Tag Archives: UN

Visiting Hours: Sojourning with the Sacred, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Dec


There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.  Madeleine L’Engle

Action is always superior to speech in the Gospels, which is why the Word became flesh and not newsprint. Colin Morris

Holy work in the world has always been like this: messy, earthy, physical, touchable. Catherine McNiel

We are the creators, and our mission is to detach from all the chains we imposed upon ourselves and create a bridge to the infinite self. Journey back to where we started. Ana O’Malley

Do not have so much fear of this world that it will ruin the next incarnation. Dada Bhagwan

This is the first day of Hanukkah, the first full day of winter, and just three days from Christmas.  Like many of our places of employment and engagement, the UN has wound down the bulk of its activities for the year. Unlike some of these other places, however, the UN is now licking its wounds from recent failures to reach a climate agreement sufficient to the magnitude of the current threat and, in the Security Council, the shameful inability to reauthorize the “cross-border mechanism” which most everyone believes is essential to keeping Syrian civilians alive as Special Envoy Pedersen pursues a long-awaited political settlement.

Due in part to the fact that I am not always well in my head, these discouraging policy failures actually led me to think more this week about “incarnation,” a seminal attribute of this season for Christians but one which tends to vanish from interest once the bills of the season have been paid and the images of the baby sleeping in the cold have given way to how we (at least in the northern climes) are going to cope with our unrelenting and mostly colorless winter.

I believe it would be better for all of us if we could hold on to incarnation a while longer.

According to the dictionary, what is “incarnate” is that which has been made manifest or comprehensible; something that has been made clearer to us; a veil that has been lifted; blinders that have been removed from our eyes, allowing us to see a fuller reality beyond our preconceptions and prejudices. This notion of incarnation has ramifications for Christians at Christmas of course – the baby in the hay that somehow represents the “goodness and light” that had been promised and which has seemingly remained more elusive than we might otherwise have wished.

But there are many other veils that surely need to be lifted, other blind spots to which we have become a bit too comfortable, logs in our own eyes that prevent us from seeing the “specks” that are in the eyes of others.  To be able and, even more, to be willing to see all that is constantly being made “manifest and comprehensible” to us is a great gift to ourselves, to those around us, and especially to all we seek to serve.

And there are other meanings to this incarnation season that we would also do well to consider further.

One of these is fully present in the manger scene but also at the core of some of our most cherished rituals – the mystery associated with turning items from a common to a sacred use:  the common barn that housed an infant savior; the common candles of Hanukkah mysteriously burning in a temple for days instead of hours, the common waters that somehow become the conduit for sacred baptisms. This “re-purposing” is also part of incarnation, also part of how we recognize and appreciate the mystery within the commonplace, the divine within the profane.

And it is not only in the religious realm where this re-purposing takes place.   Many of our Global Action colleagues (Green Map and others) are doing their part of the “messy, holy work” that we need so much of in these times, investing what might otherwise be considered common and easily-disposed resources with fresh value and meaning.  For several years, Lin Evola’s Peace Angels Project has been our own re-purposing guidestar, an effort across cities and cultures, collecting weapons, melting them down, and then turning these instruments of death and criminality into sculptures of beauty and inspiration. Especially in this season of incarnation, we honor all of this work, all these reminders that “there is nothing so secular” that it cannot also be re-purposed for the greater benefit of people and planet.

Finally, there is the dimension of incarnation that we are perhaps most prone to forget, or at least to overlook – the depth of commitment which such incarnation implies.  The child in the manger represents no mere visitation, no temporary port of call, no visceral drive-by, no stop on a longer tour.  The manger is, instead, a symbol of enduring presence, of a commitment to help us through our most difficult times, to accompany us as we attempt to detach from our self-imposed chains and get back in touch with our truer natures, to overcome the fears that inhibit the freedom of our movements that is indispensable to rebuilding those bridges to our “infinite selves.”

Incarnation has little relation to the material things and personal relationships that we have been “trained” to use for a short season and then discard; nor does it represent a short, seasonal distraction from the habits embedded in our personal calendars.  Indeed it is the key to calendars with a genuine human future.

The three dimensions of incarnation noted here all have important implications for both our personal lives and our policy choices. They represent a call to lift the veils that prevent our clarity of vision; to accept the duty to re-purpose, thereby creating sacred space where there is now only (sometimes quite vulgar) material interest; to seize on the value of accompaniment, making ourselves reliable advocates for people who are themselves reliable in their pursuit of a truth worth keeping; people who can help us re-purpose the material plane which is now burying us in plastic and cynicism; people for whom “visiting hours” has no closing time.

The sacred texts that define this season of incarnation make clear that action takes precedence over speech, that how we act in response to the clarity and permanence promised during this season means more to the world than what we say (or write).  The world that we seek to inspire and heal needs this incarnation moment; it needs us to witness more reliably to the sacred in our midst, to do our part to create new sacred spaces and deeper relationships, and to renew the commitment to see our own re-purposing projects to their very end.

