Last October, UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon appointed Nobel Laureate, and former president and prime minister of Timor-Leste, Jose Ramos-Horta as the chair of a high-level independent panel on UN’s peace operations. Its recommendations are widely expected to shape UN’s peace engagement for the near future. It has particular importance for India, which is among the largest troop contributing countries for UN peace keeping operations. In his only interview while on a visit to India, Ramos-Horta spoke exclusively to HT on Friday morning about the panel’s work, India’s role as a troop contributing country, and debates on peace operations. Excerpts:
Q. What is the mandate of your panel, and what have you done so far?
A. The High Level Independent Panel on peace operations was mandated by the Secretary General, to review the peace and security architecture of the UN, namely peacekeeping operations and special political missions. The latter is essentially the non-armed, non Chapter 7 missions. So it excludes peacekeepers. These are extremely importantly but often not known because of the nature of their work, which is prevention of conflicts. And when conflicts have happened, the Department of Political Affairs is tasked to undertake facilitation, mediation, and sometimes to undertake discreet dialogue to defuse issues. So, peacekeeping and Special Missions constitute the two main pillars of the whole UN peace and security architecture.
We are tasked to review based on lessons learnt, positives and negatives, successes and failures, how we can learn from successes and build on it, and have we learnt from the failures, and whether the failures are attributable to the UN. Because it may seem every time there is a non-resolution of the war situation, people say UN failed. But UN can succeed, or any mediator – be it the UN or a country or an NGO – may succeed only when the political conditions are there in the country, namely willingness and determination in the country among the elites to engage in dialogue and find a compromise. In the absence of strong national leadership to end conflicts, there is very little or nothing that UN can do.
We have to review all of this, and how we can improve including in areas like more timely deployment of peacekeepers, faster, in a more robust manner. This does not necessarily mean aggressive use of force but robust in the sense of being better equipped, having land and air-borne capabilities that enable them to move faster. We are looking at all these challenges. I hope we can improve based on experience so far.
Till now, we have had extensive consultations so far in South Asia, particularly in Dhaka with the Government of Bangladesh, where we did a regional consultation where 20 countries sent representatives, sharing concerns and recommendations. We have very actively engaged with civil society, academics, and women’s groups. I have also done consultations in Islamabad at a very senior level with foreign ministry officials, army leadership. Yesterday, we had very fruitful discussions here in Delhi with the External Affairs Minister and today with the defence secretary. We also had an exceptionally good meeting with the United Services Institute and you don’t have a better group than that in a room, with 20 or more generals, admirals and senior officers who have had decades of experience.
India is of exceptional importance because of its size, and historically for many decades, India has contributed not only in peacekeeping areas but helped other countries in technical areas. It is because of its size, its contribution to the developing world with south-south cooperation, and the UN system that India deserves to be listened to.
Q. India’s EAM Sushma Swaraj met UNSG Ban-ki-Moon last month and reiterated that India must have a greater say in decisions related to peace keeping operations. Did this come up in the conversation with her, and what is your opinion?
A. My personal opinion – and I cannot speak for the panel yet since we have not sat down to reflect on all issues – is that stance of India and other troop contributing countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh is absolutely right. These countries must take part in a formal manner at every stage of the decision making process in deploying peacekeepers – before and during the period of deployment. Especially when in the course of deployment, there is some mandate change.
Officers and troops on the ground can’t be caught by surprise because they were sent to a mission by their country based on a particular mandate by the Security Council. Everyone understands that in the course of a mission, situation can evolve on the ground for better or worse, and there has to be adjustment in mandate. This must happen in consultation with the troop contributing countries. It is not difficult to envisage an enhanced mechanism in New York, at the level of the troop contributing countries with the Security Council and the Secretariat.
Q. In South Asia, there is a perception that while the poorer countries do most to maintain world peace and contribute soldiers, the western world does little. They may pay some bills but don’t put lives on the line.
A. I have heard these criticisms and observations. At first sight, these may seem to be correct. But the fact is that major western countries – be it US or Europe – don’t contribute troops physically not due to a lack of commitment. They are sensitive they have a colonial baggage and there may well be accusations that through UN peace keeping operations, they are trying to neo-colonise areas. That is why in the case of Africa for instance, in the frontline, African countries deploy troops, backed by Asian countries and others. This has been quite effective.
