Tag Archives: Secretary-General

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

19 Aug

Under Construction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inquiring Minds:  Questions at the Heart of the UN’s 2018 Priorities, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Jan

Questions

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’  Martin Luther King, Jr.

Questions are the breath of life for a conversation. James Nathan Miller

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask.  Albert Einstein

It’s another frigid Sunday at the UN, a day when (typically) the trains are not running close to properly and the most important news items of the day included a (thankfully) false missile warning for Hawaii, the dangers to youth from swallowing pods of detergent and the possibility that one of those leftover pods might be needed to “wash out” the insensitive mouth of the US president.

At the UN, it was a slow but important week – slow because of most of the missions are still catching up from the burdensome workloads of late 2017, but important because this is the time when senior UN officials reveal their plans and priorities for the year.   SG Guterres will take the floor on Tuesday to lay out the 2018 priorities of the Secretariat, though he provided an important preview this past week during the launch of his Making Migration Work for All report.  During this well-attended session, Guterres rightly called for “canons of international cooperation” that can increase opportunities for legal migration and eliminate unrealistic restrictions.  Migration is “inevitable,” the SG noted, and if something is inevitable it makes sense to attempt to “properly manage it;” this as part of a call for all delegations to negotiate “constructively” a Global Compact on Migration before the end of this year.

On Friday, the President of the General Assembly, Miroslav Lajčák, took his turn to outline priorities for 2018 within the UN’s most democratic chamber, underscoring the SG’s emphasis on protecting rights and maximizing benefits of migrants, those who migrate voluntarily and those many migrants pushed out of their homes by drought and other climate impacts, discrimination and human rights abuses, and of course armed conflict.

The PGA had other things on his mind as well that his office will hope to impact before turning over the gavel in September 2018:   He is seeking to focus attention on Sustainable Development Goal 6, overcoming the “indignities” that so often accompany a lack of access to safe drinking water.  He is seeking to broaden stakeholder involvement in 2030 Development Agenda implementation.  He is seeking ways for the UN to “keep up with a changing world,” including through stronger linkages between the UN’s human rights and development communities.  He is seeking to continue the process of General Assembly reforms, including institutionalizing participation by indigenous communities and raising levels of transparency regarding the process for choosing his successor.  He made a special appeal for a dramatic increase in delegate attention to the health of our oceans, the challenges of global terrorism and the threat of new pandemics.

And he seeks to elevate the SG’s “sustaining peace” initiative, including pathways to greater participation in peacebuilding by women and youth.   Lajčák affirmed, as he has done in the past, the value of a prevention-oriented peace agenda, urging the UN to act sooner on conflict threats while there is still a “peace to keep.”  Towards the end of his remarks, he also acknowledged (as well he should) threats to our multilateral system that risk “overburdening” the UN system, “drowning out” the voices of smaller states, and undermining progress towards previously agreed peace and development goals. To address challenges such as these, he urged delegations to “talk more and learn more.”

And perhaps even to ask better questions.

Despite his expressed desire to focus on the quality of goals, not their quantity, Lajčák understands that the clock is ticking, both for our planet and, more locally, for his tenure as PGA.  We are already now 1/3 of the way through that tenure, one which has successfully promoted the priorities of his predecessor, Fiji’s Peter Thomson, while seeking to inject some new urgency into a building that sometimes seems content with development and security measures that (while often impressive in their own right) offer insufficient relief for a world staring at a future that could well be characterized by wider social unrest, more missile alerts (false and otherwise), accelerated polar melting, growing insurgencies, an increasingly degraded biodiversity, and perhaps even greater erosion in the confidence that the global public places in governments and multilateral institutions.

PGA Lajčák seems to grasp this multi-faceted urgency.  He knows that the office he now holds has a limited tenure and many burdens, some related to internal UN drama and others related to the positioning of the UN’s considerable successes as a trustworthy antidote to the existential threats which daily assault the PGA and his staff.   Even in his sometimes understated way, Lajčák seemed proficient at communicating the UN’s core responsibilities in this sometimes treacherous period.  Was it enough on Friday?