Do you hear what I hear?  Do you see what I see?  The season of incarnation is upon us.  May it never leave.

Civil Society: Making Change without Making Enemies, Dr. Robert Zuber

1 Jul


A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman, of the next generation.  J.F. Clarke

Political parties are on the hunt to search and destroy each other, as though we were involved in some kind of enemy combat, rather than the work of statesmanship.   John Lewis

The challenge was that it was harder to be subtle than strident.   Nancy Gibbs

New truth is only useful to supplement the old; rough truth is only wanted to expand, not to destroy, our civil and often elegant conventions.  Robert Louis Stevenson

This was an exhausting week at the UN for all its stakeholders, including a high level General Assembly event on countering terrorism, planning for important resolutions on infectious diseases and a September Mandela Peace Summit, and an outcome document for the Review Conference of the Programme of Action on Small Arms that had delegates negotiating over issues from women’s participation in disarmament affairs to the control of ammunition supplies well into early Saturday morning.

The Nelson Mandela Peace Summit preparatory discussion — with the goal of a consensus political declaration — was particularly interesting for us as delegations shared insights on matters important for the entire UN community; including how to define “vulnerabilities” beyond group categorizations and how to position the declaration so that it reinforced system-wide commitments to “sustaining peace” and the 2030 Development Agenda. The discussion was led by the always entertaining and insightful Ambassador of South Africa, Jerry Matjila, who reminded delegations that these “unusual times require an unusual declaration,” one that can help convince people that “the impossible is still possible.”

As we were also reminded this week by African women themselves at an excellent side event on preventing violence extremism in Africa, the multiple threats from poverty and climate-affected desertification and drought conspire to create openings for extremists that bring danger even to daily routines.  If peace “is still possible” in the poorest, driest parts of Africa, it will take more reassuring capacity support and non-partisan leadership from the rest of us; more than these determined women can alone deliver for their communities, as they themselves made clear.

Such leadership is elusive in our time. On Saturday I was in New Mexico to join with a wide range of stakeholders — from activists representing area (often displaced) indigenous tribes to mothers clutching children themselves clutching signs of frustration and determination,  as the reality of the family separation being chronicled from the stage by those who had experienced it’s effects first-hand was almost too painful to bear.

The advocacy around the plaza ranged from those seeking only to reunite separated children to those seeking to oust the current US president using language that struck me as a tad on the reckless side – as though lecturing and insulting people you don’t like is an effective way to change their behavior, or as though any deference to civility in our currently ravaged political discourse is little more than code for passive indifference.

Civility did take a bit of a hit at this rally, with some declaring an era of state fascism and otherwise alleging political enemies in categorical terms.  As the scene unfolded, I kept thinking back to a poll released this week by Transparency International indicating that by a shockingly wide margin, people report only limited “trust” in their government.   The poll, it must be noted, was conducted through Facebook and would likely not rise to the highest polling standards.  And yet, at least in the main, it confirmed so much of what I read and hear about through the UN – societies becoming simultaneously suspicious, insular and polarized, with fewer and fewer opportunities for the “dialogue” that we constantly (and rightly) advocate for conflict states from Syria to Cameroon.

As some of the Hispanic speakers at the rally rightly claimed, too many people in this world are simply not being heard, and simply not being heard by governments.  Indeed, there are some people in this world who have a hard time being heard by any government – including voices from some of the indigenous communities represented on the plaza.  But “hearing” now seems to have become primarily a partisan activity as our views on what kinds of societies we want to live in continue to diverge. And to make matters worse, there is now a scarcity of statesmen/women who heed needs and voices beyond partisan bases and who help us grasp our longer-term responsibilities to the children who depend on us for things other than staking out political turf.  We need more of these leaders in both national and multilateral settings to help us resolve this current cycle of mistrust and recrimination while it is within our capacity to do so.

Through its sometimes powerful norm building, the UN for its own part seems to embrace a mostly progressive worldview with mostly-diligent diplomats working hard to “keep the doors open” for effective policy negotiations.  But there are tremors lurking here as well as some of the most visible and respected diplomats at UN headquarters represent leadership in national capitals whose “heads” are wrapped around decidedly different policy priorities. At the UN, we collectively know a fair bit about how to diffuse and even overcome some of the short-term policymaking and partisan venom that has infected discourse in so many political contexts.   We have learned much about the challenge and necessity of seeing value in the actions and priorities of even our policy adversaries. What we don’t yet know how to do, at least with consistency, is to use UN norm building as a tool to actively stem the tide of intolerance and authoritarianism that seems to be cascading over more and more of our member states.

In looking for clues in these urgent times, we all have things to atone for, including exclusions that we have done more to enable than we are willing to acknowledge. But we have also had past successes in reaching beyond limitations of trust and context that it would be helpful to recall.  Indeed, one of the most memorable speeches at the New Mexico rally was also one of the least incendiary.  A Vietnamese woman took the stage to remind the audience of its own history – specifically the successful integration of Vietnamese in the 1970s to places like New Mexico and Oklahoma which could not have been more different from where these people had come from but where –somehow, some way — people eventually made it work.

