Tag Archives: Security Council

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

15 Jul

Contract Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re getting there.

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Animal Planet:  The Rule of Law and the Recovery of What Makes us Human, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 May

Orangutang

People often claim to hunger for truth, but seldom like the taste when it’s served up. George Martin

The technical revolution has turned us into a virus consuming all living organisms. Edward Burtynsky.

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

We have a problem when the same people who make the law get to decide whether or not they themselves have broken it. Michelle Templet

When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them. Hilary Mantel

There were so many highlights (and lowlights) in our policy centers this week, actions that fed the soul competing with others that reminded us (or should have anyway) that we are not quite as clever or virtuous as we might otherwise be tempted to believe.

One lowlight for me was a statement by the US president (doubled down by his press secretary) referring to some illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes as “animals.”

This is a toxic formulation that was common in the blue collar households of my childhood.  “Animals” constituted a label that could be placed on anyone who behaved in a manner inconsistent with what “we” believed was right and appropriate.  “We” after all were the guardians of the good, the ones on whom had been bestowed special divine favor, the ones whose “civility” was under assault from hordes of uncouth, ill-mannered, lazy “others.”  “We” generally lacked the wherewithal to remove such people from our midst; so we regularly, it seemed at the time, removed ourselves from theirs.

We are living in a time when such demons that had been allegedly bottled up for years have now made a stark reappearance; indeed many have been shocked to discover that the tops on those bottles had not been screwed nearly as tight as we had imagined.   Some of us have openly scrutinized the limitations of the “polite culture” of which we have long been suspicious, only to discover that our recovering “honesty” is too-often leading, not to opportunities for intimacy, innovation and personal growth, but to occasions for brutality, selfishness and distrust.   What we have released from these bottles is more venom than virtue, more condemnation than compromise.

The irony of this otherwise cruel and debased “animal” characterization is that, to some degree or other, it applies to all of us.   We all seem to participate, one way or another, in predispositions to predation and self-interest.  We often crave predictability, comfort and attention. We tend to feel threats even when no threats are imminent, and ignore most of the challenges threatening to blow our metaphorical houses to the ground.  We often cave in to yearnings and addictions.  We see what we want to see or, more and more, what we have been externally manipulated to see.

And yet there are times when being an “animal” would probably elevate our collective practice.  Animals after all don’t kill for pleasure.   Animals don’t systematically destroy the habitats on which they depend.   Animals don’t enable the extinction of other species that form the food chain that ensures their own survival.  Animals don’t diminish the savvy or “intelligence” of the life forms with which they share an ecosystem.

As we know, much of the history of philosophy and religion in both “west” and “east” has struggled with the “human” dimensions of human nature.  Are we merely animals with larger brains and the appetites to match, or is there something different about us, something that we should cherish and practice more, something that gives us hope that we can stifly our violent proclivities and avoid the extinction that we have so callously set in motion elsewhere on our fragile planet?

This is no time to rehearse this struggle (though I would be happy to do so with any of you off-Blog), but it is worth noting here the degree to which, in my own faith tradition at least, “sanctification” has impeded thoughtful practice.   My tradition has too often adjudicated our disjointed “nature” by alleging and emphasizing our divine entitlements.  Much like our claims for moms and dads, “God” apparently really does like us best, even when we bury the memory, reason and skill under a cloud of suspicion and acrimony.  Under this rubric, “God” apparently forgives of our behavior a priori, even when such behavior leads to gross injustices and abuses for which forgiveness is rarely sought.  “God” apparently exempts some from scrutiny by virtue of some cache of unearned blessing, a form of plenary indulgence that allows we so endowed to believe that the laws and norms that seek to regulate and even inspire the human community simply don’t apply to us, that our “exceptionalism” (a term not confined to the US) allows us to indulge ourselves what we vigorously refuse to others, to demand apologies from others as we too-often dodge the responsibility to acknowledge our own transgressions.

This “do as I say, not as I do” reflection of our erstwhile “providential” exemptions holds many consequences for UN practice.   After all, the UN functions most effectively when it provides consensus norms to guide and rationalize state conduct and when it upholds what many diplomats referred to this week in a Security Council debate on rule-of-law as our “rules-based order.”  Such an order, at and beyond face value, posits many positive implications for peace and security, even when that order is being willfully abrogated. Such implications include the following:

  • Helping to inspire collaborative and supportive activity among state and non-state actors in areas such as migration governance, ocean health, pandemics and counter-terror;
  • Helping to identify and address threats to the peace towards which the international community has a fully legitimate and compelling interest, such as the use of chemical weapons, the commission of mass atrocities or the destruction of a healthy climate;
  • Helping reassure states that all are playing by the same rules, addressing trust deficits caused by power imbalances, economic inequalities and discriminations of many varieties, while also ensuring (as Ireland did this week) that the rule-of-law is not subtly (or visibly) replaced with the considerably less attractive “rule-by-law”;
  • Helping restore confidence in all but the most cynical that we retain the human capacity to rise above narrow, partisan interests and predatory practices and affirm a world where respect, cooperation, thoughtfulness and generosity proliferate.