We weren’t able to tell, frankly, because as quickly as it began the session was over.  By my calculation, delegations were in their seats perhaps 30 minutes for a session which had been allotted three hours.  There were (thankfully) no pre-prepared statements from delegations, no attempts to “comment” on what they heard before they heard it.  But neither were there any questions from the floor: Not a single one.

We had plenty of questions, though protocol prohibits us from asking them in these sessions.  We wanted to probe further the PGAs assertion about “quality commitments,” including how he will use the final 8 months of his tenure to press delegations to “talk more and learn more” about the global challenges for which they have tacitly accepted remedial responsibility?  We wanted to know more about how a “voluntary” compact on migration can successfully overcome nationalist resistances?  We wanted to know how a UN system can effectively prevent conflict when peace and security are often addressed in such a politicized fashion and sovereignty reigns supreme until the fires of internal conflict have burned too many innocents?   We wanted to know how a more “transparent” selection process for the next PGA would actually impact the means by which the new president would eventually be selected?   We wanted to know how the office of the PGA can be better fortified to provide system-wide leadership to address a bursting roster of global expectations?

We had questions for virtually every phrase in the PGA’s presentation, questions that sought clarification and offered opportunities for the PGA to share more of his personal concerns and commitments, to lift a portion of the policy veil for a community that recognizes the value of strong leadership from the PGA despite the impediments from an often-underfunded, one-year tenure.  But from the heads of delegations, there was only a bit of mild applause and a reach for coats and brief cases.  Questions, if at all, were left for another time.

For us, this event was a reminder that the key to “learning more” is not primarily through statements and presentations but through questions – not primarily the kind that seek to “catch” people in their errors and hypocrisies — though there is certainly a place for those — but the kind that illuminates personal and institutional commitments, and that binds questions and answers in a common inquiry to find viable solutions to the problems that plague us.   This is not about letting others (or ourselves) “off the hook,” but acknowledging that, in some real sense, we are all now dangling from the same one.

We are collectively not in that place of recognition.  For too many of us, questions are a threat rather than a blessing, a challenge to our branded narratives rather than an ocassion to examine the truths we hold, and sometimes hold in common.  More and more, we don’t ask good questions, in part because we haven’t practiced asking them in the first place.  And even when we have practiced, we don’t ask good questions because we don’t want to risk having to deal with the answers we receive.  We don’t question because we recognize the degree to which, in our sometimes aloof and self-referential policy world, questions are occasions much more for defensiveness than for exploration. We don’t ask questions at times because we don’t care enough to know and at times because we don’t want to appear in a “public” setting not to already know what a question might imply that we don’t.

But then there are those of us yearning to hear good questions, ones which are neither self-referential nor blatantly accusative but attentive invitations to explore, to collaborate, to support, to learn.  Many of us recognize the potential benefits of such questions, but we hear them too seldom and offer them too sparingly.   Thus, GAPW has made a commitment this year to practice asking better questions — more open-ended, utilizing kinder language, and based on higher levels of attentiveness to process and context.  Our hope is that such questions – from us and from others– can lead to better prospects for community learning, more honest disclosures, and even a lowering of our collective emotional guard.  Such outcomes might even pave the way for global constituents to more fully endorse UN proposals to address the many challenges that keep too many people around the world awake, night after night.

Herding Cats: The UNSG Leads Wary Constituents Towards Management Reform, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Nov

Only in growth, reform, and change –paradoxically enough — is true security to be found. Anne Morrow Lindbergh

An institution or reform movement that is not selfish must originate in the recognition of some evil that is adding to the sum of human suffering, or diminishing the sum of happiness. Clara Barton

Reform, that we may preserve. Thomas Babington Macaulay

This was one of those intense weeks at the UN during which if I were smart enough to write them — and you were patient enough to read them — there could have been a policy-related post emanating from this office every single day.  It was a week for the Peacebuilding Commission to assess the difficult circumstances in Burundi, for the UN General Assembly Fourth Committee to review the UN’s commitment to Palestinian refugees, for the Security Council Counter-Terror Executive Directorate to discuss rights-based ways for military and police to respond to the challenges of returning Foreign Terror Fighters, and for the entire Security Council to listen to commanders and otherwise honor the role of UNPOL (UN Police)in stabilizing communities, building trust with local constituents, and paving the way for easier transitions from peace operations to UN country teams and local security forces.

