Tag Archives: Security Council

Labor Pains:  The UN Undermines Some Key Stakeholders, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Sep

1940s-miners-with-children-in-colorado_8a29486v

Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity, and to liberty. Rebecca Solnit

People with courage and character always seem sinister to the rest. Hermann Hesse

The only kind of dignity which is genuine is that which is not diminished by the indifference of others. Dag Hammarskjold

On Friday as I was preparing to speak to a group of Bard College students about the UN and the ways in which it does and does not promote human dignity among the world’s peoples, I discovered an announcement on the UN Website informing NGOs like ours that access to UN Headquarters was being restricted for the entire month of September.

In that same announcement, NGOs were offered the option of huddling around a nearby street corner to (essentially) “beg” UN staff tasked with the onerous duty of providing half-day-only event passes to NGOs so that they could attend events – like one produced by UN Habitat and another sponsored by the Office of the PGA on a “Culture of Peace” – to which we and others would normally be invited as a matter of course.

There was no prior discussion known to us regarding this change to NGO access, no obvious consultations or negotiations amongst our erstwhile UN/NGO leadership.   Moreover, I would be shocked to discover that any member state – including those who routinely lift their voices in bland and non-specific praise of NGOs, had bothered to invest any political capital in preserving our access during a September period for which our presence has traditionally not been – and should not now be – an issue.

On that same day, on another part of the UN’s website, I discovered that tourists visiting the UN will be allowed access through September 18.  The “plan” for such access is the same arrangement that we and other NGOs had become accustomed to (and more or less accepted) in the past – a two-week hiatus in late September while Heads of State occupy the UN space for the opening of the General Assembly and seating (even for UN-based diplomats) is at a premium.

But let this sink in for a moment:  The money collected from tourists is apparently more important to the UN than the monitoring work of the handful of NGOs (including our own overseas guests) that bother to be present during important UN discussions, many of which do in fact take place in the days before the General Assembly formally opens. Aside from inspiring fresh allegations of hypocrisy regarding how the UN too often treats non-state actors, this move is likely to accelerate a trend which we have long rejected – NGOs that bypass the occasional indifference and indignities of this system by ingratiating themselves to governments – often as well their funders – governments that then ensure access by these NGOs as needed via their own credentials. These quasi-state NGO agents will find their seats at the table and will surely not be milling around on street corners waiting perhaps in vain for some magic entry pass.

Given all of the discouraging news in the world and the many millions of people under immanent threat from armed violence, flooding and starvation, it is imprudent at best (and a serious diverse at least) to worry excessively about one’s own deficits of access and respect.   We do routinely acknowledge both our privileges and our limitations.  But we also understand that access restrictions impact persons far beyond our own office, people who are seeking (and deserving) their own seat in UN policy space, but also the people who depend on folks like us to identify policy niches and opportunities into which a more diverse set of policy actors can hopefully become immersed.

And these manifestations of disregard or indifference are hardly confined to NGOs.  In the General Assembly this week, several states (including Mexico and Singapore) took the floor to complain that the annual Security Council report was both late in arriving to delegations and contained (once again this year) little analysis or reflection on how and why the Council made the decisions it did, and why more peace and security didn’t emerge as the result of so many of those decisions.

In the Council itself, during a week which featured an excellent debate on peacekeeping operations and a powerful statement by Uruguay’s Ambassador Rosselli in response to briefings on the political and humanitarian tracks in Syria, working methods frustrations also flared.  For instance, during a contentious renewal of the mandate for the UNIFIL peacekeeping mission (Israel-Lebanon), Italy’s Ambassador Cardi took the unusual step of chastising the resolution negotiations process – which apparently included veiled criticisms of the mission itself — in the name of the large contingent of Italian forces without which UNIFIL itself could barely function. Japan, which has ably chaired a committee on Council working methods, presented agreed recommendations that stressed matters such as briefers’ brevity and preparations for newly elected members rather than perhaps more fundamental deficits in communications and negotiations that raise frustration levels needlessly.