This is quite a “haul,” and all much needed.  But as this week’s discussions in various UN conference rooms made plain, we still have work to do to create a policy framework that can reinforce and utilize the best of our “human nature.”

There was much in the recent Council debate on rule of law –convened perhaps a bit ironically by Poland’s president Duda — that provided good insight, including Italy’s assertion that disregarding international norms is particularly dangerous in a world awash in weapons, South Africa’s reminder that the rule of law itself does not protect people but only its implementation, Mexico’s insistence that we reject the creeping notion of an “acceptable level” of civilian casualties, Greece’s assertion that “good neighborly relations” is a “common duty” of states, and Brazil’s concern to address the lack of conceptual clarity in international law that leads some states to conclude that armed violence and gross rights abuses can somehow be justified in practice.

Bu there were also reminders of how far we still must travel to create a reliable and robust system that is both trusted by and adhered to by many.  In this, at least two things come to mind, the first of which builds on the strong claim by Ethiopia and others that the Security Council has often “failed miserably” in its responsibility to uphold international law. This failure is due in part to the Council’s imbalanced and sometimes “politicized” application of its own responsibilities, especially in its levels of commitment to the implementation of its own resolutions.  But more than this is the failure of the permanent members to ascribe in practice to the principles of international law that they proscribe for others.  The “exceptionalism” that drives some national policy has its peculiar iteration within this Council in a manner which at times jeopardizes both its own credibility and respect for the Charter of which it is guarantor.

But there is another dimension to note in this context: This week I and others received an important post from the ever-thoughtful Paul Okumu of Kenya, who chided NGOs and others for obsessing on the low hanging fruit of how we use technology to do our organizational bidding while failing to see the mass consolidation of power now well underway within the realm of big data, what Kevin Plank has described as “the new oil.” Indeed, big data seems poised to replace capital as the latest essential medium of global power, a power that can, in the words of Toomas Hedrik Ilves, “deduce more about you than Big Brother ever could.”

For all of the benefits of the current data revolution, even given all the people who now register more faith in “code” than in their neighbors, it is sobering to think of the vast concentration of power that can accrue from turning people into digitalized caricatures of human beings, persons willfully accepting manipulation at the hands of those who know more about our material predispositions than we know ourselves.  In this realm as with others, we must insist that the rule of law be proactive as well as protective, helping us anticipate and then address threats such as this one which might otherwise simply overwhelm the remaining vestiges of our common humanity.

For me and our interns, one of the most moving moments of the week was when Bolivia took the floor in the context of the Security Council discussion on the shootings by Israeli forces at the Gaza fence, the meeting at which the now-infamous photo was taken of US Ambassador Haley walking out of the Council chamber as the Palestinian Ambassador began his remarks. Bolivia’s Ambassador didn’t walk out nor did he deem to lecture the Israelis or his Council colleagues.  Instead he sought forgiveness from the Palestinian people for the “humiliations and deprivations” they have experienced over so many years, noting that Monday’s “moment of silence” was for these victims, but equally in mourning for the “ineffectiveness” of the Council’s application of internatonal law.

We who have accepted the responsibilities of policy have much forgiveness to ask. We have failed to always adhere to the laws we promote.  We have failed to point clearly and forcefully to emerging challenges that directly compromise our children’s destiny. And we have largely failed to inspire a higher and more difficult calling in each other, one in keeping with a genuinely human striving to be better protectors, better stewards, better predictors of a common future that we simply must not let slip through our grasp.

We can do better.

A Wobbling Stool: Stabilizing the UN’s Human Rights Obligations, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 May

Handcuffs

The purpose of torture is not getting information. It’s spreading fear. Eduardo Galeano

Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.  Elie Wiesel

We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought. Kathryn Stockett,

Human rights are praised more than ever – and violated as much as ever. Anna Lindh

The UN witnessed a few positive milestones this week, including the presentation of “vision statements” by candidates to become the next president of the General Assembly.  In this rare instance the candidates (from Honduras and Ecuador respectively) were both women, thereby guaranteeing that this often fiscally-challenged and programmatically-burdensome office – a point reinforced earlier this month by current president Lajčák – will transition to female leadership  for one of the few times in the UN’s history.

For its part, the Security Council under Poland’s presidency went on mission to Myanmar and Bangladesh to survey first-hand the human wreckage from abuses we collectively did not do enough to prevent.  Such missions serve as a “reality check” for this Council that is increasingly (and appropriately) under pressure from the general membership to up its game – to invest more in conflict prevention, leave politics at the chamber doorways, and work more collaboratively with the UN agencies tasked with bring core “triggers” of conflict – including rights abuses – to heel.  The Council is not as hostile to human rights as is sometimes claimed, and attention to context in places like Cox’s Bazar and the Lake Chad Basin reinforces for members that development, rights and security deficits represent urgent, interlinked and comprehensive responsibilities.

