Tag Archives: Security Council

Empty Shell:  The UN Seeks to Renew the Life of its Charter, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Jan

Globe

Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt.  Rollo May

The master of the garden is the one who waters it, trims the branches, plants the seeds, and pulls the weeds. Vera Nazarian

One person with commitment accomplishes more than a thousand with an opinion.  Orrin Woodward

In dreams begin responsibilities.  William Butler Yeats

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.  Stanislaw Jerzy Lec

Late Friday afternoon at the UN, past the time when delegates, security officers and interpreters are expected to be at their posts, the Security Council barely averted a disaster to its own reputation as well as to the welfare of millions of Syrians who continue to face grave need in a long conflict that the Council has failed to end.

The disaster was averted through the positive energies of Belgium and Germany, co-penholders of the Council’s humanitarian resolutions who eventually accepted the compromise terms (dictated primarily by Russia) to restrict cross-border humanitarian access (by reducing the number of authorized crossing points) in exchange for the promise not to veto the extension of the cross-border mandate for Syria which would have otherwise expired at midnight Friday.

Sitting in the Council chamber, it was difficult to know how to react as the Council once again pushed the welfare of millions to the political brink.   That some cross-border access will continue to function beyond the bureaucratic impediments imposed by Damascus is a good thing; but that access was cut back when displacement and food insecurity threaten millions and when progress on ending the conflict is modest at best raises more questions than it answers about the long-term viability of a Council where partisan politics so often trumps responsible authority.

This is, of course, a time characterized by other unsettling events within and beyond the UN, including an assassination of an Iranian military leader, the unintentional downing of a Ukrainian airliner near Tehran and, perhaps most ironically, the decision by the US (as host country) to deny a visa to the Iranian Foreign Minister seeking to attend a Vietnam-sponsored discussion in the Council on “Upholding the UN Charter.”

In a time when most states and civil society organizations agree that multilateralism is under considerable strain, this Charter discussion generated unprecedented attention from the UN membership; indeed to such a degree that additional sessions had to be scheduled to handle the demand for speaking slots. Some states (such as Cuba and Georgia) used the occasion to highlight the hypocrisy of permanent Council members that seek to regulate the conduct of other states in accordance with the Charter while largely exempting themselves from such scrutiny. Others urged these permanent members (as did Singapore and Cyprus) to “set a better example” for the rest of the UN membership.   Uruguay and other states called attention to what it called “weak compliance” regarding the Charter obligation of states to uphold Council resolutions, in part due to the obvious (as on Friday) political compromises that lead to watered-down resolutions with limited will to see them implemented.  It was in this context that Ecuador referred to the “empty shell” that the Council is in danger of becoming, a chamber where resolutions inspire less and less confidence by global constituents and less and less compulsion to compliance by their governments.

While not all the statements uttered during these multiple sessions had to do directly with peace and security, the discourse rarely strayed far.   Peru noted that given “uneven progress” on issues such as climate change, nuclear disarmament and transnational organized crime, “the rumblings of war must be rejected.”  The Elders Chair HE Mary Robinson was a most welcome briefer at the opening session, making clear that our disregard of our disarmament obligations and our manifest unwillingness to amend our ways (including our multilateral ways) in the time remaining for us to address climate change are gravely endangering the world for our children in ways that the Charter could surely not countenance.

Indeed, it seems clear to me at least, that there are already several ways in which multilateral processes have evolved and devolved in ways not directly countenanced by the designers of the Charter.  The framers were apparently less concerned about universal membership than universal valuation, seeking states that were committed to the “pacific resolution of disputes” and including measures for suspending or even expelling states that gravely violated this pacific premise.  Moreover, while the word “peacekeeping” does not appear in the Charter, there is a clear recognition that maintaining security must be a task common to all member states. While the Council exercises its primary responsibility, other states have the duty to contribute in their own ways and to limits of their own capacities, at the very least to pledge not to undermine or impede the maintenance and/or restoration of international peace and security once the Council is seized of a conflict threat.  This pledge is one that is disregarded on a more regular basis than many publicly acknowledge.

The Charter also demands more attention to security at the “least possible levels of armament” than is now the case; more regular communication between the Council and the General Assembly (and other UN bodies) than is now the case; more attentiveness to the values that bind the international community than is currently the case. And while clarifying duties to development and self-governance, its primary concern is to “harmonize the actions of states” without recognition of the roles – positive and otherwise – played increasingly by non-state actors in creating and resolving global threats.  Indeed, the growth of the non-government sector, even small initiatives like ours, provides us with an opportunity that the Charter framers could scarcely have envisioned – to help “pull the weeds” that impede healthy global growth; to insist that UN working methods are fair and transparent; to hold up for review instances where states offer support with their lips but degrade Charter values and duties in their practice; to remind members of the urgency of the moment, an urgency not always apparent inside our UN bubble; to promote a system (as the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and Grenadines noted this week) in which the responsibility to uphold the Charter is not allowed to dissolve into mere “political expediency.”

We and others in our orbit take the opportunity offered to us very seriously.   We know well some of the many ways in which the UN needs to become more relevant to circumstance, its need to dive more deeply into the ways in which sustainable peace is dependent on health oceans and food security as much as international courts and weapons treaties.  And we know that many of the efforts to “reform” the UN run the risk of replacing what some this week referred to as its “delegitimized structures” with revised versions which, given the rapid pace of global change, are likely to also find themselves going quickly out of date.   When Germany wondered aloud this week about the shape of the world 75 years into the future it was more than idle chatter, but a reminder that the legitimacy of our current actions and preferred structures will be tested and assessed in some future realm, at a time when others now much younger than ourselves will have no choice but to answer for our wisdom – or our folly.

