Tag Archives: leadership

Tuesday’s Child: Leadership to Inspire Next Generations, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Jan

Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon. E.M. Forster

We must desire to see people rising in life, rather than looking for ways to contribute to their fall. Bamigboye Olurotimi

Youth and elder meet where the pressure of the future meets the presence of the past. Michael Meade

He had a courtly way of exclaiming over whatever was exclaimable in people – especially kids. Susan Cain

The UN sprang back to life this week with several key events and with the faces of diplomats and secretariat staff looking fresher and more eager than they did a few short weeks ago.

Our own interns, with one notable exception, have largely scattered, soon to be replaced by others.   Some of what took place this week would have been really good for all of them to experience, the enthusiasm of a system that has taken some lumps over the past years, led by people who are determined to make that system not only work more effectively, but work for all.

One of the things that we ask of the young people who pass through our program is that they give a good-faith effort to understand the UN in all its policy facets – from the Security Council and the work of the GA committees to specialized bodies focused on the rights of women, the care of children, the health of oceans and agriculture, the sustainability of cities, and much more. At the same time, we ask them to evaluate (not judge) the personalities sitting at conference room podiums, to interrogate which UN leadership is most believable, which is keeping his/her eyes focused on the issues of greatest significance for the planet, but also has a plan for how to enable and promote meaningful and sustainable change among the UN’s diverse constituencies.

The rationale for these requests is twofold.  First, we want interns and fellows to, in essence, rub the interests and priorities that they come to us with up against the priorities and interests of a system that is now weighing in at so many significant policy levels.  While the UN is still some ways from being a viable learning community, learning opportunities abound, both diverse and of high quality.  Indeed, in much of the 20 years of Global Action’s existence, we have “mined” the many nuggets of learning available throughout UN system – its security crises and cutting-edge side events, its pandemic responses and gender justice sessions, as the best means available for keeping our minds focused and our vision sharp.

Some of the most interesting events have also been a bit of a welcome surprise – the Arria Formula meetings organized by Security Council members outside the Council’s formal structure, the impact-filled side events such as a fall briefing on the crisis of the Aral Sea region presided over by the president of Uzbekistan, or this past Monday’s multi-stakeholder discussion on finance for development presided over by the highly-regarded and able-listening president of the Economic and Social Council, Ambassador Rhonda King.

Given the vast and high level learning opportunities that abound in UN conference rooms and to which they have access, many of our interns leave the UN with a different passion than they entered with.  They take advantage of the “front row seat” provided for them to review their potential contributions over the frustrations and opportunities that punctuate virtually every UN policy discussion.  Do I want to contribute to policy or to direct humanitarian response?  Do I want to assist with development finance, with humanitarian risk assessment, with efforts to control our hunger for new and improved weapons?

But the second aspect of this UN journey is equally important, the assessment of the many “players” in the UN system who set agendas and guide negotiations, whose voices have an outsized importance in terms of how the UN directs its internal energies and engages external audiences.

Our interns, with few exceptions, have not been successful in cultivating relationships with diplomats and UN officials that go beyond the merely “professional.”  Thus, there have been few opportunities for them to experience what we would consider to be “mentoring” in UN contexts beyond commitments to their growth and well-being available through our own office and “community of peers.”  The balances that constitute mentoring in the best sense – a combination of character and skills development made possible through an invitation to explore the struggles and successes of life “up close,” is elusive for many in this policy space.

And yet there are occasions when bits of personality leak through the formalities of UN protocol, giving all of us – but especially young people – glimpses of human agency and possibility in these challenging times.   The interns might not know in any detail what makes UN leaders tick, or more importantly, the stories that lies behind their commitments, the life circumstances that gave rise to a career of service in multilateral settings. But despite these personal limitations, they can make observations of value in a time of great uncertainty.  After all, young people are gazing towards a future that can spin in a variety of directions, some of them quite discouraging.  Does UN leadership grasp this discouragement or even share it?  And beyond discouragement itself, which figures at the front of the room truly inspire?  Who is really listening to others?  Who respects contributions beyond the status limitations of diplomatic protocol? Who are the leaders grasping the momentousness of the times, calling us to cooperatively focus our intellectual, moral, diplomatic and technical energies on the problems that threaten our existence?

