Tag Archives: Security Council

Community Watch: Localizing our SDG Responsibilities, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Apr

If the government is big enough to give you everything you want, it is big enough to take away everything you have.  Gerald R. Ford

I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.  Will Rogers

If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

This past week, we were privileged to welcome Ms. Thalassa Cox from the office of the Solicitor-General of St. Lucia.  Thalassa has come to explore the UN, but also to learn what we are hopefully well-suited to teach – what the UN can and cannot do well, and how best a small state government can participate in (and in turn influence) global policy in this highly-complex and often self-referential institution.

And what a week it was for her to come.  The Security Council took on South Sudan, Syria and especially North Korea, in the latter instance drawing an oval punctuated with Foreign Ministers, some of whom (especially the US) seemingly determined to “act” instead of talk, but without a plan for managing the (perhaps dire) consequences that an as-yet-undetermined plan of action might itself create.  At the same time, the General Assembly was deeply engaged in its own revitalization, including its sponsorship of major upcoming discussions focused on human migration and the health of our oceans. The Peacebuilding Commission endorsed a peacebuilding plan for Liberia that can serve as a model for other states emerging from conflict. The Committee on Information met to review how the UN tells its story and in which languages it chooses to tell it.  And the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues brought splashes of color and moral resolve to the UN, including the presence of women in tribal costume holding their babies, reminders both of our collective, gendered responsibility to “First Nations” and, in the case of the babies, of precisely on whose behalf we do our policy work.

After years in this multilateral space, I am convinced that a more regular presence of persons representing different human abilities and cultural contexts — and their babies — would help us make better policy, and become better people as well.  People wearing headdresses or in wheelchairs, people walking with guide dogs or facing unique forms of discrimination; these and more come from families and communities with their own dreams, some of which can occasionally find expression at the UN, but others of which are even larger and more poignant than what we can routinely appreciate in this space.  

Also this week, in a mid-sized conference room and under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council, the Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA) met in session to explore, among other matters, the role of local governance in the fulfillment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  While we have covered a bit of CEPA in past years, we were gratefully present for more of the discussion this year, in large part due to Thalassa’s enthusiasm for the learning which the diverse CEPA experts were well-suited to provide.

As we have mentioned often in this forum, the SDGs represent a promise that we have made to the economically poor, the politically marginal and even to generations yet to come; a promise to define and implement a plan to level the social, political and economic playing fields, to eradicate persistent poverty, to empower women and cultural minorities to kick open doors to participation, to remove the dangerous masses of plastics and other toxins poisoning our oceans, to preserve our dwindling biodiversity and fresh water access,  and to create structures of sustainable production and consumption that can help reverse climate change and create desperately needed jobs for youth and families.

This grand promise holds direct and compelling implications for peace and security.   In our view, if we can collectively make our “best faith” effort on the SDGs, our chances of “sustaining peace” will improve dramatically.  But if our effort falls short of “best” then the crises that now overwhelm our existing peace and security architecture will only grow in numbers and complexity.  Moreover, and given our stubborn reliance on ever-more-sophisticated military arsenals, what is left of our credibility on conflict prevention and peace will likely have eroded as well.  Serial promise breakers are generally not highly sought after as conflict mediators.

We and our office colleagues often ask what else is needed if the promises of the SDGs are to find a satisfactory fulfillment.   The UN is working hard on appropriate stakeholder arrangements, on predictable funding (including increased and corruption-free domestic revenue), on comprehensive data and robust technology transfers.   All of this is necessary, though none by itself is sufficient.

What else is missing?  Some clues were offered by CEPA itself, which included the quite sensible notion that, as important as global norms can be, the promises embedded in the SDGs must attract large numbers of local champions if they are to succeed.  Such “champions” can provide context-specific remedies for habitats in need of restoration, lifestyles that need to be healthier, economies that can better respond to local consumer needs, schools that promote knowledge of hometowns and not only of other towns – even government officials who can back commitments to “open, inclusive” governance with specific measures to protect media and information freedom, promote access to justice, and guarantee fair and competent government services.

