Tag Archives: Security Council

Charter School: Recovering the UN’s Larger Purpose, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Jun

Eliasson and WHD

Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. Abraham Joshua Heschel

We all marvel at headlines and highlight reels. But we rarely discuss the marks and scars and bruises that come with breaking through glass ceilings. Elaine Welteroth

It’s easy to get discouraged about the marathon that you are only a fifth of the way through. Josh Hatcher

Tradition is a good gift intended to guard the best gifts. Edith Schaeffer

Today, we are divorcing the past and marrying the present. Today, we are divorcing resentment and marrying forgiveness. Today, we are divorcing indifference and marrying love.   Kamand Kojouri

As we fail our children, we fail our future. Henrietta Fore

Earlier this week, a European journalist whose work I greatly respect and who covers the United Nations as a regular part of his beat, wrote me to ask about how I was reacting to the UN’s COVID-restricted 75th Charter anniversary commemorations.

His own view, which I am mostly paraphrasing, is that multilateralism is in grave danger, that the UN now matters to fewer people than the UN itself imagines, and that the current round of introspective celebrations are unlikely to change much in the world at large.  There is reason to take these laments seriously beyond the fact that seasoned journalists have heard enough “spin” in their professional careers to render them suspicious of any claims of progress or reform, either at individual or institutional level.

The UN on VTC did in fact have a busy though not altogether reassuring week, culminating in Friday’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter, a document more referenced than read; one which lays out normative and procedural guidelines for the international community despite the fact that too-many members of that community, including at times its most powerful members, have treated the Charter with more indifference than reverence. Such indifference was manifest in two of the most challenging discussions of the UN week, both in the Security Council, one on the Middle East and the other on Children in Armed Conflict.

The first of these focused on the imminent threat by Israel to annex portions of what are widely recognized as Palestinian lands in the West Bank, a move sure to increase regional instability, a move roundly criticized by Council members (other than the US), Arab states and UN Special Coordinator Mladenov and which was justified by Israel based on “biblical claims” rather than on Charter values. Indeed, this move towards annexation was described by South Africa as simply the logical next step in a long sequence of illegal settlement activity which the Security Council has resolved to end but has taken few concrete steps to do so. As the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Palestine noted at this same meeting, if the Council had been responsible all along in implementing its own resolutions, peace in the region would likely “already be a reality.”

And then there was the discussion on Children and Armed Conflict, a thematic obligation of the Council that has long-attracted considerable interest and resources from other parts of the UN system. And yet, as Belgium (a leader on this issue) lamented during this past week’s session, “we have little to celebrate.”   Despite what our often our best efforts, abuses committed against children continue to rise in number.  The “annex” to the Secretary-General’s annual report focused on states that commit or enable such abuses continues to face accusations (and not without merit) that its reporting is “politicized.”   And the ultimate solution to what UNICEF director Fore referred to as the vulnerabilities of children to conflicts “completely beyond their control” is (as also noted by Indonesia and others) the elimination of armed conflict itself.  That the Council cannot even agree to support the Secretary-General’s call for a “global cease fire” is cause for considerable consternation regarding its ability  (and that of the UN as a whole) to, as Fore put it, return to children “what has cruelly been taken from them by conflict.”

Neither impending annexation nor the pervasive assault on our common future represented by conflict-related abuses of children were directly mentioned during Friday’s commemoration of the signing of the UN Charter. But it was clear that speakers understood at some level that the UN system is suffering from wounds that are not all about COVID-19 or the unwillingness of the largest powers (and their allies) to subsume their national interest to the global interest.

Indeed, some of what ails the UN is both broad-based and self-inflicted, owing in part to the fact that, much like in our personal lives, strengths and weaknesses often emerge from a similar source. As the president of the General Assembly rightly noted on Friday, we must “bring into the UN the many voices previously excluded from global policy.” And indeed the UN’s 75th year has been characterized by “global conversations” orchestrated by the UN and designed to bring more of the aspirations and expectations of the global community to the attention of diplomats and UN officials. And yet, these “voices” are themselves not often sufficiently representative, voices that are linguistically-sophisticated, well-educated and often attached to large NGO interests, voices that make for good video but don’t necessarily seal the deal in terms of how the UN bubble takes stock of those persons most in danger of “being left behind.”

