A truly devoted peacekeeper - Interview with Hany Abdel-Aziz

12 February 2009
A truly devoted peacekeeper - Interview with Hany Abdel-Aziz

He is an unassuming man whose tall figure is hard to miss if you frequent the Palais des Nations here in Geneva. His name—Hany Abdel-Aziz—and he is the Director of General Services of the UN’s office in Geneva, otherwise known as UNOG. An Egyptian by birth, Hany Abdel-Aziz considers himself above all else an African. Those who know him closely see him as a principled man of honour and a truly devoted peace-keeper, both in mind and in action. His vocation, he says, is to be found in the field of peace-keeping and the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

Q: When did you start your career in the United Nations?

I started my regular career with the United Nations in January 1981 preceded by many years of short-term appointments going back to 1977, wherein I have served in several positions. In that sense, my experience is quite varied. I started out, in fact, as an interpreter, despite my background in the military and in politics. I was then in charge of the Staff Union and then I moved into a field that I consider as a vocation, which is peace-keeping and the peaceful resolution of conflict, where I have occupied several functions covering political affairs, civil affairs, humanitarian affairs, human rights and finally administration.

Q: When you talk about vocation, what do you mean by this?

I am not going to give you a definition of vocation! For me, it is something you do like a missionary going on a mission; you are completely devoted to the things you do for the love and passion of the work. It is something one does for love, not as an employee or a functionary.

My convictions are that, a peace-keeping mission in the field under tough living conditions is a gratifying experience, but you need the courage and the strength of will to move ahead and to overcome all challenges. Put differently, the person needs to overcome adversity or accomplish a task that is at the same time challenging.

Q: What was the first mission you went on?

The first mission I went on was quite uncommon—not a typical peacekeeping mission at all. It was a “political mediation mission” composed of three persons, the SG Representative, a secretary and myself. It was in Burundi, November 1993, where there had been a bloody coup d’Etat. The President of the Republic of Burundi and other political leaders had been assassinated, and the country was plunged into violence with repercussions for the various ethnicities. Our role was to calm the situation. I must admit that, thanks to the efforts of the UN SRSG, who is a very fine diplomat, and the rest of the team, we managed to a large extent to avoid the disaster getting bigger than it was and to spread. We did this by the information we managed to gather, and not the least by our devotion and commitment for our mission. We had a division of labour, we used the media; we were able to contain the situation, even subsequently during the time of the Genocide in Rwanda and avoiding a spillover of the massacres into Burundi.

It is true that we did not resolve the underlying causes of the conflict. We tried several options to limit it and to put an end to it, but it was not possible. Finally, in terms of cost/effectiveness, this mission consisting in the beginning of just three persons who managed to contain/mitigate the disaster. Let me just say that in a neighbouring country that we considered as a brother/sister country—Rwanda—when the Genocide took place in 1994, we were with our small team on the other side, in Burundi. With our devotion and our hard work and late hours, our excellent network we managed to keep the country calm, and thereby avoiding the spread of the conflict across the border. (Editor’s note: The results of the conflict in the neighbouring country are a well-known tragedy.)

It was an extraordinary experience. One of the signs of our success was that in Burundi the airport of Bujumbura was used with the agreement of the authorities as a base for the evacuation of the foreigners from Kigali, and elsewhere in Rwanda, which at that time was in turmoil. So it was a good and new experience and relatively good results were obtained. This mission, I repeat, did not solve the underlying causes of the conflict, but during the three years that it lasted, we managed to contain the situation. In terms of cost/efficiency, it was an excellent outcome.

In fact, it all goes back to what I initially said: the vocation and the desire of engaging oneself as a “missionary” and to devote one’s self to the mission of the operation.

Q: We hear a lot about peace-keeping missions, but it seems that the concept is constantly evolving and that one is more inclined to use the terminology peaceful resolution of conflict?

Peace-keeping is definitely one of the components of the peaceful resolution of conflicts. Peaceful resolution of conflicts consists of peace-keeping missions, but it also consists of the reconstruction of institutions in the country, among other things. If I take the example of Burundi, despite the fact that we were a small team, we worked quite extensively, after the massacres of October/November 1993, to re-establish a government. The government was non-existent. We worked quite a lot to “put back” on their feet the necessary elements of a State. The Burundians themselves were of huge assistance. That in itself was a strength and a tremendous advantage. We worked in close collaboration with all the different political parties, the different components of the State, the army, the police, the ethnic rivals, etc., in order to re-install the State. It was not an ideal situation, but in the end the political life started to function again. So the reconstruction of institutions is an important element in the huge concept called the peaceful resolution of conflict.

Q: You said that your first peace-keeping mission were quite atypical. Would you like to talk about another more “traditional one”?