As the Moroccan expert in CEPA made clear, there is a need to “decentralize” our approach to the SDGs, not so much because the largest structures of global finance and multilateral governance are deemed serially indifferent, but because constituents in real danger of being “left behind” by behemoth institutions can more easily be identified and their development needs addressed through responsive local structures. In addition, from our own vantage point, such decentralization points the way to perhaps the most essential and largely missing ingredient in SDG implementation; the willingness of people worldwide, in areas rural and urban – including right here at the UN – to “up our game” in response both to immediate crises “created on our watch” and to warnings of disasters that would, if not prevented, weigh so very heavily on the skills, resources and dreams of future generations.

Local government can and does have its own limitations regarding accountability to the public and its financial obligations, as well as to genuine openness and fairness.  As obsessed as we sometimes are by globally-impacting events emanating from places like Washington and Beijing, there is plenty to watch and report on at local levels as well, some of it equally frightening and/or even at times a bit humorous.  But fear and laughter aside, unless we can improve at local levels standards of government transparency and inclusive service delivery; unless we can enable citizen-centered governance where people have a role to play and not just a complaint to lodge; unless we are willing to defer to local testimony regarding who actually remains “left behind;” then the SDGs will remain an elusive promise at best.  And the conflict potential emanating from a damaged planet and its chronically disappointed people will continue to grow.

In the often “nomadic” world of global diplomacy it is relatively easy to lose sight of local rhythms, those that promise social progress and others that impede it.   Despite the relatively small audience for its UN deliberations, CEPA is helping pave the way for closer and more effective SDG interactions among all levels of government, while continuing to insist that efforts at local level to eradicate poverty and fulfill other SDGs offer the most direct, most personal “diagnoses.” Moreover, as CEPA certainly recognizes, local initiatives are best suited to encourage and unlock opportunities for people from diverse cultures and with wide-ranging capacities to contribute directly to the fulfillment of a large and complex SDG promise, a hopeful dream for a better world that we simply cannot afford to ignore.

Inconvenient Truths: Spinning Obligations to our Planet and Each Other, Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Apr

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Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin. Barbara Kingsolver

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.  Flannery O’Connor

The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth.  Lao Tzu

This was an often interesting and generally head-spinning week for the world and for the UN.  Alongside a bevy of unwelcome political and military tensions, one highlight for us was the scientific community (and supporters) taking the streets in support of facts, in part as an appeal to a society that too often believes what it wants to believe and prefers shiny branding and pious reassurances to the truths – about science, about the health of our planet, about ourselves — that disrupt our ambitions and inconvenience our personal schedules.

The marches were also an appeal to our political leaders who seem to believe that unless and until something is 100% settled (and much in science is not quite that), they are “free” to make up what they wish about our past and present, to carve whatever narrative they can use to convince people of things about which they would do better to be skeptical.  For too much of our leadership, truth more and more is about the capacity to convince based on pre-determined ideologies than about the weighted importance of evidence or the intrinsic value of curiosity – being open to new ideas, the next question, perspectives that can complete and enrich our own cognitive circles.

If we think we know everything that needs to be done, every lens that needs to be examined, every fact and challenge that needs to be integrated, we are probably too comfortable with small or incomplete perspectives; embracing half-measures when the recipe calls for a full portion, spouting stereotypical clichés when the times call for an honest disaggregation of the “truths” we espouse that might apply to some contexts in some measure but not to all contexts in all measure.

Despite our proliferating school degrees and professional certificates and across our political spectrum, we have seemingly never been so vulnerable to spin. As we are reminded on this World Book Day, we would all do well to read more and talk less, to think harder and argue softer.

While the science marches weren’t directed at the UN per se, we have plenty of our own “spin” in this space, officials too often embracing aspects of the truth that serve national (or bureaucratic) interests while ignoring elements that call for more flexible political or institutional positions. In the UN building as a whole, certainly in the Security Council, things unspoken are often more important than what is actually shared.  Delegations will often make perfectly valid but willfully incomplete contributions to policy, in more than a few instances hoping that the truth they convey will be enough to satisfy listeners, will distract people from all that is still needed if we are to complete the policy circle.

An example of this selectivity occurred this past Tuesday when US Ambassador Haley (serving as Council president for this month) introduced a Security Council discussion focused on “Human rights and prevention of armed conflict.” This was, as she noted, the first time that the Council had ever met to discuss as a stand-alone the “red flags” of human rights abuse that spill within and across national borders, a surprising if accurate claim to many (us included) who have long assumed (and pointed out) a consistent relationship linking human rights violations and the potential for armed violence.

