Tag Archives: Security Council

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.

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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.

Bucket Shop:  The Security Council Tries Again to Inspire Confidence, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Jan

Whitehorse

All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.  Mark Twain

Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, and justice.  Spinoza

Time heals all wounds, unless you pick at them. Shaun Alexander

The fight against this age is in no small measure a fight against the apocalyptic criticism of the age.  Peter Berkowitz

This week provided many moments of hopefulness and regret.  In the US, the squabbling of our erstwhile leadership and the shutting down of many government operations had as its counterpoint the massing on streets within and beyond the US of women (mostly), men and children calling for, among other things, an end to violence, to deportations, to racist and sexist jargon emanating from our highest political levels, to inequities of access in our systems of economics and politics.

Of all the photos from the diverse marches, perhaps my favorites were from Whitehorse, Yukon where even the dogs donned sweaters to protest the complicity of so many in  violence that must no longer be allowed to demean our values and undermine our collective resolve.

At the UN Security Council this week, another dimension of confidence building was on display, with typically mixed results.  At the behest of January’s president Kazakhstan, a group of high level representatives – led by the Polish and Kazakh presidents as well as Foreign (and other) Ministers from Russia, Kuwait, the Netherlands and elsewhere – came together to discuss measures to build “confidence” in efforts to stem the tide of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) including nuclear weapons.

“Confidence-building” is no new concept when it comes to the possession and proliferation of weapons, and as such appears regularly on the agendas of the UN’s Disarmament Commission and the UN General Assembly’s First Committee.  But neither is it a concept that generally inspires significant, practical movement.   In that regard, the presidential statement (PRST) issued on Thursday in conjunction with the discussion in Council chambers said some practically helpful things, including recognition of the “profound need” to engage all tools of preventive diplomacy and, where necessary, “measures to rebuild trust.”

But the statements within the packed Council chamber, most (as is typical) written in advance of the briefings by SG Guterres or Kazakh president Nazarbayev, fell collectively short of the sentiments in the PRST.  There were to be fair a few good moments:  the Kazakh proposal to make it more difficult for states to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is worth considering further.  The Netherlands wisely noted that successful “confidence building” requires reflection and action by a wider range of multilateral actors.  China (as often) called for an end to “double standards” on security that erode interstate confidence.  Ethiopia and Sweden both called directly for Council “unity” as a pathway to promoting disarmament, easing global tensions and minimizing risks from “human error.”  Peru offered direct support for the SG Guterres’ priority on preventive diplomacy and urged more transparency in our “crisis resolution mechanisms.”  Bolivia made clear that grossly excessive military spending undermines the ability of the international community to overcome “coercion” and guarantee our best-faith effort to honor our Sustainable Development Goals promises.

Unfortunately, though, the lasting “take away” from this event, might well have been the squabbling among the US, Russia and the UK regarding blame for the failure (so far) to properly name and then hold accountable perpetrators of chemical weapons use in Syria.  There is no space here to recount the stages that led to what has become for the Council a bit of an open “wound,” but that permanent Council members would use this session to “pick at” that wound rather than focus more broadly on what might need to change in the culture and working methods of the Council to avoid new breeches of international law and security was discouraging to many onlookers.

As this Syria diversion reminded us, the entire notion of “confidence” has taken on a distinctly self-referential tone in recent times, especially in the west.  It is now associated primarily with overcoming personal limitations, achieving personal goals, fulfilling personal desires.  It is considered by many to be an indispensable accessory for building either a career or a social life.  Many report being especially attracted to confident people who appear to “know what they want” and can navigate personal and logistical obstacles to ensure that they “get it.”   The notion (mostly faux, in my view) of people “becoming anything they want to be” is both a symbol and a symptom of cultures (including my own) that assumes an outsized role for personal confidence in the logistics of impact and success.