We will have suggestions for reforms in this 75th year of the UN, suggestions that will seek to embrace what is necessary and universal about the Charter but in ways that help us address the current “avalanche” of threats as well as serve to predict and avert future crises. In this, we will be guided by a statement from Poland, recently “retired” as an elected Council member, whose Ambassador reminded the chamber that the upholding and fulfilling of international humanitarian and human rights law is not an option but rather a “sacred commitment” that is fully consistent with UN membership and its Charter-based obligations.

As we grapple together with ways to make the UN more agile and transparent, more thoughtful and less political, more accountable and less aloof, we should all pledge not to lose sight of the sacred commitments and responsibilities that the Charter continues to represent – norms and tools for enacting the dream of a world where nations and peoples can live in harmony with each other and with the entire created order on which our sustainable prosperity is based.

In an age characterized by deep divisions, armed to the teeth and melting before our eyes, such harmony remains the goal of greatest treasure.  Despite the inadequacies of so much of our current policy and practice, despite the doubts that so many now have about our relevance and fidelity to promises, the Charter stands resolute as an essential guidepost towards a more peaceful future.

Fire Wall: A 2020 Resolution, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Dec

 

The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness; it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy; it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death; it’s indifference.  Elie Wiesel

It is never too late to be what you might have been.  George Eliot

What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.  Maya Angelou

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. Ralph Waldo Emerson

Hell is empty and all the devils are here.  William Shakespeare

We are coming upon another new year, another season of abundant resolutions largely unmatched by commitments to amending our collective ways in the face of the numerous fires that are now consuming much of what once –or so we in the global north allowed ourselves to believe — made us more prosperous and secure.

Many of us are justifiably horrified by many of the demons that are being released on the world, most recently the hate-crime stabbings yesterday north of New York, the shootings near Houston, and the murder of students and other civilians earlier this week in Mogadishu.   And we also know that this is the tip of a robust iceberg, that threats not immediately apparent are creeping closer to our enclaves, the places we have constructed and thankfully nurtured but which are now “feeling the heat” as rarely before.

It does at times feel as though the “devils are all here” now, that what we continue to unleash — willfully at times and through a modern version of collective indifference at others — is simply perpetuating our current fire storm, compromising both the opportunities that exist for reconciliation and the skills that we know we possess to cool down our current, over-stimulated patterns of consumption, sexism and ethno-centrism.

But as essential as local initiative is to bringing the fires under control, we know that our task would be more in reach if our leadership were more focused and reliable, if they were truly committed to ensuring the well-being of all of us, and not simply to the consolidation of national interests or the maintenance of their positions of authority.   It is ultimately foolish for leaders to ask the rest of us to shed our indifference — which the current fires surely require —  when they are so often unwilling themselves to set that bar, to make that hopeful example, to confess the ways in which political or economic privilege has been maintained at all costs even as others (mostly those marginal to the centers of power) are themselves being stripped of what little access to privilege and opportunity they enjoyed previously.

In real time, fire fighters need competent leadership and dependable backup if they are to create and maintain a successful fire wall.  But in this time, such competent and dependable leadership is all-too-rare.   For many of us, it seems, there is now this endless struggle to find points of access, to plan and then engage in activities and assessments which ultimately promise no more than  lawn hoses when fire hoses are required.

Our own engagement with policy leadership, of course, is with the UN and more specifically its Security Council.  The broader UN is set to embark on two potentially significant events for 2020 that have the potential to alter its public perception as well as its policy course:  the reform initiatives surrounding the UN’s 75th anniversary year as well as the early segments of what the UN is calling the Decade of Action and Delivery for sustainable development.  Regarding the latter, we have largely squandered the first five years of a 15 year plan to implement the Sustainable Development Goals.   “Action and Delivery” is, at least in theory, the antidote to a massive institutional promise that has run a bit off the rails in some key instances, but it can also help focus attention on the state of our oceans and climate, the importance of addressing threats to food security and massive human displacement, and the need to rescue resources from bloated military budgets and rampant government corruption so as to successfully deliver on our development promises.

As for the 75th anniversary reforms, there are fires to discuss here as well:  the decline of respect for human rights and the safety of rights advocates;  the too-slow pace of inclusion (including of women and cultural minorities) in policy and security sector functions;  the uncertain footing of international criminal justice in a time of increasing disregard for international humanitarian law; the misreading of consensus that creates de-facto vetoes for states and leads to watered-down resolutions that are barely taken seriously by states in their aftermath, even at normative levels.

But for many diplomats and NGOs, the primary focus of reform is the Security Council, a body whose decisions (and non-decisions) impact virtually every other aspect of the UN’s work. Sadly, the Council remains largely unaccountable to the general UN membership and its oft-politicized decision-making and the disregard so-engendered for its ostensibly “binding” resolutions – disregarded at times even by Council members themselves – has somehow managed to demean itself and its full, potential influence on how conflict should be prevented and resolved.

As our readers already know the Council’s two-tiered membership – its permanent and elected members – has become an occasion more for policy entitlement than for inspiration towards a more peaceful and sustainable world.   Given the often-suspect levels of global statesmanship in evidence around the oval, Council members too-often continue the practice of placing national interest over the interests of the whole, offering statements designed to convince the few who still bother to listen that their causes are more just and less relevant to their own narrow preferences than is often the case.

Moreover, the structure of the Council and its so-called “provisional rules of procedure” often serve to marginalize the bulk of its elected membership, placing them in charge of sanctions committees and other specialized functions while restricting their public contributions largely to pleading for unrestricted humanitarian access for victims of conflicts which the Council has failed to prevent or promptly resolve in the first instance. It is sometimes hard to watch (and we watch daily) as high-profile, current elected members (such as Germany, South Africa and Indonesia) have their initiatives (and at times even their voices) suppressed by the policy stubbornness and political gamesmanship of the permanent members.

