Tag Archives: nuclear weapons

The Council’s Bully Pulpit: Resolving Tensions Without Inflaming Them, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Aug

Bully

The sanctions will not kill us. It’s apartheid that’s killing us. Oliver Tambo

Knowing what’s right doesn’t mean much unless you do what’s right. Theodore Roosevelt

On this date in 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped by a US war plane on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.  Three days later, a similar bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.  Since that time, endless debates have ensued among some in the academic and policy communities regarding the “necessity” of those bombings (a less persuasive “necessity” in the case of Nagasaki) to bring about a final and decisive end to that Pacific war.

There is no time or place to pursue that discussion here, though it should be noted that a consensus of the learned on the precise motives, objectives and moral equivalences related to those atomic bombings continues to elude.  What we know with greater certainty is the multiple, long-term, devastating effects that emanated from what would today be considered quite modest-sized nuclear explosions.  Indeed, even major nuclear-weapons states that are committed to modernizing their nuclear arsenals and which continue to resist efforts to prohibit or even greatly reduce those arsenals understand the grave (even irreparable) damage their weapons can cause.

One would have to go no further than the Security Council chamber during a rare Saturday afternoon session to see fresh evidence of this concern.   During yesterday’s session, Council members unanimously adopted resolution 2371 which imposes harsh new sanctions (banning exports worth as much as $1 Billion) on the government of North Korea (DPRK) in response to its defiance of previous Council resolutions, specifically regarding its continued testing of ballistic missiles likely now capable of reaching several current Council members with devastating nuclear warheads.

This was the second time in this first week of Egypt’s Council presidency that the matter of sanctions took center stage.   On Wednesday, Egypt convened a discussion on a full range of sanctions-related issues that broke little new ground while holding at least some of the concerns of Council members in sharp relief.  Despite enthusiasm for sanctions as a significant aspect of the Council’s coercive options, and with due respect for the ways in which sanctions regimes have become – slowly but steadily – more accurately “targeted” and more transparent in their criteria (for addition and removal from sanctions lists), many gaps in knowledge, application and trust remain.  Bolivia, for instance, joined with other states in locating sanctions as a measure of “last resort,” with sufficient “due process” for those facing sanctions threats and a rejection of sanctions as a means of “punishment.”  And Ukraine joined with others in insisting on human rights-based sanctions impositions with full, prior attention to the inherent risks of sanctions to civilian populations.

Partially in light of such objections, Italy urged sanctions designs that manifest more “coherence” in terms of means and ends.  Sweden noted the importance of properly applying any response tools to context, while France advocated more “education” to inform member states and the wider public of actions the Council has already taken to increase the “precision” of sanctions towards increasing their effectiveness and legitimacy.  An “impatient” US urged Council members to take better stock of how to enforce resolutions once adopted, a point echoed by Kazakhstan and others.

In the specific instance of the DPRK, despite the unanimous support for the sanctions resolution and all of the post-vote “branding” of diplomats and their positions on twitter, there was no unanimity regarding the role of sanctions in effectively diminishing the grave nuclear weapons threat symbolized by the DPRK’s increasingly successful missile tests.  Sanctions, we were reminded once again by several of the members, are one tool to be used alongside others consistent with both Council wishes and circumstances on the ground.  Sanctions must not inflict needless damage on the citizens of the DPRK who were described yesterday by more than one Council member as already being “enslaved.”   Sanctions must not impede the possibility (however unlikely at present) of direct negotiations between the Koreas and/or with other states.   And sanctions must not be seen as a backdoor justification for militarily provocative operations or other unilateral measures (as noted this week by Bolivia and others) that are only liable to make negotiations less likely and increasingly tougher sanctions (or other coercive measures) that much more inevitable.

Especially in a situation as volatile as the DPRK, where so much of what we “know” about this situation is as much supposition as fact, it is important (and recognized as such by at least several Council members) to proceed with some caution on the imposition of sanctions.  Sanctions should not become (much like peacekeeping operations has been) a default response to states that ignore Council resolutions or otherwise threaten international peace and security.   The UN’s conflict-prevention toolbox is still not fully operational, but it is slowly filling up and the Council must do a better job of leveraging all capacities inside and outside the UN that are relevant to the prevention of hostilities and (hopefully less often) the restoration of stability once security has been breached.

Note was taken several times during this Saturday Council meeting of Kim Jong-Un’s “deadly aspirations.”   This notion could also stand a bit of unpacking.   His “aspirations” certainly involve a growing capacity to inflict mass destruction without prior consultation, but there are surely dimensions to his bluster beyond fomenting ruin.

