Tag Archives: Terrorism

A Distant Dawn: Sustaining Agency in Disconsolate Times, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 May

Deep Web 2

But there is nothing more beautiful than being desperate.  And there is nothing more risky than pretending not to care.  Rachel C. Lewis

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. T. S. Eliot

As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. Carl Jung

One of the blessings of this small office – indeed perhaps the only real reason to keep it open – is the extraordinary range of people who regularly grace it.  Scholars and diplomats, policymakers and activists, people from all over the world come for a bit of conversation, advice on how to navigate the UN system, or to share ideas for projects or publications that can open more space for productive policy engagement in the global community.

Many of these visitors are young people, young not only by my standards (which more or less includes everyone now in existence) but young in the sense of being on the cusp of challenges and responses that will be “momentous” for their own lives at least and quite possibly also for the planet as a whole.

Thankfully, if tentatively, most of our visitors seek a larger version of momentousness; they have bills to pay and obligations to family to meet, but they also want their lives to matter in a broader sense.   They come to offices like ours (and to the United Nations) in part to test their skills, in part to assess the state of the world, in part to see if and how they can best direct their energies so they can sustain both their livelihoods and the health of the planet on which those livelihoods ultimately depend.

So they walk through UN security, passes in hand, and they sit and they listen.  Some of what they hear is interesting; some is hopeful. Some makes them wonder if the (mostly older) people who manage the global community and dominate policy discourse inside and outside the UN are committed enough – perhaps even desperate enough — to change what needs to be changed, fix what needs to be fixed, such that peoples and cultures worldwide can survive the current gloom and even thrive once a fuller light finally returns.

The verdict on all of this is mixed. This week alone, our current group of young people participated in UN events as hopeful as the redesign of cities and the promise of new technology for sustainable development and as troubling as the acidification of our oceans, sexual violence in conflict zones, the abuse of children in detention facilities, and the implications of diminished funding for Palestinian and other Middle East refugees.

Perhaps most disturbing of all was a Security Council Counter-Terror Directorate (CTED) briefing on ways to prevent terrorists from acquiring deadly weapons.   The event focused in part on the so-called “dark web,” a largely invisible part of the internet devoted to promoting clandestine access to all kinds of illegally trafficking goods, including of course weaponry.   This excellent event (as are virtually all CTED briefings) was almost a metaphor for our times:  helpful strategies to combat access to weapons and funding by terrorists and other “spoilers” while failing to note other hard (and relevant) questions – including those related to the quality and potency of our governance structures and the reckless enormity of our collective weapons production. In the end, there was for our interns a lingering sense that the dark and ominous forces seeking to undermine what remains of our social order seem to be moving more nimbly than those seeking to stop them.

Though this is clearly belaboring the obvious, current global circumstances are more than a little overwhelming.  There are so many needs to be met, so many issues to interrogate, so many tensions to resolve, so many “fires” to manage.   There seems to be darkness of one sort or another lurking in every corner, layers below layers,  making it both difficult to trust the light but also one’s own ability to help shine light on those dark places (in the world and in ourselves) that threaten even the best of our treaties, resolutions and other policy responses to global threats.

One of the challenges of befriending and mentoring younger people in this space is how to modulate the input, pointing out hopeful signs without over-selling them, sharing the occasional dis-ingenuousness of our multi-lateral system without reinforcing cynicism, introducing them to the full “truth” about our current unsettled circumstances without motivating them to “abandon ship,” to retreat into narrower career and personal interests that are more “bite-sized” and then convincing themselves that “bite size” is all they can handle.

Sometimes the UN does the little things to help us make this “sale.”   Other times not so much.

This past Friday, the UN hosted an event on “Investing in African Youth” that offered some promise that the aspirations, skills and frustrations of some of the young people from this largest-ever generation on our youngest global continent would help inform our policy direction.   The event focused on the African Union Roadmap on Harnessing the Demographic Dividend, based on the contention that “a peaceful and secure Africa requires an empowered generation of youth.”

While voices of such “empowered” youth did eventually take the stage – one in particular was particularly “put off” by the proceedings – the opening panel had already drained the room of much of its energy.  One after another, older persons (mostly male dignitaries) had ignored the call for brevity to such a degree that this panel alone set the schedule back by a full 80 minutes!

When it was finally time for younger voices, they were all on yet another tight leash, having now to share their views in an “august” UN setting while also compensating for older people who, quite frankly, had abused both their positions and the protocols of their “pulpits” in ways that are simply too common in UN conference rooms.   As a result, we were honoring youth by stifling their voices; we were collectively admonishing ourselves to listen to younger people while dominating their space, stealing their time, blunting their opportunity to make their case and not simply air their impatience.

Watching with us this past week was Lin Evola, the founder of the Peace Angels Project which (among other things) has mastered the art of reuse – in this case transforming the metal from used weaponry into compelling and hopeful images.   While she was with us, Lin took copious notes which she turned into drawings that represented the vast disturbances of the week, the crises we have yet to resolve.

The central focus of the drawing Lin contributed to Global Action was of people – including young people — standing mostly emotionless behind barbed wire, surrounded by warnings of famine, violence, forced migration and abuse.  For me, and for the current and past interns with whom I have already shared the drawing, the irony was apparent.  People bearing the brunt of crises, but lacking agency; people whose legitimate voices have been isolated, even barricaded; people who can barely adjust to the storms that surround them, let alone contribute to minimizing global shocks.