But the past week also brought difficult issues to consider and lessons that we still need to learn, poignant reminders of how many people remain under threat in this world and how much further we need to travel in order to make a world that is more equal, more inclusive, more respectful of each other and our surroundings, even more mindful of our own “contributions” to a world we say, over and over, is actually not the world we want.

Institutional dimensions of this threat were evident on Wednesday in a small UN conference room filled mostly with NGOs. At that meeting, two officials of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) — ASG Gilmour and NY office director Mokhiber – led a somber discussion on what they referred to as a “human rights backlash,” citing in this regard resistance to human rights by some Security Council members, an unwillingness to address the core funding needs of the human rights “pillar,” member state inattentiveness to requests for investigations by special rapporteurs, and attempts by a shocking number of states to link the activities of human rights advocates (and even in some cases of UN officials) to those of the “terrorists.”

Also expressed was the concern with “double standards” on human rights, including the proclivity of many states to scream about some abuses while remaining utterly silent about others, a cocktail of righteous indignation and willful indifference too-often characteristic of UN culture within and beyond the Security Council. A version of this, of course, could apply to much of the NGO community as well, defending our positions in the rooms where “our” issues are under consideration but withholding the contributions we could be making to policy interlinkages and even at times acting as though three-legged analysis and advocacy is an interesting fad rather than a core dimension of our Charter-based responsibility.  As stressed by OHCHR at this meeting, the human rights community needs some sort of “firewall” to protect it from unwarranted state influence. We NGOs need to invest more in building that wall and otherwise commit to protecting the integrity of each other’s (and the UN’s) advocacy space.

But that firewall is still very much a work in progress as was clear during this week’s World Press Freedom Day, a sobering affair given the recent bombing of journalists in Kabul alongside a spate of other threats to journalists around the world – threats to the integrity of their work but also to their physical safety.

This was not at all a happy event.  Speaker after speaker reminded the audience of the shrinking safe space for journalistic activity, and of the extent to which threats to the press are often mirrored by (or are a precursor for) the erosion of other rights and civil liberties.   Journalists who have lost their lives while pursuing important stories were rightly honored and special mention was made of the often-courageous role of “fixers,” those with knowledge of the local “terrain” who provide guidance and safety for outside journalists, but often with significant personal and family risk.  And there were stark reminders, including from a CBC journalist, that “lies and propaganda” are most likely to fill the gap left when journalists are jailed or otherwise intimidated. As Austria’s Ambassador Kickert chimed in, “power intoxicates” and “un-harassed” journalists are essential if we are to finally curb corruption and other rights abuses as well as fulfill our responsibilities to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Finally of note regarding the complexities of our current human rights responsibilities, there was the event on Thursday sponsored by Japan on rights abuses in North Korea (DPRK),  an event that focused on the often heart-rendering pain of persons who have lived through the abduction of family members by DPRK agents.  The sorrow and uncertainty of “disappearances” is something we address through our affiliation with Paris-based FIACAT and it is no small matter to much of the human rights community.

Against the backdrop of high-level discussions on a possible de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the event also served as a rightful reminder that human rights cannot become a “bargaining chip” to a peace agreement, “freezing” past and current abuses in place without an insistence on accountability.  And it is not unreasonable, as has been the case with other peace negotiations, to demand a full accounting and release of those previously disappeared and perhaps imprisoned.  But the sometimes agonizing choices associated with this peace-rights linkage went largely unaddressed under an avalanche of anti-DPRK rhetoric that often sounded more professional and less ideological than it actually was. Where, we wonder, does the abductions issue in all of its heartbreak fit on the scale of human rights concerns to be taken up in the context of peace negotiations? As noted this day by OHCHR’s Mokhiber, while human rights accountability must not be sacrificed to any peace agreement, we must remind ourselves of the centrality of armed conflict to contemporary rights abuses, abuses that a confrontation involving modern nuclear weapons would likely multiply beyond our imagination.

As I am writing this, the Carillion bells of the Riverside Church are pealing yet again, a weekly beckoning to me of the road I have yet to travel – that we all have yet to travel – in order to build a world able to resolve our current conflicts, ensure tolerance and respect among peoples, and offer sustainable options for our children.  Such a world is possible only if we are resolved to tightening the screws on our now-wobbling human rights leg, but are also committed to a fully inclusive agenda that moves closer to “the center of the universe” the safety, health and equity that we have yet to sufficiently and comprehensively promote.  And it means being more thoughtful and interactive as we resolve the sometimes agonizing choices and challenges that call us to consider the policy “forest” and not only the individual trees.

Above all, we must never become content with the mere praise of human rights while so many rights in so many contexts — in prisons and newsrooms, in trafficking rings and First Nations communities – remain so dangerously elusive.

Position Paper:  Elected Council members reflect on Syria Implications, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Apr

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. Anne Frank

Our lives improve only when we take chances – and the first and most difficult risk we can take is to be honest with ourselves. Walter Anderson

Every absurdity has a champion to defend it. Oliver Goldsmith

One of the questions I get asked often regards why we don’t take more public stands on key issues of the day?  What is our “position” on the immigration policy of the Trump administration, on arms sales to Yemen or, of most recent vintage, the decision to bomb chemical weapons facilities in Syria?

