Tag Archives: sustainable development

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.

City Harvest, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Mar

Forget the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends.  Lewis Mumford

A city isn’t so unlike a person. They both have the marks to show they have many stories to tell. They see many faces. They tear things down and make new again.  Rasmenia Massoud

I was in Atlanta, Georgia part of this week speaking with student groups at Georgia Tech University, mostly about their uncertain futures and the promises represented by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development made to their largest-in-history generation.

The students were mostly attentive, if at times a bit underwhelmed.  They’ve heard promises from older folks before of course, including the promise that if they do what they’re told, get good grades, stifle their passions, and defer their dreams — perhaps forever but certainly until their mountains of educational debt can be fully serviced — things will ultimately be well for them.

This generation of students can be a skeptical lot and not without reason.   Despite our insistences even those with “elite” educational backgrounds have already experienced a dearth of employment options, working long hours, doubling up on housing, sacrificing any semblance of a social life for the sake of success that is anything but guaranteed.   Many of these young people avoid the mainstream news; but the issues that underscore the need for the 2030 Agenda in the first place – the security and ecological threats we have introduced into our world, the genies we have released to wreck their signature havoc – remain very much on their minds.

Theirs are largely “first world problems,” many would admit.   Fulfilling professional goals and personal expectations might prove elusive, but these young people aren’t going to starve or die from the failure. And at some level, they seem to understand that in a world of growing inequalities, their needs will likely be addressed well beyond minimum levels.  They might not hit the jackpot, but they have skills and flexibility; they can choose to revise their trajectories with a reasonable chance of finding meaning and perhaps even a measure of abundance.

But they also know that things can and must get better. While most were no doubt skeptical about some of the promises embedded in the 2030 Agenda, some expressed interest in its ambitions and in the capacities needed to turn this promise – this one above all of the others – into a predictable blueprint for their common future.

This won’t be an easy chore. We made brief mention of the precarious health of our oceans; the accelerating extinction of global species; the stubborn pervasiveness of discrimination against women and girls; the crippling poverty we have every means and still-too- little intention to eliminate; the corruption that bleeds societies of domestic resources and stifles public trust: the staggering employment deficits that we must overcome commensurate with this generation’s size and the impacts of human migration and ever-more-sophisticated robotics; the urban settings set to house the dreams and aspirations of so many millions more young people while housing and employment remain in crisis, and while current residents struggle with pollution, substandard transportation and green space as rare as a bargain Manhattan apartment.

It’s a large and formidable list, a testament both to the depth of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves and the genuine willingness of the international community to face – without sugarcoating — the challenges of the next 15 years.  What the students wanted to know more about is how to move goals and targets beyond rhetoric.   What are all of us prepared to do – and change – with our institutional structures and personal commitments in order to make this happen?

In that vein, mention was made of efforts underway to reform taxation and end corruption; to eliminate trafficking in weapons, narcotics and persons that inflame risks to violence; to create viable indicators of the full 2030 performance based on data that is robust, flexible, context-specific, and able to help us track risks and trends beyond “snapshots” of the present.

And we must do this and more while taking the shifting needs of cities – the settings where so many of this current generation of young people will choose to find their way — fully into account. Among the many helpful resources available to participants in this week’s interesting UN Statistical Commission was a UN publication entitled “The World’s Cities,” This summary report provides a brief look at urban growth during the period defined by the 2030 Agenda; the “megacities” continuing their expansion and the many other cities on the cusp of joining their ranks, especially in what some still refer to as the “global south.”  The report makes plain that people will continue to pour into urban areas such as Bogota and Bangkok, Mumbai and Lagos; and when they arrive they will need housing for their families, reliable transportation to seek and sustain livelihoods, places to educate themselves and their children, even guidance on managing the complexities of a new urban home.

These ”mega” cities and many others are places of growing diversity that almost defy existing data;  places of ever-growing complexity of social groupings, expectations, aspirations;  most often including growing social and economic inequalities as well.  Cities worldwide are demonstrating their capacity to become breeding grounds for violence or hubs of cooperative innovation.  They can help us manage our ecological footprint or push us over the climate threshold. They can exacerbate existing social divisions or help to forge a more hopeful, sustainable consensus for “lovers and friends” in keeping with the 2030 Agenda goal of “peaceful and inclusive societies.”

