Tag Archives: media

Bubble Wrap: Unpacking our Digitalized Enclosures, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 May


For a bubble, even the gentlest touch is fatal.  Mehmet Murat ildan

The truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.  Nadine Gordimer

The truth is rarely pure and never simple.  Oscar Wilde

What fools we mortals are to think that the plans we make are anything more than a soap bubble blown against a hurricane, a frail and fleeting wish destined to burst. Barbara Nickless

The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.  Joe Klaas

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

On a weekend when we celebrate the end of Ramadan and mourn the loss of the fallen on our various battlefields, I have spent much of the time cleaning out file cabinets filled with old letters.  Some of these letters were angry, some grateful, some filled with insight about the writer, the intended audience, the world at large.  But what was most revealing is the amount of care that went into them, page after page in longhand, people often younger than me committed to disclose and share, to make sense of a world which was often making none, to decipher and embrace the core of their being amidst a cacophony of conflicting and competing messaging, to transcend fleeting joys and hurts and find the north star within themselves to guide what would hopefully be a long life of care for self and service to others.

We rarely communicate like this anymore.   Our introspective longhand has become digital shorthand.   We have trouble sustaining attention of any sort let alone sustaining a train of thought that promises genuine insight, even possible breakthrough.   Our messaging is ubiquitous but thin; we “stay in touch” by dropping in and out of lives from which we extract highly-branded versions of key “incidents” but with less and less of the backstory that explains why such incidents actually matter and what longings might yet exist between what are often lengthening cracks revealing our obsessive efforts to convince others we’re OK when we may only be partially so.

As is often the case with these posts, I am preaching to the choir; but also to myself.

This week, for me, was immersed in communications-related issues.  It began with a “new” campaign-related initiative by the US Republican party and ended with what will hopefully be an important opening gambit in the UN Security Council examining how the cyberspace we are now reliant on to almost desperate degrees is digressing into “bubbles” of self-referential propaganda and even hate speech that directly threaten international peace and security.

The aforementioned campaign initiative was given a most interesting name:  The Truth over Facts Investigative Website which is designed primarily to highlight the gaffes of the US president’s political opponent, but which neither interrogates the president’s own slippery relationship to facts of any stripe nor breaks any new ground regarding our general confusion regarding how “facts” are and are not constitutive of a fuller “knowing” of the world and our own relationship to it, how “facts” divorced from context can just as easily reinforce our various cognitive bubbles as puncture them.

As someone whose long-ago graduate school experience was literally drowning in epistemological considerations related our diverse “ways of knowing” the world, I have long been a believer that data and truth are kissing cousins but not quite marriage partners.   I won’t waste your weekend on a protracted diatribe about the ways in which we misuse data by failing to properly contextualize it, or about the ways in which we use “facts” to place people in boxes that we don’t want them to escape or even use “facts” to justify an end to exploration rather than as the engine of its continued evolution.

But I will communicate this.  In my erstwhile-jaundiced view, the behavior of several leaders of major power governments during this pandemic has been nothing short of criminal, principally in its lack of humility, its unwillingness to consult and abide by those of greater knowledge, and its utter lack of urgency regarding the preservation of life.   It is certainly the case that scientists are learning more and more each day about the pandemic, its modes of transmission, effective treatment options, even the consequences of infection – from kidney failure in the sick to psychic depression in those merely fearful of sickness, but also with sustained periods of loneliness and of protracted economic uncertainty.

But the certainties that many seem to be looking for in this time of pandemic remain elusive. Yes, we have vaccine trials with results that are sometimes encouraging and we can generally ascertain when the viral “curve is flattening” and where relapses are most likely.  But do GDP or official unemployment statistics really communicate the “truth” about our collapsing and vastly unequal economies? Is “official” data on COVID-related deaths and infections the “truth” about our viral circumstances, or might matters actually be more dire due to people dying in places other than hospitals and tests yielding untrustworthy results?

It is alternately intellectually interesting and emotionally unsettling for me to watch public officials struggle with their COVID messaging in an environment where trust in officials is low across the board, where the “facts” of infection change regularly as we learn more about what works and what doesn’t, and when national political leadership seems more inclined to stoke anger and anxiety than coach it away.   As a result, too many people of all ideological persuasions feel abandoned to cope with the current uncertainty largely on their own, to pull the metaphorical blinds and double-down on the “bubbles” with which are most reassuring, even if those bubbles are riddled with half-truths, even if those bubbles only offer equally false choices between hard certainty on the one hand and conspiratorial make-believe on the other.

Our remaining confidence in authorities and experts seems now less about the credentials behind what we are being told and more about who is telling us, who we choose to believe, who is able and willing to confirm what it is that we have more or less already concluded about the world and what in it truly threatens us.

This week, the UN launched what it calls Verify, a useful initiative to combat the growing scourge of COVID-19 misinformation “by increasing the volume and reach of trusted, accurate information.”  Of course the test for Verify will be less about the accuracy and trustworthiness of the data it scrutinizes and more about the trust that the UN and its World Health Organization can garner as a responsible arbiter of the “truths” of COVID – what we know, what we don’t know, and why some of the rumors and conspiracies floating around the planet (and especially in the digital universe) do not pass the test either of facts or context.

Does the UN retain the capacity to do more than offer its version of competing narratives about the pandemic or, for that matter, the many other, science-relevant, global challenges also on its policy agenda?  Sadly for me, this is unclear.  As much of a proponent of science (and of the UN) as I have been all my life, I lament that we have misplaced so much of our capacity to educate people about what it is that scientific and medical experts can and cannot (yet) accomplish, to have an honest conversation with people about the nature and limits of scientific inquiry, the findings of science that might well eventually set us free but, in the short term, are almost as likely to “piss us off.”

We need to have those conversations in our schools, our communities and especially in bastions of social and political authority such as the UN.  No, our data is not static.  No, all of our facts are not situated in proper contexts.  No, our “authorities” are not always authoritative. Sometimes authorities do what we now mostly all do and much too often – re-purpose “truths” espoused as a manipulative pathway to get what we want rather than as a means of enriching our connections and the quality of our common life.