For multilateral settings, the building of confidence takes a somewhat different track, taking the form of an often-uncomfortable balance between national interest and what Thursday’s PRST upholds as the “striving for sustainable peace” that involves “managing shared challenges and opportunities along the way.”  It also involves another balance – between the well-documented urgency of the times and the need to communicate the will and resolve of our policy centers to face challenges squarely and insist that the resolution of those challenges – and not our national policy preferences or personal anxieties — be the focal point of our collective energies.

It also requires us to assert the importance of human agency in these difficult times. Despite our melting glaciers, widespread ethnic and gender-based violence and threats from newly-modernized weapons, all in this age is not doom and gloom.   If it were otherwise, there would be little reason to spend our days fussing in Security Council and other policy chambers.   Given that hopeful options still present themselves, part of “confidence building” for our times must be in part to remind others (and ourselves) that there are still viable alternatives to “fiddling while Rome burns,” and then invite us all to pick up our buckets and help put those fires to rest.  This is not quite the same track as “nailing” a job interview or “scoring” a date with someone “out of your league,” but it is so much more relevant to the future of the planet.   One only had to scroll through yesterday’s photos of so many streets swelling with engaged women or hear the confident testimony in another Council session last Wednesday from young Libyan activist Hajer Sharief to appreciate once again how many women and men worldwide stand ready and able to pick up their own “buckets” and inspire others to do likewise.

This requires a less self-referential type of confidence, one based on a belief that people of energy and good will still matter, that getting out of our homes and on the streets (even in the frigid Yukon) can turn the tide of hatred and self-interest from which many of our current global challenges stem. In these times, this belief is more likely to be a gift from people to their leadership than the reverse.

Despite the seemingly habitual clumsiness of the Council’s efforts at confidence building, there is value in their growing, collective recognition that the remedial energy of states and constituents is indispensable to effective multilateral governance in times of excessive stress that is in no small measure related to WMD threats.   If the Council expects states and citizens to “do more” of the heavy lifting to address this and other global challenges, we at the erstwhile center of global governance must lift heavier as well.  Indeed, a key message from this week is that sustaining peace requires a more benevolent, cooperative and (especially) determined disposition — especially by those residing in policy chambers — towards sustaining confidence.

 

Words of Wisdom: Raising the Bar on Council Culture, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Jan

Wise

Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life. Immanuel Kant

It’s easier to resist at the beginning than at the end. Leonardo da Vinci

The less you talk, the more you’re listened to. Pauline Phillips

Never interrupt someone doing what you said couldn’t be done. Amelia Earhart

If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. Abraham Maslow

It’s early on a frigid Sunday in New York, the sort of morning that gives one a new appreciation for hibernation – slowing down the collective metabolism for a season to refresh and restore beyond the bitter elements; but in our case also to reflect on how we ourselves and the institutions we interact with can better fulfill our collective responsibilities.

The UN has been quiet this week, not quite hibernating, but certainly rebooting what had become by mid-December some badly frayed circuits.  The one significant exception was Friday’s “emergency” meeting in the Security Council called for by the US.   The meeting seemed less about how Iran is treating its demonstrators (the alleged and controversial topic of this first session under Kazakhstan’s presidency) and more about undermining confidence in the JCPOA – the Security Council endorsed agreement to restrict Iran’s development of its own nuclear weapons program.

The US has in the recent past used the Security Council as a platform to undercut the credibility of Iran – not only as an alleged sponsor of regional terror but as a state thus incapable of fulfilling agreements such as those embodied in the JCPOA.   The rationale appears to be that if Iran cannot be trusted in all things, it cannot be trusted in this thing either; in this instance despite the firm conviction of the IAEA that Iran is in compliance with its JCPOA obligations, a conviction which is accepted by most Council members including US “allies” France and the United Kingdom.