We can make it work again, she exclaimed.

Indeed we can.




Speech Impediment: The Darkness Lurking Behind our Migration Governance Efforts, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Apr

Migraton II

The strategic adversary is fascism… the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us. Michel Foucault

A wise woman wishes to be no one’s enemy; a wise woman refuses to be anyone’s victim. Maya Angelou

Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. … Every separation is a link.  Simone Weil

All of us with multiple settings and contexts for our lives understand that forms and contents of our communication tend to vary with our audience.   Few people taking the stage for a presentation use the same language that they would use in a conversation with a loved one or with a familiar shopkeeper.  We don’t often communicate the same around children as we do around those closer to our own demographic.  We don’t generally use the same language in our houses of worship as we do at sporting events. We don’t communicate the same on the streets of places like New York – filled largely with inattentive strangers – as we do back home around people who stake a different claim on the contents of our self-definitions.

Hopefully, it is context and not a will-to-deceive that lies at the heart of these linguistic variances.  In our best sense, we try to establish connection in part by sharing with people what we think they need or can tolerate to hear as a precondition for a deeper and hopefully more trustworthy transaction.  In this current age given to collecting trivial “data” about each other and over-sharing what we think others need to “know” about ourselves, there is perhaps even greater value in mastering the rhythms of transaction, of withdrawal and return, of discerning how best to connect to others, including those most troublesome to ourselves, through attentive and persistent practice.

In our communities of faith, the task is much the same: acquiring diverse tools and strategies to communicate with a range of “others,” trying and failing (and trying again) to establish or regain trust, providing a consistently more comprehensive narrative of meaning to replace the often-petty sound-bites that we seem so reluctant to abandon.  It is a challenge indeed to find the right formula to communicate successfully through the walls that divide us, including and especially walls of our own making. I know of few persons in and out of faith communities who are sufficiently skilled at this.

Of course, communications-related challenges abound in our large public institutions as well. One of the things that you have to get used to around the UN is the sight of diplomats articulating progressive norms – or at least contributing to discussions about such — while events back home in the countries these diplomats represent are sometimes tracking in a very different direction.

While there are certainly “unreasonable” things proposed at the UN – including many statements inside and outside of the Security Council that are less about clarifying policy truths and more about convincing those open to being convinced– the multilateral contexts of the UN suppress somewhat the degrees of aggressive and ethno-centric rhetoric now emanating from more and more global settings.  Statements by diplomats, as we have noted on other occasions, might be redundant and irrelevant, might disrespectfully neglect both established time limits and the obligation to listen to others, but they don’t generally offer rhetorically-direct challenges to core Charter values even if the behavior of states they represent or of a growing number of their constituents suggest something different.

One instance of the divisions between UN diplomacy and national practice was provided during this week’s discussions — kindly and effectively led by the Ambassadors of Mexico and Switzerland — towards a consensus draft of the Global Compact on Migration, a Compact that is being negotiated alongside its “partner” Compact on Refugees, and which represents a potentially important antidote to the chaotic basket of laws and protocols that at times do more to confuse and frighten people than provide predictable pathways to services, employment opportunities and community integration.

As delegations to these Compact discussions surely recognize, their often-“enriching” efforts come at a time when anti-migration sentiment seems to be growing in many parts of the world, including in areas of Central Europe which have spurred numerous news reports of highly-disturbing, public rhetoric promoting “ethnic purity” and in at least one instance disparaging persons co-occupying national territory as “ferocious humanoids.”

Inside the UN, there has thankfully been far less virulent blowback to a largely progressive, non-binding Compact that seeks to regularize migration in ways that work for migrants and for states involved in one or more segments of migration pathways.  Reproaches have largely taken the form of assertions of sovereign interest and have included requests for clarification regarding distinctions between migrants who “choose” to leave and those who do so “irregularly” based on considerations as broad and discouraging as climate impacts (as noted by Tuvalu) or the conflict “refugees” for whom settled international law already exists (if not adequately implemented). There have also been requests for better data on how migrants, in the words of the Compact draft, create economic benefits in both origin and destination states.

If only such benefits were clearer and sufficiently compelling for more people.  If only people like me who attend these meetings could do a better job of both communicating migration benefits and offering solidarity with and support to the growing number of skeptical people worldwide who are being asked to make way for newcomers while too many of the rest of us piously go about our all-too-regular business — bending the arc of what little remains of our global resource base to the benefit “of our own.”

In our policy bubbles and urban penthouses, it seems that some of us  have managed to convince ourselves that, regarding the acceptance and care of regular and irregular migrants, others should “take one for the team,” in too many cases a “team” that has thoroughly marginalized local interests and otherwise failed to honor the promises of a globalized order, a “team” thas has too often acquiesced to an “order” characterized by gross inequalities and equally gross (and mostly unpunished) lapses in judgment by more than a few who benefit most from current conditions.