Such all-too-common constraints on human agency are, for me, more frightening than the dark web, more disturbing than any Security Council briefing.   When we overwhelm instead of support; when we allow others to slip blithely into complacency or cynicism; when we stifle the energies and voices that can help us reach the dawn, we are merely extending the reach of our own collective darkness.  If they are to locate and sustain their own agency in these difficult times, the many talented people — young and not-so-young — who pass through offices like ours need and deserve better from the rest of us.

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The Company We Keep: Discerning the Human Faces and Impacts behind the UN Policy Curtain, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Jun

As I write, this is World Environment Day as well as the beginning (Monday) of the holy season of Ramadan.  The latter is an opportunity for Muslims (especially) to separate for a time from the demands and distractions of the world, to “recover themselves” and their spiritual moorings.  The former is an opportunity for us to reflect and act on the many ways in which we continue, in part via those same demands and distractions, to undermine the capacity of the planet to support the life on which we directly depend.

This was a short work week in New York, but the UN for its part managed to offer up a menu of significant discussions that offered opportunities to bridge gaps between the policies we craft in this place and our levels of concern for the people responsible to implement such policies or who find themselves (for better or worse) on their receiving end.

This past Friday, the Security Council under France’s leadership took up the matter of conflict-related sexual abuse and human trafficking.   In that “open” meeting featuring the Secretary General and his SRSG Zainab Hawa Bangura, more than a few states were able to get beyond the data and threats to reflect on some of the ways that they can add value and draw closer (and genuine) connections to the needs of those affected by conflicts that, as Nigeria noted, we should do more to prevent in the first place.  In this context, it is important to note efforts by the UK, Angola and other states to highlight the responsibility to address local stigmas that tend to heap ridicule and shame, thereby magnifying the abuses that women and girls already endure within conflict settings.   Other states pointed to the deep traumas that conflict related abuse creates, with the Netherlands smartly urging states to consider ways to more effectively “accompany women and girls in their recovery from abuse.”

For its part the General Assembly held a useful all day consultation on conditions for and ways to prevent the “radicalizing” of children and youth, an issue that President of the General Assembly Lykketoft  wished “we did not have to discuss.”  DSG Eliasson commented on this “sad subject,” reminding the audience of mostly diplomats that “youth are subjects, not objects.” Therefore, he urged us to work with youth to resolve threats of extremist recruitment and not plan around them.

At the same time, as USG for Children and Armed Conflict Zerrougui noted during this session, we must do more to “drain the swamps” we have created, swamps full of enticements for youth, but swamps also characterized by “toxicity” emanating both from a loss of hope in a better future, and  from international responses that are too much about the military and too little about restoring family and community connections.  Young people will be responsible for this world soon enough and several delegations noted that we must do what we can now to ensure that their transitions to leadership and responsibility are secure, hopeful and inclusive.

But for us, perhaps the most interesting and personal engagement came during a meeting with NGOs and the Heads of the 10 UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies, committees of independent experts that monitor implementation of the international human rights treaties that define this pillar of the UN system and its core responsibilities to global constituents.  This monitoring is an essential confidence-building measure in a UN system that – excluding the Security Council in its best moments – has few ways to enforce state compliance with previously agreed principles of state conduct.

We were invited to this meeting because of our long and fruitful relationship with Paris-based FIACAT in its work to promote the abolition of torture and capital punishment around the world.   The meeting was chaired by Argentina’s Fabian Salvioli with whom we have had good but sadly infrequent contact over the past few years.

There were some probing questions posed to the Treaty Body heads by the relatively few NGOs in attendance, given the reality that the UN’s human rights system is not yet functioning in the way that encourages full-confidence by global citizens.  At this meeting, Salvioli acted mostly as facilitator, but his and other interventions were important – urging more clarity, specificity and follow-up regarding NGO interventions and recommendations and in languages to which Treaty Body members have ready access.   But he also noted, as did others of his colleagues, that their prior discussions with states were too often acrimonious, with accusations of bias in the interpretation and application of Human Rights treaties topping off what sounded like a lengthy listing of state complaints.

For our part, we wished to reinforce the pragmatic concerns of NGO colleagues – especially regarding the growing problem of government reprisals against human rights defenders – but our primary concern at this meeting was with the “quality of life” of those tasked with upholding state rights commitments.  It is clear to us, surely to others, that the task of managing Treaty Bodies is needlessly difficult.   Budgets and staffing are fragile.  Reporting is politically complex and often draining. States are sometimes resistant, even hostile, in part because they don’t really understand what Treaty Bodies do, why they are deemed essential to maintaining the quality of so many human lives (not to mention the credibility of the UN system).  Nor do states understand the largely voluntary sacrifices that these Treaty Body leaders make (partially in honor of the sacrifices of so many advocates in the field) to keep this essential but highly challenging system working and improving.  In many ways, this is a labor of love — and not nearly enough of that love is returned.

