Tag Archives: SDGs

Sorry Day:  The Security Council’s Misplaced Vision, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Sep

This Way

No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from.   George Eliot

You have the power today to reset your boundaries, restore your image, start fresh with renewed values and rebuild what has happened to you in the past.  Shannon Alder

And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment.  Herman Melville

The question is not, are we sorry? The question is, what lesson have we learned? The question is what are we going to do now that we are sorry?  J.M. Coetzee

Like many others, this past week pulled the UN in diverse directions.  An important inter-governmental conference to protect Marine Biological Diversity and a mood-altering celebration of “staff day” was offset for us by some controversies over NGO access during a busy September and a couple of Security Council sessions which underscored divisions both political and normative.

The US has taken over the presidency of the Security Council for September and thus will be in the chair during the soon-to-open 73rd session of the UN General Assembly, a time when heads of state and their ministries fill the UN building beyond capacity.   US Ambassador Haley, who has made her reputation as someone willing to speak her mind — even when that mind at times deviates from her political superiors – as well as someone who is often dismissive (and least in formal settings) of contrary points of view, is handling the presidency deftly to date.

But deft leadership is surely not sufficient in these perilous times, not for the US delegation nor for the others who, given the Council’s “provisional” acceptance of seemingly endless, largely repetitive statements in “national capacity,” fail to address the need for a larger, more reassuring narrative on peace and security.  “Where is this going,” is a concern uttered by our interns at various points, young people who appreciate their access to the space where the Council muses over its puzzle pieces but who also wonder what the end game is, what the puzzle would look like if all the pieces were finally made to fit?

As many of you know, the current Monthly Programme for the Security Council was issued late due to a controversy over including Nicaragua on the agenda in accordance with US wishes.  The issue here was not whether images of unrest in Nicaragua warranted the attention of the international community, but whether or not such unrest has risen to the level of a threat to international peace and security, thus demanding Council attention?  On this there was serious disagreement among members, in part because there is no clear guiding definition for such a threat level, and certainly no definition that presumes to encapsulate transgressions committed by the permanent Council members themselves.   Why are Kosovo, Guinea-Bissau and Liberia still matters of recent Council attention when events in Nicaragua and Cameroon struggle for recognition and Yemen needed to be shoved on to the agenda after a long and bloody wait?   And why do Council members, especially the permanent ones, continue to soft-pedal their own violations of Charter provisions while (often selectively) holding other UN members to theirs?  Why do they (and other states of course) continue to bend the arc of justice to suit national interests and then claim that they are simply upholding some version of the “rules-based international order?”

And in areas this week where the Council rightly recognized clear implications for international peace and security – the use of banned chemical agents as weapons and the fate of the already-displaced residents of Idlib, Syria who now anxiously watch the skies to see if they are to become the next to be sacrificed in the “war on terror” – the Council has threatened much but delivered only modestly.   We still have no ironclad method for ensuring compliance regarding the use of banned weapons.   We still have no method for ensuring that counter-terror measures are conducted in accordance with human rights standards.  We still have no method for ensuring that the erstwhile “guarantors of the international order” also abide by its prescriptions and limitations.

Indeed, as many others have noted, we have no way to ensure that those tasked with maintaining Charter values on peace and security are actually demonstrating a commitment to their fulfillment. For all the talk by most Security Council members (and rightly so) about the importance of ending impunity for international law violations, impunity still persists among Council members themselves.  For all of the diplomatic skill and at times good will around the Council oval, that body remains the most political and least-accountable space in the UN system and probably well beyond.  There remains this palpable sense that the Council continues to prioritize rearranging the furniture – albeit tastefully at times — while the house continues to leak from above and rot from below.

If the Council were to hold occasional discussions focused on fulfilling the vision of the 2030 Development Agenda, surely the broadest and most hopeful vision this system now embraces, members might be compelled to examine the ways in which inaction and mis-action on peace and security jeopardize the fulfillment of that Agenda as little else.  Unless we can stem the current propensities to violence in all its forms – from economic inequalities and gross rights abuses committed against civilians to out-of-control arms production and modernization – the odds are that no amount of corporate funding, big data or ocean-cleaning technology is going to rescue us.  Council effectiveness is critical to what has become the UN’s most comprehensive and inspirational vision, whether it wishes to acknowledge that in formal session or not.

In a few hours New York time, Rosh Hashana will begin, a time of repentance for our Jewish sisters and brothers with much to teach the rest of us. A good bit of the commentary I have read early this morning points to the great difficulty we have enacting what should be a regular element of work and personal life.   It is, indeed, hard for us to admit our wrongs, to grant those we have aggrieved the acknowledgment they deserve.  But it is especially difficult to move beyond the rhetoric of repentance to the practical matters of amendment, to use our mistakes as the text for a shift in our attitudes and priorities that is more sustainable than ceremonial.

Repentance in its best and most sustainable sense is partially about shifting our vision, but even more about shifting our course, about resetting our boundaries and priorities.  The person who seeks forgiveness but fails to adjust direction toward a more accountable and hopeful horizon, who fails to plot a viable “escape” from the lazy and hostile habits of the past, is more likely to find rejection than relief.  This is true of our institutions as much as our families and communities of faith.

