Tag Archives: Security Council

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

22 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 Aug

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

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

Locks didn’t cure; they strangled.  Scott Westerfeld

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s past time to put away that shovel.

 

 

 

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

4 Aug

Children on Swing

War is what happens when language fails.  Margaret Atwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor’s Desk: Moving the UN Closer To its Masterpiece, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 May

The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason. T. S. Eliot

Growing a culture requires a good storyteller. Changing a culture requires a persuasive editor.  Ryan Lilly

Focus on making yourself better, not on thinking that you are better.  Bohdi Sanders

Edit your life frequently and ruthlessly. It’s your masterpiece after all.  Nathan W. Morris

One of the satisfactions of being inside the UN each day is to see the multilateral system generating effective outcomes:  elevating the formal status of indigenous people and persons with disabilities; calling practical attention to our (so far) too-tepid responses to threats from our plastic-filled oceans, our rapidly warming climate and our shrinking biodiversity; dodging bombs and bullets to reach literally millions from Yemen to the Central African Republic with humanitarian aid; helping states like the Gambia transition to more inclusive governance, Burkina Faso hold the line on a fresh wave of terror attacks, or Bangladesh manage its Myanmar-responsible refugee crisis.

But we also recognize that world remains messy with so divergent policy goals, so many values and expectations, so many vested (and often unacknowledged) interests.  It is also “messy” in the sense that the institutions which have been in the forefront of efforts to navigate and even “referee” the mess, including the UN of course, have been and remain intensely political in nature, not only in terms of the “politics” of negotiating some version of consensus, but “political” in the sense of telling less than the truth we know, the truth that serves the interests of our national policy hierarchies but not necessarily the needs of the global commons we allege to represent.

We have made this point before, but it bears repeating here:   we have enabled formation of a “culture” within our multilateral settings where “straight talk” is too-often at a premium, where norms and resolutions are not expected to be implemented, and where articulated policy preferences and recommendations mask as many dimensions of our sometimes existential problems as they clarify.

This past week at the UN was in part an exercise in why the system where we spend our days could use an editor of sorts for organizational culture.   The General Assembly discussion this past Wednesday on “inequalities within and between nations,” especially in the introductory session, outlined  a growing crisis that many at the UN believe rivals climate and weapons of mass destruction as existential threats to our future.  As often this year, GA president María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés set a tone that was part restating the UN’s commitment to fulfilling SDG 10 and part potentially culture-shifting storytelling, noting that we live in a world where some children are fortunate to eat once a day while others eat “whatever and how often they wish.”  She also quoted an African proverb that “injustice is like a snake that only strikes those who are barefoot.”

But what gave this session its “legs,” moving the room beyond mere outrage at the growing gaps between the rich and the rest, were the specifics provided by other speakers to address in practical terms the Egyptian Minister’s call for the rapid, intentional “removal of obstacles” to the reduction of poverty and inequalities.  States and other stakeholders shared diverse practices designed to improve domestic revenue streams, eliminate corruption, improve access to education and other public services, and even consider income floors for citizens.  With due regard for national context, what the session lacked was someone to clarify and distill common priorities and help build specific lines of support for hopeful and replicable initiatives by states and other stakeholders.  As the “operational activities” segment of the UN’s Economic and Social Council opens this week, we hope that more persuasive “editing” of the activities that can incarnate our development goals is on the near horizon.

But of course inequalities are not confined to the vast spaces separating barrios from corporate board rooms.  There are also inequalities – sometimes vast – when it comes to how states are able to manipulate the levers of power and influence the narrative in multilateral settings.  The Security Council is often “ground zero” for the display of such inequalities — permanent members who cast blame but rarely accept it; members who make statements that share a portion of the global truth, but mostly the portion that serves more parochial interests; members who adopt resolutions for others but are all-too-willing to bend international obligations to suit themselves and their allies; members who resist efforts at significant reform that could alter the very fabric of the Council’s  culture and working methods, including how it engages with the rest of the UN system.  The culture of the Council is not even remotely “edited frequently and ruthlessly” nor is there now any candidate for the task who would be trusted by more than a handful of members currently serving.