At one point towards the end of one of the presentations, the professor in charge (a good friend) asked me what I was currently most concerned about in this world?  I answered then as I usually do, speaking not so much about threats to the planet as the status of capacities within ourselves.  Do we have what it takes to get through this rough patch?  Are our pathways to social and political participation sufficiently fair and inviting?  Do our often violent and consumption-laden lifestyles posses the wiggle room to change the ways we invest our energies and resources?   Are we ready to join this harvest of potential of which we must take advantage, despite the metaphorical thin soils and unpredictable rains that gave rise to it?

Whether we acknowledge it or not, there is so much potential still to be realized in even our often-chaotic and overly impersonal urbanized settings.   If we have the most comprehensive and widely disaggregated data; if we have the necessary buy-in from local and national stakeholders, if we have governments and international institutions willing to do what is needed to restore public trust; if we have more dependable and transparent sources of domestic and other funding; then this next period in our collective history will surely yield a more abundant harvest.

But will the harvesters be many or few?  Will we have the hands (and brains) we need to gather and organize the best of what is now available to us for future use?  Will our talented young people sit passively on the sidelines and hope the raging storm won’t ruin too many crops, or will they help us harvest the best of what is now in the field and then plant some new and even better seeds?

We have a case for involvement to make to these people, but we must seize more of those precious and previously squandered opportunities to inspire them to life projects that are larger than their careers and social media feeds.   Our urban areas – many bursting at the seams – are the places most of this generation will choose to call home.  If we can make that more convincing case, then an efficient, equitable and passionate care of urban spaces, a core objective of the 2030 Agenda, might well become among this generation’s most notable contributions.

A Discouraging Word:Violence and its Multiple Impacts, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Sep

The only shameful thing about mental illness is the stigma attached to it. — Lindsay Holmes

Last evening, on my way to a birthday party, I stopped by the World Trade Center site.  The powerful “9/11” spotlights were turned on, helicopters circled the area, and many loud banging noises could be heard in the neighborhood. While watching the spectacle, I had striking flashbacks of people jumping out of windows of the old Twin Towers because staying put on melting upper floors had ceased to be an option; also of responders urgently rushing up stairways that ultimately became their graveyards.

But I also thought about the thousands upon thousands of bombs that have fallen since “9/11,” the uncounted masses whose homes and shops will never be rebuilt, whose losses will never be formally commemorated; countless families who have barely known a moment of stability or peace for the past 15 years.

We in the US have been victims; we have created many as well. Violence in too many forms preceded 9/11 and violence in too many forms has defined its wake.

Such diverse forms and manifestations of violence always find a place on the agenda of the UN community: even when we fail to guarantee refugees safe passage; even when efforts to eliminate nuclear tests go up in flames; even when conflicts rage like wildfires that have long-since jumped the control line; even when abuses are committed against civilians by their erstwhile protectors; even when hospitals are bombed with weapons sold by countries that had previously pledged seller’s restraint.

There were many UN events this past week with implications for peace and security, for societies that no longer have to calibrate the staggering costs of violence (including their deep emotional wounds) that threaten every hopeful impulse.  Two for us stood out.

On Tuesday, the General Assembly help what is now an annual debate on the Responsibility to Protect norm for addressing genocide and other atrocity violence, placed on the UN’s agenda at the 2005 World Summit. “R2P” as it is known has attracted significant interest from many UN member states as well as from a handful of “loyalist” NGOs who were well represented at the debate, what one person described (with a hint of irony) as something akin to a “family reunion.”

Despite high regard for the norm and for addressing what Bolivia referred to as the “repugnant” crimes to which the norm points, this discussion brought many fault lines to the fore, based in part on the recognition (as described by Slovenia and others) that 11 years on from the World Summit the world is still facing widespread misery and displacement instigated by state and non-state actors.  The questions (and frustrations) were evident throughout. Brazil wondered about our habitual response to coercive responses that endanger the very persons we are trying to help.   Vanuatu wondered why states sit idly by waiting for the Security Council to act when there is much conflict prevention that even small states can promote.  Spain wondered why the UN’s promises of a “culture of prevention” remain essentially unfulfilled.

And yet amidst the frustrations, there were signs of positive life. Several states (and USG Dieng) called (as we have also been doing for years) for RtoP to find life through a regular, formal General Assembly process that allows states to (as noted by Panama) engage a wider range of stakeholders, but also to examine the political and capacity gaps that impede effective implementation. We also need (as noted by the Netherlands on behalf of the “Group of Friends”) more regular briefings to the Security Council by USG Dieng and (soon) ASG Simonovic, requiring both a more active, determined secretariat and a less “tone deaf” Security Council when it comes to its response to early warnings.