Meetings of this type are particularly frustrating for us; not only because of their “politicized” implications, but also because of the many conflicts that remain unresolved (such as in Yemen and Myanmar) or that, in instances such as Venezuela and Cameroon, barely seem to register on the Council’s scale of concern.  There is little doubt, as noted on Friday by ASG Zerihoun, that some official reactions to the protests in Iran were excessively violent, a matter of serious interest for Council members beyond the US, which itself had been accused of “grotesque intervention” by Iranian authorities.  But “serious interest” does not in itself justify an “emergency meeting” of the Council, nor does the hostile rhetoric focused on Iran’s at-times misguided policy decisions and human rights performance justify stubborn skepticism regarding Iran’s JCPOA-related compliance.  And it certainly does not justify time taken from interrogating and addressing other looming sites of violent conflict.

Honestly, it felt a bit jarring to emerge from a brief time of winter reflection into the midst of a Council discussion that frankly appeared more than anything else to be lacking in basic wisdom.  Jarring, but not a huge surprise. Council discussions are often more about scoring political points and feeling out the political limitations of national preferences than about full disclosures of national interest, placing policy preferences in their proper context, or the “clear-headed analysis” urged by new Security Council member Peru.

Indeed, wisdom seems to have become a largely discredited phenomenon in policy, in part because more claim it for themselves than exhibit its fruits and in part because of our tendency to keep things discrete – our personal lives from our professional lives, our politics from their personal and real-world implications.  Wisdom is born of experience but is not hostage to experience.   As implied by the quotations above, wisdom is about holding relevant things together, cultivating a long and engaged attention span, exercising self-restraint during times of stress or temptation,  seeing a bigger and richer picture, keeping our bearings when so many around us are losing their own.  It is about describing the (sometimes grave) obstacles in front of us and persistently calling attention to our collective responsibilities, especially to those who are distracted by less urgent matters.  It means talking less and listening more while ensuring that the words we employ have impact beyond their ability to brand preferences and manipulate outcomes.  Especially in the Council’s context, wisdom is about taking preventive measures to resist the outbreak of conflict which can minimize the need for remedial measures in conflict’s aftermath. It implies refraining from a preoccupation with one grievance such that our duty to identify and address grievances of equal or greater significance is compromised.

As some of the greatest minds in our collective history have noted, this wisdom business represents quite a high bar.  Fortunately for us, it is a “bar” that is reached every day by women and men in diverse cultural circumstances, persons with generally limited notoriety but with a demonstrated ability to “organize life,” to step back from the fray in a manner that clarifies options and implications going forward without haughty or self-important aloofness. For us, this “organizing” includes an all-important reminder that most problems needing to be addressed in the world are not akin to an exposed nail in search of some metaphorical hammer.

As France sensibly explained on Friday, it is possible and advisable for the Council to both address “flash points” in the Middle East and honor its JCPOA and related agreements.   Yes it is possible; but what we witnessed Friday was, from the standpoint of wisdom, a clear regression – the JCPOA under senseless threat while “flash points” in Gaza, Yemen, Eastern Ghouta (Syria) and elsewhere within and outside the Middle East region remain stubbornly resistant to Council-initiated resolutions.  As regional and even existential threats to planetary well-being loom large, wiser engagements emanating from this Council would certainly be reassuring.

As we have noted with other issue contexts, Friday’s discussion on Iran summed up many of the problems with the Council’s prevalent “culture” – too many statements, too little listening, too many conflicts ignored, too much political manipulation of those conflicts which are addressed.  The new elected Council members for which Friday was their debut moment – Côte d’Ivoire, Kuwait, Peru, Netherlands, Poland and Equatorial Guinea – have no doubt already experienced several elements of what can be an overly political, wisdom-challenged policy space.   We hope that these elected members will do whatever they can – individually and collectively — to more effectively “organize the life” of the Council.  We promise to support  — certainly not to interrupt — their progress.

Structural Adjustments:  The UN Anticipates an Unsettled New Year, Dr. Robert Zuber

31 Dec

The P-5 make every effort to avoid legal constraints on their actions, and they have been almost entirely successful in doing so. James Paul

If the United Nations is to survive, those who represent it must bolster it; those who advocate it must submit to it; and those who believe in it must fight for it. Norman Cousins

Laziness is nothing more than the habit of resting before you get tired. Jules Renard

Another year has come and gone, and we are about to be inundated with declarations of intent to change our ways: to lose weight, be kinder to strangers, cut back on alcohol, or any number of other “resolutions” designed to fix whatever we have concluded has been “wrong with us.”