Having “positions” is valuable in terms of directing organizational energies, finding program partners and explaining to potential funders “what you do” and “where you stand.”

But having “positions” also begs many questions.  For starters, what difference do such positions make?  In the case of the recent Syrian bombing, for instance, the combined skepticism of many “insiders” including the US Secretary of Defense was relatively powerless to force a rethink of the value of the raid let alone to stemming the triumphalism that has followed in its wake.  How would our “position” on the specifics of the raid (we were opposed for the record) have had any tangible impact?

Another of the dangers of having “positions” is that, especially once public, they tend to track towards hard and stubborn edges.  As governments spend too much time defending positions and too little time exploring their lessons, so too do groups like mine tend to defend policy turf that in some instances has long since become a policy swamp.  It is challenging and humbling business to try to stay on top of policy developments while keeping an eye fixed on the world we are trying to enable, the world that we must build if we are to emerge intact from this weapons and xenophobia-obsessed period that has only served to remind us that we are not nearly as clever and “principled” as we imagine ourselves to be.

Among the words you almost never hear at the UN, either by states or by NGOs, are the words “I’m sorry.”  I’m sorry for getting this position wrong and acting like I didn’t.  I’m sorry for keeping my policy commitments carefully “in lane” rather than seeking out a broader picture.  I’m sorry for trying to convince others of things that aren’t true or claiming virtue as the wreckage from my injustices is strewn far and wide.  I’m sorry for (inadvertently or willfully) allowing my funders to cloud my vision.  I’m sorry for trying to make it seem like I have more authority (or impact) than I have.  I’m sorry for not making more of this rare and precious opportunity to shift our current, treacherous path.

This commitment to growth and self-examination, to maximizing benefit regardless of budget, to doing what we can to ensure the health of the institutions that “house” our policy values and not just to the branding of those policies– these are also “positions.”  And as our little team scampers throughout the UN doing our modest part to link policy concerns and examine the security-related implications of issues from oceans to migrants, we never stop being mindful of how little our policy and methodological priorities have yet to find their way into the service of a healthier UN, particularly a UN that is able to trade off some of its politics for truth-telling, truth about where we are as a planet but also truth about our current and collective state of fitness to help address looming threats.

Much of our UN time, certainly this week with all of the discouragement on Syria, is spent in the Security Council.  We are not there, day after day, because we think the Council always functions as it should or always makes the best decisions, or because its members are sufficiently thoughtful regarding roles and responsibilities in what is – arguably at least – the single most important policy room in the world.  We are there to offer our meager support to those several members who are clearly trying to honor the grave responsibilities that have accrued to that chamber – Sweden, Kazakhstan and Equatorial Guinea certainly come to mind from the current configuration — but also to keep track of and provide feed-back on Council decisions and indecisions that are in one or more ways certain to exert pressure on other parts of the UN system.

Those pressures can be considerable.   Failures in the “maintenance” of international peace and security, as we have noted many times, create conflict refugees needing material and psychological assistance, inflict infrastructure and environmental damage that we struggle to remediate, bloat an already massive global arms business which continues to drain national coffers to no sustainable security end, and increase insecurity for vast populations who lament letting their children outdoors for fear of coming in contact with a landmine.  The costs of failures on peace and security are staggering — to which what seems at times to be an endless stream of “pledging conferences” at and around the UN clearly attest.

Moreover, such failures erode trust, not only trust among member states but trust in the viability and legitimacy of the UN system itself.   This is not “news” to anyone who has spoken off the record to diplomats or been on the receiving end of twitter rants from skeptical academics and civil society representatives.  But after all these years it is remarkable how seldom such concerns are raised in UN contexts, how often we “dodge” this essential truth in what are often less-than-effective efforts to convince donor states and media outlets that “all is well,” that the acrimony so often seen at the UN, and especially as our new “Cold War” (to quote the SG this week) now plays itself out in the Security Council, doesn’t quite signify what we all know (and fear) it does.

We gratefully recognize that the UN has gotten some helpful traction on ocean health and migration governance, on gender-based violence and climate impacts. And yet all is clearly not well within or outside our building, a “position” that we are keen to at the very least try to do something about.   In this context we acknowledge that, in ways that are sometimes unexpected, member states are rising up to name and address deficiencies. This includes elected Council members who increasingly refuse to sit idly by as the large powers fuss amongst themselves and spin narratives regarding their pious commitments to “uphold” the erstwhile global order that are, to our mind at least and surely to others, too-often unconvincing.

Amidst all of the political carnage within the Council these past days, meeting after meeting that resulted in no formal rebukes to unilateral bombing raids, no agreement on a mechanism to assess responsibility for gruesome chemical weapons attacks in Douma and elsewhere, and no olive branches extended by any to any, there is just cause for the frustration that Sweden’s Ambassador Skoog has expressed on more than one occasion, a frustration borne of his own and his country’s determined desire to break impasses and restore Council unity in more than the most passive and superficial sense.