The highlight of the week from a public-interest standpoint was probably the Security Council debate focused on the report of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  This was actually the third recent discussion on the report and/or JIM mandate renewal – one previously in the Council that saw Russia veto a proposal to extend the JIM prior to the report’s release and another in the General Assembly’s First Committee that deals specifically with disarmament and weapons of mass destruction.   As the policy lines sharpened this week among Council members and with occasional professional insults hurled at JIM director Mulet, our twitter account literally exploded with commentary, much of it from persons angry or frustrated at what they saw as attempts by (mostly) Russia and Syria to undermine both the methodology and findings of the JIM report, calling its basic integrity and usefulness into question.

Our “for what it’s worth” recommendations in response to this twitter flurry were twofold: to reauthorize the JIM promptly but also to carefully scrutinize its working methods and possible methodological gaps, especially given fresh allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria that will also need to be investigated, hopefully this time with successful on-site inspections.  Given all of the interest in eliminating these weapons and ending blatant violations of the non-proliferation regime, it is essential that these investigations be as “above reproach” as we can get them.

Despite all this impact-filled drama, our preference for a Sunday highlight was a joint Thursday briefing by the president of the General Assembly and the Secretary-General on the SG’s proposals for reform of the UN’s peace and security pillar. The SG’s report on this subject is largely focused on management reform rather than on specific changes to the ways in that the UN conducts its security-related responsibilities.

Following the SG’s opening statement, a number of states came forward with support for reform efforts, specifically lauding the SG’s focus on UN management and his willingness to reorganize across pillars and sectors.  Others cautiously awaited more specifics on proposed changes to the peace and security architecture with some explicitly calling on the president of the General Assembly to exercise oversight of the reform process on behalf of member states.

Given the SG’s management focus, and perhaps due to constraints of time as well as a reticence to get into too many details on how a post-reform UN would conduct its business, there were several matters of critical importance to peace and security that were barely mentioned during the two-hour briefing:

  • The reform of the Security Council (this was noted in passing by Ambassador Kamau of Kenya but ignored by the remainder of speakers, which included several Council members)
  • The architecture and structure of UN Disarmament Affairs. Indeed, the word “disarmament” was not uttered, neither in a programmatic or management context
  • The potential (and actual) prevention-related functions managed by the UN’s genocide and atrocity prevention mechanisms
  • Full-spectrum motivations for this reform initiative, specifically including funding threats emanating from the US government and other member states; their preferences, more and more, leaning towards earmarked funding rather than pledges for core operations.

What was most welcome from the SG’s remarks is his commitment to enhancing the visibility and functionality of the UN’s peacebuilding architecture, something we have long advocated.  With Guatemala’s Amb. Rosenthal in the room (a primary architect of the UN’s landmark peacebuilding review), the SG made a strong case for why the Peacebuilding Commission and Peacebuilding Fund deserved a broader role in the UN system – beyond its current post-conflict confinements – to hopefully become a significant resource for states seeking guidance on conflict prevention and mediation before facing the prospect of turning up on the agenda of the Security Council.

At this point, I can “feel” many of those who chose to read this thinking, well, this is all well and good for the SG, but what are the takeaways?   I think there are several, but will summarize the following:

  • First, for a range of reasons, the “mood of the room” on Thursday was mostly supportive of the SG’s reform push. Uruguay and Japan, as examples, were two current Security Council members who reinforced the SG’s “mandate for change” and sought ways to support that change without seeking to “micro-manage” it.
  • Second, there is a clear and tangible concern among many member states that the UN is simply not delivering “on the ground” in accordance with expectations that we in this policy space have raised but often failed to meet. In an age of austerity for the UN system, the pressure to deliver “more with less” is being felt across the UN and certainly has “raised the bar” for the current leadership.
  • Third, Morocco’s Ambassador and other officials reminded colleagues that reform of one aspect of the UN system changes – at least in potential – all other aspects of the system. Changes in the management structure and architecture of the UN’s security apparatus – including peace operations — will change institutional dynamics and policy options on gender, counter-terrorism, human rights, children’s issues and other key dimensions of the UN’s multilateral contribution.
  • And fourth, there was some helpful recognition in the room that, to use our own analogy, there is quite a difference between planning a wedding and sustaining a marriage. As Algeria’s Ambassador Boukadoum noted near the end of the session, everyone seems to be in favor of reform until they figure out what they are likely to lose (or have to pay for, or change) as reform commences.   Pakistan picked up this theme urging the SG to initiate thoughtful reform “that does not replicate the ills that it seeks to fix.”  The recognition that a push for reform does not, in itself, guarantee successful (or happily embraced) institutional outcomes was a sobering reminder for delegations. This led to one of the more noteworthy comments of the day, a request by Singapore’s Ambassador for a “framework of assurances” to help member states track reform progress but also to help ensure, as noted by the Ambassador of the Solomon Islands, that we all do everything that we are able in order to “get this reform right.”