Like a number of states at the UN, we are fully committed to a framework wherein tradition assumptions of security – based primarily on weapons systems and power-politics – evolve steadily into a more “human security” perspective.  This evolution implies several important transitions, including the willingness to address security-related dimensions across issue frameworks as well as the determination to place human well-being at the center of our policy objectives, well-being that is fully inclusive of cultures and conditions, and that recognizes policy goals resonating far more with sustainable development than with arms races and endless “asymetrical” warfare.

But human security requires more than people promoting more inclusive, progressive policies. The key to successful human security is bringing out the best versions of human beings themselves, people of dignity and purpose who understand and nurture their connections to the communities around them, people who can and do contribute to secure futures in ways other than fearing adversaries, trading in explosive weapons, defending narrow national interests, appropriating resources not their own, or politicizing the application of rights and legal standards that could otherwise help to create fairer and more predictable social environments.

The importance we attach to enabling better people as well as better policy systems will lead us to “double down” this coming year on some evolving commitments in the US and beyond, including on “servant leadership” with colleagues at the Business School of Georgia Tech University; and on “Inner Economy” with a group on the US West Coast associated with Women in International Security, in the latter instance specifically on examining “the inner resources one gains, uses, and loses in the exchanges of daily life.” These and other commitments will hopefully help leverage and inspire more of the traits of character needed to build both sustainable communities and more trusthworthy state and international institutions.

While pursuing these aims, we won’t go begging for access this month on any Manhattan street corner.  As we gaze from this now uncomfortable distance at the policy drama soon to unfold across the street, we will however do our best to discern how yet another UN promise – this time to a cooperative and transparent relationship with non-governmental organizations both around and far beyond UN Headquarters — is currently being undermined.

We remain in this UN community, year after year, because we believe that this essential policy space can be healthier and more highly regarded as it better honors its commitments both to its global constituents and to diverse stakeholders beyond the diplomats: those like us who critique, compliment, cajole and complement the often good work which the UN does in the world; but also those who serve our coffee, clean up after our many messes, keep the heat and lights working, and provide a helpful, steadfast security presence, day after day.

This and more is labor worthy of the day we celebrate tomorrow. It is also labor that deserves more than bureaucratic indifference from an institution whose essential presence in the world we still very much acknowledge.

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Oxygen Tank: Finding the Fuel to Stay on Mission, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Aug

Oxygen

Basic human contact – the meeting of eyes, the exchanging of words – is to the psyche what oxygen is to the brain.  Martha Beck

Even the laziest person will fight for oxygen when drowning.  J.R. Rim

No one can find the rewind button, boys, so cradle your head in your hands. And breathe, just breathe.  Anna Nalick.

It is coming on late August in New York and the light of summer is beginning to wane, certainly more quickly than either the humidity or the bus fumes.  Along with the tourist-clogged sidewalks, endless construction (including outside my home windows) and mass transit that elevates sweat glands and blood pressure more effectively than it honors its public service obligations, it is hard to truly breathe here now, even harder than is usually the case.

In its corner of this breath-challenged city, the UN has been a bit quiet again this week. However, World Humanitarian Day was aptly commemorated on Friday both to honor those who have died in the service of those enduring armed violence, catastrophe or abuse, and to reaffirm in the strongest terms that civilians (and those who assist them) are not and must not become “targets.”

In the Security Council this interplay of armed violence and humanitarian risk was also in focus.  On Thursday, an otherwise predictable discussion on civilian protection and election preparations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was enriched by a report by Egypt on its “resource trafficking” initiative as well as by the participation in chambers of family members of two UN Experts — Zaida Catalán and Michael Sharp – brutally murdered in the DRC.  The promise of justice extended to these families is one that we should all do our part to ensure it is kept.