There is no justification in this (or any other) time for the racist and hateful rhetoric to which we are now witness in settings from Warsaw to Virginia.  But neither is there justification for gas attacks on Syrian citizens, for starvation and siege tactics in Yemen, for snipers shooting unarmed civilians on the borders of Gaza.  Neither is their justification for vast concentrations of wealth and power that offer distractions rather than genuine participation in matters that affect community health and well-being.  While maintaining our lagely respectful and even constructive rhetoric in New York, we have been maddeningly idle as the UN Charter is sliced up by rich and powerful elements to suit their own appetites, persons who then hand the leftovers to “we the peoples” for whom the Charter meal was ostensibly and originally intended.

The UN Migration Agency IOM has rightly called migration governance “one of the most urgent and profound tests of international cooperation in our time.”  And they aptly point to the Compact on Migration as one key promise of effective global governance that can help to establish viable norms for enhancing migrant access and protecting migrant rights. Such rights include access to employment opportunities for adults and public services for children (as highlighted this week by Panama and others) and (as advocated by the Holy See) persons with disabilities. They also include transparent standards for and access to the remittances and pathways to family reunification essential to the well-being of both migrants and persons still residing in countries of origin.

But let’s be clear:  We are much closer to a negotiated Global Compact than we are to finding something closer to common ground with those many thousands marching around the world under banners of hate-filled rhetoric, banners that communicate disdain for our “liberal” priorities and institutions every bit as much as rejection of the “other.”  This represents a massive challenge to the values of many, including most all diplomats here in New York, but even more to the communications skills needed to dialogue effectively with that anger.

But if we are to truly and “profoundly” to cooperate on migration governance, if we truly want to support and maintain healthy flows of people in and out of our societies, then we must do more to identify and address the diverse community contexts and policy uncertainties identified in the Global Compact itself.  And that entails a stronger commitment to adjust our language – even if it means banging on dividing walls – to fulfill the hope articulated within the Global Compact draft, the hope that migration properly governed can truly “unite rather than divide us.”

For those of us for whom repulsion rushes to the surface at the news of yet another “hate rally,” communicating across divides of global policy and angry local marchers is likely to be the hardest bridge to cross. But if we don’t try, if we don’t extend hands of greater opportunity and responsibility, if we fail to use our leverage to recover the human face of both migrants and those determined to reject them, there might well come a time in our not-too-distant future when the walls around us grow so thick that no sound, no matter how wise or conciliatory, will be able to penetrate.


State of Play: Controlling Access and Discourse at UN Headquarters, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Mar


Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind. Albert Einstein

Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.   Hector Berlioz

Every act should be performed as though all eternity depended on it.  Robert Grudin

As I’ve written previously, Global Action is in the midst of a temporary office move that is massively inconvenient on the one hand but quite enlightening on the other.

Sifting through a lifetime of commitments and mis-steps, both from the 19 years of Global Action’s existence and from the many other projects that I together with some extraordinary people have spawned over the years is a daunting process under any circumstance; but certainly in an instance such as this where mounds of books and paper lie begging for new habits of storage and access.

But the learning represented in the midst of this chaos is so very rich, perhaps not enough to justify the killing of God-knows how many trees, but certainly enough to help set the table for a new iteration of policy assessment, reflection and service.  And a core part of that learning is coming to terms with why we took on this task in the first place, why we placed ourselves in a position to tilt at windmills of violence, discrimination and poverty with little more than a blunt sword and a countenance often more stubborn than strategic?

As the documents lining the walls of my apartment are slowly reminding, I (with many others) joined this push during the Cold War, when global policy was dominated by two major powers to the degree that most other states, even at the United Nations of that time, could do little more – risk little more – than to align themselves behind their “block of choice.”  Despite being barely 30 years removed from the toxic nationalism that plunged much of the world into violence, we were still struggling with how to place “we the peoples” at the center of a genuinely multipolar policy community, a community that was both genuinely inclusive and fully responsive to emerging global challenges.   We wanted to see about making a world where everyone who wanted a voice had one; where everyone with a skill to contribute to a more just and sustainable world could find their place of practice.

Windmills indeed.    After all this time, all this expenditure of life energy, all this tilting, where are we now?

If one spends any time at all in the presence of our (much maligned and not entirely without cause) media – and I know many folks who now simply refuse to watch or listen – you are well aware that nationalism has made a remarkable comeback as a public policy force.  Walls are rising and patience is shortening; politicians are openly expressing interest in extending their “reigns” beyond constitutional limits; acts of violence perpetrated against those “not our people” are on the rise; speech that incites both fear and loathing has been let out of the closets where people like me naively believed we had safely locked it away.