This suppression is of course more apparent in the case of the smaller states which have also found their way on to the Council.   In a few days, a “class” consisting of Kuwait, Poland, Equatorial Guinea, Peru and Côte d’Ivoire will make way for Estonia, Niger, Tunisia, Vietnam (Council president for January) and Saint Vincent and Grenadines.   While we wish them well, and will join them daily in an attempt to encourage their policy independence, there is little reason to believe that they will have more impact on global peace and security than the states they are replacing.  And while we are particularly interested to see how the highly-respected, former president of ECOSOC Rhonda King handles herself around the Council oval, it is likely that Saint Vincent and Grenadines will have policy impact only to the degree that she is able to credibly represent the issues of her Caribbean Community (CARICOM) colleagues.

There is much more to say about the contributions of non-permanent members to Council reform and the more general need for greater transparency and power-sharing within the UN’s peace and security architecture.  The point here is the degree to which the resolutions we make within our own families and neighborhoods, the inspiration required to sustain personal and  community change, require more of our leadership, much more in fact.  If those of power and privilege cannot find the words that can genuinely inspire us, if they cannot also commit to actions and policies that give tangibility and credibility to those utterances, the heat we all now feel from steadily rising temperatures and rapidly rising anger will only intensify.

We still believe that the fires that rage now can be contained and that (as in nature) life can recover from the current devastation and find a fresh level of abundance.  But we need to hear more from those in positions of authority entrusted with the lives and well-being of the global pubic, hear that they fully understand the urgency associated with too many “devils” released into too many global settings.

Our commitment to you in 2020 is that we will do whatever is needed – with whomever is available — to help keep those in authority focused on their responsibilities and contributions; urging them to become more of “what they might have been” and do more to inspire and elevate a common commitment to lower both the actual and metaphorical heat that threatens us all.

We’ll keep you posted on our progress.

Apple Pay: Inspiring our Policy Perseverance, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Dec

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.  Martin Luther

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.  Kurt Vonnegut

There are years that ask questions and years that answer. Zora Neale Hurston

The soul is healed by being with children. Fyodor Dostoevsky

Life, with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. Madeleine L’Engle

At the end of another long week at the UN, diplomats and leadership struggled once again to cross the annual finish line. The Security Council held a session on Central Africa, including the conflict in Cameroon, which was more formula than foresight – conventional calls for dialogue and political will with only Belgium clearly grasping that efforts by the government to promote reconciliation in the primarily English speaking areas of the country have not impacted conditions on the ground; indeed seem to be intended more to placate an international audience than to quell the violence and open the door for accountability and justice.   Those few of us in the chamber who have followed the Cameroon conflict for some time and were hoping for a bit more defiance – or at least to witness the inspiration to defy – were largely disappointed.

Just down the hall, a two-day review of the Vienna Programme of Action for Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs) was also concluding.  This review, essential to the fulfillment of our sustainable development responsibilities, endorsed an excellent Political Declaration under the leadership of Austria and Bhutan which focused on the unique economic, security and trade-related challenges faced by states lacking sea access and, in some instances, even commercial interaction across land borders.

And yet this important event also ended with the whimper as both the President of the General Assembly and High Representative Utoikamanu struggled through prepared remarks in ways that sapped what little energy remained in the Trusteeship Council chamber.  Having lamented a day earlier the degree to which progress on sustainable development in many LLDCs remains stagnant, one would have hoped for a more determined set of final presentations, an infusion of energy which could communicate to delegations and a wider audience that there is sustainable passion behind the adopted Declaration, that we understand the full relevance of the plight of the LLDCs to the fulfillment of our 2030 Development Agenda promises.

Thankfully, there were other UN engagements this week with more abundant energy, including a Thailand-sponsored event on the importance of soil protection to sustainable agriculture, an excellent joint meeting of the Peacebuilding Commission and the Economic and Social Council on peace and security in the Lake Chad/Sahel region of Africa, and a multi-stakeholder Open-ended Working Group on developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security. The latter event brought dozens of academics and representatives of governments and civil society together to discuss cyber threats to elections, to weapons systems, and especially to what was often referred to as the “public core” of the internet that is now (as you surely know) awash in viruses, phishing scams, and other threats to privacy and protection.  What made this event work as well as it did was the willingness of the Chairs – Singapore and Switzerland – to privilege the expertise of the non-government representatives more than their government counterparts.  Most all Working Group participants seemed comfortable speaking with each other, rather than “over” each other as is so often the case here.

Despite these hopeful policy settings, the overall mood of the building seems now less of a roar and more of a whimper.  People are tired; in some instances, also clearly a bit discouraged.  Diplomats soldier on, read their statements, pay attention (more or less) to what others are sharing, and shuffle themselves between relevant conference rooms where all-too-familiar issues reappear on their agendas without resolution –and often without progress.  Funding is also unusually tight as key contributors (including Brazil and the US) withhold resources needed to keep the UN in full function, symbolized in part by a heavily-used escalator that now only runs to the 2nd floor instead of the 4th, as well as doors that are locked and meetings which are raced through more quickly than usual as there is currently no prospect of overtime pay for any UN employee.

From our vantage point, we are not as preoccupied with funding aspects per se as with their implications for inspiration, for visible energy and commitment, for expressions of enthusiasm that we actually have what it takes to meet our ambitious obligations to constituents; that we as a community remain undeterred by obstacles of logistics and budget which (if we are honest) appear largely irrelevant when placed alongside the impediments to persons ravaged by war and poverty, by drought and corrupt governance, by massive storms and equally massive indifference.

