Tag Archives: migration

Pajama Party: Impediments to Rescuing the Commons, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Oct

Spy

The way things are supposed to work is that we’re supposed to know virtually everything about what they [the government] do: that’s why they’re called public servants. They’re supposed to know virtually nothing about what we do: that’s why we’re called private individuals. Glenn Greenwald

To claim the affection and to do the spying. It is something not wrong, but the danger. Ehsan Sehgal

Of course I’m not going to look through the keyhole. That’s something only servants do. I’m going to hide in the bay window. Penelope Farmer

Harry swore to himself not to meddle in things that weren’t his business from now on. He’d had it with sneaking around and spying.  J.K. Rowling

On Friday afternoon, in the presence of Dr. John Burroughs of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and Dr. Bonnie Jenkins – formerly the US National Threat Coordinator – we met with a group of our younger activists regarding threats to their future and what older folks like me need to do differently such that their stake in a future clouded by weapons, climate and other threats can be better magnified and encouraged.

We try to have these conversations on a regular basis, in part because of our deep respect for the people we are blessed to attract into our space, in part because the list of threats seems ever to be growing and shifting, and in part because few (in this work at least) offered us the same opportunities for sharing and disclosure way back when we were the younger ones.

I have often said, jokingly, that when I was younger, I spent most of my time catering to whims of older persons; now that I am older I spend a good bit of time catering to the whims of young persons.  Perhaps it has always been so.  Perhaps it must always be so.  Indeed, one of the tests of character that we subtly employ here is the “test” of concern for generations to come, the recognition that those in their 20s and 30s are not, in fact, the last generation but merely the latest in a sequence to “come of age” with younger persons nipping at their heals, needing guidance from them now about how to navigate the treacherous spaces relentlessly unfolding in the global commons.

Part of this mentoring responsibility involves the courage to assess the risks coming into view and not only the ones that are widely known.  We “know” about threats from nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.  We “know” about threats from climate change and biodiversity loss, though we often organize our lives as though we don’t.  We “know” that economic and social inequalities are still growing, though here in NY’s privileged spaces we tend to evaluate the success of our lives within narrow peer bandwidths, failing to appreciate the many advantages that have allowed us entry into the economic and policy “pods” we now jealously guard.

And we seem to assume (or wish) fervently that technology will somehow enable our collective rescue, that we will find the precise coding that will allow our machines to deflect incoming meteors, “eat” the carbon that is warming our atmosphere, skim the plastics off the surface of our dying oceans, and “blockchain” our way to more efficient and ethical means to link productive capacity and consumer demand.

And it might eventually be able do all of those things.  But in the meantime, we are also guilty of enabling technology of a different sort, enabling it to essentially run amok beyond the control of government and multilateral institutions, making more and more decisions for us that, at both a personal and institutional level, we feel less and less able (and inclined) to resist. From self-driving cars and autonomous weapons to highly sophisticated surveillance that, more and more, relies on the phones that have become deeply embedded in our psychology as well as our logistics, we have largely abandoned scrutiny of a force that to some now seems as inevitable as our genetics and hormones.

The UN has not remained entirely aloof from these concerns. In a report recently released by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, the authors made clear that, for all their potential and realized benefits, global digital platforms tend to further  “accentuate and consolidate” wealth and power rather than “reducing inequalities within and between countries.” Moreover, at a Mexico-sponsored “Youth Migration Film Forum” event this week, the highly moving films about the value and dignity of migrant youth were punctuated by cautious referrals to the high-tech surveillance on both sides of the US-Mexico border that mostly reinforces caricatures of migrants as disembodied threats rather than as human beings with families, aspirations, skills and faith.

And during a session of the UN General Assembly Third Committee, the ever-thoughtful Philip Alston gave his final report as the UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, during which he spoke about the ways in which technology is now insulating and intimidating rather than liberating persons living in poverty.  He spoke passionately about the largely “human rights-free zone” characteristic of much big technology, the degree to which surveillance of the poor (and the rest of us) is being used by the governance and investment classes to “punish” persons who use “our” money for purposes that the authorities don’t approve of.  As he (sadly for us) ends his mandate, Alston urged creation of a “shared language of human rights” that can help us avoid the collective (and very real) danger of “stumbling zombie-like into a “digital welfare dystopia” where decisions about human beings are based on algorithms rather than relationships, on the need to control rather than the need to assist. Indeed, in a world where many people trust their phones more than their neighbors, this “dystopia” warning is not as far-fetched as it might initially appear.  Our interns certainly took it very seriously.

Part of the solution clearly lies in technological oversight, in resurrecting the role of the state to protect people from excessive interference from the technologists – and from the governments themselves. Clearly, the “surveillance culture” of our time has impacts, not only for migrants and the poor, but for others who seek to defend their rights and interests, to any effort to reaffirm the importance of public spaces and values not subject to private priorities. Much time at the UN now, including this week, is properly devoted to increasing attacks on civil society, activists or journalists, anyone who dares to defy “the norm.”  But in too many instances, under-regulated state interests and private-sector technologies are aligned in a desire to shrink and securitize public spaces.  Even UN spaces.