DSG Eliasson confessed during this meeting that when we look around the world, it is hard not to be discouraged. We just can’t go on like this, he implored. Indeed, we cannot.  The longer the violence festers, the longer people are denied relief and justice, the longer we fail to develop (as noted by Rwanda and others) strong institutions to help us face our conflict prevention and protection responsibilities, the longer we attempt to mask the truth about protection promises unkept, the deeper discouragement is likely to become.

Such deep and painful emotions were also the backdrop of a special event sponsored by Palau (with Canada, Belgium and UNDESA) on “Mental Health and Wellbeing at the Heart of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”  Palau’s Ambassador Otto, a trained physician himself, has taken a special interest in SDG 3 which links “mental health and wellbeing” to what some might consider as the “self-inflicted wounds” associated with non-communicable diseases, including narcotics and alcohol addictions.

Amidst the “earth balloons” and children chanting “happy people, happy planet,” there were sober matters to consider. ASG Daniella Bas underscored the particular mental health concerns of disabled persons.  Canada addressed the social isolation characteristic of so much mental illness, but also called attention to the pervasive mental health challenges affecting migrants and refugees.  Micronesia’s newly-installed, Ambassador Chigiyal, called attention to the stigmas that impact care for the mentally ill, citing examples from her own “family focused” country. And many diplomats and practitioners raised the specter of the trauma, including from indiscriminate use of weapons, that we should do more to prevent and for which our capacities for remediation and restoration are still largely deficient.

But more than this, we should think harder about what is needed at the level of policy to help stave off the effects of trauma and related illness that impede human and community development.  Beyond addiction, we are moving towards full recognition of mental health impacts from being unable to protect our children from harm or abuse, from having our livelihood disappear, from being betrayed by people in our “inner circle,” from being unable to stop violence that threatens everything in our community of concern. These and other examples point towards two features of a mentally healthful life – trustworthy human connections and the ability to impact events in the world, large and small.  Without meaningful connection and viable agency, life is simply too isolated and unpredictable to sustain mental health.  Too many of us in this world struggle mightily to find protection from harsh winds that we simply cannot control, and too often we struggle alone.

Ambassador Otto’s introductory remarks summed up perhaps the most important insight from this event, reminding us that “the heart is a great enabler.” Indeeed, implementation of all our development commitments and all our preventive and protective responsibilities must be animated by something deeper than the need for clever and well-crafted policy.  We must learn to empathize more actively with lives incapacitated by armed violence; we must do better at preventing and protecting against its devastations.  While doing this, we would do well to place greater emphasis on encouraging more personal connection and social participation as antidotes to the isolation and impotence from which so much discouragement in this world currently proceeds.

Looking Backward:  Anticipating a Verdict on our 2030 Development Responsibilities, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Feb

This was an unusually synchronized week at UN Headquarters.  The Security Council was largely focused on the London pledging conference for Syria and then returned to the urgent need to plot next steps – including likely new sanctions — in response to the DPRKs latest missile launch.  Instead, most of the building was preoccupied with assessing and enriching the early stages of implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This past Monday, ECOSOC kicked off a two-day youth event that brought out an “A” list of presenters, mostly to encourage youth to join in the full implementation of the 2030 development agenda.   We’ve written previously about the ways in which UN youth events tend to patronize their audiences – fairly heralding their talents and urging their full involvement, but without either expressing regret for much of the state of the world nor insisting, as older people used to do in my life, that youth are not yet quite as ready for prime time as we have previously convinced them they are.

For its part, the General Assembly held its own informal review of the early stages of implementation of the 2030 development goals, featuring addresses by the President of the General Assembly and the Deputy Secretary General.   DSG Eliasson’s recent presentations have helpfully integrated his own vast institutional memory, and here he noted the considerable differences in energy and urgency on SDG implementation in comparison with the Millennium Development Goals of year 2000. The morning sessions urged development leadership that can “inspire confidence on the ground,” and heralded the implementation of the “Technology Facilitation Mechanism” deemed essential to broad SDG fulfillment. The DSG, PGA, the European Union and many states noted the enormous development challenges and responsibilities that we all have assumed in these urgent times, a commitment that we should not seek to control and at which we simply must not allow ourselves to fail.