Much like the resolutions that proliferate in the multilateral policy space that we inhabit, most of our personal declarations are likely to change little in real time and space, as they seriously misrepresent the degree to which habits can be altered by intention alone.  Rarely can we “talk our way” into change.  The habits which largely define our lives – for good and for ill – are thick and persistent.   They help organize our place in the world and at times even bring us comfort.  But they also divert energies from pursuing the summits that we might otherwise attain, from re-imagining our direction when the current one has lost its vitality, from staring our challenges in the face instead of giving in to the material and technological distractions of the moment.

Habit is not a prison, but we make it seem like one when we stop asking hard questions, when we stop “wrestling with our demons,” when we settle for what is good enough “for us” alone, when we give in to the urge to “relax” before our tasks are complete, indeed even before we feel tired.

This formula applies to institutions as much as individuals.   The UN is one institution that is thick with habit largely in the form of protocol, a place that can barely tolerate those who dare to ask the next hard question, voices for whom the UN in its current form is “necessary but not sufficient” to address looming threats from ever-more-powerful weapons, climate-related shocks and growing economic inequalities. Laziness is generally not an issue for the UN – diplomats and other stakeholders often work long hours and face many deadlines – but so much of the work is directed towards generating statements that are eerily similar to the largely ineffectual statements which preceded them.  Given the nature of the UN and its often-squabbling member states, the tendency here is to “double down” on consensus language rather than ensure that this language – and the tangible commitments which it implicates – are appropriate to the levels of threat we now actually face.

As we enter this New Year, there are significant differences in evidence regarding the direction that this institution should go.   For instance, under significant pressure from the US, the UN’s Fifth Committee recently agreed on a 2018 budget that included $285 million in spending cuts.  The assumption underlying this decision is that the UN is in some respects a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy that needs to better live within its means despite a host of growing global challenges – especially in the realm of peace and security — to which the UN is now expected to respond effectively.

For others, the problem to be addressed is related to the degree to which the UN Secretariat is able to exhort for change, but not to insist upon it, and certainly not to boldly organize the resources of the UN system to address current threats in a timely and effective manner.   The more time we spend inside the UN, and we have spent thousands of hours in its conference rooms and chambers over the past 12 years, the clearer it becomes that the secretariat is still largely beholden to large state interests.   The “leadership” which the global community needs and anticipates from UN officials is  — sadly so – both subject to and compromised by the demands (and even whims) of the states that pay its bills and issue its visas.

For us, it is the power imbalances of the UN system – mostly beyond public scrutiny – that define the UN’s “habit” and limit its potential for the internal changes that can better address external threats.   And nowhere are those imbalances more pervasive – and perhaps hazardous to the overall health of the UN system – than in the Security Council.

As noted in a fine study recently released by James Paul, Of Foxes and Chickens, changes in the dynamics of power characteristic of the Permanent 5 members (and especially of the US and UK) have largely been cosmetic in nature – changes as likely to reinforce existing dynamics as set them on a more hopeful course.  Paul rightly gives the Council credit for (among other things) recognizing climate threats, committing to the full integration of women in peace processes, and engaging in meaningful relationships with regional organizations to address security threats throughout Africa. But he also (like many of his contemporaries) chides the P-5 for their failures to work effectively with other UN agencies and offices; to respond to threats before they erupt into full-scale conflict; turning a “blind eye” to some conflicts currently in motion (such as at the moment in Cameroon, Venezuela and even Yemen); positing humanitarian access as a substitute for hard-nosed conflict resolution which is its primary, Charter-mandated task.