Repentance, in the end, requires a larger vision of who we are, what we are capable of, and what we can become.   The 2030 Development Agenda – an agenda not imposed on states but painstakingly negotiated by them — provides evidence that the UN system understands both the momentousness of the times and our still-potent capacity to adjust our ways.   The Council simply must find a way to bring its sometimes petrified mandates and politicized policymaking into conformity with that vision, at least to understand their own pivotal role in making that vision achievable.

We don’t need sack cloth and ashes.   We don’t need wailing and gnashing of teeth.  What we need (as noted by the SG and others) is a clear, consistent and actionable understanding of the ways in which the impediments and inconsistencies in our peace and security architecture compromise larger commitments to a healthy and prosperous planet.   What is arguably still the single most important room in the world would do well to incorporate (not seek to control) the larger vision of the 2030 Development Agenda and the conflict prevention and resolution strategies that will give humanity the best chance of saving us from ourselves.


Redesigning Peace: Creative Learning from Diverse Local Actors, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Apr

In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.  Czesław Miłosz

We value virtue but do not discuss it. The honest bookkeeper, the faithful wife, the earnest scholar get little of our attention compared to the embezzler, the tramp, the cheat. John Steinbeck

It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are in some degree independent of men. Mary Wollstonecraft

It isn’t enough to stand up and fight darkness. You’ve got to stand apart from it, too. You’ve got to be different from it.   Jim Butcher

In some ways, this was a hopeful week for the international community.  The images of Korean leaders greeting each other across the DMZ to start mapping out an end to the Korean War and the possible de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula were remarkable.   There is cause for skepticism here, including with regard to the intentions of the big powers to manipulate the current diplomatic opening, but it our hope that the international community can attentively accompany this still-fragile process rather than seek to exploit it for political “credit” or to enhance economic or military alliances.

At the UN, the president of the General Assembly Miroslav Lajčák set off a fresh series of High Level discussions on “sustaining peace,” yet another UN slogan at one level, but also an overdue opportunity to refresh and reset our security frameworks.  In diverse conference rooms (including the Security Council chamber), states and other stakeholders engaged in what Equatorial Guinea this week called the “redesign” of our collective peace and security architecture, getting out in front of armed conflict and its devastating impacts rather than waiting until defenses of state sovereignty give way to what are generally untimely and expensive pleas for peacekeeping operations and conflict-related humanitarian assistance.   As France put it on Wednesday, once the “gears of conflict” are set in motion, we must find the means to respond sooner and better.

In the end, the value of “sustaining peace” lies in its commitment to both use all the tools and actors at our disposal and to create the capacities and networks that we still need to fully honor our peace and security commitments; commitments considered by many – often tinged with anxiety – constituting what Poland called the “holy grail” of UN policy mandates. As such, one of the most hopeful events of this past week was a side session, hosted by Belgium’s Queen Mathilda, during which women from several African countries made the case for why mediation must command a higher profile in the UN’s conflict toolbox, but also why women are so often well positioned within their communities to adapt such tools to productive conflict prevention ends.

As the GA  High Level event made plain, we have tools still to build and, indeed, a culture of multilateralism still to firm up within which such tools can have power to shift our conflict dynamics.  As evidenced in a speech delivered on Tuesday by H.E. Michael Higgins, the President of Ireland, it is certainly justifiable  to express frustration with our collective incapacity to use the skills already at hand to eliminate violence and poverty, at the same time acknowledging the collective imperative to recover through new tools and urgent actions the “ring of authenticity” of the words we use in this policy space – and sometimes overuse –to lament armed violence and the inequalities and insecurities at community level which too often provide its “oxygen.”

When speaking of the need to overhaul our collective peace and security framework, a favorite term of SG Guterres (as is well known) is “prevention,” a term that is relatively easy to toss around but difficult to apply in practice within an institution where virtually every ray of sunshine is clouded in politics.  We have written much about this notion in earlier years, underscoring the degree to which “prevention” remains a pervasive driver of our family and community lives.  But we have also noted that it has not, except in fits and starts, translated into actionable policy at multilateral levels.  Diplomats who are properly scrupulous about the diet, health care, education and weather-appropriate clothing for their own children are infrequently able to bring those skills and insights into UN conference rooms.

We agree with what the ever-pragmatic Kazakhstan offered this week in the Security Council about prevention:  when we are able to truly implement it, prevention “works, saves lives, and is cost effective.”  And we do understand that drawing analogies from family life to multilateral policy spaces is fraught with difficulty.   Diplomats can be scrupulous with children on the (quite valid) assumption that they are not yet able to make good decisions for their own long term benefit.   With member states, the assumption is closer to the opposite, that states are able and primarily empowered to “handle their own business” until they demonstrate (and then admit) that they cannot manage those responsibilities themselves.  What states want (rightly so) is capacity support for conflict resolution and peacebuilding, but they mostly want it within a framework as noted by many states (and perhaps China most reliably) of full respect for national sovereign interests.

