Tag Archives: Indigenous peoples

Speech Therapy: Cultural Expressions and Healthy Communities, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Feb

IMG_0026                                                             photo by H. Hanafin

I feel a sadness on me, Dane. That’s how the Irish people say it. In their language, you can’t say, “I am sad,” or “I am happy”. They understood what we English have long forgot. We’re not our sadness. We’re not our happiness or our pain but our language hypnotizes us and traps us in little labeled boxes.  Grant Morrison

The totality of utterances that can be made in a speech community is the language of that speech community. Leonard Bloomfield

English, unlike Arabic, was not a poetic language. English had been cobbled together by too many unknown parents, too many unsure users. English lacked the single word that differentiated an attacking lion from one at rest.  Aminah Mae Safi

Languages, just like people, are worlds within themselves. They have the incredible ability to provide us with a clearer, more profound and detailed perspective of a culture and its views on life, nature, and death.  Orge Castellano

Yes, the structure of language both expresses and stretches  the culture to which it is joined, and the replacement of one language form by another is more than just an inconvenience, more than a mere strategy for achieving “fluency” in the expressive forms most characteristic of “modern” societies.  Such replacement represents, if we are not careful, the substitution of one worldview by another that is, in the end and in its own isolation, no more adept in guiding us on a more peaceful, sustainable path.

We all know that the UN is full of high-sounding jargon which sometimes allows us the luxury of forgetting how superficial such language can be.  We are all busy “leaving no one behind,” “promoting resilience” and “building back better,” while employing endless acronyms to describe institutional responses to complex challenges that sometimes confuse even regular UN observers. Moreover, we traffic almost exclusively in what are known as the “official” UN languages, mostly “official” in the sense that they appear on UN “letterhead” indicating that UN business will essentially be conducted only in these languages (with occasional accommodation for foreign dignitaries).

Moreover, these official languages are utilized unevenly while reinforcing a certain brand of cultural hegemony.  Only the Chinese delegation speaks Chinese in UN conference rooms.  Only the Russian delegation speaks in Russian.  However, senior Secretariat officials from Russian and Chinese backgrounds speak mostly in English and many delegations have no choice but to forsake their own official tongues in favor of those “favored.” Indeed, the “mostly in English” signs should be hung throughout the building, for this tongue (with all of its mostly unexamined cultural assumptions) has become the “lingua franca” of UN Headquarters to a degree that actually might shock outsiders.

Such linguistic hegemony works out well for people like me who have failed to benefit to any degree from more language courses than I care to count.   Were English not such a dominant mode of expression inside UN headquarters, my own (and my office’s) presence probably wouldn’t add much of any value at all.  I am especially reminded of my own linguistic privilege when finding myself in rooms where important ideas are being discussed in languages other than English and without interpretation, places where my language skills are (far-too- often) simply not up to the challenge.

One such occasion took place this week at a workshop in Mexico City put on by the Humanitarian Encyclopedia, a project co-sponsored by the increasingly prestigious Instituto Mora and represented by Dr. Lucatello Simone. Through workshops conducted in several global regions, this project smartly seeks to “collectively question” how humanitarian concepts evolve over time, geographical contexts, cultures, disciplines, and professions. This particular workshop space was filled with some truly remarkable people, including leadership from Mexico’s highly-regarded civil protection and relief sector, key figures from the UN office in Mexico City and a few highly committed NGOs.

What most attracted me to this event, ironically perhaps, is the contention of this project that “existing narratives and concepts of humanitarian action still largely reflect the values and practices of long-established organizations of high-income countries.”  Moreover, the project fully embraces the important critique that the jargon we toss around within the often-stretched humanitarian sector (and within the rest of the policy community as well) – such as this “resiliency” we now seek to spread – can constitute a stubborn barrier to a “clearer, more profound and detailed perspectiveon the local cultures we seek to serve. Such perspective is essential if we are to truly “accompany the localization of humanitarian knowledge” as key to the success of the vital and urgent action undertaken over and over by the broader humanitarian community.

Unfortunately, I was able to grasp only a small portion of what were apparently rich technical and community-contextual discussions in Mexico City.  For I was stuck yet again inside my own “labeled box,” a limitation largely of my own doing; someone functioning in a singular language structure that cannot easily distinguish between “an attacking lion and one at rest,” but also someone reinforcing a system which now expressly privileges his language and both its conceptual contexts and limitations. Such participation leaves me (and many others) trading in concepts that only incompletely explain the world we inhabit while virtually (if inadvertently) demeaning much of the full range of cultural expressions, passions and feelings which continue to breathe life and urgency into our collective human strivings.

