Tag Archives: Trauma

Baby Face: A Christmas Reflection, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Dec


I don’t need a holiday or a feast to feel grateful for my children, the sun, the moon, the roof over my head, music, and laughter, but I like to take this time to take the path of thanks less traveled. Paula Poundstone

I have accepted a seat in the House of Representatives, and thereby have consented to my own ruin, to your ruin, and to the ruin of our children. I give you this warning that you may prepare your mind for your fate.  John Adams

If we had paid no more attention to our plants than we have to our children, we would now be living in a jungle of weed.  Luther Burbank

Christmas represents an outlier moment for many persons, including those who work on “peace and security.”  After months of pondering solutions to some of the existential threats that we have manufactured for ourselves –the clever ways we have concocted to subjugate and humiliate each other – the attention of many of us turns to a baby in a barn, a baby in whom some invest mountains of hope, but a baby nonetheless; a baby as shocked and bewildered by the profound implications of the short voyage from womb to world as the rest of us were; a baby experiencing its first chills in the evening air, its first experiences of “distance,” its first uncomfortable naps in some seasonally dry hay, its first hiatus between desire and accommodation.

Yes, that baby: a miracle at one level; a life form struggling to cope with unfamiliar “rules” and surroundings at another.

In the Christian tradition, we tend to sentimentalize this singular newborn.   We just assume that this baby can manage the frosty air filling its lungs; we just assume that this baby has no genetic predispositions to childhood disease, is not allergic to his mother’s milk, is invulnerable to the many germs hovering around the barn to which he has not had nearly enough time to develop a resistance.

This baby apparently is the beneficiary of some divinely-procured pathogen defiance, apparently exhibits some innate ability to tolerate changes of 20 degrees C or more from the womb where it lay snugly only hours before; this baby –with blanket protections but no proper blanket — has taken on sacred significance in ways that have captured the imagination of persons from all monotheistic faiths and a fair number of others besides.

A baby so much like other babies of his time; so much like other babies of our time; yet underscored by such a hopeful and enticing narrative, such a different set of expectations.

This hope is not so different from the hopes we have for the babies born in settings from modern hospitals to tents in refugee camps.  When a child is born, there is a real sense in which the world begins anew.  It begins “anew” because of all the potential locked up in that squirming ball of humanity that has survived perhaps the most dramatic and difficult transition it will ever face over the course of its life, potential that too-often neglected and even traumatized parents must find some way to unlock.

It is this potential that we continue to squander, at times neglectfully at other times intentionally and even murderously.   We cut off health care to children at their most critical developmental moments. We bomb hospital and schools creating mass trauma while eliminating the institutions that might help children recover some measure of their emotional bearings.  We lie to our progeny (and to ourselves) about the future these babies are destined to inherit; a melting, more militarized, more divided world that is virtually guaranteed by the reckless, self-interested decisions that we (and our erstwhile leadership) make each and every day.

With all due respect to the UNICEF team here in New York, it still amazes me after all these years that the human community needs some large multilateral agency (and its numerous national counterparts) to guarantee a modicum of respect and care for children, a modicum which, by the way, we are a long way from ensuring.   What is the matter with us?   How can we pour so much sentimental significance into a long-ago baby in a makeshift manger and then so little into the babies – in Yemen, in Honduras, in rural areas of Central Africa, in urban favelas around the world, even in our own neighborhoods – whose life-enhancing potential is being undermined the second their umbilical cords are severed?

I don’t get this.  It remains for me a Christmas mystery matched only by the star that functions like a GPS device and parents gathering around a manger in rapt attention despite what might well be their own hunger, fatigue, nausea and chills.

In trying to get through this mystery, I have benefited greatly from contributions from two friends of mine (and this office), two of the many women of great substance and thoughtfulness who have helped me (and many others) interpret the times and navigate a way forward in both personal and institutional aspects.

Marta Benavides reminds us frequently from El Salvador about the degree to which “greed and ambition are clouding vision and action,” blinding us to the inequalities we create and the human potential we rob in the name of power and “progress.”  In a similar vein, Lisa Berkley has noted that “If there is one thing the #metoo movement is showing us, it is just how wounded we all are.”

There is, of course, much beyond greed and ambition that clouds our vision, much beyond #metoo that exposes the wounds to which we give so little attention and which are thereby likely to become a most unwelcome slice of our babies’ inheritance.  The greed and personal ambition that we won’t curtail results in decisions that barely benefit the present but surely undermine our prospects.  In the same way, the wounds we will neither confront nor heal in ourselves will surely morph into infections for which no metaphorical antibiotics will ever be sufficient.