On top of these, the 54th Session of the Commission for Social Development convened under Romania’s leadership.  While the Commission room was often half empty (due less to NGO interest levels than to the manner in which “secondary passes” were distributed), the Commission spawned some interesting side events that also helped to clarify our roles and responsibilities to the 2030 Sustainable Development process.

One of these events focused on the launch of the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) report on global labor trends.   While few if any want the Security Council tampering with unemployment statistics, the status of labor clearly poses major implications for international peace and security.   Unavailable work, dangerous work, work that fails to pay a livable wage – these and other employment circumstances stoke social unrest and grave discouragement. While the ILO struggles to define and then promote its best understanding of “decent” work, our global economy remains in the hands of elites stubbornly unaccountable to workers; indeed largely unaccountable to the UN itself.  Another “manufactured” global recession will deepen poverty for some and throw others back into previously untenable economic options, which could well spark new waves of violence but will surely compromise the fulfillment of the SDGs even beyond their employment-specific targets.

Another side event exuded a more positive energy, this an event on “social protection” hosted by Ghana and featuring several of its ministers and parliamentarians.   Ghana has done good work establishing and maintaining social protection floors, including innovative ways of paying for state services, in ways that could well provide a model for its regional neighbors and others far beyond the African continent.  Indeed, we have already suggested to two other African states that they also consider placing their most hopeful “protection” measures on display for the review and edification of the international community.  There is never enough of this good development news.

This event (and others of the week) also stimulated thinking on the best strategy for maintaining what the DSG referred to earlier in the week as “positive energy” towards fulfillment of the SDGs.  Concerns in this regard are fully appropriate. Indeed, at a side event this week focused on positive changes in the mining industry in the DRC, Ireland’s Ambassador Donoghue was forced to admit that he is only “cautiously optimistic” that the SDGs will eventually achieve their targets.   Along with Kenya’s  Amb. Kamau,  Amb. Donoghue’s leadership on sustainable development goals was nothing short of heroic.  But he also understands the UN system, its political and fiscal compromises, its acceptance of “good enough” when only the best is called for.  As I understood his comments, his discouragement has less to do with the goals themselves and more to do with the limitations of the institution that houses them. Moreover, as understood by those leading the ILO event on labor, fiscal contingencies brought about by those persons and institutions perpetuating gross inequalities could easily dry up the revenue available (and necessary) to modulate and clean up the planet, and bring concrete hope to those most often abused or unreached.

Fortunately, side events associated with the Commission are providing some intriguing options to soften the contingencies of inequality and caution.  As a set of global norms, the SDGs (and their indicators, now in progress on several fronts) seem somewhat unforgiving.  Either we meet the goals and targets or we don’t.  And of course we should meet them once we can agree on the scope of their indicators.  But there is another way to look at the SDGs, less as a normative burden and more as a menu of resources for replicable and sustainable social change.

While watching images and listening to stories about persons in the DRC who had been abused by and then gained their freedom from the extraction industry, it seemed obvious that this is the sort of story that the SDGs were designed to magnify: identifying the relevant norms, to be sure, but also the available (fiscal and other) resources and the responsible parties.  Used in this way, the SDGs become part of the cutting edge of global problem solving, a stimulating factor in replicating things gone right, rather than a set of directives which we are almost destined to fall short of fulfilling.

Fifteen years from now, when a generation first cutting its teeth on development policy walks through that creaky door towards middle age, how will they assess our current commitments?   How will they feel when they look back at the choices we now make and the steps we now take to heal what has been broken and reach beyond our comfort levels to those who most need relief?   Looking backward is always precarious business, tinged with the inevitable “second guess,” but 15 years is a veritable blink of an eye.

We’ll be there before we know it, most probably with health and equity left to pursue, but hopefully with so many innovative and energizing successes that can inspire another generation to help save the rest.  The more creatively — and less punitively – we can harness the power and hopefulness of the SDGs, the larger the number of global communities that will be able to find their stride.  Hopefully, then, these will join to help another set of communities find their own.

Birthday Bashing:  The UN Seeks a New Resolve to Focus on What Matters, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Oct

On the 70th anniversary of the UN Charter, I’m on a flight path that will eventually take me to Mexico City for the launch of a volume with scholars from Instituto Mora and other institutions examining the impact of armed violence on the priorities and practices of the recently-minted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) , with a particular focus on the violence currently plaguing Central America.