On Friday, the discussion on the grave humanitarian emergency that is Yemen seemed a bit more typical of the tenor of recent Security Council meetings.   Outgoing OCHA head Stephen O’Brien described a “maelstrom of death and destruction” in Yemen that does not seem to be improving despite his belief (shared by some around the oval) that this conflict is “deliberate” and well within our power to prevent. Outrage by the Council has had “little impact” on the misery of Yemen’s civilians as both O’Brien and Bolivia’s Ambassador Llorenti duly noted.   Outrage in and of itself rarely does.

This particular Council session was attended by Yemen’s Minister of Foreign Affairs who ignored Uruguay’s call for UN monitoring of entities deliberately endangering Yemen’s women and children, seeking instead to expose only the abuses committed by the Houthi “coup masters” who have “brought war to Yemen” and seek to spread Iranian-inspired “ethnic division” throughout the country. The occasional conciliatory tones expressed by the MFA were directed towards the Council and its resolutions rather than towards political opponents or the growing legion of victims in Yemen in need of healing and reconciliation.

As the meeting was gaveled to a close, a couple of my younger colleagues were taken aback. Is that it?  Is that all?   No firm commitments of human or material resources?  No concrete resolve to end the bombing and sustain a political process? No confession of the failed political maneuverings and reckless arms sales that have directly contributed to human carnage on a scale that relativizes even the sieges of Syria and famine-like conditions in Somalia and the Sahel?

There are times when UN meetings inside and out of the Security Council leave us literally gasping for air, wondering how diplomats and NGOs like us can sublimate so much of what we know about the precariousness of our world within statements and responses that are at times clever but not particularly compelling, insightful but not particularly urgent. In these UN buildings, in the city that surrounds, there is simply too much gasping, too much agitation and distraction, in part because we are not, literally not, “in our right minds.” We are running on fumes too much of the time, fumes which metaphorically represent the dregs of our remaining oxygen supply, the desperate need for which our ubiquitous challenges and frenetic paces have largely obscured.

Here at the UN we have our well-appointed buildings and conference rooms.  We have the respect of many based in part on the carefully-negotiated and heavily-scrutinized normative frameworks needed to stave off at least some of the catastrophes that verily threaten human possibility.  But something essential is missing here; its almost as though we have wilfully misplaced the advice of airlines stewards to, more often than is our habit, place on our own oxygen masks before assisting others.

At a small weekend retreat in New Jersey this weekend hosted by Adora and Levi Bautista, a small group of persons in various “caring contexts” took our own first steps towards oxygen replenishment, not only to enhance our own clarity and well-being, but to help refresh the people alongside whom we identify and address challenges both local and global.  As we slowly felt able to take deeper breaths, some truths hopeful and uncomfortable revealed themselves.  We became a thoughtful and engaged group who recognized that we, too, have not invested sufficiently in “eye contact,” attentiveness and other manifestations of human connection that can create the oxygen we need to clarify, to solve, to thrive.   We have neither “honored” nor shared sufficiently as our partial antidote to the cautiousness and competitiveness that ultimately rob us all of air.

On Monday, the moon will slide between our home planet and our sun in a once-in-our-lifetime occurrence, an anticipation that has people reaching out who might otherwise keep each other at a distance.   With any luck, this burst of eclipse-inspired human connection will also create a bit more oxygen, even in this city, even in these policy halls, allowing us to breathe a little easier for a little longer.

As I found out in the months before my heart surgery, it is hard to think clearly or fully appreciate our assets and blessings when we are habitually oxygen deprived.  Clarity and gratitude will be needed as never before as we seek to fulfill our global responsibilities and reassure the young and vulnerable that the current turbulence that shakes their confidence will eventually subside.

As the wonderful song by Anna Nalick reminds, we simply cannot hit the “reset button” on either our personal lives or our policy choices. But we can ensure that we learn what we can from both our mistakes and successes, that we seek to integrate more human kindness and connection into our policy work, and that we magnify opportunities for ourselves and others to connect the world to which we aspire to the people we aspire to become.

Just breathe.

