Tag Archives: Values

Bad Optics at the UN, by Rex Collins

19 Apr

Editors note:  For the past couple of months, New Orleans native Rex Collins has provided attentive commentary on a range of UN processes largely through his twitter feed:  .  Rex came to us, as have many excellent interns over the years, through the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program.   It’s been valuable for us to “see” the UN through his eyes, as the following post attests. 

In January I attended my first UN event as a Global Action intern: a Peacebuilding Commission meeting to elect new chairs and outline the 2019 work plan. As PBC members presented their aspirations for the new year, I carefully took notes; I was shadowing my new supervisor, Dr. Robert Zuber, and I wanted to make a good impression. But a few hours into the meeting, Dr. Zuber caught me off guard with a simple question: what’s missing? I had no idea, so I was relieved but embarrassed when he quickly revealed the now-obvious answer. Women, said Dr. Zuber. He was right. Almost two hours had passed, and not a single woman had presented a statement. The newly-elected PBC chair eventually recognized the first female presenters of the meeting–the EU representative followed by the Irish ambassador–but only after more than a dozen men had shared. Pardon the expression, but the optics were not great. After witnessing this unfortunate display in the PBC on my first day, it has been surprisingly easy to spot similar scenarios at the UN–scenarios that the outside viewer would perceive as awkward or contradictory to core UN values. In fact during my last two months at the UN, this concept of ‘bad optics’ has emerged as an inescapable, recurring theme.

The next time I observed ‘bad optics’ at the UN was just a week after the PBC meeting. I was sitting across from Dr. Zuber in the Vienna Cafe, checking my emails and enjoying a banana. When I finished my snack, Dr. Zuber asked for the peel so that he could bring it to a composting facility later that evening. This request puzzled me; surely the eco-conscious UN provided compost bins in its dining areas. But when I surveyed the cafe, there were none to be found. This was a surprising revelation, considering the UN recognizes composting as a viable tool for climate action and sustainable development. The UN SDGs website even encourages “average” people to compost in a subsection labeled “The Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World.” The UN advocates for composting and evidently thinks it requires minimal effort, so it would only make sense for the headquarters building to enable staff and guests to responsibly dispose of their compostable waste. But instead, the options are: 1) stuff briefcase with food scraps to be composted later, or 2) dump food waste in super convenient trash bin. Sure, it’s possible that many of the diplomats, security guards and interns opt for the former, but my guess would be that a good majority take the easy way out. I mean, I know where my banana peels would end up if Dr. Zuber didn’t take them off my hands every day. It’s embarrassing that in the same building where member states affirm their national commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the hallways and dining areas are filled with misplaced banana peels and apple cores, just waiting to burn in landfills and release more harmful gasses into the atmosphere. Not a good look.

A more consistent example of ‘bad optics’ that I have encountered at the UN is low attendance at events that should definitely have high attendance. In February, for example, the General Assembly kicked off the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The event was an opportunity to celebrate indigenous populations and the new 2019 Year Theme, but several delegations apparently had better things to do. Dozens of empty chairs and unclaimed placards lined the floor of the GA Hall. I was clearly not the only one who noticed, because the president of Ecuador began his own statement by criticizing the member states that skipped the meeting.

Other events at the UN have suffered from an embarrassing lack of participation by diplomats and other UN stakeholders. This was the case for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, observed last month. You would think a General Assembly meeting to honor victims of intolerance and prevent future discrimination would draw a sizeable crowd, but I was literally the only audience member in the balcony for a good portion of the event. To be fair, the GA Hall is a difficult room to fill, but the scale of the venue made the weak turnouts all the more visible and embarrassing in both cases. Besides, these events did not end up on the UN’s biggest stage by accident. They embodied themes that the UN prioritizes, at least on paper, so it looked pretty bad when so few people bothered to show up.