At another event at the UN this past week on “public space in a digital age,” UN-HABITAT brought together a variety of experts who critiqued “sanitized, securitized” and highly expensive development priorities such as NYC’s “Hudson Yards.” Such priorities often lead to the neglect of public spaces more conducive to personal engagement, spaces that can help people connect to each other and inject dimensions of “playfulness and plurality” into communities in ways that enable and enhance both personal connection and the “emotional health that we in this city (and in so many others) badly need.

This session was full of insight, much of which was directly relevant to this post:  the suggestion that “citizens are not aware of how social media now allows private actors to create, define and surveil public space,” the degree to which digital space encourages narrow mindedness while public space tends to cultivate “broad mindedness,” and the sense that in healthy environments, personal relationships must take sequential precedence over their digital counterparts.  Amazon, one speaker half-joked, “wants us to live our entire lives in our pajamas,” engaging the digital realm as consumers of goods and gossip while eschewing the risks associated with that “playfulness and plurality” which only public spaces can deliver.

I can only speak for myself here, but I don’t want a life without risk, nor do I want a life dominated by technology over which I have no control, one which offers me products I don’t want and promises to “save” me from “threats” that, to my mind at least, are less threatening than the steady erosion of personal freedom, respect for diverse voices, and some semblance of privacy.   I would also much rather sit in a Bronx park watching children play than walk the High Line with tourists and their selfie-sticks.

As one of the youth delegates at the “Migration Film Forum” rightly noted, technology can in fact create new contexts for inclusion.  But this is mostly true when we sequence it properly, when technology becomes merely the means to extend connection, not give it birth.  We may be collectively too addicted now to our devices, too willing to forgive them for digitalizing our complex life preferences, keeping us in our sleeping clothes, and spying on every idea and action our lives are capable of generating.

But unless we can find the courage to resist and reshape that addiction, to re-personalize the spaces and relationships that are now, too-often, providing little more than digital fuel for Alston’s “dystopia,” this self-inflicted “pajama party” is not going to end well.  We cannot go on “claiming affection” while spying on each other, judging each other by what we find in some random database rather than what we know from our own direct engagements.

The lesson here seems clear: when we cease to trust our own senses and experiences, we risk losing a good chunk of our remaining capacity to trust one another.  There is, perhaps, no risk facing the global commons greater than this.

Home Depot: Reliable Spaces to and From Familiar Places, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Dec

A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended. Ian McEwan

He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none. Madeline Miller

One of the most important things you can do on this earth is to let people know they are not alone. Shannon Alder

There can be few situations more fearful than breaking down in darkness on the highway leading to Casablanca. I have rarely felt quite so vulnerable or alone. Tahir Shah

The UN spent the week meeting in far-flung corners on issues that in some key ways would have fit nicely together.  In New York, a special event called to mind the special needs and special potentials of persons with disabilities.  Despite the fact that as many as 1 billion of our species has a recognized (if not always recognizable) disability, we continue to organize the world around those who can demonstrate more than a modicum of mobility, emotional restraint or sensory normalcy.   Even more insidious, we still look upon persons with disability through the lens of that disability, as though they could somehow be reduced to the “thing they don’t have,” as if “normal” was the objective to be aspired to rather than placing the unique set of skills one does possess – sometimes in abundance – into productive use in the world.

The failure to accommodate persons who don’t, through no fault of their own, conform to some arbitrary notion of “normalcy” has implications beyond access to education, employment or social services.   Indeed at two major events “off campus,” the reluctance to factor difference into our planning was on display, specifically our reticence to recognize that our current, severe and common vulnerabilities provide distinct opportunities and challenges for persons who perhaps “can’t keep up” in one sense but can contribute much in another.

These major events – one in Poland (on climate change) and the other in Morocco (on migration) could well have been organized in tandem as the failure to satisfactorily address one crisis directly exacerbates the other.  While there was some attempt to address issue linkages, especially in some of the Poland side events, it isn’t clear that the international community completely grasps the degree to which severe storms and unprecedented drought (not to mention bombs and landmines) drive often dangerous and chaotic migration flows of persons who can no longer make a go of it in the places they call home.  The Global Compact on Migration, which is scheduled to be signed by many high officials as this essay is being posted, is not completely silent on climate and disability challenges, but neither does it recognize the degree to which our planet has become a starting gate of sorts for all kinds of persons racing (if they can) towards borders and makeshift ports in the hope of escaping the effects of lakes turned to sand, schools and hospitals reduced to rubble.

If they can: There is no wheelchair access at the embarkation points.   There is no foam to brace the falls from clumsy ascents of border walls on legs that simply cannot hold the weight.   There is no security for those forced to run from border guards but who cannot see the flimsy trails to freedom or safety.  In every respect the desperate path to the possibility of a better life is made more difficult, more treacherous, more frustrating, more dangerous by “difference.”