This past Tuesday, two events sought to affirm the values of multilateralism, inspire stakeholders to higher levels of collaborative engagement, and focus energies on the problems of our own making that threaten to grind human progress to a halt.  The first of these was a handover of leadership of the Group of 77 (G-77) and China from Egypt to Palestine.  President Abbas made the trip to New York to appear on the dais with senior UN officials and the Egyptian Foreign Minister to affirm the importance of the G-77 to the fair and able functioning of the UN development system, integrating what is promoted here as “south-south” cooperation.    Both President Abbas and the president of the UN General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés of Ecuador, underscored the importance of the G-77 to creating conditions of greater “global solidarity” from which we can tackle poverty and inequalities, climate change and “decent work,” these and other problems critical to a healthier and more just world.

In the afternoon president Espinosa Garcés herself took center stage, outlining priorities for her term in a voice that was both resolute and thoughtful.  She cited the current “turbulent” challenges that require all member states “to reaffirm their fidelity to the values of the Charter and the enduring value of multilateralism.”  She was gracious in thanking states and stakeholders for the many contributions they are already making to a more just and sustainable world.  And she put forth an appropriately ambitious agenda for change – from “fact-based” migration governance and eliminating ocean plastics, to the full inclusion of persons with disabilities and the “common cause” of ending poverty and gross inequalities — that communicated both the scope of her concern for the planet and her willingness to use every “soft power” tool at her disposal (including the convening of a breathtaking range of high-level events) to leverage additional collaborative change.

It fell to President Abbas, earlier on this Tuesday, to remind the large diplomatic audience that “people are the real treasure of nations.” Our people (especially young people) need to be inspired to “rise in life” by leaders who demonstrate both vision and compassion, who understand the challenges of the times and more specifically that such challenges are unlikely to be resolved successfully without the urgent and respectful engagement of all of us.  On this Tuesday, the UN demonstrated to all its stakeholders, young and old alike, that it is getting that message.

Land of Promise:  The UN Takes Stock of an Underestimated Continent, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Oct


Where a woman rules, streams run uphill.  Ethiopian proverb

Do not let what you cannot do tear from your hands what you can.  Ashanti proverb

I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself.  Nelson Mandela

There is always something new out of Africa. Pliny the Elder

This was “Africa Week” at the UN, a time for this entire community to stake stock of our debts to African peoples but also to celebrate the many ways in which Africans are truly developing and then implementing home-grown solutions to their own problems.

Despite the many responsibilities associated with the six General Assembly Committees that meet all this month, most all UN hands were “on deck” for all or part of this week long assessment of the roads that African states have tread and what they might still become.  This included as well the UN Security Council, which bears the brunt of responsibility for resolving conflicts from South Sudan (on which it met this past week) and Mali to Nigeria and now Cameroon. The Council is currently in the Sahel region (today in Mali) on mission to assess the status of the P-5 Sahel Force which it authorized and which is intended to bring stability to a region threatened by a “cocktail” whose ingredients include insurgency, climate stresses and food insecurity.

The stated goals for Africa week, “an integrated, prosperous, people-centered and peaceful Africa” draws heavily on the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda as well as Africa’s own Agenda 2063.  These goals were articulated in a thoughtful manner throughout the week, avoiding clichés and “quick wins” in favor of clear sighted examinations of what African states and their peoples need and what stands in the way of their progress.    Part of that discussion is related to finance, not only to the preservation of essential remittances, but to the ways in which states can better protect their own natural resources from exploitation and increase sources of domestic revenue, including through reducing “tax avoidance and profit shifting.”

Beyond finance, the week highlighted a variety of challenges, including forced migration patterns exacerbated by climate-related drought and multiple iterations of armed violence.   There were also important discussions on creating more opportunities for affordable credit and “decent work” — in many instances highlighting the degree to which the African labor force is now both robust and youthful  — as well as on the challenges in harnessing Africa’s unprecedented “demographic dividend.”

The implications of this “dividend” go well beyond employment. Over the years at Global Action, I have been blessed to visit and work in most every region on the continent, including Egypt in the north, South Africa in the south, Senegal in the west, Kenya in the east, Cameroon in the center.   And while all of these countries have much cultural and ecological diversity to commend, one of the things they seem to have in common is young people who are anxiously and even impatiently prepared to assume mantles of economic and political leadership.   There is a “leadership dividend” across Africa as well, people who hope to soon turn their aspirations into higher offices, people who refuse to choose between integration and sovereignty, between economic development and environmental protection, between reliable governance and local participation. These are people with the fresh ideas about how Africa might be and are prepared to make the changes needed to ensure that the goals enumerated in the UN’s Africa Week are more than just another set of multilateral promises.