Such is the “dance” that the UN engages as it attempts to honor its diverse peace and security responsibilities.  Despite justifiable hope emanating from Liberia, Colombia and now the Korean peninsula, our peace and security architecture still prompts many to “throw up their hands” at the apparent inability of the system to end settlements in the West Bank, prohibit the bombing of civilians in Yemen and Syria, commit the governments of Mali and South Sudan to honest peace agreement implementation, find justice and relief for the people of Puerto Rico and Haiti, and much more.  The successes are real and most welcome, but the frustrations are numerous and patience with the existing system, at least in some quarters, grows thinner by the week.

But there were encouraging signs this week that we might be on the verge of the kind of renaissance that we have tried in our small way to point towards over several years – an integrated security framework that is as concerned with water as with weapons; as concerned with gender as with the prevention of genocide.  Such a framework is, in some significant ways, the “gift” of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an ambitious “blueprint” for a healthier and more peaceful future wherein by 2030, in our most optimistic expectations, the major triggers of conflict are tamed and the pervasive impacts of violence are healed.

The SDGs give special credence to two important, security-relevant insights to which we probably don’t give sufficient attention:  a practical (and enthusiastic) affirmation of the intrinsic value of multilateralism on the one hand, and the need to make good on our promises to the full integration of global actors on the other.   The first of these was well noted — often with caution—during the dizzying array of events held here in New York this week.  Indeed many states (and many other actors as well) worry  that a “new Cold War” brewing among the major powers, coupled with new concerns over fiscal austerity and the potential escalation of unresolved conflicts, threaten to unravel enthusiasm for behaviors conducive to effective multilateral policy, including as Ethiopia urged this week the reigning in of our “short sided pursuit of national interests.”

But it is the second of these that interests me most, the need to inspire hopeful actions in others, but also to acknowledge and extend the many good works that generally fly under the radar but contribute in their own way to more sustainable futures.  Of all the images of this past week, one of my favorites was the one of truck drivers assembled in formation under a Michigan overpass to deter someone apparently seeking to commit suicide.   Truck drivers, not known as a group for their policy savvy (certainly not when I was driving one), are seen implementing a solution to urgent human need as creative as most of what we routinely accomplish within our policy bureaucracies.   Indeed, these drivers reminded me a bit of the women mediators from Africa and those advocating for justice for Puerto Rico and from indigenous communities – people engaging in hopeful responses to despair or injustice, and likely capable of doing more if we would only set proper places for them at the table.

Despite some appearances to the contrary, there is practical virtue running all through our communities. If a “redesigned” peace architecture is to succeed we must find ways to highlight and enable more of that hopeful and creative energy.

Vaccination Nations:  Elevating Health Care Access for Peaceful, Inclusive Societies, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Mar


Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory. Albert Schweitzer

If Patents are for Patients then Patients will be for Patents. Kalyan Kankanala

Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity. Hippocrates

It is the first morning of daylight savings time in New York which has caused some to miss Sunday appointments but many to hope that spring weather will soon make a lasting appearance.

The winter in the northern hemisphere, here and in many other parts of the planet, has been characterized by a range of health-related problems.  Severe flu outbreaks here have brought tragic death to some children and thrown many millions off their game.  I know personally of several people – most at least enjoying sufficient access to medical care – who have had to stay in bed for many days, with weeks of only semi-functional, partial recovery to follow.   You see such people in half-recovery every morning on the subways of New York, avoiding the many coughers, refusing to hold on to the poles in crowded cars with bare hands, trying to figure out in their heads how they are going to make up for lost work time when they are still only half-whole.

As has been stated so often by so many, health is something we take too much for granted until we lose it.  Then, and sometimes only then, do we recognize how much of our lives – including fulfilling our responsibilities to our jobs, families and communities – is predicated on “feeling up to it.”   And even when we don’t, there are times when we must “soldier on” perhaps because of the non-negotiable responsibilities to work and family that beckon, perhaps because of access-to-healthcare issues, including the seemingly ever-increasing costs.

These impediments of time, opportunity and expense are far more than annoyances, but undermine well-being in ways that impact our ability to participate fully in the affairs of the world and help others to participate also.

At the UN, health care quality and access are thankfully occupying a more prominent place on our collective agenda, in part because far too many people in this world lack sufficient opportunity and access to health resources that can improve the quality of their own lives and their productive service to others; also in part because of a growing understanding of how important personal and community health are to the often-challenging promotion and achievement of “peaceful and inclusive societies.”

In the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), target 3.8 directs us to “achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential health-care services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all.”  This represents a noble aspiration and, as with other SDG goals and targets, naming it is only the first step to full and fair implementation.

It is hoped that the Commission on the Status of Women, convening this Monday on the theme “Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls,” can also make substantive contributions to greater health care access and awareness.  In areas of the world in which Global Action has cultivated program partnerships, including in Cameroon and El Salvador, access barriers to vaccinations and other health care often drag down women simultaneously discharging family and community responsibilities while seeking pathways  to greater levels of economic and political participation for themselves and others.  It is exhausting just to witness the multiple tasks that many rural women juggle, even more so considering how many of these women must juggle while battling illnesses and injuries that often go untreated and which, in some instances, are a consequence of diseases that have received too-little attention from the scientists and pharmaceutical companies that drive so many medical innovations (and the patents to protect them).   The CSW can hopefully focus some of its formidable policy attention and recommendations on improving health access for rural women (and their families) that can help them achieve both access to markets and increased levels of political and social participation.