The Swiss leadership of the Humanitarian Encyclopedia Project clearly understands better than most the alienating nature of much of our policy jargon, those words we routinely employ in our important humanitarian (or peace and security) spaces as though our short-hand has become something other than the “blurred messages” that we so often extend towards each other and towards communities in need.  Certainly we “experts” in this Mexico City space — groupings similar (I suspect) to other rooms in other global regions — have perhaps also become a bit “hypnotized and trapped” by our own expressive limitations as evidenced by the “heady” language we often use with peers, funders and in polite culture, the nomenclature of policy that impedes as much access at community level as it invites.

As it turns out, this Mexico story had another chapter. At the end of this week in the remarkable Zócalo of Mexico City, a different (unrelated) type of linguistic critique and cultural representation was being staged.  “Lingüística Indígena” brought together thousands of people (its final day is today) largely from the southern regions of Mexico (especially from Chiapas) to speak the language forms of their forebears more than the colonists, to share their food, crafts, poetry and dances, and to place in this very public domain the unique and deep challenges faced by the region’s indigenous peoples.

Some of these challenges are a function of government suspicion regarding the unwillingness of peoples in the indigenous south to abandon the language that expresses their lives and relationships for a language closely allied with colonial occupation and, perhaps more importantly, “fit” for modern economic and bureaucratic life. Amidst the colorful dance, indigenous poetic forms and some unusual (for me) food offerings, there was also a palpable sadness directed towards the memory of those martyred trying to defend the rights of indigenous persons, including their right to linguistic and cultural expression. The crosses demanding attention on the Zócalo, with wilting flowers and palms placed nearby, served as a reminder that language is not only a means of expression but is an embodiment of community values and cultural significance, the struggle for which costs some advocates their very lives.

It was the television personality Trevor Noah (of all people) who noted that if you talk to people in a language they understand, that message goes to their head. But if you talk to them in their own language, “that goes to their heart.”  In the UN “Grand Bargain” of 2016, key donors agreed to expand pooled funding to address seemingly-endless humanitarian crises including from armed violence and climate threats.  Moving forward, we need another “bargain” but this time one that both embraces and transcends the sensitive “accompaniment” advocated by the sponsors of this Mexico City workshop, a “bargain” to protect and honor the “totality of our utterances” and those who dare to express the heart-felt visions and aspirations that remain essential to a healthy and responsive human community.


Fort Worth:  The UN Presents Diverse Lenses on Human Potential, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Feb

Mother Earth

Most of us must learn to love people and use things rather than loving things and using people. Roy Bennett

We know that we are the ones who are divided; and we are the ones who must come back together, to walk in the Sacred Way.  Ojibway Prayer

Isn’t it sad that you can tell people that the ozone layer is being depleted, the forests are being cut down, the deserts are advancing steadily, that the greenhouse effect will raise the sea level 200 feet, that overpopulation is choking us, that pollution is killing us, that nuclear war may destroy us – and they yawn and settle back for a comfortable nap. But tell them that the Martians are landing, and they scream and run.  Isaac Asimov

Cover my Earth Mother four times with many flowers.  Zuni Prayer

And certainly, the mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it.  George Eliot

Teach us to walk the soft earth as relatives to all that live.   Sioux Prayer

We think we know what we are doing. We have always thought so. Michael Crichton

In beauty it is finished.    Navajo Chant

As many of you have gathered from even occasional readings of these Sunday missives, the UN offers what at time represent an equally dazzling and frustrating lens on global policy but also on the people who, among other things, establish its norms and responses.  This week alone, saw government experts convene to establish the basis for a framework to address the growing threat posed by the militarization of outer space, a well-organized briefing on Yemen to “hold the fort” on humanitarian response until a viable political process to end the conflict can be established, and a joint presentation by the presidents of the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council respectively in an attempt to ratchet up both funding pathways and diplomatic urgency to keep our collective commitments to the 2030 Development Agenda at least somewhat on track.

We do lots of “holding the fort” at the UN, trying to maintain global attention on the difficult (non-Martian) issues that cause many constituents to turn their gaze away or “settle back for a comfortable nap,” but also to gather resources within the UN and in member states to support “good faith” responses to what are at times ugly manifestations of the human condition. The UN does what it can, in many instances keeping the focus on often-ignored matters of planetary urgency while organizing competent and strategic responses in the hope that various forms of “reinforcements” — of funding, capacity support and political will — do not lag too far behind.

Of all the “ugly manifestations” of human conduct that the UN highlighted this week, perhaps the most discouraging was an event on human trafficking organized by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime.  The event itself was very well done, focusing on the launch of two related reports, UNODC’s full assessment of global trafficking and a second report covering much of the same ground but focused specifically on trafficking in the context of armed conflict.