Being a baby in this world – not to mention caring for them – is simply too challenging now.  We are as a species, indeed, too damaged, too greedy, too smug; we are too ambitious for our own interests and too little concerned with the general interest.  These deformations of character are things we can address.  Indeed we must, as the consequences of our folly will consume the elders as readily as they will our youngest.

This year, my Christmas prayer for our “lands of confusion” is that our reverence for the manger child becomes not a substitute for, but an enabler of our active reverence for all the babies who enter this world, most entering not under a star but a cloud.

Compound Fracture:  Addressing Poverty’s Multiple Wounds, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 May


Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.  Mother Teresa

The frustrations, hostility and anger generated by abject poverty cannot sustain peace in any society. Muhammad Yunus

Love conquers all things except poverty and toothache.  Mae West

The Chibok Girls, at least 82 of them, were released by Boko Haram this week. We’ll no doubt hear much more about this, including we hope from the ICRC: the stories of their captivity, the brutality and isolation they experienced, perhaps some of the despair and frustration they felt from having spent three long years of their relatively short lives wondering who if anyone was looking for them, why it seemed that they had been so completely abandoned?

As I stare at this ICRC photo and others, there is sadness, certainly in the faces of many of the girls, but in me as well.  This ordeal is not over for them.   They are thankfully freed from terrorist control, and they will be for a time the focus of international attention and support.   But the support will fade, most probably sooner than needed, and the girls will be left with their questions for families and government officials, their recurring nightmares and pervasive insecurities, their struggles to find meaning and material sustenance with psychic impairments as severe as any physical deformity.

And they will never get their childhoods back.

Many diplomats and observers at the UN rightly insist that poverty reduction must become what India this week called the “unrelenting focus” of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Though poverty reduction per se is first in the listing of the SDGs, it is not the only SDG concern for the international community.  Climate and oceans, employment and gender discrimination, corruption and violence, health and employment all need attention and are all interlinked.   While the Security Council was away assessing the peace agreement in Colombia, the rest of the UN in New York was engaged in a dizzying array of events focused in whole or in part on diverse aspects of the poverty reduction challenge.  From global health and the health of our forest communities, to the rights of indigenous persons and the need for the UN (as noted clearly on Friday by UN Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed) to streamline mechanisms for better coordination of poverty responses (including its conflict prevention dimensions), the UN’s grasp of the magnitude and diversity of its poverty-related challenges seems to be growing by the week.

Though relatively few persons in the UN community have endured poverty or lived in communities of material or psychic deprivation, the UN’s current levels of interest in all aspects related to poverty reduction are thankfully more than rhetorical, even more than material. Diplomats now widely grasp the peace and security implications of a world of large and growing inequalities, disparities which rightly annoy and largely inconvenience some but condemn others to an often-disheartening life with too few options.  As populations in global regions grow disproportionately, as drought and desertification expand their reach, and as water and other resource scarcities reach epidemic levels, our ability to manage stresses related to our systems of governance and security is certainly under strain.   So too is our ability to respond to the collective psychological needs of children and other victims of violence and deprivation.

And much of that need lies beyond the headlines. I recall vividly from my time in a Harlem parish in the 1990s some of the many ways in which poverty subtly and unhelpfully diverted the attention and energies of the community.   People didn’t dare to dream too much; they largely coped – with losses of income and relatives, with often unresponsive and even dismissive government bureaucracy, with schools that seemed design to keep students in their places rather than opening doors to a better place, with drug-induced street violence that erupted almost without warning.  Coping, adjusting, shielding, standing on endless lines, cutting your losses: It wasn’t always that dire, it wasn’t the plight of the Chibok Girls or of the families fleeing violence in Mosul, but it was often dire enough, disheartening enough.

For the children of Harlem at this time, it was also the dawning of the social media age and its multiple messaging.  On the one hand, cellular technology has opened new worlds for people and helped them overcome some of the pervasive limitations of the still-applicable digital divide.  The other side of course is that the new technology represents a handy medium for keeping close track of all that some people have that others do not.   The relentless marketing by “smart” phones that seem mostly “smart” for advertisers brings a world of affluent consumption into the personal spaces of so many millions, serving as a constant reminder of what it is possible to own and have in this world and, perhaps more insidiously, invites people to assess their own lives in accordance with the prevailing standards of luxury.

