Tag Archives: United Nations

Green Acres: Diverse and Rural Voices for Sustainable Security, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Mar


Distrust and caution are the parents of security. Benjamin Franklin

You cannot achieve environmental security and human development without addressing the basic issues of health and nutrition. Gro Harlem Brundtland

We spend our time searching for security and hate it when we get it. John Steinbeck

Only in growth, reform, and change, paradoxically enough, is true security to be found. Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The UN building has been almost completely given over these days due to the thousands of women who have come to the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).  Given our substandard March weather this year, the main UN buildings have seen especially long lines for food and other essentials as well as overflow crowds for most of the side events held inside (and in some cases outside) UN buildings.

The focus for this CSW has been “rural women,” an important topic for us and some of our core partners, but also a bit of a conundrum given the largely urban origins of most stakeholders at UN Headquarters.   With some exceptions, we don’t come to this policy community from the farms, or the hilltops, or the swamps.  We tend not to deal with rural matters much unless there are tragedies to be addressed, humanitarian aid to be delivered or protection to be organized.  The rhythms of rural life are largely not our business, nor our interest.   We rarely see rural communities as opportunities for learning, places that can help us recover a more personal and place-based antidote to the anxieties, distractions and disconnects of urban living.

The problems noted by this CSW are real enough as people in too many parts of the world face violence and discrimination, abuse and displacement, drought and inattentive governance.   In other (non-CSW) discussions this week,  we were privy to Security Council struggles to enact a sustainable cease fire across Syria,  General Assembly efforts to negotiate a “global compact” on safe, orderly migration, and commitments by the Economic and Social Council to navigate the extraordinary financial obligations that our commitments to the Sustainable Development goals have incurred.  And the Peacebuilding Commission laid out a plan for long-terms security – health, economic, physical and developmental – as the peacekeeping mission in Liberia (UNMIL) prepares to draw down at month’s end.

All of these discussions have implications for at least some of the rural women who were ostensibly the focus of this CSW but who were largely confined to “their own” events without getting a broader sense of the capacity of the UN or, indeed, the amount of time and energy that is already invested here on issues of importance to women, including and beyond the women who occupy this policy space.  This CSW was not a “prophetic moment” for those of us who spend our long days in the UN, though it might have been otherwise if there was more attention paid to the full scope of rural women’s aspirations and experiences beyond the heartache, beyond the very-real victimization, even beyond the narratives of those fortunate enough to be in New York to “represent” rural interests.

Rural life itself is not a problem; it has its unique vulnerabilities and challenges, it sometimes suffers patterns of discrimination that are off the radar of media and their elite constituents, but neither does it seek to conform to many of the political and cognitive biases of our urban centers.  Nor is it without plenty to teach the rest us about the changes we need to make and the risks we need to take in our own contexts.

As frustrated as my all-female, non-white cohort has sometimes been with what they see as the redundancies and risk-averse solidarities of this CSW, there were some notable exceptions among the copious side events devoted to trafficking, #metoo and the general problematizing of rural contexts.  Among these was an excellent event focused on the role of women in building a sustainable peace for Libya, a country that has barely and only fitfully recovered from the 2011 security fiasco that removed Gaddafi but left a middle-income country in virtual ruin.  That a higher profile on Libya peacebuilding should be accorded the women who presented at this event (and their peers back home) would not be challenged by any who were in their immediate audience.

Another hopeful, security-related event was held a bit off-campus, but was not at all off-point.   Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, a longtime friend of our office, has founded a new organization, Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS) dedicated to expanding both the dimensions of national security and the people who have impact on security definitions and priorities.  The CSW event that WCAPS hosted, “Redefining National Security,” brought together a diverse group of women of color with a range of experiences and views on how notions of national security are evolving (or not) to embrace a range of new and largely cross-border concerns, many of which (as is well-known to CSW delegates) impact women’s lives disproportionately.

This was a room of skilled women of who were determined, passionate and thoughtful; determined to have a say in the security-related definitions and policies that impact all our lives, passionate about “changing the global community landscape,” and thoughtful about their “takes” on security and the need to constantly listen, constantly invest our ideas with the people for whom security is not primarily equated with our bloated military apparatus, but rather spans a range of worries related to climate change and pandemics, cyber-crime and food security.  Despite the lofty positions held by some of the speakers and their obvious respect for one another, there was a refreshing absence of “like mindedness” in the room.  The levels of participation they seek for themselves and others regarding the most pressing security issues of the day require more than gender solidarity; they require a commitment to personal growth and risk as well.