The latter report was directly requested by the UN Security Council and is perhaps more germane to Global Action’s organizational priorities; but both “booklets” paint a sordid picture of the willingness of human beings in diverse circumstances to contribute to brutality, abuse and “exploitation” that contexts of armed violence merely magnify.  Highlighted within booklet 2 is the recruitment of children into armed groups to serve as everything from porters to suicide bombers, and victims trafficked for purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation.  In addition to copious statistics on trafficking demographics, law enforcement responses and conviction rates, mention was made often of the particular vulnerabilities of displaced persons — including those many thousands displaced by armed violence — and the often-desperate people, mostly women and children, who sign on to what are certain to become exploitative arrangements in the complete absence of viable options, arrangements perpetrated by those who, at the very least, “love things and use persons.”

One can (and we often do) laud the efforts of law enforcement, peacekeepers and UN officials to provide urgent perspectives and high-quality data on this soul-crushing issue. At the same time we also lament the “blows” inflicted by traffickers to any sense of optimism about the ability of human beings to do any better than to “hold down the fort” as our norms of international order prove themselves “thinner” than we imagined and predation in many forms continues to flourish; traffickers, yes, but also an economic system that allows some to build massive wealth casting dismissive shadows on the many millions resigned to running (if they can) from people and institutions content to treat them mostly as “things” to be used, rather than beings to be cherished.

For many younger people, even those around Global Action’s orbit contemplating careers in international affairs, one can perceive a pervasive sense of cynicism about the human condition, a sense that self-interest is fully entrenched as our collective guide-star, that narcissism has become a social expectation and, moreover, that there is really not much that people can do – UN resolve notwithstanding — to “turn this tide” characterized by too much ugliness, too many people content to sleep through crises or turn a blind eye to the inequities that are actually within their power to change.

This assessment of “human nature” – less a science-based lens for exploration of both our warts and potential, and more an excuse for not changing what we are able to change – must also be countered.   After all, the forts we “hold” will not stay held forever.  We see evidence throughout that the walls are cracking, that provisions are scarce and unequally distributed, that communications are increasingly vexing, that promises of reinforced capacity are too-often unreliable. We simply cannot go on the way we are, cannot reverse our current slide while simultaneously enabling (often unintentionally) the forces committed to an unequal and rapacious exploitation of what little is left to exploit.

As the gorgeous group of quotations above makes plain, there is another path that integrates honor and gratitude, that upholds the dignity of human beings while rejecting indignities directed towards our natural home. The UN also knows this other path.  On Friday in the General Assembly Hall, the UN launched the International Year of Indigenous Languages, an event that included powerful statements from President Morales of Bolivia and the President of the General Assembly Maria Fernandez. The event also highlighted indigenous representatives who spoke directly to the multiple benefits of indigenous language preservation – not only the safeguarding of indigenous culture itself but the life given to forms and depths of expression to which indigenous languages are particularly well suited – expression that links people to each other and to the many blessings of creation, that reminds us of the power of beauty to inspire our better selves, that urges us to cover our “mother” with flowers of her own making rather than with bulldozers and space weapons of our own.  As Ecuador’s minister affirmed, the words of indigenous languages “have a soul, a memory, a heart.” They tie together those who live where their sounds are uttered, binding the human and non-human, ties of gratitude and what the PGA called “symbols of belonging,” all held together with pledges to walk more “softly” on a planet that too many of us have conspired to treat much too roughly for much too long.

This event was not designed to romanticize indigenous culture, to promote the soul-energy embedded in indigenous languages as the singular antidote to modernism’s excesses. Indigenous leaders are all-too-aware of the “divisions” that need to be reunited in their own communities, the many sources of pain (including the self-inflicted variety) that require a more robust healing response.  And yet there is so much richness embedded in these language forms, so much beauty, connection and “will to cherish” that culturally-homogenous modern societies — too comfortable in what they “know” and too resolved to “have their own way” — need much more of.

An aboriginal woman from Australia told the diplomats in the GA Hall of the joy it brings her to “whisper into the ears of her grandchildren words from my ancestral language.”  We owe our children and grandchildren more than smart phones and foolish owners, more than forts buckling under the strain of assaults coming from predatory humans in many forms.  We owe them, as one indigenous speaker on Friday noted, the chance “to sing the songs of the earth,” songs that in too many corners of this planet “have simply grown silent.”

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.


Dream Catcher: First Nations Address the Community of Nations, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Apr


We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.  Chief Seattle

If our prayers were suddenly answered, would be we ready? Or would we look behind us for the familiar things, the people, the habits, the routine?  Joyce Sequichie Hifler

Hold on to what is good, even if it’s a handful of earth.  Pueblo Prayer

Today is Earth Day, and it already promises to be a clear and cool late April day here in New York.

Many who acknowledge the day in more than superficial ways rightly claim that each and every day should be devoted to an examination of our practical values and commitments.  They urge us all to build on the smaller changes we are all-too-willing to make and that might actually deflect attention from the larger shifts in lifestyle that global circumstances now require of us.