And then there is the “bullying” that Paul identifies – of the elected members of the Council, of other UN states and agencies, of the Secretary-General and (his for now) cabinet.   Moreover, Paul chronicles well the archaic protocols that marginalize all but the P-3 (US, UK, France) and allow politics to stain the language of Council resolutions, the processes that brings such resolutions to a formal vote, even the determination of Council members to ensure that so-called “binding” resolutions are fully implemented.  He also understands better than most that the veto power which is the sole domain of the permanent members is exercised mostly behind closed doors – as yet another means for demanding concessions from elected members without a club of their own to wield.

Perhaps most discouraging is the tendency identified by Paul for the permanent members to hold themselves beyond the reach of the international law that they forcefully proscribe for others. This “do as I say, not as I do” mentality undermines confidence in Council decisions and reinforces the belief that power – not law – is still the guiding premise of global affairs.  As bad a guide to parenting as this mentality is, it has even more serious consequences for international peace and security, as we are likely to experience throughout the coming years.

Finally, Paul recognizes that all this comes at a high cost that dwarfs any budgetary concessions won by the Trump administration or other states.  This “habit” of power imbalances and accompanying bullying discourages bold ideas and initiatives by smaller-states and secretariat officials alike.  It also dampens what gusto remains in the global public to believe that the UN is truly the place to identify and address the wolves baying at the door.  There is truly a high price to be paid – beyond the fiscal ruminations of the Fifth Committee — once global constituents conclude that the “thickness” of the UN’s habits have largely rendered its peace and security promises moot.

It is probably too much, as many commentators have argued, to expect any meaningful Council reform, certainly not in the short term.   But as one small contribution to (hopefully) smoothing out some of what promises to be “rough edges” in the year to come, I offer the following:

In counseling one essential element in shifting habitual behaviors that have long outlived their usefulness is to ascertain levels of personal commitment.  In effect, how badly does the client want this change to happen?   In many such instances, the depth of commitment foretells levels of grit and determination needed to identify and ultimately divert “bad habits.”

Such (important and largely missing) information gleaned from the P-5 and other large states would be helpful for the entire UN community and beyond.   How badly do the major UN “players” want this system to function as an effective means to collaboratively assess and address global threats?  What changes are they sincerely willing to entertain in order for the UN to become what we spend too much energy now trying to convince others that it already is?

As the calendar flips over to 2018, an anxious global public needs to know if our erstwhile guardians of multilateral institutions are playing for keeps or playing largely for themselves.  For unless the powerful states resolve to make the UN more effective and less habituated, to generate healthier balances between global and state interests, the years to come are likely to be rockier and more frustrating for all of us than they need to be.

Pick Six:  The Security Council Bids Adieu to some Stellar Elected Colleagues, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Dec

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. Thomas Edison

When we create hope and opportunity in the lives of others, we allow love, decency and promise to triumph over cowardice and hate. Kirsten Gillibrand

If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door. Milton Berle

I’m sitting in the office on a Sunday with my pulled-from-the-dumpster Christmas tree glistening in the background.   The tree is enticing me to pen a Christmas message today, but given that next Sunday is Christmas Eve, that message can wait just a bit.

There are many other messages emanating from the UN community this week that seem a bit more urgent, including new (and heated) discussions on responses to DPRK missile launches, preparatory discussions in Puerto Vallarta on issues affecting global migration governance, a Security Council warning to South Sudan’s leadership to take the renewed “Revitalisation Forum” convened by the InterGovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) with upmost seriousness, the decision by the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court to activate jurisdiction over the”crime of aggresssion,” and an “Arria Formula” UNSC session devoted to the urgent linkages between climate change and global security.   Moreover, in keeping with a bevy of recent discussions and articles chronicling abuses committed against women, including the arbitrary withholding of otherwise well-deserved opportunity, a significant gathering in Lima sought “windows of opportunity” to integrate Latin American women into regional peace and security sectors.