What was a bit perplexing for us is the way in which some Council members seem to question Kim’s personal and policy sanity while at the same time seeking to surround him with provocations at every turn.  (It is important to bear in mind that the Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, owing in part to a desire/demand for peninsular reunification.)  A politically unresolved war, a country surrounded by factions deemed hostile to its interests, provocative military responses off its shores and facing increasingly harsh sanctions regimes – these may all be at some level legitimate policy responses to DPRK defiance, but they also come with great risk.   We know how wildly bullies can lash out when they feel that they have been effectively cornered.  Assuming there are no military plans contemplated to utterly vanquish the DPRK regime, plans that would probably also result in the commission of war crimes, we should be skeptical at the very least about actions goading the DPRK into a military confrontation that is unlikely to follow any our “best options” scripts.

When Council members raise their hands in unanimous support for a resolution, more than policy consensus is on display.   What many states and other Council watchers also hope for is resolutions based on a robust, baseline knowledge of circumstance and consequence as well as a recipe of responses tailored to context and properly mindful (as China notes often) of the primacy of political settlement. That hope is about more than the will to “take action,” but taking action in a determined but modulated manner so to maximize prospects for dialogue conducive to a sustainable peace, avoiding as much as possible any longer-lasting, toxic side effects.

But is this really happening here?   Are we really asking all the right questions?  Are we aware of the gaps that still remain in our grasp of circumstances and consequences?  Are we pursuing the most comprehensive responses to threats beyond the boundaries of national political expediency?  Are we endorsing responses that can promote behavior change, encourage negotiations, and help ensure that citizens in targeted states are not subject to another round of deprivations?  And are we, as Sweden noted on Saturday, taking sufficient stock of the current risks of “miscalculation” which can ignite conflict that can shatter even the most measured of our threat responses?

On this August 6, we would do well to discern just how much higher the stakes have become for everyone on our planet.  Among all of the existential threats which currently absorb our attention and stretch our collective wisdom up to and beyond its limits, a nuclear exchange with our massive and ever-modernizing warheads would make every other threat even more challenging to address.  We applaud those Council members willing to temper their (legitimate) moral and political outrage over DPRK provocations with the wisdom to keep asking (and demanding answers to) questions related to the Council’s coercive measures and refrain from intensifying the bullying instincts of the DPRK through excessive or unhelpful provocative behaviors of their own.

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Compound Interest: Amplifying Attention to the UN’s Security Architecture, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Apr

People who have lived through a terrible conflict may be hungry and desperate, but they are not stupid. They often have very good ideas about how peace can evolve, and they need to be asked.  Leymah Gbowee

History is littered with the wars everybody knew could never happen.  Enoch Powell

Peace is not an easy prospect–it requires greater bravery than does conflict.  Ozzie Zehner

This week at the UN was, at least from a peace and security standpoint, more interesting than most.  In addition to consensus resolutions in the Security Council on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the Lake Chad Basin region, and on protecting cultural heritage from terror threats, the energy of the building was dominated by negotiations toward a Treaty to “Ban” nuclear weapons.

The quotation marks in the last sentence have mostly to do with the absence of over 40 states from these initial negotiations, an absence that included the states now in possession of these weapons.  A press conference initiated by US Ambassador Haley to underscore the decision to “boycott” the negotiations got a fair amount of press coverage, but largely fell flat.  If the assumption of the Ambassador and those joining her at the podium is that boycotting states have been and are now negotiating nuclear disarmament in “good faith,” they have clearly been sitting in different meetings and reading different press reports over these past years than I have.

Indeed, the effect of the boycott was to leave the largely “like-minded” states and NGOs in charge of what was at times a powerful, table-setting event.  Indeed, to the extent there is an upside in trying to “ban” weapons without the weapons possessors in the room, it is that conversations can push forward in the absence of friction in ways that would be difficult otherwise.   Anyone who has tried to run distance into the teeth of an Oklahoma wind can appreciate the blessing of having wind at your back.

The problem is that, when the wind is blowing in a favorable direction, people tend to conclude that they are faster and in better shape than is actually the case.  The “Ban” treaty deliberations, typical of such discussions, ranged full-spectrum from the highly insightful to the borderline cultish, at times minimizing certain challenges in attempting to “ban” weapons over which they have little operational jurisdiction. And there was perhaps insufficient attention to the many promises which have arisen previously from the disarmament community, promises which have been kept incompletely at best.  Overcoming the “fool me once, fool me twice” legacy of so much UN disarmament activity will require more comprehensive security conversations beyond the remit of disarmament affairs, beyond the slogans of disarmament campaigners, beyond the needs and political aspirations of the like-minded states.  As OPANAL (Tlatelolco) and other voices noted during the week, prohibiting things and eliminating them altogether remain – oftentimes and certainly in this instance – quite some distance apart.