But such unity, as several of the elected members noted during this latest Syria marathon, cannot be simply about achieving political consensus but rather must be about fidelity to the values and principles of the UN Charter, the one text that, as Ethiopia reminded, states affirm in common as a precondition of their membership.  And as Kazakhstan made clear this week, the willingness of some states to bypass the Security Council and the Charter, to justify unilateral military action through reference to the appropriately grave matter of chemical weapons use, is to set the UN’s security system on a course that privileges might over preventive diplomacy, a course that only promises more misery, more refugees, more damaged infrastructure, more distrust and hostility, even (to quote Ethiopia) the prospect of “catastrophe beyond imagination.”

For me, the highlight of this Syria marathon was a series of speeches delivered by Ambassador Llorenti of Bolivia, a government that has “sided” with the Russians in the Council more than most other members, though mostly on procedural grounds rather than on policy content.  Llorenti’s speeches laid out several essentials, including the outright illegality of any chemical weapons use, but also called out the major powers for treating the Council like a “game board,” upholding multilateralism only “when it suits their purposes.” We cannot, he exclaimed, “seek to address violations of the UN Charter by committing violations of the UN Charter,” a position taken up by the African states and other elected members who fear that “locked and loaded” states (to quote US Ambassador Haley) will resume habitual practices of doing “what and where they wish.”

From our vantage point, the UN’s security system is in danger of sliding into a deeper pit of acrimony and disrespect that gunships and tomahawk missiles will only exacerbate. Impeding this slide has been and remains our “position” of urgent policy preference.

Heart Burn: Words that Consume our Peace and Development Prospects, Dr. Robert Zuber

1 Apr

daffodils_glowing_199026

I believe that we can, in a deliberate way, articulate the kind of people we want to become. Clayton Christensen

Words, like nature, half reveal and half conceal the soul within. Alfred Lord Tennyson

Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all. Emily Dickinson

It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart. Mahatma Gandhi

In the Security Council this month, Dutch Ambassador Karel van Oosterom in his capacity as president of the Council, invoked Provisional Rule 507 on a daily basis, urging Council members and briefers to be succinct and relevant to both the topic under consideration and the flow of the discussion.

For this Council, indeed for almost any discussions held inside the UN, this “507” business is a high bar. Indeed, what Ambassador van Oosterom (and at points in March his Prime Minister and Foreign Minister) requested was merely a small portion of the recommendations that could speed up meetings, avoid redundancy, and most importantly help establish the conditions for actionable policy.  And, while we didn’t bring a stopwatch to Council meetings, there appeared to be no apparent impact on the length or content of statements.  With few exceptions –including some states at Wednesday’s open debate on peacekeeping and an excellent brief at that same meeting by Mali’s Fatimata Touré – states and briefers mostly did what they always do: write what they want and read what they wrote.  If any changes were evident, they were primarily regarding the speed at which prepared statements were read, a frustrating practice which caused more than one headache for our excellent interpreters.

But it is the redundancy of positions that both interests and alarms the interns and fellows who often accompany me in Council chambers, statements prepared in anticipation of briefings rather than in response to them; statements replete with tepid deference to protocol and with only fleeting references to positions taken by Council colleagues; statements that communicate little hope that the future for these (and other) young people will be much different than their current, unsettled prospects.

And what is communicated directly through such statements is only a portion of the full revelation.  While we as an office remain seized of any new ideas or turns-of-phrase that might help clarify a path to peace in places as far-flung as Myanmar, Yemen and Mali, my younger colleagues are even more inclined than I am to interpret the “culture” of Council meetings in a skeptical light– Ambassadors preaching Council unity while habitually branding agendas largely conceived in national capitals; states expressing “concerns” and issuing condemnations that mostly fall on deaf ears; resolutions and presidential statements adopted that have little teeth and that represent political compromise more than an honest and urgent response to conflict threats.

This is the future of my younger colleagues after all, and their level of skepticism can sometimes be alarming regarding the value and potential impact of Council “deliberations.” While they can recognize those times when Council discussions actually open space for peacemaking, they too often witness a hardening of positions and even a choking off of viable options for Council members sincerely seeking to “be deliberate” about the prevention and resolution of conflict or other threats to human well-being.

This weekend as most of you know marks the relative convergence of the Christian feast of Easter (this weekend for the west, next weekend for the east) and the Jewish feast of Passover.  The latter is tied to liberation – in this instance the liberation of Jews from their Egyptian bondage; the former to liberation of another sort – the hope for some kind of life beyond this one, some place of serenity beyond the pain of this world with which we at the UN are at least rhetorically familiar.

Both feasts are replete with powerful images communicated largely through the Easter Eucharist and the Seder.   But while our Easter churches are often full and there are generally few empty seats to be found around our Seder tables, there is something here that doesn’t seem quite right for me.  Simply put, we seem to be celebrating freedom from a bondage with which we have largely lost touch; the hope of some “heaven” that we have mostly not done nearly enough to replicate here on earth.