And while the Global Compact’s concern is with establishing consensus principles of migration governance (which it does well by the way), it is less focused on persons for whom migration is essentially coerced, driven by circumstance at least as much as by voluntary will.   On one afternoon during an exposure in Marrakesh with Churches Witnessing With Migrants (CWWM), an event on the margins of the Global Compact signing, we sat with a courtyard full of (mostly men) who had fled from violence and economic uncertainty in several African countries, but primarily from the Anglophone regions of Cameroon where I have spent some good time in the past.  The circumstances in the courtyard were dire, but the people themselves were not.   While they waited for blankets and basic provisions with a stoicism that occasionally leaked anger and frustration we talked about the places they had come from, the places they hoped to go, the skills they sought to share, and the myriad of obstacles that seemed to block every point of potential access.

The mood in the courtyard, despite the remarkable efforts of the local church staff, was subdued, even resigned.  Were it not for the few children running around, making up their games, the life energy of these people would have suggested that they were at an impasse – unable to go further and yet unwilling for now to go back.  They all shared scars from violence endured and family support forfeited but the blind and the lame were not among their numbers.  This was not a journey for them to make.  They have little choice but to remain behind with hopefully enough of a safety net to keep them afloat until the political crises abate and the soils regain their fertility.

The people who made it to the courtyard were described as alternately angry and frustrated, in part because they were persons of some honor before their world caved in, persons who likely never imagined they would find themselves in an alleyway waiting for someone to distribute a few provisions so they could make it through another cold Marrakesh night. Even if these people had not been torn from their communities by a state and security establishment that couldn’t leave well enough alone, it is still disconcerting to discover that doors are more often closed than ajar – doors to basic necessities but also to the jobs and dignity they left behind many miles ago.

While some of us in Marrakesh tried to think through our responsibilities to a world increasingly pushed out of homes and livelihoods, the news coming from Poland was little short of grim.  We are not making our collective climate targets.  Indeed, due in part to influential climate skeptics and the millions who continue to live as though massive storms and mass extinctions are mere anomalies, this past year set a dubious and dangerous record for emissions.  Despite all the warnings, despite weather maps that resemble Hollywood-produced alien invasions, we mostly continue on our merry way, keeping our credit lines open and our borders closed.

Our CWWM event had moments of good policy insight though such were sometimes buried in the clear and present responsibility to meet the needs that manifested themselves (in this instance) at the church door, to feed and cover and comfort and refer, and even to make the stories of those on almost unimaginable journeys speak to the unconvinced or merely indifferent, journeys in this age of climate shocks, state-sanctioned violence and discrimination that are only likely to increase in number and dimensions of difficulty.

What most of these journeys have in common is that those making them exhibit limited trust levels, occasionally of the churches and other caregivers, certainly of governments and their multilateral Compacts.  To be fair, this Compact certainly has some wise referrals, including to fulfill our 2030 Development responsibilities so as to minimize the incentives for people to leave their homes as well as an injunction to do more to make a public case that, as with those in the Marrakesh courtyard, most migrants have skills that can contribute much to sustainable development whether in transit, at their intended destination, or back in their preferred communities.

But in this current matrix of mistrust, NGOs and churches are left to do what they so often try to do – fix the broken, bandage the wounded, satisfy some of the empty stomachs and even emptier souls, doing just enough to address the miseries and fill the voids such that government officials and their five-star entourages don’t have to feel too badly about migrant-related agreements that are largely government driven, government negotiated and –when it suits their purposes– government neglected.

Many at our CWWM event have often been in this difficult place, with needs staring us in the face while the responsibilities to make good policy that can impact the many beyond the courtyard also beckon.  We are not so callous that we can step over and around those facing acute need, even with the consequence of enabling governments to care less in the process. But neither can we leave policy entirely to the governments, the same governments who claim a sovereign right to keep internally displaced persons out of the Compact’s protections, the same governments that hesitated to meaningfully integrate special accountability for migrants with disabilities and others facing acute vulnerabilities, the same governments which relegate churches and NGOs to meeting the needs of those in their gaze while state officials grant themselves de facto permission to turn their own gaze towards other “pressing” matters.

The lessons for me this past week are clear:  We must provide care as best we can but not enable other persons and entities to withhold their own.  We must protect the right of movement but also do more to ensure that those wishing to stay in their homes can do so.  We who are able must contribute more to policies of protection and accompaniment for displaced persons remaining within national borders and not only people crossing over.  And we must ensure that persons with disabilities and others facing multiple vulnerabilities are given special attention, that their “right to migrate” is also honored.

We all have our scars; we have all faced metaphorical abandonments on dark and lonely roads.  Moreover all have contributed in some way to a violent, over-heated world where so many need “mending,” need accompaniment, need tangible reminders that they are more than the provisions periodically extended to them. These messes we’ve made; these vulnerabilities we’ve ignored; these will become the tests of our collective character, our collective attentiveness, our collective promise to heal as best we can the wounds of the legion of persons from many cultures and walks of life now on the move.