Secretary-General Guterres was the primary briefer for the session. He restated his own personal commitment to work more closely with the Council on this and other issues, while also pointing out the “grave challenges” associated with efforts to reduce the “wounds of war.”   Guterres was clear, as Italy and other states were later in the afternoon, that the only way to address such wounds is to make war less likely. Thus attention to gross human rights violations — what France called the “sowing of hatred” — as a major contributing factor to armed conflict is therefore fully warranted.

But Guterres (and later Kazakhstan and Uruguay) also made plain the need to “depoliticize” both human rights and the related promotion of sustainable development.  It didn’t take long for this warning to be disregarded.   Amb. Haley herself used the occasion to lump together Cuba, Iran and the DPRK as human rights violators from which troika will arise “the next crisis.”  Shortly thereafter, the deputy foreign minister of Ukraine alleged Russia’s “phobia” on rights stemming in part from its military adventurism and occupation of Crimea.

Egypt was one of several states (including Russia) citing double standards and false interpretations lying at heart of our responses to many global issues.  They urged the Security Council to respect and work closely with other UN agencies (such as the Human Rights Council) specifically tasked with promoting human rights and –through the special rapporteurs, special procedures mandate holders, and direct examinations by the Human Rights Committee and other treaty bodies – working with states to improve their human rights performance.

In the end, the issue for the Council was not whether human rights should have a firm place in their deliberations.  As Sweden noted, there is no denying that rights violations are core contributors to social instability and violence; nor can we deny that our enduring “culture of impunity” and growing disregard for international law constitute major flaws in our peace and security architecture.   The question has to do with the proper role for the Council, a body that too often preempts effective action elsewhere in the global system and which too often exempts from criticism those very same Council members all too willing to point the finger beyond their own borders.

It was Ethiopia that seemed to offer the most concrete and sensible way forward, a way that combines receptivity to fact-finding from other UN colleagues; a pledge to support rather than undermine other relevant UN agencies; and attention to dimensions of “fairness” in the investigation and application of human rights concerns. In addition, Ethiopia urged what it called the “overdue” commitment of Council members to regular self-reflection and assessment regarding their mandated responsibilities, including the degree to which Council members uphold in their own practice the same Charter values they insist on for others.

Amb. Haley noted that there is “so much more to be done” in the Council on human rights, and at one level she is right.   But that “much more” is not about trying to control another core UN obligation, not about selectively and/or righteously beating up political adversaries for alleged abuses – as though any state is blameless on the rights scale. Rather it is about promoting and sharing the best information from across the UN system and beyond, ensuring that abuses can be identified and then addressed in their early stages as one means to head off conflicts whose resulting wounds are now far beyond our capacity to heal.

And also offering better protection to the vulnerable when our preventive efforts fail: Facts and information on the one hand; policy resolve and compassion on the other.

In the discussion’s aftermath, one of the most respected academic voices on Africa, Paul Williams, pointed out on twitter that the same person who chaired the Council meeting advocating for a larger role on human rights, including as a priority for peacekeeping operations, is an official of the very same government actively seeking to reduce those operations.  This highlights part of the obligation to truth-telling in the international community that offices like ours scrutinize and that lurks beyond the province of our carefully-crafted narratives – not just the truth that serves national interests, but the truth that reflects the general interest; the truth that is beholden to the full picture not simply the corner of the canvas that reinforces our national or organizational aesthetic.

 

Hedging Our Bets:  Tepid Responses to Existential Challenges, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Apr

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With so much evidence of depleting natural resources, toxic waste, climate change, irreparable harm to our food chain and rapidly increasing instances of natural disasters, why do we keep perpetuating the problem? Why do we continue marching at the same alarming beat?  Yehuda Berg

The average person is a conformist, accepting miseries and disasters with the stoicism of a cow standing in the rain. Colin Wilson

Economic disasters or foolish wars are hardly guaranteed to bring about large-scale individual self-examination or renew the appeal of truly participatory democracy. Pankaj Mishra

It’s Easter Sunday and outside in UN Plaza it is likely to reach 85 degrees F today.   This July-like warmth, following a spell of January weather in March and a dramatic cool-down predicted for later this week, is what the climate change models I’ve seen routinely predict:  a lack of predictability and on a growing scale.  At a metaphorical level, we no longer know from one day to the next whether to put on sun-screen or grab the scarf.