At the UN, the current wave of nationalism takes a different tack.  The politics of the UN are both more progressive and more protocol-driven than is often the case in national capitals, certainly on many street corners across the nations.  Diplomats at the UN, albeit with significant variations, still understand the need for consensus, even if that often produces resolutions more facile than effective.   Diplomats still understand the many problems – including counter-extremism, migration governance and ocean health – that simply cannot be solved at national level no matter how powerful the government or patriotic the citizenry, even if UN effectiveness on such matters remains open for debate.   Diplomats still understand the pivotal role they can play in addressing global problems, though the working methods of the UN and the rapidly rotating doors of diplomatic missions tend to rob the system of institutional memory – and often of appropriate levels urgency as well.

And diplomats still largely understand the value of diverse voices in policy, though this aspiration often ends up in dialogues with large-budget NGOs that can take off some of the implementation pressure off of states; or NGOs funded by states to provide “guidance” on core branded issues such as peacekeeping, financing for development and the arms trade; or civil society reps that come from diverse settings to provide “one off” testimony about violence and abuse that the UN has failed to satisfactorily address.

The current situation is very much punctuated by what Barbara Adams noted this week during ECOSOC’s Operational Activities for Development segment wherein she described the trend at the UN towards “preferred partners,” mostly from the private sector, but with implications across the system of access for the smaller (and most numerous) NGOs.  These “preferred” partners are virtually guaranteed a seat on the plane, usually with upgrades.  And they always seem to be invited to the party, even when they come (though don’t always leave) empty-handed.

For the rest of us, the UN seems increasingly hostile to its own rhetoric on transparency and accountability.  There are days at the UN when there are virtually no “open” meetings for ECOSOC-accredited NGOs and those meeting that are open often take the metaphorical form of a large picture window through which we are able to see the feast that we are not invited to join, a feast seemingly always in preparation and where our own culinary skills are simply not requested.

These “closed” meetings have at times included General Assembly efforts to revitalize the UN Charter, a matter of urgency for virtually all global citizens, certainly well beyond the concern of government representatives alone. These discussions have many potential “fit for purpose” virtues, but certainly one of the benefits would be to remind the UN community – not just the states – of why we’re here, why we’ve gathered, why we persist in a building that is slow on the sustainable development goals (SDGs) uptake, cannot properly enforce its urgent human rights norms, and stumbles over many of its peace and security obligations despite reminders this week from France and others in the Security Council that “every minute we delay (on implementation of the recent Syria resolution) means the loss of more lives.”

Across UN conference rooms, SG Guterres is constantly reminding diplomats that “global problems require global solutions.” This shouldn’t need repeating.  We should be openly embracing the opportunity — as a policy community but also as a learning community – to make contributions to the resolution of global challenges commensurate with what we know about the many strains of “measles” affecting the planet and the relative ineffectiveness of some of our current strategies to affect proper healing. States, quite clearly, don’t have all the answers here no matter how much some of them try to manage and control discussions and outcomes.  Indeed, if we are to find the answers we seek, we will need a more expansive, urgent and humble engagement with both the questions and the skilfullness of our responses.   The “leave no one behind” mantra of the SDGs should be at least as much about agency as it is about assistance.

On Friday, we at the UN were treated to a side event organized by the Statistical Commission to discuss a “federated” approach to data collection and management for sustainable development.   This nerdy sounding event placed on display representatives of some of the leading “preferred partners for the UN.   But there was no arrogance here, no sense of institutional entitlement.   The speakers were often full of humor and just as often full of humility.  They lost their places in the presentations.  The slides didn’t always work.   They laughed at themselves. And they recognized that they were speaking about a topic of fundamental importance to our planetary future that makes many people feel disenfranchised and some others leap to outlandish claims about the power of data to “save us from ourselves.”

My own favorite was Haishan Yu from the World Bank who spoke personally and passionately about her “simple ideas” of making data more credible while making it “more convenient” for users.   But she also pointed to “the multiple strands of new technology” that are coming at us so rapidly, making it “arrogant to predict the future too boldly.”  She called for global data tied closely to national and local data and that can, within its own realm, help to improve our now-lagging prospects for full SDG implementation.

This was “open” conversation at its UN best, an invitation to participation that even someone like me who wouldn’t know the difference between Instagram and Instant Oatmeal, could appreciate and feel excited about.  I only wished that more state representatives could have been in that room to see how some of their “preferred partners” were doing their part to remind us of the value of our agency towards more preferred futures.

Strangers in the Night:  Recovering the Risks of Friendship, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Jul

Barbed Wire 2

Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.  Helen Keller

Great perils have this beauty that they bring to light the fraternity of strangers. Victor Hugo

The language of friendship is not words but meanings.  Henry David Thoreau

This week at the UN “featured” what appears to be a growing rift between the increasingly abusive and defiant government of Burundi and the concerns of the international community; a lack of “positive news” (ASG Muller) on still-besieged areas in Syria with nothing even approximating positive news on Yemen or Gaza; and renewed violence in the Central African Republic which mourned a new round of peacekeeper casualties.