So why do optics at the UN matter? Sure, these instances can simply be awkward (e.g., the Russian ambassador highlighting the “femininity” of female colleagues in front of the predominantly male Security Council on International Women’s Day), but they can also have real consequences. For example, the cases I’ve observed reflect what some would see as a pattern of UN hypocrisy that can turn off onlookers. Students, civil society and other observant guests will likely take note of missteps like the gender imbalance in the PBC or the missing compost bins, potentially leading them to question the UN’s commitment to its own principles, including on the 2030 Development Agenda. Furthermore, ‘bad optics’ can be discouraging –for the indigenous guest speaker addressing a half-empty General Assembly, or the young woman and aspiring diplomat waiting too long to hear another woman’s voice. Such displays leave UN stakeholders feeling neglected rather than included or empowered. Finally, these instances normalize bad habits. Employees are more likely to disregard composting altogether when they witness coworkers trashing food waste on a regular basis, and delegations may become inclined to skip events when they see others doing the same.

Sometimes, whether we like to admit it or not, appearances do matter; when the UN appears to take shortcuts or break its own rules, it can lose credibility, alienate its audience and reinforce damaging practices. Optics aren’t everything, but the community of the United Nations would do well to take them more seriously.

Value Clarification: Recovering Norms that Bind the UN Community, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Jan

un-charter-newspaper

Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.  José Ortega y Gasset

I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Ralph Waldo Emerson

If we do not penalize false statements made in error, we open up the way for false statements by intention.  Dorothy L. Sayers

To value gold over water is to value economy over ecology, that which can be locked up over that which connects all things. Rebecca Solnit

Perhaps at no time in the 20 years of Global Action’s existence have differences of opinions about the value of the United Nations been as sharp as they are now.

Some continue to idolize of the UN as an indispensable presence on the international scene, an institution that, as attributed to former Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, may not “bring us to heaven” but might be the only existing setting that can “save us from hell.”

For others, especially in this age of nationalist resurgence, the UN has become little more than a relic of the 20th Century, a place of stodgy protocol and undeserved privilege, where elites with excess ambition and little decision-making authority craft texts that few states actually abide by and that add too little practical value.

As a small organization that gratefully spends much of its life energy in UN conference rooms, we take what we hope is an attentive and reflective “third rail” approach to the UN.  We appreciate the expanding scope of UN policy interests as well as the time and effort that diplomats expend in keeping the UN properly funded, seeking to better-balance the power of states inside and outside of the Security Council, and ensuring (as best they can) that those who represent the UN in the field are properly protected and equipped, but that they are also held accountable for behavior inconsistent with mission values, priorities and mandates.

And we always recall that the UN is far more than its headquarters machinations, far greater in its scope and application than the ability of any one NGO to scrutinize.  Its peacekeepers, humanitarian workers, experts in promoting food security and pandemic response; these and many more are the lifeblood of the UN system, the reason that many frustrated over UN failures especially in the peace and security realm still cling to the hope that UN Charter values can become more deeply embedded in the culture of its members, can help guide all states on a path to a world that “values” the dignity and well-being of all citizens, that affirms in practical terms the cooperation that the challenges of climate, weapons, migration and more demand and that the UN should be well-placed to promote.

But this hope now displays frayed edges for many and not entirely without reason.   As I tried to explain in a recent interview with Global Connections Television, albeit clumsily, we are living through a “thin skinned” age, a time when many governments and individuals believe themselves to have earned the equivalent of a “plenary indulgence” shielding them from criticism or constraint, asserting their sovereign right to do pretty much what they want without judgment or indeed without consequence.

Such indulgence is toxic enough when asserted by individuals, but for governments it is discouraging at best and gravely dangerous at its worst.   Moreover, it is potentially life-threatening for a UN system that, at some level, must be able to bind its members to the values embedded in its Charter, values which are not always as straight-forward as some claim but which constitute a hopeful promise of sorts to global constituents who seek in multilateral engagements the capacity to hold individual states accountable for internationally agreed norms in ways that their citizens in (too) many instances simply cannot.

We have long taken the view that the “culture” of the UN which plays out in various conference rooms and political processes must itself better promote the norms and values which give hope to constituents and allow them to maintain faith in a system that has not always justified that faith.  The UN will never be perfect any more than its stakeholders will, and that includes tiny organizations like ours.  But the UN does have an obligation, we believe, to keep our collective eye on the prize, a world that has safely backed up from the brink of “hell” currently inflamed by existential threats from climate change, pandemics, plastic-filled oceans and weapons of mass destruction.