For a generation of Harlem children, let alone the Chibok girls and others fleeing violence without their families in makeshift life rafts, such reminders are most likely to aggravate their wounds, to compound their anger and frustration, to grow their sense of isolation and doubt that they are worthy of love and material support in a fair, predictable and secure global environment.

For us, there has always been truth in the maxim that assessment is largely a function of expectation.  And even in this increasingly climate stressed, resource scarce and violence-riddled environment, expectations for affluence have perhaps never been higher.  Nor have the many gaps of education, income and health care separating the affluent and those on the margins been so obvious.  If “inequalities” are permitted to herald our collective undoing, if our “share and care” capacities are left buried under mounds of trauma and material envy, if we can do no better than simply manage violence and “comfort” its many material and psychological impacts, then the carnage that currently fills our media screens will only become more frequent. The cycles of destruction and deprivation will tend to spin ever faster.

A World Health Organization representative on a UN General Assembly panel this week highlighted that agency’s “no regrets” model of detection and treatment, referring primarily to pandemics such as Ebola that, like armed violence and drought, both push people into poverty and dig a deeper hole for those already there.

This model seemed like a hopeful metaphor to inspire much of our sustainable development activity. “No regrets” on ending inequalities of rights and opportunities.  No regrets on efforts to prevent armed violence, genocide and war.  No regrets on creating conditions for safe and healthy communities. No regrets on ending assaults on the dignity, confidence and psychic integrity of our children.  No regrets on our messaging to next generations that balances acquisition and almost infinite distraction with a genuine hopefulness for the future and our own deep resolve to fix what we’ve broken.

Slowly but surely, our policy communities are coming to full recognition that lonely, angry, abused, unwanted children and youth can scuttle our development agenda as surely as super typhoons and cluster bombs.  We must resolve to keep all these challenges to the human spirit together at the center of our development policy and practice.

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.

Justice Matters:  The UN Explores Multiple Pathways to Human Dignity, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Jul


On July 14, Judge Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi, president of the International Criminal Court (ICC), spoke to a packed conference room at UN Headquarters.  The event was chaired by Italy’s Ambassador Cardi and was intended as part of the UN’s acknowledgment of the International Day of Criminal Justice which falls each year on July 17.

The president hit many important notes during her address, including reminding the audience that the ICC is a court of “last resort” for the “crimes against humanity” under its jurisdiction, including the use of child soldiers, sexual violence as a tactic of war, the wanton destruction of cultural property, and soon the crime of aggression.  It is up to member states, she rightly noted, to help the ICC establish a “consistent pattern of accountability” for international crimes, in part by taking greater national responsibility for the investigation and prosecution of such crimes and in part through efforts to deter and punish those who seek to undermine the administration of justice through the ICC, including the interference with/harassment of witnesses.

The president did not take up several questions that some of us might otherwise have expected.  The ICC’s relationship to the Security Council, for instance, has been a contentious one that has included untimely referrals, massive security restrictions on investigations, significant budgetary limitations, and the Council’s refusal to sanction states that fail in their responsibilities to arrest indicted criminals.  Moreover, the president chose not to ‘call out’ states parties which have hosted – rather than captured – those very same criminals.

But what she did suggest was important: that credible international justice is essential to the restoration of rule of law, to human development, indeed to the dignity of victims.   She recognized that a “global system of justice” has many facets that are tied to the activities of courts, certainly to the vigorous promotion of internationally recognized human rights but also to a development and conflict prevention system that can uphold dignity and help ensure that the worst of crimes can be addressed in their potential before they unfold in grotesque practice.

As the president also recognized, other UN events during this past week touched on key elements of a global system of justice.   In the General Assembly, PGA Lykketoft convened a high level event to assess the human rights performance of the UN as it concludes its 70th year.   Fittingly, states used the occasion to promote the need to, as New Zealand and others noted, examine the implications of human rights across the three UN “pillars.” States from Panama and Chile to France and Estonia noted the many rights dimensions that affect people in overt conflict situations, but also highlighted those suffering from torture, discrimination, incarceration-related abuses and many other violations.   And while Liechtenstein rightly lamented that disregard of the ‘rules of war’ seems now to be reaching epidemic proportions, there was broad agreement with the Netherlands and others that we can do more  — and must do more — to ensure that people can finally live in a world “free from armed conflict.”