But we can draw at least one predictable linkage between the Christian resurrection narrative and our rising global seas:  we tend not to take either seriously enough.

I’ve long maintained that participation in the Easter ritual should result in a greater tangible impact, certainly for Christians whose very faith is premised on a sacred hope.   This hope of resurrection, what Fox News apparently referred to today as “the greatest truth,” should mean more, change more, be more visible in our behavior and discourse, punctuate more of how we prioritize our time and action.  People shouldn’t have to guess if attentiveness, compassion, kindness and respect lie behind our Easter rhetoric and seasonal fashion statements; they shouldn’t have to wonder if our Easter devotion is anything more than simply “hedging a bet” on the possibility that at least some aspects of the resurrection narrative just might be turn out to be true.

And what about climate, another bet resolutely “hedged” by some governments and many global citizens but affirmed by a growing consensus of scientists, religious leaders and government officials?  At a policy level, the jury is still out.  As much as climate change is discussed at the UN and within many of its member states, it too easily gets crowded out of consciousness by more “hard” security concerns, including military confrontations and terrorist acts.

For example: While the failed Security Council resolution this week in response to chemical weapons use in Syria produced its share of sparks and grabbed several of the global headlines, plenty of news space was also reserved for the “mother of all bombs” used in Afghanistan, and even more for the escalating, potential “cloak and dagger” hostilities taking shape in the Korean peninsula.   In this last instance, the unpredictable story line is enhanced due to the erratic personalities in the US and North Korea (DPRK) leadership as well as some in the policy community who seem more concerned about how we’re going to respond to the humanitarian needs stemming from a potential conflict than our responsibility to prevent the conflict’s occurrence in the first place.

As hard as it is to sit in the Security Council and cover statements by members unified in theory over the DPRK’s nuclear ascendency but largely stifled in practice, it must be so much harder to sit in front of television screens and watch a major potential crisis unfold about which one can do virtually nothing.   This in some ways is the great paradox of our time:  more information pertinent to specific global emergencies – mostly security related — in response to which we remain essentially powerless.

But there are clear pathways to meaningful participation on climate health as there are pathways to a more thorough reflection on our responsibilities to the promise of Easter.  At individual and community levels, we do have power to take stock of ourselves, to examine lifestyles and personal choices, to demand less and give more, to renounce old patterns of consumption and march to a simpler beat, to find communities of concern and allow ourselves to “go on record” with our own, to live Easter values such that they become identifiable habits no longer constrained by the rhythms of a spring ritual.

At a policy level we can also do more and better.  At the UN, the Mission of Ukraine was quite visible this week, hosting both a Security Council “Arria Formula” discussion on the multiple interactions of climate and conflict, and another event linking environmental and human health with a focus on oceans.  Both were insightful, though our primary interest was in the discussion examining the multiple ways in which climate change and conflict interact, a growing concern within diverse sectors of the policy community, including notably by Refugees International.  As we now widely recognize, climate change can drive mass human mobility, but also exacerbate tensions over increasingly scarce water and other resources.   We also recognize that climate-inspired incidents such as massive, over-water storms are increasing in number and ferocity, threatening any and all efforts to rebuild state institutions or stabilize populations in vulnerable states already ravaged by poverty, corruption and conflict.

But when it came time this week for the full Security Council to discuss the downsizing of the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), such climate insights were surprisingly scarce.  The new mission (MINUJUSTH) will focus on important outcomes for a country that has been battered by earthquakes, invading forces and patterns of state corruption for so many years:  policing and security sector reform, rule-of-law institution building, and human rights monitoring and reporting.  But as Senegal was almost alone in pointing out, all of this good work presumes stable ground and clear skies – prospects for new earthquakes and ominous storm clouds can foretell massive setbacks for people who have already and often endured the worst.  And there is every science-supported reason to assume new and more dangerous levels of climate assault – for Haiti and for many other island nations.