Given all this, and throw the DPRK into the mix, and it surely must seem like a policy cop-out to reference this International Day of Friendship, one of the UN’s “can’t we just all get along” moments that might well seem superfluous to the serious policy challenges on our plate, including those related to the vast human mobility which seems now to have stretched our resources and caring capacities up to and even past their limit.

So much of migration now is what the UN policy community refers to as “irregular,” what the rest of us might well refer to as “forced.”  People on the move less for economic opportunity or a fresh start but to escape horrific conditions of war and its remnants, of drought and its famines, of atrocities and their multiple scars. Families escaping bombs they neither built nor dropped; drought and food insecurity from climate change they did virtually nothing to impact; atrocities perpetrated against them based on culture and genetics more than on any active political resistance or military threat.

And, as we know, the uncertain path forward for many fleeing insecurity is lined with more of the same.  Securing adequate family sustenance can be every bit as much a challenge on the move as it was in the drought and conflict zones from which they fled.  Traffickers abound and prey on vulnerabilities of all kinds, offering false hope to persons otherwise verging on “no hope” at all.   Abuses at the hands of those ostensibly providing “protection” simply magnify the insecurity, especially for children cut off from any modicum of protection that families might otherwise have provided.  And that barbed wire at the end of what is often a long and life-threatening journey is perhaps the strongest sign of people once betrayed by much of global governance and the human family who have been forsaken yet again.

As we have noted often, and as has been carefully and compassionately documented in “Turning Strangers into Friends,” edited by Liberato Bautista on behalf of Churches Witnessing With Migrants (CWWM),  the “regular” migration that is the goal of UN policy deliberations can be fraught with its own dangers: hostility at airports and border crossings; icy stares from persons on the street who believe that any stranger represents a danger;  threats from states to deport even single parents from family units; employers all-too-willing to cheat or abuse employees on the assumption that legal systems are mostly disinterested in migrants’ rights.

And as Bautista and colleagues have summarized in their Talking and Doing Points issued prior to their recent Berlin consultation, these are only a few of the factors that compromise the safety and dignity of “uprooted peoples,” factors that demand good policy from institutions like the UN but also more consistent and person-centered hospitality from those who claim to value dignity for all. The UN is trying to do its part to overcome some residual state resistance to the establishment and dissemination of a Global Compact on Migration that will hopefully facilitate safer, orderly and more “regular” migration patterns.   A Compact-related consultation held at the UN this week, chaired ably by Mexico and Switzerland and featuring Special Representative for International Migration Louise Arbour, stressed a number of important points for the migration policy community including the right of voluntary return, the importance of protecting (and even expanding) remittances, the need for more accurate data on all aspects of human mobility, the value of providing proper “documentation” for migrants and rethinking restrictions on “dual citizenship,” the many cultural and capacity benefits of “diaspora outreach,” and the need to step up “conflict prevention” efforts to help stem the flow of persons who feel that they have no option but to flee bombs overhead and landmines under foot.

There was even welcome discussion of the importance of moving beyond “whole of government” to “whole of society” approaches to addressing migration’s opportunities and challenges.  This point had particular resonance for us. “Turning strangers into friends,” accompanying those in ways we would wish to be accompanied, is not only about having the right national and global policies, not only about having the most progressive words appear in our declarations and resolutions, but about having the proper dispositions in communities; about seeing ourselves, indeed our common survival, reflected in the often fearful eyes of those who now appear as strangers to us.

This disposition remains in distressingly short supply, both within and outside communities of faith.

Even in a city like New York, which prides itself on its many cultures and more recently its resistance to new US federal policies clamping down on migrants of all stripes, there is a need to up our game on the hospitality, “mercy” and friendship called for by the CWWM.  For too many of us, even now, the promise of diversity is only casually engaged.   We sample the food of migrants but rarely share their dreams.   We attend the festivals of migrants but are mostly absent from their logistical challenges and major life transitions.  We are tolerant of migrants’ presence but mostly stick closely (on and off our phones) to our smaller, like-minded circles.

With all due regard for the “compassion fatigue” that seems to be sweeping the planet, and with all blessings extended to those who put their safety on the line every day to care for the otherwise forsaken, hospitality and friendship for migrants must become a long-term commitment for more of the rest of us.  This is not some pious liberal call, but rather stems from a belief — abundant evidence for which emerges regularly from UN conference room — that the factors pushing people to risk the lives of their children to escape the carnage of their daily lives are likely to grow in number and intensity, at least for the time being.

So while we are urgently figuring out a plan to regulate the growing ranks of the  unregulated, while this clock counting down the deadline for our common survival is still ticking, we have urgent work to do ourselves, to do on ourselves.   We have to find better ways to keep our hearts open, to offer friendship and hospitality that is not about charity but about, as noted by Lester Ruiz, “the opportunity to live well together in the context of our shared differences.”   And we must learn how to accompany others recovering from a displacement they so often did not choose, in part as a means of learning how we would wish to be accompanied when it is our turn to face grave insecurity.