We don’t know where all of these growth-oriented conversations are to be found, but we know that they exist and are deserving of our thoughtful support. There appears to be as yet no #metoo to encourage such growth, nor are there sufficiently reliable pathways yet proposed to locate and sustain the fully inclusive policy platforms that have eluded so many rural women, so many women of color, for so very long.   But they are coming.

As several minister-level panelists noted during a CSW side event on rural women in the Arab region, their region’s rapid urban growth is causing many problems for rural women seeking to maintain attention on their needs and aspirations, including increasing the “distance” between themselves and the (mostly urban) centers of policy influence.  Where can we find rural women, Arab and otherwise, in the midst of regional and international discussions on women’s rights and women, peace and security issues? Indeed, where are the openings for rural voices, male and female alike, to provide guidance on what “security” really means, in all its dimensions, through all of its challenges?  How can women who, in the words of panelists, are often neither recognized nor appreciated for all their burdens and responsibilities enter into spaces where their legitimate grievances are merely the opening gambit for a larger discussion about the minority who apparently “belong” in the club and the many millions (male and female) who are still forced to wait beyond the ropes?

If women of color can help us all to embrace and grow a larger and more inclusive security framework, and if rural women of all backgrounds and their communities can have greater impact on the personal and social dimensions of that framework, we will be well on our way towards the sustainable peace and security that we and (soon) our children long for.

Treasure Hunt: An Advent Reflection on Pathways and Resources, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Dec

Advent Image

For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last. Frederick Buechner

Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other- things that are of no real consequence- the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.   Dietrich Bonhoeffer

To be human is nothing less than to be caught in the great congested pilgrimage of existence and to join ourselves freely to it in the face of the evidence of its never-ending troubles.  Eugene Kennedy

For where your treasure is there will your heart be also.   Matthew 6:21

I’m not usually asked to write things by others – more likely asked NOT to write things, actually.   But there was one recent exception – a valued colleague asked if I would comment on an important, recent NGO discussion on the “perils and challenges of a shrinking UN budget.”    Since it is also time for my annual Advent letter, I will attempt to conflate the two responsibilities.  (You might want to consider a stronger cup of coffee before proceeding further.)

At the UN, much of the constriction just alluded to is based on threats from the current US administration and some other donor governments, officials seeking a leaner system that can do “more with less.”  As we know, this often translates into “doing less with less,” a problem for an institution that is being pulled in a variety of challenging policy directions and is having more and more difficulty taking care of basic expectations to staff and constituents on top of evolving concerns related to issues as diverse as autonomous weapons, forced migration, mass climate incidents, ethnic and disability-based discrimination, species extinction and pandemic threats.  Our global community – even those parts that don’t much trust us here in New York – simply has no viable recommendation to offer for how we might, together, ever make it “home” to a world of peace and well-being without the UN’s occasionally clumsy – and now also funding-challenged — efforts to clear away some of the debris that inhibits our collective progress.

There are challenges as well for those of us who labor in UN confines, and not only for the institution itself.  Some of those have clearly “seasonal” references.

My profound admiration for the late Dr. Bonhoeffer notwithstanding, my own take on this season of Advent is less about “killing time” in a confined space waiting for some divine (or human) power to turn the lock, and more about discerning what we plan to do – and with whom we plan to do it – in order to bring this current, difficult and confining sojourn finally to an end.

Like many people with far better excuses for this neglect than I have, I don’t spend enough time in reflection or –if you prefer –prayer, in Advent or any other season.  I don’t spend enough time simply dwelling with myself – the good and uglier aspects of that – figuring out both where I want to go but, more importantly, where I want to invest my treasure and with what values?  Moreover, who do I wish to stand alongside, and for which causes and objectives shall we together stand?  How can we best point out the many structural and, at times, self-imposed obstacles that litter our path home without sounding shrill, or mean, or even self-righteous?

Beyond such self-analysis, the reflection time of Advent allows me to take at least partial stock of all the people in my life who matter, some of whom are facing their own trials of health or meaning,  others of whom now finding themselves killing time in mostly hopeless spaces with no obvious exit.  When I reflect — when I pray — I remember all the people I am usually too “preoccupied” to think about in the ways that they deserve. And in my best moments, I recall that capacity to care about people in practical ways commensurate with the genuine value they can and do add to my life (and my world).

Advent for me represents a time of longing, of the hope that the heavens will open revealing the way out of the tiny rooms in which we have, sometimes willfully, restricted ourselves.   But it is also a time for planning what we will do once our full release is secured, and with whom we will walk ahead on a path towards greater inclusiveness and equity.