As we sit in diverse conference rooms each day trying to sew the pieces of relevant UN policy together and ensure in our own small way that efforts to obfuscate or even deceive are called out, what we look for – indeed long for – is inspiration: that sense of urgency to solve the problems that have wrecked havoc for far too long; that determination to use all of the abundant expertise available within the UN and to supplement it where needed with the best (and most diverse) of what is available outside; that regular acknowledgement that we can visualize who needs us and who we are working for; that we can feel at least some of the pain that comes from the impact of violence we have not averted, under-development we have not yet tackled, natural disasters we failed to predict, disease outbreaks we failed to prevent.

Diplomats have their own compensation mechanisms for functioning in what has become, too-often, a high-octane, low-inspiration environment.   For us on the non-government side, we are too often left to invent our own inspiration, to write our own sonnets and plant our own trees, to secure essential heart energy from places largely invisible to the eye.  In some conference rooms, such as was the case this week, positive energy is still accessible. In others, energy levels are far more lethargic than electric.

This is, indeed, a “first-world problem” but one with far broader implications.   What must it look like for global constituents to watch this community of policy muddle through issues that, for them, are literally matters of life and death?  How must it feel to read resolutions that purport to address constituent concerns with barely a shred of constituent intervention?  What must be the trust implications of promises made and then ignored, of binding declarations without schemes for implementation, of grave crimes that go perpetually unpunished or “cashed in” for the sake of “peace agreements?” For us here in the center of global governance, policy lethargy is an indulgence understandable at one level but almost unforgivable at another.

Back in the Security Council yesterday, it was indeed an inspiring site as we put away our computers and diplomats filed out of the chamber, to see a baby belonging to one of the UN diplomats crawling along our row, happy as he could possibly be, exploring a space that should have more to do than it does now with preserving and protecting his future and the many millions of girls and boys in his generational cohort.

We don’t see babies often enough in this seasonally-fatigued and too–often discouraged space packed with events and responsibilities but short on genuine enthusiasm and inspiration.  Lacking the presence of children, it seems too easy now to forget who we’re working for, the specific circumstances of who and what we’re perhaps only pretending to care about, the duties to promote and protect, to warn and respond, to assist and inspire, to question and discern, duties that come with our largely undeserved places at the center of policy. This peculiar iteration of policy amnesia is bad for constituents, but can’t be good for any of us here at the UN either, from senior officials to cafe servers.

I know that there is plenty of inspiration swirling around my own life, including some remarkable women, interns and other colleagues who are constantly exploring and finding new ways to place their skills and energies in the service of the world.   I need to tap into more of this energy going forward, in part so I can continue to plant the “apple trees” that are mine to plant,to invite others to create new sonnets, to better share my portion of inspiration directed primarily to the heart, and all this regardless of the current political circumstances or mood of the room.

I’m going to take a few days this week in an attempt to relocate that very tap.  I’ll let you know if I’m successful.

Scar Face:  Reconciling the Wounds we Barely Acknowledge, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Nov

Stolen 2

I talk to my patients, to my neighbors and colleagues–Jews, Arabs–and I find out they feel as I do: we are more similar than we are different, and we are all fed up with the violence. Izzeldin Abuelaish

Perhaps one day, all these conflicts will end, and it won’t be because of great statesmen or churches or organizations like this one. It’ll be because people have changed.  Kazuo Ishiguro

Propensities and principles must be reconciled by some means.  Charlotte Brontë

We must recognize before we can reconcile–especially in instances where we are too blinded by privilege, comfort, and tradition to even notice that reconciliation is needed.  Josh Larsen

I want to live in a neighborhood where people don’t shoot first, don’t sue first, where people are Storycatchers willing to discover in strangers the mirror of themselves. Christina Baldwin

Our week at the UN had more than its share of dramatic events, some of that courtesy of the decision by the US government to disengage the authority of international law and Security Council resolutions from Israel’s settlement expansion.   The long-term implications of this decision are unclear, especially given the high levels of political turmoil in Israel at present, but this represents another (by no means unique) “propensity” by large powers to distance themselves from the legal principles and obligations they seek to impose on others.

Other events were more hopeful, including move-the-pile discussions on peacebuilding reform and a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone for the Middle East, tentative progress on negotiated settlements for Syria and Yemen, and still-early efforts to hold Myanmar accountable in international courts for massive abuses perpetrated against the Rohingya.  There was even an event on the ways in which the stigma and lack of health-related resources for menstruation continue to negatively impact school attendance by girls in some global regions.

This last event was linked to a major celebration under the auspices of the General Assembly of the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The Convention boasts the largest number of state ratifications of any UN agreement and, over two days, these same states were eager to share the ways in which they have worked to improve conditions for children and, with a bit less enthusiasm, the urgent commitments to children yet to be fulfilled.

Working on the Convention in its infancy, helping in my own small way to create a “world fit for children” was, for me and others, the “gateway” to a longer-term multilateral involvement.   The many children who graced us with their presence this week, some of whom represented their national governments at the podium, reminded us all of the road remaining to be traveled, the decisions and indecisions taking place inside institutions like the United Nations that are not as child-friendly as we might imagine, that are still too much about our own privileges and protocols and not enough about the precarious legacies we have bequeathed to so many young people. We still turn our gaze away from the scars children bear (as highlighted by Azerbaijan) that never should have been inflicted, the search for “peaceful environments” (as a child from Iraq shared) that too often come up empty, our oft-violent and melting planet which will likely occupy too much of their own creative bandwidth going forward.  We are simply too far still from what ought to be (as Portugal stated) something we should all be able to agree on, making a world of peace and justice for children “without tears.”