In other UN rooms this week, headwinds were definitely the order of the day in two security-related events where progress is equally uncertain but critical to achieve.  Wednesday, the Peacebuilding Commission held an organizational meeting ably and kindly chaired by the Republic of Korea’s Amb. Cho Tae-yul.  In addition to reports from the chairs of the PBC’s country configurations (minus Swiss Ambassador Lauber who was in Burundi), the discussion focused on the “place” of the PBC within the UN’s broader security architecture, with more specific reference to the steadily evolving but seemingly ever-suspicious relationship between the PBC and the Security Council.

The Chair’s emphasis on consolidating “one peacebuilding commission” resonated with PBC members as it fits as a snug reinforcement for the Secretary-General’s “sustaining peace” concept; but also because it promises the possibility for the PBC to move beyond country-specific, post-conflict configurations and towards a mission that is preventive in its orientation and available to any in the full UN membership interested in tapping the PBC’s considerable and growing expertise in all conflict phases.

Post-conflict reconstruction is certainly an important and specialized expertise, but the general sense of the diplomatic talent here at the UN, certainly including talent which is organized through the PBC, is that we are spending too much energy and money responding to aftermath of conflicts that could (and should) have been anticipated and addressed at earlier stages.  This is, after all, not a “peace rebuilding commission” though that is the role to which the PBC has primarily been assigned and, in the minds of more than a few PBC delegates, one which the Security Council permanent members – including those also serving on the PBC — seem overly committed to preserving.

Some practical reform-minded suggestions were made, including Council member Sweden urging that the PBC have a larger role in consultation with Council “pen holders” while resolutions are in their formative stages and another Council member – Egypt – urging closer coordination linking country visits by PBC configuration chairs and relevant country discussions taking place within the Council.  For its part, Belgium urged more “repetition” of PBC-Security Council meetings as a contribution to eliminating what Morocco alleged as the P-5’s “annoyance” towards the PBC and its presumed evolution.

But as Ambassador Cho Tae-yul made clear, the PBC should worry less about fixing the Council and more about fixing itself.  “Fixing” in the sense of refining its own working methods, including a commitment (as noted by Indonesia) to more “cross cutting” concerns; taking the lead (as urged again by Morocco) in inviting the Heads of affected states to discussions in New York; and (as Bangladesh noted) sustaining a more “hands-on” approach to peace. But this also implies “fixing” (as highlighted by Colombia) in the sense of seeking out the most relevant opportunities for the PBC to share its expertise with the full UN community — with the welcome cooperation of the Council, but not necessarily with its permission.

Ironically, perhaps, one such opportunity occurred this week as Ukraine convened a Security Council “Arria Formula” discussion on the growing threat of “Hybrid War.”  While the concept admittedly has some miles to travel on definition and focus, and in this instance was largely focused on Russian behavior in and around Crimea, the notion underscores the use of allegedly “non-lethal” tools, including from the media and cyber realms – to “wage war” in more subtle ways than the mere imposition of military means, to use diverse forms of media to distract and distort in ways that are at times “more destructive than bombs.”  As the conversation ensued, both Ukraine and Sweden referred explicitly to an evolving and dangerous “grey zone” blurring common (if now outmoded) distinctions between “war and peace,” such that warfare can reasonably be presumed to exist well before the first gun shots are actually fired.

The implications of this new (if still somewhat vague) genre of subtle coercion were not lost on the audience.  Latvia noted that Hybrid War further undermines the notion that states and their military operations alone can protect us from attack.  Egypt asserted that the distortions and manipulations of Hybrid War are pervasive, including within some of the states now complaining loudly about their use.  For its part, Japan was most explicit in urgently rejecting expansion of the “you use it therefore I use it” mentality.

In addition, current Council member Italy rightly urged that we engage in more comprehensive analysis of Hybrid warfare to guide a more comprehensive policy response.   In our view the Peacebuilding Commission is the ideal and most relevant setting in which to conduct and disseminate such an analysis.  The PBC’s conceptual flexibility, its close connections to the Peacebuilding Support Office and Trust Fund, its ability to access diverse NGOs and other stakeholders beyond the usual suspects, this and more makes it well suited to continue analysis of a trend that, as Ukraine put it, represents both an “ambiguous” and “escalating” threat for which we are simply not sufficiently prepared.

To stay in top of evolving security threats, from the most destructive weapons to the most cunning coercive strategies, the active policy interest of all sectors of the UN community is paramount.   The times now require a bit of institutional bravery from each of us, a commitment to fulfill our stated mandates but in ways that encourage new policy ideas and the “compounding” interest of diverse stakeholders.  In our view, the PBC increasingly represents a distinctive culture within the UN from which to cultivate such policy attention.