For many of us, this planning and walking clearly has something to do with money.  In an expensive and economically skewed city such as New York, those of us who work in this UN vineyard have to pay attention more than we wish to the financial implications of our respective missions.   It is difficult at times to live with simplicity and generosity beneath a bevy of shining towers saturated with moneyed interests but with little or no concern for what we are attempting to accomplish with and for each other in the realm of global policy.  It is even more difficult to share this space in the way we should with the many stakeholders worldwide who can effectively “check” our elite realities but can’t foot most or all of the bills associated with their presence here.

The UN, as already noted, has many of its own fiscal laments, sometimes substituting slogans and scheming for thoughtful reflection on what are often utterly daunting program and funding tasks.   One of those slogans relates to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) tag line of “leaving no-one behind.”  I have written previously about this once game-changing but now tired and overused formula that now represents an aspiration likely to exhaust our collective energy, probably also our powers of attention, certainly our currently available (and perhaps even projected) resources.

UN budget challenges, including the preference by some states for greater austerity and “earmarked funding,” have indeed been complicated by the ambition of the SDGs but also by the global events that make fulfilling these goals so essential to our very survival.   More and more attention is now being paid to addressing the massive price tag associated with our sustainable development promises, including through commitments to end state corruption, solidify domestic revenue streams, and integrate the so-called “private sector” in what must become a fully transparent and rights-based manner.  Military spending, much to our chagrin, remains an obvious and largely “off limits” source of potential SDG revenue.

Along with SDG-related imperatives, there are now frequent, UN-sponsored “pledging conferences” focused on forcibly displaced persons facing deprivation and trauma, the victims of discrimination and armed violence that we have done less-than-enough to prevent, the stranded and water-logged residents of coastal areas battered by storms made worse through our collective climate negligence.  A shockingly high percentage of funds pledged for disaster and humanitarian relief are actually never honored while the humanitarian and environmental crises-of-our-making seem continually to evolve.

It would seem appropriate at this point to apply some iteration of the biblical reminder regarding the links between our treasure and our heart to UN policy contexts.  To paraphrase:  where our treasure is withheld or withdrawn, where it is beholden to institutional politics more than to people, thus might well our hearts be hardened.

And there are NGO dimensions associated with current budgetary challenges.  Every time I walk into the UN, a place where I spend an average of 9 hours each day, I cost the UN money.  The security officers whom I often greatly admire, who are the “face” of UN hospitality, and who are often not treated with sufficient respect by diplomats or NGOs, are paid to make sure that people like me and my interns/fellows don’t trespass on diplomatic prerogatives, don’t get off the elevators on the wrong floor or sneak into closed meetings.  Moreover, we don’t pay for the earplugs we use in UN conference rooms; we don’t pay for the electricity or the wireless that allows us to communicate UN deliberations to the outside world; we don’t pay for any of the access passes I and my colleagues liberally bestow upon others; we don’t pay for the literature we collect and then stack up throughout our office.

And so part of the discussion about UN budgets must focus on the benefits (sometimes begrudgingly) enjoyed by offices like my own but, even more, about the financial limitations that even now impact the ability of others to sit where I sit – those many “outlandish creatures” worldwide who have every reason to insist on their place in this policy space, on their ability to “add value” in ways that I can only pray we do as well.  In a time of abundant and mean-spirited austerity threats, including towards the UN, there is little reason to believe that important and hopeful voices will find their way out of the spaces where they have for too long been confined and into UN conference rooms where “what they know” can and must inform “what we do.”   Little reason, that is, unless we commit more of our treasure to making that happen, to insist that our (still-intact if shrinking) institutional privileges are available for them as well.

For unless we all make more time for reflection on both our commitments and our own privilege, unless we are fully prepared to use whatever treasure is at our disposal to reach as far as we can to connect with those in need of both justice and a voice – and then stretch a bit further still – we are more likely to remain as “toothless plaintiffs” towards a system already well into its embrace of what Global Policy Forum calls “selective multilateralism.”  Our road home to a place of inclusion and equity is littered with debris that we have often scattered ourselves – our self-preoccupations and excessive material interests, our numerous distractions and competitive suspicions.  Ours is indeed a “congested pilgrimage,” albeit one we maintain (at least for now) the power to de-clutter.