The Concept Note for this Africa Week highlighted two particular challenges for this new generation of African leader.  The first of these is “integration” of a continent divided by deserts and jungles, but also by culture and language, even at times by levels of openness to continent-wide initiatives focused on security, trade and other matters essential to sustainable development.  Despite positive efforts by the African Union on security and sub-regional entities such as the Southern African Development Community on African trade, optimal levels of integration remain impeded by a series of issues that have long resisted resolution, including providing dependable access by land-locked countries to seaports in neighboring states and creating a more reliable transportation network linking those states.   In this regard, the ambitious (and costly) proposal floated this week for an Integrated High Speed Train Network is welcome, especially by persons who have long struggled to move themselves (and their agricultural products and other commodities) around Africa’s vast spaces.

And then there is the security (threatened by both insugencies and excessive state responses) on which all intra-and inter-state development depends.  On numerous occasions, reference was made this week to the African Union initiative Silencing the Guns by 2020, with outcomes considered by many (rightly in our view) as essential to a sustainable future.  Many African states are now awash in weapons both licit and illicit.  And as the AU’s “Silencing” report notes, “the continent has hosted, and continues to be home to, a number of deadly conflicts that jeopardize human, national and international security and defy efforts to resolve them.”  Such conflicts involve state and non-state actors, and often draw on sources of weapons located far from the scenes of the violence.   The “fuel” for these conflicts often takes the form of governance that is unfair or even unjust; food, water and health insecurities that force families into heartbreaking choices; exploitative employment in sectors such as extraction that provide little economic relief and poison local ecosystems;  and rights violations that keep so many women, youth and indigenous persons locked into senseless, disempowering social roles.

The “leadership dividend” which we have seen first-hand in many African regions seems capable of both drying up access to weapons and healing many of the social and economic causes that cause people to reach for weapons in the first instance.  This “dividend” must remain at the center of any UN discussions on African issues and capacities going forward.

The World Economic Forum noted this week the strong possibility that by the year 2100 one third of all people on earth will reside in Africa.   Assuming that we don’t bomb or melt ourselves into extinction before then, this is a staggering statistic, one that will impact every aspect of African governance, security, economy and ecology.   The “strongly intertwined challenges” that currently characterize areas such as the Lake Chad Basin, the Horn of Africa, and the Central African states will evolve in unforeseen ways across the continent, calling for gender and culture-balanced leadership that can inspire hands and hearts that “know what they can do” and commit to doing it.

For the rest of us — during Africa Week and every other week – we must do what we can and all that we can to ensure that Africa has every opportunity to be at peace and, as Mandela noted, to be at peace with itself.



Ode to Inspiration:   The Challenges of UN Leadership on the Run, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Sep

Leadership is not about a title or a designation. It’s about impact, influence and inspiration. Robin S. Sharma

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Leadership is not about the next election, it’s about the next generation. Simon Sinek

One of the trickiest aspects of our (mostly self-authorizing) mandate is the assessment of the contributions of outgoing presidents of the UN‘s General Assembly.   Part of this is a function of timing – with three months to prepare and only one year to implement, the gap separating the end of the institutional honeymoon and the crossing of the institutional finish line is thin indeed.

The accelerated pace at which this office must attempt to make its mark is made more complex by the sheer volume of policy activity for which the office of the president is responsible.  On more and more matters of global governance, including at times matters directly affecting international peace and security, the full General Assembly membership is demanding a voice and expecting the president to enable and magnify that voice.

And finally there is the nature of leadership itself.   More and more, it seems, everyone in our overly-schooled cultures is now presumed to be a “leader” in some fashion or other.   This leadership “saturation” has many implications, not all of them problematic, but one troubling implication is the reticence of erstwhile “leaders” to agree to be led by others.   The “herding cats” analogy is probably overused, but the “forging of consensus” which is such an important component of modern leadership is made more complex in a setting where so many of us “know differently” and so often  claim to “know better.”