And then there was the typically excellent presentation by Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed who acknowledged that people often don’t understand what the UN does, the multiple ways in which it addresses human need and builds consensus for change.   But the flip side of this is that so much of the UN’s often-remarkable humanitarian activity is in response to armed violence which could have been but was not prevented, violence which the Security Council is mandated to address but which is dependent on political will and national priorities largely generated in national capitals rather than around the Council oval itself, priorities too often tone-deaf to the cries of the frightened and incapacitated.

Moreover, while an effective consensus on global policy can be the conduit to an equally effective implementation, such consensus can easily and often become an end in itself, a job half-finished that is treated as a completed product, as though resolution language alone can build political determination to address the multiple challenges that now literally threaten our common future, as though wanting change and making change are cut from the same cloth. As DSG Mohammed herself recognized during the Charter commemoration, we need to build consensus “but we need consensus with ambition,” consensus that leads to preventive or protective actions far beyond the mere acknowledgment of global problems which, in many instances are already inflaming unmanageable quantities of anxiety and discouragement.

We have long understood that assessments of persons and institutions are largely a function of the level of expectations we have of them. And it may be the case that in striving to “preserve multilateralism” we are in danger of raising expectations beyond capacity, that we now risk making more promises that we can likely keep and that are merely to be heaped on top of expectations already raised and then disappointed. Still it is right for the UN to seek to raise its levels of ambition, and there is evidence in areas from peacekeeping to food security that the UN is committed to doing just that, is determined to actively promote a human security framework that, as former DSG Jan Eliasson noted on Friday, is less about the endless acquisition of weapons and more about shrinking inequalities, increasing health care access and healing our climate.

This and more is surely worthy of celebration, an acknowledgement of progress made, problems fixed and lives extended. And indeed a case could be made — including in my own life — that we don’t actually celebrate enough. But a secure future for our children will require more than celebrations, more than resolutions, more than high sounding words and promises that appear emptier from the outside than those who make them imagine them to be. The key here, I am convinced, is less about infusions of resources (our current institutional obsession) and more about infusions of active reverence – reverence for the high calling we have chosen and assumed, a calling that stretches beyond the borders of state and NGO mandates, a calling which requires us to examine the ideas, structures, traditions and working methods to which we have long been betrothed and “divorce” those which are no longer worth “guarding,” those which impede and distract, which convert urgency into indifference and which allow us to believe that we have crossed the finish line of a marathon that in fact has many kilometers yet to go.

At this precarious moment with “scars and bruises” to spare and expectations running ahead of will and capacity, we would do well to recapture some of that “reverence and appreciation” which are the hallmark of genuine celebrations. These are the attributes – more than money, more than political resolutions, more than ageing multilateral structures, perhaps even as much as the grand Charter values and traditions still worthy of preservation and respect –which will allow us to push through this treacherous, angry, divided, skeptical moment in our history.

Moreover, the presence of such attributes may ultimately determine whether or not, at the end of this current bottleneck of human possibility, we will have failed our future.

Star Wars: Guidelines for Reaching our New Normal, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 May

Evola 2

The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise.  Maya Angelou

It is hard work to control the workings of inclination and turn the bent of nature; but that it may be done, I know from experience. Charlotte Brontë

Something – the eternal ‘what’s the use?’ – sets its bronze barrier across every avenue that I open up in the realm of hypothesis.  Gustave Flaubert

Where there is not community, trust, respect, ethical behaviors are difficult for the young to learn and for the old to maintain.  Robert Greenleaf

Even eighty-odd is sometimes vulnerable to vanity.  L.M. Montgomery

The longer I live, the more beautiful life becomes. Frank Lloyd Wright

We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Samuel Ullman

One of the challenges for me of writing these weekly messages is resisting the temptation to focus on issues of national interest rather than on human interest or, as my organizational mandate would suggest, the multilateral interest.

My own country is completely at odds with itself now.  We attack the very people trying to save lives and manage a generation-shifting pandemic.   We have allowed the stresses of the moment, egged on by some tone-deaf leadership, to justify the release of demons we would have done better to keep in quarantine – not only those flashing guns and symbols of intolerance in front of cameras and legislatures, but also those making fortunes off the misery of others, going so far as to consciously divert resources meant for struggling families to line their own pockets yet again.