Some are able to redirect energies and commitments in ways that are both pragmatic and inspirational.  But too many of us have already fallen off the sustainability wagon, abandoning the harder journey and settling for token gestures of action and rhetoric. Most of us are willing to contribute some part of ourselves to the sustainable future that our children will require, but our habits run deep and in directions (and with values) that in the main hold limited promise for our children’s future.  We struggle to make our small changes based on contexts that are themselves not really conducive to change.

As a First Nations prayer of unknown origins suggests, “We have forgotten who we are,” exploiting to our own ends, distorting our knowledge, abusing our power, seeking security largely for “our own.”  This is a heavy indictment on what is becoming here a lovely spring day, an indictment directed as much at the systems we have evolved as it is towards the minds and souls of individuals too busy resisting their own evolution.

At the UN over these two weeks, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous People has been meeting in its 17th session. We certainly haven’t attended all the discussons, but those we have – both plenary and side events – have added good value.   While a range of issues regarding the health and dignity of indigenous peoples have been raised, the primary focus of the discussion has been on representation – seeking a formal role for indigenous people in the UN General Assembly and other key UN organs with a level of status lying somewhere between that accorded member states and that of NGOs.

For some of the indigenous delegates –and for some of the rest of us – these representational discussions are not new.   In many parts of the world, indigenous peoples struggle to hold their own amidst a barrage of corporate incursions, formal and informal discrimination and government neglect that conspire to threaten livelihoods, languages and the ecosystems on which they depend.   Representatives of these groups – and those who support their diverse concerns – are becoming more and more skilled in linking issues interests and demanding rights-based attentiveness in multinational forums.  If the logistics of some “special status” could be successfully addressed – perhaps resulting in “observer” status — indigenous representatives could then experience a greater assurance that states would no longer be able to establish policy to address indigenous issues behind the backs of indigenous people.

This would be a welcome development at several levels.  And yet I wonder (as we do with persons with disabilities who will come later this year and the women who took over the UN for the CSW in February) if the indigenous delegations understand fully what the UN is capable of and what it isn’t?  And, perhaps more importantly, whether these delegations are more likely to change the UN, or to be changed by it?

It is difficult to exist within UN headquarters and not “play by its rules,” accept its political compromises and “thick” protocols. Indeed, were it not for the geographic origins and traditional clothing worn by some delegates, it would be a challenge to discern how this Forum differs from other Commissions.   The rooms and protocols reflect the same dynamics of power and communication.   People from diverse indigenous contexts read prepared statements that in some instances merely serve as a petition for the right to come and read more prepared statements in a wider range of UN conference rooms beyond the Forum itself.  As in other UN settings, the podium drives the process, giving priority to UN agencies and related “experts” seeking to brand their indigenous bona fides, which in some instances are considerable.  But the overall tone seems to serve as a message to indigenous representatives that “you are in the place you need to be,” that this is where the action is for you and “your people.”

I’m not convinced, at least not at face value.   There are few groups at the UN who cover the range of UN processes as we do, and we can confidently report that there is scant discussion of indigenous issues in formal UN settings aside from the two weeks of the Forum.  Moreover, there is little indication that the UN has in any way been impacted by the values that lie at the heart (if not always reflected in practice) of indigenous life.   Our collective resistance to truth telling, especially on matters of peace and security (Yemen is a good case study here); our ability to smooth over the many rough edges of global threat by burying urgency in a garden of bureaucratic consensus; our incessant habit of publicly “thanking” states for statements that in some instances seem as intended to undermine as enable our collective responsibility to peace, rights and development; these and other dimensions of our institutional culture could stand a steadier dose of indigenous perspective.

But such perspective comes with a risk.  As with many people on this Earth Day, our institutional habits here at the UN are highly resistant to change.  And I sometimes fear that the more people line up on First Avenue to get through UN security, the more people who petition to participate in the UN’s institutional habits, working methods and too-often politicized outcomes, the less likely that the cultural changes that we need to see in this policy space will actually come to pass.  Why change when we’re so “popular?”

It is not, of course, the task of indigenous communities to “save the rest of us from ourselves” nor to “fix” institutions that have often neglected indigenous values and interests.  And I am not inclined to sentimentalize the spiritual messaging of indigenous communities any more (or less) than that of their large, western, institutionalized counterparts. But it is not unreasonable to hope that the higher-profile presence of indigenous representatives being sought in all facets of this policy space could actually inspire and impact the way we routinely “do our business” and not merely replicate some of the least effective of our already considerable stable of unaddressed habits.

Certainly the value perspectives are in place within indigenous cultures to help shift our collective course.  In a passage called “Sacred Instructions,” attributed to William Commanda and Frank Decontie, we find a litany of indigenous values and practices that can transform lives, communities and, yes, even bureaucracies:  practicing kindness to self and others, expressing care in all our life settings, thanking the creator at all times, achieving humility as the path to wisdom and understanding, and practicing honesty with self and others.