Hunger Pangs:  Local Pathways to Famine Reduction, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Aug

There is no humiliation more abusive than hunger. Pranab Mukherjee

I find by my calculations, which are according to revealed inspiration, that the sword of death is now approaching us, in the shape of pestilence, war more horrible than has been known in three lifetimes, and famine. Nostradamus

These past two weeks, under Egypt’s presidency, the UN Security Council has issued presidential statements (non-binding urgings) on various matters pertaining to international peace and security, including last Wednesday’s statement on the threat of famine now looming in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and northeast Nigeria. The statement follows an Arria-Formula meeting in June on the same subject hosted by the three, current African Security Council members – Senegal, Ethiopia and Egypt.

In this week’s statement, the Council noted from the outset the “devastating impact on civilians of ongoing armed conflict and violence,” famine as a direct consequence of both the armed conflict itself and of the barriers imposed by state and non-state actors to “an effective humanitarian response in the short, medium and long term.”  The Council’s statement underscores that bombs and military barricades do, in fact, lead to famine and risks of famine, a term recently invoked by the UN in the context of South Sudan to describe conditions far beyond “food insecurity,” in this instance the very real threat of starvation by as many as 100,000 South Sudanese.

The Security Council ostensibly focused on these four geographic areas – and not others that could have easily been included – due to the frequency with which they appear on the Council’s agenda on top of the utter gravity of their current humanitarian situations.   And yet, however one assesses the degree to which any Council statement is actually binding in practice, this presidential statement bears no legal implication for states.  In this instance, the Council seemed to be reaching out with some urgency to the Secretary-General to use his good offices and other tools at his disposal to help bring an end to these four conflicts and open reliable humanitarian corridors.  The Council also, as it has done in the past, urged states with “influence” to help resolve the seemingly endless emergencies rendered by armed conflict and related impediments to humanitarian response.

While this statement was neither read out by Egypt’s Ambassador nor discussed in chambers, you could almost hear Russia and a few other Council members grousing about its content. Despite its own uneven (at best) performance in promoting peace and security, Russia has long lamented the expansion of the Council’s work into areas that it deems inconsistent with its mandate and for which there are relevant UN agencies already heavily vested with responsibilities for analysis and response.  That the statement made no mention of the UN’s FAO or WFP reinforced the concern of a Council moving on issues beyond its core mandate without several key UN partners.

All Council members can agree that famine properly understood is among the most devastating conditions that can befall human beings, especially children.   Given its thoroughly immobilizing impacts on families and communities, famine in and of itself is not a threat to international peace and security but rather the horrific aggregate of other threats: discriminatory political decisions and weak structures of governance; states that simultaneously lament human misery but double-down on its complicity through their copious weapons production and arms shipments; climate change about which some states are in denial while others have made tepid responses akin to denial in other garb, responses that neither address the threat directly nor promote resilient local communities to do so in their stead.

In these unsettled times, we would be wise to seek out (or perhaps merely be reminded of) other solutions, other directions, other visions.

Of all the writers within my own intellectual orbit, perhaps no one has been as sensitive to the multiple benefits of local knowledge of land and related environmental processes as Wendell Berry.  A poet and Kentucky farmer who just celebrated his 83rd birthday, Berry has written eloquently about our modernist inclinations to bureaucratic inertia, to media distractions public and private, to our apparent tolerance of, and even preference for “broken” economics such that many of us now “would prefer to own a neighbors farm than to have a neighbor.”

Berry has warned that, in more and more contexts worldwide, every natural landscape, every remaining parcel of arable land, now cries out metaphorically, “When?”   When will the speculators come?  When will the bulldozers appear over our horizons?  How long before the monoculturists with their heavy handed technologies and geo-engineering erode yet another functioning ecosystem under the false pretext of sustainable abundance?

And when will those who know and love those natural areas best, who can respond kindly and with discipline to their rhythms and seasons; those with the skills to “(re) build the earth under the dead leaves;” where will those people go who have learned to feed and nurture communities in the places to which bombs and landmines and climate-related drought have now so violently denied them access? And what happens to their communities once those with all of this local knowledge of natural rhythms and processes have no choice but to abandon the land they know intimately and love practically for land that is likely owned, managed and even exploited by others?