To find examples of the varying levels of policy effectiveness in a largely “unedited” Council, one would only have to consult last week’s meetings:  a largely successful review of the G5 Sahel Force with the Foreign Minister of Burkina Faso; an urgent session seeking to preserve what remains of the cease fire in Idlib, Syria in the hopes of preventing the renewed bombing that would signal a humanitarian disaster beyond what the UN and other agencies could possibly handle; a session on Yemen which celebrated the demilitarization of the Hodeidah ports while continuing to blame only Iran and Houthi rebels by name for the still-considerable violence across Yemen, mentioning Saudi Arabia only in praise for their generous donations to ease the suffering of the many thousands of Yemenis put at deadly risk by Saudi bombers (with weapons from the US, UK and others) in the first place.

And then there was the discussion on Cameroon, held outside the formal chamber in an Arria Formula format, but which nevertheless represented a breakthrough of sorts regarding a conflict with many victims that has directly impacted our office and that we and others have been warning about for many months.  Convened by the US, the session was noteworthy for the sometimes-gruesome truth-telling of USG Lowcock and two Cameroon briefers, especially the director of Reach Out Cameroon who was known to us from previous trips to the country and who gave what she called a “human face” to the vulnerabilities of so many living in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon – including those who have “lost it all” and are now “trapped in the bushes” or “living in petrol stations.”

We have sat with many of these images already; no doubt some of the diplomats have also. However, despite the concerns of the UK that the Council is now at risk of having to “discuss Cameroon more often,” there seemed to be little other interest in taking this matter on to the formal SC agenda.   There was no plan floated (let alone agreed upon) to confront Cameroon whose representative remained defiant throughout.  Some states were concerned about jeopardizing Cameroon support for counter-terror operations around Lake Chad and for the care of refugees from the Central African Republic.  Others were concerned about putting Cameroon on the formal Council agenda when risks to International Peace and Security were not yet persuasive.  Still others expressed concern about placing yet another African state on the Council’s agenda without clear strategies for entry and exit.

We were dismayed to note that despite the compelling testimony, especially from the Cameroon briefers, not a single other speaker directly referenced any segment of their stories.   Not one.  Caveats to a deeper involvement by this Council appeared to win the day.  “Partnership” with Cameroon commanded a higher priority than rescuing women and children from the bushes.

Beyond the Cameroon briefers, there were certainly truth-tellers in the Council this week – including ASG Keita on fresh threats from terrorist violence in the Sahel, USG Lowcock on the incontrovertible links between violence, deprivation and displacement in Cameroon and NW Syria, Special Envoy Griffiths on the “corrosive nature of extended war” and the still-perilous, still-fragile security and political context in Yemen. Added to that has been the constant and welcome refrain from May president Indonesia that the primary purpose of this Security Council is “to save lives.”

But if this SC as to achieve this “masterpiece” of a purpose going forward it must focus more energy on “making this better,” to  embark towards what could represent a profound cultural shift, one in which states are expected to take responsibility more often than they cast blame; a shift that encourages the “right deeds for the right reasons,” that confesses more often the “mixed” that constitutes motive, that not only consults the truth on the ground but allows such truth to fully infuse its policy decisions, that honors security alliances which don’t require women and children to hide out in petrol stations.

In our current, hyper-active and crisis-defined system, one that is driven by state interests and large state interests above all, I don’t know from whence that fully “persuasive editor” of our institutional culture is most likely to emerge. But for the rest of this year and perhaps beyond, our small team of interns and fellows will remain on the lookout.

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Mother Load: Easing the Burdens of Clinging and Mourning, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 May

Tapestry

It’s the one job where, the better you are the more surely you won’t be needed in the long run. Barbara Kingsolver

Children are knives, my mother once said. They don’t mean to, but they cut. And yet we cling to them, don’t we, we clasp them until the blood flows.  Joanne Harris

No one is ever quite ready; everyone is always caught off guard. Parenthood chooses you. And you open your eyes, look at what you’ve got, say “Oh my gosh,” and recognize that of all the balls there ever were, this is the one you should not drop.  Marisa de los Santos

I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, Mother, what was war?  Eve Merriam

There is a part of her mind that is a part of mine. But when she was born she sprang from me like a slippery fish, and has been swimming away ever since. All her life, I have watched her as though from another shore. Amy Tan

As virtually everyone recognizes here in the US and in much of the rest of the world, today is the “designated day” to honor mothers in ways both concrete and, at times, overly sentimental.