So on this overly-heated Easter Sunday, we note with urgency the need for reflection in the policy community as well, within but also much beyond the Security Council. We must insist that climate impacts permeate our conflict prevention and resolution strategies.  We must make climate resilience a higher priority within our peacebuilding and migration-related policy planning and implementation.  And we must make full use of all capacities to address our current, urgent climate challenges, identifying and breaking bread with as many stakeholders as possible who demonstrate the will and skills to help heal a natural world under considerable siege.

For many and various reasons, climate health is a bet we cannot afford to hedge.  If we do, and if we lose, there may well be no resurrection narrative sufficient to rescue us from the condemnation and scorn of succeeding generations.

Storm Surge:  The UN Avoids Turning Obstacles into Impediments, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Apr

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Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.  Epictetus

Storms make the oak grow deeper roots.  George Herbert

Last month, an early spring storm and unusually cold stretch created a major challenge for March flowers.  The UN’s own daffodil patch suffered significant damage, made clear only as the snows finally receded.  But as some flowers lay dormant, victims of an unpredictable climate, other daffodils sprang to life.  For them, the snow and sub-freezing temperatures seemed more an obstacle to navigate and less an impediment to blooming.

Indoors, the UN faced storms of another sort, rocked by recent terrorist violence in Sweden, Somalia, Russia and (now) Egypt, and even more egregious violence in the form of sarin attacks orchestrated by the government of Syria’s Assad that left dozens dead and filled our media with images of children taking what might well have been a final breath.

Among its other sordid consequences, the attack laid bare (as France duly noted) the failure of that government to honor its commitments to eliminate its chemical weapons stockpiles;  indeed its apparent ability to deceive UN inspectors whose job it was to certify weapons removal has many sobering implications for other weapons inspections and removal efforts.

The Assad chemical attack was followed, as we all know, by another unilateral military response – cruise missiles fired from a US ship at the air base from which the sarin attack was believed to be originally launched.  That attack seems now to have been as much about “sending a message” as it was destroying a base, especially given that the air strip was reported “open for business” the following day.

Nevertheless, the US attack was the backdrop for an emergency Security Council meeting on Friday that brought more than a bit of simmering hostility into the open.  Such hostility threatened to undermine what was otherwise a period of relative Council consensus on matter related to Mali, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. It also threatened to obscure the impact of events elsewhere in the UN – including the honoring of 20 years of service by the UN Mine Action Service and preparations for major international conferences to promote Ocean health and the rights of migrants – which should have provided fresh evidence to the international community of the UN’s enduring value.

The attack on the Syria base — while relatively benign in comparison to the consequences of Assad’s chemical attack (a point made strongly by the UK and others) not to mention the massive air raids conducted by Assad and Russia on civilian infrastructure for much of the past six years — represented for some members another significant blow to the UN’s Charter and its seemingly ever-perilous reputation.  Bolivia perhaps was the most articulate in denouncing this latest unilateral measure by the US, citing concerns regarding the degree to which human rights are sacrificed at the altar of national interest; also that chemical weapons use might become the pretext for another, Iraq-style armed intervention. From our own standpoint, this attack is one with the potential to widen the already significant divide between permanent and elected Council members, one which the US has publicly threatened to repeat with or without UN support, and one which comes on the heels of other statements by the US implying that any future support for the UN – provided by this administration at least – is contingent on allowing the US to “fix” some things.

Certainly there are things that need fixing around the UN including as the US rightly suggested and which SG Guterres affirmed in the Council on Thursday as part of his “9 Point” areas of reform, the need to ensure that the UN’s peacekeeping operations are relevant and flexible such that mandates remain “faithful” to shifting security contexts.   Guterres also called for a new “surge in diplomacy for peace,” while ensuring gender balance in peace operations undertaken with the full participation of relevant regional and sub-regional stakeholders.

At this same session other Council members made their own reform suggestions on force generation (Kazakhstan), access to helicopters and other military equipment (Senegal), the slippery slope of peacekeepers taking on one or more aspects of counter-terror operations (SG and others), and the need for clear political objectives to which peace operations are then expected to contribute (Uruguay).