Hunger Pangs: Cooperating on the Things People Long For, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Nov

Blog Photo Please

Let him who has not a single speck of migration to blot his family escutcheon cast the first stone. José Saramago

Once you set out from shore on your little boat, once you embark, you’ll never truly be at home again. What you’ve left behind exists only in memory, and your ideal place becomes some strange imaginary concoction of all you’ve left behind at every stop.  Claire Messud

Human traffickers are simply vectors of the contempt which exists at the two poles of the asylum seeker’s journey; they take their cue from the attitudes of warlords and dictators, on the one hand, and, on the other, of wealthy states whose citizens have learned to think of generosity as a vice. Jeremy Harding

At times it seems as if the whole world has become a refugee and the few of us, who are privileged enough to wake up to the sound of an alarm clock instead of a siren, those of us who are enveloped by a veil of safety many of us fail to appreciate, have become desensitized to the migrating numbers, to the images of the dead, shrugging them away as a collective misery that this ailing part of the world must endure.  Aysha Taryam

This past Tuesday, the UN convened a special meeting bringing together the President of the General Assembly (PGA), María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, and the heads of various UN agencies tasked with addressing food insecurity and promoting Goal 2 of the Sustainable Development Goals – End all forms of hunger and malnutrition by the year 2030.

On the surface, and given some of the complexities of funding and indicators afflicting other SDGs, this one would appear to be an utterly achievable goal.   Supermarkets in the US and Western Europe are bursting with fresh and prepared foodstuffs, and those foods are trending in the direction of fewer pesticides and greater nutritional value.   Agricultural technology offers the promise of crop yields even on lands that have long since been abandoned. It seems difficult to imagine that there is another side to food access that is actually growing and, in the case of Yemen, becoming more and more grotesque as military assaults and climate-related events gouge any and all prospects for local food security.   While walking the aisles of our superstores, it is more challenging than it should be to think about the often-devastating impact of bombing raids and rainless seasons on small holder farmers, male and female alike, whose labors are essential to the stability of local communities from the Sahel to Syria.

There are times when heartbreak where we have made our homes simply becomes too much to bear.  As we see now in the midst of the California inferno, this can be true even for people in more affluent settings. For those in settings closer to the margins, we find many family members and neighbors doing all they can to ensure stability and nourishment for the children in the places they come from. But for millions, when the sea waters rise and the tsunamis come ashore, when the landmines explode and the rains refuse to fall for yet another year, they simply can do no more to keep those places.

Tuesday’s UN event was based in large measure on a resolution of the General Assembly supplemented by some excellent (if a bit more abstract) analysis on the conflict and climate triggers of our growing hunger challenge offered by senior UN officials from the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development as well as from several member states led by Italy.  The resolution covers these triggers in good detail (as did many event speakers) and lays out a strategy that involves more innovative support for rural areas, including for small holder farmers, such that people can better cope with political and environmental hazards and increase the chances that families can somehow remain in their communities of origin.

What was new about this particular event, and happily so, was the migration-focus of much of this discussion. The aforementioned resolution does not mention migrants at all, but this omission was rectified as speaker after speaker made the migration-hunger connection. As PGA Espinosa Garcés, put it, we are in serious need of a “course correction” when it comes to our global commitment to end hunger, more specifically to eliminate food security among migrant families, with a special concern for forced migrants. This requires adoption of a formula that more than a few who labor within the policy world of the UN would advocate: offering mindful hospitality , ensuring  consistent, comprehensive and rights-based migration governance, and doing more to end violence and mitigate risks that undermine even the most ardent attempts by farmers and families to maintain the homes of their youth.

These are responsibilities, like so many others in the world, that mandate a careful blend of national ownership and implementation together with cross-border and multilateral cooperation.  The “go it alone,” “take care of our own” mentality that seems to be spreading like the plague in these times sounds tough-minded but mostly ensures that families will experience the miseries of migration compounded by malnutrition, and that children will face the option of being rejected at borders or abandoned in detention facilities in societies “that have learned to see generosity as a vice.”

The gist of this insight was reinforced by my colleague at Global Action, Claudia Lamberty, who has given quite a bit of thought recently to the decisions by several states, most notably the US, Austria and Hungary, to reject the upcoming Global Compact on Migration which will be signed by (hopefully) many ministers and heads of state in Morocco in just a few weeks.  In a document which she produced to help us prepare for our own GCM participation, Claudia listed potential economic and political factors that might lead states to make a decision like this about a “compact” which is comprehensive in scope but has no legally binding authority.  Her conclusion is that this decision is as much about multilateralism as about migration itself, in essence a “poke in the eye” to a system that has been long on promises and, at times, short on results, a system which seems to some governments intent on trespassing on the affairs of small and mid-sized states (but mostly not the large states) in matters that are highly sensitive to some national governments.  Inadvertently, the now vast movements of migrants and their many needs – including for food security – have provided some of the fuel for this multilateral backlash, this seemingly appealing choice in some national capitals to promote “protection over principle.”

As we have written previously, the UN is taking pains to counter such threats to its core legitimacy.  This week in fact, the Security Council itself got in the act as China (November president) hosted a debate on effective multilateralism during which state after state took the floor to affirm the importance of the UN to resolving a range of thorny global problems – albeit with occasional interjecting (spoken and implied) of migration-related caveats.