Evacuation Route: Mapping a Common Exodus from Multiple Global Threats, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Feb

Up and down the lanes, the last unevacuated townspeople wake, groan, sigh. Spinsters, prostitutes, men over sixty. Procrastinators, collaborators, disbelievers, drunks. Nuns of every order. The poor. The stubborn. The blind.” ― Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

I have just completed a (very late arriving) flight to Mexico City soon to join regional diplomats and civil society representatives to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Tlatelolco and its key implementer, the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL).

As is widely known, the Treaty of Tlatelolco sets out protocols and responsibilities for a nuclear weapons-free zone that has been both stable and in its own right and critical to the development of other regional security arrangements within and beyond the region.  These include zones in other parts of the world that are helping to “shrink” the political and logistical space far-too-long occupied by nuclear weapons and their possessor states.  Moreover, from the security frameworks set in motion by UNASUR to the more normative security platform organized at the United Nations known as CELAC, Latin American states have to a remarkable degree taken advantage of their relative stability and prosperity to create collaborative security that informs and inspires practices worldwide. These collaborations have simultaneously helped preserve critical policy distance from dependency on nuclear weapons and their security doctrines while deepening regional commitments to address the poverty, trafficking in weapons and narcotics, gender-based violence, and social inequalities – often the result of numerous, intimidating interventions from non-regional states — that have tangibly jeopardized the security of too many in the region for far too long.

At the same time, OPANAL is widely regarded as the gold standard for weapons-free zone implementers, a reliable and visible mechanism to keep governments focused on their own disarmament responsibilities while advocating for measures such as “negative security assurances” to help protect regional states from attack from the nuclear armed states as well as encouraging states to monitor their dependencies (and even at times enabling actions) regarding the protective nuclear “umbrella” offered by the US which the treaty itself seeks to disown.

The last time we attended a major OPANAL event was three years ago under its previous Secretary-General.   Our contribution at that time – which we may have occasion to repeat this Tuesday at the Mexican Foreign Ministry but will surely highlight during workshops later in the week with our welcome partner Instituto Mora – is the importance of simultaneously affirming activities to fulfill treaty obligations while promoting more reliable security and development arrangements within and beyond the geographic zone which the treaty helps to define.

Such arrangements include many of the policy norms, practical program and fiscal obligations embedded in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

As we noted in another publication on the 2030 Agenda, and about which we have been motivated to take our own action, there has to date been insufficient interaction between development and security actors.  Specifically, as noted by Laura Pereira and others at the UN, disarmament experts were noticeably uninvolved in the formulation of Sustainable Development Goal 16, the so-called “peace goal.”  And while Goal 16 does suggest a responsibility to curb the small arms proliferation and trafficking that negatively impact development processes – a key element of Latin American security undertaken with welcome assistance from the UN regional disarmament office in Lima – Goal 16 makes no mention of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction.

This omission is noteworthy given the devastating impacts from the use of nuclear (or other weapons of mass destruction) on any viable strategies for development .   As the nuclear weapons community is fond of reminding the rest of us, the “humanitarian consequences” from the use of these weapons is likely beyond our capacities to respond.  We are already painfully aware of the high costs of conflict in Latin America and elsewhere – so many diverse lives traumatized, ruined and often ended by insurgencies, by indiscriminate bombing raids, by landmines and other explosive remnants of war.  When nuclear weapons themselves become a lively option for use, the costs of conflict could literally bankrupt the human treasury.

But the other side of this policy interaction also demands more attention.  In the two days of events to celebrate the long history of effective OPANAL actions on behalf of Tlatelolco, little mention will be made of the political, social and economic contexts in which weapons of mass destruction could become, once again, attractive options for states.   Even in the program for the international seminar organized for the first day of the Tlatelolco celebration, the words “development” or “human rights” do not appear on the schedule at all.  Climate is mentioned but simply as a way of “ranking” existential threats, not as the basis for building common policy frameworks for eliminating those threats.

Clearly not every event can cover every eventuality.  The seminars we will conduct with Mora later in this week will also evidence conceptual gaps, will also fail to capitalize on openings for growth and response.  That said, people in these anxious times are also anxious to know how things “fit” and we must do a better job of helping them make connections, as a first step through a demonstrable willingness to seek out and make those connections ourselves.