Last Wednesday in another small conference room, an “A” list of UN officials was brought together by Uruguay and Portugal to discuss the economic and social rights implications of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  ASG Šimonović set a collaborative tone, urging all of us “to bring human rights to the core of our development work.”  ASG Gass went ever farther, noting that the SDGs represent a “new social contract,” while lamenting a “shortage of tools” with which we can hold states (and others) accountable to their SDG promises.   Happily, Gass rightly suggested that the integration of human rights into the SDGs would help make accessible the more fully developed capacities within the human rights community which are already doing much to hold states accountable to rights-based obligations.  As it turns out, tools for SDG accountability need not be created.  They can be borrowed.

As for the convening states, there was enthusiasm for SDG-rights linkages but also cautious tones.  Uruguay’s Ambassador responded to those who see economic and social rights as “vague,” noting that genuinely sustainable development requires ‘dignity work’ in the form of ending gross social and economic inequalities.  Portugal’s Ambassador urged member states to show more leadership on core Charter values while simultaneously urging NGOs to help ensure that values espoused are values enacted.  But he also painfully referenced the many millions of persons in our world for whom rights and dignity remain only “a mirage.”

During his report on Friday in the UN Security Council, Special Representative Jan Kubiš made reference to the upcoming efforts by Iraq and its military partners to liberate the city of Mosul from ISIL control.   While clearly supportive of reducing all manner of ISIL’s influence, Kubiš also predicted that such liberation would likely trigger a humanitarian crisis that could dwarf the already horrific stories of deprivation and rights abuses (including by Iraqi forces) now emanating from Fallujah.  In many instances, it seems, “liberation” bears the potential to create and magnify trauma and deprivation in the name of eliminating them.  The Council, the government of Iraq and the entire UN community must leverage additional capacity to address the psychological and physical dimensions of victim’s assistance in all their aspects.

And of course to do more to ensure that the “pipelines” of trauma are effectively sealed, that relief is more than a fleeting mirage.

As the week’s events underscored, the struggle for sustainable human dignity is a long road, easier to claim than to protect.  As the ICC president noted, we live in a world in which “many perpetrators continue to be untouched.”  Sadly, there are millions more victims in our conflict zones who also remain “untouched.”   Our commitment – on sustainable development and international justice, on poverty reduction and trauma response – is to find the means and the will to touch them all.

Without a Trace:  The Security Council Examines a Trauma that Lingers, Dr. Robert Zuber

31 Jan

Missing things, missing people is a part of life for all of us.   Our popular music is punctuated with the emotional residue from our empty spaces – especially from loves gained and then lost. The singer John Waite once mourned “there’s a storm that’s raging through my frozen heart tonight.”  Sometimes the ache from the loss of a loved one is too much to bear, even when you know where they’ve gone, even when you knew a separation was coming.

In an age characterized by so many scattered peoples – from war and drought, or from seeking economic opportunity in a hopefully more peaceful context – larger and larger numbers of us are separated from much of what we had previously come to love.  Our growing social and economic mobility, for some motivated by a determination to save their children from the ravages of conflict and abuse, has increased the distances separating so many of us from the objects (and subjects) of our hearts’ desire.

This pain is greatly magnified when the separations are imposed, arbitrary and secretive, when people awake to find that one or more of those in their most intimate social circles has disappeared without a trace.  In such instances “frozen” hearts are often accompanied by frozen hands and lips, the consequences of a trauma that can produce almost coma-like effects, sometimes lasting for many years.

This week, in addition to much other Security Council business, Ambassador Rycroft of the UK convened an “Arria Formula” meeting to look into the consequences of these traumatic disappearances as they relate to international peace and security.   The meeting featured the welcome presence of Ambassador Diego Arria of Venezuela who was responsible for the idea of having more Council-sponsored, informal discussions to allow members to examine security linkages and implications without scrutiny from the media or pressure to agree on resolutions.

For his part Ambassador Rycroft affirmed his preference for these sorts of engagements.  Indeed, he has been one of the Council members most inclined to pressure colleagues around the oval to come out from behind their prepared texts and engage each other as policy and learning partners in their essential but highly challenging endeavor – maintaining an often elusive peace. Rycroft noted that the Arria process allows members the “chance to hear from people in the know” and to do so in interactive fashion.  It is hard to disagree that such chances should be pursued as often as possible within the limitations of the Council’s already weighty schedule.