But affirmation itself (with or without caveats) is insufficient to cure the suspicion of some states that the UN’s structure and culture innately privilege powerful governments thus ensuring that many core promises for which the world literally hungers are more likely to go unfulfilled.  Indeed, if the human race is not to dissolve back into some nationalist-stimulated tribalism, we must demonstrate – over and over – the tangible benefits of a system of cooperating states and stakeholders, governments that resist the temporary allures of nationalism and stakeholders who insist that they do just that.  As with migration itself, food security is both a global challenge and a national policy responsibility. As noted in the aforementioned GA resolution, as important as global consensus on such matters is (and it is), plans for addressing these challenges must be “nationally articulated, designed, owned, led and built.”

I am in Germany now about to join a team of experts in reviewing our options and responsibilities in the area of small arms and light weapons.  Increasingly, there is recognition of a symbiotic, if nefarious, relationship between our common insecurity courtesy of a world awash in both weapons and political enmity and the food insecurity courtesy of major external factors that affect harvests — especially for small holder farmers – including climate related events such as drought and flooding that can diminish yields beyond the tipping point; but also armed violence and landmines which can render farmland useless and ratchet up vulnerabilities impacting all community members, especially so for women.

There are many things in the world now for which people legitimately hunger:  for an end to violence, for meaning and purpose, for basic security of food and domicile, for adventure beyond the familiar, for potable water and accessible health care, for justice when abuses occur.  But as the PGA reminded delegates on Tuesday, “eating is a special act,” a fundamental and even primordial right.  As so many in “developed” societies build their fat reserves and clog their arteries through what Italy referred to on Tuesday as “suspect” food choices, we find ourselves in a world of deepening and evermore complex food insecurity that turns the act of eating for millions — including millions of migrants — into an ultimate “hit or miss” proposition.

Fortunately, this complexity is still within our competency to resolve successfully – together as nations and multilateral stakeholders — both for the sake of those who seek to remain at home and those who are driven to follow the promise of more fertile pastures elsewhere.

Missing Ingredients:  Consolidating a Consequential UN Week, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Jul

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Peter was, simply, what a person would look like if you boiled down the most raw emotions and filtered them of any social contract. If you hurt, cry. If you rage, strike out. If you hope, get ready for a disappointment.  Jodi Picoult

While prosperity does not trickle down from the most powerful to the rest of us, all too often indifference and even intolerance do.  Hillary Clinton

I am not surprised that the people who want to unravel the social contract start with young adults. Those who are urged to feel afraid, very afraid, have both the greatest sense of independence and the most finely honed skepticism about government.  Ellen Goodman

We may demand that the citizens of each sovereign state view citizens of other states (or even stateless people) with compassion, respect and sympathy, satisfying some requirements of “minimal humanitarianism.” Amartya Sen

This was in several ways one of the more remarkable weeks in recent UN memory, capped off by the historic agreement on the text of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration which will be formerly adopted in Morocco in December.  The document was negotiated under the able stewardship of the co-facilitators (Mexico and Switzerland) and was rightly hailed by Deputy Secretary-General Mohammed, President of the General Assembly Lajčák and Special Representative Arbour as a triumph of multilateralism, a way forward for governments to address and honor the challenges of migration but also the many contributions that the 258 million or so migrants in our world today can make (many already making) to our sustainable development priorities.

In other conference rooms, the UN was alive with delegations and discussions assessing progress (or its lack) on fulfilling our 2030 Development Agenda promises.   From sustainable cities and financing “partnerships,” to the right and access to fresh water, sanitation and sustainable energy, the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) held important discussions that explored gaps and celebrated successes, but also aired frustrations about the lack of progress in implementing several development goals and about the lack of transparency regarding the “partnerships” currently being proposed (few of which involve reductions in military spending) to pay for our 2030 development ambitions.

As a small office with diverse policy interests, we could cover only a few of the HLPF events (most reflecting the current interns’ interests in the right to water, African affairs, environmental care and sustainable cities).  But as is our want we remained intrigued by the “cross-over” events that remind us of the systemic nature of our development promises, the degree to which sustainable development must be pursued at multiple levels and must integrate as fully as possible both the human rights and peace and security pillars of the UN’s policy mandate.  Indeed, presentations by the resplendent UN Climate Envoy Mary Robinson as well as by Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmore and the ocean-focused, former president of the General Assembly Peter Thomson helped give sustainable development a wider lens if not always an optimistic one.

True to form, Gilmore and Thomson were particularly blunt.  Gilmore in fact went so far as to call trickle-down economics a “staggering oxymoron,” noting that the forces in the economy  exacerbating inequalities are not as “inevitable”  as we sometimes make them out to be.   For his part, Thomson underscored the urgent need to “re-establish and respect planetary boundaries.”  No categorical critic of profit (nor are we), Thomson yet wondered aloud about the value of short-and medium-term pursuit of such profit when our longer-term sustainability is under continuous assault, when our “plastic plague” shows too few signs of abating, and when we have been too slow to usher in a “new generation of stewardship” represented by our young people, stewardship that can help our markets and governments respond more urgently to growing inequalities while inspiring our consumer appetites to become less voracious and wasteful.