In the aforementioned GA discussion on youth and extremism, the Mayor of Rotterdam (NL) noted that the question we should be asking is not “who is to blame” for situations in the world but who is to take responsibility? Being the responsible party is becoming a bit of a lost art, but there are still many places in our societies, including within the UN, where people are able and willing to look beyond immediate policy tasks and statements to take the temperature of the systems of which they are part, the leaders tasked with maintaining and improving those systems, and the many people worldwide whose lives are needlessly undermined when we fail to make honest and thoughtful improvements in the systems they have come to rely on.

Early last week, the Security Council convened to renew the sanctions and peacekeeping (UNMISS) activities in the still-fragile state of South Sudan.  During that discussion, the South Sudan Ambassador made an appeal to all who seek a better life in his country and all who support the current transition in his country to more fervently seek “reconciliation and forgiveness” in response to many years of a violent and “bitter past.”

This appeal implies intensely personal work, sharing stories of pain and longing that are not to be “used” for partisan political purposes; accompanying the victimized, the betrayed and the simply-weary; and providing more tangible support to those who labor on behalf of a more just world.  Thankfully, behind the “policy curtain” is a wealth of human capacity, even empathy, that we are only now starting to tap and that promises to shorten the distance from bitter to reconciled.

Defining, Protecting, Recruiting Youth: Security Council Members Revisit their 20s, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Dec

This was quite a week for the UN.  A Climate agreement was reached in Paris.   Several contentious Security Council meetings helped to define its role going forward on Ukraine, Libya, Central African Republic and the DPRK.   The General Assembly took public responsibility for improving mechanisms for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.   And the human rights “pillar” took center stage with high-level events to remember victims of genocide and promote “Human Rights Upfront.”

But perhaps the most intriguing event of the week was not about climate or genocide, but about “youth,” that vague and fluctuating category of human existence to which we often pay too little attention unless we are trying to sell something – a product, generally, but also an idea, a policy, a value or even a lifestyle.

On December 9, with leadership from Jordan, the Security Council passed Resolution 2250 on “Youth, Peace and Security” (www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp symbol=S/RES/2250(2015). Modeled to some degree after SCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, this resolution represents a formal affirmation of the “important role youth can play in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and as a key aspect of the sustainability, inclusiveness and success of peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts.”

Other sections of the resolution pointed to the “unique demographic dividend” represented by today’s large population of young adults that can help build lasting peace and economic prosperity.  The resolution also cites the vulnerability of these persons to recruitment by terrorist organizations and urges more protection for them during conflict and post-conflict situations as well as their greater participation in “peace processes.”

On the surface there is little to argue with here.  Jordan, which has been a most influential non-permanent member over the past two years, has used that influence to sponsor a resolution that recognizes the significant peace and security contributions that can be made – and are now being made – by younger people.  Moreover, this resolution blends two of the major concerns voiced by Jordan during its Security Council tenure – promoting youth and countering terrorism – which we hope it will continue to take leadership on once Jordan “returns” to its place within the general UN membership.

Indeed, one of the important takeaways from the service of non-permanent Council members is defining the security-related issues that will exemplify their work at the UN going forward.   Nigeria, for instance, has taken leadership on Security Sector Reform.  Lithuania has been a compelling voice on gender issues as well as on countering foreign terror fighters and the ongoing security crisis in Ukraine.  Chile has done excellent work on UN-sponsored criminal tribunals and on the requirement of dependable international justice in general.   Chad has been a strong voice for the evolving security partnership that is developing between the Council and the African Union.   As with Jordan, we appeal to all these members to retain their voices on issues on which they have gained considerable expertise and diplomatic visibility during their Council tenure.  Each of them has earned this leadership and, like governments before them, we very much need them to exercise it fully.

Returning to this landmark resolution 2250, there are caveats that we would wish to pose to Jordan and other states and stakeholders regarding the definition, character and policy access of youth.

First, we should probably acknowledge that the term “youth” represents something of a controversial matter.  The resolution – following the lead of the General Assembly – defines “youth” as persons between 18 and 29 years of age.    As someone who was raised in a different time, who was on his own making some semblance of adult decisions (albeit mostly badly) prior to reaching the chronological starting line for this resolution, I have always found this definition a bit jarring.  Rightly or wrongly, I would have been appalled as a 16 or 17 year old to be patronized by a definition that seemed to be more about limiting my options than honoring what seemed at the time to be my best assets and interests.  That such a limitation could have been applied to me at 28 or 29 years of age is almost beyond comprehension.

I suspect it would seem that way to many “youth” now as well.  For instance, just yesterday, thousands of US navy and army cadets sat in a stadium in Philadelphia and cheered on their respective football teams.   These are all “youth” by 2250 definition, persons in their 20s who just happen to be well on their way to becoming officers in a huge military establishment, thus having much to do, for better or worse, with how the international community defines and implements security.   They are not looking for protection by their government, but are ostensibly offering protection to the rest of us.  Adults assuming adult responsibilities.