There is more to say on the “working methods” implications of this Arria process, but it is also important to acknowledge here the crushing burdens that persons separated from their loved ones and communities due to armed conflict must bear.  The US, which at Council meetings often miscalculates the bonds linking stories of abuse and remedial policy measures, aptly cited in this Arria the “searing pain, trauma and impotence” that accompanies persons who have had loved ones taken from them in situations of armed violence, taken without any apparent rationale or information regarding their whereabouts.

As noted by the ICTJ’s Tolbert, this missing represents a deep ache with broad implications, correctly referencing the “social trauma” that so often takes up residence in communities where people have been “disappeared.”  For his part, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid noted the “grave abuse potential” that exists when women and girls go missing. And he encouraged more “truth telling” by authorities (a point also made by New Zealand) to help loved ones cope with their losses and displace with more concrete information some of the horrific fantasies regarding the whereabouts and treatment of loved ones that often accompany coping efforts. Such information allows for the lifting of the “veil of silence” that reinforces fear and social isolation, subtly perpetuating what Zeid called “the sharp edges of abuse.”

But of course our task in all of this is not to examine this pain but rather, as urged by Mexico rights activist Sr. Consuela, to “ensure that this becomes part of our past.”   And many of the voices in this Arria Formula meeting, including the High Commissioner, Italy, Japan and Uruguay, maintained that the efforts to end the trauma of disappearances is indeed “directly relevant” to the Council’s core responsibilities, that Council attention can accrue tangible benefits towards the final resolution of this agonizing abuse.

That noted, this Arria event was not without controversy.  As they have done previously when discussing other attempts to extend the Security Council’s policy concerns, Russia essentially rejected the relevance of this “disappearances” discussion to those concerns.  Russia is for now the most vocal critic of what it considers to be the habit of “politicized” application and even expansion of core Council principles, resolutions and mandates.  Other Council members, including February’s president Venezuela, have also cautioned against taking on less “central” issues when so much of the core peace and security mandate of the Council (read Syria, Yemen, Mali, etc.) lies unresolved.

In fairness, Russia of course also “politicizes,” also uses the format of the so-called “open” meetings to brand its preferred versions of the truth, rather than truth’s more comprehensive incarnation.   Moreover, it is not uncommon, as core policy matters get in a rut and pressures mount, that persons or governments seek out problems to which they can make a real contribution, hoping perhaps that efficacy in more “marginal” realms can translate somehow into efficacy in core responsibilities.

Having sat through hundreds of Council “open” branding sessions — which January’s president Uruguay (at Friday’s wrap up session) rightly noted produces little in the way of policy movement or even clarity regarding national positions – it almost seems reasonable to share skepticism regarding the motives and politics of Council engagement.  However, the solution to such skepticism is not to cease holding Arria Formula events. It remains important for Council members to consider testimony on issues such as disappearances “from people in the know,” and Arria is the best format currently available to make that happen.

The caveat here is that Council working methods have, as noted frequently by many non-members, long under-estimated the efforts, activities and even mandates of other key UN actors.  Council members are quite grateful to their briefers – who now encompass a wider range of UN issue area interests– but much less often seem conversant with the activities and priorities of the agencies these briefers represent.

There is a significant distinction between “adding value” to the resolution of issues such as the scourge of missing persons, and being seen as undercutting relate efforts of colleagues elsewhere in the system.   This seemingly habitual tendency of the Council to “vacuum up” any and all security-related topics raises concern from many non-member states; those seeking to keep the Council focused on its “primary” responsibilities, yes, but also those understanding that lasting solutions to security problems involve diverse capacities inside of and beyond the UN, solutions not to be found solely within the texts of the Council’s mandates and resolutions. And to be clear, the primary purpose of the Council must be to resolve threats to peace and security, not to bolster its own prerogatives – outcomes not status.

If the Arria Formula option is to reach the potential that Ambassador Rycroft rightly feels it can, the introduction of new issues and perspectives to Council members must be accompanied by a more sophisticated and generous grasp of existing UN agencies and their capacities.  Traumatic abuses such as forced disappearances are likely to be addressed with greater effectiveness when the Council states its clear and primary intention to add value rather than control outcomes.

No Time for Child’s Play: The UN Hones its Child Protection Responsibilities, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Jul

This past Friday, the UN held a celebration of the 10th anniversary of UN Security Council resolution 1612 on Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC).