On Friday, in another reform-minded session with SG Guterres, ECOSOC President Marie Chatardová noted that where matters of reform are concerned, “the devil is in the details, but also the opportunity.” As Amb. Chatardová knows well, the UN does not control many of the variables that can threaten successful management reforms and those changes that could well add to “the sum of happiness” far beyond Turtle Bay.  And many of the variables the UN does control, it controls only in part – such as the actions of major powers in the Security Council or the rates at which states honor funding commitments to urgent matters such as core UN functions and emergency provisions of assistance.

What this reform push does recognize is that this is a time of trial for the entire UN community.  Can we fix the ills that hinder us without replicating them or creating new problems out of the ashes of the old?  Can we assure states – but more importantly constituents – that reform is more than a concession to budget threats but is actually capable of increasing the general threshold of human well-being and building back what has become significantly compromised confidence in multilateral structures?

Like any marriage, UN reforms will be won or lost in the trenches – in the challenges of day-to-day communication, confidence-building measures, systemic trust and steady reassurances.  The SG on Thursday noted that Algeria had once offered haven to political refugees from his home country of Portugal.  He then shared the hope – jokingly we trust — that the current push for UN reform won’t end up with him scurrying to Algeria seeking a safe haven for himself!

But beyond the humor lies a somber recognition: if this community fails to embrace and sustain the changes that can preserve and enhance our collective service to the global community, more than the SG will eventually find their own professional security “up for grabs. “

Reform School:  The UN Seeks to Fix What and Where it Can, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Sep

Reform School

In our view, successful reform is not an event. It is a sustainable process that will build on its own successes – a virtuous cycle of change. Abdullah II of Jordan

Someone recently asked what keeps me up at night.  My answer was simple:  Bureaucracy. Fragmented structures.  Byzantine procedures.  Endless red tape.  UNSG Guterres

Don’t marry a man to reform him – that’s what reform schools are for. Mae West

The security and access barriers are starting to come down, the celebrities have left the building and motorcades are less numerous by the day, indicating the immanent end of this year’s High Level Segment at the opening of the 72nd UN General Assembly.

And what a time it has been: Yemen’s president now insisting on a military solution to an already gut-wrenching conflict; another typically slow and tepid response by the international community to Myanmar military abuses of Rohingya; insults hurled at each other by the US president and the North Korean (DPRK) Foreign Minister in which the specter of an “inevitable” attack was invoked, rhetoric mirroring provocations occurring in real time, with real deadly weapons, across the Korean peninsula. At the same time, leaders from Eastern Europe and the Caucuses called attention to still largely-ignored security concerns and the reluctance of Russia to address them forthrightly. And support for the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) was being questioned (mostly by the US) and potentially undermined behind closed doors.

On the plus side a staggering array of events took place in UN conference rooms – from torture prevention and ocean care to Yemen relief and financing for development –often in parallel and generally with too few participants beyond the myriad officials accompanying their Ministers and Heads of State.  A Security Council resolution demanding justice for victims of ISIL abuses in Iraq was highly regarded and another Council session on peacekeeping reform added value – including what appeared to be some Russian openness to a Minsk-focused peacekeeping mission for Ukraine — despite a bit of an “off the rails” statement by the US Vice President which merely highlighted the political and logistical complexities associated with attempts to make already-stretched peace operations simultaneous more security efficient and cost-effective.

