Tag Archives: Sustaining Peace

Profiles in Courage:  The Heroes we Honor, the Heroes We Know, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Oct

Hero Images

We are all ordinary. We are all boring. We are all spectacular. We are all shy. We are all bold. We are all heroes. We are all helpless. It just depends on the day.  Brad Meltzer

We need not take refuge in supernatural gods to explain our saints and sages and heroes and statesmen, as if to explain our disbelief that mere unaided human beings could be that good or wise.  Abraham Maslow

I am of certain convinced that the greatest heroes are those who do their duty in the daily grind of domestic affairs whilst the world whirls as a maddening dreidel.  Florence Nightingale

She preferred imaginary heroes to real ones, because when tired of them, the former could be shut up in the tin kitchen till called for, and the latter were less manageable.  Louisa May Alcott

In a building that has seen dramatic increases in policy activity over the past few years on issues from oceans to pandemics, the UN’s scheduling of those activities appears to be almost entirely divorced from the pulse of the system – what diplomats and other stakeholders are most concerned about and how to ensure that those concerns are not competing needlessly for space or time slots.

So often over the past years, events are simply miscast, scheduled for small rooms when interest is high and in large rooms where smallish audiences are urged to “come to the front,” ostensibly for better optics.  In the same vein, events are often scheduled in such a way that diplomats and other stakeholders are forced to make choices that they simply shouldn’t have to make, choices between events on similar themes that, each in their own way, convey information and inspiration that we who labor in this space should not be required to do without.

Tuesday morning was one of those schedule-challenged times.  In the ECOSOC Chamber the Mission of India sponsored an event, Non-Violence in Action, dedicated to a review of the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, a legacy that as president of the General Assembly María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés noted might be fading in some of its specifics, but which continues to inspire the current “pulse” of a nation clearly on the move. She also insisted on taking “the longer view” on peace, and reminded all that “non-violence should never be confused with non-action.” The PGA was joined by the Administrator of the UN’s Development Program, USG Achim Steiner, who cited the “remarkable leadership that led people to believe that it was possible to change the world without the use of weapons or other coercive measures.”  He also tied Gandhi’s “overlapping” legacy to the UN’s current work on the Sustainable Development Goals, wondering aloud if our current actions are likely to “make conditions of the vulnerable better or worse?”

At the same time, in the General Assembly Hall, a different voice was being elevated, that of Nelson Mandela whose statue now powerfully resides in the Hall’s public entrance. The Nelson Mandela Peace Summit was first convened on September 24 at the opening of the 73rd UN General Assembly and was completed this past Tuesday as part of the UN’s commitment to “sustaining peace.” This resumed session allowed additional delegations to reflect on another charismatic and epochal figure in our collective past, someone whose extraordinary legacy shone a light on our diverse and collaborative responsibilities to peace (and to each other) across and beyond the African continent.

There were some quite powerful statements in this venue as well.  Latvia, for instance, called attention to the “serious wounds” in the world that require us to step up our commitment to conflict prevention.  German (soon to join the Security Council) along with Chile noted the ways in which the ideas and priorities of Mandela’s life can help us reverse current threats to multilateralism.  The Philippines cited Mandela’s commitment to the “power of reconciliation” and noted that “where the rule-of-law triumphs over prejudice, peace is much more possible.”  And Ukraine affirmed that the “power of personal courage and self-sacrifice” can be even more impactful than the power of a country.  This world is, the Ambassador exclaimed, “hungry for action, not words.”

Pakistan made another important contribution, noting that despite the influences and inspirations of these genuine heroes, “conflicts and abuses now abound, the UN Charter is often ignored, and poverty and exclusion remain blights on the world.”   I and my colleagues did not interpret this as a cynical or despairing assessment so much as a reminder that the Mandelas and Gandhis of our world, as fortunate as we are to still enjoy their legacy guidance, have not in and of themselves resolved our multiple human dilemmas.  As such their words and deeds can still motivate, but are not a substitute for our own engagement, for our own heroism, for our own responses to needs and conflicts occurring within our midst, for our own responsibilities to inspire those around us, especially the children, to pursue a higher calling.

Too many of us seem to prefer our heroes dead and distant, “shut up in the tin kitchen” until we have need of them.  But the times call for something else altogether, for heroes we can honor but also, whenever possible, heroes we can reach out and touch; whose lives beyond the legacies we are fortunate to share in all their complexity, who can share the “daily grind” with us and help sort out the nuances of our own potential heroism such that we are able to maximize whatever goodness and wisdom have been apportioned to us.