Some of this business about sustaining multilateral policy space is about funding, specifically about a fair, predictable, transparent and depoliticized balancing of resources and expectations. And some is about reminding governments and other international stakeholders that their often-furtive and restrained financial commitments in the face of global crises tell us much about the size and health of their collective heart. But some of it is about us as NGOs as well:  our willingness to use opportunities — including the reflection space of Advent — to interrogate the promises we keep, the value we contribute, the conflict we prevent, the voices we enable—commitments that we must “own” each and every day regardless of the current health of our organizational balance sheets.

As we lobby for a sane, sufficient and promise-oriented allocation of resources based on something akin to what NGOs often refer to as “full funding” of the UN, we would also do well to ensure that our own treasure is fully engaged — that the self-reflection encouraged in this season begets some newly-minted, heart-felt and tangible commitments to inclusive access and a sustainable peace for more of the world’s people.

Sizing Up an International Icon from my Youth, Shengyang Li

5 May

Editor’s Note:  Shengyang served as an intern this spring with GAPW.  A citizen of China, Shengyang came to us from the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program as have a number of interns over the past few years.   Shengyang took a keen interest in many aspects of the UN’s work, including in the Security Council under China’s April presidency.  His interesting reflections on his experience (lightly edited) at the UN appear below. 

As a child, the education I received about UN is generally similar to how it describes itself to the rest of the world: the UN is the guardian of world peace, solver of the world’s problems, one of the most important organizations in the world. Other than we were taught few specific about UN activities. This deficit became clearer after we learned about the history of the League of Nations, the predecessor of UN and generally deemed a failure in the eyes of the world and its historians. I happened to have had the honor of learning the history of the League of Nations in both the Chinese educational system and the UK A-Level system. I noted that both ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ forms of education agree that our children should understand that the League of Nations failed, memorize why it failed, and note  that its successor, the UN, is doing its business differently and thus has been more successful. Still, nothing much was taught about how the UN actually does that “business.”

It was not until high school and my experience in the Model UN (MUN) club that I was provided more than a glimpse of the UN’s role. In retrospect I was not very happy about that lens, mainly because it was distorted: the nature of MUN portrayed the UN as more about state competition than an actual simulation of the challenges and opportunities regarding how the UN addresses global problems.  I encountered  a similar lens when I entered Bard college, so my perspective did not change greatly. This is not to say  that I have never heard negative comments about the UN’s potential, as there are many floating around in real life or on the internet. In fact, most of the negative comments I have heard are quite extreme, saying that the UN should cease to exist since it does little good in the world. Although some aspects of this frustration have merit, most are simply too extreme to be considered seriously.

Thus before I joined UN-based Global Action to Prevent War and Armed Conflict (GAPW) as part of an internship program from Bard College, my understanding of the UN remained more or less stagnant. Therefore, when I actually started my internship, I was both very excited and had no clear idea of what I was seeking or what I should be expecting.  I’d been told to pay close attention to the processes in UN conference rooms and to note down whatever was most worth reporting, including things that I felt might be contradictory or otherwise out of place. In other words, listen carefully for subtleties, and provide the most fair and accurate feedback possible

The first time I was able to recognize a full-fledged, subtle UN confusion was only weeks after I started this internship. It happened in relation to a panel focused on the inclusion of indigenous people and their issues. During that meeting a frequent sentiment was shared that the UN system should be more open to groups of indigenous people that are autonomous with a viable political structure, instead of opening more space to indigenous advocacy groups that act more like NGOs. It seemed like a reasonable suggestion to prevent this particular UN process from being flooded by activist agendas. A related sentiment widespread in the room suggested that indigenous representatives should concentrate on meetings and events ‘that are within their area of concern.’

These two sentiments seemed appropriate enough and were all mostly agreed by all delegates in the room. But after the meeting, I recognized an inconsistency: if we are to welcome at the UN those indigenous groups that tied to legitimate governments, then suddenly every topic that the UN is concerned about should be applicable to those groups as well. Water stresses? Arms flows? Gender discrimination? Income inequality?  SDGs? Are any of these topics (and others not mentioned) not an area of concern for legitimate representatives? Also, by using phrases like restricting indigenous groups to only participate in events “within their area of concern,” the UN was essentially forcing groups to focus on/fight for more narrow policy agendas. Isn’t that exactly the job of most NGOs? This interesting paradox was probably not intentional. Still, it reflects something that shouldn’t be there and was apparently not noticed by anyone participating in the discussion. What troubled me a bit is the realization that there are surely delegates and diplomats, not only observers like me, who noticed such logical fallacies, but chose not to point that out, or to even reiterate the error. People inside the system are often not willing to talk about an easily detectable inconsistency, or are simply too preoccupied to even notice things going wrong that might easily be corrected.