It’s been a while since I had a mother around to fuss over, but I am mindful this week of those in my life for whom the pain of mother-loss is still fresh, persons now immersed in a bit of holiday-inspired wondering if they did enough, said enough, honored enough while mother was still with us to ease and enrich her transition from this life to whatever might come next.

And then there are those new to mothering, including persons close to me, mothers who understand the challenges of the moment, who wince at the ubiquitous news stories about some of the issues on the UN agenda this week:  weapons of mass destruction and mass deforestation, climate-related displacements and the violence and lawlessness that seems to be engulfing places like Libya.  And yet, despite the possibility of bringing into the world a life filled more with challenges than satisfactions, these mothers have decided to bet on a human future in the most tangible manner possible – a life to which a mother will surely and steadfastly cling, even when it cuts.

Amidst the flowers and Hallmark cards, the birth notices and family brunches, there is yet another dimension of truth to Mother’s Day – the times when mothers must say a final and mournful good-bye to those “slippery fish” of children later felled by disease or armed violence, by circumstance or service.  This past Monday, the UN held its annual event honoring some of those “children,” those serving under the UN flag who perished while pursuing with often great courage what we all fervently strive to ensure even if we’re not always sure how:  a world at peace.

As one might expect, many of those honored fallen were serving as UN peacekeepers, including in some of the most dangerous conflict zones on earth – in Mali and South Sudan, in Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.   The list of the fallen was painfully long again this year, a point also taken up in earnest the following day in the Security Council under Indonesia’s leadership, during which delegations explored the means – especially through better training and equipment – to more effectively ensure the safety of the women and men mandated within peace operations to protect others under circumstances that are uncomfortable at best. Delegations on Tuesday clearly reaffirmed their full support and respect for those who serve in peacekeeping operations or in related assignments such as in Hodeidah port (Yemen). Such support was aptly summarized by Ireland whose Ambassador proclaimed that “we are as proud of the blue helmet as we are of the Shamrock.”

Not only peacekeepers were honored at this solemn Monday event but also fallen humanitarian workers and food security experts; people providing shelter and provisions for refugees and other victims of violence and natural disaster; people facing “unfriendly fire” during the course of their service or simply reserving a seat on a malfunctioning airplane. Indeed, people who for various reasons were now being saluted and mourned at the UN by mothers and other family members, not because they were perfect but because they were loved; and because they willingly put themselves in harm’s way, at least we believe, not so much for the sake of the UN or other institution, but so that a world could be birthed in which armed conflict and its consequences are more a childhood curiosity than the pervasive threat we now experience in far too many places on this planet.

During this annual honoring, I often find myself wondering what it would be like to sit in a UN conference room and mourn the loss of a child, even a child who long-since “swam away” and might only have acknowledged episodically the place from which their life first arose. I can wonder but simply can’t imagine what it must be like to have the ball “you should not drop,” being dropped instead by a too-often violent and indifferent world.   What do you say in response to that?  Indeed what can anyone else say to narrow this chasm of “missing?”

The UN surely does not honor enough and often not appropriately.   As a community, we are too focused on protocol and position to recognize in the way we should the many who actually uphold the large and small promises that still take up residence in this place. But this Monday ceremony conveyed genuine dignity as well as the insistence that we will collectively, somehow or other, continue to “answer the call” until our yearning for peace, our dream of a war-free world, have finally been realized.

In this age of digital scheduling, I carry around (and actually use) a small paper calendar courtesy of a modest donation I made recently to the remarkable St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Inside that now-scribbled calendar are pictures of children in some cases stricken by cancer even before experiencing the diseases we more commonly associate with childhood. In some of those pictures are the parents, mostly mothers who, like so many others, must find within themselves the means to bear this deep wound, to remain strong and resolute amidst this existential threat to children who, much too often, have not yet learned how to ride a bicycle or tie their shoes.

The reason that we do what we do, despite the ever-apparent absurdity associated with limited resources and even-more-limited wisdom, is because we know that for every mother whose child is given a ray of hope by places like St. Jude’s, millions of others must watch – often helplessly –as violence and disease, hunger and displacement exact their horrible toll.  At the Monday ceremony, several speakers expressed “pride” that so many are still willing to take risks for the sake of global peace. Indeed, more risks will be required of all of us if we are to emerge only semi-scathed from this difficult period in our collective history. But for many of the mothers in the room, I suspect, pride was less in play than wishing for that day when no mother would ever again be required to sit and mourn the loss of her own flesh, the loss of one to whom she once clung tight.