In this context, it is important to mention newly-minted Nobel laureate Nadia Murad, a 25 year old Yazidi woman who, in a short period of time, went from being a serial rape victim at the hands of ISIL to a frequent voice at the UN helping all of us to grasp the magnitude of abuses committed by some state and non-state actors in conflict situations.   I don’t know Nadia personally, but I have seen and heard her many times and I have been amazed at  how well she has navigated this difficult stage; how she has tried to inspire greater action by states without bitterness; how she has inspired determination rather than despair in the women who have also lived some part of her difficult life story.  Nadia has never, at least in my hearing, claimed the “ruined life” that we in the “first world” often claim to excess.  This is heroism in real time and space.

But to be fully engaged, it must get even more personal than this. We can be so preoccupied with not being taken advantage of, of not being disappointed yet again by human frailties and inconsistencies, that we respond by shutting ourselves down to possibility, including the possibility that heroic practice – referencing but not reduced to our statues and ceremonies — can be our legacy as well.  There are days, indeed, when all of us are boring and helpless, discouraged and distracted, meaner than we want or need to be.   But on those days when we are bold and “spectacular,” when we are attentive and energized, when we are kind and caring, change that we could not otherwise anticipate becomes wholly possible — even in these stressful and mistrustful times.

Our heroes don’t have to embody a perfectly consistent and intentional life; indeed we would do well if more of our “less manageable” sources of wisdom and inspiration were more directly accessible to us, accessible to accompany our journey, but also to lay bare the personal struggles — even the wrestling matches with demons — from which genuine heroism most often emanates.  And of course to insist on our own commitment to accompaniment as well –to do what we can to help others navigate this “maddening dreidel” of a world in ways that bring out their better angels, and our own.


Redesigning Peace: Creative Learning from Diverse Local Actors, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Apr

In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.  Czesław Miłosz

We value virtue but do not discuss it. The honest bookkeeper, the faithful wife, the earnest scholar get little of our attention compared to the embezzler, the tramp, the cheat. John Steinbeck

It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are in some degree independent of men. Mary Wollstonecraft

It isn’t enough to stand up and fight darkness. You’ve got to stand apart from it, too. You’ve got to be different from it.   Jim Butcher

In some ways, this was a hopeful week for the international community.  The images of Korean leaders greeting each other across the DMZ to start mapping out an end to the Korean War and the possible de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula were remarkable.   There is cause for skepticism here, including with regard to the intentions of the big powers to manipulate the current diplomatic opening, but it our hope that the international community can attentively accompany this still-fragile process rather than seek to exploit it for political “credit” or to enhance economic or military alliances.

At the UN, the president of the General Assembly Miroslav Lajčák set off a fresh series of High Level discussions on “sustaining peace,” yet another UN slogan at one level, but also an overdue opportunity to refresh and reset our security frameworks.  In diverse conference rooms (including the Security Council chamber), states and other stakeholders engaged in what Equatorial Guinea this week called the “redesign” of our collective peace and security architecture, getting out in front of armed conflict and its devastating impacts rather than waiting until defenses of state sovereignty give way to what are generally untimely and expensive pleas for peacekeeping operations and conflict-related humanitarian assistance.   As France put it on Wednesday, once the “gears of conflict” are set in motion, we must find the means to respond sooner and better.

In the end, the value of “sustaining peace” lies in its commitment to both use all the tools and actors at our disposal and to create the capacities and networks that we still need to fully honor our peace and security commitments; commitments considered by many – often tinged with anxiety – constituting what Poland called the “holy grail” of UN policy mandates. As such, one of the most hopeful events of this past week was a side session, hosted by Belgium’s Queen Mathilda, during which women from several African countries made the case for why mediation must command a higher profile in the UN’s conflict toolbox, but also why women are so often well positioned within their communities to adapt such tools to productive conflict prevention ends.

As the GA  High Level event made plain, we have tools still to build and, indeed, a culture of multilateralism still to firm up within which such tools can have power to shift our conflict dynamics.  As evidenced in a speech delivered on Tuesday by H.E. Michael Higgins, the President of Ireland, it is certainly justifiable  to express frustration with our collective incapacity to use the skills already at hand to eliminate violence and poverty, at the same time acknowledging the collective imperative to recover through new tools and urgent actions the “ring of authenticity” of the words we use in this policy space – and sometimes overuse –to lament armed violence and the inequalities and insecurities at community level which too often provide its “oxygen.”