This was the first “Eureka” moment for me inside UN headquarters. The rest of my experiences I learned through my daily coverage of various UN meetings and events. I had been informed by my mentor of the importance of paying attention to who is not present, what is not spoken. Things ranging from an absence of an expected briefer to long and arduous statements that went on about past achievements and future expectations without solid plans or methods of implementation, even to the increasing number of ‘closed meetings’ in the UN buildings. I think I gradually understand what that means. There will always be things important to be discussed but that aren’t handled with proper urgency due to a variety of reasons (some intentional and political), and it is crucial that we notice what those reasons are and why things happen the way they do.

So overall, what did I learn from my time at GAPW? What should be my takeaways after only 3 months of trying to comprehend this system? Personally, I would say that one of the most valuable lessons I have learned is that just like other entities in the world, the UN is no stranger to branding, even boasting. And in this case, this branding can be somewhat useful; : people are taught from their childhood that the UN is a great institution, and it would be a huge burden to the UN if it ever fails to strive for the most positive image possible in the public eye.

Another key lesson I learned during my stay is the realization of the true function of organizations like GAPW. A Chinese idiom goes: “The bystanders always have better clarity than the insiders.” This assumes that the ‘bystanders’ are close enough to the center to see what is happening without getting completely caught up in it. This is what we at GAPW do according to my understanding: to study UN processes like an interested bystander but then provide “insider” advice to diplomats with the goal of helping the UN fulfill the tasks and aspirations that the world has entrusted to it.

A final interesting point about my experience is that before starting my internship, I was told by my mentor that many students before me have changed their interest or area of focus as the result of their UN exposure. I told him then that it probably won’t happen to me, but when I look back, I realized that my perspectives and interests have in fact changed a bit. Before GAPW I was fascinated mostly by diplomacy between states — so-called international politics — and little else. I cannot say that I have lost interest in those aspects, but now I have learned that there are so many other fascinating and important policy options for the world that need attention and that I had not truly considered before, from climate change and inequalities to gender balance and violent extremism.  These issues all form a connected web that will decide the fate of humankind’s future.

And what makes it more interesting for me is that all these UN policy issues require consensus, which gets us back to the good-old diplomatic formula that the UN and member states struggle to achieve every day. The multi-faceted learning experience I gained at the UN through GAPW is destined to leave a huge impact on me, and for which I am genuinely grateful.

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

25 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh Happy Day:” The UN Serves Up a Smile, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Mar

This week, the UN served up a menu that reminded us why we still care so deeply about the work of the organization as well as why happiness within this system is often so elusive.

From human rights abuses in Crimea and ‘spoilers’ in the Eastern DRC to photo exhibits of Syria torture and the CSW’s relentless narrative of gender-based violence and discrimination, there was much taking place to furrow brows and sour dispositions.   The world we have and the world we want are not often in synchrony, and the weight of this disparity can make even the sunniest personality feel like it is being held captive by some longstanding solar eclipse.

And yet amidst the gloomy policy discussions and lingering winter chill, there were happy places around the UN – fond CSW farewells, singing in the GA lobby, renewals of pledges to end racial discrimination and preserve our forests, even the snow sticking to bushes and trees in a short-lived burst of beauty.

And then there was an event, originally suggested by an Iraq resolution and now sponsored by São Tomé and Príncipe, to commemorate the International Day of Happiness.  For those who missed the event (or who have simply given up on being happy), the day is designed to “promote happiness as a universal goal and aspiration in the lives of human beings around the world.”

Though the UN is currently (and mostly correctly) obsessed with goals and measurements, it is likely more fruitful for the UN to honor and promote happiness as a universal aspiration than rather attempting to over-determine its pursuit or even to try and track its attainment.   Happiness probably has more in common with fingerprints than with standard deviations.  It is directly affected by individual context and expectation, tethered both to circumstance and fortune.   How we assess our lives has much to do with what we expect from life, and happiness often requires that we adjust our expectations (and presumed entitlements) to our circumstances rather than endlessly scheming in the hope of getting the world to cooperate more with our personal ambitions.