In reading this over, I recognize how naïve and old school it must seem to some readers, especially those who have given in to the modernist assumption that we can be expected to do no better than to encase ourselves in our bubbles of choice and then pray to whatever powers we might still acknowledge to preserve our bubble from puncture.  But puncture is inevitable.   Our bubbles might be lovely to behold but as even the reference dictionaries acknowledge, they are also fragile, temporary, fleeting, insubstantial, unable to withstand much in the way of the winds of change and the challenges of new lenses on truth that now buffer them routinely.

When those bubbles do finally burst, when disenchantment towards our governments and official expertise has been set loose, when the convenient untruths communicated by our digital media preferences start to unravel, when our resentments (and the entitlements to which they are often tethered) are allowed to overwhelm our collective solidarity even more than they already do now, then we have set the stage for fresh ugliness that even the excellent Security Council discussion on Friday on “digital threats” to peace and security could barely discern.  We have shaken and awakened our hunger, not so much for truth and the data to which it must remain attached, but for grievance-based vengeance, for our petty cancel culture and its righteous minions, for a “rules based order” created by powerful states and individuals who don’t play by the rules they advocate. And this is encouraged by a media and “information system” that often seems relentless in its attempts to manipulate emotions not help them reach maturity.

This is a larger problem even than the virus, even than the digital culture on which we increasingly rely and which now seems to offer many more opportunities to reinforce prejudice and distance than wisdom and connection.   We are being pushed into bubbles from many angles, but we often now offer little resistance and even less inclination to abandon their false security.

The truth is rarely pure and never simple as Oscar Wilde noted.  The question now is whether we have the “stomach” to pursue — with humility and even in longhand — the truths of our time along their winding, rocky path; and then create a post-COVID world of security, health, equity and beauty once we are fortunate enough to catch them.


Dark Cover: A Plea for Greater Policy Vigilance, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Apr

From:  University of Oregon

People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. Carl Jung

So many distractions, when all she wanted was silence, so she could understand what was going on. Rehan Khan

I am terrified by this dark thing that sleeps in me; all day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity. Sylvia Plath

Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear. No one comes near. The Beatles

The people dreamed and fought and slept as much as ever. And by habit they shortened their thoughts so that they would not wander out into the darkness beyond tomorrow. Carson McCullers

So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak to one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Yes, we may be in the midst of some great existential crisis, but we’re simply too busy to notice. Douglas Rushkoff

God’s creatures who cried themselves to sleep stirred to cry again. Thomas Harris

This was another of those weeks where the profundity of the quotations above is likely to overwhelm the wisdom of the prose below.

There were indeed some items of hopeful policy significance this week beyond the medical madness.  At the UN, the General Assembly a resolution was tabled that affirmed the critical importance of multilateral cooperation necessary (in the words of Mexico) to ensure global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment to fight COVID-19. The announcement of the resolution was followed by pleas (from ourselves and others) that this resolution be swiftly actionable within and between member states.

Also this week, the Security Council presidency turned over to the Dominican Republic for April, a move which not only signaled a month of kind and competent leadership, but which virtually guaranteed that the Council would take up the peace and security implications of COVID-19, which to our mind and those of many others, are implications overdue for consideration.  Indeed, a briefing by the Secretary-General provisionally scheduled for this coming week will likely touch both on COVID-19 response and his related call for a global cease fire to ensure response effectiveness.

That said, there are still grave dangers lurking amidst the “corona darkness” that threaten many millions.   As we noted two weeks ago, and despite the SGs call for a global cease fire, conflict still ranges in Libya, killings still persist in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon, bombs keep falling on Yemen, homes continue to be demolished in the Occupied Territories, weapons access spreads unabated.  And while the current lull in human activity seems to have brought about a brief, welcome respite for parts of the natural world, too many of us seem poised to produce and consume with a vengeance once the “all clear” signal can be heard across the globe.

And the current danger runs deeper than merely taking our eyes off global situations that still require our active vigilance.   For the virus has inadvertently provided cover for political leaders to assume powers they shouldn’t, and make decisions they shouldn’t, on the assumption that our attention is fully distracted by mask making  and hand washing, by figuring out how to pay our bills and providing plausible explanations to our children for why their playgrounds have been closed, why their schools and daycare have been shut down, why they must now keep at least six feet distant from the people they have routinely run to hug.

Such distractions are legitimate and understandable. But they are also allowing our political leadership — swaths of which have proven themselves to be far more ambitious than competent – to make decisions “under cover” of the current viral darkness, often with implications which we are too distracted now to follow but that serve to double down on policies that are as likely to punish political adversaries as heal division; that are as likely to strip besieged families of their full complement of economic and health options as to help restore their dignity and ability to care for elders and children.

Historically speaking, it is not unusual for unscrupulous leadership to use crises (of which this is surely a major one) as an excuse to consolidate power, punish opposition, strip citizens of human rights and otherwise centralize authority. In the current virus crisis we see elements of all of these in societies as far-flung as Hungary, Brazil, the Philippines and the US. The power grabs; the misuses of funds; the consolidation of resources which are then parceled out based on loyalty rather than need; the daily attempts to manipulate information flows, putting out narratives which are almost completely self-serving rather than public-serving.

I am obviously more familiar with what is happening in the US though my eyes remain as attentive as I can keep them to stories from other regions written by journalists and others with contacts and perspective, often taking risks with their ears pinned to the ground.   And the pattern in my country is one that is steadily being mimicked in other parts of the world: the endless self-congratulations; the equally endless lying, or at least speaking without knowing; rhetorical “explanations” that scramble media outlets and sow public confusion; the shrinking of options for medical care and for exercising the right to vote; the repeated implication that the interests of leadership and their friends take precedence over the common interests.