None of this is easy in an age of competition, personal branding and ambition and none corresponds to any of the UN’s existing “rules of procedure.” Moreover, the mere stating of any aspiration is certainly not sufficient to making it incarnate in the world.  But I am convinced that the planet would be on a more sustainable path if these values and practices were less negotiable within our community, national and global institutions; if some of our complaining could be bathed in thanksgiving; if some of our incessant public relations could adopt a lens of humility; if some of our overly-politicized discourse could defer to our responsibilities to truth telling.

This Earth Day, we have more to do than finding the right colored bin for our ever-less-likely-to-be-recycled waste.  We must instead better prepare to receive the “answer to our prayer,” a prayer for justice and respect, yes, but a prayer for grace to help us cherish the things we have soiled, lift up the things we have brought down, share more of the love we keep hidden behind dispassionate eyes, and risk more honesty within our communities of policy and practice.

And perhaps above all, to hold on to what is good and offer more of what is good to others.

School Daze:  The UN Struggles to Identify Education that Matters, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Aug


It’s mid-August in New York, and I and many other have struggled this weekend with indoor “sleeping” temperatures hovering around 90 degrees.   I’m also dealing with massive amounts of dust, willingly blown in all directions by my strategically placed fans, complements of a construction project next door.

For many young people, August heat portends the immanent start of another school year.  For some of these youth (including me decades ago) school is a place of boredom and even conflict. For other young people (and virtually all of their parents) the return to school is a return to normalcy – the prospects both of intellectual challenge and a re-emerging, viable, family routine.

Tragically, for many around the world, school remains mostly a distant vision.  For Syrian refugee children, for earthquake survivors in remote regions of Nepal, for children dodging bombs in Yemen or insurgents in the DRC, school represents the faint hope of stability and possibility; the yet unfulfilled promise of inclusive and peaceful societies in which their contributions —including their engagement with civic responsibilities — are valued and encouraged.

Last Monday, the UN held a discussion on Indigenous People’s Right to Education in recognition of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.   There was much of value in this session, including an admonition by ASG Thomas Gass to decouple indigenous education from any “backhanded” assimilation narratives. Also noteworthy was the UNPFII Chair Álvaro Pop’s reminder that indigenous education must maintain as its core objectives the dismantling of remaining colonial vestiges in order to create “better local democracies.”

But for the three of us in the room from Global Action, the “star” presenter was Ms. Karla Jessen Williamson, an Inuit from Greenland now teaching in Canada.  It was Williamson who most clearly defined the challenge with “schooling” from the standpoint of indigenous culture – that the higher up the educational chain indigenous youth go, the further they tend to get from indigenous linguistic and thought forms.  Others on the panels lamented the linguistic and other local losses that are absorbed when indigenous youth travel long distances to educational institutions, only to struggle at times with both the training methods themselves and the values embodied in those institutions.

Williamson additionally highlighted educational benefits including skills for “self-governance” of Arctic peoples and the respect they should rightly demand from “down south” governments, but these were raised with softer edges.   As with other speakers, she honored the “suffering” of those ancestors who made it possible for her (and others) to speak in a place like the UN.  She also expressed her educational preference for “inner imagination,” a preference which she did not have the opportunity explain at length but one which clearly sees education at its best as the full and dynamic expression of a whole culture more than a specialized, highly-cognitive pursuit within a distinct social institution.  It suggests an education that is about the contexts through which we can grow and change, that upholds the values of honoring and appreciating, and is not only about the worldly tasks that define our budding careers.

In indigenous cultures and beyond, school and learning are not synonymous and it is unhelpful to see them as such.  Many personal and institutional roles carry an educational responsibility, albeit one not tied so tightly to career and employment options.  People “learn” about the world through diverse sources, many persons, institutions and agents of culture.  When a comprehensive social pedagogy is undermined, when “school” becomes the sole arbiter of what a culture transmits to the young, when adults abdicate responsibility for education to specialized (and increasingly expensive) institutions,  more than “inner imagination” is in jeopardy.

As the primary institution of global governance, the UN has its own “teaching” responsibility, sadly much of which takes the form of campaigning and branding, trying to “sell” political agendas rather than helping people understand more about the current state of the world and their responsibilities in it.   We throw around words like “empowerment” as though we have any clarity about its criteria – how we know it when we see it, how that generic (and overused) term can possibly have any relevance outside of the specific political and social contexts in which people find themselves.

Moreover, we too often address young people as though they are our “saviors” more than our successors, leading them to believe, in the name of (rightly) encouraging youth participation, that they are already perfectly formed, already prepared to take us places the rest of us ostensibly can’t take ourselves, already able to confront grave planetary challenges on their own merits, already “sufficient” to life in all its (increasingly) virtual and non-virtual elements.