Into this cauldron of expectation and impediment stepped Fiji’s Peter Thomson, elected president of the UN General Assembly on June 13, 2016 in the closest of votes over Cyprus Ambassador Mavroyiannis.  In his acceptance speech, and with the personal humility and Hollywood-quality voice to which we have all become accustomed, he cited this “great moment” for the Pacific Small Islands Developing States (SIDS), pledging to keep their voices and their issues –especially ocean health and climate impacts – at the top of his agenda.   He also pointed to the critical need to ratchet up our engagement with all Sustainable Development Goals – perhaps the most important promise that the UN has ever made to its global constituents. He subsequently pushed to ensure that all aspects (even the controversial ones) of what is now known as the 2030 Development Agenda – national ownership, inclusive participation, reliable (real-time) data, predictable finance – received urgent and adequate consideration.

His catholic vision was embraced by many of the top diplomats in the UN system who lent their own expertise and leadership to a range of issue critical to the future of the planet, from climate impacts and migration governance to human trafficking and improving modes of participation for women, youth, indigenous people and other persons whose skills and aspirations have spent far too much time already isolated on our global margins.

All the while, a core focus was maintained on the alleviation of global poverty as well as on the implementing health of the UN system itself.   In the latter instance, Thomson and colleagues understood that as the demands on the UN grow and resources remain problematic, it is essential that key UN bodies encourage clear, efficient and scandal-free expectations.   Though it is fair to quibble (as we have done ourselves) over priority reforms for the UN system, the attention of the PGA and other top diplomats to how the General Assembly does its business – and how the office of the president enables and facilitates that business – has been most appreciated.

The abiding question for us here, beyond the specifics of policy investments, is what lessons of leadership can be gleaned from the Thomson presidency?   We would like to suggest the following.

  • Keep focus on the most urgent crises: While there has been over the past year a bit grousing from the disarmament community about Thomson’s level of commitment in this area, for the most part he has invested the energies of his office on the crises that are most likely to undermine human dignity and threaten our common future.  He has recognized, as we all should, that it is important to keep the kitchen clean but less so when the house is burning.
  • Keep relevant issues and issue stakeholders connected: While there is much talk at the UN about “eliminating silos,” we continue to allow bureaucracy and politics to stifle broader policy responsibilities. Connecting the policy dots has been a hallmark of our office’s work for over a decade. Having a president who has been so visibly committed to full spectrum policy engagements, including and beyond SDG goals and targets, has been highly encouraging, both for the UN and the world surrounding it.
  • Be present: This president brought exceptional personal energy to the UN system.  With help from his policy advisers and speech writers, he was seemingly everywhere in and out of headquarters.  My interns often found it remarkable that he could make his presence felt in so many diverse policy settings, sharing relevant remarks both humble and impacting, but also lending credibility to UN discussions that might otherwise have remained in the policy shadows.
  • Promote hope and agency in others: In many ways, Thomson’s signature achievements were a function of his devotion and loyalty to the people and leaders of the small island developing states.  Their voices have rarely enjoyed the volume and resonance that they have over this past year. But beyond the SIDS, welcoming and growing participation by women and indigenous peoples was high on the president’s agenda.   And our young people – the largest generation in human history — were consistently invited to the UN by this president in a manner that was inclusive without being patronizing.  He was able as few are to recognize the skills and energy of youth and endorse their urgency and even skepticism; all while reminding them that they still have much to learn and that there are generations behind their own for whom we will also need to find productive and participatory spaces.

In remarks shared at one of the many high level events he has sponsored over the past year, Thomson concluded this week’s Culture of Peace dialogue with the following: “Let us work to build bridges of understanding amongst our people; to create environments that foster inclusion and mutual respect; to develop education systems that teach harmony; and to raise children and grandchildren who will safeguard a global culture of peace. “

Amen, Mr. President.   During one short and frenetic year, you and your office have set a high bar for Slovakian Foreign Minister Lajcak who is set to take over your duties. Indeed you have raised the bar for all UN leadership as they seek to rally the skills and energies of this system needed to clean up our messes, eliminate our habituated discrimination, armed conflict and wastefulness, and fulfill our urgent policy promises to those next generations now looking anxiously over our shoulders.

Ballot Stuffing:  The UN Confronts State Claims of Indispensability, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 Mar

Vote for Nobody           Bosnia

I’m sitting in my office on an Easter morning having just walked through a park filled with Narcissus (Daffodils) – bright yellow and white flowers that bear within themselves the promise of their own regeneration.

In the northern countries, budding flowers have long served as visual confirmation of at least part of the Easter message – that death is not the final word, that renewal is possible and that the keys to renewal reside partially within us.

