests of terrorists and organized crime, it was difficult for us to keep track of (let alone contribute to) these multiple challenges or identify threads of what might constitute an effective response.

Fortunately, there were other UN events this week where the positive potential was easier to spot.

One of these was in the Security Council where Germany (April president) reinforced a discussion on the security and humanitarian issues affecting Syria by scheduling a poignant briefing from Nujeen Mustafa, a remarkable young woman with a disability who, from her wheelchair, schooled Council members on the many persons much too “invisible” in times of peace who become even less visible in times of conflict.  She reminded all in the Chamber that the figures quantifying humanitarian need have human faces, and that some of these faces already experience grave difficulties in this world which armed conflict merely intensifies.

And in the General Assembly, President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés convened the first International Day for Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace.  While some delegations rightly lamented that such a day would even be necessary, and some used the opportunity to settle political scores, most understood that ours is a system that needs to be fixed rather than cast aside.  The president herself understands that a future for the UN lies in its ability to help build “a fairer world in practice, beyond our UN rhetoric,” a world that reaches persons living with poverty, with disabilities, with grave discouragement. And, as noted by the Finnish Foreign Minister, a world pointing to a future that does not belong only to “the rulers and the strong.”

In preparation for this post, I looked through my grandfather’s collection of UN stamps from 1951, the first year that UN stamps were issued.  The themes were revealing:  stamps highlighting the work of UNICEF and the ILO, stamps honoring the commitment of the UN to human rights.   And there were two others from 1951 of direct relevance to this post – one touting the UN’s commitment to capacity support and the other (at the top of this post) implying that the doors of the UN are open to all peoples of the world, and that it is the “common” people – and not only their diplomats and bureaucrats – who must be able to find something akin to an attentive and respectful haven in this place.

Taken together, this combination of hopefulness and tangible support is a legacy that is worth preserving, a legacy that certainly demands more of each of us, more thoughtfulness, more tangible contributions, more honesty, even more compassion.  It requires many more of us to commit to “hold up the sky” and row the boat, but also a willingness to burden-share, to refuse to “hog the oars” or avoid getting near the boat in the first place.

I recognize every day the degree to which our own little project has become a bit of a dinosaur, wedded to obsolete technology and pushing values that are important at one level but haven’t always served the global interest well as they should have. I also recognize that there is significant interest now in many corners of the globe to simply turn the page, to move on from rowing and holding, to dismiss the institutional arrangements of the past that have led to undeniable progress but also to exclusion and broken promises; arrangements that have allowed existential risks to become near-certainties, and that have extended cooperation with one hand while hording power and resources with the other.

Our fervent wish is for people to read the page before they turn it.

Read the page about the many issues – from sexual violence in armed conflict and nuclear terrorism to climate change and pandemics – for which the UN remains an indispensable point of policy reference.  Read the page about the people like Nujeen Mustafa whose “invisibility” is steadily giving way to recognition and respect.   Read the page about the many delegations reminded of their responsibility to both contribute more to the world they want and offer more tangible encouragement for the contributions of others.  Read the page about those who have dedicated their lives to protect human rights for those who labor and those who protest, for those who are mere bystanders to conflict and those whose vulnerabilities have compromised their very agency.   Read the page where coordinated pressure from UN agencies and member states has created conditions for the dramatic reduction of numerous human scourges, from torture and malaria to state corruption and the recruitment of child soldiers.

This page certainly contains its share of hypocrisy and protocol substituting for genuine gratitude and compassion, but it also contains evidence of a willingness to grow and change, to give a good-faith attempt to resolve its lapses of effectiveness and address the legitimate skepticism of some of its global public. We routinely spend 10 hour weekdays inside the UN, and there are days when we shake our heads so often that our necks become strained.  But we know that this place retains some capacity for self-reflection, occasionally even humor. Together we can fix this place, making it more effective but also more human, insisting that its constituent parts contribute more to the global commons and uphold more fully the values that gave rise to its existence 74 years ago.