As happiness now seems just beyond reach for so many people, there is a flood of literature trying to ‘mine’ its secrets.   Here are a few of my favorites, tied as much as possible to UN contexts:

  1. Happiness has an uneven relationship to material prosperity. Given our expanding roster of “more is better” cultures, it is a short leap to conclude that “more of what we have” is inevitably best for others.   Indeed, there are baselines of material security we can and should do more to promote, keeping in mind historic levels of horror endured by equally historic numbers of refugees, internally displaced and victims of armed violence worldwide.   Despite expressions of concern for addressing inequalities by citizens within the wealthier countries, in the aggregate we still prefer to spend our money on items such as new and improved weapons systems– and on the fulfillment of largely short-term consumer ‘needs’ and interests – rather than on helping to ensure baselines for others where conversations about the ‘pursuit of happiness’ start to have real meaning.
  2. Happiness has an even more uneven relationship to personal ambition. Ambition is largely a ‘conversation’ that people have with themselves.   It is mostly about contexts for personal competitions, about the achievement of social status, sometimes to the grave detriment of social utility. It is also too often about a facile conflating of personal (or organizational) interest with the general interest.   And it opens doors to a world of social and career predation that generally creates many more victims than victors.  (Among those victims, we should recall, will almost inevitably be each of us.)  Happiness, of course, does not at all preclude the pursuit of excellence, nor a purposeful and reliable engagement with social problems.   Indeed, it probably doesn’t flourish as well in communities prone to fickle compromises and flimsy commitments.
  3. Given this, happiness seems to be largely about investing reliably in the quality of the lives of the people around us. Despite all the time and energy some of us spend keeping track of emotional and career ‘exit signs,’ dodging intimacy that could make our lives richer, and avoiding conflict it is our place to resolve, philosophers, psychologists and even neuro-biologists are mostly united in the assertion that our species is “hot-wired for connection.”   If this assertion has merit, then there would be limited value to happiness in the things that too often occupy our energies, including creating personal ‘brands’ that attempt to convince people of things that are only partially true, or keeping tight control of emotional and material assets that we would do better to invest, even in the turnover-plagued policy environment of the UN.  On the other hand, happiness might be enhanced by taking a few more personal risks, being kinder at the UN to the people with whom we work daily,  expressing more gratitude, making appropriate apologies, paying closer attention, sharing more of our aspirations and fewer of our desires.
  4. Happiness requires a healthy balancing of short and long-term vantage points. Some of the most important things in life, after all, require time and perspective to come to fruition fully and assess properly.   The point of raising children is to produce caring, competent adults, not to ‘freeze’ children in pre-adolescent psychic configurations.  The point of producing sound policy is to provide spaces and resources for people and societies to pursue sustainable social and economic outcomes, not to encourage short-term, politically motivated, unrepresentative predations of limited human and natural resources.   This essential “longer” view is compromised by narrow political considerations and the many distractions of modern life, but sometimes also by our urge to ‘do something’ to alleviate our own anxiety about global conditions, an urge that sometimes motivates us to authorize the release of ‘genies’ into the world without a clue as to how to get them back in the bottle.  As my doctoral advisor used to say, “happiness is the result of a life lived well.”  By this he meant being able to look back on life and know that we tried our best, avoiding the ‘genies’ of policy shortcuts and personal deceptions, taking responsibility for negative policy consequences that could have been foreseen (and even those more hidden), and displaying the courage (to paraphrase the singer Lee Ann Womack) to dance when others would choose to sit it out.

Given the threats São Tomé and Príncipe faces from climate change, and given all the misery Iraq has endured in its recent history, mostly not of its own making, if these states can see fit to promote happiness in the international community, then the rest of us can find some way to sweeten our sometimes ‘sour’ dispositions, and more gleefully join this pursuit.   The quality of our lives (and of our policy) would surely benefit from more pleasant, hopeful, grateful dispositions.

Money Ball:  The UN Navigates Investor Expectations and Urgency for Policy Innovation, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Feb

This past week at the UN, in the shadow of the Commission on Social Development, a modestly attended but most suggestive event highlighted what is an increasingly perplexing conundrum for policymakers and their donors:  finding the proper balance between fiscal accountability and program innovation.

The event was actually a joint meeting of Executive Boards of diverse UN agencies including UNICEF, UNDP and UN Women. All agency heads and participating diplomats wrestled with, as the Secretary General put it, the task of remaining ‘fit for purpose;’ learning as much as we can from our failures but doing so without neglecting established patterns that have already yielded positive results.   While flexibility is to be praised, the SG noted, innovation must never be seen as an end in itself.