Some states on and off the UN Security Council claim such a power for elections as well, seeing them as an “elixir” of national stability, an integral step towards any prospects for national regeneration.  In many parts of the UN system, including the Security Council, elections are widely encouraged as an antidote to political stalemate, to insurgent violence, to restorations of both the rule of law and the good graces of the international community.

Nonetheless, as we look around the world on this Easter morning, this ascription of “elixir” would appear to be a hard sell.   High levels of “negatives” for US presidential candidates, confidence in leadership undermined in Brazil, concerns about Turkey and the political collapse of the European community, economic woes in Burundi, the DRC and elsewhere spiking public anxieties and threatening transitions, spoilers within too many states (and not all of them insurgents) stoking violence and unrest that undermines reasonable prospects for the maintenance of some semblance of normalcy.

And then there are those leaders who simply refuse to leave, those who imagine themselves to be “indispensable” to the maintenance of whatever prospects for national stability and prosperity might exist.  Some of these leaders have thumbed their noses at their own constitutions.  Others have committed grave abuses against their own people and then manipulated electoral processes in order to shield themselves from post-office litigation.  Too many lay claim a “mandate” that is neither constitutional nor performance-based, a mandate that serves only to further widen the distrust  of citizens towards a state fully convinced that its continued presence in office is beyond reproach.

Clearly, as noted by Paul Collier, “elections determine who is in power, but they do not determine how power is used.”   Nor, apparently, do they always determine when and how such power is to be transitioned.

In preparing to write this piece, I searched for quotations on elections that I thought might be uplifting.   What I mostly found were quotations both humorous and skeptical.   Among them:

The Portuguese writer José Maria de Eça de Queiroz alleged that “Politicians and diapers should be changed frequently and both for the same reason. “ The US humorist Will Rogers noted that, “If we got one-tenth of what was promised to us in these acceptance speeches there wouldn’t be any inducement to go to heaven.”  Also from the US, Mark Twain noted that “If voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.”

There were many more in this vein – grateful for the existence of elections and their own ability to participate in them, but skeptical of the motives of those running for office and mostly despairing of the accountability of the winners after all the votes have been counted.  Many are skeptical as well of the disproportionate influence of those holding large fortunes on the political “fortunes” of others, of the ability of leaders to resist the allures of power and redirect that power to public benefit, of the willingness of leaders to battle the demon of “indispensability” through which so much violence, discrimination and political inertia flows.

Clearly, as many within and outside the UN recognize, elections cannot be abstracted from the societies in which they occur.  Moreover, the holding of elections, while useful in helping to “settle” and legitimize the political order, is hardly a panacea for what ails people.  Indeed, much of the violence which occupies the UN Security Council and security establishments in national capitals relates to the inability – or unwillingness – of ostensibly “elected” governments to offer protection, legal integrity, political freedom and development-without-discrimination to their populations.

As the US noted rightly this week in the Security Council, if leaders are “indispensable,” then clearly they have failed at nation building.  Clearly they have too often failed to uphold the rule of law on which most national constitutions are based. Clearly they have also failed to guarantee an end to impunity for violations of public trust committed by any officials of the state. Clearly they have failed — as suggested by UN SRSG Sidikou during that same Security Council meeting — to create and maintain vigorous public spaces for journalists, civil society and even dissenting policy voices, helping to ensure that official promises are addressed in good faith and any abuses of power are not repeated.   Clearly, they have failed to heed Spain’s recent Council urging for electoral processes that do their part to help turn citizens into “protagonists for their own future.”

In other words, “indispensable” leaders who lack the commmitment to enabling rather than obstructing citizens as they seek to express and enact the powers of social regeneration that lie within them.

More and more, elections themselves seem to be more of a “fingers crossed” moment than any guarantee of future inclusiveness – fingers crossed that “changing the diapers” willl result in happier outcomes than another round of diaper burn.  States worldwide are under assault from terrorists and climate-induced drought, from criminal networks and economic predation.   Even the most accountable of states are now staring down multiple traumatic circumstances.   All states now need help in one form or another, from the UN and other mutilateral institutions, of course, but also from their own citizens.

