Interview with Jeffrey Feltman, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs

Jeffrey Feltman, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

19 March 2014 – On 2 July 2012, Jeffrey Feltman of the United States assumed the post of Under-Secretary-General, heading the UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA), which plays a central role in the United Nations’ efforts to prevent and resolve deadly conflict around the world through analysis and advice to the Secretary-General, support to mediation, elections and other peacebuilding efforts internationally and through political missions on the ground.

Before assuming his current position, Mr. Feltman was the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, focused especially on the Middle East and North Africa, as part of a thirty year-long career in his country’s Foreign Service. The UN News Centre spoke to Mr. Feltman as he was about to brief the Security Council on the crisis in Ukraine and negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, while also seized with ongoing efforts to bring about a political solution to the crisis Syria and working on a raft of other situations.

UN News Centre: I know you are extremely pressed right now – in addition to the tragedy in Syria, there has been recently been acute deepening of the crises in the Central African Republic, South Sudan and most recently Ukraine. Is it an illusion or is this a period of unusual convergence of crises?

Jeffrey Feltman: That’s a good question.  It certainly feels very busy.  In fact, the list of situations that we’re watching is even broader.  Yes, it is a busy time.  In the 20 months that I’ve had the honour to work at this Organization, I’ve never felt the pace of international events developing as rapidly as it iOne of the most important things we can do in this Organization is to unite the international community so that countries speak with a single voice on crises. Then we have real power.s right now.  It’s a real challenge for us.  Of course, I keep in mind that the Secretary-General himself is not only involved in all of the issues that you’ve mentioned and more, he also is working on the development agenda and on the management of this institution. 

UN News Centre: Do you see this as being part of any global patterns that tie all these situations together, or is it just convergence?

Well, there are huge differences between what’s happening in Ukraine, say, and what’s happening in the Central African Republic, different again from Syria.  So I don’t want to draw too broad of a pattern here.  One of the elements of DPA’s work in fact that I find so  rewarding is working with the staff to monitor what’s happening globally and keep it in regional, strategic and historic context, because there are so many differences. 

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon administers the oath of office to Jeffrey D. Feltman, Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

In some cases, we are watching tensions and seeing what kinds of tools we have to prevent those tensions from becoming crises. In other cases, there are conflicts – like in Syria – where we are using tools such as mediation to try to resolve them.  In other places, we’re working on post-conflict peace-building.  So there’s a whole spectrum of areas where DPA is working to respond to and in some cases to try to anticipate what is actually happening on the ground.

In terms of broad conclusions about these different developments, I’ll refrain, but there are some interesting elements that we’ve seem over the past couple of years, such as the impatience of populations.  People in some cases want to see change now.  And they’ll go to the street, raise their voices and try to get their points of view across, even ahead of election cycles.  We’ve seen that happen in many countries.

UN News Centre: In Ukraine, can you tell us what kinds of tools you are working with to prevent escalation?

Jeffrey Feltman: The primary tool is the Secretary-General himself – his personal engagement, talking to world leaders and to Ukrainian leaders on the need for de-escalation, the need for solutions that protect all the people of Ukraine and address some basic underlying issues.  He also sent me to Ukraine in December and a couple of other envoys, including the Deputy Secretary-General, who spent nearly a week in Kiev. 

Our primary task right now is de-escalation and to try to prevent actions that will lead to polarization.  It’s absolutely essential that people in Ukraine themselves talk to each other and that Ukrainian officials and Russian officials – Russia has interests – are able to have some kind of dialogue.  So we’ve offered our good offices to try to promote the type of diplomatic space in which a whole variety of issues could be discussed

Under-Secretary-General Feltman confers with diplomats at the Security Council's 13 March 2014 meeting on the situation in Ukraine. UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

We’ve also deployed part of the standby team of mediation experts from the Mediation Support Unit to help find ways to establish connections between various parties.  I myself participated in a number of meetings in Europe last week that brought together Ukrainian officials with organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other States

UN News Centre: How are efforts to get the parties to talk progressing?

Jeffrey Feltman:  We certainly have had the ability to talk to all sides.  When the Deputy-Secretary-General and Robert Serry were in Kiev, they were able to talk with the Russian chargé, with Kiev authorities, with other organizations and States with interests there. There has been some talk between the parties themselves but it is still more or less at a perfunctory level.  We’ve also had a few Security Council sessions on Ukraine.  There is – I don’t think it’s a surprise – division in the Security Council about it.  That division will make our work more challenging.  It makes the Secretary-General’s good offices that much more important but also at times much more difficult to implement.

UN News Centre: What kind of activities was DPA involved in as the crisis in Ukraine ramped up?