In this time of viral threat, we have created no common symbols of mourning for the many persons we have lost, no places of public esteem for those who have honored their oaths and thrown themselves into the most harrowing medical emergencies. Our leadership misrepresents the times and its challenges, leaving us all to double down on the mistrust of institutions – and each other – that defines our era in many respects.

And neither has this been a moment of ringing endorsement for multilateral alternatives.   The World Health Organization is being scapegoated, UN peacekeepers struggle under external threats and mandate confusion in several global regions, the UN’s general budget is under strain –reeling from decisions by key member states to withhold assessed contributions — and the UN’s humanitarian relief functions are experiencing both resource limitations and access barriers that make it difficult to bring aid to the millions suffering under violence that we seem almost powerless to prevent.

And the eminent Security Council remains a place of some paralysis, consumed by big-power stalemates over COVID origins, Israeli annexation plans, remnants of the Iranian nuclear agreement, unabated weapons flows to Libya, and much more.   Council members, at the direction of their national capitals, have some successes to which they can point – notably in Sudan and Colombia.   But the presence of so many unresolved conflicts – and this at a time when the global public is becoming more restless, not less – raises the specter of new agenda items for the Council on top of those it has already demonstrated an inability to resolve in a timely and effective manner.

As with our own projects and ambitions, some of the Council’s under-baked mandates are related to the ways in which it does its business.  An as was the case on Friday, the Council has been willing to take up issues related to working methods, understanding at least in part that how we do our business is as integral to our success as what the goals of that business are.   In other words, the manner in which we go about reaching for the stars has much to do with whether or not those stars become attainable.

As is typical for these “methods” sessions, the Council brought in briefers who are well-known and reliable to their interests, briefers armed with suggestions such as improvements in the system of “penholders” and sanctions committees, of better preparatory processes for incoming elected members, of restraints on the length of statements made in the open chamber, of avoiding what one called “adopt and forget” peacekeeping mandates, of working more closely with other UN entities to keep the Council from becoming, as China noted, the policy equivalent of a “grocery store.”

But at best, and despite calls from the UK and others for the Council to “lead with innovation and urgency,” the day’s truth lay more in Vietnam’s statement (on behalf of other elected members) — that the COVID crisis has “laid bare” the current limitations of this Council.  It simply is not the case, as one briefer suggested on Friday, that the global public judges the Council on the number and content of its resolutions.  No.  We judge the Council on the practical impact of those resolutions, on the Council’s willingness and ability to insist that policy text results in tangible, improved conditions for the many millions who yearn for relief from war, famine and disease.   These resolutions should be understood as opening gambits towards genuine change, not as ends in themselves and certainly not as excuses to downgrade “seized” into some version of unresponsive.

Policy differences aside, there is a bit of “heart sinking” for me in much of the multilateral scrutiny that we try to perform.  Simply put, I can’t resist expecting more of the people making these decisions in these precarious times, people who, too often, are indulgent of the changes they are willing to make but not of the changes that they need to make.  In such a scenario, we can likely maintain some measure of our collective ambition but have lost in large measure our capacity to “reach the hearts” of people who need to believe in us – our goals and methods — more than they do at present if the stars in our firmament of peace and sustainable development are ever to be reached.

I have considerable sympathy for diplomats who are trying to steer an effective policy course amidst severe budget constraints and conflicting messaging from national capitals.  And I have particular compassion for those who have toiled in the fields of peace and human rights, of humanitarian relief and sustainable development, for so many years and who now find that work not only unfulfilled but considerably unraveled by a virus and the selfishness, corruption and ethno-centrism which it has unleashed.

Maybe we simply didn’t do things in the best way.  Maybe our own working methods have been as flawed as those of the institutions we critique.  Fair enough.  But as some in our world want desperately to get back to “normal,” in some instances at the point of a gun, we who have lived a long while under the shadow of different promise need to model a more honest, thoughtful and courageous way forward – to endorse ambition, yes, but not the folly and vanity that often accompany it, follies which for us can include a lack of both mindfulness and the practical respect and compassion that can reassure people that leadership is more than high-sounding words in elite settings uncontaminated by the ills that affect large swaths of global communities.