The most direct institutional consequences of resolution 1612 are the Working Group on CAAC originally chaired by France, later by Germany, Mexico and Luxembourg, and now by Malaysia.  In addition, an office for CAAC was established, headed first by Olara Otunnu and now by Leila Zerrougui.  This office has had its share of controversy over 10 years, in part due to its (at the time) groundbreaking relationship to the work of the Council, and in part because of its methods (including listings) to expose states’ willful tolerance or even direct mistreatment of the children under their jurisdiction.

Both the WG and Office for CAAC successfully expanded global interest in the security dimensions of the broader children’s rights outlined in the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The Convention boasts record setting state ratifications. Moreover, virtually all other development, peace and security resolutions now highlight the special care and protection needs of the most vulnerable of persons.  The Convention itself was not without controversy, especially among those who feared the ability of children to assert rights in direct contradiction of parental wishes or who were concerned with an expansion of “compelling state interests” that ostensibly prioritized “the best interests of the child” over the wishes of family members or other guardians.  Nevertheless, the Convention and Resolution 1612 together have done much to address some of the residual “instrumentalizing” of children as mere extensions of adult expectations and needs that still exists within many societies.  In addition, as the UN’s responsibilities to protect civilians have evolved, the special protection needs of children have more readily been identified if not always addressed with sufficient urgency.

At Friday’s celebration, assessments of past practices and expectations regarding future objectives were mixed.   Many speakers representing a broad array of member states and UN agencies, including Ms. Zerrougui herself, highlighted the “architecture” that now exists to help promote CAAC objectives at country level, including national task forces and action plans, and what Luxembourg referred to as the “global horizontal note”. Along with child protection officers in peacekeeping missions and CAAC office efforts to identify and publicly list offending parties – a particular concern in this session for both Myanmar and Israel – this architecture represents elements of an evolving, system-wide commitment to end abuses committed against (and by) youth at the tip of a gun or edge of a blade.

In this instance as in others, child protection is impacted by some of the limitations characterizing our general “protection of civilians” assumptions and strategies.  We sometimes forget, as Morocco reminded event participants, that child soldiers must always be seen as victims (rather than as enemies) regardless of the crimes they were coerced to commit.   Sometimes, though thankfully in rare instances, those mandated to protect children are guilty of adding to their abuse.  Sometimes, efforts of child protection advisors to peacekeeping missions are compromised or overlooked by virtue of overstretched, under-resourced and increasingly coercive operations.  And our lack of a viable preventive strategy too often results in placing response capacities in the field long after such placement is optimal, with implications for the emotional and physical safety of children even more dire than for their guardians.

This lack of prevention goes beyond unhelpful limitations in UN capacity for early warning and mediation.  It also, as we have written previously, involves insufficient regard for effects of trauma of children in conflict zones for which the only viable remedial strategy is one that ensures their absence from such zones.   Calls during this Friday celebration from UNICEF’s Yoka Brandt, the Russian Ambassador and others for more rehabilitation services were welcome, with Brandt reminding the audience that the release of children from armed groups is only the first step in child reintegration and rehabilitation.  Children can be remarkably resilient, but for many of these abducted, brainwashed or otherwise abused children, attaining anything approaching mental health will require a long and treacherous climb.  The abuses inflicted on children will likely be visited upon their own children as well as the communities of which they are a part. There are only so many tools (and funds) at our disposal to redirect that dangerous course once it has been embarked.

On top of all this, we are often slow to adjust to a rapidly shifting security environment with active child recruiters such as ISIL and conflict-motivated migration patterns that blur lines of individual state responsibility.  The shifts to which we must respond are numerous. The representative of UNRWA highlighted the increasing uses of explosive weapons and the devastation these cause to civilian populations.  The representative of UNHCR highlighted the special monitoring and protection challenges that impact children moving across borders with our without their families.  And of course we are now regularly confronting what the French rightly noted as “shocking” instances in Syria and elsewhere where children are essentially being held hostage to conflicts that cannot even be convinced to pause in order to feed and bandage the desperate.

Despite these challenges, it appeared to be the will of most diplomats that child protection from armed violence, recruitment and related abuses become even more of a cross-cutting, systemic obligation of the UN system and its member states, an obligation assumed to bind permanent Council members as much as other UN stakeholders. Such insistences were part of what made the early work of Otunnu’s CAAC office such a breath of fresh air from the start.  That the consensus promise has yet to culminate in a consensus strategy for successfully ending abuses of children in conflict zones is a situation that many in the global public (including diplomats) can neither understand nor tolerate for much longer.