Thankfully, health issues seem to be getting tracton across the UN agenda – specifically in terms of preventing and responding to pandemics, addressing antibiotic resistance (and the current lack of pharmaceutical interest in creating viable alternatives), and encouraging shifts in diet and lifestyles that can lower thresholds for non-communicable diseases (from cigarette smoking, opioid addictions, etc.) .  All of these (and related) interventions, as noted, have important implications for peaceful and inclusive societies, as well as for elevating levels of health-related access.

Last Tuesday, the World Health Organization and other UN partners convened a session devoted to “Promoting Innovation and Access to Health Technologies,” which was intended in part as a follow up to the 2016 report by the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Access to Medicines.  Despite acknowledged limitations in its mandate, the report deftly outlines impediments to access and suggests trade and finance reforms to ease obstacles.  The report acknowledges the need to fund more research on diseases and related health needs endemic to developing countries — including more resistance-free antibiotics – while ensuring fair protection and compensation for those whose investment risks made new medicines and medical technologies possible.  The report highlights most of the often-systemic, critical barriers to access that must be addressed by the international community, including “inequalities within and between countries,” poor health education, a lack of trained medical personnel, health-related stigmas, lack of access to health insurance, and what it calls “exclusive marketing rights.”  And of course it cites the matter of health-related costs which in some instances (including for insulin, as noted by the WHO on Tuesday) are still rising.

What the report did not take up are the health and human rights implications of “bio-piracy,” research that exploits potential remedies from fields and forests to produce medicines which are then patented and marketed in ways that render them often well beyond the reach of the very people who inhabit the environments of origin.

Nor did the report take up the health access barriers that are created and exacerbated by armed violence, the refugees struggling with severe physical constraints on their long and treacherous journeys, the families under siege who find their clinics and hospitals reduced to rubble.  The nefarious “stripping” of long-awaited relief convoys containing medical supplies headed for besieged areas of Syria (even after a Security Council-authorized cessation of hostilities) is a special case but sadly not a unique one. We can’t seem to stop the bombing — perhaps our primary UN responsibility– but beyond that we can’t even guarantee minimal access by victims to the medicines and equipment that could give them a “punchers chance” for survival and renewal.  Apparently even the most abusive state and non-state actors understand that healthier and more able people are better able to contribute to stabilizing damaged local communities; but on a larger level are also better able to resist the intimidation of bombs and sieges, to more effectively demand cleaner water, lower levels of state corruption, less discrimination and abuse, fairer access to education for their children and energy for their dwellings.  Even abusers recognize that health care access is not a side-show on the path to more peaceful and inclusive societies, but is elemental to their ultimate success.

As one recent TV advertisement in the US seeks to remind us, moms and dads “don’t take sick days.”  But as the Dutch Ambassador to the US intimated during her statement at Tuesday’s event, the world is full of too many people for whom a “sick day” is an indulgence that threatens the basic well-being of families and communities.  It is the obligation of all of us, as the Thailand Ambassador and others noted – health professionals, scientists, parents, the private sector and the global policy community — to ensure a “better balance” of interests between those who develop vaccines, other medicines and medical equipment and those for whom access to context-appropriate health care is literally a lifeline.  We cannot meaningfully propose strategies for the full inclusion and participation of persons who can barely lift their heads to attend to their daily responsibilities in domiciles, fields and markets.

Shake Shack:  Mothering in an Unpredictable Age, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 May

My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it. Mark Twain

My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent. Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Motherhood was the great equalizer for me; I started to identify with everybody… as a mother, you have that impulse to wish that no child should ever be hurt, or abused, or go hungry, or not have opportunities in life.  Annie Lennox

Yesterday on my way to the office I stood on the subway near a seated mother –my guess is she was from somewhere in the Caribbean — and her young son. They were both visibly fatigued – it was early on a rainy and chilly Saturday and the boy was now becoming a bit agitated.  Without saying a word, without apparently being prompted by the son, the mother carefully fashioned a pillow on her lap and then gently coaxed the child to put his head down.  He was asleep within seconds.

Such acts as these, small but consequential, are much of what we honor on a Mother’s Day.  The comforting and feeding, the diapers and disinfectant, the telling of stories and issuing of warnings, the granting of untimely requests and the mediation of endless sibling squabbling, all of this and more in whatever form it takes is necessary for young vulnerable people of need to grow into older vulnerable people of promise.

Much mothering – whether conducted by biological mothers or “other mothers” – is intended in part to create secure and stable family environments, predictability that is still elusive for far too many children, and that now seems mostly to occur (when it does) within individual domiciles.  We know “where things are” in our homes, but in the world at large, peoples and cultures are now being tossed about as though we were living through a perpetual hurricane.