One common thread in all of this is the assumption of these erstwhile leaders that we are simply too busy to notice – too distracted by the logistical and emotional burdens of coping with a crisis that (as one of my friends noted) we can’t see, can’t smell, can’t track its own stealth. It is enough just being ourselves now, tending to anxious children, navigating grocery stores and pharmacies, writing sermons (and other opinions) that “no one will hear,”caring for sick loved ones and, in the worst of scenarios, watching them die at a distance and then being buried with none coming near. God’s children (if you will) are too often crying themselves to sleep and then stirring to cry again.

And under cover of this “corona darkness,” the very leaders who ignored the threat whose impacts they could well have minimized – certainly prepared for with more integrity and resolve – the very leaders who allow their closest supporters to exploit the rules that others are struggling to follow; these people are, in more than a few instances, using the crisis as a back-door opportunity to push their own interests and agendas beyond where they could push them through any other door. All of this scheming is taking place while the discouragement descends on more and more people; while the distractions multiply and intensify; while the bonds of human connection become further frayed; while people remain legitimately consumed by the immediate, including the immediacy of family protection.

What Sylvia Plath referred to as “malignity,” is appropriate in this context. We know that temptations are ever-present for people in power (at whatever level of power) to take advantage of “opportunities” provided by crises to see what they can get away with, to fill the airways with silence-busting nonsense such that people are severely challenged just to figure out what is going on around them. This is nefarious business under the best of circumstances. But when those who dismissed and even mocked the warnings of the coming darkness then turn around and attempt to exploit its cover, one is challenged to find the most appropriate condemnation. It hasn’t come to me yet.

In our own smaller policy context, we were among the groups these past weeks calling for “media distancing” from the counter-scientific half-truths, utter manipulations of timelines and prior pronouncements, and other often-misleading proclamations coming from some of our political leadership.   We know — if we had ever forgotten — that we need better now from our media, from our civil society, from organizations such as ours. As the political elite cleans house of anyone deemed “disloyal,” even highly-respected Naval Commanders and those tasked with federal oversight, we need more people in that space of discernment and analysis, and we need to better honor those who have already risked much to keep that work alive.

In some instances we are now seeing the positive benefits of that “distancing” taking the form of more geographically and ethnically inclusive interviewing, more compassionate reporting, and more soliciting of expert opinion from the medical and scientific communities. This includes more space for the unique experiences and expertise of the women and men who risk their lives in intensive care units and makeshift clinics trying to keep as many of us alive as possible. As the current darkness motivates more and more to “shorten their thoughts,” there are thankfully still numerous people of integrity out there in a crowded media universe who can help keep those thoughts less distracted, better informed and more alert. Indeed, the families we now strive so hard to protect may ultimately depend as well on maintaining higher levels of vigilance.

People will, as Jung noted, do almost anything to avoid facing their own souls, to avoid looking at themselves through the same mirror that they so gleefully hold up to others.   In this time of viral darkness, there are precious few leaders who have demonstrated that they can truly face their own souls, owning the errors that have occurred on their watch and that — deviously or not — have endangered many lives.  Before this time of darkness runs its course and the next one prepares to descend, we must find the words and the energy to insist that they do so.

Construction Zone:  The SG Report’s Overlooked Obstacles and Inspirations, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Aug

Under Construction

The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but no vision. Helen Keller

Nothing is more imminent than the impossible . . . what we must always foresee is the unforeseen.  Victor Hugo

We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper. Isaac Bashevis Singer

The task of the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope. Leonora Carrington

If you need a reason to get involved in world politics, all you need to do is watch a playground of children.  Laurance Kitts

This has been one of the slower weeks at the UN in recent memory.  Aside from an excellent, first-time event to honor victims of terrorism, the highlight of the week was probably the release of the Report of the Secretary-General on the work of the Organization, the latest in an annual exercise that gives those who take time to read it a sense of how the UN system – seen almost exclusively through the lens of UN secretariat leadership – is adjusting its processes and priorities in an attempt to address the too-frequent, darkening clouds which daily permeate our news feeds.

The report promises a “frank and realistic” appraisal of UN and global challenges. As is the case with many prior SG reports, I would exercise caution in using such terms to describe this document.   As I will allude to below, such an appraisal would require the SG to talk less about his own “launchings” and more about the efforts of the complex system of which he is a part – including work already done to lay the groundwork for his own tenure; the many stakeholders inside and outside the UN system that create complementary and essential frameworks for change; even the unsung heroes “in the field” who help restore faith in the “work” of the UN.  That faith, we fear, is routinely compromised by several un-named factors, including the political maneuvering of powerful states and officials inside UN Headquarters, certainly within in the Security Council, maneuverings currently as likely to maintain the “stasis” of deadly conflicts (and their many implications for the other UN “pillars”) as to resolve them.

Indeed, these reports increasingly are neither particularly generous of spirit nor “frank” in terms of naming political, fiscal and institutional impediments to achieving the “world we want,” the world as noted several times in this report is promised by the Sustainable Development Goals.  Indeed, at points, these “reports” reminded me a bit of funding proposals that small NGOs like mine might submit – long on “what we’re doing,” and reminders of “what more remains to be done” (with additional funding of course) and short on assessments of what barriers lie in the way of achieving our desired ends, including of course the sometimes unhelpful ways in which we, ourselves, conduct our own business.   Indeed, this SG report (as with others) seems deliberately “pitched” to funders, in this instance to the member states who must “sell” the value of the UN to national capitals; also to the many “partners” of the UN characterized increasingly by multilateral lenders, multi-national corporations and large NGOs who already exercise an outsized influence on current UN policies.  The world may seem to be quite a mess in the eyes of many constituents, but the message to funders and key partners is that we at the UN have the goods to clean it up or, at the very least, are developing the tools and protocols (at the direct urging of the SG and with proper support) to clean better.