Addressing famine in our time has largely become a technical challenge; getting food from the places it is produced to the places where it used to be produced.  Such responses are largely in keeping with our heavily bureaucratic systems through which we attempt to address the vast devastation from famine but without being able to ensure its non-recurrence. Such a system makes honorable use of copious amounts of human planning, courage and decency; but it too often heaps dependency on top of misery, too often keeps people alive to behold the wreckage of once-vibrant communities that can now only be “saved” by some version of the technology that often encouraged the wreckage in the first instance.

The dimensions of “local life aware of itself” that have been so appealing to Berry have found their share of (perhaps unwitting) sympathizers.  Even those mega-environmental organizations that have been traditionally hostile to place-based learning and action have gotten religion on “local eco-awareness” in recent times.  And at the UN last week, it was comforting to hear “nerdy” statisticians under the guise of ECOSOC speak of the importance of land tenure and land rights to which many of those participants hoped their statistical work could contribute.

But if this hopeful movement is to restore the roots on which our future sustenance depends, we must simply and resolutely stop the bombing; we must take our climate responsibilities more seriously; and we must recover a real (not assumed) solidarity with the rhythms of life beyond our bureaucracies and arbitrary national barriers.  These are the duties of leadership for our times. Communities simply cannot cope, let alone thrive, given the impacts of armed violence, of abstracted social and economic policies, of agriculture graded on its volume not its quality or relevance to those who prepare and consume its bounty.  Such communities require a “truce” from the more toxic aspects of modernity and our leadership should do more to make that available.

But while addressing these demands, we must also pay closer attention to the connection between our livelihoods and those of succeeding generations, practicing skills that offer a more hopeful path to sustainability even as our planet bakes and explodes and fills with plastic waste.   One example of this concern, as Berry once noted with little changing since, is that we in the “developed” world have simultaneously dissociated eating from agriculture while solidifying the ties between eating and economics. How many of us any longer know how to grow edible things, let alone healthy edible things?  How many know (or care) about the origins (or impacts) of what we so eagerly stuff into our mouths?

Unless we can more effectively preserve access to the land by those who know and love it best; unless we can get some distance from the mindset that knows the price of everything but the value of little; unless we can create social policy that enhances rather than undermines the capacity of local communities to feed (and largely fend for) themselves, we will surely confront the desperation and humiliation of famine over and over again.

One key here is to jar our memories every day that eating matters much more than bombing; and that in a world with both populations and inequalities still on the rise, the land we have destroyed will somehow, some way, need to return to productive uses.   Only the hands of those who know a land, who know its needs, potentials and cycles, can make that happen.  Despite forces turning them into a bit of an endangered species, these planters and harvesters of local life probably represent our best hope for a sustainable future.

The Council’s Bully Pulpit: Resolving Tensions Without Inflaming Them, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Aug

Bully

The sanctions will not kill us. It’s apartheid that’s killing us. Oliver Tambo

Knowing what’s right doesn’t mean much unless you do what’s right. Theodore Roosevelt

On this date in 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped by a US war plane on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.  Three days later, a similar bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.  Since that time, endless debates have ensued among some in the academic and policy communities regarding the “necessity” of those bombings (a less persuasive “necessity” in the case of Nagasaki) to bring about a final and decisive end to that Pacific war.

There is no time or place to pursue that discussion here, though it should be noted that a consensus of the learned on the precise motives, objectives and moral equivalences related to those atomic bombings continues to elude.  What we know with greater certainty is the multiple, long-term, devastating effects that emanated from what would today be considered quite modest-sized nuclear explosions.  Indeed, even major nuclear-weapons states that are committed to modernizing their nuclear arsenals and which continue to resist efforts to prohibit or even greatly reduce those arsenals understand the grave (even irreparable) damage their weapons can cause.

