Interview with Judy Cheng-Hopkins, Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support

Judy Cheng-Hopkins, Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support. Photo: UN News Centre

23 June 2014 – In April 2009, Judy Cheng-Hopkins was appointed Assistant Secretary-General and head of the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO), which acts as the Secretariat of the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), the United Nations inter-governmental body that works to keep countries emerging from conflict from sliding back into violence. 

Countries currently on the agenda of the PBC are Burundi, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and the Central African Republic, to each of which is devoted a “Country-Specific Configuration” of interested countries plus relevant regional and financial institutions and UN representatives.

The PBSO also manages the Peacebuilding Fund (PBF) to support lasting peace, often funding immediate needs in countries emerging from conflict when sufficient resources are not available elsewhere.

Before joining the PBSO in New York, Ms. Cheng-Hopkins served the UN for some 30 years covering development and humanitarian work in Africa and Asia, 10 years of which were spent in the field in Africa, and served as the UN's Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees from February 2006 to August 2009.

The UN News Centre spoke to Ms. Cheng-Hopkins ahead of the 23 June 2014 anniversary of the first Peacebuilding Day and the first PBC annual session in New York.

UIf the opportunity for peacebuilding is there and people are ready to talk to the other party, you have to strike while the iron is hot to support the dialogue that's going on. N News Centre: Ms. Cheng-Hopkins, the peacebuilding office you manage was created around eight years ago.  How have the peacebuilding institutions of the UN developed?

Judy Cheng-Hopkins: Remember, in the early 2000s, the great revelation came about that many countries coming out of conflict seldom come out of conflict for good, i.e. they relapsed back into violence, from 50 to 60 per cent relapsing within ten years.  It's no surprise because even though they may have signed a peace accord, you don't see much in terms of governance, in terms of institutions and in terms of infrastructure for the population's health and education.  In terms of reconciliation, that bitterness, that animosity between various groups is still very much there.  And it takes very little for it to flare up again.  That's what happens time and time again, as we see today.

It was felt that for this purpose, it would be good to bring together Member States here in New York on leveraging individual States' contributions to help a particular country to come out of conflict sustainably.  I hate to use jargon, but the whole idea is political accompaniment.  A country is fragile when it comes out of conflict and there is need for accompaniment as it goes through trials and tribulations such as a flare-up between groups or human rights abuses. 

UN News Centre: And how have Member States have been coming together, in practice?

Judy Cheng-Hopkins: The Country-Specific Configurations consist of the so-called stakeholders of a post-conflict country, i.e. neighbouring countries who don't want refugee flows and instability in their region.  There are also the large donors that have invested millions and millions of dollars and want to see their investments come to good. Regional organizations are increasingly engaged as well.  The whole idea is to bring these stakeholders together around a table with the Governments to discuss the issues, to support them, to provide funding and to bring in other Member States to help.

UN News Centre: How has this been working out?

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon swears in Judy Cheng-Hopkins as Assistant Secretary-General (ASG) for Peacebuilding Support. UN/M. Garten

Judy Cheng-Hopkins: First I ought to stress that the PBC is eight years old, so in a life-span of institutions in the UN it is very, very young.  And it is dealing with very complex political situations.  So of course there are growing pains because there has to be adjustment, accommodation and recalibration.  The countries themselves that are on the agenda have to get used to, to understand the value added by this Commission.  How do they use it?   How do they interact?

There is also the matter of other UN presence on the ground, be it a peacekeeping mission or peacebuilding mission or a country team.  What is the division of labour?  It takes a lot of fine tuning, through a lot of honest dialogue.  It's not something that's going to work automatically from day one.  In the eighth year, I'm seen the fruits of the labour though, especially the configurations that work well with the field.  I would say that's the number one key element – working really well with the UN leadership on the ground.

UN News Centre: Can you give us an example of where the system has worked best?