While life does indeed become more beautiful for some as they age, for others it portends grave physical and economic limitations as well as for those of us in policy criticism from the young who feel – and not without cause – that any abandonment by us of our ideals for the world and its peoples, or any indulgence by us in “what’s the use” cynicism, only serves to make their work to reach a new and better “normal” that much more challenging.  This we cannot, should not do.

We are in trouble now to be sure, but there is opportunity and possibility – and hearts looking for connection and reassurance — still within our reach.  We who have long been in this work have a special responsibility to reflect and encourage, to reach out respectfully to those poised to take over for us as well as those whom we may have overlooked over the years. And we must do this as best as we are able without malice, without vanity or ego, without “wrinkled souls,” modifying our wisdom to context but not abandoning the ideals that have inspired us, albeit unevenly, over our lifespan.

Together, we still have what it takes to “control the workings of inclination” that are, in this moment, bringing us to the edge of an economic, health and rights precipice.  And those of us who have been at this for generations still have a role to play in avoiding that cliff.  But as we age, roles and methods must shift.  Our task now is to demonstrate the will to make the changes that we need to make, not only those we are willing to make.

Dark Cover: A Plea for Greater Policy Vigilance, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Apr

From:  University of Oregon

People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. Carl Jung

So many distractions, when all she wanted was silence, so she could understand what was going on. Rehan Khan

I am terrified by this dark thing that sleeps in me; all day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity. Sylvia Plath

Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear. No one comes near. The Beatles

The people dreamed and fought and slept as much as ever. And by habit they shortened their thoughts so that they would not wander out into the darkness beyond tomorrow. Carson McCullers

So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak to one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Yes, we may be in the midst of some great existential crisis, but we’re simply too busy to notice. Douglas Rushkoff

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

This was another of those weeks where the profundity of the quotations above is likely to overwhelm the wisdom of the prose below.

There were indeed some items of hopeful policy significance this week beyond the medical madness.  At the UN, the General Assembly a resolution was tabled that affirmed the critical importance of multilateral cooperation necessary (in the words of Mexico) to ensure global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment to fight COVID-19. The announcement of the resolution was followed by pleas (from ourselves and others) that this resolution be swiftly actionable within and between member states.

Also this week, the Security Council presidency turned over to the Dominican Republic for April, a move which not only signaled a month of kind and competent leadership, but which virtually guaranteed that the Council would take up the peace and security implications of COVID-19, which to our mind and those of many others, are implications overdue for consideration.  Indeed, a briefing by the Secretary-General provisionally scheduled for this coming week will likely touch both on COVID-19 response and his related call for a global cease fire to ensure response effectiveness.

That said, there are still grave dangers lurking amidst the “corona darkness” that threaten many millions.   As we noted two weeks ago, and despite the SGs call for a global cease fire, conflict still ranges in Libya, killings still persist in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon, bombs keep falling on Yemen, homes continue to be demolished in the Occupied Territories, weapons access spreads unabated.  And while the current lull in human activity seems to have brought about a brief, welcome respite for parts of the natural world, too many of us seem poised to produce and consume with a vengeance once the “all clear” signal can be heard across the globe.

And the current danger runs deeper than merely taking our eyes off global situations that still require our active vigilance.   For the virus has inadvertently provided cover for political leaders to assume powers they shouldn’t, and make decisions they shouldn’t, on the assumption that our attention is fully distracted by mask making  and hand washing, by figuring out how to pay our bills and providing plausible explanations to our children for why their playgrounds have been closed, why their schools and daycare have been shut down, why they must now keep at least six feet distant from the people they have routinely run to hug.

Such distractions are legitimate and understandable. But they are also allowing our political leadership — swaths of which have proven themselves to be far more ambitious than competent – to make decisions “under cover” of the current viral darkness, often with implications which we are too distracted now to follow but that serve to double down on policies that are as likely to punish political adversaries as heal division; that are as likely to strip besieged families of their full complement of economic and health options as to help restore their dignity and ability to care for elders and children.

Historically speaking, it is not unusual for unscrupulous leadership to use crises (of which this is surely a major one) as an excuse to consolidate power, punish opposition, strip citizens of human rights and otherwise centralize authority. In the current virus crisis we see elements of all of these in societies as far-flung as Hungary, Brazil, the Philippines and the US. The power grabs; the misuses of funds; the consolidation of resources which are then parceled out based on loyalty rather than need; the daily attempts to manipulate information flows, putting out narratives which are almost completely self-serving rather than public-serving.