Not surprisingly, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) received vast attention from state officials and other UN stakeholders, mostly in a sincere effort to move our collective implementation commitments and energies from the current stroll to more of a full-out sprint.  Most all key aspects of what we now call the 2030 Agenda received ample attention – finance, data, national strategies, private sector engagement.  One of the matters left unaddressed, unsurprisingly, is how we use sustainable development policy to inspire people to modify their eco-footprint, change their habits, interrogate their “needs” for comfort and consumption, do our fair part to build a world that is not only fit for children but fit for their children. That the UN – this particular week and every week – generally fails to blend policy norms with personal commitments to change and modify life habits from its norm entrepreneurs makes the sales job with the global public that much more difficult.  If those closest to sustainable development norms and their various states of urgency don’t particularly feel the need to adjust their lifestyles, it becomes harder to make the case why any of us should do so.

But even more that the SDGs, the preoccupation of the week seemed to be on strategies for UN “reform.”   UN SG Guterres laid out his recommendations to address those “things that keep him up at night” and received much rhetorical support from states and others for his efforts. He outlined administrative reforms to bring service back to the bureaucracy, suggested adjustments to the way in which we deliver development and humanitarian assistance, and offered new tools and ideas to move our peace and security architecture to a more preventive space. Included here are more robust mediation resources, more effective early warning, and (we hope) a broader consultative role for the Peacebuilding Commission and Support Office beyond the post-conflict configurations that have largely defined (and restricted) their role.  We must do more, he as noted often as part of his “sustaining peace” initiative, to get out in front of conflict and, where such strategy fails to prevent, to ensure that any peace arising from the ashes of conflict is sustainable and lasting.

Guterres also acknowledged the degree of difficulty in any UN reform process, one of which is related to reform’s end game.   If the objective, as the US and some other states suggest, is to create a leaner, more cost-effective structure, this is a relatively easy if painful objective to pursue.  The large contributors pull parts of their funding commitments altogether and place much of the rest into earmarked programs that essentially remove discretion from UN leadership.

But if the objective of reform is more along the lines of helping “the UN to better meet today’s complex and interlinked challenges,” then we need to examine priorities and impediments beyond tightening our collective fiscal belts. Money is not always the answer to global problems; but the demands currently being placed on the UN system in the areas of social and economic development, migration governance, humanitarian response, peacekeeping, conflict prevention, human rights, gender violence and much more will require more (not less) of the very same “predictable funding” that the Security Council is now examining seriously with regard to SC-authorized, African Union peace operations.

In the often-sordid environments of reform schools, the emphasis is too often on reform-as-punishment.   “Beating the devil” out of children was a common phrase in my childhood, and apparently the devil was believed to have established quite a productive beachhead within many reform school residents.  “Reform” positioned as a stand-alone, dehumanizing, cost-obsessed project can certainly seem like an institutional Tsunami – jobs are threatened, programmatic relationships are severed, expectations for assistance and relief are dashed.  But the point of reform in UN contexts should not be about punishing an erstwhile ineffective bureaucracy but inspiring the system to ensure, as the SG has noted, that “we are positioned to better deliver for people” and uphold the values in our Charter.   This is the only reform objective worthy of our time and support.

There are many ways in which we can help make this UN system more accountable to constituents, and more inspiring to all who work within its walls.  There are still under-utilized capacities including the Office of Genocide Prevention and the Peacebuiling Commission.  There are “byzantine procedures” to change that might offer a predictable environment for some delegations but that equally reinforce the system’s endless rhetorical replication that dulls the senses and even obscures the best of the changes that our constituents long for.  We can even do a better job of recycling our waste!

There is also an urgent need to address the persistent power imbalances at the UN both inside and outside the Security Council, imbalances that at times seem as entrenched as distrust in a troubled child.  As Guterres has noted, “We don’t need to hear more from the SG.  We need to hear more from the large states that have imposed their will on the UN system, and especially on its peace and security priorities, for too long.”  What we especially need to hear is what these large powers are willing to change, to adjust, even to renounce, in order to make the system they seek to “reform” function in a more inclusive and accountable manner, a system that might actually be able to stop the violence as effectively as it now cleans up messes left in violence’s aftermath.