This represents part of the agony for many mothers I know. We can balance our children’s diet, tell them stories, buy them proper clothes and send them off to school, all the while holding our breath, praying hard and crossing our fingers; hoping that the center will hold long enough in these unstable times for our children to have a happy and productive adult life, that our multitude of small acts consistent with concerned parenting will somehow add up to prospects for prosperity and purpose.

But this hope, as it has for mothers across time and space, has one major caveat:  Most of what we teach our children, most of what we long for their future, depends for their fulfillment on a predictable social and security environment.  And whether or not we’ve actually ever had such a thing, we clearly don’t have that now. Despite what too many of our schools and advertisers and technological gurus need us to believe, the veil of predictability has been pulled back in so many ways, revealing a world that is shuddering if not shaking, increasingly fierce motions that are testing the nerves of both parents and the political leadership who now grace (or dis-grace) our halls of state.

Perhaps it is enough for mothers to teach what they know and hope for the best.   Perhaps that is the very best that can be done.  Or perhaps that is simply the recipe for yet another mother’s heartbreak, and another, and more after that.  Perhaps this recipe needs tweaking just a bit.

This week, in a UN building filled to the brim with talented women, three with lofty gravitas made high-profile appearances representing all three of what the UN calls its policy “pillars.” From the human rights and justice pillar was Ms. Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, who briefed the Security Council on the difficulties in securing prosecutions for crimes in Libya and also met with her “friends” group to discuss ways to eliminate state “non-cooperation” and bring more diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds into the work of the Court. UN Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed, the custodian of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals promises, provided an inspirational message to the “integration segment” of the Economic and Social Council devoted to meeting the “greatest global challenge” of poverty reduction. And on the peace and security front, High Representative of the European Union, Federica Mogherini, addressed the Security Council on the importance of expanding UN-EU security cooperation. Her remarkable presentation included a soft jab at the United States to both abandon its threatened withdrawal from multi-lateral engagements and to “find its own way” regarding commitments to heal our climate-threatened planet.

What all three of these remarkable women had in common this week is their vocal, passionate commitment to ensuring that our collective promises on justice, development and security will be met; that whatever can be done to calm our shaking planet will somehow become our collective priority.

They all have something else in common – they are all mothers.

I don’t know what kind of mothers they are, and I wouldn’t want to assume.  While you wouldn’t always know it from reading UN policy documents, there are thankfully many ways to be a woman, many ways to mother, many ways to nurture and inspire, many ways to mentor. Our pious certainties regarding “what mothers do,” or “what women want and need” can obscure any number of important struggles (and related conversations) on identity and responsibility.

For their part, I suspect that each of these three mothers of distinction has experienced in her own way more than a few moments of anxiety, perhaps even remorse, given that the demands of their high-order positions make absences from their children’s (or grandchildren’s) daily lives all too frequent.  Many professional women feel this, of course, immersed in meetings rather than in bedtime stories, eating on the run while children text that “daddy’s pancakes don’t taste right.”

But there is something about these particular mothers, something compelling about their vocal and pragmatic resolve to make a better world, one fit for all children not only their own.  Despite responsibilities in the world that place restrictions on family time, there remains the expectation — when their growing progeny have gotten some distance from social media addictions and raging hormones — that they will one day be able to look their children square in the eye and let them know that they did all that they knew to do to ensure a more stable, secure and sustainable world in which –collectively–their dreams and choices can continue to matter.

This is a powerful gift that, like inoculations and braces and homework, children might only be able to appreciate fully when they are old enough – and fortunate enough – to bear children of their own. There are no Hallmark cards devoted to mothers who help “stop the shaking.”  Perhaps there needs to be.

The many young people of diverse backgrounds who pass through our office each year have an eerily similar take on the world they are soon to inherit.  When I ask them if they feel prepared for all the chaotic motion characteristic of this current planetary phase, they almost always and without hesitation respond “no.”  It is difficult to know to what extent this is in response to the diverse threats they experience with us at the UN on a daily basis – wars and rumors of wars, climate change and our often tepid responses, traumatized children and families on makeshift rafts or reeling from the effects of famine. But it is unsettling that after so much parenting and so much schooling, even children of privilege feel inadequate to act on a stage that feels perpetually unsteady.

Also on this dreary New York weekend, I had a long Skype chat with a former colleague struggling in Mexico with the manifold contemporary responsibilities of being a mother – meeting her daughters’ needs, comforting their wounds and guiding their preparation for life outside the home while contributing in a larger sense to the stability of a world in which her parenting can hopefully have some impact.  Thankfully, she is finding that way, not on a global stage like Mohammed or Bensouda perhaps, but in community settings that matter and in ways that communicate – to both her children and the wider society – that there is still a sound basis for hope in our common future.

And like these three women of international prominence, the commitments of my former colleague will allow her one day to look her daughters in the eye and let them know that she also did her part – beyond the packed lunches and bandaging of scraped knees — to secure an unsteady planet.

Future Shock:  Traumatized Youth and Prospects for Sustaining Peace, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Jan


Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children, Sitting Bull

As many of your recognize, part of our task in these weekly missives is to blend events at the UN that are too-rarely blended – to help people inside the UN become more conscious of policy linkages and to help people outside the UN discern what this institution is uniquely suited for – and perhaps not so terribly well suited for.