But the end of 2017 also signifies the end-of-service for six elected (non-permanent) Security Council members:  Egypt, Italy (which is “sharing” a 2-year seat with the Netherlands), Japan, Senegal, Ukraine and Uruguay.  This has been an engaged and often thoughtful group in the midst of many difficult obligations and challenges.  Egypt, for its part, took leadership on many aspects related to the UN’s counter-terror response, including sanctions committees and educational events on related UN member responsibilities often undertaken in conjunction with the UN Counterterrorism Executive Directorate (CTED).  In addition, its public role with regard to stubbornly unresolved conflicts in the Middle East, now including unilateral declarations related to Jerusalem’s status, has been appropriately simmering and measured.

Due in part to its international prestige and excellent mission leadership, Italy was able to make its mark on the Council despite having only one year in this current configuration to do so, applying a steady hand to the urgent matters of preserving the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) and maintaining fair and effective sanctions, as well as drawing careful attention to the peace and security implications of climate change, food insecurity and forced migration. Italy also highlighted a problem it previously identified (with Jordan) regarding the discouraging destruction of cultural property and its resale by terrorists groups to fund their recruitment and resulting abuses.

Japan has been a particularly generous (and under-the-radar) contributor so to many dimensions of UN security and humanitarian relief efforts, and those contributions at times spoke with a more convincing voice than its routine Council statements or even its leadership of the sub-committee reviewing Council working methods.  However, steadily escalating tests and tensions in the Korean Peninsula, including DPRK missile launches provocatively sailing over Japanese air space, forced Japan into the spotlight as a major participant in DPRK-related discussions and, as current Security Council president, into a robust organizing and facilitating role for such discussions.

Senegal handled its Council responsibilities with understated dignity and grace.  Indeed, as so much of the Council’s agenda is focused on sub-Saharan states as well as on solidifying trustworthy arrangements with the African Union, IGAD and other regional players, Senegal’s importance to Council deliberations belied its size.  Indeed, on the many issues negatively affecting the peoples of the Sahel region and Lake Chad Basin, Senegal’s enabling logistics and wise counsel was indispensable, underscoring for us and for others the importance of protecting and enhancing active Council involvement by committed African states.

The quality of Ukraine’s Council participation also grew steadily over their two-year term.   At first, it seemed as though Ukraine’s election was largely a political response to Russia-sponsored military activity first in Crimea and then in Donbas and other areas of Eastern Ukraine.   And Ukraine rarely refrained from referencing “Russian aggression” and the human rights violations that have been (slowly) documented in and around Donbas.  But over these two years, Ukraine’s mission and growing appreciation for, investment in and leadership on a wide range of global security concerns far beyond the Crimea has been noted and appreciated by many.

And then there is Uruguay, one of those Council members to entirely eschew the use of twitter, which has made it a bit more difficult for us to tell them how much we have appreciated their efforts.   Uruguay has been a champion both of Council transparency and of the need to link Council actions to the concerns, interests and skills of the wider UN membership.   Ambassador Rosselli and his colleagues have often requested the floor in “public” session to clarify the stake of non-Council members in Council decisions, to rebuke permanent members for their political maneuvering and manipulation of Council working methods, to compliment and expand on presentations by secretariat briefers, even to debunk the alleged value of the more “secret” informal discussions in the “consultations room” to which Council members often retire.

While not all of their statements hit the mark, this small state took on tough positions in a visible way that, for us, helped to clarify the role we believe elected members can and must play in making the Security Council more effective and accountable.   While there are risks associated with this, risks which some delegations would never be authorized from capital to take, it is important that at least some elected members are able and willing to remind their colleagues that the Council is part of a larger system of states and agencies with which it must work more collaboratively; that statements of national position which fail to reference the testimony of briefers or the concerns of colleagues are little more than time-consuming show and tell; that too many conflicts finding their way to the Council’s agenda (not to mention situations like Venezuela or Cameroon that have trouble getting any traction) are the result of a failure-to-prevent that often predicts long and arduous episodes of violence and recovery; that we must address the unwillingness of states (especially permanent members) to thoughtfully assess decisions that large states have largely pushed for, including confessions of regret and lessons learned when situations (as they have certainly done) go horribly wrong.