If “reform” of the UN is to matter to the world, if it is to be about anything more than cost-cutting and control, then the full UN system – including its largest and most powerful states — must reinforce its full commitment to address the urgent and difficult circumstances that plague our planet and endanger the future health and well-being of all our children.  The remainder is mere posturing, using “inefficiency” as an excuse to impose national will on multi-lateral affairs. It is this will to impose, more than any bureaucratic or budgetary excess, that endangers that “virtuous cycle of change” that UN reform could otherwise become. The SG was right to place this responsibility where it most belongs.

A Pound of Cure: The new UNSG Seeks Upstream Alternatives to Downstream Crises, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Jan

Let us try to offer help before we have to offer therapy. That is to say, let’s see if we can’t prevent being ill by trying to offer a love of prevention before illness.  Maya Angelou

The Security Council was a bit more festive than usual this week as Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and five new members of the Council – Sweden (as president), Italy, Ethiopia, Bolivia and Kazakhstan — made their first presentation in chambers under their current status.

All five states have so far handled their duties with aplomb, especially Sweden which was thrust into the presidency on its very first day back in the Council. Bolivia, taking over from an often-combative Venezuela, was equally feisty, criticizing the large Council powers – in this instance especially the US – for playing unfairly, largely through their manipulation of both Council working methods and policy outcomes.   We always appreciate a concern for fairness and hope that Bolivia can help find the clarity and tact needed to bring the non-permanent members together to address working methods and power imbalances long in need of correction.

But on this day the stage belonged to newly minted SG Guterres who has not only hit the ground running, but as outgoing US Ambassador Power noted, he is also running hard.   And he appears to be heading in a direction different from most of his predecessors – not only keen to address crises, as he is now attempting to do in Cyprus, but even more to keep crises from happening in the first place.

Guterres’ “upstream” approach is fully in keeping with directions advocated by Global Action and many other NGOs.  As he himself noted, while preventing conflict is not always straightforward, it is clearly more cost effective than rebuilding failed states after conflict – costs related to the repair of damaged infrastructure as well as healing for traumatized families who have already watched their intimate spaces and the communities beyond crumble around them.

The UN has, as many speakers in the Security Council on this day acknowledged, a full toolkit to address conflict and crisis at earlier stages.  What we do not have, as Guterres himself advised, is a reliable, robust early warning mechanism that would allow us to engage potential adversaries through re-energized tools including diplomacy, mediation and good offices. What we also need, in our own view, is a Secretariat more committed to over-ride political obstacles and bring fresh and actionable information to the Security Council at a point when preventive measures are most likely to bear fruit.

Even with that, conflict prevention remains a high and daunting bar. Two days after the Guterres statement, the Council met again for an update on conflict in the Lake Chad basin, a long-festering crisis defined by Boko Haram atrocities, one that is constantly evolving as climate change, drought and other social and environmental factors destroy agricultural and other livelihoods, inflame local tensions, and create massive flows of displaced persons for reasons that go beyond terror-related threats.

It is not an overstatement, as noted in the Council by the Nigerian Ambassador, that a “shrinking” Lake Chad has become a “tinderbox” for regional conflict, an area (as shared by Senegal) characterized by significant “resource depletion” that lies at the core of regional instability.   Add in the presence of trafficking networks in arms, narcotics and persons (cited by Italy’s Ambassador Cardi) as well as high child mortality rates in regional camps for the internally displaced (as described by UN “Relief Chief” Stephen O’Brien), and you have the makings of a protracted crisis that only becomes more difficult to resolve whether Council calls for “action” by Ukraine’s Ambassador and others are heeded or not.

Given the deep severity of longstanding crises such as Lake Chad, you would think that the notion of preventive maintenance would have wide resonance for diplomats, in part because their own lives are veritably punctuated with preventive obligations.   We feed and inoculate children we love so they can grow strong and better resist disease.  We educate children so that they can achieve decent employment and self-sufficiency. We service our vehicles so that they won’t leave our families stranded at the sides of highways. We conduct boiler maintenance in our homes so that we are not without heat on the coldest winter days. We put coats on our children because we don’t want them to get sick and because we don’t want to have to take care of sick children.