In fairness to this report, its release could hardly have been timed more awkwardly – having to compete with the death of former SG Kofi Annan, a man much beloved and of great wisdom and stature who, increasingly over the course of his two terms, found his inspirational voice and helped the UN system increase its global credibility while recovering from a series of scandals and reckless policies related to abuses by UN personnel, “oil for food,” the invasion of Iraq and, surely the most significant failure of his era, the inability to prevent the Rwanda genocide. It is imprudent at best to compare SGs when one has reached the end of his life and the other is in the midst of adjusting to often-grave political and institutional challenges, but it is perhaps noteworthy that our widely-utilized Global Action twitter feed towards the end of this week was filled with hundreds of diplomatic and civil society tributes to Annan while the SG report was referenced less often than the number of fingers on one hand.

Again in fairness to the report, there is much of value in it to the UN and, hopefully, the global community, work that has already taken place “on the watches” of SG Guterres and DSG Mohammed (the latter of whom is noted only in a photo).  The report makes clear that there has been some UN-led progress on countering terrorism,  on improving the safety of peacekeepers, on promoting “free trade” among corruption-free African states, on ensuring participation and leadership by women and youth,  on reform of the UN development system (including the UN’s resident coordinators), on ending abuses perpetrated against women and children, on ocean health, on providing services for victims of terror, and on increasing the “footprint” of a revamped UN Peacebuilding Commission and Peacebuilding Fund, offices for which the SG is thankfully seeking a “quantum leap” in funding support in acknowledgement of the PBC’s growing role in promoting the SG’s desired linkage between “prevention and protection” on the road towards sustainable peace.

The SG also highlighted the more-looming existential threats of climate and nuclear weapons as well as the vast numbers of “people on the move,” in part driven by climate and conflict impacts. But again, there is little to be found regarding “what is in the way” of urgent progress on such matters, nor is there sufficient “frankness” regarding how another “climate summit” and a barely-functional disarmament architecture (including barely-binding treaty obligations) are likely to get us close to anything like the “promised land” as more scientists predict that we are likely to miss our climate targets and more observers note (with great regret) the degree to which weapons spending and production continue to expand despite our hard-fought resolutions and treaties. There is also little assessment regarding how (or if) the well-crafted, soon-to-be-endorsed and purely voluntary Global Compact on Migration can help counter the growing nationalism, xenophobia and intolerance that jeopardize the welfare of migrants and undermine the credibility of our rule-based system.  Again, and especially for an institution that sits at the very center of global governance, “what is in the way” of life-affirming progress is as important to communicate as “what we are now doing.”

One other item of note before closing pertains to the “mood” of the UN building,  Our own take on this after many years of watching and reflecting is that the “culture shift” inside the UN rightly advocated for by the SG must go beyond breaking up the “silos” of secretariat offices to enable and embrace a new appreciation for all UN stasff and stakeholders.   One manifestation of this “culture” would be the ability of the UN system and its leadership to honor the “whistleblowers” within its walls that this SG report seeks to honor outside of them.   Those who expose “shady dealings” are enablers of a healthier UN and not its enemies.  Those who report on the limitations of the UN system and not merely regurgitate its pre-prepared and highly-branded news releases are doing their part to make the UN truly “fit for purpose” in a world of frightening conflict and climate risks.  Those who commit themselves to pay close attention to the UN and member states – not only what they say but what they do – and who read lessons-learned back to its talented decisionmakers — are helping in their own small way to cleanse the system of its inconsistencies, its excesses, its occasional confusions regarding the difference between “construction and completion.”  It is thus with regret that this SG report paid so little attention to the health and welfare of civil society and journalists, those operating in the increasingly tightly-managed spaces within UN headquarters, but especially those who have “watched children on the playground,” and subsequently chosen to risk their lives in otherwise forgotten places to fortify the food-insecure, defend the defenseless, share stories and warning signs we would otherwise overlook, and uphold the values of the UN Charter to which we at headquarters too-often seem to give lip-service.

SG Guterres is correct to stress in his report the importance of multilateral engagement to “solve problems together than we cannot solve alone.”  He is also right to attempt to enhance the UN’s “capacity to operate as a convener of people, a proponent of ideas, a catalyst for action and a driver of solutions.”  But for this to continue, we need several things from our UN leadership, including more frequent demonstrations of inspiration and generosity of spirit, fresh levels of “frankness” regarding internal and external barriers to fulfilling our multilateral obligations, and increased attention to those on the margins of our increasingly high-end “partnerships” who need the UN to be better at anticipating the challenges of the future while addressing what the SG called “remaining gaps” and honoring the SDGs and our other, pending, policy promises.  We must together do a better job of “keeping one eye on the telescope and the other on the microscope.”

Long before the release of his next annual report, we encourage the SG and other senior staff to take some long walks through the building they ostensibly manage, to listen to those who fill up seats in UN conference rooms and cafes, or provide security and other assistance to the many UN visitors who still – justifiably I think – look to this institution to define a path out of collective despair.  Beyond the influences of powerful states, multilateral lenders and NGOs with the fiscal structure of small nations, beyond the many hopeful initiatives both honored and misplaced within this SG report, there is a growing sense – even within this UN building — that we are simply not doing enough to give life a chance.  Clearly, there is more to say, more to do, more to inspire than appears in these SG pages.  Let those missing dimensions permeate our words and actions leading up to the next report’s release.

Full-Court Press:  Placing the UN’s Accomplishments and Shortcomings in Context, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Oct

We bombard people with sensation. That substitutes for thinking .―Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Those of you who follow the UN (either through us or other sources) know that this hasn’t been the very best of weeks.   We appear to have a new Secretary-General, but it remains to be seen if he can rise above the disappointment of both Eastern Europeans anticipating the selection of one of “their own” and countless others who believed that this was finally the time for the UN to choose from among a bevy of highly qualified female candidates.

In the UN General Assembly Committees meeting this month, teeth were clenched over matters such as the status of Western Sahara and other non-self-governing territories (4th), the human rights responsibilities of counter-terror operations (6th) and the relative merits of a negotiating process in 2017 that might at some point lead to a “Ban Treaty” on nuclear weapons.