Mr. Feltman and the Secretary-General meet with the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation in Geneva. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

We start off from the perspectives of the principles for which this Organization stands for, from the Charter, the conventions that have been signed and international practices as they’ve developed. First there’s the principle of sovereignty.  Ukraine is a Member State of this Organization and we respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.  We cannot impose ourselves; we need to be invited in.  There’s also the principle of territorial integrity.  There’s the principle of protection of minorities enshrined in human rights conventions. 

There’s a lot of talk about early warning as a key element for preventing conflict.  I don’t think early warning is such a problem – today, when news is a 24-hour phenomenon, it’s fairly easy to identify where there might be problems that require UN attention.  What’s challenging is to translate that early warning into early action – how to convince local authorities that it would be useful, perhaps to have some outside mediation support, good offices, perhaps an envoy.   Any Member State likes to be able to resolve its own political issues, and the vast majority of times globally that is what happens.  So at what point does a Member State ask for some quiet, appropriate help from the UN or others?  How do we get in to offer that support in an appropriate way?  That’s our real challenge.

UN News Centre: So much of DPA’s activity now has to do with politics internal to States?

Mr. Feltman and the Secretary-General meet with Ukraine officials in New York. UN Photo/Mark Garten

Jeffrey Feltman: This organization of course was founded in the aftermath of World War II, enormous loss of life and destruction, clashes between States.   The founders wanted to prevent another such conflict, and prevention is an essential element.  But now, the tensions that you see arising are more and more internal, inside States.  I’m generalizing, but it’s easier for the UN to play a role between States, because one State or the other is probably going to be looking for some outside help to resolve the issue. 

Inside a State, the entry points become more difficult to find.  I think that we’ve become better, in one way through the professionalization of mediation services.  If a State sees that another State has used mediation services and it hasn’t landed it on the Security Council agenda and it hasn’t put it under some sort of Chapter VII scrutiny, which no State would welcome willingly, they’re more willing I think to consider offers of support before tensions turn into conflict.  Prevention becomes more likely. 

Sometimes it’s the personal touch of the envoy involved.  The envoys that we employ have personal credibility on issues on which they’re working.  One of the key things that we’ve done is build partnerships with regional and sub-regional organizations.  Our work with the African Union and with the sub-regional organizations in Africa is essential to our ability to be on the ground earlier rather than later, at a time when it may be possible to prevent or at least contain a conflict. 

UN News Centre: Can you give us examples of successful interventions?

Under-Secretary-General Feltman arrives in Somalia (30 June 2013) to consult with officials of the Government and the UN political mission there known as UNSOM UN Photo/Stuart Price

For the most part, if we’re successful there are no headlines.  And that’s just fine.  There are areas where you might have no idea that the UN was involved with political work or mediation work, because it was successful.  There are other cases, frankly, where we haven’t been successful.  Despite having one of the world’s most renowned mediators working on the file, we’ve not been successful in Syria so far. 

But I’ll use one example that I think is telling, which is Guinea.  About a year ago, demonstrations started breaking out in Conakry and elsewhere in Guinea, which had gone through previous unrest.  But when the President announced legislative elections, there was a feeling that there was a risk of widespread violence that could have put Guinea’s successful transition to peace at risk.  Sporadic protests had in some cases turned violent and others were cracked down on with violence.  It was tied up with doubts that elections would have a level playing field for the opposition parties. 

We were able to use a high-profile envoy, supported by mediation services and elections assistance, to work with the Government and the opposition parties to come up with an electoral timetable different from what was first proposed, to help alleviate the concerns and promote successful legislative elections which did take place at the end of the year.  Now, if we hadn’t been there, would the country have plunged into civil war?  We don’t know that.  

But I do believe that we played a very positive role in making sure that legislative elections were seen as credible by the population.  That to me is an example of successful diplomacy. 

At the Security Council, Mr. Feltman discusses strengthening the partnership between the UN and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). UN Photo/Ryan Brown

Another example I can use is Yemen.   The last chapter of Yemen’s transition hasn’t been written yet; the book in fact is probably only half written.  But Yemen so far has been the only country in the Arab world where there’s been a negotiated transition.  There are several examples of how we work that are clear in that case.  First, partnership.  The Yemen transition was founded on an initiative that was put together by the Gulf Council, the six Arab Gulf States, who have a real interest in seeing Yemen’s transition succeed.  

Building on that, the Secretary-General appointed an envoy who has been active in bridging gaps between all sides in Yemen.  The envoy, working with mediation support and other outside help, helped the Yemenis design a national dialogue process, which recently concluded successfully with a timetable for constitution drafting that will lead to elections.  It’s a process in which the decisions taken are taken by the Yemenis but it’s supported and facilitated by the UN in partnership with other key organizations and countries. 