This 30th anniversary event (with a special appearance by David Beckham) followed by a day a debate on “reconciliation” in the Security Council organized by current president United Kingdom. This event called attention to what South Africa urged as “an enabling environment” for reconciliation that moves along the path between disclosure and punishment and that helps to ensure, as Belgium and others implored, as much of a guarantee as we can muster that conflict once halted will not be allowed to return.

The Secretary General was one of the briefers and was on point in his insistence that while there is no peace without justice, “there is no justice without truth.”  In this context, the SG highlighted the “truth” about the times we are living in and how we managed to collectively arrive at the places we now experience, places of dissonance and distrust, of compromised policy courtesy of both national interest and multilateral “consensus.”  Despite the tools which the SG has sought to improve or bring online, even in this precarious funding environment  — tools such as special political missions, mediation resources, a revamped resident coordinator system and increases in funding for peacebuilding activities – our ability to prevent conflict and to walk the fine line highlighted by South Africa and others linking truth-telling and accountability in situations where conflict prevention proved impossible is all still a work in progress.

Peru was among the Council members highlighting the potential, positive impact of preventive diplomacy on our collective reconciliation burdens, while Indonesia suggested that visible, concrete “peace dividends” could make post-conflict reconciliation more successful.  Beyond the Council members themselves, Kenya promoted the linkage between social and political inclusiveness and successful reconciliation, a theme also taken up by Switzerland which reminded delegates that “dialogue among political elites alone” cannot sustain peace or bring reconciliation.  One of the best lines that we heard all week was from Namibia, whose Ambassador suggested during Monday’s debate that “peace must be boring” given all of the unresolved violence that remains in the world, violence which this Council is mandated to address and towards such resolutions urgent reconciliation measures are called for.

All things considered, this debate was a good start on a subject that ultimately requires considerably more recognition and thoughtfulness.  As one of the civil society briefers noted, one of the requirements of reconciliation is the “re-humanizing” of former enemies.  But, to paraphrase the SG, the times we are living in are characterized by political polarization and massive trust deficits, people who are both “fed up” with the violence that surrounds them but also tired of the “blindness” of much privilege, including a “blindness” to the urgent need for “re-humanizing” in many social and political contexts well beyond the post-conflict dynamic.

Surely there is need for reconciliation in Yemen and Syria, in Myanmar and Cameroon, in South Sudan and Bolivia, in China and the UK.   But the demand for effective reconciliation cannot – must not – be confined to outsized conflicts and political divisions, gross abuses of human rights and existential threats to climate health.   The Security Council has its own internal reconciliation to effect as do many of its governments back in capital, the lack of which leads to conflicts unresolved or dragged through unseemly political deadlocks.  The UN writ large has its own reconciliation to effect in the form of promises made and not kept to constituents who lack viable alternatives for redress and relief.  Communities that are increasingly politically or ethnically polarized have their own reconciliation impediments; people just like us willing to believe, often without evidence, that we “know” the motives of our adversaries. People like us who resolutely fail to see the mirror images of our neighbors in ourselves. People like us who exist in social or policy bubbles that allow us to believe that reconciliation is the task of “someone else,” someone not us.  People like us who are too quick to jump to conclusions more than commitments, who listen too little and talk too much, who “write off” people who don’t toe our ideological lines.  All of this is understandable, but not to our credit and likely not of much value in achieving the future we say we want.

And what of the children who graced us this week let alone the children who endure “cold nights” and whose futures have already been compromised by factors such as unrelenting poverty, persistent conflict and tepid responses to climate threats?   How do we reconcile with these children?  How do we explain to them what we’ve done, how we’ve exercised our authority, and why they have so often been left to fend for themselves? How do we help heal their scars and then together with them build a future that is truly “fit” both for current generations and their progeny to come?

These are hard conversations, harder than we might acknowledge, harder than we might even have the stomach for.  But I’m convinced that if we can find the words and deeds to convince children that we have, in truth, amended our “adult” ways, we will be that much closer to helping the larger world reconcile its own disagreements, renounce its addictions to future-threatening items such as weapons and plastics, and plug the still-formidable gaps that separate our propensities from our principles.

Youth Group: Passing the Torch on Climate Health, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Sep

strike

You’re learning that you do not inhabit a solid, reliable social structure – that the older people around you are worried, moody, goofy human beings who themselves were little kids only a few days ago.  Kurt Vonnegut

One cannot, without absurdity, indefinitely sacrifice each generation to the following one; human history would then be only an endless succession of negations which would never return to the positive.  Simone de Beauvoir

The last generation’s worst fears become the next one’s B-grade entertainment. Barbara Kingsolver

Respect the young and chastise your elders. It’s about time the world was set aright.  Vera Nazarian

A mistake, committed for a few generations, becomes a tradition.  Nitya Prakash

This past week, the UN Security Council endured a dismal and discouraging session punctuated by an sobering briefing by ASG Ursula Mueller followed by a veritable cat fight among Council members ostensibly committed to easing suffering and reducing levels of threat enduring by the people of Idlib, Syria.  This erstwhile “deconfliction zone” has been the subject of all-too-routine bombing raids by Syria and its allies despite a provisional cease fire, bombing conducted ostensibly to root out terrorist elements and their foreign fighter allies (what Syria referred to as “monsters”) who allegedly have been holed up in schools, hospitals and other civilian infrastructure.

This principled (though not always practiced) concern for protecting civilians and upholding international law by (most) Council members has often run afoul of the concerns of a few to fully prosecute the terror war until all terrorist elements, including foreign military and intelligence capabilities, have been defeated.   In this instance, the disagreements spilled over in a spectacle of competing resolutions on Idlib, one submitted by the “humanitarian penholders” Belgium, Germany and Kuwait, and the other seemingly cobbled together at the last minute by China and Russia and focused more on the necessity of continued, robust counter-terror operations.