At the General Assembly this past week, the Irish Ambassador spoke of the “problems without passports” for which the UN is uniquely if not yet fully equipped to address.  Hers is the section of the page we need to be sure to bookmark.

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Panic Attack:  Countering the UN’s Anxious Moments, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Sep

Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength. Corrie Ten Boom

The more the panic grows, the more uplifting the image of the one who refuses to bow to the terror. Ernst Junger

Anxiety is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you very far.  Jodi Picoult

Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.  Søren Kierkegaard

The UN’s annual high-level week is over, and it is frankly difficult to capture the energy of UN Headquarters with so many global leaders – political, economic and moral – gathering to share their visions for the world while navigating what many millions hope is a path to greater peace and understanding.

Wandering the halls this week, it was clear that few issues of global consequence have escaped the attention of this leadership.   From pandemics to migrants and from climate change to nuclear disarmament, it would be difficult to conclude that the UN and its member states are ducking key responsibilities, nor are diplomats willfully placing the well-being of future generations in jeopardy through abject incompetence or benign negligence.  The week’s opening gambit, a celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela complete with state commitments to a “political declaration” which his life inspired, was followed by other (albeit largely voluntary) commitments from national leaders, including on the reform of peacekeeping operations, the political integration and empowerment of youth, on Global Compacts for Migrants and Refugees, and (facilitated by Kazakhstan) the adoption of a Code of Conduct for the complete elimination of terrorism by the year 2045.

It would be easy to pick apart most if not all of these commitment events as more show than substance, more defending pre-existing positions than a serious exploration of their limitations, more signatures on the paper than serious commitments to up our urgency and amend our working methods.  But what could be interpreted as the limitations of this week would better be understood as a herculean struggle by states to overcome the anxiety – even panic – of these times, anxiety defined by so many policy “loose ends”, so many unfulfilled promises, threats to the global order to which some leaders have become overly complacent while many others find sleep elusive on most nights.

We did not need the High Level week to remind us of the roots of some of our current, pervasive anxiety – the climate threats that seem to have exceeded our collective capacity to respond; the weapons of more and less mass destruction that continue to flood conflict zones despite our high-minded resolutions and treaties; the equity gaps that this generation of policymakers has yet to address; the holes yet to be plugged in our 2030 Development Agenda responsibilities – anxieties that could exhaust even the most hopeful and energized of persons.

At the UN on Tuesday, It was apparently easy to join in the laughter at the outlandish claims made repeatedly by the US president.  And yet it is likely that much of that laughter was nervous more than mocking.  As the US president made the simultaneous case for the US’s own “hard sovereignty” coupled with the right to take unilateral action against the sovereign rights of others, there was a clear sense in the room of yet another dagger plunged into what remains of our “rules based order,” what remains of respect for a rule of law that even its erstwhile state guarantors in the Security Council too-often disregard with impunity.   As French president Macron noted in an address that seemed designed to counter what president Trump had been expected to say, we must do more to preserve the rules-based foundations needed to counter the struggles that lie before us.  But part of that requires self-assessment, to recognize that states and their peoples have threatened withdrawal from this “order” because it has too-often failed to fulfill its promises. We must acknowledge the self-interested application of this order’s privileges that have increased what Macron referred to as the “humiliating inequalities” we have repeatedly pledged to reduce.  As more than one speaker this week noted, in many key aspects we have brought this current situation on ourselves. Too often, we have been insufficiently vigilant and attentive stewards of the global commons entrusted to us.