I am obviously more familiar with what is happening in the US though my eyes remain as attentive as I can keep them to stories from other regions written by journalists and others with contacts and perspective, often taking risks with their ears pinned to the ground.   And the pattern in my country is one that is steadily being mimicked in other parts of the world: the endless self-congratulations; the equally endless lying, or at least speaking without knowing; rhetorical “explanations” that scramble media outlets and sow public confusion; the shrinking of options for medical care and for exercising the right to vote; the repeated implication that the interests of leadership and their friends take precedence over the common interests.

One common thread in all of this is the assumption of these erstwhile leaders that we are simply too busy to notice – too distracted by the logistical and emotional burdens of coping with a crisis that (as one of my friends noted) we can’t see, can’t smell, can’t track its own stealth. It is enough just being ourselves now, tending to anxious children, navigating grocery stores and pharmacies, writing sermons (and other opinions) that “no one will hear,”caring for sick loved ones and, in the worst of scenarios, watching them die at a distance and then being buried with none coming near. God’s children (if you will) are too often crying themselves to sleep and then stirring to cry again.

And under cover of this “corona darkness,” the very leaders who ignored the threat whose impacts they could well have minimized – certainly prepared for with more integrity and resolve – the very leaders who allow their closest supporters to exploit the rules that others are struggling to follow; these people are, in more than a few instances, using the crisis as a back-door opportunity to push their own interests and agendas beyond where they could push them through any other door. All of this scheming is taking place while the discouragement descends on more and more people; while the distractions multiply and intensify; while the bonds of human connection become further frayed; while people remain legitimately consumed by the immediate, including the immediacy of family protection.

What Sylvia Plath referred to as “malignity,” is appropriate in this context. We know that temptations are ever-present for people in power (at whatever level of power) to take advantage of “opportunities” provided by crises to see what they can get away with, to fill the airways with silence-busting nonsense such that people are severely challenged just to figure out what is going on around them. This is nefarious business under the best of circumstances. But when those who dismissed and even mocked the warnings of the coming darkness then turn around and attempt to exploit its cover, one is challenged to find the most appropriate condemnation. It hasn’t come to me yet.

In our own smaller policy context, we were among the groups these past weeks calling for “media distancing” from the counter-scientific half-truths, utter manipulations of timelines and prior pronouncements, and other often-misleading proclamations coming from some of our political leadership.   We know — if we had ever forgotten — that we need better now from our media, from our civil society, from organizations such as ours. As the political elite cleans house of anyone deemed “disloyal,” even highly-respected Naval Commanders and those tasked with federal oversight, we need more people in that space of discernment and analysis, and we need to better honor those who have already risked much to keep that work alive.

In some instances we are now seeing the positive benefits of that “distancing” taking the form of more geographically and ethnically inclusive interviewing, more compassionate reporting, and more soliciting of expert opinion from the medical and scientific communities. This includes more space for the unique experiences and expertise of the women and men who risk their lives in intensive care units and makeshift clinics trying to keep as many of us alive as possible. As the current darkness motivates more and more to “shorten their thoughts,” there are thankfully still numerous people of integrity out there in a crowded media universe who can help keep those thoughts less distracted, better informed and more alert. Indeed, the families we now strive so hard to protect may ultimately depend as well on maintaining higher levels of vigilance.

People will, as Jung noted, do almost anything to avoid facing their own souls, to avoid looking at themselves through the same mirror that they so gleefully hold up to others.   In this time of viral darkness, there are precious few leaders who have demonstrated that they can truly face their own souls, owning the errors that have occurred on their watch and that — deviously or not — have endangered many lives.  Before this time of darkness runs its course and the next one prepares to descend, we must find the words and the energy to insist that they do so.