This is certainly no easy agenda.  As we on the NGO side are reminded all-too-frequently, the UN is largely what its member states want it to be.  And frankly it is not always clear to us that UN member states are uniformly and sufficiently interested in preserving the health and integrity of this system, a system that most all would affirm the value of (even if only to keep tabs on their adversaries) but where commitments to preventive maintenance are relatively rare.

Here are some of the practices we have witnessed by UN member states (you know who you are) that are both increasingly commonplace and undermining of the integrity of a system that, frankly, cannot tolerate any more shocks to its global reputation:

  • Articulating lopsided and self-interested versions of the “truth” that obsess on issues of national interest while ignoring relevant contexts
  • Demanding that smaller states abide by rules and obligations that seem not to apply in the same way to the more powerful states and their allies
  • Asserting that agreements negotiated under UN auspices are legally (or normatively) binding and then choosing to simply walk away from those that no longer suit national interests
  • Insisting that the UN has a role to play in assisting the internal capacity of states but has little or no authority regarding the internal behavior of states
  • Speaking (even in the Security Council) from the sole vantage point of national interest rather than investing more thought in how to promote the “best interests” of the system
  • Proclaiming the importance of the “liberal international order” without being transparent about the ways in which states – including the so-called guardians of that order – have undermined trust in its institutions and objectives
  • Advocating the presence of NGOs while blurring the distinction between merely “having a voice,” and actually “having a say”
  • Refusing to acknowledge mistakes and misjudgments while harping on the failures of others

One of the ceremonies I have long been intrigued by are those “renewals of vows” that are most often experienced in the context of marriages but which could certainly be arranged for member states and other stakeholders through the UN General Assembly.   As we have advocated previously, opportunities to publicly reaffirm the values and objectives of this system could encourage and energize global constituents while hopefully causing states that play loosely with the UN’s normative framework to reconsider their approaches and realign national values with those of the Charter.

Whether our various mistakes in language or judgement are “made in error” or “by intention,” it’s past time for us – all of us – to get back on the same page, or at the very least to acknowledge that there is a “page” to which we are all ostensibly accountable, indeed to which we must all be more attentive. If the UN is to avoid becoming another “dead institution,” another pious incarnation of a rapidly-diminished liberal world order, we need to work harder on improving the “culture” of the system itself – not just what’s in it for me, but what’s in it for all.

If we fail in this, prospects for resolving the challenges of climate, weapons, oceans, migration, pandemics and more – challenges that bind us all (whether we like it or not) and require more cooperation and trust than we currently exhibit – will be severely impaired.  And whatever history will eventually be written about us –our priorities, preoccupations and attentions– will surely not be kind.

Treasure Chest: UN Members Raise the Lid on Council Methods, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Feb

An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.  Mahatma Gandhi

If you’re making a tremendous amount of mistakes, all you’re doing is deeply ingraining the same mistakes.  Jillian Michaels

You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage. Maya Angelou

Today is the 7th anniversary of our foray into the world of social media through Twitter (@globalactionpw).  We’ve tried our best over these years to use what can at times be a mean-spirited and shallow medium to increase transparency in UN conference rooms while linking issues and concerns across hallways and oceans.  Thank you for the opportunity you give us to share both what we see and what we see as most important for people and the planet.

Within the religious realm, I’ve spent a good bit of my life having people I know “get in my face” to tell me what they believe, what they value.  My response to this, at least in recent years, is to inform such “believers” that, in essence, I don’t need you to tell me what you value.  I already see what you do, how you spend your time, how you invest the talents and energies bestowed by your creator.  In the end, that’s all I need to know.

In an age as heavily branded as this one, an age content to look at the masks we wear with little interest in what lies behind them, it seems almost heresy to remind people that we are not who we say we are, but we are what we practice.  In essence, to paraphrase a famous coach of US football, we are what our investments of self and their outcomes say we are.  It is important to have values of course, values in the form of aspirations to do better and strive higher. But it is also important to be clear about the gaps that exist between aspirations and practices — between the claims and facts of our performance — the spaces between the values we posit for our lives and our “working methods” that forever need to be examined and filled.