Clearly, the criteria for the youth “leadership” and “empowerment” we seek to promote are not immediately apparent either to young people or the rest of us.   There are many “youth” in the approved range who are now running NGOs, religious institutions, even political offices. Does “leadership” simply mean being in positions of institutional authority, or is something else involved, something related to character and maturity of judgment?  In a similar vein, does “empowerment” merely mean “having a voice?”  And if it is about this, does it matter what kind of voice that is, what its objectives are?  Clearly the Council doesn’t particularly want “voices” that promote terrorism or advocate its attractions.  What else don’t we want?  Do we want voices that promote sexism, xenophobia, or rampant consumerism?  Do we want voices that advocate the selfish hording of resources or the destruction of ecosystems?   Do we want voices that dismiss sustainable development or human rights as anachronistic artifacts of sentimental liberal states?

The implications of these questions are, at least to my office, very much worth considering.   As young people — especially from more elite environments — spend more and more time in school, the values of school resonate, which at least in much of the West include the commodification of knowledge, competitive careerism, peer obsessiveness, etc.   What school (and western culture at large) is not so good at, apparently, is providing tools for genuine independence of thinking and living beyond the expectations of peers and the wider culture.  Nevertheless, people in their 20s, despite the intense consumerist and institutional programming to which they have been subjected, retain essential elements of distinctiveness. They don’t all go to college, they don’t all leave their birth communities to pursue “opportunity,” they don’t all spend their free time in frivolous socializing, they don’t all embrace religious institutions or political ideologies, they don’t all stare into cell phones for hours a day, they aren’t all suspicious of adults who aren’t directly subsidizing their lifestyles.

In some sense, there is irony in having to encourage governments, as does SCR 2250, to pay more attention to a demographic that is so large in number and so close to assuming cultural and political leadership in their respective societies.  These erstwhile “youth” are adults, plain and simple.   As with persons in every other demographic category, they deserve policy attention from states and international institutions, in their case especially on matters of education (not only school-based) and employment. But they are generally not helpless, not attracted to every “bell and whistle” offered up by advertisers or terror groups, not “special needs” any more than other generation might be.

If our political leaders want to involve these “youth” in efforts to eliminate extremism and prevent conflict, goals about which we heartily agree, this would seem to require (at least) two ingredients beyond formal resolutions. First, a commitment to reopening inter-generational dialogue, dialogue in which older persons listen more and judge less, but wherein they also insist that “youth” in their 20s commit to no long hide behind age-specific, “essentialist” notions that both let them put off their larger responsibilities and keep them inching towards an adult status that they have mostly already earned.

And the key to this, in every one of “youth’s” diverse incarnations, is personal and policy respect, respect which recognizes and encourages multiple thoughts and aspirations, respect that allows young adults to breathe while meeting their responsibilities and finding their places in a world that is unlikely to heal without their full input.   If Resolution 2250 helps to cultivate higher quality, cross-generational relationships and more fully respected, policy initiative and leadership from younger people, it will become a truly lasting testament to Jordan’s tenure on the Security Council.

 

Why Religious Conflict Will Intensify in Africa, By Professor Hussein Solomon

7 Dec

 

Editor’s Note: Professor Hussein Solomon of South Africa is a longtime friend of our office and is widely recognized as one of the very finest commentators in all of Africa on counter-terrorism and the triggers of mass violence.  Here he provides insight on the security, development and even gender implications from increasing religious conflict across the continent. 

Originally published as an RIMA Occasional Paper, Volume 3 (2015), Number 11 (December 2015)

This past week, Pope Francis conducted a six-day tour of the African continent that took him to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic. The latter, in particular, has been experiencing violent clashes between Muslims and Christians. In this context, the visit by the pontiff to a mosque in the Central African Republic was highly symbolic of the need to reach across the religious divide if sustainable peace is to be achieved on this troubled continent.

What happens in Africa could well define the future trajectory of Muslim-Christian relations globally. What accounts for this prognosis is simple demographics. Between 2010 and 2050, Africa’s share of the world’s population will increase from 12 percent to 20 percent. To put it differently, this continent will experience the fastest demographic growth on the planet. At the same time, in a mere two generations, the majority of the world’s Christians is expected to reside in Africa[1]. Over the same period the number of Muslims globally will grow by a staggering 73 percent[2]. The number of Muslims in Africa, meanwhile is expected to grow by nearly 60 percent from 242.5 million in 2010 to 385.9 million in 2030[3]. The interaction – whether peaceful or conflictual – between these two great faiths on the African continent could increasingly define the interaction between Christianity and Islam globally.

The nature of the interaction between these two faiths is however complicated by environmental variables and the politics of identity. Much of the population growth is taking place in societies where there is a scarcity of resources. Think here of the Sahel.  Growing desertification, has intensified conflict over scarce arable land. The city of Jos in Nigeria, for instance has, witnessed ethno-religious conflict since 2001 which has pitted Christian Berom against Muslim Hausas. At the heart of the conflict is access to fertile land at a time when the population is growing whilst the arable land has been under sustained threat due to the ongoing drought[4]. Over and above the twin impact of environmental variables and religion, Jos also highlights situations where ethnic and regional identities reinforce the underlying religious divide. Add to this the politics of exclusion practised by the Nigerian state, and conflict is all but inevitable. Indeed, most African states have failed miserably at inclusive governance.