Waiting until things go horribly wrong before we act is widely considered to be grossly irresponsible – to ourselves and to those for whom we are actually responsible.   This principle applies in virtually every area of life – except at times inside our large multi-lateral institutions.   In these places we authorize massive funding to rebuild societies that did not need to face destruction in the first place.  We seek to rehabilitate so many thousands of victims who did not need to suffer in the first place. We develop a formidable infrastructure needed to provide humanitarian relief to persons subject to unspeakable cruelty the causes for which were anything but inevitable.

Unfortunately, in the realm of international diplomacy, prevention is not as simple as getting children vaccinated, keeping insurance policies updated or changing the oil in our car’s crankcase.  We can be more “preventive” in our personal lives in part because of the extra degrees of control that we exercise in that realm such as when determining how our children eat and learn.  In the realm of diplomacy, however prevention runs up against a Charter conundrum (not to mention UN culture) – that states maintain rights to territorial integrity and sovereign equality until states choose otherwise or until circumstances on the ground are sufficiently dire and compelling enough to warrant more focused international attention.  In other words, the presumption of authority lies with states to resolve problems before other states (or the UN itself) can claim a vested interest in so doing.

This, as indicated by Guterres, is a culture requiring both acknowledgment and refreshment.  If states remain free to refuse guidance and assistance (from the UN and other states as well as from the wisdom of their own citizens) right up to the moment when they are forced to confront national versions of the “gates of hell,” then our “love of prevention before illness” will remain as an aspiration for poets but essentially beyond the reach of diplomats. We can’t make states accept that “love” no matter how sincere it might actually be.

And as a number states will readily attest, it is not always so “sincere.”  Among other examples within this institution, we have rarely displayed the honesty and care to do a “full cost accounting” of armed conflict and other crises.   If we had to sit with and dwell upon our massive and often ineffective expenditures related to our current “conflict management” preoccupations–including the proliferating armaments that we tolerate in too many security environments, weapons that generate much trauma and distrust but little in the way of sustainable employment or sustainable peace — we would surely hesitate more than we do now before authorizing coercive responses that are rarely timely let alone particularly “loving.”

Perhaps this is indicative of what prevention dictates in multilateral settings; perhaps this is the culture change that can make “up-stream” engagements more productive and hopefully more likely. We can embrace future opportunities (which the new SG will hopefully provide) for sober, honest and respectful sit-downs with ourselves and our communities of policy regarding our expensive and unsustainable habits of response — the weapons we churn out but also the peacebuilding actions we postpone and the diplomatic tools we leave dormant in our toolbox, all of which make recourse to armaments (and other coercive measures) more inevitable than helpful.

If SG Guterres is to succeed in his efforts at policy redirection, if the UN is to remain politically relevant and fiscally viable in the face of evolving conflict threats, then we can no longer accept the crushing expense associated with sluggish action; neither can we ignore our patterns of irresponsibility towards those we presumably care about, patterns arising from our failure to engage threats at their most propitious moments as well as the failure to keep our most effective tools of diplomatic engagement close at hand.

The Sounds of Silence:  The Current UN DSG Makes an Enduring Appeal on Human Rights

11 Dec

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. Desmond Tutu

As the holiday season approaches, the UN is racing to a year-end finish line characterized by significant transitions and activity across all three UN pillars.  The activity has been intense, ranging from a new General Assembly resolution to help resolve the Syria carnage and efforts to sharpen our financial and communications tools to combat terrorism, to discussions on how to improve global taxation policies and ensure political participation for migrants and refugees.

So, too, have been the transitions.  On December 12, the UN community will witness the oath of office administered to António Guterres as the next UN Secretary General.   And, if current rumors are to be believed, the Deputy Secretary General post will soon be offered to Amina Mohammed of Nigeria, a woman of great substance who worked tirelessly in her previous UN iteration to bring the Sustainable Development Goals to fruition.  Guterres, the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and Mohammed will hopefully make a formidable team, especially regarding core UN responsibilities for sustainable development, humanitarian assistance and refugee protection.

These two will step in for the current team of SG Ban Ki-moon and DSG Jan Eliasson whose joint UN legacy will surely be assessed at length over the coming years.  The departure of SG Ban has garnered most of the UN’s attention to date and so I would like to focus a bit here on some recent contributions of the Deputy Secretary General, a man in possession of one of the most storied careers ever to have played out within UN confines, a career that has greatly shaped how the UN understands its responsibilities to promote human rights and build sustainable peace.