And, yes, this is going to relate to the ways in which we describe and conduct our business here at the UN.  As Kuwait assumed the presidency of the Security Council this past week, it launched an ambitious “programme of work” for February, especially so for an elected member with only one month of recent Council service under its belt.

The highlight for us is two sessions scheduled for early in the month, one on “working methods” last week and the other focused on the UN Charter (which the General Assembly will also examine) later this month.  Not surprisingly, we see these two events as directly connected, and we applaud Kuwait both for guiding these discussions and for what we believe to be their proper sequencing.

Inside and outside the Security Council, there are frequent references to the Charter values that must guide decisions on peace and security (especially), but also on a range of other issues related to sustainable development, rule of law, humanitarian response and environmental care.  The Charter (a copy of which former DSG Eliasson claimed to always carry around in his pocket) serves for this community as both a guide and an inspiration, helping us to define what we can and can’t do, what we should and should not try to do, and in some key instances, what we must try to do better.

All of this relates to “working methods,” the means by which we seek to organize and carry out the mandates that have been entrusted to us.   Such methods are, in their best sense, the tendons and vessels which connect vital organs, helping them (hopefully) function with greater synergy, but also with greater reliability.   Such methods — operating within our homes or in global institutions such as the UN — are what helps others to believe in our values, or at least believe that there is more to those values than merely our articulated claims about them.

Sound working methods can make the difference between lamenting a child’s sickness and taking her/him to the doctor; between dreaming about dinner and bringing home groceries; between claiming an institutional mandate and honoring an institutional promise.

In the Council this past Tuesday, a variety of lenses on working methods reform were on display, ranging from which Council members get to “hold the pen” regarding development of resolutions, to weightier matters of how the Council collaborates with the rest of the UN system (including the Peacebuilding Commission as highlighted by South Africa) and (as noted by Mexico) how the Council exercises its responsibility to scrutinize claims by states (including Council members themselves) alleging the legitimacy of “self-defense” as a justification for recourse to armed violence.

Though this day-long debate was unlikely to satisfy states and NGOs that have long lost patience with what they see as the hypocrisy of the UN’s most politicized space, we heard many interesting proposals for reform of working methods as well as important reminders about unresolved disconnects between mandates and performance.  Among the highlights for us was the insistence by Ukraine and Pakistan that preventive diplomacy become more of a “staple” of the Council’s functional priorities; Chile’s call for more transparency regarding what India dubbed the “subterranean universe” of Council subsidiary bodies; Lebanon’s urging of the entire UN system to ask “harder questions” about how the Council can remain relevant to contemporary security circumstances; and current Council member Bolivia’s call for an end to the “provisional rules of procedure” that mostly benefit only the “permanent five members.”

And then there was Belgium’s strong reminder that Council decisions do not occur in a vacuum, nor we might add do the consequences of Council (in) decisions that sometimes undermine or even betray Charter values. Indeed, what was not sufficiently discussed during this debate, in our view, is the degree to which the time, treasure and talent of the UN system are routinely being depleted in an effort to overcome Council shortcomings in its primary security “maintenance” role – the endless pledging conferences that must be organized with commitments that then must be held to account; even the lives of humanitarian workers that are placed in what seems to be perpetual jeopardy; all to bring (as best we can) assistance to people gravely damaged by armed conflict that we should have been able to do more to prevent in the first instance.

In the end, as noted by New Zealand (as they did often while a member of this Council in 2015-2016), perhaps the most pressing institutional need is momentum to help to shift Council “culture” in ways that empower collective UN decsionmaking.  In this vein, current Council member Sweden chimed in that we “can’t do our job” unless we do it together, and that we must therefore prioritize “talking with countries instead of about them.” Japan, which just left the Council at the end of December, moved this culture theme even further along, calling on the Council to do more of the “simple things, like listening to each other,” and serving up a reminder that its “optimal working method” involves a commitment to “effective response at the earliest possible time.”

This seemingly simplistic “culture talk,” to our mind, represents the path of greatest potential, inspiring more institution-wide dialogue and collaboration and calling states to account that willfully impede such progress. We hope that the upcoming discussions on the UN Charter will further serve to tighten the connections linking the values we espouse as an institution, the methods that define our institutional practice, and how that ultimately translates into performance standards for our most critical, mandated tasks.