A development agenda that does not find a way to “flag” existential threats, including from weapons of mass destruction, is engaging in wishful thinking.  So too is a disarmament agenda that does not rigorously interrogate the manifold threats to peace and security from poverty, trafficking, discrimination and a myriad of other factors. We need to be in dialogue with the threats we do not directly address, not to solve them all so much but to be attentive to, support and encourage those attempting to transform the world – to evacuate the threatened, if you will — in ways other than but complementary to our own.

There was a discouraging news wire that the US president was recently having a discussion with his Russian counterpart regarding nuclear weapons policy commitments, specifically those embedded in the START treaty.  At one point, apparently, the US president had to pause the call to ask others standing in the oval office what START was.  While this president may well set the bar for policy incuriousness, the fact that so many nuclear weapons are now in the hands of volatile governments and their leaders is of grave concern.  So too are the relatively tepid commitments from these states to contribute to sustainable security frameworks that (they say) are needed in order to make nuclear weapons obsolete.

Nuclear weapons need to go, regardless of other circumstances.  But circumstances in these difficult times require more from all of us; certainly more from those of us in the security field:  more solidarity and communication with the marginalized, more attentive policy linkages, more tangible encouragement for the important work of others.   As many within our “sector” are thankfully recognizing, this is not the time to “double down” on our issue silos or on our self-serving proclamations about the way things “ought to be.”  If we are to successfully apply a healing balm to our deep social wounds – those that threaten our very existence and those that daily eat away at our collective dignity and resolve – we are simply going to have to raise our game. We will endeavor to accomplish exactly that during our busy policy week in Mexico.

 

The UN’s Coordination Dilemma, Kai Schaefer

25 Nov

Editor’s Note:  Kai is one of our fine group of fall 2016 interns and fellows.  Having orginally come here to pursue an interest in Responsibility to Protect, Kai has taken a keen interest in both disarmament affairs and the working methods of key UN agencies, including and especially the Security Council.  The following reflects his rapidly expanding policy interests. 

With heightening tensions at the international level– recently manifest during the Security Council meeting of October 27th which ended with a walkout by the U.S, UK, and Ukrainian delegations when the Syrian representative took the floor — the efficient functioning of the United Nations system and its subsidiary bodies is of increased importance. However, in addition to increasing tensions among the world’s great powers — especially Russia and the United States — which prevents the efficient functioning of the Security Council, the UN system itself and its lack of coordination creates various obstacles that need to be overcome.

The problem of coordination and cooperation shortcomings among the various GA committees, UN bodies and subsidiary organs is not a novel problem. As the 71st GA session continues to unfold, the international community would well benefit from increased dialogue especially between the disarmament and human rights committees, but also in linking to diverse areas of peace and security more generally.

A recent example of the lack of coordination is draft resolution L.41 that was introduced by Austria and adopted by the first committee on October 27th with almost three-quarters support from the General Assembly. L.41 calls on all states to start negotiations on a legally binding treaty to ban nuclear weapons in 2017.  Especially given the fact that the resolution was not supported by any of the nuclear weapons states, the lack of coordination and failure of states to link crucial issues of security, development, and human rights is equally hampering in creating treaty bodies and resolutions that will have lasting impact.

First Committee disarmament debates in New York seemingly occur in a vacuum, shielded from external influences and events, as well as security-related trends highlighted in other UNGA committees especially in 3rd. The inherent connections between disarmament and socio-economic development, human rights, and international law often remain unexamined. Likewise, the NGO’s involve in the promotion of L.41 would benefit from a widening of their vision for disarmament by taking note of other events and advancements occurring at UNHQ.

This problem, however, is systemic in nature and goes beyond narrowly focused NGO’s and member-states negotiating at the UN. The UN cannot necessarily be characterized as a learning community, which is in part desired by certain member-states. The shuffling around of diplomatic delegations and missions in New York make sustained efforts in developing robust and lasting political commitments difficult to achieve. Moreover, as the UN is often described as one of the world’s largest bureaucracies, a certain degree of overlap, duplication, waste, and lack of coordination is hard to avoid.

Much of the work carried out at the UN suffers from the oft-mentioned “silo approach.”Many delegations now realize that in order to create policies that will have a lasting and sustained impact on the ground, increased coordination among the numerous UN bodies is needed. The value of cooperation and coordination among NGO’s, IGO’s, civil society, academics, epistemic communities, MNC’s, and nation-states has long been recognized. However, the continuing lack of practical coordination within the UN itself often remains unaddressed. Certainly, the amount of specialized knowledge which is at the UN’s disposal is one of its core strengths. Nonetheless, the current compartmentalized approach taken by the UN often misses crucial links among security topics and across policy spheres. The UN membership continues to insist that peace cannot exist without development, and development cannot be achieved without lasting peace. However, public rhetoric and institutional structures are clearly not always aligned.