We understand but don’t quite buy the argument that US and EU don’t want to send troops to Africa due to potential casualties. After all, they are suffering many casualties in Africa and Iraq.
But I believe there has to be an understanding. Western countries could and should provide more financial resources, infrastructure, logistics, medics and other facilities. Any effective fighting force needs a rear base. African countries have some handicaps in this regard; so do India and Pakistan and others. This is also because the areas of operation are thousands of miles away, and it is difficult to mobilize tones of material. There has to be a negotiated partnership and a win-win situation.
Q. There is a debate on whether peace keeping operations be authorized, more often, to use offensive force. Troop contributing countries believe this will put them in the line of fire, and countries like India have already suffered many casualties. Where is the debate right now?
A. Yes, there is an ongoing debate about how much of a force should UN become to preempt actions by hostile armed elements to protect civilians. Sometimes to protect civilian population, you don’t act only when civilian population is under attack. You have to deploy in anticipation. But these are operational issues. Once political decision and doctrines are agreed, then operational issues have to be left to the force commander and there should be no interference with the chain of command, once the chain of command is established and agreed. Because when you have 5-10 different nationalities in a peace keeping mission, and if each troop contributing countries, finds the need to tell troops whether to follow orders or not, it is a recipe for disaster. We are listening to all of this, complaints by former force commanders and recommendations for them.
In summary, should the UN continue to move from the traditional role of peace keeping – that means no offensive armed action against anybody? And if it should deviate from that, under what circumstances should it do so? Everyone agrees, and there is no debate about it, that when it comes to the protection of civilian population, it is the duty of all UN personnel – armed or non-armed – to protect innocent people. The question is how to do it more effectively– through discussion, negotiation, deterrence, or failing all of this, offensive action against all those who threaten civilian population.
Q. Including when the threat is from the states?
A. Normally, it is not the state as such that threatens civilian population. If it was state, it would be relatively easier because there are other mechanisms to prevent or punish a state which incite ethnic cleansing. What we witness in Congo, in South Sudan, in Central African Republic is armed elements beyond the control of any central authority who engage in ethnic based or religion based violence. That is when it is difficult to engage in prevention through dialogue. Often, there are many such groups. The current security challenge is we are dealing with non state actors – from the Somali pirates ten fifteen years ago to all assorted rebels in Congo, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Somalia. There is a multitude of armed elements with no central political authority.
Q. UN, both in the context of peacekeeping operations and special missions, often has to deal with the tricky issue of state sovereignty. Even welcoming governments may later develop second thoughts about international intervention. Responsibility to Protect has made many uncomfortable. When should the UN get in and when should it stay out?
A. There are situations where we can’t talk of sovereignty. Which state exists in South Sudan or the Central African Republic?
If states had minimally functioned with an elected government in place, then UN traditionally goes in on the request of government. This is the sine qua non. When we have more or less a functioning state, albeit fragile, the role of UN is to engage with the government and find ways to partner with the state to improve the human rights condition, to stop violence. UN should not make any sweeping judgments, and apply same recipe for every situation. We have to look at each particular situation on a case to case basis. When you have a minimally functioning government, there is a more of a reason to support them regardless of the nature of the regime because only by engaging them, we are able to help the civilian population.
When you are in a situation where the state is strong enough and is able to handle the conflict on its own, the UN should not force itself into the country. And it does not do it anyway because before you land your troops, you need a requisition from the host government.
Q. The role of the special political missions is not as widely known to us in India. How important is this? Can you give us a few examples of successes and the panel’s approach to it?
A. In my home country (Timor-Leste), between 2007 and 2012, there was a Special Political Mission and it was very successful – I was Prime Minister and President at that time. It worked very well. We succeeded in stabilizing the situation. We had two elections. The political leadership of the country was committed and conscious of the need to unite and resolve the problem. The UN helped created the security conditions for political dialogue to take place. In Guinea Bissau – as Special Representative of the Secretary General – is another example. There was no need for introduction of peacekeeping. Through sustained dialogue, through strong partnership with political and military elites as well as working very closely with countries in the region, we managed to bring political changes there. Today, the country has elected government, much more stable.
I would advice that more resources be devoted to special political missions so that more experts from all over the world are recruited, moblised to study situations in the countries, take discreet and preventive measures, and discreetly engage with all actors in dialogue. And if conflict happens, before introduction of armed elements like peacekeepers, it is still possible to end conflict through dialogue.