The dilemma of innovation is hardly unique to the UN:  Sports teams, entertainment corporations and many other businesses struggle with the dual demands of ‘staying fresh and relevant’ while satisfying the expectations of their investors.   But there is so much on the line at the UN, so many lives potentially impacted by policy decisions that can err on the sides of recklessness or caution. Given this, the willingness of senior UN officials to both interrogate their failures and offer new ideas to address stubborn development and security patterns with the potential to foment social unrest (as cited by the ILO’s Torres at a separate event) was most welcome.

The stakes in this discussion are higher than they might at first appear, and the SG’s remarks are one starting point.  The largest state contributors to UN operations are responsible to their own local constituents who are in some cases coping with economic crises at home.  But even those supportive of government assistance to UN programs seek assurances (as Japan has urged in several UN forums) that funds dispersed are used for the purposes intended.   Beyond this caution, Zambia urged more attention to ‘predicting’ failure caused in part by a lack of policy attentiveness to social and political context.

If states are not provided the assurances they seek, there is risk that donations will dry up further, or in the case of small states like Zambia that the trust issues lingering with respect to some UN agencies will grow larger.  In either case, the ability of the UN to deliver on its promises – from fulfilling SDGs to drying up sources of illicit arms – will be compromised.  Unlike the private sector, UN officials have hands that are tied a bit tightly by state interests, especially by the largest donor states.  But some of this ‘tying’ as Denmark noted has positive value – insisting that innovation in policy never be divorced from issues of cost effectiveness.  Clearly it is important to avoid throwing money at problems recklessly; but it is also important to think creatively beyond the matching of the most obvious short-term needs with the most immediately available resources.

It seems more and more apparent that currently funded policy and implementation strategies employed by the UN and its partners continue to lag behind both global challenges and response opportunities.  For all our good and reasonably well-funded efforts, we have not yet found the means to eliminate terror threats or gender-based violence, reduce weapons flows, stem chronic unemployment, or reverse the melting of the polar ice caps.  And it is equally clear that money, for all of its potential benefits, can have a negative impact on the innovation we still desperately need.   We see this in the NGO community all the time, where access to funding is as likely to breed caution as creative engagements with UN objectives and working methods. But even at senior Secretariat levels, funding impacts loom large, or at least larger than might be optimal for the development of more innovative approaches to longstanding planetary challenges.

As UNDP’s Helen Clark noted, it might not be funding per se, but rather the assessment of results that funders rightly require that leads to ‘risk phobia’ among some leaders, a sentiment echoed by UNICEF’s Anthony Lake.  While important, “results” can be like puzzle pieces essential to a fully completed puzzle but not to be equated with it.  There are formidable challenges afoot that require creative, if humble engagements beyond piecemeal measures.  And while there are certainly financial risks attached to creative innovation, we need to be reminded, as UNICEF’s Lake noted, that there are also staggering costs from NOT innovating.  It is widely recognized that we already throw too many of the world’s resources at problems that have already proven resistant to our standard working methods and operating procedures.   We would thus do well to share more openly the potential benefits and risks of our innovative policy options; not only with over-stretched donor states but especially with their increasingly anxious constituents.  And, as UNDP’s Clark noted, we should do more to create systemic ‘safe space’ for innovation, inviting the innovation-minded to leave the margins and find a place closer to the center of policy formulation.  Sports franchises and other corporations shrivel in the absence of such space.   International policy also suffers when innovation has no safe space to test assumptions and offer alternatives.

Some of this need can be addressed through greater institutional investment in creative policymaking that reassesses resources and their modes of application.  As one step in that investment, UN Women’s Lakshmi Puri floated an idea that we have also advocated previously – the need to promote the UN as more of a ‘learning community.’  This ‘community’ would not only take account of the SG’s urging that we learn more from our failures, but that we also take heed of opportunities to learn more from each other – including updates on current challenges, and how we might respond – and respond differently – if we are to one day fulfill the trust placed in us to bring ‘big’ matters such as climate change, atrocity crimes and weapons proliferation to successful resolutions.

Clearly we need to be more open to innovation in light of the evolving needs of constituents who, at the end of the day, constitute the core of our mandate.   UNOPS’s Grete Feremo noted with some irony that only small children seem immune from ‘change resistance.’   And UNICEF’s Lake noted that we who set the agendas for global policy must learn to ‘leave our egos and even our logos’ at the door.

This is wise, if elusive counsel.   Needless to say, the UN was not chartered to protect bureaucratic turf or provide employment opportunities for diplomats and NGOs.  It was chartered to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war (and, we might add, other threats to human security).  To ‘win’ at this ever-more critical responsibility, we must spend wisely but also learn sincerely and innovate constructively.  We cannot continue to stifle policy innovation while the global challenges we are tasked to address continue on their own, dangerous, evolutionary path.