As Luxembourg noted, we need to do all we can to ensure that CAAC is much more than a “side event” to the core UN agenda, while avoiding what Belgium referred to as a “creeping cynicism” regarding our ability to fully implement the CAAC mandate. Indeed, a bit of cynicism-invoking sentimentality crept into the celebration in the form of one or two presenters saying things such as, “even if we save one child, our efforts were worth it.”  It was Canada who bluntly noted that ending CAAC violations completely and without reservation can and must be our objective.   To employ an over-used UN phrase, we fully align ourselves with Canada’s statement.

We simply must continue to set the bar high for children in armed conflict.  With all the global problems now tugging at our diplomatic shirt sleeves, it is worrying indeed that so many needlessly damaged children will become adults likely to be still reeling from the gaps between their own emotional capacity and the increasing logistical complexities of modern life.  We have full confidence that Malaysia will keep child protection issues in full view of the Security Council during its peacekeeping mandate renewals and related deliberations.  We urge other diplomats, NGOs and child advocates to keep CAAC issues in front of all relevant UN and government actors to whom they have access.

Freudian Slip:  The UN Once Again Considers the Benefits of Psychology, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 May

Editor’s Note:  Appreciation goes to Karin Perro and Lia Petridis Maiello for helping with this (for me) difficult topic.

During the past frenetic week of activity, there was a “psychiatric” common thread to many UN discussions and deliberations.  To describe this unusual focus and our own stake in it will require a bit of context.

Despite the emotional needs of so many in New York City and the number of persons here seeking some sort of therapeutic relief, psychology as a public good seems to have fallen on lean times. Severe personality disorders are on the rise, but seem to evoke more scientific and pharmaceutical interest than compassion from service providers.  Too many of us seem to be more stressed, more fragile, more disconnected from community life (at least the life outside our smart phones) without proper ties of support. At the same time we seem less interested in changing ourselves than in getting others (or circumstances) to change instead.  Too often we leave many of our deepest dreams and profound longings to more or less explore themselves.

Some of this disconnect can be laid at the feet of the psychological profession itself, one that is costly to engage and, at times, indifferent to the social and economic determinants of individual suffering. Some professionals have even crossed ethical and legal lines as noted in a recent story in Al Jazeera about contributions made by trained psychologists to US government torture strategies. These “contributions” are hardly confined to the US but they all sow suspicion of a field that could contribute more to help us all cope and that surely should remain above such ethical compromises.

There are consequences to all of these disconnects and compromises.  In the “developed” world as well as in much of the rest of it, we have ‘graduated’ it seems, from the age of reason to the age of advertising.  What is true is what we can convince others is true.  We seek affinity more than truth, including seeking endless reassurances from friends and professionals alike.  Mindfulness, self-examination, genuine connection – these seem more and more to have become quaint artifacts of a bygone time, though historians would note that there has probably never been a time when these attributes were truly ascendant.

It is in this uneven and sometimes perplexing context that the recent policy interest in psychological needs and skills across many UN conference rooms was particularly welcome.  It seemed as though the “anchor” for such interest was the annual “Psychology Day” event co-sponsored by Palau and El Salvador. Specifically, this event sought to explore how the field of psychology might better contribute to the fulfillment of post-2015 development goals. Of special concern to the speakers was the assumed potential of the psychology profession to help us overcome “inequality,” which is itself a major impediment to SDG implementation as noted frequently within various UN forums. As Palau’s Ambassador Otto noted, “the world we want,” a world in part of greater equality, must address mental as well as physical limitations, especially with reference to the world’s children and other vulnerable persons.

Perhaps the clearest case for psychology’s positive contribution to UN policy came from El Salvador’s Ambassador Zamora who quite rightly noted the urgent need for psychological services to address a wide range of trauma, including from torture and natural disaster.   With images of the unimaginable Nepal devastation and frustrating Baltimore unrest in the minds of most everyone at the UN, trauma itself could well have been the theme of the week.  The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples focused on youth suicide, a tragedy born of discrimination and humiliation that is both heartbreaking and correctable.  Ukraine co-sponsored two recent events, one on human rights violations against Crimean Tatars, and another on the long term effects of Chernobyl, both of which have major implications for trauma and its aftermath.  UNESCO and the Committee on Information sponsored a discussion on violence and harassment that undermine journalists and other media professionals. The US and Republic of Korea co-sponsored a raucous event on human rights violations in North Korea (DPRK) featuring three voices from the vast, uncounted abused in that country. The Security Council wrestled with chaos in Yemen and Libya and the Peacebuilding Commission struggled with possible constitutional violations and resulting street violence in Burundi.