For us and for many others around the world, the possibility of that day makes what we do every day worth our best effort. Blessings to all whom we honor and all who mourn on this Mother’s Day.

Turning the Page:  Recovering the UN’s Relevant Responses, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Apr

UN Stamp

If we don’t all row, the boat won’t go. Unknown

If everyone helps to hold up the sky, then one person does not become tired. Askhari Johnson Hodari

Laugh as long as you breathe, love as long as you live. Nujeen Mustafa

Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving.  Albert Einstein

In the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism.  Naomi Klein

While contemplating the content for this post, I took a walk in a nearby Manhattan park in what has been a particularly lovely season for flowers and blossoms.   While strolling and admiring I came across a Parks Department worker and thanked her for making all of this wonder possible.

She looked a bit stunned, as though this simple recognition was akin to a message from Mars.  But I remember well a time when my jogs through this very park were exercises in reckless risk taking, when park benches and pathways screamed out for repair, when “security” was largely based on “street smarts,” when flowers bloomed in defiance of neglect rather than as the result of loving care.

Part of the “care” of this park now is a function of a largely-unfortunate gentrification. We didn’t “deserve” a functioning green space, apparently, until the neighborhood became “safe” enough to absorb copious quantities of downtown money.  But even so, the park is now a place where flowers are planted and benches painted, where playgrounds are truly playful for children rather than being the dangers they once were for their parents, where teenagers play ball near a pond with turtles, egrets and feral cats, and folks trying to get in better shape are encouraged to jog around the now-even pavement meandering around the park’s edges.

And I contributed to virtually none of these improvements, as I tend to contribute too-little to so many of the things I use and (too often) take for granted.

This is intended less as a “confession” and more as a punctuation to what was an exhausting and instructive week of UN business.   From indigenous people straining to protect biodiversity and achieve formal UN recognition to some policy-challenging conversations on identifying and addressing what the UN Office of Drugs and Crime called “chilling” threats from nuclear terrorism and the increasingly convergent interests of terrorists and organized crime, it was difficult for us to keep track of (let alone contribute to) these multiple challenges or identify threads of what might constitute an effective response.

Fortunately, there were other UN events this week where the positive potential was easier to spot.

One of these was in the Security Council where Germany (April president) reinforced a discussion on the security and humanitarian issues affecting Syria by scheduling a poignant briefing from Nujeen Mustafa, a remarkable young woman with a disability who, from her wheelchair, schooled Council members on the many persons much too “invisible” in times of peace who become even less visible in times of conflict.  She reminded all in the Chamber that the figures quantifying humanitarian need have human faces, and that some of these faces already experience grave difficulties in this world which armed conflict merely intensifies.

And in the General Assembly, President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés convened the first International Day for Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace.  While some delegations rightly lamented that such a day would even be necessary, and some used the opportunity to settle political scores, most understood that ours is a system that needs to be fixed rather than cast aside.  The president herself understands that a future for the UN lies in its ability to help build “a fairer world in practice, beyond our UN rhetoric,” a world that reaches persons living with poverty, with disabilities, with grave discouragement. And, as noted by the Finnish Foreign Minister, a world pointing to a future that does not belong only to “the rulers and the strong.”

In preparation for this post, I looked through my grandfather’s collection of UN stamps from 1951, the first year that UN stamps were issued.  The themes were revealing:  stamps highlighting the work of UNICEF and the ILO, stamps honoring the commitment of the UN to human rights.   And there were two others from 1951 of direct relevance to this post – one touting the UN’s commitment to capacity support and the other (at the top of this post) implying that the doors of the UN are open to all peoples of the world, and that it is the “common” people – and not only their diplomats and bureaucrats – who must be able to find something akin to an attentive and respectful haven in this place.

Taken together, this combination of hopefulness and tangible support is a legacy that is worth preserving, a legacy that certainly demands more of each of us, more thoughtfulness, more tangible contributions, more honesty, even more compassion.  It requires many more of us to commit to “hold up the sky” and row the boat, but also a willingness to burden-share, to refuse to “hog the oars” or avoid getting near the boat in the first place.