To paraphrase an old American Express commercial, “membership does indeed have its privileges.”  But being on the Council is highly demanding work, especially for the smaller states, and most of those “privileges” as we know accrue to the larger, permanent members.   Where windows of privilege are opened for the others, allowing them to shed some light on violence that could have been but was not prevented; peacekeeping that could have protected more civilians but was not properly equipped to do so; tensions that could have been lowered if not for careless and inflammatory rhetoric; women who are often “subject matter” for Council meetings but whose voices around the oval are still woefully under-represented; then we must all do what we can to ensure such opportunities are properly utilized.

We honor these six elected members, as we have honored many of their predecessors over the past dozen years, because of the windows of opportunity they have seized, not only to improve the effectiveness of the Security Council, but to bring the UN closer to honoring its peace and security promises in an ever-more complex global landscape.  It may well be, as some commentators have alleged, that large-scale Security Council reform is mostly a pipe dream.  But it is our contention, born of a long and consistent engagement with the Council, that thoughtful, connected, committed, opportunity-minded elected members can still do much to push all Council colleagues to revisit and better honor the confidence that the UN Charter has placed in their work.

Thanks to all six of you for this important reminder.

Giving Tree:  Growing Spaces for Gratitude and Service, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Nov

I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. Henry David Thoreau

Pride slays thanksgiving but a humble mind is the soil out of which thanks naturally grow. Henry Ward Beecher

What seems insignificant when you have it becomes important when you need it. Franz Grillparzer

My cooking is so bad my kids thought Thanksgiving was to commemorate Pearl Harbor. Phyllis Diller

This is the beginning of Thanksgiving weekend in the US, a time when we are hopefully inspired to – as my grandmother used to say – both “count our blessings” and share more of them with the world around us.

For many years, my Thanksgivings in New York were preoccupied by labors in a Harlem church pantry presided over by two enormously capable women who knew the neighborhood and its diverse “characters,” including the ones who had family plans for the provisions we provided and the ones who were merely hoping for a bit of “resale” cash from those provisions if they could get their hands on them.

I actually don’t miss those Thanksgiving pantries.  Expectations and anxieties were considerably higher than was the case on the other Saturday’s of the year when the pantry was also open.  There was more food to distribute on Thanksgiving but often less grateful hands receiving it and, as the years went on, fewer hands it seems being extended to help us with the distribution chores.  Thanksgiving, it seemed, was characterized by increasingly lower levels of both gratitude and reciprocal service to others.

Yesterday, in another part of Manhattan, Global Action was the beneficiary of a truly lovely event organized for us by our dear friends India Hixon and Olive Osborne.  The event was a fundraiser of sorts, but the “gratitude messaging” was much broader than the financial giving.   Interns and fellows, current and former, described how their UN experiences affected their lives; NGO leaders at the UN talked about how Global Action and others help to develop a narrative on global polity that is more attentive, connected and generous, with minds and hearts focused more on the needs and aspirations of constituents and less on the complex and sometimes myopic politics that characterize UN conference rooms.  We also heard about some of the many amazing initiatives and investments which have germinated just from the people sitting around our Saturday afternoon event space — including Wendy Brawer’s Green Map and Lin Evola’s Peace Angels — projects taking place in many parts of the world and taking many forms that make our own work possible and, more importantly, our world more hopeful.

And we were reminded of something that should be enshrined in every global policymakers work space – that the key element in any policy work is not agreements on language, but practice by human beings.  It is what we as people do with the policy openings made available to us that truly make the difference in our world.   In the absence of “en-action,” what UN-speak refers to as “implementation,” the promises embedded in our often politically-compromised texts will die a slow and largely unheeded death, generating (in ourselves and in others) neither a grateful nor generous spirit, let alone inspiring hope for a healthier and more prosperous future.