The concept note provided by the US for this particular meeting was helpful at several levels, though it does seem as though there is too much emphasis on the cost of peacekeeping and not enough on preserving and affirming what the UK’s Ambassador Rycroft called the “human face” of the UN.

And peacekeeping is not the only area where the US now appears to be “pulling up” some of the UN’s carpet.  From initiating a cutoff of aid to the UN Population Fund to insisting on its own (under-qualified) candidate to run the UN’s World Food Programme, this US administration has significantly upped the ante on costs, seeking new concessions from the UN to “fix” itself largely in accord with US wishes.  The US is certainly not the only country that throws its weight around the UN, nor is it by any stretch the only country that flaunts the values it has otherwise pledged to uphold; but it also tends to do more than its share of arm twisting albeit rarely in the form of such a “public dare.”

And so the UN now faces obstacles analogous to a major, early spring storm – Charter values under siege, disenchantment with our security-related performance, threats of funding withdrawal, stubborn power imbalances, inflexible and often unfeasible peacekeeping mandates, endless requests for humanitarian funding in response to conflicts we should have been better able to prevent (or at least contain) in the first place.

Beyond these, people continue to face discrimination, deprivation and despair in many global regions.  And the policy community has not yet demonstrated that we have listened long enough – certainly deeply enough – to grasp just how unequal our global systems of security, economy, education and health truly can be.

But even in the midst of unfulfilled global expectations and highly contentious discussions about chemical attacks and armed reprisals, there remain signs of recognition that we might just have the temperament to manage these stormy times. The UK’s Rycroft affirmed that, despite appearances, the UN remains “the place to negotiate when peace seems out of reach.”  Uruguay’s Ambassador Rosselli urged Council members to “keep calm, carry on, and continue to do our work.” And Italy’s Ambassador Cardi asked colleagues to “look ahead” and find more effective ways to hold offending states accountable to their obligations under the UN Charter and existing Security Council resolutions.

These suggestions by respected Council members are helpful.  When storms threaten the UN it isn’t necessary for us to choose between urgency and thoughtfulness, nor need we permit obstacles to become impediments to the changes our constituencies expect and need.   Instead, storm-related obstacles can become occasions for us to “test our mettle,” to build our stable of skills —- including in mediation and conflict prevention — and to nurture deeper, more reliable and more enduring institutional roots.

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

2 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Policy Scrabble:  Words that reveal; Words that bind, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Jan

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” — Mark Twain

The UN has had a quiet week.  Perhaps the most notable event was the formal transition to a new leadership team headed by SG Guterres and, in the Security Council, a bit of relief that the Kabila government in the troubled DR Congo has seen the wisdom (or at least uttered the words) of agreeing to a political transition including (relatively) expedited presidential and parliamentary elections in that country.

In a Presidential Statement issued in the Council by Sweden’s Amb. Skoog, DR Congo leaders are urged to continue on the path “to organize peaceful, credible, inclusive and timely presidential, national and provincial legislative elections no later than December 2017, leading to a peaceful transfer of power.”  President Kabila might well pursue this request.  He may also find new “reasons” to stall.  To that latter end, he might even invent a security crisis (beyond the many we already know about) or make some “trumped up” (pun intended) claim about the unreliability of MONUSCO and other UN partners to honor their own security or development promises.

In the gaps between declaration and intention lies a conundrum for the Security Council, indeed for the entire UN system. We are an institution of words — we make statements, give speeches, make presentations, write reports and resolutions.  Words and more words, statements made year after year, at times where little but the page heading has changed, words that bear little resemblance to circumstances on the ground, and which are rarely challenged by those who might well know better. Part of the muted skepticism of diplomats which is not uncommon across the UN, stems from so many discernible disconnects between the words we utter and the actions (if any) we eventually and collectively take.

It is frustrating, in and out of the UN, to see what has become of words.  Political cultures in the UN and in many member states seem to have lost their moorings when it comes to straight talk, not only the validity of the “facts” we cite, but in the contexts we provide for the judgments we make.  In this, “truth” (for all its contemporary imprecision) is more than simply disregarded; indeed in some political circles it is actually ridiculed as “old school” in a manner not unlike the social approbation cast on users of flip phones or cassette players.   The “truth,”, as we note often and with increasing urgency, is now simply what you can convince others is true.  And a “lie” is simply something someone is not prepared to hear, especially if it is about themselves and/or their policy choices.  Shrinking standards.  Flimsy evidence.  Thin Skin.  Ignoring the people paid to know about facts and contexts essential to finding the “right words.”