Emergency Room: Seeking Fearless, Science-Based Responses to Global Threats, Dr. Robert Zuber

1 Mar


Don’t play the bus driver when you don’t know how to drive.  Anthony T. Hincks
With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking. Stephen Hawking
When pandemics unfold, it’s not just because peculiarly aggressive pathogens have exploited passively oblivious victims or because we’ve inadvertently provided them with ample transmission opportunities. It’s also because our deeply rooted, highly nuanced capacity for cooperative action failed. Sonia Shah
I’m sure the universe is full of intelligent life. It’s just been too intelligent to come here.  Arthur C. Clarke
Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.  Marie Curie
In the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.  Max Planck
Way back in the last century, I worked as a hospital chaplain in a busy urban medical facility.  Part of my responsibility was being part of the team on call in the emergency room.  I wasn’t much help, as I recall.  I clearly “didn’t know how to drive” this bus that worked so fearlessly, urgently and collaboratively on behalf of patients suffering from heart attacks, gun shot wounds, substance overdoses, and a variety of other ills that routinely afflicted US urban populations in the 1980s.
But I did have a minor role to play in the other piece of emergency room life –the need to help “stabilize” the mood of patients and families whose anxiety levels were, quite appropriately, off the charts.  In this process, I learned about more and less legitimate forms of reassurance, the former consisting of reminders that the team in this hospital knew how to cope with emergencies, understood how to cope together, and thereby gave those now facing grave medical threats the best opportunity to regain health.  The latter, I also quickly learned, lay in a different direction — in pious proclamations about how everything would be OK, that it wasn’t that bad after all, that God would take care of the matter, that there was no need to worry because the people driving the medical bus actually had their drivers licenses…
No, many of these emergency room cases were true, life-threatening incidents, demanding the highest levels of competence from medical and support personnel and, eventually, also some soul-searching on the part of families and patients (assuming they survived) about the changes that needed to occur in their own lives such that hospital emergencies were less likely to recur.  Indeed, one of my vivid memories of that time was the discouragement etched on the faces of highly-skilled nurses and attending physicians who were exhausted from having to cope with the same conditions, over and over, including the fears of patients and families that, this time, recovery was unlikely.
There is a commercial widely played in the New York media for a hospital with a tag line reminiscent of the quotation above from Madame Curie: “more science, less fear.”  This linkage has wide applicability for the times we are living in, a time characterized by a cascading distrust of science and other “expertise,” a willingness to hitch our emotional wagons to any half-baked conspiracy theory that piques our interest, and even leadership at the highest levels ready to debunk or silence altogether the testimony of scientists in an effort to deflect public concern that they are not doing enough, are not serious enough, about fixing what we must and preventing what we can.
This leadership deficit sometimes extends as well to the rooms where we spend the bulk of our waking hours.
Despite some interesting and even hopeful events this week, including from the Committee on Development Policy and the Statistical Commission,  the  UN seemed bogged down in ways that we assume discourage diplomats but certainly frustrate both our small team and the thousands who regularly or episodically follow our reporting.  For instance, in the Disarmament Commission an entire session in preparation for important work on weapons and weapons systems was frittered away due to the failure of the US to grant a visa to the head of the Russian delegation.
But this was a relatively trivial matter compared to the Security Council where the presence of high-level officials from Germany and Belgium this week was insufficient to break deadlocks in policy that have consigned millions of Syrian families to decade-long, almost-inconceivable misery.  In two meetings this week — including an erstwhile “emergency” session on Friday — diplomats convened mostly to share now-familiar positions, examining the matter of crossing-points for humanitarian assistance for those damaged by a conflict we seem unable to otherwise resolve, and (rightly) dismissing the diplomatic effectiveness of the Astana process but without suggesting how we are now going to move forward on cease fire negotiations or address the growing military tensions now flaring up between Syrian and Turkish forces.
And while this was going on, the global headlines were dominated by another emergency that turned cities into ghost towns, quarantined many thousands, damaged supply chains, jeopardized the existence of travel companies, and caused many to resort to mask wearing and other measures that further distanced people from each other. Our coronavirus emergency also opened the door for “explanations” regarding the origins and consequences of the pandemic that are no more science-based than the tooth fairy.
The UN did, this week, circulate a document of “recommendations” for UN personnel, families and visitors.  Moreover, its World Health Organization continues to monitor and advise both on the coronavirus and on the more general threat from pandemics which are likely to remain in the headlines as melting ice releases long-dormant microbes and climate change wrecks havoc on organisms at all levels of the biological chain.  And there is now serious discussion about whether to change the format for the upcoming UN Commission on the Status of Women or to postpone it altogether.
But are such responses sufficiently reassuring? Is this pandemic not also morphing into a serious threat to international peace and security?  And thus is the UN in general, and the Security Council in particular, playing the role it needs to play in this crisis?  Does the Council itself (and Council watchers such as ourselves) have anything more to offer to those anxious about coronovirus than we now have to offer those Syrians fearing more indiscriminate bombing raids and the fresh displacement that often follows in its wake?
These are questions posed to us all the time by the still-growing audience for our writings and twitter posts. Many of these persons recognize that the spread of this current virus constitutes both a stern test of our current policy competence and of our general preparedness to address a new generation of global health threats. At stake here is our ability (and willingness) to move beyond fear and conspiracy; to embrace the science and demand the same of our leadership; to resist the temptations associated with flawed “explanations,” politically-biased communications and compromised capacity for cooperation, temptations that endanger our common survival much more than falling financial markets and quarantined cruise ships.
Our colleagues generally recognize that this is anything but the most reassuring time for the global community, our technological tools and achievements notwithstanding.  Clearly, there are many “mysteries” to address now, many challenges to investigate, resolve and overcome.  And a large slice of that “mystery” is really about us, about our capacity as a species (and the institutions we still rely on) to “drive the bus” towards a future of greater cooperation and competence, of greater commitment to unlocking the potential and participation of all, of greater focus on prevention and science-based responses, of greater interest in “understanding more so that we might fear less.”
This next period will surely determine whether fear gets the better of us or we of it; indeed whether the patient that is us survives or expires. With all that we have and all that we have left, let us choose life.