Another dimension of the demographic problem is highlighted by Eric Kaufmann in his seminal book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century[5]. He convincingly argued that the fertility rates among non-religious communities is displaying the lowest fertility rates in human history – often less than one child per woman. Conversely, the fertility rates of deeply religious people are several times this. Moreover this holds true across faith communities – Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or Jew. This is unsurprising given the fact that religious communities emphasise traditional roles for women and all three Abrahamic faiths encourage their adherents to ‘go forth and multiply’[6]. This growing population increase amongst the religious will, according to Kaufmann see greater conflict between deeply religious communities as they contest who speaks for God as well as between the religious people and secular states. Conflict, once again, becomes the norm.

Compounding these issues is what kind of Islam is on the ascendancy. Is it a moderate Islam embracing plural societies and secular states or is it a Salafist Takfiri Islam violent in its rejection of secularism and the proverbial “other”. The fact that there were 27000 terrorist attacks globally since 9/11 (or more than 5 per day) linked to radical Islam clearly demonstrates that radical Islam is on the ascendancy[7]. On the African continent, the fact that there are more than three terrorist attacks per day attributed to Islamists, reinforces this global trend. Under the circumstances, one can only conclude that religious conflict on the African continent will intensify in the coming years.

[1] Christine Mungai, “The future of world religion is African, so what would an `African’ Christianity of Islam look like?” Mail and Guardian. 30 September 2015. Internet: http://mgafrica.com/article/2015-11-30-the-future-of-religion-in-africa. Date accessed: 3 December 2015.

[2] Manasi Gopalkrishnan, “An interview of Dr. Moshe Terdiman on Deutsche Welle (DW) on the Muslim Population by 2050,” Internet:https://muslimsinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/04/08/an-interview-of-dr-moshe-terdiman-on-deutsche-welle-dw-on-the-muslim-population-by-2050. Date accessed: 21 April 2015.

[3] Mungai, op. cit.

[4] Colin Freeman, “Nigeria’s descent into holy war,” The Daily Telegraph, 8 January 2015. Internet:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/new/worldnews/africaandindianocean/nigeria89999758/N. Date accessed: 9 January 2015.

[5] Eric Kaufmann, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century. Profile Books. London, 2010.

[6] Ibid., p. xvi.

[7] Daniel Pipes, “Why the Paris Massacre will have Limited Impact,” op. cit.

An Ode to Advent’s Personal Blessings and Policy Challenges, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Nov

Based on a sermon preached in Ann Arbor, Michigan in early November

Each year I write an Advent message to my friends and colleagues highlighting some part of our neglected spiritual heritage.  This is a tradition that some have begged me to abandon, but the original impulse came out of the my experiences in a Roman Catholic church in particularly challenging area of Harlem where I found a spiritual home and to which I attempted to provide some pastoral support in the late 80s and 90s. Much of the “neglect” I tried to expose through those Advent messages related to our lack of collective thoughtfulness about ourselves, our actions and their consequences, our creeping inability to sit still in a quiet place, staring at the stars and heeding the lessons of the void: beholding the irony that in the vastness of creation, on this little spec of a planet that we neither properly care for nor can easily replace, we have our niche, our role, our responsibility.   Somehow, some way, despite the testimony of deep space and the annual descending of Advent’s unsettling darkness, we continue to matter, sometimes even deeply.

I was going to use the opportunity of preaching in an Ann Arbor church to test out some ideas for this year’s message, to speak again about our reflection deficits, our aversion to the occasional bout of healthy melancholy, our predisposition to indulge in too much reaction and too little reflection, firmly invested in appearances rather than intimate disclosures, turning too much of life into one big selfie.

And then Paris happened, with echoes of Beirut before it and Bamako to come.  And the world quickly pressed into service all of the patriotic rhetoric, the grim determination and the increased military fire power needed to ostensibly “eradicate” this contemporary menace.

Ironically perhaps, the lessons in the Christian bible for pre-Advent Sundays were largely about wrongdoing and retribution, the evil that we experience and the God who will, or so some of us believe, both eliminate evil doers and vindicate our own choices.   This is a faith narrative that is rooted in divine power to restore the moral order as well as an affirmation of confidence in our own place in that cosmic drama.  It is a narrative eerily well suited to these threatening times, this need that some of us have for a deeper sanction for the pursuit of our own “righteous” responses to the evil we experience.

This deep instinct to right the wrongs of the world is hardly unique to our religious institutions. Where I work now, in a small independent policy office at the UN in New York, the single most pervasive aspiration of diplomats and officials is to bring about an end to impunity for the most severe violations of international law, such as we see in Syria, Yemen, Central African Republic and also Paris and Mali. Perhaps no issue undermines the credibility of the UN quite like the perception that wrongdoers get away with wrongdoing to a degree that most of us can barely imagine and certainly cannot sanction.  “Oh Lord how long must evildoers triumph” is a lament that could just as easily be heard in Security Council chambers as in churches. And yet, despite these reputational challenges, or perhaps because of them, there are few aspects of the UN’s work that are as intensely engaged as this one.  We mean business on impunity, even if our business model remains slightly flawed.

As well we should mean business.   With all due regard for the mild hypocrisy embedded in the ways that we at the UN formulate the law and single out perpetrators to address by those same standards, there is no more essential element to a healthy multi-lateral system than a clear articulation of and commitment to international principles — the norms by which we choose to live together and conduct our affairs. Indeed, in the absence of such lived principles, it is unclear how we will ever find our way to a place of trust and confidence in the ability of our evolving global system to solve pending development, climate and security threats. Or even find reason to hope that the cycles of bombings and terror attacks can once and for all be made to grow silent.