Perhaps ironically, the system that we still respect and in which we labor daily behaves at times in a manner that is almost incompatible with any recognizable thanksgiving-themed outcomes.  On Monday, for instance, the Security Council held an Arria-Formula meeting to discuss the situation in Venezuela which, as many know, has been characterized over several long months by mass political turmoil, food insecurity and a growing number of human rights violations, many specifically targeting (and imprisoning) political opponents and the media.

The event was “sponsored” by the US and Italy (current Council president) though it was clear from the outset that the US was the principle organizer of this Arria narrative.  US Ambassador Haley’s assessment of conditions in Venezuela was harsh and unforgiving, not without reason (as was reflected by the other speakers including High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid) but also largely without strategic purpose.

This was clearly not an event to “educate” Council members about a situation that has been evolving (and deteriorating) for some time and that clearly has potential implications for peace and security, including on its neighbor Colombia’s still-fragile peace process. This seemed instead to be more of a politically-charged rally designed less to find solutions with UN frameworks but more to attack the Venezuelan government (low-hanging fruit that this represents at the moment) for the sake of – what exactly?   Was the US advocating for regime change?  For the latest iteration of some external invasion by covert or overt means?   For formal sanction from the Human Rights Council or other UN bodies?

Usually reliable and thoughtful Uruguay reminded delegations that Venezuela does not currently appear on the UN Security Council agenda and thus is not deemed to be a threat to international peace and security. This was, at best, a “besides-the-point” moment given the preventive priorities of SG Guterres and the responsibility of the Council to maintain international peace and security, to get out in front of conflict and not wait to merely (attempt to) pour water on fires that have already done considerable damage.  Moreover, none appeared to be calling for such an agenda expansion; indeed three Council members – China, Russia and Bolivia – spent the time of the Arria holding a separate press briefing with the Venezuela Ambassador, in part to insist that no such addition to the Council agenda was warranted and essentially accusing the US of using the Arria Formula to instigate some variation of a political circus.

France, which has increasingly become the “adult in the room” when it comes to permanent Council member diplomacy, did not minimize Venezuela’s rights violations, but stressed the humanitarian imperative as well as the need for robust mediation efforts from regional and UN sources to help overcome what has become a deepening and abusive political impasse characterized by citizens who, in the words of HC Zeid, have “largely lost confidence in their state.”

At another meeting later in the day, Zeid (who once represented Jordan on the Security Council with thoughtfulness and diplomatic distinction) lamented the current “culture” of the Council, the inability of those entrusted with global peace and security to apply dignity and respect in their dealings with each other as a precondition for assisting global constituencies longing for stability and seeking relief from violence and its many levels of threat.

The acrimonious Venezuela discussion, coupled with another round of painful (and largely failed) discussions on the renewal of the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism for Syria, left our little group of Council watchers wishing that the chamber could find a way to declare some sort of “time out” for itself.  Such would be an occasion to suspend political considerations and reflect on all those persons around the world who are depending on our good decisions, who want to believe that we still have their best interests at heart, who are even willing to offer morale and practical support towards a more peaceful world so long as that support does not fuel more of the political gamesmanship and excessive, pride-filled policy maneuvering that seeks to pin political blame on everyone and everything – except of course on oneself.

There is a precedent for such a time-out.  In the General Assembly hall this week, a group of diplomats and guests spoke of the power of sport to help bring about healthier more peaceful communities.  In that context, the Republic of Korea Ambassador, whose country will soon host the Winter Olympic Games, floated once again the idea of having a moratorium declared for the period of the games – a time when states would pledge to lay down their arms (or at least point them away from their alleged “enemies”) and reflect on their often-misplaced responsibilities to build a more peaceful and sustainable world that might actually be fit for their own children.

This will likely continue be a tough sell in such divided, mistrustful and fragmented times, but all must do what we can, where we can, to create openings where gratitude and giving can grow and flourish, even within institutions like the UN Security Council whose politics and working methods lead members to sometimes forget who it is that we’re actually working for.