UN News Centre: In the Central African Republic you have a UN political mission known as BINUCA.  Were they able to warn of the turn to inter-community violence?   On the news side, we were surprised.

Mr. Feltman addresses the situation in the Central African Republic at the Security Council media stakeout in January 2014. Source: UNTV

Jeffrey Feltman: I have to admit it was a surprise to us too.  The Central African Republic has gone through several stages – weak institutions, conflict – but this is the first time that there’s been systematic, sustained violence at the community level.  Previously it was about power sharing and resources and feelings of marginalization by various parts of the country, but it didn’t have this religious overtone.   So no, we did not anticipate this.  I’m not sure many CAR citizens anticipated it.  But now, unfortunately, it’s a reality, since December, and it’s one of the most critical areas that we have to address in terms of political reconciliation.  How do we try to rebuild connections between these two communities that lived together for generations despite all the problems of the CAR? 

The Muslims have mostly fled Bangui, to the northeast.   They were merchants and traders, so food prices went up with their departure.  So there’s a ripple effect. There are the human rights abuses and fatalities, but the basic fabric of that society has been severely damaged and it is a big challenge.  A peacekeeping operation, even if authorized today, is not going to be able to immediately address the challenges of protection of civilians, restoration of state services and basic protection of human rights.  So we’re also working to support the African troops who are on the ground along with French and European contingents in order to try to protect what are still some vulnerable pockets of population, even as we start the political reconciliation process.  There’s a new transitional head of State, Catherine Samba-Panza, who’s taking a more technocratic approach.  She’s been able to pay salaries to Government workers for the first time since September.  There are signs of the State starting to re-emerge, but this is going to be a very long process and one in which the region and the international community are going to have to work together to support. 

UN News Centre: Does BINUCA work with the French and African peacekeepers?

The Under-Secretary-General briefs the Security Council on Peace and Security in Africa (17 September 2012). UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

The primary coordination on a daily basis is done through BINUCA, headed by Babacar Gaye, who had been the military advisor to the Secretary-General.  He’s uniquely qualified.  He speaks military, which is an asset.   We also have an enormous humanitarian effort although there hasn’t been adequate donor support, which is one of the reasons why the Secretary-General a couple of weeks ago went to the Security Council and laid out a six-point plan of what’s needed.

UN News Centre: There seem to be many crises that have started out as political and then devolved into violence between communities.  Is DPA being reshaped to better address this or is it a matter of working with development agencies and other actors?

Jeffrey Feltman: We are revamping DPA and we have to revamp the UN.  When I talk about revamping the UN, I’m talking about the Secretary-General’s “Rights up Front” initiative, taking human rights as a key element up front in everything that we do.  That has drawn the development agencies and DPA closer together.  We need to make sure that we’re getting good political analysis, but also good early warning, prevention and early engagement, even in places where the UN doesn’t have a political presence.  You don’t have DPA on the ground in many places in the world, but you have the UN Development Programme, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and others.

The Secretary-General and Mr. Feltman address the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-UN Summit in Brunei Darussalam. UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

Also in DPA, we have deepened our relationship with regional organizations to give us the type of insights, access, local content that we need to be effective on the ground, and we have opened some regional offices to try to get a head start in conflict prevention.  We have a Centre for Preventive Diplomacy in Central Asia, we have an office that covers West Africa out of Dakar, an office that covers Central Africa out of Libreville and an office that works with the African Union in Addis.  Plus we have about 15 Special Political Missions on the ground in three continents working in individual countries. 

We do prepare the Secretary-General’s talking points – that’s a very important part of our work – but we’re also now increasingly operation on the ground, fulfilling his mandate on prevention.  The first day I came to work at the UN, 2 July 2012, the Secretary-General called me into his office to welcome me on board, and he said that what he wants me to do is prevention of conflict.  We are taking that on board in DPA as our operational objective. 

UN News Centre: Can we turn to Syria?  Can you give us an idea of what the dynamics are right now in trying to get the parties there to talk to each other?

At the January 2014 talks on Syria in Montreux, Switzerland, Mr. Feltman and the Secretary-General confer with the Deputy Joint Special Representative of the UN and the League of Arab States, Nasser Al-Kidwa (right) UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Jeffrey Feltman: The headlines right now are Ukraine; it’s an enormous issue; what’s happening conjures up all sorts of memories of Cold War type things but the real issue in international peace and security right now is Syria.  That’s where thousands of people are dying every month.  That’s where you have an entire country that’s being destroyed before our eyes, and you have a region that is under increasing strains because of the spill over from the conflict.  As we enter the fourth year of this conflict, it’s ever clearer that there is no military solution.  I think people on the ground think that there is a military solution.  We don’t think there is.  The opposition is not going to overthrow Bashar al-Assad by force, Bashar al-Assad is not going to defeat this insurgency by force.   What they’re doing is destroying the country. 