And let’s be clear — ending impunity is no abstract matter confined to states and situations like Paris. From children “telling” on each other and barking at parents who they believe have meted out punishment unfairly to the complex matters of jurisdiction and jurisprudence characterized by our international legal mechanisms, fairness in the moral order is part of our cultural expectation. And regardless of where we fall on psychological standards of moral sophistication, or whether we privately posit some deity at the beginning or end of those standards, it is both inconceivable and even emotionally paralyzing that so much abusive and humiliating behavior remains unpunished in this world.  Many of us in New York (what I often refer to as the “global capital of self-importance”) bristle when we are “cut” in line or delayed by insensitive subway behavior.   What should then be our response to unaddressed crimes against humanity?   Surely we can find ways to apprehend and mete out appropriate justice to mass murderers at a higher rate than the street level drug users or “Black Friday” shoplifters who are routinely being squeezed into our prisons.

Surely we can.  But we don’t seem to always know how, and we certainly don’t seem to have many strategies to suggest that don’t involve lots of bombs and missiles and drones.   In other words, we don’t seem to know how to respond to threats of terror without recourse to acts of dubious moral value which simply fuel the next cycles of retribution, the next incarnations of evil which we will then be compelled to address.

We can do better than this.  Indeed, our survival as a species depends on it.

But where is our inspiration for this different way to come from? As the days grow shorter and our fattening squirrels get the message that the feasts of fall are nearing an end, our liturgical lessons of my faith tradition shift their tone – from hard retribution and divine justice to softer, more reflective tones.   Less about what a God is going to do and more about what we have yet to do; less about divine vindication and more about our own thoughtful engagement with the ethical dimensions of local and global governance; less about evil doers and more about our common humanity, humans who seem so clever and powerful at times, until those moments when we catch our breath at the true majesty of the created order, the creation outside our smart phones, even beyond the reach of our deep spacecraft, scoffing at our social conventions and confounding all our policy certainties.  In our anxiety and impatience to deal with all the problems staring us in the face, we lose sight of this bigger picture and its lessons of humble discernment –all of us – more often than we acknowledge.

We have much to fix in this world, much to account for, much to overcome.  We have terror to subdue, development promises to keep, a planet to heal. It may be that the God of one or more faith traditions will somehow, sometime, rush to our side to vanquish and vindicate.  But my suspicion is that this one is mostly on us, our moment to gain some compassionate control – of ourselves and our world – to bring justice which is thorough but not partisan, and to recognize the cycles of violence and abuse that stain all of our political and religious banners.

As I have noted elsewhere, the great Reinhold Niebuhr once said that “the evils against which we contend are the fruits of illusions similar to our own.”  This can be a crushing insight to those who feel that “the good” is found only in the values and practices of their own households, only within their own social rituals and political policies, only at the tips of their own weapons of retribution.   It isn’t so.  It never was so.   Our response to grave threats requires much of us, surely including discernment and some lump-in-your-throat courage. The time for righteous crusades is long past.

During this period when vindication seems to be the understandable order of the day, I beseech us all to keep some energy in reserve for the distinctive blessings of Advent – its vast and awesome uncertainties, but also its deep emotional longings for a peace that is more than patchwork.  Behold the wonder of sitting at the edge of a hillside in the chilly starlight and calling out to anyone who will listen — oh come, oh come Emmanuel.   We have a lot to sort out here.  We have a lot of hard decisions to make.  We need insight and clarity now more than tools of vindication. And we could certainly use a hand.   Emmanuel’s hand.  May it come to us.

 

High Anxiety:  Selling Reassurance and Resolve in the Security Council, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Nov

Saturday in Central Harlem, a group of volunteers headed by Stephanie Ali held a Thanksgiving distribution of groceries, including turkeys.  Some of the volunteers, me included, have done virtually weekly “pantry duty” for well over a decade.

Our pantry lines have been long, even in times of economic recovery.   Not everyone on the line needs the food.  What more of them need – and get – is connection and reassurance.  Connection with people they know and care about.  Reassurance that, in a world of increasing anxiety – caused in part by a confluence of external shocks and increasing feelings of powerlessness – there will be someone “out there” who is dependable when rising sea levels start to flood Manhattan streets, the economy crashes again, and our latest security sector efforts to “bully the terrorist bullies” end up restricting more freedoms than alleviating terror threats.   These people also need some reassurance that authorities entrusted to respond to these and other emergencies will keep the economically marginal at least somewhat close to their hearts.

The world around our pantry clients might be uncertain and beyond their control, but they do read the papers, they are anxious about the longer-term state of city and world affairs, and they are looking for some helpful assurances beyond the immediacy of provisions.  In its own small way, this pantry and its volunteers seek to be part of that larger assurance, week after week, year after year.