Cliff Dwelling: Keeping the International Community off the Ledge, Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Feb

Men riding on motorbikes pass the trucks that carry belongings of displaced Syrians

We all make choices, but in the end our choices make us. Ken Levine

When you desire a consequence you had damned well better take the action that would create it. Lois McMaster Bujold

Perhaps we’d be better off training our youth to be highly observant.  Richelle Goodrich

Good and evil both increase at compound interest.   C.S. Lewis

And I felt a sudden whirl in my head, knowing this leap was inevitable, that I wasn’t just standing on the cliff, toes poking over, but already in mid-air.   Sarah Dessen

This was a whirlwind week inside UN headquarters, but also in regions beyond.  Delegates were simultaneously outlining what they hope will be a fruitful future for the UN system and assessing the consequences of policy decisions that in some instances should never have been allowed to happen.

Specifically, the situations in Northwest Syria and Eastern Ukraine took up much of the bandwidth of both the Security Council and the General Assembly this week, sesssions in which the Russian Federation took abundant heat from numerous other delegations – both for its enabling of separatists in the East of Ukraine and for its decision (with Syria) to double-down on violent “counter-terror operations” in and around Idlib. The horrific consequences of the Idlib violence, as most recognize, have largely been at the expense of civilian populations, hundreds of thousands of whom are now displaced and facing winter deprivations on an almost unimaginable scale with numerous reports of children dying of exposure and entire families trying to stay alive under plastic “blankets.”

This is not all about Russia, of course.  The Russians have made their policy choices, the consequences of which could easily have been (and often were) predicted, and for which they will likely continue to face considerable backlash if sadly little justice.  But let’s be clear:  the UN’s (still flawed) peace and security architecture also lends itself to pious responses that have limited practical impact on victims, statements that routinely blame others for the cliff on which we are all perilously perched but which fail to acknowledge failures more common, including  those related to our willingness to see mostly what conforms to our national policies and worldviews, or to settle for what seems “good enough” for others when we know that it would never be “good enough” for us.

This tendency to verbally-defer actions that might create the consequences we say we desire was manifest in diverse policy settings this week.  A Security Council Arria Formula discussion focused on the plight of persons (especially women) who agree to cooperate with the UN on promoting human rights advocated new focal points for the UN secretariat but little in the way of concrete state commitments to act more resolutely regarding the risks which such persons take to provide testimony to UN agencies, often with little to show for it afterwards beyond fresh threats of retribution back home.

And in another conference room this week, the full counter-terror apparatus of the United Nations was on display at a session devoted to a new initiative that links Central Asian states (the “Stans”) in a concerted effort to combat what was referred to at this meeting as “the terrorism-arms-crime nexus.”   The nexus, of course, is quite real as trafficking in small arms and light weapons continues to be a major contributing factor to both the violence inflicted by criminal and terror groups (often in harmony) and the financing that keeps these enterprises afloat.