This is friendship in the best sense, the friendship that walks in as others are running out, that absorbs anxieties when others are pushing them away, and that elicits practical offers of hospitality beyond the boundaries of personal convenience.   This is the friendship I have been blessed to receive over and over in my life.  This is friendship worthy of our times, practices that can bring deeper meaning to policies directed towards that “fraternity of strangers” longing to find their way home.

Renewing Vows: The Security Council’s Marriage of Convenience, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Feb

Last Monday, under China’s presidency, the UN Security Council held a most welcome general debate inviting states to “reflect on history and reaffirm the strong commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Representation in the room was quite robust with a number of Foreign Ministers having made the trip to New York to reflect on their national responsibilities to the UN’s multi-lateral framework.

The debate itself was a mixed bag as one might expect.  Some states used the occasion to recommit to what they understood to be the core principles of the UN Charter.  Others took advantage of the opportunity to remind the Council that, in the eyes of some states, the current system of maintaining peace and security is still uneven, unrepresentative, even politically biased. Still others used the occasion to point fingers at states (mostly at Russia on Ukraine) that they believed were gravely undermining the most important of Charter principles.

A few states were even in the mood to talk a bit of reform. One of the ideas raised by several delegations, including some Council members, was in support of the French proposal for ‘voluntary restraint’ on the use of the veto in cases where mass atrocities have been determined. This idea has been growing in popularity, especially among certain NGOs focusing on atrocity crime response.

We have written about this idea previously and mostly cautiously.   In our view, there are conditions for such voluntary restraint that should be honored if the proposed change is to solve more problems than it creates.   The primary conditions for restraint are a more horizontal Council power structure that is less inclined to ‘politicize’ findings from UN officials tasked with monitoring the potential for mass violence. There is also need for greater Council willingness to “work and play” better with other UN agencies responsible for diverse aspects of violence prevention.

While listening to the Charter debate, another wrinkle on “conditionalities” came to mind.  This ‘condition’ was courtesy of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of New Zealand, a delegation that we greatly respect but where, in this instance, there seemed to be an attempt to ‘pair off’ two principles that probably need a bit more time to sort out their individual business.

For New Zealand (as for Spain and others) priorities were joined that really don’t seem ready to ‘marry’ each other, despite pressure from the relatives.  The most welcome priority is to get the Council more involved in supporting other UN efforts focused on the preventive side of conflict – heeding early warning and working more closely with other UN capacities devoted to mediation and other preventive tools.  The other is related to veto restraint, which is touted as a solution to difficult, “gridlock” situations like Syria and comes from an urgent desire both to save lives and to protect the reputation of the UN and its partner institutions.

Unfortunately, the discussion on restraint comes attached neither to carefully verbalized conditions nor to a helpful overview of the Council’s coercive measures now underway despite the presence of the veto in a manner, perhaps unfortunately if not inconveniently, consistent with the Charter.

For instance, the current “lack” of veto restraint has not impeded what a number of states see as the Council’s over-reliance on coercive peacekeeping operations to solve international problems. It did not prevent the ongoing carnage in Libya traceable in part to implementation of SCR 1973.  It has not prevented the (mostly ineffective to date) bombing raids against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, nor the imposition of US/EU sanctions against Russia.  It has not impeded French military exercises in support of threatened governments in Mali or CAR.  It has not prevented Council endorsement of the still-somewhat-dubious Force Intervention Brigade in the DRC.

Indeed, if there are lessons to be learned here, it is that the veto is used relatively sparingly (though it is threatened more often), and that it is generally used (or threatened) in the most coercive contexts – sanctions and militarized responses.   Spain’s important messaging on mediation capacity might be insufficiently heeded, but it is not vetoed.  Early warnings from the Joint Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect might be tossed into a metaphorical drawer until a full-blown crisis erupts, but neither are these findings candidates for veto.

And it is not at all clear to us, in a situation characterized by voluntary veto restraint, how the Council’s actions on Syria (the poster child for such restraint) would be so very different.   What would the Council be advocating now on Syria that is distinguishable from its current practice?  How much of that ‘difference’ would be military in nature?  And why do we think that military activity directed at Syria would produce peace and security outcomes less like Libya and more like Sierra Leone?  If these questions have answers, they would help make the case for veto restraint.  If they cannot be answered then we should be careful advocating a step that might well satisfy our need to ‘do something’ more than it clarifies what needs to be done, when action is needed, and how we should respond.

During Monday’s Charter debate, the US made what might have been a ‘slip’ during its statement, though it was a telling one – citing the Council’s ‘restoration’ responsibility alongside its maintenance function.   ‘Restoration’ of course is not specifically a Charter-mandated activity of the Council, though the term accurately describes much of current Council practice – fighting raging fires while accusing other states of ‘arson,’ rather than responding in a timely manner to smoke warnings.   We recognize that much about any Council assessment is related to our own expectations; how we judge is in large measure a function of our assessment of capability and culpability.   But we feel that the amount of institutional energy put into ‘restoration’ of conflict settings that the UN system could surely have done more to prevent in the first instance is a most sobering thought, one that, in our view, does not yet recommend veto restraint.