Even delegates seeking nuclear disarmament at the NPT review conference expressed deep sadness over the Nepal earthquake, many of whom then went on to note the equally unfathomable humanitarian consequences – of the maimed and traumatized — from an exploding nuclear weapon.   Trauma seemed to be following diplomats and NGOs around the UN campus.

Human beings are remarkably resilient, but all of the above references highlight events and circumstances with potentially grave, long-term psychological impacts, especially with respect to children and youth.  Many of these effects will present themselves only after long periods of gestation, with clear potential to threaten the future ability of those victimized to raise families, hold a job, avoid addiction, and contribute to their communities.   Surely the diminished capacity of global citizens in a time of great social challenges warrants significant professional attention.

Few if any of the deep wounds from the many trauma-inflicting events in our recent history can be treated with ointment and plastic surgery.   As resilient as we might be, we also scar easily and sometimes profoundly.  Without proper emotional care, the toxins of trauma can leak into many areas of life, including the areas we most need to nurture and protect in order to maintain reasonable prospects for sustainable meaning and fulfillment in our lives.

With all the trauma currently inflicted by torturers, insurgencies, earthquakes, reactor failures, and melting ice flows, all with particular implications for young people and vulnerable populations, the “leakage” is likely to be severe and its effects long-lasting if cannot provide more sustained emotional support – while doing all that we can to close the faucets through which so much misery currently flows.

In addition to the “no-brainer” need for more trauma response, there is at least one other major contribution that psychology can make to the work of the UN.   At his or her best, a skilled counselor or therapist must pay close attention to the client but must also be able to scrutinize the client’s narrative – because the narrative represents in certain key ways the inability of the client to cope successfully with pain and longing – even trauma.  Shifting the narrative, attentively and kindly, is part of shifting priorities.  It is also part of exposing fallacies in our cherished ‘sense of things,’ the rationales we provide for our behavior and our life circumstances that sometimes seem more about deflecting responsibility and manipulating outcomes than truly understanding the circumstance in which we find ourselves.

This skill set – attentiveness combined with a healthy, engaged skepticism to help scrutinize the most obvious policy explanations (or policy pronouncements) is something that the UN could use more of.

One dimension warranting suspicion might well be the increasing tendency inside the UN to substitute affect for sound policy.  An example of this was last Friday’s “media summit” wherein a full conference room was solicited to the task of ‘bringing the message of the SDGs to 7 million persons.”  The objective was public “ownership” of the goals, certainly most worthwhile, but the audience was almost discouraged by the event leaders from giving too much scrutiny to the goals or their viability, not to mention the major political and fiscal challenges that remain before and after the General Assembly convenes in September. The goal here was to ‘sell’ the product, not worry too much about the product’s contents.

In a somewhat similar vein, the US/Republic of Korea event on human rights violations in the DPRK, held in the shadow of the NPT Review, folded stories of victims into a framework that seemed to suggest a clear and immanent policy response.  The behavior of DPRK representatives attempting to derail the presentations of victims was reprehensible, and it certainly is important to have our UN bubble punctuated from time to time by the testimony of the abused.  Nevertheless, there simply is no easy pathway from victim’s testimony to consensus policy, certainly not in this UN, this Security Council.  The organizers had to know, even if the speakers and audience might not, that the urgency underscoring this event was as likely to raise expectations as generate fresh, consensus- based policy options

This generalized raising of public expectations in the absence of careful analysis or clear, remedial policy options would not qualify as a slip in any “Freudian” sense, but this disconnect bears potentially serious implications for public trust in the UN system.  I learned through many years in a Harlem parish that, as hard as we tried to overcome poverty and addiction in that place, we had to be sure to avoid adding the burdens of unfulfilled expectations and promises not kept to the burdens of simply being poor.  People needed (and deserved) clarity and discernment, not salesmanship.

This applies equally and especially to the abused and traumatized.  While enlisting their desperately needed guidance in addressing trauma, psychologists also can, at their best, help us sort out the implications and responsibilities of the expectations we create from policies and campaigns that sound better than they are. This “sorting” can do much to help us build a more honest, discerning, reliable and responsive policy community.