What became clear from this meeting is that these diverse UN agencies and partner governments were clear and unified on the dire consequences of insufficiently checked terror and criminal elements enabled by porous national borders and trafficking in arms and other commodities. But what was also clear was the perpetuation of what in the UN is a routine lack of attentiveness to the production of armaments and ammunition, the staggering volume of manufactured weapons (supplemented by “craft” and restored weaponry) that continue to overwhelm efforts to control their movements and confine their use to erstwhile “licit” purposes as defined by governments themselves.

The failure to concretely address the consequences of “licit” weapons production with the same vigor that we address the consequences of the “illicit” trade remains, for us and others, a blot on our collective credibility.   Even in this state-driven system and despite the UN Charter’s endorsement of the right of states to defend themselves from threats, the massive volume of weapons produced and let loose on the world wrecks havoc on communities, soldiers and budgets beyond the illegal uses of terrorists and criminals.  Such linkages and their often-dire consequences should at least have been acknowledged during this otherwise helpful session.

And then there is the Peacebuilding Commission, now chaired by Canada, which is undergoing a review of its practices and procedures as requested by the Secretary-General and which convened a general meeting this past week to discuss the complex matter of “transitions,” especially those from conflict to what the UN refers to as “post-conflict” settings.   Transitions, as we know, are rarely easy in any context and the ones under discussion here are particularly complex as states confront often-grave damage to civilian infrastructure, the mistrust of opposition parties and cultural minorities, the past abuses in search of justice, the humanitarian needs of those who barely survived the conflict, and the youth and women clamoring for a place at the table to help ensure that states which have stepped back from the edge of the cliff do not subsequently fall off it.

The noteworthy “unity government” launched this week in South Sudan is simply the latest of a number of examples highlighting this transitional complexity.  As our South Sudanese colleague, Bol Aher, is now reminding us, welcome calls for “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” are insufficient unto themselves to undo a decade of political and military decisions largely divorced from any consideration of consequence.  As the guns begin to fall silent, Bol reminds us of the communities that now lie in ruins; the makeshift military units now confused about who and what it is their duty to protect; the limited state authority over many regions of the country including borders that remain inviting to traffickers in arms and other commodities; a new cabinet consisting of “familiar faces” who in some instances should be facing tribunals rather than making policy for others; children wondering if life is more than displacement and deprivation.

Here as elsewhere, the unforeseen or willfully neglected consequences of armed conflict create vast complexities that governments, no matter how enthusiastic they might be, are often ill-prepared to address.  It is indeed difficult to put Humpty Dumpty back together again once that egg has been duly cracked.

Returning to the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), the title for this post was lifted from a recent presentation by Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed to the PBC, a statement in which she highlighted the financial “cliffs” facing states transitioning in post-conflict situations, the hard decisions about whether to invest scarce resources in repairing the consequences of conflict or in meeting the development needs of populations, in the rebuilding of infrastructure or in health and educational services, in dialogue for national reconciliation or resilience to the effects of climate change.

The “cliffs” to which the DSG referred are not news; despite the “composure” evidenced by diplomats and others in this UN space, we mostly realize how close we are now to the fiscal and political ledge, how any more of the careless steps we too often take can easily send us into a rapid descent and crash landing.  Along with NGOs and others, the Peacebuilding Commission could play a greater role in making sure that we ask all of the questions that complex transitions and security threats pose, the ones that need to be asked not just the ones we are comfortable asking.  The PBC could also do more to alert the rest of the UN system to the potential consequences of decisions taken and not taken, the messes we have “manufactured” and are obligated to clean up – made in considerable measure through our own inattentiveness to consequence — messes that largely didn’t need to happen in the first place.

The UN is taking the global lead on a host of important peacebuilding concerns from food security to transitional justice.  But we still have a way to go to ensure a fuller accounting of potential consequences of our policy decisions and, more importantly, to promote actions which ensure that the consequences we desire most have the best chance of coming to pass. This is the path, uncertain though it might sometimes seem, that can keep the world — and ourselves — off the fiscal and security cliffs that threaten our transitions and perhaps even our very existence.

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

12 Jan


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


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.