Needless to say, neither resolution passed.  Another opportunity to forge a consensus that would spare the people of Idlib from yet another round of violence and displacement was lost.

My own response to this policy carnage was to urge Council members to “burn the tape” of this meeting lest the people of Idlib see for themselves how their urgent interests have been set aside by a body that at times makes more trouble than it resolves – both inside and outside the UN.  Conflicts fester, sometimes for generations, and some of the core lenses that contribute to conflict in our time – especially threats from climate change – have yet to achieve supportive consensus in that body. There is now a “tradition of inaction,” that belies the dignity that still applies within the Council chamber, including the failures to fulfill its own resolutions, hold permanent members to account for acting above the law, and reassure the rest of the international community that Council members are prepared to pull their weight in resolving crises that have sometimes gone on too long and which directly affect prospects for future generations.

Those specific representatives of future generations who have sat with me over the years in the Council chamber have taken note of the political culture which the Council perpetuates and they are by no means reassured.  The clock is ticking while more and more pundits are proclaiming that it might now be “too late” to save ourselves from ourselves. For these young people it is not too late.  It cannot be.

Thankfully reassuring to them has been the recent explosion of climate-related protests, many thousands of people worldwide taking to the streets to “strike” for action and justice, action based on an increasingly firm scientific consensus and justice based on the reality that many who will suffer the most from climate impacts had the least to do with creating the problem in the first place.  Indeed we are now witnessing the scenario of the wealthy trying to buy their way out of the path of severe climate impacts while millions struggle to eke out a living on the margins of rising oceans and expanding deserts.

Inspired by Greta Thunberg and others, there is action on a large (not yet large enough) scale to mitigate climate impacts and redress related imbalances. We do have global policy frameworks to limit emissions and care for climate refugees, though these frameworks are voluntary in nature and thus easily put aside when they allegedly “compromise” the national interest.   We also have a bevy of technologies that have come (and are coming) on line that can promise some relief from excess emissions and other manifestations of our still-excessive environmental footprints. We see every day more corporate and financial interests recognizing that sustainable business requires sometimes dramatic changes in how they “take care of their business.”

And we have seemingly come to grips with the fact that climate mitigation and adaptation can and must be localized, that the challenges people face must be fashioned to context in the form of concrete actions grounded in what we are now missing in too many of these contexts — an abiding commitment to the surroundings that house our ambitions.  In too many instances, we have lost connection with the places we call home, the rhythms of life that we too often take for granted or neglect altogether, the places that demand our immediate and specific attention and get it less and less.   We are a culture full of people who know more about the abstracted feeds on our phones than the habitats and watersheds that surround us daily, the farms and gardens that sustain our bodies and souls in ways that Instagram could never do, the threats to biodiversity (including to essential pollinators) that have sometimes-severe local impacts and that caring and attentive people have the means to address locally.

In pointing this out, I recognize that it is relatively easy for me to examine personal choices and help mitigate climate impacts.   I am not raising children and thus am not bombarded by the desires of children stoked by endless commercial interventions.   I do not need to own a car, or even ride in one, whereas the lives of many others are almost entirely dependent on such vehicles. Indeed, I can walk to markets of all kinds, including places that will gratefully take my copious collection of weekly compost. I can bus or train to work, or even walk if the frustrations of mass transit become too much.

And I can indulge my own amnesia, including with regard to the economic predation characteristic of the most “successful” parts of the city I live in.  I can deceive myself that there is some virtue in growing and producing nothing on my own.  There are few in my life now to remind me of the skepticism and frustration of my earlier years, the energy wasted on investments and behaviors that were sketchy at best and certainly not sustainable in any sense that we now understand that term.

As amnesia is overcome, it becomes a bit easier to accept the skepticism and self-protectiveness of the younger people who allow us to get close to them.  It is easier to forgive the occasional over-indulgence in “first-world problems” and entitlements, the frustration that comes from a life spent in school that, in some ways, produces outcomes just as disappointing as anything the Security Council can muster.  It was interesting that, at Friday’s climate rally in Battery Park, while I was one of the older people present and wearing my “UN costume” of jacket and tie, I was not scolded once, not from the audience and not from the podium.   It was a testiment to the kindness and focus of those strikers that I was able to “escape” so easily.

Indeed, the energy in that park was hopeful, even electric, and the voices of Greta and others were strong, clear and resolute.  Ready or not, it is their turn now, their turn on the playing field, their turn to see if they can overcome their own habituated responses and generational prejudices to effect rescue in a world that is good for them, but also good for those many whom will follow; thereby helping to ensure that their fears and skepticism can be repurposed into actions that will offer more than “B list entertainment” to subsequent generations.

In the shadow of New York’s financial district, Greta reiterated a warning to those who have been made uncomfortable by what they might well interpret as the “bad news” associated with the recent surge in climate activism.  “This is just the beginning.” If we are to preserve our own lives and the “chains of being” on which our lives depend; if we are to eliminate this major contributor to the violence, food insecurity and displacement that now characterize too many global settings; if we are to boldly and urgently mitigate where we can and adapt where we must; then our responsibility is laid out before us, including doing more to ensure that the mistakes of generations past don’t become the “traditions” tying the now-eager and determined hands of the young.

The many voices worldwide insisting on a healthier planet “fit for children” believe, as do we, that this is simply not too much to ask.