Now the two sides in a way did gather to talk – two rounds in Geneva under the leadership of Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi.  I had the honour to participate.  Of course, the basis of those talks was a communiqué from 30 June 2012 that talked about a Syrian-led transition, by mutual consent, to establish a transitional governing body with full executive powers.   That seems to us to still be the goal that we should be striving for.  It certainly had the backing of the international community as represented by those States and organizations who answered the Secretary-General’s call for a conference in Montreux in January.  But the discussions themselves were extremely difficult, given what’s going on on the ground and given the divisions between the two sides. 

UN News Centre: And as you said, the two sides still believe there’s a military solution.

I don’t know that everybody on both sides thinks that, but there are far too many people in leadership positions who do think that they can prevail militarily and what that leads to is the destruction of Syria before our eyes. 

UN News Centre: What do you think it would take to change that mind-set?

Mr. Feltman meets with Lakhdar Brahimi, Joint Special Representative of the UN and the League of Arab States for Syria in November 2013. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

We have divisions inside Syria.  We have divisions in the region – Iran backing one side, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, others backing the other side.  And we have divisions in the Security Council.   We need to find points of convergence and build on those.  That’s the philosophy behind the Geneva process.  You had Russia and the United States agreeing to start a political process; you had a number of States that backed the Geneva communiqué about a transition to a new Syria – those are our points of convergence.  We’ve not been successful yet in building on them.  In fact, it’s a real tragedy but during these Syrian-Syrian talks in Geneva, the death rate on the ground rose.  We have to find a way by which the entire international community, the region and beyond are pushing the two Syrian sides to a political solution rather than encouraging them in their belief that they can win militarily. 

UN News Centre: With regard to the region, you worked a lot on the Israeli/Palestinian situation when you were a national diplomat.  How have the dynamics in that situation changed since you first were involved?

I started working there as a junior diplomat and as I rose in the ranks.  I have to say that I’m impressed by the seriousness of the effort right now.  There is an opportunity to at last change the Israeli/Palestinian dynamic from one of stalemate and worse to one of hope and promise.  I hope this opportunity can be realized.  We very much support a two-state solution based on principles such as land for peace and Security Council resolutions.

Mr. Feltman delivers one of his frequent briefings on the Middle East at the Security Council. UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

Right now the two parties themselves, through United States facilitation, are talking to each other.  We hope that this leads to a real breakthrough.  Anything that we can do as the United Nations to support an end to this conflict, I assure you, the Secretary-General wants us to do. The Palestinians deserve a state that they can call their own – a real state, that has the type of authorities that a state would have, that they can be proud of.  The Israelis need to feel that they can live in peace and security in the region and don’t have risks to their long-term survival. 

UN News Centre: Can you tell us a little more about your transition from being a US diplomat to a UN official?  It must be very different in some ways.

Jeffrey Feltman: You’re right.  Moving from a national Government, particularly the United States Government, to a multinational Organization, or ‘the’ international Organization, has proven to be more challenging than I had anticipated, to be frank.  But it’s exciting, an honour and important work.  The main difference is in the tool boxes used.  In the US toolbox, you have some things that I guess you can call hard power, whether it’s the Pentagon or the currency or even the veto at the Security Council and voting weight at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.  Those are hard power, tangible tools.

The Secretary-General, Mr. Feltman and Robert Serry (centre), UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, en route from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Cairo, Egypt. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

In the toolbox of the Secretary-General, here, it’s a whole different set, it’s principles, it’s ideals that are embodied in the Charter and in conventions. These are important.  You can say that the universality of the UN is a weakness in that it takes a long time to build consensus.  But I would say it’s a strength, because once you have that consensus there’s no organization, no single State, that carries the legitimacy that this Organization carries.

One of the most important things we can do in this Organization is unite the international community so that countries speak with a single voice on some of these crises that you mentioned.  Because then we have real power.  The peacekeeping operations, the envoys we talked about, the special political missions – those are tangible tools that have weight and have strength because of the universality, because of the legitimacy of the United Nations can offer.  You can have an envoy from the United States who has all sorts of power, but it’s a different sort of envoy than one that’s representing the collective weight of the international community.  I have found it to be a challenge to try to build that consensus on issues, but I’ve also found that once you have that consensus, you have an entirely different weight in terms of legitimacy than any single Member State can possibly have.

Read related news story:

Former New York Mayor Bloomberg named Ban’s envoy for cities and climate change