Judy Cheng-Hopkins: Burundi was going through really tough times on many counts, on the ethnic front, on the tolerance of political parties, on inclusivity, etc.  But in the early years of PBC engagement, it was actually doing well.  One indicator of how well it did was that one insurgent group that was operating along the border actually registered as a bona-fide political party.  For me, that is the epitome of peacebuilding -- an insurgent group laying down arms and choosing to participate in the political process.  It was the result of a lot of people's efforts.  Other things were going well; investments were starting to come in.  

Assistant Secretary-General Cheng-Hopkins arrives in Mogadishu for a five-day visit to Somalia, May 2014. UN/T. Jones

Recently, however, there have been some troubles in terms of the constitution, in terms of the tolerance of the opposition, in terms of the youth wings of the parties being extra-militant.  So the PBC is taking that leadership role again and rallying together the countries that have particular interest in the peace of Burundi and bringing in the financial institutions.  That rallying role that is better for someone outside the country to be playing because things are just too hot and too intense inside. 

UN News Centre: So when threats began to re-emerge in Burundi, meetings were called in the country-specific configuration and options discussed? 

Judy Cheng-Hopkins: Yes, the Chair convenes the stakeholders here in New York, but also travels to the field, two or three times a year maybe, to reach out to many actors and to play a mediation role.  In New York stakeholders are brought together in a semi-informal setting, around lunch for instance, to have a discussion that includes Burundian ambassador.  The ambassador has to state the position of his Government and the rest of us might reply that we fully understand that, but don't you see ABC and D?  It is extremely useful to have such an exchange outside of formal speeches.  It is sometimes intense, sometimes painful.  I don't know where else we have a forum that is so down to earth, so informal and yet so hard-hitting at the real issues, with the real stakeholders around the table.

UN News Centre: It appears that part of the function of the PBC is to keep attention on a country that might have fallen off the headlines because it has pulled out of deep crisis.

Ms. Cheng-Hopkins briefs journalists on the work of the Peacebuilding Commission in January 2011. UN/C. Pak

Judy Cheng-Hopkins: Yes, you've put your finger on the real issue.  The PBC was set up precisely for that.  You know the meaning of the CNN factor, right?  When a crisis is at its peak, you can't get away from news about it.  Everyone is covering it to death, 24/7.  But strangely – and this is the story of our lives in a way – once things start moving in a good direction, peace accords are signed and refugees start coming home, then suddenly the crisis is over, as far as much of the international community is concerned, because they're now seized with the next crisis.  But that is the point where the accompaniment and investment is most needed.  Accords between the groups are fragile and national institutions are hardly working at all.

UN News Centre: Speaking of countries that have seized the attention at the moment because of resurgent crisis, can you tell us about the Commission's involvement with the Central African Republic (CAR)?

Judy Cheng-Hopkins: To be fair the PBC was very much present in the CAR; nobody would ever blame it for not having kept a watchful eye over the country.  But there's no way anyone can prevent conflict from breaking out if national actors are so bent on it.  We can mitigate and we can put in place preventive measures, but that is no guarantee.  Now religious schisms have exploded that were not there before; it's not the first time such divisions have been exploited by political leaders.  What's being considered now is how to help reconciliation, how to bring in religious leaders to foment tolerance.

But this point, the international community is doing a lot of stop-gap measures.  No one has any delusion that we're doing real peacebuilding.  We're doing things like helping the Government to pay salaries of security sector and other Government employees.  The PBC and the Fund are also paying to refurbish prisons because they are in such bad shape that people can just escape at any time.  But we're also trying to give some sense of stability

UN News Centre: You mentioned that funds from the Peacebuilding Fund are being used in CAR.  How well has that mechanism been working over the past eight years?

Judy Cheng-Hopkins: I said before that that the PBC has to be nurtured patiently because of the complexity of its efforts, but making the Fund effective has been a lot easier. It's a fund – everybody loves a fund – particularly a fund for situations that are so short of funding.  Funding for transitional situations was always poorly subscribed.  When this Fund was set up back in 2005, 2006, because donors saw the need it was actually very well subscribed.  We started with a good $250 million, plenty to actually start. 