When speaking of the need to overhaul our collective peace and security framework, a favorite term of SG Guterres (as is well known) is “prevention,” a term that is relatively easy to toss around but difficult to apply in practice within an institution where virtually every ray of sunshine is clouded in politics.  We have written much about this notion in earlier years, underscoring the degree to which “prevention” remains a pervasive driver of our family and community lives.  But we have also noted that it has not, except in fits and starts, translated into actionable policy at multilateral levels.  Diplomats who are properly scrupulous about the diet, health care, education and weather-appropriate clothing for their own children are infrequently able to bring those skills and insights into UN conference rooms.

We agree with what the ever-pragmatic Kazakhstan offered this week in the Security Council about prevention:  when we are able to truly implement it, prevention “works, saves lives, and is cost effective.”  And we do understand that drawing analogies from family life to multilateral policy spaces is fraught with difficulty.   Diplomats can be scrupulous with children on the (quite valid) assumption that they are not yet able to make good decisions for their own long term benefit.   With member states, the assumption is closer to the opposite, that states are able and primarily empowered to “handle their own business” until they demonstrate (and then admit) that they cannot manage those responsibilities themselves.  What states want (rightly so) is capacity support for conflict resolution and peacebuilding, but they mostly want it within a framework as noted by many states (and perhaps China most reliably) of full respect for national sovereign interests.

Such is the “dance” that the UN engages as it attempts to honor its diverse peace and security responsibilities.  Despite justifiable hope emanating from Liberia, Colombia and now the Korean peninsula, our peace and security architecture still prompts many to “throw up their hands” at the apparent inability of the system to end settlements in the West Bank, prohibit the bombing of civilians in Yemen and Syria, commit the governments of Mali and South Sudan to honest peace agreement implementation, find justice and relief for the people of Puerto Rico and Haiti, and much more.  The successes are real and most welcome, but the frustrations are numerous and patience with the existing system, at least in some quarters, grows thinner by the week.

But there were encouraging signs this week that we might be on the verge of the kind of renaissance that we have tried in our small way to point towards over several years – an integrated security framework that is as concerned with water as with weapons; as concerned with gender as with the prevention of genocide.  Such a framework is, in some significant ways, the “gift” of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an ambitious “blueprint” for a healthier and more peaceful future wherein by 2030, in our most optimistic expectations, the major triggers of conflict are tamed and the pervasive impacts of violence are healed.

The SDGs give special credence to two important, security-relevant insights to which we probably don’t give sufficient attention:  a practical (and enthusiastic) affirmation of the intrinsic value of multilateralism on the one hand, and the need to make good on our promises to the full integration of global actors on the other.   The first of these was well noted — often with caution—during the dizzying array of events held here in New York this week.  Indeed many states (and many other actors as well) worry  that a “new Cold War” brewing among the major powers, coupled with new concerns over fiscal austerity and the potential escalation of unresolved conflicts, threaten to unravel enthusiasm for behaviors conducive to effective multilateral policy, including as Ethiopia urged this week the reigning in of our “short sided pursuit of national interests.”

But it is the second of these that interests me most, the need to inspire hopeful actions in others, but also to acknowledge and extend the many good works that generally fly under the radar but contribute in their own way to more sustainable futures.  Of all the images of this past week, one of my favorites was the one of truck drivers assembled in formation under a Michigan overpass to deter someone apparently seeking to commit suicide.   Truck drivers, not known as a group for their policy savvy (certainly not when I was driving one), are seen implementing a solution to urgent human need as creative as most of what we routinely accomplish within our policy bureaucracies.   Indeed, these drivers reminded me a bit of the women mediators from Africa and those advocating for justice for Puerto Rico and from indigenous communities – people engaging in hopeful responses to despair or injustice, and likely capable of doing more if we would only set proper places for them at the table.

Despite some appearances to the contrary, there is practical virtue running all through our communities. If a “redesigned” peace architecture is to succeed we must find ways to highlight and enable more of that hopeful and creative energy.

Future Shock:  Traumatized Youth and Prospects for Sustaining Peace, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Jan


Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children, Sitting Bull

As many of your recognize, part of our task in these weekly missives is to blend events at the UN that are too-rarely blended – to help people inside the UN become more conscious of policy linkages and to help people outside the UN discern what this institution is uniquely suited for – and perhaps not so terribly well suited for.

In both aspects, this week presented multiple venues and options for reflection.

The highlight of the week was probably the 1+ days devoted by the President of the UN General Assembly (PGA) to “sustaining peace,” a welcome effort to link implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), arguably the UN’s most ambitious current project, to the promotion and maintenance of peace, arguably the UN’s most important overall mission.