At the UN this past week, Special Envoy Djinnit noted that, in the African region for which he is responsible, successful elections are now the occasion for mostly “fragile achievements.”   Even in these treacherous times, we know some of what it takes to remove the “fragile” tag; replacing repression with open political space, discrimination with fairness, and manipulations of the law with accountability to its cherished provisions.  We must also do better at ensuring vital and thoughtful linkages between national governance and the three, public commitment pillars of the UN system – to security, human rights and development.  “Fragile” is still within our power to change.

And of course we must find ways to do better about selecting people to lead us who have the humility and wisdom to pass the torch when it is time for them to go.

Elections are one significant piece of a larger puzzle towards ensuring peaceful relations, participation and fairness, both elections within member states and even elections within the UN itself: A puzzle incorporating balloting that underscores – rather than undermines – commitments to political and social inclusiveness, while cultivating a “verifiable trust” in government by citizens that is – more than any political leaders themselves – indispensable to a just and effective political order.

Taking Turns:  Promoting Elder Rights and Enhancing Inter-Generational Connection, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Jul

ageing-working-group10 (4)

While much of the UN community this past week was riveted on discussions on development financing taking place in Ethiopia, some highly suggestive events were taking place in New York.  Among the most significant of these was the Open Ended Working Group on Ageing, kindly and capably chaired by Argentina’s Mateo Estrémé.

Having been raised largely by elders (Aunts and grandparents) and having served in church communities thankfully punctuated by elders’ helpful presence, it is always heartwarming to see the UN place elder care near the core of their policy interests, whether it is this working group, the permanent forum on indigenous peoples, or in other venues.  In all of these settings there is much to lament regarding how too many elders are faring in this world, but also much to celebrate – so many lives with collected wisdom and skills, lives that remain more vital to community well-being than its younger residents often recognize.

As many readers are already aware, the world is currently grappling with ironic demographic twists – the dramatic “greying” of cultures such as Japan and many parts of Europe coupled with an explosion of young people in the “developing” world, allegedly the largest generation of youth in human history.  Added to this are elders whose life (and work) spans are on the rise as more and more youth worldwide grapple with uncertain economic options and uneven messaging from older leadership.  Apparently, youth participation in social and political life is essential to solving a range of global crises, and yet we elders (or soon to be) refuse to ease our grip on the levers of political and economic control or create viable spaces where the participation of others has real meaning.

That these inconsistencies create distance and even tensions between generations on a regular basis is not surprising.  That we are moving in a direction to create more inter-generational understanding and harmony is an assumption requiring some deeper reflection.

The Open Ended Working Group rarely engaged these inter-generational issues directly.  While rightly calling attention to some serious problems affecting older persons – increasing incidences of “elder abuse,” discrimination in housing and employment, a crumbling of social safety networks – the key issue impacting the Working Group was a debate on the necessity of creating a stand-alone convention to fully address the rights of older persons.

As anyone who follows UN affairs knows, this desire for a convention is hardly precedent setting.  To help focus policy concern on many themes and constituencies, and to establish a framework of binding attention and mandated response, the UN has adopted many “conventions” or “treaties.”

Do we need such a framework with respect to the elderly?   The Working Group chair, supported by Brazil, other states and most of the participating NGOs, maintained that a convention was needed to address a litany of legitimate “rights gaps.”  Others, especially states of the European Union (perhaps out of fear that they would be asked to pay for convention-related costs) preferred to modify existing human rights arrangements to more adequately accommodate the needs and interests of elders.

We eventually came down on the side of those favoring a convention, but not without caveats.

Certainly we recognize the following: that conventions do focus policy attention, existing human rights instruments have not been adequately modified, and instances of elder abuse and other violations occur with alarming frequency. But there remains some unease about all of this.  A rights based approach is rightfully core to the mission of the UN, but such an approach sometimes comes with a cost – the danger of isolation of rights holders from one another’s legitimate interests, as well as the increased competition for attention that is often felt in its wake.

The specter of elders becoming a rights-based “interest group” alongside other competing rights-based interests is not a place where most elders I have known from many cultures would wish to stand.  Perhaps I have unusual experiences with elderly persons. Perhaps some of my assumptions here are simply unreasonable, though they seem quite consistent with many elders I have known – those whose primary interest is in maintaining value and connection with younger persons from which the caregiving that so many of them have lavishly bestowed could be returned in kind.  Mostly, the elders I know want dignified lives to the end while urging dignity for others.  There is no desire to engage in any contest yielding winners and losers.