One would have to go no further than the Security Council chamber during a rare Saturday afternoon session to see fresh evidence of this concern.   During yesterday’s session, Council members unanimously adopted resolution 2371 which imposes harsh new sanctions (banning exports worth as much as $1 Billion) on the government of North Korea (DPRK) in response to its defiance of previous Council resolutions, specifically regarding its continued testing of ballistic missiles likely now capable of reaching several current Council members with devastating nuclear warheads.

This was the second time in this first week of Egypt’s Council presidency that the matter of sanctions took center stage.   On Wednesday, Egypt convened a discussion on a full range of sanctions-related issues that broke little new ground while holding at least some of the concerns of Council members in sharp relief.  Despite enthusiasm for sanctions as a significant aspect of the Council’s coercive options, and with due respect for the ways in which sanctions regimes have become – slowly but steadily – more accurately “targeted” and more transparent in their criteria (for addition and removal from sanctions lists), many gaps in knowledge, application and trust remain.  Bolivia, for instance, joined with other states in locating sanctions as a measure of “last resort,” with sufficient “due process” for those facing sanctions threats and a rejection of sanctions as a means of “punishment.”  And Ukraine joined with others in insisting on human rights-based sanctions impositions with full, prior attention to the inherent risks of sanctions to civilian populations.

Partially in light of such objections, Italy urged sanctions designs that manifest more “coherence” in terms of means and ends.  Sweden noted the importance of properly applying any response tools to context, while France advocated more “education” to inform member states and the wider public of actions the Council has already taken to increase the “precision” of sanctions towards increasing their effectiveness and legitimacy.  An “impatient” US urged Council members to take better stock of how to enforce resolutions once adopted, a point echoed by Kazakhstan and others.

In the specific instance of the DPRK, despite the unanimous support for the sanctions resolution and all of the post-vote “branding” of diplomats and their positions on twitter, there was no unanimity regarding the role of sanctions in effectively diminishing the grave nuclear weapons threat symbolized by the DPRK’s increasingly successful missile tests.  Sanctions, we were reminded once again by several of the members, are one tool to be used alongside others consistent with both Council wishes and circumstances on the ground.  Sanctions must not inflict needless damage on the citizens of the DPRK who were described yesterday by more than one Council member as already being “enslaved.”   Sanctions must not impede the possibility (however unlikely at present) of direct negotiations between the Koreas and/or with other states.   And sanctions must not be seen as a backdoor justification for militarily provocative operations or other unilateral measures (as noted this week by Bolivia and others) that are only liable to make negotiations less likely and increasingly tougher sanctions (or other coercive measures) that much more inevitable.

Especially in a situation as volatile as the DPRK, where so much of what we “know” about this situation is as much supposition as fact, it is important (and recognized as such by at least several Council members) to proceed with some caution on the imposition of sanctions.  Sanctions should not become (much like peacekeeping operations has been) a default response to states that ignore Council resolutions or otherwise threaten international peace and security.   The UN’s conflict-prevention toolbox is still not fully operational, but it is slowly filling up and the Council must do a better job of leveraging all capacities inside and outside the UN that are relevant to the prevention of hostilities and (hopefully less often) the restoration of stability once security has been breached.

Note was taken several times during this Saturday Council meeting of Kim Jong-Un’s “deadly aspirations.”   This notion could also stand a bit of unpacking.   His “aspirations” certainly involve a growing capacity to inflict mass destruction without prior consultation, but there are surely dimensions to his bluster beyond fomenting ruin.

What was a bit perplexing for us is the way in which some Council members seem to question Kim’s personal and policy sanity while at the same time seeking to surround him with provocations at every turn.  (It is important to bear in mind that the Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, owing in part to a desire/demand for peninsular reunification.)  A politically unresolved war, a country surrounded by factions deemed hostile to its interests, provocative military responses off its shores and facing increasingly harsh sanctions regimes – these may all be at some level legitimate policy responses to DPRK defiance, but they also come with great risk.   We know how wildly bullies can lash out when they feel that they have been effectively cornered.  Assuming there are no military plans contemplated to utterly vanquish the DPRK regime, plans that would probably also result in the commission of war crimes, we should be skeptical at the very least about actions goading the DPRK into a military confrontation that is unlikely to follow any our “best options” scripts.