While some governments refuse to acknowledge that there is any relevant relationship at all, it is clear to my office and other authors of this volume that armed violence in its various manifestations has implications for development that are alternately frightening and frustrating.  The presence of so many weapons in criminal hands (or in the hands of a ruthless security sector) creates conditions that suppress education, commerce, political participation and other essential human activities.

At this point in the life of the UN, there is general recognition of these linkages. The issue of course is how to ensure that our responses are genuinely consequential for communities.  Part of our work in Mexico City will be to discern strategic options for security sector engagement necessary to successful development and full political participation. But we seek engagement without “securitizing” development, that is, seeing security as an end in itself that can justify a range of discriminatory policies and human rights violations in the name of combating trafficking in weapons, narcotics and persons, or even combating insurgencies.  We seek alternative to a security system that, in the name of protecting communities, too often robs them of hope and contributes to gravely diminished prospects for diverse social and political involvement.

We will report on the outcomes from Mexico City in future posts.  What is clear now is that on this day when there is so much reflection on what the UN has and has not accomplished over 70 years, the recently endorsed SDGs represent a potentially monumental achievement, one that provides hope for diverse constituencies but also blends all three pillars of the UN system – development, human rights and peace and security – in productive and helpful ways that might well have encountered sustained political resistance just a few short years ago.

This more mature understanding of the policy web that can sustain peaceful societies is welcome news to Global Action, but also creates new challenges for our mostly young and part-time colleagues.   The philosophy of our work at the UN has some familiar benchmarks – providing hospitality for individuals and groups around the world seeking access to the UN system; paying close attention to what diplomats are doing and thinking; making issue connections between conference rooms, agencies and key organs such as the Security Council; and identifying the issues and relationships that can help define a life’s work for a new generation of schaolars and policy advocates.

And perhaps the most important of all, we encourage careful triage on the activities of the entire system at UN Headquarters to make sure, as best we are able, that we are covering, learning from and communicating what we have deemed to be the most consequential discussions taking place in the conference rooms that house our primary work.

This is no mean feat in a system that is bursting with activities of all kinds from contentious Security Council meetings to heavily branded side events.  More states are taking initiative to host events.  There is a deepening recognition that norms are not sufficient – that the SDGs for instance require reliable, flexible data and dependable sources of funding if they are to fulfill anything close to their potential.   There is much to do and much to think about – ideal for a small office such as ours consisting mostly of extraordinary younger people and dedicated more to discernment than to advocacy.

And there have indeed been some extraordinary events this month:  joint meetings of the General Assembly First and Fourth Committees on Outer Space Security, as well as between the Second Committee and the Economic and Social Council on ways to strengthen African development financing.    A Security Council debate on the Middle East found Council members (and DSG Eliasson) united in their growing frustration at the unresponsiveness of the relevant states parties to Council mandates.   Open discussions about the need to seriously vet women candidates for the next UN Secretary General within a process that is more than a backroom deal involving the P-5.   Sixth Committee efforts to strengthen codes of conduct for UN personnel such that we can begin to eliminate chasms of trust which some of those personnel created.  Second Committee discussions on climate health that point towards a hopeful blend of thoughtful policy and existential urgency.

Two of the other genuinely important events from our vantage point happened virtually simultaneously – the annual report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Jordan’s Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, and a report from the Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, Juan Mendez, on some of the recent opportunities and challenges of his generally familiar mandate.

The High Commissioners statement was a bit of a tour de force inasmuch as it represented the flowering of a human rights consciousness beyond “first generation” rights concerns, including applications to fields such as business practices, counter-terrorism measures, UN peacekeeping and humanitarian operations, and the right to privacy.  He reminded us all that human rights norms and treaties are not ends in themselves, but are part of a larger effort to “reach and improve people’s lives.”

For Mendez, his focus was on important issues raised by recent events, the practice of torture in the context of migration and of armed violence.  But even more, with support of Demark and other states, he concentrated his attention on refuting claims by some states that their dual obligations to prevent torture and work towards its general abolition have no jurisdiction beyond national borders.  Mendez makes clear that there are no territorial limitations on most provisions of the Convention against Torture and that states have practical, positive obligations to respect the rights of persons everywhere – not just within their own borders — “to be free from torture and ill-treatment.”