We also received disappointing news this week that a suit brought on behalf of the Marshall Islands in the International Court of Justice by a legal team which included our office mate, John Burroughs, was turned away by votes of 8-8 (for the UK) and 9-7 (for both Pakistan and India).  The suit represented an attempt to create legal pressure on nuclear weapons states to fulfill their international nuclear disarmament obligations “in good faith. “  Such pressure, wistfully, must await a different diplomatic opening.

There was some positive news on the climate front as European Union member states held a hopeful event to highlight their ratification of the Paris climate agreement, thus pushing it over the line towards Entry into Force.   But even here, even as the Paris agreement set a record for rapid ratification, optimism and reality managed to distort one other. As president of the General Assembly Thompson (Fiji) noted, this event occurred as Haiti lay in ruins from hurricane Matthew and polar melting affecting coastal and small states accelerates:  a glass struggling to retain its half-portion of fluid.

And then there is Syria, the topic of a rare Saturday session of the Security Council, a session that Russia itself – the current Council president and sponsor of one of two resolutions offered up for vote – referred to as a “spectacle” that would accomplish little and simply waste valuable time.   Russia itself vetoed the alternate proposal on the table – offered chiefly by France and Spain – setting off a bitter exchange that strained Council protocol and featured a “walk out” by 3 permanent members when the Syrian Ambassador began his own Council remarks.  Egypt captured the mood of many left in the room, wondering aloud if anyone in Syria any longer cares what the Council does or doesn’t do.

For those of us who make a point to be present as these and related deliberations take shape, there are several priorities for us – attentiveness to the topic at hand and to subtle shifts in government positions; linking conversations across various meeting rooms to get (and communicate) the full measure of the UN’s engagements on its most important issues; and – perhaps most important –showing interest in how our “bubble” deliberations are perceived by communities far beyond the UN.

This final consideration is critical for us as it seems to be for a growing number of delegations and civil society.   If the reputation of the UN is defined largely by perceptions of policy incompetence, ill will and/or internal branding that raises expectations beyond the capacity and will of the UN system, then there is ultimately little point to our work here.  If the UN Security Council –to cite one example — is turning into a “dialogue of the deaf” then we should be directing our own and others’ energies to places of greater resonance and effectiveness.

We still believe in the UN’s promise though we remain concerned that promises made here are quite more numerous than promises kept.  We also continue to see value in our mandate made more possible by the increasing transparency of the UN system – a mandate related to dissemination and analysis defined in part by what we feel are the best and worst, the most and least hopeful, aspects of UN activity.

In that light, there was a small event hosted this week by Ireland that highlighted some of our concerns regarding the dissemination aspects of our work.   At this side event, devoted to the question, “Do we live in an age of misinformation,” media representatives from inside and outside the UN discussed the ways in which the current media climate impacts public perceptions of migrants and refugees now on the move in record-shattering numbers.  Ireland’s Ambassador Donoghue shared his concern about media accounts that raise the bar on prejudice rather than on understanding.   A social media expert from CNN offered opaque linkages between the media we come to “trust” and the media which merely validates opinions and values that we already hold, in too many instances to the denigration and/or stereotyping of others.

It is important for us as an office to remember three things here:  First while increased transparency at the UN is welcome, it is no substitute for accountability.   While we are grateful to sit in the meetings that we do, we are well aware that, for the most part, we are staring through an ever-larger picture window at a meal that we ourselves are not allowed to eat.   Much like our professional journalist colleagues, we must struggle to find the gaps – often evident only after many visits to many different conference rooms – that allow us to make meaningful contributions to state and UN accountability.  We need to do more than cite UN intent; we and other must help ensure that intent is actionable.

The second is that those in positions of authority who perceive a problem “on their watch” have some remedial responsibility relative to it.  If it is the case that social media — and specifically the way in which it is used by corporate media – contributes to ever-more, like-minded “ghettos” where people only hear what they want to hear, then it is the responsibility of media companies to help figure out how to address this shortcoming.  To raise a legitimate concern in a UN conference room and then throw metaphorical hands in the air as though we are powerless to address that concern seems a bit disingenuous. After all, the point of knowing is only partially about validation or control; it must also be about possibility and change.

The third lesson has to do with assumptions of bias on the part of media professionals but also garden-variety bloggers such as ourselves.  There is certainly ample bias to examine; however as many media professionals recognize (even if they refuse to acknowledge it publicly), bias is only partially about the things we say about the things we choose to cover.  It is also about what we choose to cover in the first place and the “contexts” we establish for the claims we subsequently make. And these latter “choices” now trend too often towards the sensational, the scandalous.  We are well along to becoming “ambulance chasers” of breaking “news,” which itself represents a bias of monumental proportions.

The UN community can surely do much to counter misinformation on complex global challenges such as global migration, including its own role in moving this community of nations forward in ways that would be virtually impossible if the UN itself did not exist.  But people deserve more, need more than “half stories” and official spin.  They deserve instead a fair and full accounting of UN practices, practices beyond the celebratory, beyond the sensational, even beyond the gravely disappointing; practices that hold the promise of a more stable, peaceful world, but mostly for now (as we have seen this week at the UN) only incompletely.

During the Irish media event, a speaker from Syria spoke of the need to “humanize” migrants, to see and communicate migration in its full complexity beyond stereotypes and “challenges” posed to host communities.   This embrace of complexity is sound advice for every stakeholder in UN coverage and for our communication with diverse constituencies. Following that advice will require more –from those who produce UN-related content and from those who consume it.

Elite Benefits, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Dec

Those of us who try to stay current with multi-lateral, diplomatic affairs are acutely and sometimes painfully aware of the benefits that ascribe to being a large power at the United Nations, especially a permanent Security Council member.

Governments at the UN have become accustomed to playing by two sets of rules.   The permanent members routinely create narratives for their own behavior that, by any relevant international standard, should be heavily scrutinized rather than brushed aside.  Scrutiny, too often, is reserved for the smaller and often ‘outlier’ states that have fewer resources and less occasion to ‘spin’ bad behavior to positive political ends.