After all, this time of feasts is also a weekend in which the UN Secretary General complained openly about the slow pace of our collective response to climate change.  This is a weekend as well when bombs continued to fall on Syrian children despite a Council-mandated cease fire, when legitimate protesters along Gaza border regions were gunned down by Israeli troops, when the US decided to block any UN condemnation of such shootings (again assuming that any “condemnations” by this Council actually matter), and when fresh arms sales to erstwhile “allies” promise more violence,  suffering and trauma endured in large measure by “tomorrow’s adults.”

In recognition of the pain which punctuates this ostensibly “holy” weekend, I spent a good bit of this past week looking for inspiration that could properly bind the misery of Good Friday with the hope of Easter Sunday, linking real pain with the hope of deliverance. It was during this search that I came across once again Unapologetic, by Francis Spufford, one of the many books about religion that makes greater sense to those on the margins of faith than those who strive to maintain a more orthodox center.

Some of Spufford’s passages are frustrating; others almost tearfully moving.  His rendition of the Good Friday crucifixion is one of my favorites:

He cannot do anything deliberate now. The strain of his whole weight on his outstretched arms hurts too much. The pain fills him up, displaces thought, as much for him as it has for everyone else who has ever been stuck to one of these horrible contrivances, or for anyone else who dies in pain from any of the world’s grim arsenal of possibilities. And yet he goes on taking in. It is not what he does, it is what he is.

There will come a time when none of us will be able to do much of anything that is “deliberate.”  Our bodies will betray us.  Our minds will no longer be able to recall the small rituals that lie behind so many of our own utterances, let alone transform the half-heartedness of so many of our actions.  We will be eventually melded to our memories; the things we did that mattered, of course, but also the many things left undone, the opportunities to make change stifled by largely imaginary impediments. We will be left to remember actions that were hopeful and loving, but also the misery we failed to prevent, the damage we inflicted and then overlooked, the freedom we claimed for ourselves and denied to others, the matters we conspired to ignore so that we wouldn’t feel obligated to care, the words we employed to distract our audiences or “sell” them on our half-truths rather than inspire their own deliberate engagement with the world.

This sometimes uncomfortable time of memory may be our destiny but it is not yet our whole reality, not for Spufford nor for the rest of us who labor in places like the UN. For at the conclusion of his litany of human misery and disappointment soaked up by the one who cares so deeply but can no longer be deliberate about very much; and as the sun rises on Easter Sunday revealing confused specialists in stitching and cleaning beholding a seemingly empty tomb, we read the following:

Don’t be afraid, says Yeshua. Far more can be mended than you know.

Yes, far more can be mended than we know. Far more can be healed than we know. Far more can be resolved or prevented than we know.  In this season of holy possibility, let us commit to use this time and our often-formidable gifts to “take in” more of our human condition and then to be more deliberate about our “mending,” about the things we have the capacity and responsibility to fix before our time to fix comes to an end.

Dodging a Bullet:  The Security Council Saves Itself from Itself, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Feb

Lincoln on Bullets

We aren’t minded or able to do anything. But where would you like us to send the flowers? Nick Paton Walsh (about Syria)

If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month. Theodore Roosevelt

The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism. Norman Vincent Peale

It is only after one is in trouble that one realizes how little sympathy and kindness there are in the world. Nellie Bly

Most readers of this post are familiar with the notion of “being in trouble” – more often than we wish to admit at our own hands – and of getting out of trouble, often through some stroke of luck or intervention that  seems to come out of nowhere.  We all – me certainly included – are constantly being saved from ourselves by friends and loved ones, even by people who we know less well but who have decided, often based on some legitimate critique, that they have simply had enough of our nonsense.

In the nomenclature of the culture of which I am part, some use the term “dodge a bullet” to describe these moments when the world’s disapproval manages merely to fire warning shots above our mostly distracted heads.  None of us are actually nimble enough to get out of the way of a bullet fired in our precise direction as the horrific school shootings in Florida and too many other places testify.  The metaphor does however imply an awareness of trouble that can lead to different outcomes; perhaps to stay out of the line of fire altogether, or perhaps better, to make the choice to risk getting in the kind of trouble that a number of Stoneman Douglas students have seemingly embraced, trouble in the form of critique that can point the way towards a kinder, saner, less agitated people as well as help to increase the effectiveness of the institutions that are pledged to serve them.

Despite the often-discouraging feeds from our news sources, we have still managed – for now — to escape much of the trouble we might otherwise have found, glancing blows that haven’t inflicted fatal wounds but which can encourage us to step away from the line of fire and commit to a more hopeful course.  The remarkable energy put into the world by the surviving Stoneman Douglas students, and the responses to their pleas to reassess “the invitation to violence” represented by gun proliferation directed towards rightfully embarrassed politicians and corporate leaders, creates a bit of an opening  such that we in the US might start to pull back from a brink of division, distrust and enmity that have for some time threatened to undermine what remains of the best of our values.  There is a glimmer of hope now for a more stable and nuanced approach to weapons and an effort to minimize the suspicion (some of which is not at all irrational) that lies behind their now-obsessive purchase and use.