A New Source of Skills for Crisis Prevention and Management

14 Nov

Editor’s note:  The following is from Gord Breedyk, currently in residence at GAPW where he is exploring ways that the UN can connect with his own work at Civilian Peace Service Canada. GAPW has long been supportive of this civilian-based initiative and plans to stay connected longer term. We need more of the skills and competencies that Gord and his team help to assess. 

I have recently been given the privilege of working with Global Action to Prevent War and Armed Conflict (GAPW) including observing and learning from UN meetings.  These meetings have ranged from Security Council briefings on Gaza, Mali, Syria and Ukraine to committee deliberations on: Human Rights; Disarmament, Non-Proliferation and Arms Control; Interstate Arbitration and Enforcement of Decisions; Peacekeeping Operations and Field Support; International Law and Asymmetric Warfare; Women Redefining the Terms of Peace Negotiations; the Peacebuilding Commission’s response to Ebola; the Power of Entrepreneurship; and a Report on the Economic and Social Repercussions of the Israeli Occupation. And this is but a tiny sample of all the meetings taking place in a relatively typical fall week at the UN.

Hugely impressive to an outside observer is the breadth and depth of subject matter deliberated by UN delegates; also the overall dedication, civility and mutual respect  practised by most of them,  often despite deeply held and contradictory views, and often despite  significant frustration at the apparent inability of the UN as an institution to a) prevent what often seem to be relatively predictable catastrophes and b) adequately deal with them once they do materialize financially, operationally and, yes,  politically.

For example (paraphrased), “Why bother rebuilding Palestine …it may be destroyed again in months or years?,” two delegates recently asked the Commissioner General for UNRWA. The Commissioner answered, “It is a human imperative to rebuild – we must.”

Rebuilding is one thing. Prevention, even transformation of conflict-related threats that can minimize destruction is quite another. But where is the capacity and skill needed to prevent and mediate conflict going to come from?  We feel that the UN would be well-served by engaging Accredited Peace Professionals as a supplement to the UN’s own recent commitments to involve more civilians in its operations.

Like well-trained doctors, lawyers, engineers, soldiers, etc., Accredited Peace Professionals are practitioners in the field of international negotiation, mediation, arbitration and diplomacy. These practitioners are held to high professional standards through rigorous assessment of values and competencies in the peace field and, once qualified, formally accredited as meeting the required standards.

To quote Cameron Chisholm of the International Peace & Security Institute (IPSI): “Doctors are educated in both theory and practice before they ever enter the operating room. Why should peacebuilding be any less professional?”  And he goes on to say “It shouldn’t be!”

How would Accredited Peace Professionals supplement Peacekeepers and other UN capacity?  Whereas  UN Peacekeepers are primarily military professionals providing (increasingly complex) mandated peacekeeping services in areas of conflict, Peace Professionals are accredited for competencies and values in preventing, mitigating and transforming conflict in all aspects. As with any other profession (including the military) these professionals will have met the standards relevant for their peace/mediation vocation.  In other words, Peace Professionals have demonstrated skills in areas that Peacekeepers struggle to address as part of their increasingly complex mandates.

What difference could this additional assessed capacity make?  The UN and its agencies could benefit from the skills and energies of hundreds, ultimately thousands of highly trained, thoroughly assessed Accredited Peace Professionals, persons focused on reducing the number of violent conflicts and the levels of conflict (where they still occur) and, significantly, minimizing the impact on civilians including damage to their infrastructure.  Such professionals would also ease demands on UN and member state resources.  A reduction in civilian lives lost and/or in the numbers of IDPs and refugees would more than offset the cost of deploying Accredited Peace Professionals.

Civilian Peace Service Canada (CPSC) has developed and piloted an assessment and accreditation methodology that has withstood academic and professional scrutiny. Its rigour ensures dedicated and competent professionals ready for service in peace and mediation related fields. We are now looking to significantly grow the number of Accredited Peace Professionals to meet the growing capacity gaps at the UN and elsewhere. (More on this at: www.civilianpeaceservice.ca).

We are aware and supportive of the need expressed in different UN settings for more gender balance in areas of mediation and other peace processes.  But there is a broader need as well.  We simply don’t have enough capacity to handle all of the crises (and threats of crises) that are the focus of so many UN briefings and discussions.   Accredited Peace Professionals can help fill this gap.

Gordon Breedyk, Civilian Peace Service Canada