Anxiety is not the sole province of the elderly and working poor populating a pantry line.  This emotion literally flourishes inside the UN as well.  Personal anxieties are related to career, relationships and money.  And of course there is professional anxiety related to performance in a volatile security and development framework, including as we saw this week in relation to attempts to address the short and longer-term needs of Least Developed Countries and Small Island States; the challenges of ending drug and arms trafficking; the need to reform overburdened UN peacekeeping operations; the responsibility to urgently reverse damage to oceans and watersheds; the need to head off further violence (and incitement to violence) in Burundi;  and of course the responsibility to craft a proportionate and rights-based response to the recent spate of high-profile terrorist acts.

In these and other multilateral venues, policy is developed that is grounded in anxiety about the current state of global affairs while also producing residual, longer-range anxiety in global constituents.  The questions posed to us on social media are both emotionally charged and relevant.  Are policymakers up to the current complex tasks?  Do they understand the implications of their decisions for diverse communities?  Have they learned sufficiently from past mistakes such that they can say with assurance that key mistakes are not being repeated?   Are states able to process their own policy failures, social limitations and other culpabilities while also attending to grave policy responsibilities such as the ISIL menace?

On these questions, the jury is still out.   Friday in the UN Security Council, Resolution 2249 was hailed as significant milestone in Security Council cooperation on what few would argue is a significant challenge for the international community.   The resolution cites ISIL as (having thankfully deleted the word “unprecedented”) one of the “most serious threats” to international peace and security and invokes the uneasy “all necessary measures” language (without directly mentioning military action) to help “redouble and coordinate” efforts to stymie ISIL and its collaborators.

Of course, few would argue the need to vigorously address terrorism, and many here at the UN are set to welcome Tuesday’s briefing by the Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee on “Foreign Terrorist Fighters.” But it’s not as though the “fight” against terror started in earnest last Friday.  Already, there have been thousands of bombs dropped, sanctions imposed, weapons transferred, surveillance enacted, funding halted, freedoms restricted. Were these methods lacking in strategic merit or policy seriousness?  For instance, were the detonated bombs that have already (by admission of defense officials) killed more than a few non-combatants simply dropped by mistake?  And, more to the point, assuming that existing measures have not been frivolous, what assurances are there that this round of “by whatever means” responses will actually eliminate terrorist carnage more effectively than the last round of responses?

Part of the narrative of this current iteration of our now-endless terror war is that the “unjustified” nature of terrorist acts, regardless of motivation, is the only relevant precondition for aggressive responses by Council members and other states.   Unjustified these acts certainly are, by any reasonable standard, but they also did not appear out of nowhere.  And whether your origin points for such brutal violence involve the Assad regime, the unrelieved discrimination of Palestinians, the US invasion of Iraq, prior dubious Council resolutions on Libya or any other causal links of preference, such points are also not without relevance. “We” are not responsible for terror violence, but “we” are also not without responsibility for the conditions in which such violence can apparently flourish – neither for the high anxiety that policies more robust than strategic might create in constituents.

We would make the case that “all necessary measures” can (and should) be applied to our own societies as well to the terrorists.  External vigilance is needed to be sure, but also accountability is required to the norms, values and expectations that give meaning to social existence and contextualize our growing levels of “high anxiety.”  These are high bars to reach, to be sure, as they are in part the consequence of prior policies that have not met expectations, have not alleviated the suffering we all hoped they might, have not inspired confidence that we can vanquish our enemies without also assessing ourselves.

We very much appreciate the references in the resolution to international human rights and humanitarian law, as well as (thanks apparently to the Russians) to the UN Charter.   These reassurances, as helpfully underscored by Chile and others at the Friday Council meeting, are hopefully more substantive than rhetorical.   Should such references end up being marginal “window dressing” in the implementation of anti-terror initiatives, it is highly unlikely that any tribunals will be organized to investigate the resulting carnage.   Nor will future acts of terror, when and if they occur, be seen as an actionable indictment of the limitations of this particular Council resolution or what would otherwise be seen as legitimate responses to ISIL and its cohorts.

My GAPW colleagues and I spend much time in the Security Council chamber, significantly more than in any other single UN meeting room.   And we have deep regard for the tenacity of Council members and the sometimes fitful progress of this chamber on transparency and working methods, driven especially at this current moment by some extraordinary non-permanent members.  But transparency and accountability are not the same.   The Council lacks structures of accountability for its limited policy scope or errors in judgement.   There is none to hold the Council, and especially its permanent members, responsible to the standards to which they routinely attempt to hold others.

This is one source of anxiety in the longer term, the notion that prior Council actions which demonstrably failed to achieve full objectives end up having little or no consequence for future resolutions.  Indeed, if we are not accountable for our errors, there is simply no reason for others to believe that future actions will avoid similar pitfalls.  For reasons related to limited time or institutional culture, we simply aren’t learning enough from previous experience to alleviate the anxieties of those dependent on this sometimes pedagogically-challenged policy community.

During Friday’s discussion following the unanimous vote on Res. 2249, Lithuania solemnly noted, “We will have to deal with the uneasy question of how much of our liberties and freedoms we are ready to sacrifice to ensure our safety and security in a way that does not support repression.” For my part, I would prefer a bit more liberty even if it means taking on a bit more risk.   After all, liberty’s road to repression is much longer than the one defined by safety and its multiple compromises.