And, as you might expect, the UN is hardly immune to this need to create new openings for change.  This week, as the latest iteration of Syria horrors hit home, the Security Council tried again to craft a resolution that would both pass muster with delegations and offer hope to residents of Eastern Ghouta and other parts of Syria who have faced unimaginable horror for far too long.

Under the able leadership of Sweden and Kuwait (current Council president), language was put forth in a draft resolution to authorize a 30 day cessation of hostilities that would allow humanitarian access and medical evacuations for persons in besieged areas throughout Syria.  The draft also encouraged de-mining across the country –an essential condition for the safe return of displaced persons to their homes — and it reiterates its demand that all sieges be lifted and all medical facilities be “demilitarized.”

The draft also retained the now-familiar (and still-controversial) caveat that cessation of hostilities does not apply to “military operations” against ISIL and other terror groups “as designated by the Security Council.”  Such caveats have been troublesome in the past as justifications for bombs directed at erstwhile terror groups that may or may not kill terrorists, but which have surely killed and maimed thousands of civilians and destroyed their infrastructure.

We were anticipating action on this draft as early as Thursday, but the delays were both numerous and troubling given that the bombing of E. Ghouta seemed to be intensifying as a resolution authorizing a cessation drew near.   Such delays represented yet another layer of challenge to the considerable diplomatic skills of the sponsors of the draft resolution, Sweden and Kuwait.   We had assumed that the “hold up” was due to an insistence (by Russia most likely) that areas of Syria beyond Ghouta be covered under the resolution’s provisions, and perhaps even reflected some suspicion that humanitarian access would also open pathways for investigations of violations of international law, violations which are both unimaginable and, in our world at this time, not at all confined to Syria.

Finally on Saturday afternoon after another series of false starts, resolution 2401 was adopted.   Sighs of relief were evident, both from the delegations who put in many hours to achieve this agreement and from those who looked on from the Council chamber or shared the experience via twitter (@globalactionpw) or UNTV.   All seemed to understand the implications of another diplomatic failure on Syria.  All felt the pressure to finally, belatedly respond to the misery of Syrians and give often-skeptical observers some reason to believe that the Security Council remains relevant to the prevention of 21st century conflict.  All recognized the bullet that was dodged in this chamber – preserving some modicum of credibility for the UN’s security functions and raising the prospect that desperate persons will finally have some hope of relief.

But the bombs are still falling in E. Ghouta and elsewhere as of this morning, and France has already gone on twitter today to remind us that “full mobilization to implement the resolution” is urgent and essential.   Such implementation is also, as Ethiopia commented on Saturday, a considerable challenge given the “increasingly complex security contexts” that Syria now represents.   And so beyond the categorical defense of its position offered yesterday by Russia and the excessively-moralistic tones uttered in response by the US and UK representatives, the urgent obligation (as noted by the Netherlands and others) is to immediate “action on the ground.”  We will be judged by future generations, France shared in the Council Chamber, and we must fully seize the fragile “glimmer of hope” which this resolution represents.

Indeed, this “glimmer” must somehow guide us on a new and expanded path, offering hope to besieged Syrians but also to people in Yemen (the subject of Council deliberations on Monday), Libya and elsewhere looking to this chamber to demonstrate that resolution 2401 is no outlier, that a cessation of hostilities can become the norm, that we can do much more in every setting wracked by mass conflict than just playing at geo-politics or “sending flowers” to the besieged.

We are living in times where many have concluded that the ”law of the jungle” is the only viable alternative to the failing laws of nations and the international community, that self-protection is the only protection that one can reasonably rely upon, that elections and political dialogue are less effective than weaponry.  In such a world, as the remarkable Nellie Bly noted long ago, sympathy and kindness are likely to be in precious short supply or, at the very most, confined to our increasingly shrinking circles of trust.

These circles cannot be allowed to shrink further, nor thicken in their outer perimeters.  We must urgently, as Sweden’s Ambassador Skoog intimated on several occasions this past week, reimagine our common humanity.  As hard as it is – as hard as we have made it on ourselves – we must also commit fully to implementing our resolutions, to practicing our values, and to seizing every “glimmer” to press our adversaries and ourselves to become the people that can rise above the current constellation of (sometimes self-inflicted) distressing obstacles to peace and tranquility.

If not, the next bullet speeding in our general direction is one we might not be fortunate enough to dodge.

Treasure Chest: UN Members Raise the Lid on Council Methods, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Feb

An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.  Mahatma Gandhi

If you’re making a tremendous amount of mistakes, all you’re doing is deeply ingraining the same mistakes.  Jillian Michaels

You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage. Maya Angelou

Today is the 7th anniversary of our foray into the world of social media through Twitter (@globalactionpw).  We’ve tried our best over these years to use what can at times be a mean-spirited and shallow medium to increase transparency in UN conference rooms while linking issues and concerns across hallways and oceans.  Thank you for the opportunity you give us to share both what we see and what we see as most important for people and the planet.