From this standpoint, it is legitimate to wonder to what degree a convention of the sort broadly advocated during the Working Group can adequately address what the Holy See and others referred to as our “throw away” culture with its tendency to denigrate the value of its “unproductive” members. Will a convention address the grave loss to our societies once our elderly become truly “invisible,” locked away in apartments or nursing homes, isolated from meaningful social contact, exploited or ignored by all but the rapidly diminishing number of persons worldwide who see elder care as part of their familial and community responsibility?

At the same time, this calls into question what younger generations seek most from their elders?  Surely not another set of economic competitors!   Surely more than bank accounts filled to overflow with their inheritance.   Surely not relationships predicated on keeping youth dependent or forcing them to accept self-interested interpretations of elders’ lives rather than setting them loose to grow and to heal accompanied by all the honesty – about ourselves and the world we have been privileged to manage – that we can share.

In the absence of such sharing and connection-building, I don’t see how this ends well for elders, convention or no.   More elderly claiming rights but not necessarily promoting the rights of others; more elderly pushing aside the responsibility to mentor next generations; more young people unfairly tuning out elders while accusing them of hoarding too much and sharing too little; more older persons scolding youth to take risks that these same persons weren’t willing to take themselves when they were younger. These are thorny issues of trust and connection facing too many of our cultures that the structure of a rights-based convention might help us locate the motivation to address, but is unlikely to resolve.

Thankfully, there were several examples that came across our office this week attesting to the enduring value of older persons who are comfortable in their skin and are able with kindness and attentiveness to help us all chart the best way forward. For instance, two colleagues of ours have launched a website, http://doinggoodsayswho.com  devoted to stories of persons (mostly indigenous in Guatemala) who have been on the receiving end of what is often well-intended but inattentive caregiving.  Connie Newton and Fran Early conducted hundreds of interviews with Guatemalans, NGOs and others on the often ignored cultural implications of humanitarian response, but it is their modest reflections on their own lifetimes of advocacy and service that are of the most enduring value.  They understand and communicate that what we “know” is less important to others than what we have learned, including about how to co-create contexts of dignified assistance to others.

Back at the UN this past week, Guatemala’s Amb. Rosenthal presided over discussions regarding a Secretary-General mandated review of peacebuilding that was noteworthy for its honest and even courageous assessments.  Rosenthal used the report as backdrop to help “shake up” the peacebuilding establishment, urging more focus on conflict prevention than on rebuilding after conflict has run its course, closer connections to the development community and the Security Council, peace processes that are “enabling rather than imposed.” It was in some ways the epitome of what younger persons should expect from elder statesmen and women – institutional memory deployed in the service of institutional reform, couched in an invitation to the assembled group to make peacebuilding into something more robust, reliable and attentive to what is to come rather than what has been.

Of course, we elders should confess the truth about ourselves as well as our institutions, including the truth that we have not always been the best of global stewards.   Our actions have at times belied our articulated values.  Our need to maintain control has sometimes undermined the sincerity of our invitations to youth participation.   We have tabled too many hopeful suggestions for healing our planet and then walked away from some of them when their degrees of difficulty became apparent.  We have largely forgotten, as Deputy Secretary General Eliasson noted at a recent “global governance” event, that being a “catalyst” for others to lead is a most valuable contribution once our own ‘turn’ at leadership begins to draw to a close.

At the closing session of the Open Ended Working Group on Ageing, Argentina’s Estrémé underscored “the heart and the will” of many to support elder rights. But to truly promote reliable, enduring contexts for elder care, we also need “heart and will” for a significant reboot in cultures that are slowly losing their inter-generational connectivity.  The legitimate rights of older persons can only be enhanced through elderly expressions of kindness, perspective and courage, as well as by a demonstrated commitment to serve as guide and catalyst for youthful aspiration as we enlarge spaces for their participation and eventual leadership.

A Field Worth Playing On:   The UN recalibrates its laws and its leadership, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Jun

Last Friday at the UN, as the Security Council held another unsettling briefing on Ukraine and as a Meeting of Government Experts sought common ground on technical aspects related to the elimination of illicit flows of small arms and light weapons, a rule-of-law lecture took place that highlighted the increasing value and robustness of leadership emanating from smaller states.

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the UN membership of the Principality of Liechtenstein, HSH Hereditary Prince Alois made a presentation at UN headquarters that did what we would urge many states to do under similar circumstances – share why the decision to commit to multi-lateral engagement through the UN was a sound one.  The Prince cited difficulties in getting traction in the UN as a small state but also highlighted their national interest in the strong, accountable rule-of-law which the Prince rightly noted “is a prerequisite for a level playing field and the sovereign equality of all states.”