In both aspects, this week presented multiple venues and options for reflection.

The highlight of the week was probably the 1+ days devoted by the President of the UN General Assembly (PGA) to “sustaining peace,” a welcome effort to link implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), arguably the UN’s most ambitious current project, to the promotion and maintenance of peace, arguably the UN’s most important overall mission.

The events, including a relatively uninspiring, pre-event, “brainstorming” session, attracted the highest levels of officials across the UN system.  Brainstorming is not what we do best here, but this particular session at least put on the table the notion that funding the SDGs will require some adjustments to our rapacious patterns of military spending, and that such adjustments are more likely if we can demonstrate as much capacity to prevent armed conflict as we currently expend to clean up the debris left behind in armed conflict’s aftermath.

The main “sustaining peace” event in the Trusteeship Council was devoted in part to what GA President Thompson called the “disastrous consequences” that conflict inflicts on development prospects. On his last day as chair of the Peacebuilding Commission, Kenya’s Ambassador Kamau urged capacity development for what he called a “diplomatic surge” that could help all UN member states address threats in their earliest and most manageable stages.  And Switzerland’s Minister Baeriswyl was one of several voices advocating for an end to our policy “fragmentation” so that we can impact the security and development fragility of states with greater efficiency and effectiveness.

By the end of these sessions, there was a bit more clarity on what “sustaining peace” means in theory, especially regarding the reinvestment of our energies more towards conflict prevention and less towards the rehabilitation and reconstruction that have proven so costly and with uneven consequences for human and ecological well-being.  Nevertheless, the Mexican Ambassador made his own plea – urging that we quickly move beyond “beautiful political concepts” to embrace the hard, practical work of peacemaking whose success has eluded our grasp in more instances than we are publicly willing to acknowledge.

And much of the failure of that work directly impacts future prospects for our children.

During both the main and side events on “sustaining peace,” states as diverse as Cambodia, Jordan and Andorra all advocated for education to raise levels of SDG awareness among youth.  Such education is welcome especially if it then leads to more direct participation by youth in the implementation of these diverse goals.  And indeed speakers did advocate more pathways to involvement, led by the PGA himself who noted that youth have a greater “skin in this game” since they are the ones who will inherit the fruits of our policy labors, for good or for ill.   In that context, the PGA lamented what he called the “selfishness” of too many adults that inhibits gender balancing and other hopeful prospects for his own (and for many others’) “female grandchildren.”

Indeed, the “selfishness” of adults currently takes so many insidious forms that result in long-term physical and psychological damage to our young.   At a small side event this week seeking funding pledges for a badly-needed “Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty,” a roster of UN and NGO experts highlighted the horrific and lasting impacts on children who find themselves in often inhumane, punitive detention facilities: some who have been victims of organized crime and traffickers; some who were living on the street having been separated from their families; some exhibiting clear signs of mental illness or drug dependency; some seized by government or insurgent forces during armed conflict.  These “invisible and forgotten” children include many who had already been victimized through sexual violence or recruitment into criminality, a second-helping of trauma for lives that are literally being drained of promise.

We can now only guess how many children are currently deprived of liberty in facilities that are dispiriting at best.  In this as in other areas of children’s rights, we need better data to guide our policy and focus our concern.  But what we are already able to predict is the long psychic climb that these deprived children must make if they are ever to live “healthy and constructive” lives, if they are ever to achieve their full capacity to help guide this planet through what remain treacherous waters.

As is noted often at the UN, this generation of youth is the largest in human history.   But it is also a generation characterized by deep distress in many of its sub-groupings.  When damage in the world is mirrored by — — even at times surpassed by — damage absorbed by our children and young people, both education and participation are sure to be negatively impacted by a trust- and confidence-eroding trauma that we can and must collectively do more to prevent.

The UN already recognizes its responsibility to promote “mental health for all” in part through SDG-related initiatives led or supported by several member states including Panama, Belgium, Canada, Liberia and especially Palau.  Indeed, at a UN side event this week co-hosted by the NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, Palau’s Ambassador Otto reiterated his plea for mental health services and priorities, noting that it is not only in places like Aleppo and Sana’a where services are needed, but also in the midst of our own hometowns.  Otto recognizes the value of spiritual resources in mental health, but also acknowledges the longer-term threats to peace and development that present themselves when youth and families are abandoned to cope with the impacts of trauma and mental illness that, if anything, are clearly still on the rise, still represent a distressing “shock” to a collective, sustainable future.

In a not-so-charming opening gambit, the new US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley began her tenure here with a threat – that the US would be “taking names” of states that do not “watch the back” of the US and its interests.   We’d like to suggest that the “names” that Ambassador Haley should take first are those of agencies and governments that deliberately inflict – through policy and practice — traumatic damage on children and youth, thereby creating deprivations of mental health that will impede “sustaining peace” efforts long past the tenure of any of our UN offices – or national administrations.

Calling for Clarity and Constancy: The UN Doubles Back on Recent Commitments and Expectations, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Jan

Back in October 2015, under Argentina’s leadership and with the support of several other member states, the UN held a panel on Ethics for Sustainable Development.