For the past 4 + years, my various groups of diverse interns and fellows have often commented on the DSG’s special appeal.  He uses his voice to full effect, not as a battering ram, but as a way of reminding delegations and NGOs why we’re here in this policy space, why it matters that we’re here.  He understands the need to inspire as well as to contextualize – helping all of us to recognize that our lofty ideals and values cannot be taken for granted as we so often do, cannot become the equivalent of tiny candies we sprinkle on top of an ice cream cone that is slowly melting before our eyes.

My office colleagues have also understood that the DSG is much more than a cheerleader for the UN Charter that he claims to always carry in his coat pocket.  Eliasson well understands the complex and anxious times that we find ourselves in, citing in recent remarks at NYC’s Roosevelt House the “fear factor” that must be forthrightly addressed, the anxiety that too often results in “us vs. them” scenarios and the suggestion of quick, blame-filled solutions to problems that are clearly more systemic in nature.

We acknowledge that the rhetoric of human rights can and has been misapplied by many –by those elites unconcerned by violations beyond their neighborhoods and media of choice; by those who overly-personalize rights to mean “doing what I want to do” –mostly without consequence; by those rightly passionate about the protection of their own rights but indifferent to those suffering from other discriminations.   We ourselves know too many people who utilize the language of “rights” in much the same way that children in my old neighborhood once used the language of “cooties” – creating artificial distance based on fears real and imaginary rather than pathways to human communion.   As Eliasson noted recently at Roosevelt House, we must all recommit to creating a trustworthy, positive narrative about our common humanity, a narrative that has clearly been misplaced amidst our pervasive social grievances, cultural distractions and populist passions.

If the current wave of populist politics has taught us anything – and the jury on this is still out – it is that we have not suitably “sold” populations on a “common” system of values, laws and commitments that ostensibly has the best interests of all at heart.  These persons have not been “sold” in part because we have not always lived up to the high expectations of policy leadership.  Despite the efforts of the DSG and many others, we have not properly supported the UN’s human rights pillar nor highlighted its many practical achievements; we have bestowed selective outrage on horrific tragedies like Aleppo while keeping our policy distance from other horrors, such as in Yemen.   We have reached deeply into some communities desperately needing a dignity boost while overlooking that dignity is a common aspiration, a common need, a common pursuit.  If populists are suspicious of our “universal” values, as the DSG has maintained they are, it is in part because we caretakers of those values have been careless about their application – “politically correct” perhaps, but much too political in any event.

Human dignity, as Eliasson affirmed recently at a UN side event hosted by his native Sweden, is indeed that irreplaceable “starting point” for our peace and development commitments.  If we cannot find the means and the will to hold each other in higher regard; if we cannot uphold those facing particular discriminations without also rushing to demonize those allegedly doing the discriminating; if we cannot speak up for the rights of strangers in the same way we support those in our tightest social circles, then prospects for peace among nations and peoples, as well as for sustainable human development, will remain in serious jeopardy.

These current “trying times” will not be resolved solely by getting our accounts in order or through pious proclamations of universal values.   We will all need to raise our game: to accompany others on their search for dignity; to stand up and speak out for others in times of great need; to advocate for fair access to education, economics and politics; and above all to pay more attention to each other such that – as Eliasson recently urged – when we come across something gone wrong, we can and will “act early.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the fundamental document defining the UN community’s human rights commitments, remains as a powerful testimony to our common responsibility to each other.  But as Eliasson noted at Roosevelt House, the ills to which the Declaration points are “largely still with us.”  If we want that world envisioned by the Declaration, we will all need to sound off and sound wisely.  The “silent treatment” is simply not a remedy adequate for what now threatens us.

Our new SG Guterres, building on the longstanding efforts of Eliasson and so many others, has already proclaimed that “human dignity will be the core of my work.”  But if dignity is to prevail, this will take more than the SG, more even than fair and competent international institutions.  This will require all of us to replace the “sounds of silence” with voices of compassion, attentiveness and care.  As with the UN and its new leadership, this is likely to become our defining moment as well.

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.