And as has been the case for the last couple of summers, we eagerly welcomed the release this week of Spotlight on Sustainable Development, a compendium of viewpoints assessing our sustainable development responsibilities, progress and failings produced by the “Civil Society Reflection Group” on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.   The 2018 version of the report contains a diverse array of data and commentary including and beyond the SDGs tagged for assessment at this HLPF.  What the authors (many of whom also presented during the HLPF) seemed most to have in common was a commitment to narrowing what have become almost grotesque social and economic inequalities in many regions of the world, in part through important calls to reverse our recent “privatizing” obsessions and restore more accountable municipal control over water and other essential services.

The Security Council, which at times seems a bit “tone deaf” to developments and achievements elsewhere in the UN system, also had a good week.  Despite some considerable controversy resulting in a razor-thin vote to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan (over the objections of South Sudan itself and the African organizations currently seeking to broker SS peace), Sweden’s presidency was off to a positive and collaborative start with high level discussions on children in armed conflict, on women, peace and security in African states, and on climate as a peace and security issue.

All are worthy of sustained attention by this Council, not so much to control these narratives (a persistent concern of non-Council members and many Council watchers)  but to support efforts taking place elsewhere in the UN system, and indeed in communities around the world.  Regarding climate, while some members remain a tad suspicious (the US never actually uttered the term during its Wednesday remarks) and others (such as Russia) maintain that there is sufficient policy robustness on climate in other UN settings, most agreed with the Netherlands, represented at this meeting by the Prime Minister of Curaçao, that “we are all in the same canoe, and need to collectively paddle faster than the threats that are now overtaking us.”  Such “paddling,” he insisted, must involve greater responsibility for ensuring that all UN agencies with a mandate and/or determination to mitigate climate threats, including the Security Council itself, be about those tasks as though the future of the planet depended on it.

The grandest moment for us of ths particular Council session, perhaps of the entire week, was when indigenous representative Hindou Ibrahim addressed Council members.  For Hindou and the often-vulnerable people with whom she lives and works, climate change is no abstraction.  Its impacts dominate every aspect of their lives, forcing people into adaptations that strain resources, security arrangements and community bonds. “We don’t have a choice,” she noted (raising her finger), “but you do.”  “You choose to sit on this Council.”  You must, she intoned, do more to “give the people hope.”

I caught up with Hindou later in the day and congratulated her for her courageous words, noting how much better balanced the UN system could be if there were more people like her wandering its halls and fewer people like me.  She replied that “everyone has a role to play.”  Everyone, including people with uneven skill sets and financially challenged offices; everyone, including people who have been battered by climate events that have destroyed their homes and ruined their farms; everyone, including those who have never once been invited to make a better world for others; everyone, including those who have already spent too much energy trying to convince themselves that things cannot be so very different from what they have now become.

In a week as momentous as this one at the UN was, in a building that was filled to the brim with talented and creative people, some of the most important takeaways appear to be pretty straightforward:  that those who choose to occupy seats of authority must set a hopeful bar for themselves and others that renounces both indifference to our ever-more unequal world and intolerance to our ever-greater human diversity; that our national and multilateral institutions don’t quite have the precise blend of human ingredients needed to bake some variety of the bread of life to offer to our children and those who come after; and that a mixture of “compassion, respect and sympathy” is a prerequisite for hopeful and sustainable policy, not an afterthought.

We’re getting there.

Civil Society: Making Change without Making Enemies, Dr. Robert Zuber

1 Jul

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A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman, of the next generation.  J.F. Clarke

Political parties are on the hunt to search and destroy each other, as though we were involved in some kind of enemy combat, rather than the work of statesmanship.   John Lewis

The challenge was that it was harder to be subtle than strident.   Nancy Gibbs

New truth is only useful to supplement the old; rough truth is only wanted to expand, not to destroy, our civil and often elegant conventions.  Robert Louis Stevenson

This was an exhausting week at the UN for all its stakeholders, including a high level General Assembly event on countering terrorism, planning for important resolutions on infectious diseases and a September Mandela Peace Summit, and an outcome document for the Review Conference of the Programme of Action on Small Arms that had delegates negotiating over issues from women’s participation in disarmament affairs to the control of ammunition supplies well into early Saturday morning.

The Nelson Mandela Peace Summit preparatory discussion — with the goal of a consensus political declaration — was particularly interesting for us as delegations shared insights on matters important for the entire UN community; including how to define “vulnerabilities” beyond group categorizations and how to position the declaration so that it reinforced system-wide commitments to “sustaining peace” and the 2030 Development Agenda. The discussion was led by the always entertaining and insightful Ambassador of South Africa, Jerry Matjila, who reminded delegations that these “unusual times require an unusual declaration,” one that can help convince people that “the impossible is still possible.”

As we were also reminded this week by African women themselves at an excellent side event on preventing violence extremism in Africa, the multiple threats from poverty and climate-affected desertification and drought conspire to create openings for extremists that bring danger even to daily routines.  If peace “is still possible” in the poorest, driest parts of Africa, it will take more reassuring capacity support and non-partisan leadership from the rest of us; more than these determined women can alone deliver for their communities, as they themselves made clear.

Such leadership is elusive in our time. On Saturday I was in New Mexico to join with a wide range of stakeholders — from activists representing area (often displaced) indigenous tribes to mothers clutching children themselves clutching signs of frustration and determination,  as the reality of the family separation being chronicled from the stage by those who had experienced it’s effects first-hand was almost too painful to bear.