Some of the rules-based anxiety this week was filtered through the various human rights events that dotted this week’s UN calendar, repeating what many have long recognized – that the commitment to human rights in many corners of the world is under serious assault.  Speaker after event speaker lamented the violence, intimidation and impunity for abuses that characterizes so much of our current landscape.  Often using terrorism and “illegal” migration as foils, states are increasingly justifying attacks on journalists, civil society organizations and others challenging the chillingly-punitive narratives emanating from more and more national capitals. Calls to “maintain our commitment to cooperation” as articulated by our current High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, and to better ensure respect for the rights that are “inconsistent with human misery,” as noted by Senegal’s Foreign Minister, represent important messages that seem more and more to pass through our ears without pausing in our brains.

In fairness, the High Level event this week marking the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was brimming with insight, much of it courtesy of the Secretary-General and an extraordinary, young female advocate from Somalia. But even more wisdom came from a group of three elderly women, Louise Arbour, Mary Robinson and the aforementioned Michelle Bachelet, all of whom have occupied the High Commissioner’s seat, and all of whom were willing to speak truth about the “urgency and anger” that must energize our collective commitments to address rights-related threats – including on climate and migration – which we must get right if we are to avoid the “scorn of future generations.”

Mary and Louise, especially, are part of a quite small group of leaders in my long tenure at the UN whose respect from our office has never once wavered.   They have well-earned authority to name the present anxiety without “bowing to the terror” of these difficult times: this while also acknowledging the limitations of the system of which they have been an integral part – the doors to peace not opened, the unfair and self-serving application of our erstwhile “universal values,” our overly tepid defenses of human dignity, our increasing acquiescence (as also noted by the Republic of Korea’s Foreign Minister) to narratives that deliberately skew the truth about government intent, that allow leaders (as noted by France’s MFA) to get away with claiming they are “managing” journalists and civil society when such actors are actually being “muscled.”

These women and their podium colleagues grasp the times we are living through. In an age of high anxiety, temptations multiply to pull back, to cash in our trust in others, to micro-manage our own brand, to see threats around every corner, to preoccupy ourselves with those who are allegedly trying to “get us,” or hurt us, or “offend” us.  In an age of high anxiety, it is always someone else’s fault.  There is always someone or something trying to take advantage of us, prey on our vulnerability, or “ruin” what we have come to believe is our entitlement.  From our hyper-personal and increasingly isolated fortresses, we shine the mirror of anxiety and mistrust in every direction where it suits our psychic interests – everywhere it seems but towards ourselves.

The 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration, noted Mary Robinson, is not nearly as happy an event as it could have been.   Our “dignity deficit” remains intact, and we have allowed anxiety-driven isolation and polarization to spread like a virus, localizing trust and substituting small-screen grievances for bigger-picture human concerns.  If the UN is to make good on its recent promises, if the frenetic activity of this past week is to result in policies that benefit more than the people who crafted them, then we must all pledge to assess and refine as needed the caliber of our stewardship of the norms, rules and structures entrusted to us.  Only then can we credibly challenge the modern tendencies, as described by Mexico’s outgoing president Nieto this week, of states and people who would either “sow discord or sit on the sidelines.”

Moving Day:  Protecting the Rights of Indigenous Migrants, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Aug

We’ve got to think now, in real terms, for that seventh generation . . . We’ve got to get back to spiritual law if we are to survive. Oren Lyons

The purpose of any ceremony is to build stronger relationship or bridge the distance between our cosmos and us.  Shawn Wilson

Something happens to Aboriginal people who work in hierarchies, whether bureaucracy or academic… You get to the top and find it bereft, bereft of passion, bereft of intuition, of emotion.  Amanda Sinclair

From a human rights standpoint, this was a less than stellar week for the UN.  We welcome a new High Commissioner for Human Rights, former Chile president Michelle Bachelet, someone of considerable gravitas and well known throughout the UN community.  The departure of her predecessor Prince Zeid was a blow to many of us who have witnessed the suppression of many outspoken voices, the domestication of what should otherwise be a forceful and candid human rights concern, the politicizing of rights guarantees for citizens that should no longer be subject to debate.  The human rights community faces new threats, opportunities and discouragements, and we hope that Ms. Bachelet will be successful both in resisting large-state pressures and in insisting on the importance of the human rights pillar for any sustainable successes the UN is likely to achieve on the peace and development fronts.