Ms. Cheng-Hopkins speaks at the 3rd high-level meeting of the Peacebuilding Fund in November 2012. UN/R. Bajornas

In the early years there was trouble in getting the Fund to start moving, but we put in place a very good management team and started carving an identity.  I wanted the Fund to been known as the fastest fund in the UN, because peacebuilding can't wait.  It's not like building a bridge.  If the opportunity for peacebuilding is there and people are willing to lay down their arms and they're ready to talk to the other party, that opportunity may not be there for months.  You have to strike while the iron is hot.  So the funds must be put in to strengthen the dialogue that's going on, to bring in what we call peace dividends.  You want to encourage a virtuous cycle to begin and begin delivery of services, security sector reform, demobilization of ex-combatants, all these activities that are so essential.

Speed has been important in, for instance, investing in police equipment and training of police so that an election doesn't lead to another flare-up of violence.  We did that within a matter of weeks in Guinea Conakry, bringing equipment from neighbouring peacekeeping missions, and it was quite successful.  You're never going to have the perfect project with perfect indicators, and of course we don't want to be completely slack either.  But our whole philosophy is that we see this peacebuilding opportunity and we're going to bring the money in while minimizing the risk – but we're going to live with the risk.  The good news is our donors are behind the concept because they realize that it's the reality in these situations. 

UN News Centre: What is the significance of Peacebuilding Day to your office?

Judy Cheng-Hopkins: It is good for creating understanding of peacebuilding, which is a little-known and little-understood concept.  People understand peacekeeping because the blue helmet is so iconic by now, people understand development, humanitarian aid, but peacebuilding is a concept that's still not quite understood.  Many times people mistake me for being a peacekeeper, for instance. 

UN News Centre: Maybe you need a different coloured helmet. 

Judy Cheng-Hopkins: Actually, the Economist said that our symbol should be a briefcase.  It's not exactly that, of course.  In any case, the fact that we have a special day now is for me very satisfying because after my five years on this job this is an acceptance by Member States that peace-building is important enough for recognition. 

We're using the occasion to focus on two important issues this year.  The first is the question of domestic resource mobilization and illicit flows of funds.  I just came from Somalia and there hasn't been taxation there in I don't know how many decades.  Even though business goes on; people are making money, especial in trade.  But nobody pays taxes.  Then they're forever dependent on donor aid.  There are also illicit flows from these countries, either in mineral wealth or in drugs or in some other areas. The other topic is transitions of countries from either peacekeeping or peacebuilding missions to normal developing country situations. 

UN News Centre: You've been working at the United Nations for a long time.  Can you give us a long-term perspective on how peacebuilding has evolved in the UN?

Ms. Cheng-Hopkins consulting with Security Council Members ahead of a meeting on post-conflict peacebuilding. UN/D. Berkowitz

Judy Cheng-Hopkins: In my first twenty years of my life in the UN, I was with the UN Development Programme. I was in Kenya and in Zambia, that was before Namibia was independent, showing how far back that was.  So I dealt with a lot of liberation movements in Zambia.  But we dealt basically with development .  Then I went to the World Food Programme, so then we dealt with a lot of disasters.  So that was humanitarian.  Before coming here, I was Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, where we dealt with issues of displaced people, protection. Looking back, now, I realize there's an element of peacebuilding in all these other areas.  So I feel very fortunate to have been given this job that brought together my experiences and expertise of thirty something years in development, humanitarian assistance and protection of civilians.

And what are your hopes for the further evolution of peacebuilding?

Judy Cheng-Hopkins: I feel very optimistic.  The Peacebuilding Fund has found an important niche and we are getting health funding from our donors year after year.  I hope there's no turning back.   In addition, as we see more and more countries relapsing like South Sudan we are getting better and better at putting our finger at the drivers of these conflicts. There's only so much external actors can do, however.

We use that term national ownership a little too casually.  For me it's a very serious concept.  It means that after decades of civil war, leadership emerges that says no more, enough is enough, be it a national leader, be it women's civil society groups.  So when we see that kind of leadership rising up and we're able to work with them and put money where it's needed, that's when peacebuilding works best. 


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