The release of the US Senate’s report on CIA interrogation methods is welcome, despite the political wrangling that delayed its release, citing ‘damage’ to US interests that might occur once at least a portion of the ‘truth’ is out.  And despite efforts by some to use the report’s release as a kind of moral ‘disinfectant’ to the deep psychic sickness which the report partially highlights and to which this nation has willfully descended.

There are of course lessons here that the US (and many other nations) would be wise to learn but probably will not.  The first lesson is that controversial behavior must account for that time when the full truth about the controversy is known.  People don’t much care about the day to day activities of most of us, but in the case of high government officials there will always be interest.    And in this celebrity driven age with personal gadgets at the ready, the chances of keeping ‘secrets’ secret in the long-term are quite low.

Second, we need to lose this idea, and especially its practical application, that some states stand above the laws they seek to hold others accountable to.   I’m not sure what happened to ‘modeling’ as a change strategy, but clearly the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ maxim that is so dysfunctional within family life has somehow found a leading role in international polity, and not to its benefit.

And finally, the noxious effort by some in the government and media so see the release of the report as a symbol of our collective moral virtue must cease immediately.   My country did not ‘own up to’ our mistakes until, in some instances, years after those ‘mistakes’ were made, and then only under pressure from the press and human rights advocates, and then again only after intensive political wrangling.   Moral virtue, indeed.  If ever there was a time to climb down from the bully pulpit and eat some humble pie, this is it.

The ability of elite powers to ‘spin’ their own bad behavior while pointing fingers at others is itself a moral travesty and one of the reasons why the status of the UN is not higher globally than it is.  I will likely pay more of a penalty for late payments of my office bills than lying CIA officials (and their defenders in the executive branch of government) will pay for sapping the very life out of persons who were, for the most part, only ‘alleged’ to have committed serious crimes.

Needless to say, this is not quite the ‘gift’ on Human Rights Day that we might otherwise have hoped for.

An Open Letter to our Readers — Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Nov

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

For the past two years or more, we have provided you with real time (and through the blog) analysis of major events, discussions, resolutions and decisions that make up the work of today’s United Nations.

From ECOSOC and the Security Council to Treaty Bodies and GA Committees, we have attempted to communicate — within the limits of Twitter — key ideas and developments from UNHQ that continue to shape the world, often for good, sometimes for outcomes more ambiguous than that.

Soon parts of GAPW will go on a short hiatus, traveling to Hungary and Central Africa to participate in the Budapest Human Rights Forum as well as a series of workshops and events organized by the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation in Cameroon.  Karin Perro (@KarinPerro) and others will remain in New York and we will all reach out when and where we can, but likely not at our normal levels of coverage until December 4.

It is vitally important to our work that we make these trips to consult with partners on issues and organizational matters, to be inspired by the important work occurring in places far removed from New York, even to have our own mission assessed and refreshed.   As many of you already know, it is hard to make honest assessments of our value — and our limitations – in places like this.  We ‘get away’ much less often than we used to, making those times when we can connect with diverse communities that much more precious.

In the interim, we would like to communicate three things to all of you.  First, to let you know how much we value your policy engagement.   Twitter is not to be confused with brain surgery, to be sure, but there is a skill to communicating important things in limited spaces, and we are enormously grateful that you value our communication and are so generous with your own.

Second, as some of you know we have welcomed many interns and fellows over the years, people who come to us to learn about the UN, conduct research, complete books, interview diplomats and much more.  As we move forward as an office, we welcome communication from others interested in sharing our hospitable and connected space.

Finally, as with your own work, ours doesn’t happen for free.   For the past 10 years, we have more or less lived on the edge, with modest budgets of $200,000 or less and uncertain cash flows.  Of course, this is how most of the world lives, and we didn’t get into this to occupy the high rises that now surround UNHQ.  Still, we have basic salaries to provide, office infrastructure to maintain, occasional trips to take, publications and policy analysis to complete, fellows and interns to support, and more.

If you can help us in any way, we would be grateful.   The easiest way to contribute would be to use the Just Donate button found on our homepage:   www.globalactionpw.org.

Donate Now

You can also send a check to GAPW, 866 UN Plaza, Suite 4050, New York, NY 10017.  Please feel free to pass on this message to others who might be able to help out or who would be interested in joining our policy discussions.

Thank you as always for staying in communication with us.  We promise never to abuse the privilege of your most welcome policy collaboration.

Warm regards to you,


Dr. Robert Zuber

Declining Dignity for Journalists: The Dual Challenges of Violence and Access

15 Dec

On Friday, the Security Council held an ‘Arria Formula’ event, hosted by Guatemala and France, focused on the growing problem of violence against working journalists.

The event was largely ‘off the record’ and attendance was somewhat restricted.   The opening panel featured an extraordinary array of UN officials — including UNESCO’s Irina Bokova and ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. These and other officials are tasked in part with ensuring that journalists are protected (and crimes against them are prosecuted) both by member states and by the international community, in part based on ‘protection of civilians’ mandates issued by the Council,  application of Article 8 of the Rome Statute, etc.   There was also important testimony provided by David Rhode of Reuters, who himself had been held captive by the Taliban, as well as by other professionals working to protect journalists from abuse.

Much of the discussion was premised on the language of SC Resolution 1738, which was the first Security Council text devoted to the protection of journalists in armed conflicts, expresses the Council’s concern regarding the lack of adherence to existing rules, and recalls the relevant body of legislation applicable.  Indeed, one of the best insights from a robust engagement with this issue was the call for a ‘consolidated document’ that summarizes all of the disparate UN efforts under way to better protect journalists.  This is clearly an issue for the UN system as a whole and not just for Council deliberations.

Beyond resolutions, the event made several things clear.   First and foremost, there was recognition that violence against journalists has reached epidemic proportions.   Speaker after speaker noted the frequent occurrence of murder and abduction of journalists, as well as the recognition that 90% or more of this violence goes unpunished.