Even in the august Security Council, security policies are sometimes promoted as though it could not possibly be otherwise, policies that are willfully detached from the consequences of their precursors– successful and often not — and that try to equate the political interests of one or more states with resolutions to address the interests of those suffering a wide variety of conflict-related abuses.  Here as well the point seems too often to be how to “convince,” not how to enlighten or reflect. Neither teaching nor leading, it seems.

The UN is primarily political culture, and so it isn’t surprising when discernment yields to political considerations.   But when such discernment devolves into outright hyperbole, into a denial of complex realities we should well be clever enough to grasp, few will get what they need to flourish in learning; our inner lives will suffer; general levels of trust in the veracity of our foremost institutions will shrink.  People will listen less often, in part because of our collective authenticity deficit.

During a UN youth event on Friday devoted to “sustainable consumption” and poverty reduction, ASG Thomas Gass in his own modest manner attempted to get the audience to be more mindful of the “ethical” compromises and sacrifices represented by the clothing we purchase, the food we waste, the phones we clutch as though our very lives depended on them. However, in the back of the conference room where I was seated, young people were busy on those very same phones, snapping pictures for their Instagram accounts, planning their weekends, texting like the world was about to come to an end, doing only what many kids now routinely do.

Their energy and confidence can both be infectious, but there is still so much for them to learn – about the world and its current challenges, about gadgets and their limitations, about the deep and sometimes scary wonders of their “inner imagination.”   This is education by diverse stakeholders and cultures that the UN would do well to assume a larger role in ensuring.  This is education the potential of which schools themselves can only partially fulfill.

Connecting Some Difficult UN Dots:  The Risks Worth Taking, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 May

This was one of “those weeks” at the UN – a time when complementary discussions were taking place in multiple conference rooms and when it was difficult to know where the most important discussions were actually taking place.  For instance, President of the General Assembly Lykketoft held an important, two-day High Level event on Peace and Security, in part designed to find ways to engage UN member states beyond the Security Council in diverse aspects of conflict prevention and resolution.   On the second day, barely 50 paces away, that same Security Council under Egypt’s leadership was holding a valuable general debate for UN members on strategies for combating terrorist narratives.   Venezuela was one of the few Council members to directly reference the General Assembly meeting nearby, but none risked referencing the needless overlap forcing interested parties to divide their attention between two related discussions that both warranted full and undivided attention.

A similar overlap occurred this week with respect to matters of abuse, the means to address which the UN community is taking stronger (if seriously belated) notice.  One setting for such discussions is the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, one of our very favorite annual UN events.  The Forum combines diverse cultural expression and high-quality activism with sober reflection on abuses forgotten, land stolen, cultures denigrated, voices denied, ecologies poisoned, resources exploited.   And yet there is gratitude in evidence here as well.  A colleague reported that speaker after indigenous speaker at the Forum began by giving thanks – not for the abuses and humiliations, of course, but as a way of honoring the ancestral owners of the land and sea on which this Forum was happening, opportunities that we can embrace now because of all that happened before us.

This ritual gratitude is no mere ritual.  It is an effort to keep living connections between our current strivings, those before us who gave us contexts and challenges, and those after us who will have to live with the consequences of our sometimes thoughtless legacies.   It is this grateful awareness of multi-generational impact — this attentiveness to a world that we did not make ourselves and that others are destined to inherit — that helps bring meaning and power to situations too often characterized by rights abuses uninvestigated and unpunished, cultural and resource thefts justified by trade agreements to which indigenous peoples were not party, and other violations of respect.

It is too bad that these indigenous representatives are not present at the UN more often, and also too bad that there is no time – or perhaps invitation – to share their lenses on meaning and power in other conference rooms.   One such room this week was a briefing for diplomats, again under the auspices of the General Assembly, and this time devoted to updates on the UN’s efforts to address sexual violence by UN personnel, especially peacekeepers.

There was some gratitude expressed by UN officials during this briefing – mostly to the peacekeepers who do difficult jobs under even more difficult circumstances, who largely do those jobs free from scandal and abuse, and who labor under mandates that are often unclear, unmanageable — even  grandiose.  After all, we do not “protect civilians” in the same sense that fire departments respond to all fires. We protect “some” civilians, except in those gruesome instances when we do the exact opposite.

My office colleagues, two of which have been closely following the Indigenous Forum, found this particular GA discussion rather unfulfilling.   They largely reject the “bad apple” theory of abuse that ignores structure and context and allows senior leadership to avoid scrutiny.   They reject the idea that anyone – soldiers included — should be lauded for refusing to sexually abuse constituents, regardless of the other challenges they might be facing.   They reject the idea that we can focus solely on the (quite helpful) measures now being taken to eliminate abusive behavior without a serious (and apologetic) examination of why it has taken so long to counter a problem that we have known about for some time.   They reject the idea that the reputation of the UN should be our primary consideration rather than the well-being of victims. They wonder if our approach to all this is too much about “damage control” and not nearly enough about “damage confession” while embracing the political risks necessary to try and make things right.