Among the current disappointments this week has to be news reports on Saudi Arabia, both for a spat with Canada over rights guarantees for Saudi women and for the horror of a bus full of children bombed by Saudi jets with military hardware supplied by more than one UN Security Council member.   Last week’s tepid Council meeting on Yemen –with its welcome announcement of upcoming political negotiations – nevertheless kept the door ajar for fresh recrimination and violence for which the bus bombing will likely remain as a particularly galling symbol of our conflict resolution failures.

Less disappointing from a rights standpoint was an event this week on “Indigenous Peoples’ Migration and Movement” (on the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples).  With the signing of the Global Compact on Migration scheduled for December in Morocco, this event had considerable relevance not only as a “test” of the ability of the Compact to address challenges relevant to indigenous peoples, but also as a reminder of state practices that undermine the rights of indigenous peoples to move themselves – but also their cultural ceremonies and languages – back and forth across state lines.

The event itself was rightly described as a bit “tired” by a couple of the participants we spoke with who stayed for the entire event.  Nevertheless some good insight was conveyed both applicable to the Global Compact and consistent with discussions held at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.  The always thoughtful Miriam Wallet Aboubakrine, current Chair of the Permanent Forum, highlighted the non-binding nature of state and multi-lateral commitments to indigenous peoples and urged states to do more to combat host-state “fear” while “enhancing the skills” of indigenous migrants such that their migratory pathways can be safer and also more productive for themselves and those back home relying on their success.

Part of the reason why the event seemed flat at points is related to the difficulty in getting the full richness of indigenous cultures on policy display.  The discourse, especially from the indigenous activists in the room, tends to focus — at times obsess — on North American indigenous concerns.   There was certainly some effort to paint a broader picture, including from a representative from Thailand who cited the “traditional symbiotic relationships” that people in his region have with forests that were amply supplying local needs long before they were largely appropriated by state and corporate interests.  He also criticized government policy advocating state forms of education for indigenous children, bureaucracies that neglect indigenous languages, cultural expressions and often-passionate relationships with the natural order.

But much of the anguish was from sources geographically more proximate to New York. Indeed, perhaps the most compelling testimony of the afternoon came from Ms. Amy Juan whoseTohono O’odham community occupies the border regions between Arizona and Mexico.   Ms. Juan, a self-described activist without “academic credentials,” spoke eloquently about the struggles of indigenous communities living in the frontiers between sovereign, modern states.  Juan referenced the “restrictions on freedom of movement” that have intensified in this age of border walls and unwelcoming rhetoric emanating from our political leadership.   She even described pressures her community experienced from the US Border Patrol to refrain from providing water to persons traversing the harsh US desert “illegally.”  Juan noted that, beyond solidarity and humanitarian concerns, a “right to water” must take precedence over national politics and host-country inhibitions.

Beyond the sometimes compelling testimony there were two key takeaways for the Global Action folks in the room.  The first was related to the issue of the day – the impact of climate change on indigenous migration patterns.   As more than one speaker noted, but which was most clearly articulated by the representative from the International Organization on Migration, indigenous communities uniquely “attached to the land” have the most to lose from negative climate impacts, but are also under considerable pressure to abandon their ancestral lands once those lands can no longer sustain families and livelihoods.  Our current, collective efforts on behalf of climate health may still be enough to save our species, and we will know we have done our best work when communities – including indigenous ones – are no longer driven from lands made unproductive from drought, flooding and the violence that so often follows.