I recognize every day the degree to which our own little project has become a bit of a dinosaur, wedded to obsolete technology and pushing values that are important at one level but haven’t always served the global interest well as they should have. I also recognize that there is significant interest now in many corners of the globe to simply turn the page, to move on from rowing and holding, to dismiss the institutional arrangements of the past that have led to undeniable progress but also to exclusion and broken promises; arrangements that have allowed existential risks to become near-certainties, and that have extended cooperation with one hand while hording power and resources with the other.

Our fervent wish is for people to read the page before they turn it.

Read the page about the many issues – from sexual violence in armed conflict and nuclear terrorism to climate change and pandemics – for which the UN remains an indispensable point of policy reference.  Read the page about the people like Nujeen Mustafa whose “invisibility” is steadily giving way to recognition and respect.   Read the page about the many delegations reminded of their responsibility to both contribute more to the world they want and offer more tangible encouragement for the contributions of others.  Read the page about those who have dedicated their lives to protect human rights for those who labor and those who protest, for those who are mere bystanders to conflict and those whose vulnerabilities have compromised their very agency.   Read the page where coordinated pressure from UN agencies and member states has created conditions for the dramatic reduction of numerous human scourges, from torture and malaria to state corruption and the recruitment of child soldiers.

This page certainly contains its share of hypocrisy and protocol substituting for genuine gratitude and compassion, but it also contains evidence of a willingness to grow and change, to give a good-faith attempt to resolve its lapses of effectiveness and address the legitimate skepticism of some of its global public. We routinely spend 10 hour weekdays inside the UN, and there are days when we shake our heads so often that our necks become strained.  But we know that this place retains some capacity for self-reflection, occasionally even humor. Together we can fix this place, making it more effective but also more human, insisting that its constituent parts contribute more to the global commons and uphold more fully the values that gave rise to its existence 74 years ago.

At the General Assembly this past week, the Irish Ambassador spoke of the “problems without passports” for which the UN is uniquely if not yet fully equipped to address.  Hers is the section of the page we need to be sure to bookmark.

Bomb Squad: The UN’s Struggle to Give Disarmament a Chance, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Apr

Peace Bell

Who needs immortal strength when you’ve got weapons of mass destruction?  J.A. Saare

Before he danced with his weapons, now he danced with me.  Kara Barbieri

The people most reluctant to use weapons are the ones who can best be trusted with them. Christopher Bennett

Let the silence rise from unwatered graves and craters left by bombs.
Let the silence rise from empty bellies and surge from broken hearts
. Kamand Kojouri

Can bombs heal our souls or set our spirits free? Aberjhani

During a week in which armed groups ominously marched towards Libya’s capital and the world pondered what has changed and not in the 25 years since the genocide in Rwanda, Tuesday was the day for the UN to take up another of the existential threats that have found their way on to its agenda – weapons in all shapes, sizes and destructive potential that can continue to intimidate populations, enforce discriminatory practices, impede sustainable development, undermine trust in neighbors and governments, and (too) much more.

As some of you recall, Global Action invested much of its early years in disarmament-related activity, helping to provide attentive feed-back to governments on their disarmament responsibilities and sharing office space with colleagues such as the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, with which we continue to commiserate regularly on a range of arms related matters.

That work still matters greatly, though we came to believe some time back that for disarmament to be successful it must find a broader engagement, specifically with policy communities that can make helpful connections between weapons procurement and the “deterrence” with which such weaponry is often associated and justified with other efforts to end racial and gender discrimination, protect our environment, uphold human rights obligations, eliminate the use of child soldiers, promote “DDR” with former combatants, and address terrorist threats.

Not only are these issues linked, but indeed our contention has been that there has been more policy space at the UN and elsewhere for discussions that involve weapons than for discussions that are solely focused on weapons.   Of all the policy architecture on display in the many UN conference rooms to which we are attention, it would be no stretch to conclude that the disarmament architecture is among the least flexible aspects of the current multi-lateral system, the structure most likely to double down on failed resolutions and treaties (or what passes for treaties in the disarmament world), largely squandering the energies and ideas of the often-remarkable diplomats and civil society representatives who choose in good faith to throw themselves into these essential but too-often frustrating processes.