When Council members raise their hands in unanimous support for a resolution, more than policy consensus is on display.   What many states and other Council watchers also hope for is resolutions based on a robust, baseline knowledge of circumstance and consequence as well as a recipe of responses tailored to context and properly mindful (as China notes often) of the primacy of political settlement. That hope is about more than the will to “take action,” but taking action in a determined but modulated manner so to maximize prospects for dialogue conducive to a sustainable peace, avoiding as much as possible any longer-lasting, toxic side effects.

But is this really happening here?   Are we really asking all the right questions?  Are we aware of the gaps that still remain in our grasp of circumstances and consequences?  Are we pursuing the most comprehensive responses to threats beyond the boundaries of national political expediency?  Are we endorsing responses that can promote behavior change, encourage negotiations, and help ensure that citizens in targeted states are not subject to another round of deprivations?  And are we, as Sweden noted on Saturday, taking sufficient stock of the current risks of “miscalculation” which can ignite conflict that can shatter even the most measured of our threat responses?

On this August 6, we would do well to discern just how much higher the stakes have become for everyone on our planet.  Among all of the existential threats which currently absorb our attention and stretch our collective wisdom up to and beyond its limits, a nuclear exchange with our massive and ever-modernizing warheads would make every other threat even more challenging to address.  We applaud those Council members willing to temper their (legitimate) moral and political outrage over DPRK provocations with the wisdom to keep asking (and demanding answers to) questions related to the Council’s coercive measures and refrain from intensifying the bullying instincts of the DPRK through excessive or unhelpful provocative behaviors of their own.

The Last Word:  The Security Council Mishandles its Audiences, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Jun

There is never enough time to say our last word-the last word of our love, of our desire, faith, remorse, submission, revolt.   Joseph Conrad

It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the heart: the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you.  Mark Twain

That most dangerous of opponents is the one who took pains to comprehend the position of his adversary.  Piers Anthony

One of the many lessons of life that I (and many others) with privilege and access struggle to learn is that, for all of the impediments in the world – the competition for attention or resources and the wildly divergent lenses on reality that give rise to so many of our struggles – the greatest impediments often lie within ourselves.   “The enemy within,” the stuff of literature and legend, is an adversary about which we often seem to know the least. And in a world currently preoccupied with externalizing responsibility rather than accepting it, these knowledge gaps are only likely to grow.

As many of you know, we are regular (and largely grateful) participants in what the Council refers to as its “public” sessions.  As we have noted on other occasions, these meetings are for us a bit like sitting in front of a large picture window through which we can clearly behold a meal we are never invited to join. Indeed, aside from “re-tweets” from select delegations seeking to brand themselves and their ideas – a matter which diplomatic missions have now largely taken into their own hands – we have little interaction with Council members.  They almost never acknowledge our presence in the room, even when we are the only non-diplomatic persons in it.

So why do we sit there, hour after unacknowledged hour, listening as we do to statements that require great attention on our collective part just to find a kernel or two of value or interest that we can transmit to (and beyond) our twitter following? Why do we track conflicts and controversies that routinely appear on the Council’s agenda and that, with some notable exceptions (such as Liberia and Colombia) are often locked within political struggles that prevent successful conflict resolutions or even hopeful transitions?

Some of it, especially for our interns and fellows, is related to the desire to be present at those moments when history is being made – an agreement on Iran’s nuclear capability, a comprehensive plan to degrade ISIL, a first ceasefire in Aleppo, a response to weapons threats by the DPRK.