We have written previously on why the abolition of torture –much  like the elimination of armed violence itself — is a precondition for both development and participation.   Torture represents a high stakes imposition of security sector abusiveness that is designed to humiliate both the tortured and the communities surrounding them, sending a chilling message to anyone whose political or social aspirations conflict with the dominant state narrative.

Mendez knows how states cleverly seek to justify practices such as torture on grounds that it helps prevent larger violence. But he is also clear: there is no credible manner consistent with UN treaty obligations in which we can justify the abuse of rights to preserve rights.   We must find ways to address trafficking of weapons and persons without authoring abuses of our own.  We must find ways to counter terrorism that does not create new civilian casualties and provides motivations for dangerous migrations and new terror recruits.

In our search for sound policy, we must be guided by the principle, as the author Wendell Berry used to declare, not to live “beyond the effects of our own bad work.”   In the present context, Berry might well urge us not to make policies for others that we would not accept for ourselves, nor to promote policies which are long on promise and short on substance.   And certainly not to serve up policies when we have not fully considered their unintended consequences to rights and prosperity, the very consequences likely to wreck havoc in communities we had already convinced ourselves we were there to “help.”

Indeed, this is the primary virtue of a human rights based approach to security and development:  the aspiration to fairness and respect, to the elimination of exclusion and discrimination, and to a system with (hopefully) adequate resources and robustness to hold states (and ourselves) directly accountable for our conduct, if not always to guarantee compliance.  This is important work and we need for it to continue throughout the UN system.

Of course, not everything that happens within the UN is consequential or sometimes even helpful, as critics of the UN on its 70th birthday have been quick to note. There are still too many repetitive statements by governments, too many policy gimmicks, too much thoughtless branding of policies without attention to potential consequences, too much recourse to politicized policies when honestly brokered policies are well within our grasp.

These are components of “bad work” whose impacts are generally felt, not by those of us in the UN bubble, by others far from UN headquarters.  But as we have already noted there is much of positive importance taking place here as well, much we are beginning to figure out, to blend together, to embrace beyond the restrictions of national interest.  There are voices here (and others brought here) that point us to a future that has great potential albeit wrapped within peril.

Put more bluntly, the 70th birthday of the UN reflects an uneven prognosis.  We have made healing progress together on so many issues and at so many levels and yet the genuinely existential crises – nuclear weapons, climate change, mass atrocity violence, terrorism—sit with us like so many inter-connected, terminal illnesses.

Given this troubling prognosis, we simply must do better about abandoning practices and policies that lack sufficient consequence.  The UN’s 8th decade must be the one wherein together we cast aside vestiges of failed structures and narrow interests and address the scourges that truly jeopardize our common future.

Dog Days:  The UN Catches its Breath as Global Challenges Fill its August Calendar, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Aug

For those of you who follow US baseball, the “Dog Days of August” represents that time when (now mostly overpaid) players are on the field virtually every day, in the hot sun, with no prospect of time off, let alone occasions for mountain hikes or naps by the pool.  It is a time when tempers are short, thoughtfulness is largely absent and trust in humanity (let alone in umpires) is at a premium.

A UN version of “dog days” might refer to this current time between the energy-draining but successful adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals outcome document and the frenzy that is sure to characterize the September opening of the 70th UN General Assembly.

Despite a relentless (and sometimes frustrating) workload this year and given the longing that some might have for family picnics and time at the beach to read something other than policy briefs, the UN is still very much open for business. Nigeria’s August presidency of the Security Council promises to keep diplomats in their seats as events in Mali, Central African Republic (CAR), Yemen and elsewhere require vigilance, the recent resolution to investigate culpability for chlorine and other chemical weapons use in Syria seeks operational clarity, and important work continues on establishing more trusting relations with regional security mechanisms.

Outside the Council, the UN has been wrestling this week with ways to integrate (and provide full access to) global geospatial data, a key element in assessing shifts in land use patterns, waterfront erosion, climate patters and other matters essential to successful implementation of the recently-adopted Sustainable Development Goals.  Attacks on UN peacekeepers by “spoilers,” murky elections in some host states, and unresolved scandals involving soldiers who are duty bound to protect civilians provide ample fodder for consultations and response planning.   And annual events dedicated to youth and indigenous people are reminders to all of us that equal rights to health care, education and other necessities remain elusive for millions, and that the legitimate needs and goals of future generations are still being compromised by too many short-term decisions made by the current generation of authorities.