And yet on this past Tuesday diplomats were back at it in the Security Council (which has yet to fulfill its Charter obligation to provide a plan forward on disarmament) as well as in the Disarmament Commission, a process that we followed closely for years but now only engage episodically given its political malfunctions and redundancies, as well as its almost legendary inability to move past hard statements and political maneuverings to embrace the deliberative space that could result in more thoughtful recommendations on disarmament to a UN system that hasn’t yet found them elsewhere.

On Tuesday, the Disarmament Commission could not even get through a single plenary session before politics intervened – in this instance a complaint filed by the Russian Federation against the “host state” for failure to issue visas to Russian delegates to the Commission.  While visa denial is a serious matter, this particular complaint eventually necessitated the shutting down of the day’s session, hardly a crisis in its own right, but surely a “red flag” for states and civil society organizations struggling within multiple venues to address the many challenges related to excessive arms production and deployment in all its aspects, including space weapons, nuclear weapons modernization, non-proliferation threats from the DPRK, “autonomous” weapons systems, alleged chemical weapons uses, “craft” IED production, and the biological weapons which perhaps represent the most covert and devastating of the weapons-of-mass-destruction triumvirate.

This is, at face value, an extraordinary list of threats, surely long enough and grave enough that diplomats and other global constituents could be excused for wanting more – much more — from a Commission that can barely agree on a three-year work plan, let alone transcend its national interests (legitimate and contrived) to enhance prospects for global well-being through meaningful weapons reductions.

As for the Security Council, with the Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) soon to convene in New York, Council co-presidents Germany and France smartly put non-proliferation and disarmament at the head of this month’s deliberations.  Implementing the NPT’s “three pillars” (nuclear power being the 3rd) has been a bit of a slog, individually and collectively, though German Foreign Minister Maas claimed (and a Council press statement largely affirmed) that without the NPT “mutual distrust would be much higher” and dangers greater. Indeed, the FM evoked a popular Joni Mitchell song that “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone,” a sentiment in part echoed by High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Nakamitsu, who lauded the NPT’s “staying power” while rightly lamenting recent trends that preference “individual over collective security.”

This “it would be worse for us if the NPT weren’t here” claim can fairly be scrutinized, but the core issue is whether or not, given rising threat levels, the good is still good enough.   During this discussion, many Council members including Poland and Indonesia reflected on these three NPT pillars under stress, noting that the disarmament obligation remains the least implemented of the three. Indonesia’s MFA further reminded Council members that it is precisely tangible progress on this disarmament obligation that lends legitimacy to non-proliferation demands, progress that has been insufficient at best.

For his part, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Amano was forceful in proclaiming the work of his organization, specifically work focused on weapons monitoring and compliance deemed indispensable to the eventual fulfillment of the NPT’s promises. Indeed, that some NPT parties seem to put so little political stock in what Amano rightly deemed “powerful verification tools,” is a bit unsettling.  But more to the point, given that the health of the NPT is tied to its access to “state of the art” verification mechanisms unavailable in other weapons contexts, that key NPT members would then set out to “question” or even undermine the validity of these mechanisms is the sort of disconnect that should be called out in UN contexts more often.  No state should get a pass while voicing support for the NPT as a key component of the “rules based order” and then simultaneously creating distance in any form (including on financial support) from the one agency capable of verifying that the progress we claim on reducing nuclear weapons threats is actually being made.

An important issue for us is the extent to which a piece of our weapons-related monitoring and compliance can segue from states that might be guilty of undermining resolution and treaty obligations to the states and stakeholders that have — in UN and other contexts — turned an existential weapons threat into an occasion for trust-eroding, political posturing.   The question of how much we can trust the proliferators has largely been answered.  The question for this NPT Prep Com and for all subsequent NPT activities is whether or not we can trust the erstwhile disarmers?  If IAEA monitoring and compliance is as reliable as we believe it is, then we should support it.  If it is not as reliable as we believe it is, then we should fix it.  And if the problem is, as this Prep Com approaches, that some states simply don’t think that threats from nuclear (and other mass destruction) weapons warrant their best, “good-faith” diplomatic and technical efforts, then they simply (and quickly) need to think again.