But more of it is grounded in our organization’s contribution of “attentiveness” based in part on our recognition that the Council’s sometimes arcane working methods and intractable political disagreements can weigh heavily on the rest of the UN’s agenda. When the Council indulges a meaner spirit; when its power imbalances denigrate the prerogatives of its elected members, when Council members allow a few special representatives and other briefers to be “beaten up” by offended states, the discouragement – in my office but also in many parts of the UN system — is more than palpable.   Why, my interns ask, does anyone think this body, behaving in a manner at times invited by its own working methods, is sufficient to solve crises that in some key ways already impact their future?

Some of this discouragement was on display Thursday afternoon during a report on Darfur by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda.   Her presentation to the Council – and the 25th report on Darfur on which it was based – was a direct challenge to uphold Council resolutions based in part on the “trust” for justice that victims have placed in this body. The report was also recognition that there has been some progress on social, economic and human rights conditions in Darfur.  There has recently been reported, as the prosecutor noted, fewer clashes between the government and insurgents, fewer rapes of women in the displacement camps, fewer denials of access for humanitarian assistance or impediments to the movements of UNAMID peacekeepers.

The prosecutor in so many words reminded the Council of its failure to act in cases of non-cooperation with the Court, such as when states acceding to the Rome Statute allow indicted war criminals such as Sudan’s al-Bashir to travel beyond his own national borders, contravening obligations under the statute to have him arrested and turned over to prosecutors in the Hague.  But in the same session, the prosecutor reminded the Sudanese that while their recent positive overtures are noted, “better” does not imply “sufficient.” Moreover, such positive signs do not in and of themselves constitute pathways to immunity for crimes already committed and for which formal indictments have long since been issued.

Council members are decidedly mixed regarding their reaction to the International Criminal Court with firm supporters such as Italy, Uruguay, France and current Council president Bolivia making appeals for cooperation and resources to skeptical states such as China, Ethiopia, Russia and Egypt.  Some of this skepticism is grounded in a concern, not completely without merit, that ill-timed indictments lacking broad (in this case African) regional support undermine a peace process that is beginning to show progress, a peace that is ultimately in the best interests of Darfur.

But in our hearing, some of this skepticism took on more of the character of permission to “take on” the prosecutor; and the Sudanese Ambassador willingly obliged.  He followed up his own assertion that Madame Bensouda was using “abusive language” directed at both the Council and Sudan by ratcheting up the abusive rhetoric himself – calling for the complete shutdown of this “kangaroo court,” implying that the ICC is incapable of doing its job without “inventing evidence or bribing witnesses,” congratulating the UN secretariat for allegedly “distancing itself” from ICC interpretations, even suggesting that the ICC had met its match and was now “tasting the consequences” from having taken Sudan too lightly.

It was a show of contempt that, sadly, is not without precedent in this Council.  Moreover, in this instance as with too many others, the Ambassador’s remarks went unchallenged.  No one attempted to restore the context of the meeting, let alone defend the reputation of the prosecutor.   The session was quickly brought to a close.   The last word belonged to the Sudanese.

Psychologists have done some good and interesting work on the phenomenon of “the last word,” much of it in the context of arguments across gender lines.   Without diving into this too deeply here, there is broad consensus that the need for the “last word,” is a function of an over-exercised or (ironically) damaged ego: needing to be “right” all the time, or needing reassurance, over and over, that a passionate point of view is “being heard.”  But there is more to it:  the manner in which we humans tend to interpret the silence that too often follows a bold, even reckless accusation.  In that silence there is an assumption of acceptance, an assumption that maybe this last point of view had more going for it than we might have otherwise imagined. And in many instances, it is this last viewpoint – abusive or not, factual or not – that becomes the” take-away” for the audience.

In this Thursday meeting, the Council continued a pattern of institutionalized practice that ensures maximum impact for the opinions and accusations of some of the states that, by their own conduct and even their own admission, have demonstrated more than a bit of contempt for Council resolutions and often for international law itself. Such states certainly deserve to have their say.  They should not, however, be entitled to have the last word.

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

30 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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