The advocacy around the plaza ranged from those seeking only to reunite separated children to those seeking to oust the current US president using language that struck me as a tad on the reckless side – as though lecturing and insulting people you don’t like is an effective way to change their behavior, or as though any deference to civility in our currently ravaged political discourse is little more than code for passive indifference.

Civility did take a bit of a hit at this rally, with some declaring an era of state fascism and otherwise alleging political enemies in categorical terms.  As the scene unfolded, I kept thinking back to a poll released this week by Transparency International indicating that by a shockingly wide margin, people report only limited “trust” in their government.   The poll, it must be noted, was conducted through Facebook and would likely not rise to the highest polling standards.  And yet, at least in the main, it confirmed so much of what I read and hear about through the UN – societies becoming simultaneously suspicious, insular and polarized, with fewer and fewer opportunities for the “dialogue” that we constantly (and rightly) advocate for conflict states from Syria to Cameroon.

As some of the Hispanic speakers at the rally rightly claimed, too many people in this world are simply not being heard, and simply not being heard by governments.  Indeed, there are some people in this world who have a hard time being heard by any government – including voices from some of the indigenous communities represented on the plaza.  But “hearing” now seems to have become primarily a partisan activity as our views on what kinds of societies we want to live in continue to diverge. And to make matters worse, there is now a scarcity of statesmen/women who heed needs and voices beyond partisan bases and who help us grasp our longer-term responsibilities to the children who depend on us for things other than staking out political turf.  We need more of these leaders in both national and multilateral settings to help us resolve this current cycle of mistrust and recrimination while it is within our capacity to do so.

Through its sometimes powerful norm building, the UN for its own part seems to embrace a mostly progressive worldview with mostly-diligent diplomats working hard to “keep the doors open” for effective policy negotiations.  But there are tremors lurking here as well as some of the most visible and respected diplomats at UN headquarters represent leadership in national capitals whose “heads” are wrapped around decidedly different policy priorities. At the UN, we collectively know a fair bit about how to diffuse and even overcome some of the short-term policymaking and partisan venom that has infected discourse in so many political contexts.   We have learned much about the challenge and necessity of seeing value in the actions and priorities of even our policy adversaries. What we don’t yet know how to do, at least with consistency, is to use UN norm building as a tool to actively stem the tide of intolerance and authoritarianism that seems to be cascading over more and more of our member states.

In looking for clues in these urgent times, we all have things to atone for, including exclusions that we have done more to enable than we are willing to acknowledge. But we have also had past successes in reaching beyond limitations of trust and context that it would be helpful to recall.  Indeed, one of the most memorable speeches at the New Mexico rally was also one of the least incendiary.  A Vietnamese woman took the stage to remind the audience of its own history – specifically the successful integration of Vietnamese in the 1970s to places like New Mexico and Oklahoma which could not have been more different from where these people had come from but where –somehow, some way — people eventually made it work.

We can make it work again, she exclaimed.

Indeed we can.

 

 

 

Speech Impediment: The Darkness Lurking Behind our Migration Governance Efforts, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Apr

Migraton II

The strategic adversary is fascism… the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us. Michel Foucault

A wise woman wishes to be no one’s enemy; a wise woman refuses to be anyone’s victim. Maya Angelou

Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. … Every separation is a link.  Simone Weil

All of us with multiple settings and contexts for our lives understand that forms and contents of our communication tend to vary with our audience.   Few people taking the stage for a presentation use the same language that they would use in a conversation with a loved one or with a familiar shopkeeper.  We don’t often communicate the same around children as we do around those closer to our own demographic.  We don’t generally use the same language in our houses of worship as we do at sporting events. We don’t communicate the same on the streets of places like New York – filled largely with inattentive strangers – as we do back home around people who stake a different claim on the contents of our self-definitions.

Hopefully, it is context and not a will-to-deceive that lies at the heart of these linguistic variances.  In our best sense, we try to establish connection in part by sharing with people what we think they need or can tolerate to hear as a precondition for a deeper and hopefully more trustworthy transaction.  In this current age given to collecting trivial “data” about each other and over-sharing what we think others need to “know” about ourselves, there is perhaps even greater value in mastering the rhythms of transaction, of withdrawal and return, of discerning how best to connect to others, including those most troublesome to ourselves, through attentive and persistent practice.

In our communities of faith, the task is much the same: acquiring diverse tools and strategies to communicate with a range of “others,” trying and failing (and trying again) to establish or regain trust, providing a consistently more comprehensive narrative of meaning to replace the often-petty sound-bites that we seem so reluctant to abandon.  It is a challenge indeed to find the right formula to communicate successfully through the walls that divide us, including and especially walls of our own making. I know of few persons in and out of faith communities who are sufficiently skilled at this.

Of course, communications-related challenges abound in our large public institutions as well. One of the things that you have to get used to around the UN is the sight of diplomats articulating progressive norms – or at least contributing to discussions about such — while events back home in the countries these diplomats represent are sometimes tracking in a very different direction.