Our fear is that, without addressing the larger concerns related to Council working methods, veto restraint represents permission for downstream “business as usual” to continue or even grow.   Indeed, there is reason to believe that the preventive architecture that the New Zealand Foreign Minister rightly advocated would become even less likely in situations where the international community, and specifically its permanent members, didn’t have to make their full (and hopefully even non-political) case for recourse to coercive measures.

Despite some welcome changes in transparency, in large part motivated through more vigorous involvement by non-permanent members, an ‘unrestrained’ Council still acts too often (and too coercively) without sufficient discernment regarding longer-term security implications or the need for engaged consultations with its many UN partners.  We aren’t anxious to have those temptations magnified.

An Island Nation Prepares for its Next Invasion: Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Jan

The sudden and dramatic announcement by the Obama Administration of a ‘thaw’ in the lengthy chill in relations between the US and one of its nearest neighbors was welcomed by many in the policy community, especially its ‘left-leaning’ wing.

Certainly there is cause for relief if not for outright celebration.   The decades-long embargo with its origins in Cold War security concerns, an embargo not supported by most of the rest of the international community, has long-since ceased to create political or economic value for either of the two countries most directly involved.

But just as melting ice caps endanger island states, this ‘thaw’ also raises caution flags.   While the Obama decision seemed to catch many off guard, there is plenty of reason to believe that US corporate titans have had contingency plans in place for some time, ready for the opportunity to expand operations on an island deemed ‘ripe’ for consumption beyond the state-sanctioned, limited economic interactions with tourists already appearing from Europe and other ‘friendly’ states.

As one of our visiting fellows, Dr. Megan Daigle, noted informally, there is a real danger that the promise of increased quality of life and political will for “ordinary” Cubans will be swept away in the “invasion” which this change in policy likely forecasts.  As of this writing, there has been no indication that the US travel embargo will be completely lifted, so there will be at least some delay in the expected mad dash of US tourists.  And as our fellow also indicated, there is already foreign investment in Cuba from European companies though, thus far, the Cuban government has maintained 51% ownership of all joint ventures.  If the state maintains some vague semblance of that policy, it might have a chance of holding on and directing the growth themselves. But prospects for expanded growth will likely energize a political opposition that has been numerically small and geographically scattered, but could soon gain many sympathizers, especially if the government is seen as actively suppressing newly-‘thawed’ economic aspirations.

We rarely use this blog space to comment on the evolution of bilateral arrangements.  But this ‘thaw’ has economic, social and even security implications beyond Cuba and the US.   The fact that the US is now ‘ready’ to move on normalized relations does not mean that the Cubans themselves are sufficiently prepared for what is to come.  Cuba will surely need some space — and assistance as well — to determine the levels of cultural and economic interventions it is able (or willing) to reasonably assimilate.

There are diverse and even hopeful opportunities here to be sure, but managing them sustainably will require a mix of vigilance, restraint and bold thinking.   Hopefully part of this ‘thaw’ will involve a return for many Cubans who had taken their talents elsewhere, though there is certainly a danger of a new social schism as ex-pats seek to reclaim property long since ‘redistributed’ to locals by the government.

The processes emanating from this ‘thaw’ are ones that should sustain our collective policy interest. Let’s see if the ‘thaw’ reveals instincts to reconciliation and not simply to profit.  Let’s see if a generation of government leaders committed primarily to protection of its citizens from the demons of “US imperialism” can make the transition to a more nuanced, participation-based control.  Let’s see which aspects of government management of national assets can survive new waves of aggressive investors.  Let’s see if many locals currently with more resourcefulness than tangible assets can avoid becoming victimized by a new potential iteration of the economically marginalized.   Let’s see how levels of political participation, especially for younger Cubans, are permitted to change across the country.  Let’s see if environmental protection can survive a construction boom.  Let’s see how many mistakes made by western economies the Cubans can find ways to avoid.

And let’s see if the UN is willing and able to offer and sustain full-spectrum services to keep the “thaw” from setting off a tsunami of bitterness, greed and broken promises. This is a test of the UN system’s ability to help manage state transitions across a spectrum of interests and concerns.  And Cuba is clearly now ‘officially’ a state in transition.   Whether that transition results in more fairness or more predation is partially in the UN’s hands, whether the UN wants it there or not.

The Cubans have a long legacy of competent, hard-nosed diplomats in New York.  Getting some of the most appropriate UN agencies more deeply involved in managing the social and economic impacts of the ‘thaw’ might require a ‘softer’ competence.   In any event, we wish all parties attentiveness and sensitivity in finding the right policy balances so that this long-overdue promise of ‘thaw’ can result in positive, tangible, sustainable consequences for Cuba’s people.