In any case, these are the bargains that will continue define a world wrestling with its political polarization, excess materialism and militarism, and tepid commitments to ending social and economic inequalities and giving this overly-stressed climate a chance to heal.  And we are already seeing governments and their party oppositions ravenously grasping for political space in the aftermath of the recent terror attacks; ostensibly to protect people from terrorists, certainly to protect governments from uneasy conversations about their role in helping to protect the core principles, values and aspirations of people and not merely their physical bodies.

What is apparent, in settings as widely distinct as a Harlem food pantry and the chamber of the UN Security Council, is that our efforts to alleviate anxiousness regarding current affairs must take into account the deeper and “longer” anxieties – people who have good reason to wonder what will become of themselves and their families; and why this recent, welcome show of Council unity and resolve will be able to climb over bars of policy effectiveness and regard for international law when other efforts have mostly fallen short.

Boat People:  The Security Council Considers Options for Safe Passage, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 May

On Monday May 11, the Security Council under the leadership of its current president Lithuania convened a briefing in chambers that managed to set a tone different from what some of us had feared prior to taking our seats.

Several Council members – including the UK and other members of both the SC and the European Union — had apparently been discussing a resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, that would allow – in a manner still unspecified as of this writing – the boarding and/or destruction of vessels accused of smuggling migrants across the Mediterranean.

This resolution-in-waiting apparently has many measures still to be worked out, including the degree to which the ‘recognized’ government of Libya needs to be consulted, what protocols need to be established to guarantee that those boarding boats under whatever circumstances have their safety and security protected, etc.   It was also clear from conversations beyond the Council chamber that the European Union has been contemplating some type of ‘boarding policy’ with or without Council approval.

Certainly those working on security at UN headquarters understand both the challenge and responsibility of the large number of men, women and children who brave a long sea journey in substandard craft in an attempt to escape the grave humanitarian and security crises affecting Libya and at least some of its neighbors.  Italy has rightly won praise from the international community for its efforts to rescue damaged craft that have threatened even more mass casualties, but Italy is not the only destination for these overloaded boats. Moreover, concern has been expressed that ‘terror groups’ might well be profiting from what is deemed to be a lucrative trade focused on people who have some access to funds and feel that they have little choice if they are to protect their families from what seems to be endless violence in the post-Gaddafi era.  As more than one UN official has noted recently, no one would choose to subject their families to such a voyage if there were other, viable options to escape the misery and violence.

Behind this crisis is a robust, system-wide effort, led by the High Commissioners of Human Rights and Refugees, to highlight the plight of migrants and their humanitarian and human rights interests.   We have been to more UN events focused on migrants in the past two years than in the decade previously.  It is now widely recognized that migrants and internally displaced – on the move due to armed violence, water shortages, climate-related changes or other factors – represent a grave peace and security concern.  But more than that, such displaced persons – largely women and children – have humanitarian and human rights expectations that the international community is morally and legally bound to honor.  People don’t forfeit human rights protection simply because conditions force them on to boats to seek refuge elsewhere – this is true whether those boats are operated by smugglers in Libya or Carnival Cruise Lines.

Indeed, the Council briefing seemed to be an ample confirmation that the work of OHCHR and other key UN players to ‘institutionalize’ a growing concern for migrants has taken root.   The EU’s Frederica Mogherini, while soliciting support from the African Union and UN Security Council to “disrupt human trafficking networks,” took a careful and balanced tone in her remarks, noting the need to “do more to address root causes that push people to take dangerous risks.” She also called for a “unity government” in Libya, an aspiration which the Council has recently addressed on several occasions with full awareness of its high degree of difficulty.

Other briefers were a bit clearer than Ms. Mogherini in their articulation of the international community’s responsibility to protect the Libyan boat people.  For instance, SRSG Peter Sutherland –without citing the proposed resolution directly – called for “root solutions to root problems” that do not further isolate asylum seekers in poverty and violence.   He described trafficking allegations as largely a matter for law enforcement and urged the EU to work towards more “resettlement destinations,” “more visa options” for asylum seekers and, as noted, more law enforcement capacity in situations calling for such a response.

Mostly supporting this line of argument, the African Union’s Ambassador Tete António cited the many push factors – including armed violence, drug trafficking and chronic unemployment — that cause people to seek out the tiny spaces on these boats in the first place.  He also noted that much of the migration in North Africa is within region rather than outside of it, perhaps in part due to the high costs (as well as risks) of a sea voyage.  He urged the Council to embrace a larger picture of migrant needs and rights beyond the immediate and limited concern of boat trafficking in persons.

While none of the briefers took up the alleged value of a potential militarized operation in Libyan territorial waters nor the challenges and potential mis-steps of such operations in open waters, one came away from this briefing with a clear sense that numerous reservations existed both regarding militarized response and with regard to a single minded policy focus that cannot possibly, as Sutherland rightly noted, solve the migrant problem alone.

Perhaps this was the plan by current president Lithuania all along – create a briefing event that was much more about the rights and needs of previously neglected seafaring migrants than it was about stifling the economic benefits of their escape crafts’ recruiters and pilots. In either instance, the briefing seemed kinder and more humane than the controversial resolution that formed its backdrop.  Let us hope that the lives of often-desperate boat people are not put further at risk by ill-considered policy priorities designed principally to block income streams of alleged traffickers.