It was also noted that violence against journalists occurs mostly away from conflict zones with most victims being local journalists.   Attempts to intimidate the community of journalists are widespread and corrosive of efforts to provide legitimate, impartial information that, among other things, can document and spread the word about massive violations of human rights.   As was noted on more than one occasion, murder remains the most effective form of censorship.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, there was recognition of the vital role that journalists – local and international – play in helping policymakers stay abreast of conditions in some of the most challenging and dangerous parts of our world.   There were welcome calls for new ‘journalist safety standards’ as well as more training of national security forces on the need to preserve freedom of expression.  These and other measures bring some hope for relief.

But violence is not the only challenge facing professional journalists.  There is also a problem with access to UN agencies, government officials and policymakers.  In addition, as more and more media becomes subsumed under corporate interests, the very same journalists who risk their lives to provide sometimes horrific images and stories of abuse from very challenging environments find that they must struggle harder than ever to ensure that at least some of what they investigate finds its way on to television screens and under newspaper bylines.

For its part, GAPW has been engaged with media professionals for over two years through our “Matching:Points” project directed by Lia Petridis Maiello.   Based on numerous interviews with working journalists and officials at the UN, Lia produced a report “Assessing UN Media Relations and Revitalizing Dialogue among Diverse Stakeholders (available at www.globalactionpw.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/media_diplo_brief.pdf ).  Her report makes clear the many ways in which journalists face barriers of access, in some cases regarding the very same officials and policymakers whom journalists are risking their lives and careers to keep informed.   Certainly there are few dangers covering the UN, but even in this environment there is much remaining to be done to respect and energize stakeholders so that we can all do our part to, as Lia notes, “help the global public understand the structure and activities of the United Nations, including its programmatic successes and political compromises.”

It is important that resolutions and related activities to protect journalists are accompanied by efforts to dignify their efforts in the field, to honor their courage with access to officials, straight talk, and more space for their work in existing media outlets.   Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, offered an intriguing linkage at the Arria Formula event between the status of journalists and that of human rights defenders.   In our view, journalists who face challenging conditions in the field while bringing to our attention stories and images that the world simply must address are indeed upholding our collective commitment to preserve human rights for all.  Beyond social media, corporate media and disinterested media, these often courageous journalists deserve every bit of assistance from the international community to preserve their personal safety and professional dignity.   As the Council members themselves no doubt recognized, resolutions alone are an insufficient response to the growing global problems of freedom of the press, including freedom from violent abuse.

Dr. Robert Zuber

International Media and the Arms Trade Treaty

22 Mar

The final round of the arms trade treaty negotiations (18-28 March 2013) has been attracting global attention, expressed by numerous press outlets worldwide, mainstream as well as alternative, signaling a growing and strengthening awareness process throughout the world and revealing a justified sense of urgency. An awareness of the illicit arms trade’s mortal consequences has manifested itself as a comprehensive matter of conscience, a situation that is as a result calling for global provisions now. It also shows the willingness to publicly negotiate and back a legal framework that has the strength and capability to regulate a global, $70 billion business. An idea that was initiated by a group of Nobel peace prize laureates in the mid-1990’s seems to have come to fruition.

The level of awareness demonstrates political will that affects the everyday citizen, who might not be part of a politicized environment via an organization or institution, but has the option to vote, donate, and maybe down the line, organize in a political fashion. Just as diverse in national interest and approach as are member states and civil society, so are media outlets that position themselves as voices in the process.

The Financial Times granted a forum to the foreign ministers of Denmark, Germany, Mexico, The Netherlands, UK, Costa Rica, Argentina, and Finland to call for an effective arms trade treaty, defining the negotiations an “historic opportunity” and appealing to the aspect of “common responsibility.” One paragraph explicitly addresses the fact that the treaty has no intention to “obstruct the legitimate trade in arms.” Furthermore it points out that the treaty is meant to “fully recognize every state’s right to legitimate self-defense.” Additionally, “Neither does the treaty set rules for domestic arms regulation nor laws on the possession of arms; this is categorically a matter for national authorities to determine.”

Despite national sovereignty on domestic arms regulation, the US based National Rifle Association (NRA), which promotes the rights of citizens to bear arms, made it a tradition to claim that the UN is trying to end private gun ownership in the US. This strategy is primarily geared towards fundraising from NRA constituents. Not only has fear proven to be a hot seller, the US Constitution’s second amendment is an extremely sensitive and emotionally charged topic.

UK journalist Karen McVeigh focuses on NRA rhetoric in her story “NRA accused of stirring ‘anti-UN panic’ in campaign against Arms Trade Treaty,” from 17 March 2013in The Guardian. “For years, the NRA has painted the UN as a bogeyman figure, claiming in its literature and fundraising drives that there is an international conspiracy to ‘grab your guns’. Last July, when negotiations on the Arms Trade Treaty broke down – in part because of US resistance to global regulations on gun sales – the gun lobby group claimed victory for ‘killing the UN ATT’.” Rick Gladstone from the New York Times states in the context of an ATT and the NRA, that in February of this year, the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights published a report describing that the ATT, as currently drafted, “did not exceed the scope of American trade statutes that already regulate the import and export of weapons.” Gladstone points out that the study clearly outlines, “U.S. ratification of the treaty would not infringe upon rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment.” In the Huffington Post, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane pointed out, “This absurd but often-repeated claim requires a strong rebuttal.”

The German media outlets Deutsche Welle and die tageszeitung focus on the fact that the current ATT text from July last year would undercut not only European, and particularly existing German regulations, as they relate to the arms trade and therefore describe the need of stronger language.

This year’s ATT host country, Australia’s media outlets have been vocally promoting the process back home, at times lending media platforms to civil society. National Director of Amnesty Australia, Claire Mallinson,took the stage with an op-ed piece for The Australian on 18 March. Here she describes the ongoing illegal arms transfers from Russia to the Assad regime in Syria and the failure of the UNSC to impose an arms embargo. Mallinson continues, “This strong evidence and the indiscriminate nature of conflict shows that even with the best of intentions, as it currently stands, Australian organizations and individuals that sell weapons and defense technology have no way of controlling where these devices end up.” Meanwhile Dr. Helen Szoke of Oxfam Australia is urging her government on ABC TV to “help close off any loopholes” in the existing draft.