There were lots of powerful words spoken at this particular GA briefing.   But those few of us non-diplomats in the room (sadly including no indigenous representatives we could identify) came away largely unconvinced that bold words and proposed programmatic reforms would be sufficient to overcome the UN’s aging habits of policy distraction and policy spin.  We don’t seem to have (or have lost) that longer view to which we can attach longer commitments, based in part on gratitude for those who struggled before us and responsibility towards those who will follow. Eliminating (not merely addressing) abuses, as both the Under-Secretary General and Special Coordinator pledged to accomplish, will require culture shifts as well as policy adjustments.  We must take needed steps more urgently, but then stay a considerably longer (and honest) policy course that keeps victims (and our collective history of creating and responding to them) at the center of our concern.

In the GA briefing, there were many important statements from member states following the formal UN presentations.  But Norway had it quite right, we thought.   They expressed clear “impatience” at the pace of change.   They also noted the likelihood that more allegations will be forthcoming as more attention is paid to the issue of abuse by UN personnel and national contingents.   We’re not out of these woods by any means. Moreover, we’re not likely to make matters better if we cannot risk more fundamental changes to the way we do our own business.  Addressing abuse goes beyond training manuals and force-generation strategies, beyond troop strengths and the comprehensiveness of mandates.  It surely involves, as Tanzania noted during the briefing, a commitment by states to avoid the “blame game” and to accept the risks of “collective responsibility” to justice and recovery services for victims.

Collectively, we seem to be losing our capacity to take values-relevant risks.  One colleague at the UN recently told me a story of how she helped someone in distress find assistance on a late-night New York street, only to be verbally “accosted” by a few of her peers, mostly in a related policy field, apparently upset that someone they know would put themselves in that sort of position.   As though that isn’t precisely the type of risk we who say we “care about the world” should be encouraging each other to take!

The lessons of the week seem clear:  if we are to collectively solve problems from terrorist narratives and discrimination against indigenous persons to peacekeeper abuse we’ll need to peer (and act) beyond the edges of the prevailing consensus.   This implies, among other things, venturing into policy rooms beyond our specific brands, and then being willing to take a few more risks once we get there.

No Culture Left Behind: Ensuring Indigenous Rights ‘take root’ in the UN’s post-2015 Development Agenda  

12 May

Editor’s Note:   This piece by GAPW’s Human Rights Fellow, Karin Perro, explores the growing sustaiinability, human rights and climate implications for the health of indigenous communities. In many UN commissions and conference rooms, including the current Forum on Forests, respect for indigenous rights is growing in promience as are the worldviews that ground indigenous communities. As Perro makes clear, no successful post-2015 development strategy can neglect the aspirations and contributions of indigenous peoples.

As winter relinquished its final hold on UN Headquarters, springtime’s colorful cherry blossoms and tulip buds vied for attention with the vibrant hues and textures of traditional native attire embellishing UN corridors. The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues kicked off on April 20, 2015 under the capable leadership of Australian Chair Megan Davis, who began the fourteenth session urging full participation of indigenous representatives in shaping the Forum’s agenda.

In his introductory statement DSG Jan Eliasson eloquently set the Forum’s tone, calling for a collective embrace of indigenous peoples’ visions and aspirations while reaffirming the UN commitment to indigenous rights, including the right to health, education, land, and self-determination. Imploring a global ‘peace negotiation with nature’ and respect for all living things, Eliasson invoked (for many) indigenous spiritualism as embodied by an inviolate ‘Mother Earth’, and emphasized the need for safeguarding the world’s environmental health that is so vital to both indigenous community and global development.

The right to ancestral lands was a tenuous thread woven throughout the Forum proceedings, with significant indigenous clamoring for ‘free, prior, and informed consent’ in matters of land rights and development initiatives. And rightly so – depletion of land fertility, dumping of radioactive waste, deforestation, and contamination of waters by extractive industrial processes are all byproducts of multinational corporations’ circumvention of prior and informed consent mandates, too often with state complicity and ineffective regulation enforcement.

There are, of course, other social and environment forces at play that adversely impact indigenous land rights and usage, beyond the prescience or control of well-meaning governance bodies or human agency. Natural disasters, climate change, and soil and water defamation due in part to illicit crop cultivation leave indigenous people dispossessed of land and land-dependent livelihoods, reduces tourism revenues, and decimates traditional medicine and food resources. As the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Issues noted, indigenous peoples compromise 5% of global population but 15% of the world’s poor.   Eradicating indigenous poverty, hunger and malnutrition can only be attained if proactive measures are funded and enforced to protect vulnerable lands, forests, oceans and coastlines and halt all forms of environmental degradation.