And for many, thoughts in August turn to Japan and the annual ritual surrounding those whose lives were ended now 70 years ago in a flash – two flashes actually – from nuclear explosions authored by US authorities. As the surviving Hibakusha and their direct testimony depart this world, we are left with endless arguments about the necessity of weapons use as a means of ending WWII.  More importantly perhaps to current and future generations, we are also left with nuclear stockpiles that are decreasing in size at a snail’s pace while having their capacities modernized at a rapid one.

GAPW closely follows the work of groups such as the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and thus we leave most of the policy advocacy on these weapons to them.  But given that UN headquarters failed to hold a ceremony on Hiroshima Day for the first time in recent memory, and that Nagasaki day falls (today) on a Sunday, a few comments from our own security policy vantage point seems appropriate.

After 70 years of production, threatening gestures and now deliberate, expensive modernization, nuclear weapons remain for most possessor states an addictive element of their national security doctrines. Like alcoholics recovering from a drinking binge and pledging never to drink again, there is episodically bold talk among nuclear weapons possessors of “getting to zero,” of eliminating these weapons once and for all.  And yet, disarmament structures and treaties designed to facilitate elimination are routinely ignored or even deliberately undermined.  Moreover, modernization processes for nuclear weapons are underway (as far as we know) in all current national arsenals, with a price tag according to some reports significantly exceeding a trillion dollars.

Here is a trillion dollar tip:  States don’t modernize weapons if they plan to rid themselves of them.

As many nuclear weapons activists worldwide have noted repeatedly, the consequences of detonation of such massive weapons would be enough to permanently disrupt, if not existentially threaten, life as we know it.  Such detonations would be sufficiently destructive such that survivors might well envy the dead; that the “dog days” following such blasts would make most survivors long for anything approaching normalcy or basic sufficiency, even those hot, sticky, low-energy August days around UN headquarters. Despite the “humanitarian consequences” aptly described over several generations, we continue to play with this nuclear fire, keeping the nuclear threat at or near the top of a deadly list of self-inflicted “wounds” which much of our species seems unwilling to heal, let alone bind.

And here is another trillion dollar tip:   The almost inconceivable amount of money that we waste on nuclear and other weapons systems continues to rob future generations of funds to achieve sustainable development, reverse climate impacts, and guarantee health and educational opportunity for themselves and their own children.

The too-often horizontal, addictive and narcissistic dynamics of our defense and security policies are a source of discouragement and even anger for many, as a spate of news stories from Nagasaki and around the world today make clear.  It is almost beyond imagination that smart, caring, savvy adults can consistently craft policies that might succeed in easing a bit of global pressure but that fail to provide longer-view leadership for anxious people – including the young and indigenous persons who will fill the UN this month – who properly cringe at the thought of inheriting an overheated, bio-compromised, politically-polarized and overly militarized planet.

As ice caps melt, ocean storms intensify, areas of severe drought expand, specie extinctions accelerate and groups armed with second-hand weapons show first-hand contempt for the governments that have too-often neglected their interests, nuclear weapons in their current or modernized iterations represent one crisis waiting to happen that we simply can live without.  The lingering justifications for maintaining (let alone modernizing) these weapons are quickly eroding. Only the policy addictions (and their high price tags) remain intact.

In these “dog days” of August it might be wise for all of us still at work at the UN to spend a bit of time inside this week’s events focused on the needs, aspirations and skills of youth and indigenous persons.  These people, by tradition or generational temperament, demand a longer view on security and development policy, something wiser and less addictive than merely responding to the next alarm bell.  By indigenous standards, we have long since failed the “seventh generation” policy test.   Perhaps this month,on nuclear weapons and other global threats, we can find more of the wisdom and means needed to at least pass the “next generation” one.

A Field Worth Playing On:   The UN recalibrates its laws and its leadership, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Jun

Last Friday at the UN, as the Security Council held another unsettling briefing on Ukraine and as a Meeting of Government Experts sought common ground on technical aspects related to the elimination of illicit flows of small arms and light weapons, a rule-of-law lecture took place that highlighted the increasing value and robustness of leadership emanating from smaller states.

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the UN membership of the Principality of Liechtenstein, HSH Hereditary Prince Alois made a presentation at UN headquarters that did what we would urge many states to do under similar circumstances – share why the decision to commit to multi-lateral engagement through the UN was a sound one.  The Prince cited difficulties in getting traction in the UN as a small state but also highlighted their national interest in the strong, accountable rule-of-law which the Prince rightly noted “is a prerequisite for a level playing field and the sovereign equality of all states.”