The other takeaway is more spiritual, if you will, more about continuing to bring together the extraordinary diversity and what Panama referred to as “dynamism” of indigenous communities to forge a new policy path and ensure that international agreements such as the Global Compact and 2030 Development Agenda take full account of diverse indigenous needs and circumstances.  Indeed, speakers were calling for a revitalized “brotherhood/sisterhood” to more effectively link indigenous communities on the move, one which prioritizes the need of women and children indigenous migrants, but one which more broadly commits to alleviating what the El Salvador Ambassador described as the “toxic” dissolution of identity experienced by so many indigenous migrants, persons struggling (often unsuccessfully) to avoid what Ecuador described as the “double discrimination” of being both “foreign and indigenous.”

I have been blessed over the years to have interactions with many indigenous communities from Canada to the Philippines and from Guatemala to the Western United States. I have seen first-hand the commercially-appropriated cultural symbols, the “reservations” characterized by lands largely unfit for agriculture or other sustainable livelihoods, the schools that make children fit only to abandon the cultures of their birth, the suspicion communicated from so many sources beyond the borders of ancestral lands. I have also been extremely fortunate to be connected to the late Terry Whitcomb, a family tie who spent much of her extraordinary life exploring – mostly through art and architecture — the often treacherous interplay in what is now California between indigenous communities and the Catholic friars who sometimes assisted, sometimes encouraged, sometimes humiliated, sometimes subjugated them.

As our climate continues its decline and our distance from fulfilling our sustainable development goals remains daunting, we can afford no more delays in ensuring the rights, dignity and freedom of movement of our indigenous migrants. Indeed so many indigenous persons can still claim that the “heavy handed treatment” they too often receive — born of fear, anxiety and ignorance—serves only to rob indigenous migrants of security and confidence,and the rest of us of their many life-affirming contributions.

 

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.

What about Us?: The Children We Need, the Children We’ve Ignored, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Oct

Puerto Rico

Those who have virtue always in their mouths, and neglect it in practice, are like a harp, which emits a sound pleasing to others, while itself is insensible of the music. Diogenes

When the human race neglects its weaker members, when the family neglects its weakest one – it’s the first blow in a suicidal movement. Maya Angelou

Last evening, I sat in a Harlem church, in a row filled with former members of my now-closed parish, and listened to the wonderful East Coast Inspirational Singers led by the equally remarkable (and former music director at my parish) John Stanley.

The music was both deafening and completely on key.   The audience was active and engaged, soaking in the music and the message, waving and shouting both their approval and their conviction that something continues to go terribly wrong in our world, something that they have at least a bit of resources and the will-power to help fix.

The “something” in this particular instance is the slow pace of response to the hurricane-related needs of the people of Puerto Rico (and other Caribbean communities).   This concert was meant to inspire donations to augment what many felt has been a pattern of government neglect, leaders taking credit for responses that have left most families still in the dark, children without schools to attend, health deficits made worse as residents consume contaminated water in the absence of any cleaner alternatives.

Some of these Harlem folks brought their children along, in some cases to fortify the impression that people still care about others down on their luck and that the plight of children living within and far beyond Harlem is deserving of more attention by others.  The concert raised almost $3000 out of pockets that I know in some cases to be mostly empty.  No one imagined that this gesture would be sufficient, would substitute for the oft-lacking determination by government agencies to fulfill their commitments to their own people.  But they had to do something.  And they did.

And they also painfully understood that if the message to the children brought to that concert was one of agency and concern, what message must the children of Puerto Rico take away from a crisis that has both profoundly disrupted their lives and possibly also confirmed their worst fears about how much (or little) they are valued by others?

Such questions gnawed at much of the UN all week as well. The “Third Committee” of the General Assembly heard from special rapporteurs about the often-heartbreaking circumstances endured by children in diverse global regions, especially the children displaced by violence, storms or drought, children on the move with or without their families, sometimes falling victim to traffickers eager to sell them off to sexual predators or even to harvest their organs.

At the same time, the rapporteurs also reminded states of their near-universal commitments to preserve the rights and dignity of children, to do everything in their power to ensure that next generations are capable and enabled to manage complex future challenges, including doing a better job of preventing the conflicts that continue to ravage prospects for future generations.