In regard to the previously mentioned resolution L.41 calling for negotiations to ban nuclear weapons, it is noteworthy to state that many of the arguably most compelling and probably more effective security-related discussions occur not in First Committee but instead in the
Third, a committee largely centered on the protection and promotion of human rights. In order to create effective and efficient treaties centered on disarmament that will end up having a genuine effect on the ground, it is crucial to consult with voices of locally engaged staff, special rapporteurs, and persons directly affected by weapon inflicted violence. Thus the ongoing stalemate in First Committee could be overcome by joint events between first and third committee, and more significantly between all relevant stakeholders, and not solely by the disarmament community alone.

In like manner, the UN and international community as a whole, would benefit from stronger emphasis on preventive measures instead of acting largely retroactively. This holds especially true for the Security Council which tends to only take action when crises become unsurmountable. Increased consultations between the SC and TCC’s / PCC’s as occurred on November 10th is also welcome in order to create sustainable peace and foster capacity building. Furthermore, coordination shortcomings within the security domain at the UN could be overcome in part by not scheduling Security Council and Peacebuilding Commission sessions at the same time. The link between coordination and prevention is crucial in this regard. Essentially, a fundamental flaw is not the lack of information available at the UN, but how such information is being processed, disseminated (and even scheduled) throughout the organization.

Nevertheless, despite coordination and cooperation shortcomings within the UN, it remains the epicenter of multilateral diplomacy. The Security Council continues to be the arguably single most important chamber in the world.  However, due to deadlocks over Syria, the rest of the UN membership is becoming increasingly anxious to find an end to six years of brutal conflict. A General Assembly informal dialogue organized by Canada on October 20th underlines efforts of various states no longer willing to sit on the sidelines until the Council finds the means to take urgent action on Syria, especially in Eastern Aleppo. The participation in this GA dialogue by Council members both permanent and non-permanent accentuates this general concern.

The UN is tasked with settling the world’s most protracted conflicts and finding solutions to some of mankind’s most pressing issues and problems. There is almost no issue area in today’s globalized world that has not been impacted by the UN or at least found its way on to the UN’s agenda. This becomes evident upon examination of a plethora of “side events” at UNHQ sponsored by states, NGO’s, civil society, and the UN itself. During these side events the real scope of UN activities becomes apparent, highlighting the ongoing relevance and importance of the UN, providing a forum where a multitude of relevant stakeholders can raise awareness, set agendas, and sustain momentum towards agreed upon policies and treaties. Nevertheless, it is vital that the UN remains more than a mere talk-shop. Enhancing internal coordination regarding issues, scheduling and more can help create broader, sounder security policy.

Crying Wolf:  The UN Hedges its Bets on Crisis Response, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Oct

As most readers of these posts know, we’ve been around the UN for quite some time.  And we find that most of the people who work here, in and out of the diplomatic missions, really do care about making the world a better place.  But there is also a pervasive cynicism afoot in our time, including the belief that crises are sometimes manufactured by elites in order to consolidate their authority.  The view in such instances is that elites put out images of threats to people who are largely powerless to respond themselves and thus must rely on “leadership” they barely trust to determine the policy path forward.

We can tell you from many long hours in diverse UN conference rooms that the wolves are running loose all around the building — on weapons and climate, on oceans and pandemics, on inequalities in economics and politics.  But given what we often experience regarding UN political culture, there are indeed legitimate questions about whether the UN is equipped to handle this collection of sometimes existential threats, to lead with integrity and by example, bringing together the resources and cooperative spirit needed to get the human race over its current, stubborn humps: a tangible sense of urgency on the one hand; a sincere willingness to rethink unreliable strategies and alliances on the other.

From the standpoint of integrity in policy decision making, these past few days at the UN were a mixed blessing at best:

The highlight of the week clearly was the selection of the next UN Secretary-General .  Mr. Guterres is a smart and good man, and we wish him well.   He is also arguably the person we would have gotten regardless of how transparent (or not) the SG selection process was, especially given all of the men who are currently seated around the Security Council oval and whose recommendation for SG was unlikely to be overturned.   Given the large number of singularly qualified women vying for that post, given the volume of gendered discourse permeating virtually all UN conference rooms, and given the broad perception that the UN is in serious need of an administrative “shake down,” the time seemed right to turn the page on what has been a male-dominated leadership post.   Except it wasn’t.