While the Prince did note some distinct national interests in matters such as the International Criminal Court and in reform of the UN Security Council, he avoided mention of other policy interests including in Women, Peace and Security activities at UN headquarters, areas where his government has displayed visible and welcome leadership.

Indeed, the key to any successful meeting or process at the UN is quality leadership – the kind that both takes risk and builds consensus, that highlights needs in the international community for which it is then willing to take some significant responsibility – convening and prodding rather than pointing figures and expecting solutions to come from elsewhere.

This kind of leadership has recently been in evidence in many UN forums – especially in the post-2015 sustainable development (SDG) negotiations where Kenya’s Kamau and Ireland’s Donoghue (and Hungary’s Kőrösi previously) navigated a challenging process that has produced an historic ‘zero draft.’  That draft has elicited some criticism but also represents a significant improvement over the prior MDGs and has a good chance of passing muster with Heads of State at the UN in September.  The draft also incorporates noteworthy interventions from many small states, including the Small Island Developing States, which will ensure among other things that climate health has a prominent place in SDG implementation.

Beyond the SDGs, this past couple of days alone has seen an important initiative by Lithuania and Malaysia pushing for Security Council responses to challenging cease fire violations in Ukraine, a site of dismay and sadness for the entire UN system.  At the same time, we note Moldova’s successful stewardship of the Meeting of Government Experts, a technical process related to ending the trafficking in small arms which took place amidst significant leadership changes in UN Disarmament Affairs and followed two frustrating and time consuming events related to armaments: the UN Disarmament Commission and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review.

What all of this leadership has in common is that it emanated from what at another time in the UN’s history might be considered ‘unlikely sources.’  Smaller states have always attempted to champion issues of global importance, but for most of the UN’s history these states have operated in the background as big power interests dominated the stage. Now these smaller states not only sit often in the chair’s seat, but do much inside and outside the Security Council to establish a fully functional global agenda in each of the UN’s core policy pillars.

Some of this agenda is related less to issues and more to structures and working methods.   Currently there are serious (and not so serious) proposals cascading through the halls and conference rooms of the UN to change the way the Security Council does its business, the UN system chooses its leadership, and more.  Part of what underlies these concerns is the quite sensible need to find ways to get permanent Council members to play by the same rules that they insist on for other states.  In these efforts, small and medium sized states are playing a growing, welcome role.

We believe completely that one path to UN reform is lies in the vigorous leadership of major UN processes by officials from smaller states.   This includes non-permanent Security Council members who are slowly eroding the assumptions and prerogatives of the veto-wielding states, not through their military or economic power but through their wise, vocal and even courage engagement with the opportunities provided by Council working methods and the UN charter.  The more good sense the non-permanent members communicate, the more resolve they show on policy, indeed even the more enthusiasm they show for the value and future expansion of multi-lateral contexts, the better our planet will be.  As we are seeing, commitment, wisdom and tenacity from smaller states can begin to wear down power imbalances in the UN system perhaps even more successfully in the long run than attempted charter revisions or the formation of new blocks of states at times as intransigent in their interests as the ‘privileged’ states they seek to counter.

This leveling is critical to the health of the UN system.  But it must be attained less by attempting to drag down the larger powers and more by smaller states stepping up and allowing their leadership and (to the extent they are available) commitment of resources to serve as their “balancing card. “  It also means promoting rule-of-law as the essential leveler, rules and standards that can coax more transparency and accountability from large states –including permanent Council members – than any single option currently available to us.

The “inequalities” that formed the basis for much discussion of post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals have their echo in other parts of the system as well.  Not only inequalities within states but also between states.   But it is never enough to lament the imbalances.   We all must — NGOs as well — be willing to pay our “dues” by increasing our practical interest in a UN system that is still desperately needed and still not fulfilling expectations.

Liechtenstein is one of the small states that have, individually and collectively, made positive contributions to multilateralism in large measure through its interest in rule-of-law.   If this system is ever going to truly balance — and it may not survive unless that happens – more states need to join efforts at rule-of-law based institutional reform.  Such states must also be willing to take leadership in areas of their greatest interests while affirming publicly the benefits to governments and peoples of UN-based multilateral arrangements.