The events, including a relatively uninspiring, pre-event, “brainstorming” session, attracted the highest levels of officials across the UN system.  Brainstorming is not what we do best here, but this particular session at least put on the table the notion that funding the SDGs will require some adjustments to our rapacious patterns of military spending, and that such adjustments are more likely if we can demonstrate as much capacity to prevent armed conflict as we currently expend to clean up the debris left behind in armed conflict’s aftermath.

The main “sustaining peace” event in the Trusteeship Council was devoted in part to what GA President Thompson called the “disastrous consequences” that conflict inflicts on development prospects. On his last day as chair of the Peacebuilding Commission, Kenya’s Ambassador Kamau urged capacity development for what he called a “diplomatic surge” that could help all UN member states address threats in their earliest and most manageable stages.  And Switzerland’s Minister Baeriswyl was one of several voices advocating for an end to our policy “fragmentation” so that we can impact the security and development fragility of states with greater efficiency and effectiveness.

By the end of these sessions, there was a bit more clarity on what “sustaining peace” means in theory, especially regarding the reinvestment of our energies more towards conflict prevention and less towards the rehabilitation and reconstruction that have proven so costly and with uneven consequences for human and ecological well-being.  Nevertheless, the Mexican Ambassador made his own plea – urging that we quickly move beyond “beautiful political concepts” to embrace the hard, practical work of peacemaking whose success has eluded our grasp in more instances than we are publicly willing to acknowledge.

And much of the failure of that work directly impacts future prospects for our children.

During both the main and side events on “sustaining peace,” states as diverse as Cambodia, Jordan and Andorra all advocated for education to raise levels of SDG awareness among youth.  Such education is welcome especially if it then leads to more direct participation by youth in the implementation of these diverse goals.  And indeed speakers did advocate more pathways to involvement, led by the PGA himself who noted that youth have a greater “skin in this game” since they are the ones who will inherit the fruits of our policy labors, for good or for ill.   In that context, the PGA lamented what he called the “selfishness” of too many adults that inhibits gender balancing and other hopeful prospects for his own (and for many others’) “female grandchildren.”

Indeed, the “selfishness” of adults currently takes so many insidious forms that result in long-term physical and psychological damage to our young.   At a small side event this week seeking funding pledges for a badly-needed “Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty,” a roster of UN and NGO experts highlighted the horrific and lasting impacts on children who find themselves in often inhumane, punitive detention facilities: some who have been victims of organized crime and traffickers; some who were living on the street having been separated from their families; some exhibiting clear signs of mental illness or drug dependency; some seized by government or insurgent forces during armed conflict.  These “invisible and forgotten” children include many who had already been victimized through sexual violence or recruitment into criminality, a second-helping of trauma for lives that are literally being drained of promise.

We can now only guess how many children are currently deprived of liberty in facilities that are dispiriting at best.  In this as in other areas of children’s rights, we need better data to guide our policy and focus our concern.  But what we are already able to predict is the long psychic climb that these deprived children must make if they are ever to live “healthy and constructive” lives, if they are ever to achieve their full capacity to help guide this planet through what remain treacherous waters.

As is noted often at the UN, this generation of youth is the largest in human history.   But it is also a generation characterized by deep distress in many of its sub-groupings.  When damage in the world is mirrored by — — even at times surpassed by — damage absorbed by our children and young people, both education and participation are sure to be negatively impacted by a trust- and confidence-eroding trauma that we can and must collectively do more to prevent.

The UN already recognizes its responsibility to promote “mental health for all” in part through SDG-related initiatives led or supported by several member states including Panama, Belgium, Canada, Liberia and especially Palau.  Indeed, at a UN side event this week co-hosted by the NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, Palau’s Ambassador Otto reiterated his plea for mental health services and priorities, noting that it is not only in places like Aleppo and Sana’a where services are needed, but also in the midst of our own hometowns.  Otto recognizes the value of spiritual resources in mental health, but also acknowledges the longer-term threats to peace and development that present themselves when youth and families are abandoned to cope with the impacts of trauma and mental illness that, if anything, are clearly still on the rise, still represent a distressing “shock” to a collective, sustainable future.

In a not-so-charming opening gambit, the new US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley began her tenure here with a threat – that the US would be “taking names” of states that do not “watch the back” of the US and its interests.   We’d like to suggest that the “names” that Ambassador Haley should take first are those of agencies and governments that deliberately inflict – through policy and practice — traumatic damage on children and youth, thereby creating deprivations of mental health that will impede “sustaining peace” efforts long past the tenure of any of our UN offices – or national administrations.