First of all, no two peace-keeping missions are alike. They are all tailor-made, both in their functioning and conception, to the conflict in question and the reality in the field. However, there are some similarities. One of the big missions, such as the one in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC), consisted of a military component composed of several military contingents from different countries, a political component which implies institution-building, mediation, etc. Another one is the humanitarian aspect, human rights, etc. All these things are part of the “droit ? l’ing?rance humanitaires au service des humains” [the right of humanitarian intervention in the service of human-beings]. At a certain point, the concept of the peace-keeping missions was that they were in the field to maintain the State or to rebuild the State, but there has been a change and today aid to human-beings is the central concern. As a result, the components of human rights and humanitarian assistance become more and more important in the peacekeeping missions. We also include the role of public information, which sets up local radio-stations to broadcast messages on pacific conflict resolution, peacekeeping, human rights and even assisting other UN agencies in the field, such as UNICEF to disseminate messages on health matters, the ILO, etc. The missions become more and more complex, but at the same time more and more interesting and more challenging than before.

Q: The budget for the peace-keeping missions has increased quite substantially over the years. What is the reason behind this? Is it the success of the peace-keeping missions or would you say that there are more and more conflicts?

I think there are two aspects of this question. On the African continent, the number of internal conflicts has increased and the needs have also increased. We should not deny, on the other hand, that there are a certain number of peace-keeping missions that have been a success, some others that have succeeded less, and yet others that were a failure. Peace-keeping is not a science, and when it comes to this field we can never guarantee a specific outcome. The foreign intervention element, which is the peace-keeping mission, cannot be a substitute for the willingness of the local actors to make peace, especially if the conflict has not reached stalemate, that is, a state of mutual fatigue. If the peacekeeping mission arrives before the actors have reached this point, the chances of success are less than it would otherwise be. The peacekeeping mission should be put in place at the right moment, at the right time with a clear objective, which is to rebuild a state, a society, an economy, etc. To limit the fighting is not enough; to reduce the killing and the number of victims are extremely important objectives; that you have to feed the population is very important—but not enough. We must teach the population to fish for themselves instead of giving them a fish and we must assist the country to become self-sustaining. One of the objectives of peace-keeping is, as I have said before, to make a country self-sustaining to the greatest extent possible, and with the concept of the interdependence of all activities in daily life.
If the country does not become self-sustaining, including politically, the peace-keeping missions would have to stay in the country for as long as twenty or thirty years. The peace-keeping missions should never stay that long. They are there to assist the country to become self-sustaining, and then they should reduce their presence gradually and thereby leaving the local actors to assume their own destiny in their own hands, and thereby that of the country. The United Nations cannot indefinitely substitute itself to the authority of a country, and it should not become a replacement for the State.

Q: When you have so many different military troops, coming from different parts of the world, do people tend to mix with one another, or does each national group stick together?

In the beginning, of course, there tends to be a certain distance, but once they get to know each other things improve. In the beginning it is the fear of the stranger, the unknown, but after a while, due to different welfare programmes and activities people tend to get to know each other better and they make friends. Unity of purpose, explained and exercised, is the key component for a peace-keeping operation.

As you might be aware, military troops are more or less structured in the same way and they tend to have the same rules, no matter where they come from. So it is quite easy to create an atmosphere of co-operation and camaraderie.

I have been working on six different peacekeeping missions, mainly in Africa where there were troops from France, Ukraine, Bangladesh and Egypt, and I do not recall any major conflict between the different troops wearing the blue helmets. There might have been some minor problems, quickly resolved, but nothing significant. Still, the commitment of the mission’s leadership is essential to that end.

Q: One tends to say that the United Nations gives people hope.

Yes, that is right. Sometimes, this hope is a little bit exaggerated. When the missions arrive, they often confront a war-like situation. The local population often thinks that the UN troops have arrived to help them and that they are going to fight against the other party, which is not true. We come between the belligerents in order to prevent people from killing each other. We must facilitate the signing of an agreement that they reach themselves with the help of the international community. The living conditions of the troops might seem at a higher level than that of the locals, and there might be some jealousy arising. In addition, there is a feeling of dependency that emerges among the local people. People tend to imagine that the United Nations will do everything for them, instead of them taking their destiny in their own hands.

That is the reason why I tend to stress, and I repeat, that I am a strong believer in the peace-keeping missions, but I do not support peace-keeping missions that last twenty or thirty years. This might create a huge political dependency that is even more dangerous than the economic dependency that you might find in conflict countries or even in non-conflict countries. One has to be extremely prudent not to permanently destabilize the countries where the United Nations has intervened.

Q: Talking about the daily life in the missions, one tends to hear that people have more autonomy, and that they work harder than they would have done if they were at HQ—either in NY or Geneva.

They are two different worlds. Working at HQ here in Geneva or at the other UN HQ it is quite different from the field. Here you have fixed working hours, but there it is not the number of hours that counts—it is the result. The work has to be done by the end of day and people tend to be more motivated. Personally, I have seen more motivated people in these missions than I have seen among the staff in the main duty-station. It is also a matter of leadership and the “leadership model” that is set up by the chiefs of the mission. Normally, it is a model of devotion, which focuses on the result and on progress. There is definitely a strong commitment among the staff in the missions. The selection criteria for the staff are rigorous; one has to be able to cope with hardship and difficult situations, and this requires strong personal skills and a confirmed personality. That we have more liberty is not true. On the contrary, we assure more responsibilities, we are more exposed to accountability and I therefore think the motivation and the dynamic are higher. However, the fatigue is extreme and nobody can remain in a field mission for twenty years! The dynamics required and the forces you employ in order to make things work are exhausting, but rewarding when the results are there.