Beyond the 3rd Committee, the UN honored the International Day of the Girl Child with a quite upbeat Wednesday afternoon event featuring UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed.    The theme of the event, “Empowering girls—before, during, and after crises,” was an important reminder of both the many skills of girls and the responsibilities of states. And yet, as with so many UN events, this one was also of no particular comfort to Caribbean children struggling with their families and communities to adjust to circumstances that they could not foresee and with no insurance agents standing ready to offer assistance like the ones they (when the power was still on) have seen on TV.  Nor is it of comfort to the girls who have reportedly been sold into marriage by Yemeni parents who see no other way to get their children away from the bombing and cholera to which they have daily been subjected.

The Security Council had its own engagements with the often-unsettling circumstances of the world’s children.   On Friday afternoon, the Council in an Arria Formula format welcomed back former SG Kofi Annan to discuss recommendations for addressing violence and discrimination against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority still to be found streaming into neighboring Bangladesh.   Calls by Council members to end violence committed by the Myanmar military, to address documentation and citizenship concerns of the Rohingya, and to conduct an official mission to Rakhine state (as suggested by Ukraine) were all most welcome, but again were surely of no comfort to the children fearfully separated from families, desperate for food and shelter, and struggling to shake off the horrific effects of the traumatic violence to which they have already been witness.

Earlier that day, with logistical and program support from Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch and others, the Council held still another Arria Formula event, this time focused on the grave (and seemingly growing) problem of attacks on schools by state and non-state military forces, including the forced dislodging of students and teachers such that schools might become “zones of occupation” for armed combatants.

The highlight of this event for many in the room was the address by Joy Bishara, one of the Chibok Girls who managed to leap to safety after Boko Haram attacked the school and herded girls on to a get-away truck.  Joy is now a student in Florida (thanks to the intervention of a US Congresswoman) and shared her story in a clear and determined manner, evoking some emotional responses from Council members who lauded her courage and pledged to do more to keep this from happening to others.  One concrete outcome from all this “pledging” (we hope) is for more Council members to formally endorse the Safe Schools Declaration to prevent armed violence from compromising educational facilities and impeding student access to those facilities.

This was my second time listening to Joy (with her Chibok friend Lydia) and, while her talks were meant to share a story rather than critique a process, I was struck by the trust deficits that permeated much of that story — at least between the lines.  Where were the school guards on the night of the attack?  Where was the government security sector as the girls were being carted away?  Where was the international community as the rest of Joy’s classmates remained in a dismal captivity month after month?  Joy spoke of running for help after jumping from the truck and then “not trusting” those who offered it.   I’m guessing that her deficits of trust will turn out to be more pervasive than those directed at a Nigerian boy with a motor scooter in the middle of that night.

Returning to Saturday’s Harlem concert, one highlight of the event was a Gospel selection familiar to me and others, the key line being “what about us?”  What about those promises, those commitments?  What about those international resolutions and treaties, those constitutional protections and national implementing agencies? What about those state services missing in action? What about all that?

There might be no determination quite like that displayed by people of modest means and solid values who know the consequences first hand of our collective failure to ensure safe and productive passage for children.  Many of the older folks at this concert had lived through the ravages of crack cocaine and broken down schools, of sub-standard health care options and a hands-off attitude by police and other public servants.  They had shielded children not their own from bullies and bullets, but mostly from the creeping fear that they might not be worthy of empowerment, of a chance to have a voice and make a difference, even of the possibility of trusting the public institutions that rhetorically purport to have their best interests at heart.

This damage to the physical and emotional well-being of children has the potential to undermine our common future every bit as much as “competing” existential threats, including those related to weapons and climate.   We can and must do more at community and policy levels to reverse the “slow suicidal movement” wherein we pass on our unresolved crises to a new generation, too many of whom have already had their hopes and dreams senselessly impaired.

What about us?

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.