Downstairs from the Council chamber in the First Committee of the General Assembly, discussions focused largely on what to do about the threat posed by nuclear weapons.   Increasingly, as many of you recognize, the international community is gathering behind proposals for a negotiated treaty to “ban” these weapons.   The principle hold-outs, of course, are the current nuclear-armed states, the same states (rightly) grinding their teeth over nuclear weapons in the hands of the DPRK and – potentially — terror groups while (wrongly) spending many billions of dollars modernizing their own arsenals and even exploring their extra-terrestrial deployment.  The “anti-ban” statements made Friday by the US and UK – punctuated by a “fist bump” at the end – signified to onlookers that the nuclear armed states don’t take the threat from these weapons as seriously as much of their rhetoric might otherwise suggest.

While the Security Council was busy negotiating the selection of Mr. Guterres, it was also immersed in a series of security –related discussions “lowlighted” by the October 8 emergency session on Syria during which not one but two different resolutions on the Aleppo violence failed to pass.    In addition, the Council attempted this week to clarify its intent regarding peacekeepers in Central African Republic while receiving an underwhelming briefing on ISIL, including its potential expansion within Yemen.  Despite the horrors inflicted by the repeated bombings of hospitals and other civilian targets, the excruciating and widening famine, and the escalating violence now involving a US warship off its coast, the ISIL briefing was barely the only mention of Yemen this week in chambers.

As with other global crises, the Council seems at times unable to back up urgent rhetoric with practical remedial strategies.  In addition, the Council often seems unwilling to “share the ball,” assuming that if there is going to be a “winning shot,” they are going to be the ones to take it.

One partial exception to these unsettling circumstances was in response to the damage to Haiti caused by Hurricane Matthew.   Here Security Council members were joined by other member states such as Brazil pledging immediate support for victims and urging a delay in plans to draw down the UN’s peacekeeping mission (MINUSTAH) there. During the mostly helpful discussion, there was also some acknowledgment of the UN’s role in initially bringing cholera to the country, the post-Matthew recurrence of which adds another (and needless) dimension to Haiti’s already-massive relief challenges.

And then there is Iraq, where the pathways to freedom from ISIL are simply horrific to behold:  the political and geographic divisions that begat a dictator that begat a US invasion that begat a partial power vacuum that begat a terrorist movement that begat a caliphate that have now necessitated some of the most heartbreaking “liberations” we will have seen in our lifetime.

As the Iraqi army prepares to move on liberating Mosul, there are already concerns of a massive humanitarian disaster awaiting us beyond the pale of what we have already seen in Falluja.  At the UN, Iraq’s Ambassador has been visible, acknowledging the profound physical wounds, social dislocations and emotional trauma that are likely to accompany this “liberation” from ISIL’s clutches.   He has also been active in seeking support from the UN and other member states.   In this, the response of the UN Mine Action Service has been particularly noteworthy especially its work to help eliminate short and long-term threats from landmines and the ubiquitous, easy-to-make, improvised explosive devices.

People in Iraq, as elsewhere in the world, have endured multiple sufferings as one faulty policy decision is ostensibly “corrected” by another – decisions seemingly based on political expediency more than on a sense of urgent, attentive compassion – addressing the current crisis but not quite in a manner that anticipates and plans for contingencies, that involves all meaningful stakeholders, that takes account of any past policy deficiencies, and that places potential victims at the very center of our policy planning.

It is possible, indeed essential, for us to have more of this type of policy planning which can build public confidence in the integrity of our leaders and which can help ensure that the cycles of policy errors and consequences that establish the context for so many of our current threats and crises are effectively curtailed.   If Mr. Guterres can inspire more of this planning to effectively (and enduringly) address the wolves currently howling at so many of our doors, his time in office will be time well spent.

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.

Sue Me, Part II:   The Marshall Islands Pushes the Nuclear Weapons States on Their “Good Faith” Deficits, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Mar

ICJ (2)

There is a line not far off the United Nation’s home page that indicates what UN officials imagine the role of journalists to be: Journalists who cover the United Nations play an important part in its work, because they help explain to the public what the Organization does and why. 

There are several ways to interpret this, but the most obvious is to assume that the job of journalists is to act as conduits for the promotion of UN activities, largely employing the words with which the UN seeks to have those activities conveyed.  The assumed role of journalists, it would appear, involves some measure of capitulation to the dominant narrative, pushing the soundbites that elevate the stature and impact of the UN in ways that are likely misleading – explaining away mistakes and even missing some important ways in which the UN adds value beyond the fringes of policy centers.  After all, in a highly competitive, branded environment, we are as likely to lose sight of the places where we add value as the places where we have failed to add it.

What we need from journalists, with all due respect to the UN’s web content, the pressures of the media market and the unpredictability of editors is to be attentive, thoughtful and, to the extent any of us can be, balanced.  We need journalists who strive to see the whole picture, who eschew easy abstractions focused on political power or celebrity scandal, who resist the pages handed out for them to read in favor of pages they investigate for themselves.