Increasingly the UN has recognized the undeniable connection between natural resources, environmental health and sustainable development. This is good news for indigenous communities that rely on local natural resources for subsistence and food security. However, potentially irreversible environmental consequences lead many disaffected indigenous youth to abandon traditional practices and seek alternative employment beyond ancestral territories.  Assimilation erodes the link to cultural identity and knowledge, as limited opportunities for traditional livelihoods encourage youth migration to urban centers. Once there, pervasive discrimination and inadequate education create barriers for entry into the mainstream workforce.

Consequently, the damage inflicted upon the collective indigenous psyche is staggering.  According to cited research reports, rights curtailments and the continued denial of self-determination has led to an alarming acceleration in youth self-harm, suicides, and alcohol abuse. Substandard or scant mental healthcare facilities are often ill equipped to provide culturally sensitive care, treatment or support.  As a result, indigenous youth representatives expressed feeling disaffected, disempowered and ‘spiritually broken’.  Hopelessness now thrives where once pride and dignity proliferated, rooted in a spiritual connection to nature that engendered vibrant culture diversity and a richness of cultural heritage.

For many, past injustices still inflict fresh wounds and reopen unhealed scars. Proud indigenous representatives condemned the persistent remnants of colonialism, casting an uneasy (and in some corners unwelcome) spotlight on the insidious legacy of Western dominance, born from arrogance and greed, and fed on ignorance and fear. Treaty violations, unfulfilled promises, contested spaces, political exclusion, and cultural genocide remain stubbornly resistant to the implementation of fair and equitable policies. Where fragile incipient democracies struggle for survival, dormant seeds of dissention now sprout and propagate largely unimpeded, supplanting rule of law and strong governance. Many of the world’s indigenous are now perilously caught in the chaotic interstice between regional armed conflicts and nationalism, xenophobia and ethnic cleansing, forcing their displacement and threatening their cultural existence.

In spite of the identifiable commonalities within the global community of indigenous peoples, there are also substantial distinctions among and between groups that preclude a one-size-fits-all policy approach.   The Forum’s kaleidoscopic cultural display often reflected the diverse – and often divergent – grievances expressed by indigenous participants. If too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth, will too many diverse indigenous issues on the Forum’s platter undermine their fully realized inclusion in the upcoming post-2015 sustainable development goals?

For indigenous activist leaders seeking commonality of causes within the indigenous movement as a means of pooling resources for greater political leverage, a force-fitting of group-specific goals into overarching umbrella targets may inadvertently create policy vacuums for already isolated or less vocal indigenous groups. Many smaller indigenous communities already have societal burdens too great to shoulder without also having to contend with the ‘double-whammy’ of additional marginalization within an already marginalized community.

That said, aligning indigenous interests with other rights-based groups, particularly those having garnered significant visibility and influence, could prove useful in gaining an indigenous foothold in the pre-September 2015 scramble to endorse a set of SDGs. Indigenous solidarity may well increase pressure in international forums to comply with their general demands, but pressuring of regional and national institutions will still be crucial in promoting singular or specific needs-based targets unique to discrete indigenous communities.

To the outside observer, there was a noticeable (if unsurprising) unwillingness to acknowledge the competing needs of coexisting, non-indigenous groups suffering from the same (or similar) inequities that require redress in both developing and developed states. Impoverished indigenous and non-indigenous populations often compete for the same limited financial aid, social programs, and government resources.  State obligations to uphold the respective rights of all citizens often lead to internal conflicts of interest that can be difficult to reconcile.Moving forward will require clear targets and enforceable monitoring, and transparency mechanisms. Also troublesome is state non-compliance with UNDRIP and other non-binding international instruments. The UN system suffers from inadequate mechanisms to enforce what is ultimately a state responsibility to its people, including state duty to consult with indigenous peoples on policies and legislature that directly impact their maintenance of traditions and cultural heritage.

The UN is (arguably) at its best when providing aspirational goals and normative frameworks and (it is hoped) creating concrete policy guidelines; less so in their implementation and financing of those goals and frameworks. As reiterated in the Forum, indigenous rights are human rights. Civil society and private sector stakeholders, in unison with governmental agencies and institutions, will ultimately be tasked with implementinguniversal development goals. To date, scant mention has been given to indigenous concerns in the post-2015 SDGs.  If we truly envision an inclusive human rights based development agenda, we must ensure indigenous issues are fully addressed by member state governments. States must be held accountable for inclusion of indigenous people in data aggregations to formulate more inclusive national action plans that provide fair redress to legitimate grievances and close socio-economic gaps.  For its part, the UN and other international governing bodies must fully integrate indigenous rights within the human rights based SDG framework.  Only through a conscious (and conscientious) cultivation of fair and equitable policies will indigenous societies be allowed to re-establish their cultural roots and assure their survival.

 Karin Perro, Human Rights Fellow, GAPW