We commented at the time on both the format and substance of a discussion that we found to be notable at several levels, including its focus on the many ways in which those who control capital flows and labor relationships have increased inequality at a time when most of us at the UN feel an urgency to narrow it.

This past Wednesday, with leadership from Panama’s Ambassador Flores, part II of this assessment of our collective ethical responsibilities to sustainable development was held.   The large and enthusiastic audience filling the Trusteeship Council chamber, including a large number of permanent representatives, attested again to the importance of the UN’s ethical responses to its own high commitments and the broad expectations thus raised.   The content of this discussion was both structural and personal, and demonstrated much overlap with the October event.

For us, such overlap was welcome as it reinforced sentiments shared by Palau, the Netherlands, panelist Dr. Bernardo Kliksberg and others, that while we are certainly capable of overcoming avarice and other forms of malice, ethics is hard, habituated work for persons (and institutions) as “complex” as we all tend to be.  Sustaining ethical behavior requires regular reinforcement and self-scrutiny even (especially) at the heart of global governance.   Unfortunately, as Dr. Kliksberg noted, we have spent too much of our collective energy “hardening our hearts” and waiting for technology to soften the blows which we have inflicted on ourselves through our generalized inattentiveness and our “speculative, unbridled greed.”  We can (and should) do a better job of cultivating our ethical nature, as noted by Liberia, but there are few short-cuts – no pills to swallow or aps to download that can keep us from having to set out on the long and often winding ethical road.

The “ethical roadmap,” cited by Ambassador Flores, is an important contribution to SDG fulfillment, but as we know from our own work with Green Map System, maps are mostly useful only when people desire to get to the places to which the maps point us.  The more thoroughly we cultivate and model ethical behavior, the more we reinforce the notion that ethics is a daily walk and not an episodic one, the more useful that ethical roadmap will become.

The Deputy Secretary-General, as is often his welcome role, sought to assist event organizers in rallying diplomats and NGOs to embrace an ethic worthy of this “unprecedented” SDG agenda.   He shared the view that the SDGs can best be understood as a “declaration of interdependence,” a declaration that privileges solidary with the most vulnerable.   We at the UN have raised expectations very high now; meeting this ambitious calling requires us to be regularly informed by those whom we seek to support.  It requires us to reach out intently, but also to reach deeply, beyond our zones of comfort to places hard to reach and even harder to address.   The “margins” we acknowledge here in New York are often safer and more “recognizable” spaces than those framing the context for families struggling at the edges of desperation.

Ethics is hard work indeed, but it is hardly without its conceptual guideposts and even its satisfying moments. Dr. Kliksberg made mention of Pope Francis’ “hallowed addiction” to addressing the needs of the poor, an addiction which seems to energize the Pope and from which our own, policy-driven, poverty-reduction efforts could learn some valuable, sustaining lessons. The president of ECOSOC, Amb. Oh Joon of the Republic of Korea, cited “access to justice” as a fundamental “leveling principle,” such leveling being a key outcome of SDG fulfillment but also a cardinal value of a newly revitalized ECOSOC that will celebrate its 70th anniversary later this week at the UN.

Despite what our current economics and politics might suggest, this commitment to “leveling” is in the best interest of all of us.  We cannot continue to plunder the planet and turn the most desperate constituencies into statistical abstractions or social media caricatures.  We cannot raise the bar with one hand and use the other to smack down people desperate to grab on.

Back in the Trusteeship Council chamber, Germany was clear on the point that “ethics is not a luxury” for 2030 development implementation.   But this net must be cast wider.   The expectations that we raise across the three pillars of UN activity all have ethical components, as does our collective behavior which sometimes falls off the proverbial “wagon” when we think no one is looking.

Someone is always looking.

As many diplomats have affirmed with a sense of well-deserved pride, this is a big moment for the world; also for the UN.  If we can deliver on our development and climate promises; if we can (as Palau noted) systematize ethics in our diverse policy outcomes; if we can better balance (as Argentina urged) our national ambitions with our commitment to inclusion, then the most vulnerable will get more of what they need, the planet will stand a chance, and the UN will have made an important statement about the indispensability of multilateral frameworks going forward.

All of these qualify in whole or in part as “hallowed addictions,” worthy in their own right of our full and ethical attention.

Treasure Hunt:  the UN seeks the means to honor the expectations it raises, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Aug

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” comes at the end of a passage in the Christian Bible that appears to be denigrating wealth but is actually warning about our over-identification with the things we own and control.  It is also a reminder that how we invest our energies and our riches says much about who we are – individually and collectively — and what we actually care about, beyond the rhetoric of our own self-definition.

This week there were other “treasure” lessons to be learned at the UN. As we know, the “need for funding” is a ubiquitous feature of virtually every UN discussion. The “world we want,” a common slogan to inspire interest in the (still awaiting adoption) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is very much related to the “world we wish to pay for.”  In one UN conference room after another, and to a degree that is unprecedented in UN history, issues from innovative peacekeeping to heart-breaking humanitarian disasters seek out willing investors.  While most of this “seeking” takes the form of overtures to wealthier governments, it is becoming more and more apparent that such investors are pulling back on at least some of their commitments.  Pledges are less and less likely to be fully honored.   And, as Global Policy Forum has recently made plain in a new report, “Fit for Whose Purpose?”, more and more UN-related funding is being diverted from core functions to earmarked projects more directly consistent with national interest.