And most of all, we need journalists who flock to the places where matters of genuine importance are taking place, matters where lives are potentially being saved, where threats are being vanquished, where longstanding prejudices are being overcome, where awareness can swiftly lead to action on some of the critical issues facing our planet.   Those of us who supplement journalism with active social media know how to get to the scenes of impact, but professional journalists most often bring a more disciplined eye.

From March 7 to March 16 before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, one longstanding threat to the human race came a bit closer to being vanquished. A superb team of legal experts – with leadership from Dutch lawyer Phon van den Biesen and HE Tony deBrum, Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands (and including John Burroughs of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy) — argued persuasively that the nuclear weapons states have manifestly failed in their obligations under customary international law and the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to pursue “in good faith” negotiations towards a nuclear-disarmed world.

The cases entitled, Obligations concerning Negotiations relating to Cessation of the Nuclear Arms Race and to Nuclear Disarmament (www.icj-cij.org/docket/index.php?p1=3&p2=3&code=miuk&case=160&k=ef) also brought to the court legal teams of the three nuclear weapons states – United Kingdom, Pakistan and India – which had previously accepted compulsory jurisdiction of the Court regarding adjudication of these claims of obligation. (For more on these cases, see https://www.wagingpeace.org/international-court-of-justice-concludes-hearings-in-preliminary-phase-of-historic-nuclear-disarmament-cases/).

While a comprehensive review of this process is beyond our competence, the arguments of the nuclear armed states seemed to us simultaneously vigorous and fatuous, attempting as they were to make the case that the jurisdiction which they had already accepted did not now apply, while also seeking to re-write history such that the weapons each state has unilaterally pursued and now seeks to modernize are somehow “consistent” with legal obligations to negotiate towards nuclear disarmament.   Perhaps even more remarkable, states seem to have been largely oblivious to what is quite a “high character” gesture by Foreign Minister deBrum of the Marshall Islands.   The Minister was consistent throughout that his country was not seeking punitive damages, financial compensation or reparations in any form, but was rather seeking legal remedy that would help to drive meaningful (and irreversible) policy change regarding any alleged “right” to ignore disarmament obligations.

Despite the damage inflicted on the islands and its peoples from years of above-ground nuclear testing, the Marshall Islands early on in this process took the prospect of financial compensation off the table.  The “compensation” of preference was a judgment that nuclear weapons states have simply not fulfilled their obligations under customary international law, and that the tangible commitment to “good faith” negotiations was necessary to satisfy both the judgments of the court and the people of the Marshall Islands that their longstanding and radiation-soaked sacrifices could serve a higher calling – a world once and for all free of nuclear weapons.

There were other matters about this case that were intriguing from the vantage points of policy and media. First, we have to admit that we don’t quite understand what appears to be incessant squabbling over relevant lenses – legal, humanitarian, moral – through which the question of nuclear weapons possession can finally be put to rest.   The skillfulness of the plaintiffs’ arguments in this case was matched by the compelling, kind and far-reaching nature of the relief being sought, not treasure in the conventional sense but the treasure of the greater good.  In these three legal cases, what is at stake is nothing short of our ability to have confidence in international law as applied to the dangers posed by the possession of these potentially “ecosystem destroying” weapons.

Second, while all arguments stayed fairly close to issues of admissibility and jurisdiction that dominated so much of the three state “defenses,” there was an under-current in the room that these three cases might create “jurisdiction” of another sort in the form of “good faith” negotiating pressure on the (majority) nuclear weapons states that chose to stay away from this case.   It surely occurred to the ICJ judges – as it must have for the Marshall Islands legal team – that it is a short distance from precedents established in these cases to accusations of “good faith” negotiating failures on the part of the other weapons possessors, including and especially the two largest possessing states.   The UK’s “one hand clapping” reference notwithstanding, there is reason to believe that such precedents coupled with political pressure from the “humanitarian” sector and moral pressure from the faith communities might finally be sufficient to get us on a path characterized by something other than pious statements advocating disarmament followed closely by negotiating intransigence.

By any relevant standard, this process before the ICJ would seem to rise to a level of importance –politically, symbolically and legally – for it to have received wider attention from both professional journalists and social media advocates for disarmament.  While grateful to the outlets and organizations that covered the cases (and even in the latter instance funded the participation of the Marshall Islands legal team), we simply cannot fathom how so much of this important work remained in the media shadows.   There is so much about peace and security advocacy that is bogged down by duplicitous state interests, distracted NGOs, even a lazy press.  This is one instance when our collective eyes and ears should have taken better notice.