Disappearing Act: The Struggle for Transparency and Humanity in Detention, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Aug

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He didn’t worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him. He was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it.  Neil Gaiman,

The system does everything within its power to sever any physical or emotional links you have to anyone in the outside world. They want your children to grow up without ever knowing you. They want your spouse to forget your face and start a new life. They want you to sit alone, grieving, in a concrete box, unable even to say your last farewell at a parent’s funeral.  Damien Echols

Locks didn’t cure; they strangled.  Scott Westerfeld

God’s creatures who cried themselves to sleep stirred to cry again.  Thomas Harris

They keep us in our cells for a long time…  And, if we get out, we lug them with us on our shoulders;  Like a porter with a chest of goods.  Visar Zhiti

For me, one of the most compelling image from this often-dismal week belonged to a child in Mississippi whose father had just been arrested (with hundreds of others) by  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a child now seen crying in front of the cameras with little or nothing to reassure or comfort her, no promises that the cruelly-abrupt, information-starved distance between this child and the father on whom the quality of her life largely depends will not grow ever-longer.

This is how it is in too many places around the world.  People locked away without charges, without contact with loved ones, without anyone to defend their interests when they are brutalized, ostensibly for inconveniencing in some political or security sense the entities and their guards into whose hands they have now been forcefully committed.

The sad fact remains that in too many parts of the world, “criminal justice” is a system which refuses to scrutinize  its own conduct, which refuses to abide by its own principles, including principles governing humane treatment.  It is bad enough to arrest and detain arbitrarily.  It is another thing to prevent any thread of connection that can preserve a glimmer of hope for families and friends that their loved one will eventually be released with some measure of physical and emotional health intact.

The states that detain arbitrarily are as unlikely to concern themselves about the health and well-being of those released from prison as they were likely not concerned about their health and well-being while in detention. Indeed, it is to the benefit of unscrupulous governments that the often-grave damage lingering from forcible detention be plainly visible as a warning to the citizens beyond prison doors – all with whom the formerly abused comes in contact — that they need to watch their step, watch their words; that the psychic “strangulation” they now behold came from a facility that could easily enough have their own names engraved over a prison door.

This week the UN Security Council took up the matter of arbitrary detention and disappearances in Syria, a raucous discussion at times (including several heated exchanges between the UK and Syrian Ambassadors) that featured testimony from two Syrian activists who took umbrage at the failure of the Council to take a firm and united stand and end the suffering of those arbitrarily detained and abused during this 9 year conflict.  But these women also highlighted the suffering of the families who have endured the equally-long pain of official silence, of not knowing what is happening to loved ones, where they are being held, how they are being treated, how long their isolation might continue.  Information, even if it only references the remains of persons who have “left this world” without a fair trial, even that would provide families some small comfort.

For we human beings — faced with a cruel information void such as this — can often and easily imagine the worst.  In cases like those described in Syria, with practices such as torture and disappearances experiencing a resurgence in some regions, such vivid and horrifying imagining comes much too easily.  One can only guess what that Mississippi girl must now fear in her deepest parts, for herself and her own future, but also for her perhaps permanently absented father.

As many of you who peruse this space know, we maintain a close affiliation with the Paris-based organization FIACAT, in part because of its faith-base, in part because of its strong connections to the protection of human rights in Burundi and across Africa, and in part because they keep focus on what used to be at the core of human rights concerns – torture, arbitrary detention and forced disappearances — abuses that place individuals in mortal jeopardy, families in unrelenting sorrow, and communities in perpetual fear.

As the UN’s human rights mechanisms have grown more sophisticated, if not always more effective, and as the “menu” of human rights obligations and concerns expands in important ways, it is perhaps a bit easier to overlook the detention-related damage that continues to be inflicted by abusive states and officials in many parts of the world, states that seem to have forgotten their obligation to ensure that criminal justice embodies transparency of process, respect for both prisoner rights and information for loved ones, and in the best of all worlds a practical commitment to restoration more than punishment.

This “forgetting” is a stain on Syria’s government to be sure, and we welcome the Secretary-General’s commitment to a process of inquiry which will hopefully obtain the access needed to expose, remediate and eventually even prosecute and begin healing for the conditions and perpetrators highlighted this past week by the Syrian women.

But Syria is not at all our only problem; its prisons are not our only scourge.  At the UN this week during an event on “Peace and the Brain,” an NYU Psychology Professor noted that the times require firm commitments to adaptation as well as to ensuring that the darker sides of “consciousness” are held at bay.   Species like ours with “voracious appetites,” he noted, including the appetite to abuse, might well not survive this current “extinction moment.”  A youth speaker at the same event took up a similar theme, underscoring  the relationship between “human greed and social disorder.”

Where abuses such as disappearances reign, where “yesterday has already brought” some of the worst pain and isolation humans are capable of inflicting, we must all continue to push for access, information, rights and justice.  But we must also save some of our focus for the long-term psychic impacts of our appetites to abuse and disappear – the trust that continually eludes our grasp, the access to services we cannot promptly secure, the scars from cells that prisoners display long after their release, the tears of now-abandoned young children for whom sleep offers only temporary relief.

Nelson Mandela once quipped that we cannot truly know a society until we have been in its prisons.   In too many parts of our world, that narrative remains needlessly ugly, needlessly distanced from our better selves. We seem driven now to dig a deeper hole than we collectively have the skill and capacity to extricate ourselves.

It’s past time to put away that shovel.

 

 

 

Cold Play:   Eliminating Barriers to a World Fit for Children, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Aug

Children on Swing

War is what happens when language fails.  Margaret Atwood

There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.  Howard Zinn

Something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences. Suzanne Collins

We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.  Erich Maria Remarque

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree, if mankind perished utterly. Sara Teasdale

The picture at the head of this piece is one I hesitated to use.  Most all of you have already seen images of this extraordinary sight – children (and some adults) on both sides of the US-Mexican border riding a “see saw” projecting through a heavy-metal fence designed by policy to keep them separate.