The African news network AllAfrica named, in the article “Africa: Curbing the Arms Trade?” from 19 March, a few grave obstacles to a “strong treaty without major loopholes.” Firstly there is, “The fact that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are among the largest exporters of conventional arms,” which impacts decision making and ultimately the strength of a treaty framework. Secondly, the concern that, “In the United States, the powerful National Rifle Association is campaigning against the treaty.” It is a legitimate concern, since the author is referring to a non-profit that, according to the Washington Post, was able to spend $32 million in 2012, lobbying their one and only objective.

Obviously, press coverage often reflects or opposes national interests of individual member states, and therefore might individually pursue/back different levels of regulation or at times lack diversified, technical policy details at all. However, the nearly unanimous, international media echo in favor of a treaty does not only once more put the UN on the map as a global hub for political decision making, but reflects a strong, global concern that reaches far beyond a plea for arms business as usual.


—Lia Petridis Maiello


Germany as a Non-Permanent Member of the UN Security Council: An Evaluation

16 Jan

The Coordinator of our Media Initative (Matching:Points), Ms. Lia Petridis Maiello, recently authored an article detailing and evaluating the role of Germany as a non-permanent member of the Security Council over the last two years. Germany just completed its tenure in December 2012. She evaluates the issue-specific work of Germany in the following areas: Afghanistan; Children and Armed Conflict; Al-Qaida and Taliban sanctions; Non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and disarmament; Climate and Security; Libya; and Assessment.

An excerpt from her article is below with access to her full evaluation available here.

“In the past two years, the German government has been represented as a non-permanent member at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Despite a closely defined scope reserved for non-permanent members at the SC, the European middle power managed to inject new momentum and nuance to both established and new policy concepts. Following the departure of Germany from the SC and with the beginning of the new year, the inventories and analyses begin, particularly with regard to the perception of Germany by its international partners at the UN.

The last public meeting of the SC on international peace building just before Christmas, gave theoutgoing German Ambassador to the United Nations, Peter Wittig, once again the opportunity to thank the German partners for the excellent cooperation within the Security Council – with a subtle tone of melancholy in his voice. Wittig can be sure of his popularity among colleagues in the diplomatic circles of New York City. He is regarded as an “extraordinarily competent,” “objective,” “humble,” and a “very kind” representative. Many regret his departure and appreciate the Ambassador’s savoir vivre, a feature oftentimes missing in the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.”

International Media and the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms

10 Sep

“Sparse” would describe the level of attention international media has been paying to the Review Conference for the UN Programme of Action on small arms and lights weapons (UNPoA). The reasons are manifold and can obviously not be reduced to a general rule of thumb. The personal dedication of the individual journalist willing to push a story or topic that might not be as newsworthy as others in the eyes of the editor or outlet would be one reason. Needless to say, every media representative today, in particular those who are publishing with corporate media outlets, has to deal with an entirely new framework of restrictions and guidelines.

Newsworthiness has been redefined, often but not always to the detriment of quality of information. On the other hand, tangible results are still more likely to make it into the paper than theoretical discourses, which often exclude the every-day-reader. The counterargument for that statement would be the journalist’s ability to break down, analyze and communicate complex, specialized contexts. Not all journalists can, not all of them want to, not all of them have the time to, and not every outlet is suitable for such analyses.

These various arguments can be directly applied to the UNPoA Review Conference.

For many, the failure of the arms trade treaty (ATT) negotiations in July, although different in nature and objectives, has been paralyzing whereby UN stereotypes surrounding effectiveness and pace of implementation have certainly resurfaced. Additionally, discussions on language or meeting details, as has been the case for some of the first week of the Review Conference, are simply of no interest to the every-day-reader, while they are very important in a UN context when multiple cultures with particular political boundaries are trying to come to an agreement on complex political matters, such as national military build-up or the eradication of the illicit arms trade.

Nevertheless, as in most situations in life, there is a way to cover solid middle ground. Numerous side events at the UNPoA Conference have offered a high level of practicality and result-driven implementation that is well -worth communicating to the outside world of political ordinaries. For example, the launch of the publication A decade of Implementing the UNPoA on SALW: Analysis of National Reports by Sarah Parker and Katherine Green from the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) provided a summary of the degree of national implementation of the UNPoA, and although the provision of national reports is voluntary and therefor incomplete, the study could be a basis from which effectiveness or ineffectiveness could be much better quantified.

Another event worth covering was hosted by the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS), which focused on physical security and stockpile management and demonstrated a very tangible and reportable result of UNPoA implementation by coordinating UN actors for emergency response as well as creating national focal points in areas of crisis for humanitarian organizations. As Global Action’s Katherine Prizeman writes, “To date, UNMAS has destroyed over 180,000 landmines and unexploded ordnances (UXO) in Libya through 23 deployed clearance teams.”

What creates international headlines a day after the UNPoA had started is the fact that “The legal international trade in small arms, light weapons, their parts and ammunition is worth at least $8.5 billion annually”— more than double the previous estimate in 2006, according to a survey by independent researchers released at UN headquarters last week. The Small Arms Survey 2012 said the increase from the last estimate of $4 billion is due to several factors — large-scale government spending especially during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, increased purchases of small arms and ammunition from foreign countries by American civilians, and better information and improved methods of calculating the value of transfers”, as UN-Correspondent Edith Lederer writes in Bloomberg’s Businessweek.

What will it take to make peace that profitable and hence newsworthy? According to the Small Arms Survey, there are an estimated 875 million small arms in circulation worldwide, produced by more than 1,000 companies from nearly 100 countries. A concerning situation this PoA conference is dedicated to and would indeed deserve extensive, global media attention.

–Lia Petridis Maiello