The fiscal dilemma for the UN mirrors a potentially troubling credibility gap.  Our diverse, frenetic and largely hopeful activities at the UN are collectively raising expectations throughout the global community.  Fueled in large measure by UN-generated branding, people have come to expect that the SDGs will eliminate poverty and save our oceans and forests from devastation.   People have come to expect that the Arms Trade Treaty will dramatically reduce weapons-related violence, that peacekeeping operations will protect civilians threatened by rape and rebuild violence ravaged states, that wildlife trafficking will be eliminated and threats of extinctions averted.  Within limitations, many of these worthy goals are enhanced by UN activity, of course, but people far from UN negotiating rooms can’t always navigate the distance between text-based commitments and active, binding promises.  They can’t always distinguish between the “world we want” and the world with which we might well have to eventually make our peace.  The expectations we project from the UN are often grandiose and almost always underfunded.  And the disappointments they sometimes generate are felt widely and return to this institution the bewilderment of much of the global public.

As one means to bring expectations and resources into some balance and as a supplement to (real or rhetorical) state funding limitations, the UN is increasingly looking to “public-private sector partnerships.”  While some consideration is given to small business interests, it is the large corporations and foundations that are increasingly looked to fill funding gaps and help the UN fulfill more of its promises.   And there is reason not to dismiss the benefits of these arrangements out of hand.  However, as noted by Global Policy Forum, whether it is Coca Cola with UN Women or The Gates Foundation with the WHO, the hegemony of large entities “partnering” with an institution with whose core values and assumptions they might not be fully aligned should give pause to the many groups and their millions of constituents who will never receive an invitation to any “partner” seminars or receptions.  The UN may well be open for business, but the terms and potential benefits (and risks) of those negotiations remain among the least transparent in the entire UN system.

Are there other sources to fund ambitious SDGs that we are overlooking? Development funding from the major state donors has to compete with domestic concerns of course, but also in many cases with rapacious military appetites.   The “guns and butter” arguments that used to punctuate UN budget discussions, at least as introduced by NGOs, have largely been silenced. Weapons development and use remain major impediments to social development and environmental health, but these linkages now seem to have fallen off the policy table, swept aside by dysfunctional disarmament machinery and arms-friendly documents such as the Arms Trade Treaty and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Moreover, many advocates have invested heavily in a “peace” SDG goal 16 that barely notes the consequences of illicit weapons and doesn’t mention at all the more devastating impacts of “licit” weapons or the discouraging budgetary impacts of still-out-of-control military spending.

Instead of focusing on the most obvious (if perhaps also most taboo) source of development funding, the UN has chosen to invest its brand in these “partnerships” linking state, corporate and charitable stakeholders.  As is now being recognized, much more oversight of these ‘partnerships’ will be needed, many of which involve formidable players whose financial leverage literally dwarfs that of the countries they seek to “help.”  While we don’t anticipate signs outside the UN proclaiming “Disarmament Affairs brought to you by Bechtel” or “UNDP brought to you by Nestle” there is clearly danger that the intense product branding and generalized disinterest in those at the bottom of the consumer scale characteristic of too many large corporate entities will jeopardize more than enhance implementation of the final, adopted set of post-2015 development goals and targets.

More than ever, it seems, responsible NGOs will be characterized in part by their willingness to “follow the treasure,” and then carefully assess its implications for the UN system, even if that means temporarily reigning in some of their own branded program priorities.  Again as noted by Global Policy Forum this week, we are at a critical moment at the UN (as we are in the US and other large states) regarding the growing ability of “big money” to buy significant policy clout.  If NGOs don’t respond to the challenge of lifting this veil and keeping it open, it is not at all clear where this urgent scrutiny is to come from.

But this moment requires even more — taking a look at our own complicated relationship to money, the policy compromises and rationalizations that can occur when we willingly accept funding from states or other stakeholders, even the unwarranted branding that comes when donor states or corporations seek to promote their own grantees at the expense of other worthy (and often more diverse) stakeholders.   Moreover, as was apparent earlier this week during the Sovereign Debt Restructuring working session of the General Assembly, we are working now within an economic system characterized by shocking levels of abstraction in financial decisionmaking, rampant consumer excess, and governments content to enable economic predators as much as regulate them. Treasure, as it turns out, bears high potential for self-delusion by all “partners” – those holding the purse strings and those beholden to them.   And this delusion will have every bit as much to bear on the potential success of post-2015 development goals as the quality of the SDG outcome document.

The implications of our search for “treasure” are far reaching and not always as self-validating as we might think.   Many people, diplomats and NGOs alike, have poured their hearts into an SDG blueprint to end inequality and preserve the planet. As we move together from “the world we want” to the “world we make,” we would do well also to keep close track of the ways in which we obtain, budget and allocate whatever treasure for sustainable development is to be entrusted to us.