To the persuasive go the spoils.

As we wish we never had to write again, we have lost the discursive dimension of words, that is, the deployment of words to reveal and relate.  Words for us have become like what we used to call “sweet talk” a way to get someone to part with something you want rather than a means for establishing and building connection.  We are often content now, it seems, to be merely sellers and buyers, looking for a good deal – in business or politics – but having fewer and fewer convictions of a world we want to live in beyond the material plane, and even fewer notions of whose lives are impacted by the convictions we hold (or don’t).  Indeed, “convictions” themselves are becoming just another means to massage an audience into believing that someone “cares” even in those (thankfully still) uncommon instances when there is not a drop of evidence to support the presence of a caring impulse.

This phenomenon is neither new nor confined to the current spate of populist currents grabbing headlines around the world.  We in the more elite centers of influence actually cashed in many of our linguistic chips a while ago.  We made bold promises to people from our lofty perches and then smirked at those same people when they fell for our pitch.  We created and advertised technology that promises connection but is actually closer to a full-on selling machine.  We now often text people instead of calling them in part because the brevity of texting lends itself to the making of demands and the establishing of preferences.  On the phone (admittedly not my favorite device), people can hesitate or even object to our plans and strategies.  Negotiations might be needed.  We might have to explain ourselves.   Nope.  Not happening.

When we speak, too often it is to manipulate outcomes.  We also speak to be accounted for, which we often see in Security Council as protocol demands that all 15 members insist on weighing in on a particular security issue when perhaps half offer real substance to contribute to policy going forward.   Less and less do we speak to reveal, to tear away the shroud of politics and let people – even high-end diplomats – glimpse the mistakes that we lament, the circumstances of threat that keep us awake at night, the worries we have that maybe – just maybe – we’re in over our collective heads this time.

President Kabila, egged on by advisers and UN officials, might be sincere in his desire to effect a peaceful political transition for DR Congo.  From what we know about corruption and spoilers in that country, as well as cross-country tensions of a political and ethnic nature, the challenges of transition will be formidable even if the hopefulness of Kabila’s words is to be matched by the sincerity of his transition strategies.

But what if that isn’t the case?  What if this promise of transition turns out to be just another smokescreen, just another delaying tactic, just another bait and switch to throw political opponents and the international community off their respective games?  How will we know, and do we have what it takes to discern what would be yet another gross political insincerity in a manner timely enough to divert its course?

The fear of my office is that at some level, perhaps unconsciously, we have become so accustomed to empty phrases and broken promises that we have forgotten that there is another way, another objective for the words which currently fill our world to brimming, another path to contribute to holding others –even our leaders, even our inner circles – accountable to rhetorical commitments.

The populist movements flaring up around the world are not merely skeptical of “truth” in some self-authorizing and self-defeating fashion; some abandon “truth” in large measure because it was first abandoned around them – democracies bought and sold; media filling the airwaves with escapist nonsense and then telling only (the easy) half of any story; educators cultivating youth with skills for non-existent jobs but not for their very-much-existent lives; an economic system that aggressively disrespects the needs of workers so that the super-rich can continue their own shrouded competitions.

Is it any wonder that so many people have stepped away from civic life, preferring rooting interests and reality television to investments of themselves in still-grand civic projects?    I think not.  Indeed, if we are serious about addressing this malaise in our civic culture we must first avoid the temptation to do in political and diplomatic life what the Wall Street crowd did after the 2008 collapse – keep our heads down for a time and then go back to the familiar, insulated and, in the case of the mega-investors, lucrative business at hand:  with “sweet” words to match, of course.

This won’t work for us.   Not this time.  If people are to come to believe again in we who deign to manage institutions of culture, governance and economy, we must adopt softer, less judgmental and more straightforward communications, even about our greatest policy concerns and hardest policy challenges. We must insist on honoring the promises embedded in the rhetoric of all our leaders. And we must work harder to find the right words to let people know –many times over and despite a generation of appearances to the contrary — that we believe in them as well.