While the Prince did note some distinct national interests in matters such as the International Criminal Court and in reform of the UN Security Council, he avoided mention of other policy interests including in Women, Peace and Security activities at UN headquarters, areas where his government has displayed visible and welcome leadership.

Indeed, the key to any successful meeting or process at the UN is quality leadership – the kind that both takes risk and builds consensus, that highlights needs in the international community for which it is then willing to take some significant responsibility – convening and prodding rather than pointing figures and expecting solutions to come from elsewhere.

This kind of leadership has recently been in evidence in many UN forums – especially in the post-2015 sustainable development (SDG) negotiations where Kenya’s Kamau and Ireland’s Donoghue (and Hungary’s Kőrösi previously) navigated a challenging process that has produced an historic ‘zero draft.’  That draft has elicited some criticism but also represents a significant improvement over the prior MDGs and has a good chance of passing muster with Heads of State at the UN in September.  The draft also incorporates noteworthy interventions from many small states, including the Small Island Developing States, which will ensure among other things that climate health has a prominent place in SDG implementation.

Beyond the SDGs, this past couple of days alone has seen an important initiative by Lithuania and Malaysia pushing for Security Council responses to challenging cease fire violations in Ukraine, a site of dismay and sadness for the entire UN system.  At the same time, we note Moldova’s successful stewardship of the Meeting of Government Experts, a technical process related to ending the trafficking in small arms which took place amidst significant leadership changes in UN Disarmament Affairs and followed two frustrating and time consuming events related to armaments: the UN Disarmament Commission and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review.

What all of this leadership has in common is that it emanated from what at another time in the UN’s history might be considered ‘unlikely sources.’  Smaller states have always attempted to champion issues of global importance, but for most of the UN’s history these states have operated in the background as big power interests dominated the stage. Now these smaller states not only sit often in the chair’s seat, but do much inside and outside the Security Council to establish a fully functional global agenda in each of the UN’s core policy pillars.

Some of this agenda is related less to issues and more to structures and working methods.   Currently there are serious (and not so serious) proposals cascading through the halls and conference rooms of the UN to change the way the Security Council does its business, the UN system chooses its leadership, and more.  Part of what underlies these concerns is the quite sensible need to find ways to get permanent Council members to play by the same rules that they insist on for other states.  In these efforts, small and medium sized states are playing a growing, welcome role.

We believe completely that one path to UN reform is lies in the vigorous leadership of major UN processes by officials from smaller states.   This includes non-permanent Security Council members who are slowly eroding the assumptions and prerogatives of the veto-wielding states, not through their military or economic power but through their wise, vocal and even courage engagement with the opportunities provided by Council working methods and the UN charter.  The more good sense the non-permanent members communicate, the more resolve they show on policy, indeed even the more enthusiasm they show for the value and future expansion of multi-lateral contexts, the better our planet will be.  As we are seeing, commitment, wisdom and tenacity from smaller states can begin to wear down power imbalances in the UN system perhaps even more successfully in the long run than attempted charter revisions or the formation of new blocks of states at times as intransigent in their interests as the ‘privileged’ states they seek to counter.

This leveling is critical to the health of the UN system.  But it must be attained less by attempting to drag down the larger powers and more by smaller states stepping up and allowing their leadership and (to the extent they are available) commitment of resources to serve as their “balancing card. “  It also means promoting rule-of-law as the essential leveler, rules and standards that can coax more transparency and accountability from large states –including permanent Council members – than any single option currently available to us.

The “inequalities” that formed the basis for much discussion of post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals have their echo in other parts of the system as well.  Not only inequalities within states but also between states.   But it is never enough to lament the imbalances.   We all must — NGOs as well — be willing to pay our “dues” by increasing our practical interest in a UN system that is still desperately needed and still not fulfilling expectations.

Liechtenstein is one of the small states that have, individually and collectively, made positive contributions to multilateralism in large measure through its interest in rule-of-law.   If this system is ever going to truly balance — and it may not survive unless that happens – more states need to join efforts at rule-of-law based institutional reform.  Such states must also be willing to take leadership in areas of their greatest interests while affirming publicly the benefits to governments and peoples of UN-based multilateral arrangements.