But the events of yesterday, the carnage associated with shooters in Dayton and El Paso whose hatred and access to weapons had literally colonized their consciousness, brought me back to this hopeful but bittersweet image, an image that reinforces the indomitable spirit of children around the world who find the means to connect and play amidst the psychic and physical rubble courtesy of we “well-meaning” adults.  Virginia San Fratello and Ronald Rael deserve major honor for developing this simple piece of playground equipment that unlocked spaces of hope we’d probably forgotten we had.

This was also, in some ways at least, an important week for child-attentive policies at the UN.   Under the leadership of current president Poland, the Security Council held a 9 hour debate on “children and armed conflict” this past Friday covering virtually every aspect of the distressing encounters of children with situations of armed violence including sexual abuse, children locked away in adult facilities, and forced recruitment into the service of some armed groups and national militias.  Special Representative Gamba and UNICEF Chief Fore led a procession of 80 state and civil society briefers weighing in on an issue that weighs heavily on the consciousness of many – our limited ability (despite numerous resolutions and debates) to protect children from the worst consequences of our conflict-prevention failures.

A day earlier, Canada had hosted an important side event during which it launched its Implementation Guidance for the Vancouver Principles.  The “principles” are proving increasingly relevant both in identifying and addressing recruitment and other abuses perpetrated against children in conflict zones.  They are also proving their value in recruiting “eyes and ears on the ground” — peacekeepers, gender specialists, child protection advisors and others — to ensure both that abuses can be prevented wherever possible and that children freed from conscriptive bondage have accesses to the services they need to successfully walk that long road to healing from stigma and trauma.

Perhaps surprising to some, despite the near-unanimous views expressed by states that a “world fit for children” is a world where children and armed violence do not mix, success in providing protection and rehabilitation services for abused, abducted, incarcerated and recruited children is lagging in several instances.   We do have more child-protection advisors assigned to peacekeeping missions.  We do have a growing list of implementable normative frameworks — including the Vancouver Principles and the Safe Schools Declaration — designed to monitor and address conflict-related threats to children.  We are becoming more skilled at reintegration of child soldiers. And yet, the UN-identified “six grave violations” against children in armed conflict are still being committed, often with impunity, and increasingly (as noted in the SC debate) by state actors. Schools are still being targeted by bombing raids or used for military purposes. Hospitals and other medical facilities are also under frequent attack in confict zones.  Children continue to be conscripted into armed groups via abductions or propaganda, and then forced to endure numerous violations of their basic rights.  Children continue to seek opportunities for playful communion across militarized borders with peers facing indefinite separation from loved ones should they somehow find a way to squeeze through the intimidating metal fence.

In addition such children are so often denied access to things that might not rise immediately to the level of “gravity,” but which are essential to growth and wholeness — things like food security, safe places to play,  nurturing communities, schools equipped to prepare children for the world they will live in and not the world their teachers have lived in.  And perhaps also, communicating those too-hard-to-find assurances that the adults now “in charge” are doing everything possible to ensure that there is a viable, liveable planet for today’s (and tomorrow’s) children to inherit.

Among the takeaways for us from our diverse news feeds and this UN week of child-focused meetings is the sense that there truly is something seriously and collectively wrong with us.  To sacrifice the well-being of children in the ways we continue to do in the name of “settling differences” (that too-often remain unsettled) represents a moral sleight-of-hand that leaves philosophers and psychologists, not to mention child policy and protection advocates, fighting back tears of anger and disbelief.

In addition, and for reasons that literally defy our policy experiences and genetic predispositions, children facing violence or forced conscription, stigma, or trauma somehow escape consciousness when it comes to negotiating and implementing the agreements that seek to “bring peace” to communities, nations and regions.  This in itself constitutes a remarkable example of the ever-shrinking limits of our human concern.  We who fuss endlessly over our own children, who demand the “best” for them even if we have to bend the law to get it, endorse policy agreements and their negotiators that (in the name of unity and peace) literally put our children’s generations at risk; as though we are somehow doing our own children a favor by betting — through peace talks or parenting — that they can somehow escape the metaphorical (and perhaps literal) flood that is set to engulf their peers and those who follow.

While I am not the world’s foremost fan of the institution, there is (for me) a moving part of the marriage ceremony practiced in some Christian communities that goes like this:  Those whom God has joined let no one put asunder.   As one trying to maintain some semblance of faith amidst all of the idolatry and meanness of our collective present, these words seem particularly relevant to the children playing through a steel fence along the US southern border, or the 2 year old whose life ended abruptly yesterday in an El Paso shopping mall.  Whether we like to admit it or not, we are hard wired for connection, for communication, for play.  We have been “joined” to each other by our sometimes-glorious, sometimes sordid history, by the proddings of divinity, by the existential crises that we share (and must now resolve) in common.  And yet, despite all of this connective tissue, we are literally running out of time to demonstrate that we can sustain the innate and inclusive dispositions that can guarantee a future for our children that is more about riding see-saws and less about dodging bombs and bullets.

Those who would continue to disconnect us through ideology or economics, through social snobbery or overt racialism, must quickly be called to account for these actions.   We continue to laud our own technical and policy cleverness, but are actually making the case for our own collective demise and, what is worse, for the demise of those children who fervently wish that the physical and metaphorical barriers in their homes, schools and playgrounds could once and for all be removed.

If we truly seek to preserve and enhance the potential for exploration, wonder and play of children, we adults need to stop “playing” ourselves and commit fervently to freeing from bondage the enthusiasm and hopefulness of our young, sentiments now held hostage by our too-frequent short-sightedness and self-delusion.