Within the religious realm, I’ve spent a good bit of my life having people I know “get in my face” to tell me what they believe, what they value.  My response to this, at least in recent years, is to inform such “believers” that, in essence, I don’t need you to tell me what you value.  I already see what you do, how you spend your time, how you invest the talents and energies bestowed by your creator.  In the end, that’s all I need to know.

In an age as heavily branded as this one, an age content to look at the masks we wear with little interest in what lies behind them, it seems almost heresy to remind people that we are not who we say we are, but we are what we practice.  In essence, to paraphrase a famous coach of US football, we are what our investments of self and their outcomes say we are.  It is important to have values of course, values in the form of aspirations to do better and strive higher. But it is also important to be clear about the gaps that exist between aspirations and practices — between the claims and facts of our performance — the spaces between the values we posit for our lives and our “working methods” that forever need to be examined and filled.

And, yes, this is going to relate to the ways in which we describe and conduct our business here at the UN.  As Kuwait assumed the presidency of the Security Council this past week, it launched an ambitious “programme of work” for February, especially so for an elected member with only one month of recent Council service under its belt.

The highlight for us is two sessions scheduled for early in the month, one on “working methods” last week and the other focused on the UN Charter (which the General Assembly will also examine) later this month.  Not surprisingly, we see these two events as directly connected, and we applaud Kuwait both for guiding these discussions and for what we believe to be their proper sequencing.

Inside and outside the Security Council, there are frequent references to the Charter values that must guide decisions on peace and security (especially), but also on a range of other issues related to sustainable development, rule of law, humanitarian response and environmental care.  The Charter (a copy of which former DSG Eliasson claimed to always carry around in his pocket) serves for this community as both a guide and an inspiration, helping us to define what we can and can’t do, what we should and should not try to do, and in some key instances, what we must try to do better.

All of this relates to “working methods,” the means by which we seek to organize and carry out the mandates that have been entrusted to us.   Such methods are, in their best sense, the tendons and vessels which connect vital organs, helping them (hopefully) function with greater synergy, but also with greater reliability.   Such methods — operating within our homes or in global institutions such as the UN — are what helps others to believe in our values, or at least believe that there is more to those values than merely our articulated claims about them.

Sound working methods can make the difference between lamenting a child’s sickness and taking her/him to the doctor; between dreaming about dinner and bringing home groceries; between claiming an institutional mandate and honoring an institutional promise.

In the Council this past Tuesday, a variety of lenses on working methods reform were on display, ranging from which Council members get to “hold the pen” regarding development of resolutions, to weightier matters of how the Council collaborates with the rest of the UN system (including the Peacebuilding Commission as highlighted by South Africa) and (as noted by Mexico) how the Council exercises its responsibility to scrutinize claims by states (including Council members themselves) alleging the legitimacy of “self-defense” as a justification for recourse to armed violence.

Though this day-long debate was unlikely to satisfy states and NGOs that have long lost patience with what they see as the hypocrisy of the UN’s most politicized space, we heard many interesting proposals for reform of working methods as well as important reminders about unresolved disconnects between mandates and performance.  Among the highlights for us was the insistence by Ukraine and Pakistan that preventive diplomacy become more of a “staple” of the Council’s functional priorities; Chile’s call for more transparency regarding what India dubbed the “subterranean universe” of Council subsidiary bodies; Lebanon’s urging of the entire UN system to ask “harder questions” about how the Council can remain relevant to contemporary security circumstances; and current Council member Bolivia’s call for an end to the “provisional rules of procedure” that mostly benefit only the “permanent five members.”

And then there was Belgium’s strong reminder that Council decisions do not occur in a vacuum, nor we might add do the consequences of Council (in) decisions that sometimes undermine or even betray Charter values. Indeed, what was not sufficiently discussed during this debate, in our view, is the degree to which the time, treasure and talent of the UN system are routinely being depleted in an effort to overcome Council shortcomings in its primary security “maintenance” role – the endless pledging conferences that must be organized with commitments that then must be held to account; even the lives of humanitarian workers that are placed in what seems to be perpetual jeopardy; all to bring (as best we can) assistance to people gravely damaged by armed conflict that we should have been able to do more to prevent in the first instance.

In the end, as noted by New Zealand (as they did often while a member of this Council in 2015-2016), perhaps the most pressing institutional need is momentum to help to shift Council “culture” in ways that empower collective UN decsionmaking.  In this vein, current Council member Sweden chimed in that we “can’t do our job” unless we do it together, and that we must therefore prioritize “talking with countries instead of about them.” Japan, which just left the Council at the end of December, moved this culture theme even further along, calling on the Council to do more of the “simple things, like listening to each other,” and serving up a reminder that its “optimal working method” involves a commitment to “effective response at the earliest possible time.”

This seemingly simplistic “culture talk,” to our mind, represents the path of greatest potential, inspiring more institution-wide dialogue and collaboration and calling states to account that willfully impede such progress. We hope that the upcoming discussions on the UN Charter will further serve to tighten the connections linking the values we espouse as an institution, the methods that define our institutional practice, and how that ultimately translates into performance standards for our most critical, mandated tasks.