Q: Do you think there are certain personal skills required to carry out this kind of work?

A: Yes, devotion, the love for a job well done, a positive attitude, and to be prepared to carry out this type of work even on a voluntary basis. The rewards are that people feel they are more useful and see the results of their work. They are given more autonomy when there is more delegated authority from HQ. However, the accountability is present. I remember that we used to have between three to four audits a year, and I think it is a useful management tool as it gives you the possibility to change and correct any errors.

Q: Would you encourage staff to engage in peace-keeping missions?

Absolutely, without hesitation. I even think it should be one of the conditions sine qua non for promotion. The mobility factor is there and it is very important. I think it is not always a condition taken into account. I think that serving in the field for a period of two to three years should be compulsory for all staff, no matter what their posts in the system.

A system of rotation would be very positive, and it would give the staff in the field the possibility to come back to a more routine type of job, to get some rest and then return to a peace-keeping mission. HCR has established a system of this type and I do not know why the UN cannot do the same.

Q: Due to some recent affairs, I have heard that guidelines for conduct in the field have been established. Isn’t it rather sad that you have to produce this kind of guideline for staff in order that they behave properly?

No, I do not think so. Guidelines must exist. What is most important, at least for me, is that there should be firstly a very good selection process of the staff, both military troops and civil staff. The selection has to be excellent. This is, in my point of view, more important than having guidelines. Even if we have guidelines they may not be followed, so you have to have the will to enforce them without hesitation. It has to be a rigorous approach, even if it is not always very popular among the staff. I know that I personally have often been criticized for being rigorous and strict, but I think it is essential, especially in the field, so as not to permit any important error to occur without taking the necessary counteractions. If you not do act in this way, there will be a snowball effect. Discipline is important and so are the guidelines; but even more important is the will to put them in action.

Q: Do you think that the leaders in a mission ought to be accountable for their decision-making and their actions?

I fully agree. The leaders are the first ones who need to be accountable for the authority they are given. I would even go further and say that this accountability “soit excerc?e” [shall have been carried out] and that it is carried out in a timely manner. Sometimes there are inquiries and we have seen the results. For instance, you may have an inquiry going on somewhere that takes one year to complete and the person is eventually found to be innocent. By the time the inquiry is finished and the results are known, it may take one year or longer. During that time, the person is “half guilty/half innocent”. Can you imagine how he/she feels, and the impact on his/her work? This is also valid for a mission, a unit in a mission and a person. We cannot wait too long and unfortunately things here take far too long. If it takes a year or two either to rehabilitate or to sanction somebody properly, the impact of the sanctions is more or less equal to zero. When you put somebody in jail, you not only punish the person, but you also give the others an example. Attention: here is a learning example for the others. If it is not done, it leaves the door open for others … and the results.
However, this is a matter of leadership. Everyone has to assume their responsibilities. Sometimes the leaders can reward staff because a person has done a good job, something exceptional, and in the opposite case, they can sanction somebody if they have done something wrong. In English it is said: “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Q: There seems to be more and more difficulty in recruiting troops for peace-keeping missions? And the use of private military companies is increasing. Why?

First of all, we are living in the era of globalization, and this is part of our lives. The United Nations often has difficulties in recruiting enough troops. In Haiti, for instance, there ought to be 15,000 soldiers, but there are not 15,000 soldiers there. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, there are 11,000 and this number should be increased to 17,000, but there is no way of doing this. It is extremely difficult for the UN to find Member States willing to send troops for peace-keeping missions, especially difficult ones.

First of all, there is a question of payments—delays in payments and reimbursement of costs to Member States—because it is a very expensive exercise. There are several reasons for this. First of all, it’s an expensive exercise for the Member States. Secondly, many developed countries are not willing to send their troops to conflict areas. So the majority of the troops you find in conflict areas are troops from developing countries, and these countries do not always have the funds to finance these costs, despite the fact that they will be reimbursed two or three years later. So this leaves the doors open for the private military companies because the work has to be done. Private military companies should not be involved in the effort to suppress hostilities, I’m not against the use of the private military companies, I would say rather that we should use them for civilian matters far away from hostilities and that a system of accountability is implemented.

Let us say that if you have a private military company protecting a civil hospital, I have no objection. If they are there to complement the logistic effort made by the United Nations because we do not have the necessary expertise or know-how, why not? As long as it is cheaper and more cost-effective. As long as they do not depart from the moral principles on which the UN flag is supposed to operate, or limit the UN presence to a secondary role.

So, globally, I say yes to the use of the private military companies as long as they are not directly or indirectly involved in the hostilities. However, you have to be extremely careful not to fall into the pit of international mercenaries. So the principle is “yes”, but with a huge accountability and strict control of these companies as long as they do not depart from the principles on which the UN flag is supposed to operate morally or limit the UN presence to a secondary one.