While there are certainly “unreasonable” things proposed at the UN – including many statements inside and outside of the Security Council that are less about clarifying policy truths and more about convincing those open to being convinced– the multilateral contexts of the UN suppress somewhat the degrees of aggressive and ethno-centric rhetoric now emanating from more and more global settings.  Statements by diplomats, as we have noted on other occasions, might be redundant and irrelevant, might disrespectfully neglect both established time limits and the obligation to listen to others, but they don’t generally offer rhetorically-direct challenges to core Charter values even if the behavior of states they represent or of a growing number of their constituents suggest something different.

One instance of the divisions between UN diplomacy and national practice was provided during this week’s discussions — kindly and effectively led by the Ambassadors of Mexico and Switzerland — towards a consensus draft of the Global Compact on Migration, a Compact that is being negotiated alongside its “partner” Compact on Refugees, and which represents a potentially important antidote to the chaotic basket of laws and protocols that at times do more to confuse and frighten people than provide predictable pathways to services, employment opportunities and community integration.

As delegations to these Compact discussions surely recognize, their often-“enriching” efforts come at a time when anti-migration sentiment seems to be growing in many parts of the world, including in areas of Central Europe which have spurred numerous news reports of highly-disturbing, public rhetoric promoting “ethnic purity” and in at least one instance disparaging persons co-occupying national territory as “ferocious humanoids.”

Inside the UN, there has thankfully been far less virulent blowback to a largely progressive, non-binding Compact that seeks to regularize migration in ways that work for migrants and for states involved in one or more segments of migration pathways.  Reproaches have largely taken the form of assertions of sovereign interest and have included requests for clarification regarding distinctions between migrants who “choose” to leave and those who do so “irregularly” based on considerations as broad and discouraging as climate impacts (as noted by Tuvalu) or the conflict “refugees” for whom settled international law already exists (if not adequately implemented). There have also been requests for better data on how migrants, in the words of the Compact draft, create economic benefits in both origin and destination states.

If only such benefits were clearer and sufficiently compelling for more people.  If only people like me who attend these meetings could do a better job of both communicating migration benefits and offering solidarity with and support to the growing number of skeptical people worldwide who are being asked to make way for newcomers while too many of the rest of us piously go about our all-too-regular business — bending the arc of what little remains of our global resource base to the benefit “of our own.”

In our policy bubbles and urban penthouses, it seems that some of us  have managed to convince ourselves that, regarding the acceptance and care of regular and irregular migrants, others should “take one for the team,” in too many cases a “team” that has thoroughly marginalized local interests and otherwise failed to honor the promises of a globalized order, a “team” thas has too often acquiesced to an “order” characterized by gross inequalities and equally gross (and mostly unpunished) lapses in judgment by more than a few who benefit most from current conditions.

There is no justification in this (or any other) time for the racist and hateful rhetoric to which we are now witness in settings from Warsaw to Virginia.  But neither is there justification for gas attacks on Syrian citizens, for starvation and siege tactics in Yemen, for snipers shooting unarmed civilians on the borders of Gaza.  Neither is their justification for vast concentrations of wealth and power that offer distractions rather than genuine participation in matters that affect community health and well-being.  While maintaining our lagely respectful and even constructive rhetoric in New York, we have been maddeningly idle as the UN Charter is sliced up by rich and powerful elements to suit their own appetites, persons who then hand the leftovers to “we the peoples” for whom the Charter meal was ostensibly and originally intended.

The UN Migration Agency IOM has rightly called migration governance “one of the most urgent and profound tests of international cooperation in our time.”  And they aptly point to the Compact on Migration as one key promise of effective global governance that can help to establish viable norms for enhancing migrant access and protecting migrant rights. Such rights include access to employment opportunities for adults and public services for children (as highlighted this week by Panama and others) and (as advocated by the Holy See) persons with disabilities. They also include transparent standards for and access to the remittances and pathways to family reunification essential to the well-being of both migrants and persons still residing in countries of origin.

But let’s be clear:  We are much closer to a negotiated Global Compact than we are to finding something closer to common ground with those many thousands marching around the world under banners of hate-filled rhetoric, banners that communicate disdain for our “liberal” priorities and institutions every bit as much as rejection of the “other.”  This represents a massive challenge to the values of many, including most all diplomats here in New York, but even more to the communications skills needed to dialogue effectively with that anger.

But if we are to truly and “profoundly” to cooperate on migration governance, if we truly want to support and maintain healthy flows of people in and out of our societies, then we must do more to identify and address the diverse community contexts and policy uncertainties identified in the Global Compact itself.  And that entails a stronger commitment to adjust our language – even if it means banging on dividing walls – to fulfill the hope articulated within the Global Compact draft, the hope that migration properly governed can truly “unite rather than divide us.”

For those of us for whom repulsion rushes to the surface at the news of yet another “hate rally,” communicating across divides of global policy and angry local marchers is likely to be the hardest bridge to cross. But if we don’t try, if we don’t extend hands of greater opportunity and responsibility, if we fail to use our leverage to recover the human face of both migrants and those determined to reject them, there might well come a time in our not-too-distant future when the walls around us grow so thick that no sound, no matter how wise or conciliatory, will be able to penetrate.

 

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.