Interview with Ad Melkert, Special Representative for Iraq

Ad Melkert, Special Representative for Iraq and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq

8 April 2011 – Ad Melkert took up his current assignment as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq and head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in the country (UNAMI) in July 2009. He previously served as the Associate Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in New York. Mr. Melkert’s long-standing involvement in issues of international and development cooperation goes back further, having also served on the Board of Directors of the World Bank and as a Member of Parliament and Minister in the Netherlands.

UN News Centre: How would you describe the overall situation in Iraq today?

Ad Melkert: There’s no doubt that things have changed in Iraq over the past few years when one compares it with the very dark years immediately after 2003. People have suffered tremendously and these days there’s a lot of reconstruction. Slowly but surely, investments are coming in. Still, many people are poor and looking for jobs. There is ongoing insecurity, although I think we could say at a lower level in terms of the number of incidents than before. And politicians are in charge and certainly want to take charge – but it’s an uphill battle to respond to all In this sense publicity can sometimes help to keep attention going and that’s why I come every now and then to the Security Council and say "Hey, don’t forget Iraq!"the demands that are out there, such as better services, electricity, water, sanitation, jobs and also many people are very concerned about corruption.

So it’s a big, big challenge for the government; there are still sources of violence from people that want to challenge the stability. The region, generally, is in turmoil and that certainly has its impact on Iraq. So it’s a kind of mixed picture, to be very honest, but at the same time, if you really ask me what is the trend you see overall, I still see a trend that is pointing in the right direction.

UN News Centre: In the latest Secretary-General’s report on Iraq, Mr. Ban calls upon Iraq’s leaders to form a government as soon as possible in order to meet the pressing tasks ahead of it. How is the formation of a government progressing?

Special Envoy Ad Melkert inspects a ballot box for Iraqi parliamentary elections. (March 2010) UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Ad Melkert: The government formation as such has not yet totally finished, but there is a new government that started its work in January. That was a significant moment because this government encompasses the main political blocs and in that sense, it has a stronger representation that in previous periods. Still, there are some touchy issues that need to be resolved, particularly the appointment of ministers in the different security ministries. We are working with the government to see how they could do that as soon as possible, but of course it’s an Iraqi responsibility – we are the advisors.

Perhaps even more important is that now really is the time for the government to try to be effective in taking decisions that really will improve living conditions for people. And the government itself acknowledges that they are really under pressure from many people who take to the streets to express their frustration as to where the current situation is and the lack of opportunities that it offers them. So, we are now finally in the stage, which is more than one year after the elections of March 2010, that there are quite some expectations – the UN is also there to assist and to try to see how some results can be shown, and that’s where we are.

UN News Centre: What about the use of force by Iraq’s security forces in handling some of the recent protests – are the Secretary-General’s calls for an independent investigation as well as a more measured approach being heeded?

Ad Melkert: It’s always important to find the right and proportional balance between the right of expression of demonstrators and the way that the government tries to maintain order. I should underscore that it is a huge task for the government in Iraq to maintain order and stability because regardless of the motives of the demonstrators, others may like to seize the opportunity and act like spoilers. We have to be aware of that.

Having said that, I think the multitude of demonstrations that we’ve witnessed is unique in Iraq’s history, it is really important to underscore that. And by and large the government has recognised, very clearly, the right to demonstrate. It has at some points acted in a way that has led to us to call upon them to seek restraint and really keep space for expression of opinion. This must be discussed on a longer-term basis. Interestingly, it has been taken up by the parliament – which I find very important because one thing is that the international community can add its voice and it should do so, of course, if undue violence is used.

But most importantly, in the situation which Iraq is in, is that Iraqis themselves take up their responsibilities and that’s what the parliament is doing.  We’re working with the parliament to establish as quickly as possible an independent human rights commission composed of Iraqis. Those are the kinds of mechanisms that in the long run really matter and are also more important than what the international community can do because obviously we have our limits.

UN News Centre: Where does Iraq fit into the sweeping change that is currently affecting the region?

Ad Melkert (left), holds talks with Prime Minister Nuri Kamel al-Maliki in Baghdad. (July 2009) UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Ad Melkert: On the one hand, it does fit in; and on the other hand, it is quite unique. It does fit in, in the sense that the main demands of protesters are really the three key issues that I see in many countries in the region – that’s job opportunities, better services and the fight against corruption.

What is different is that Iraq went to the polls in March 2010. And although it took a long time, a government was formed and that government was really formed on the basis of a relatively transparent negotiation process and it has the buy-in of the main currents in the political spectrum, representing most of the communities, including minorities. That means that there is, in any case, for many people who have concerns an outlet and an addressee that needs to respond to them because otherwise that will be a source of frustration. But compared to other countries, where the starting point is really how to replace or retain regimes by more constitutional and democratic processes, Iraq is now in a different position. 

UN News Centre: How is the level of violence affecting the overall mood of people in Iraq as well as UNAMI?

Ad Melkert: The ones who are still suffering are Iraqis, the victims of incidents that still take place on an average of 25 times per day, which is a lot lower than what it used to be. At the same time, we see enormous resilience in Iraqis. They want to re-take their lives, to organize them in a way that they deem fit and I think that more and more they’re succeeding in that. There are definitely also parts of the country that are relatively safe and normal life has returned.

For ourselves, with UN staff – first of all, it’s very difficult to live there, because we are very much confined in the way that we’re living, having to work under heavy protection. It’s really limiting the personal freedom of all our staff in a non-family duty station and there is always this looming danger – sometimes we are experiencing incidents ourselves, fortunately with no victims in recent times – but we have also had our share, particularly with the explosion that killed so many of our colleagues and also my predecessor, Sergio Viera de Mello, in 2003. The risk is there. And I also know of many staff members that have difficulties communicating to their own families and friends what it is like to live in Baghdad.

We should not forget our national Iraqi staff, we are working with several hundred of them. They have to come in and out every day to the international zone, past two check-points. It takes them hours and it can be dangerous. For them it can also be risky to even say they’re working for the UN. So it’s never normal – that’s the bottom-line. And yet, there is a remarkable determination with all those colleagues, some of whom have worked there for years, in that they know their work is important, that it is appreciated by the Iraqi people, that they want to stay and go on – and that’s something very special about working under the blue flag.

UN News Centre: After your service with UNDP, what led you to accept a posting to Iraq?

Ad Melkert is greeted by a UN Guard Unit upon arrival at UNAMI office in Baghdad. (July 2009) UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Ad Melkert: I was interested, after my very rewarding years at UNDP, to go to a position in the field. In UNDP I had worked with lots of SRSGs [Special Representatives of the Secretary-General] in different places and I always thought, and think, that in those kinds of missions – peacekeeping missions, special political missions – the full mandate of the UN comes together: peace, development, human rights, humanitarian assistance. That’s quite unique.

Then, when I discussed that with the Secretary-General, he mentioned Iraq to me. So I paused for some moments and I asked for some time to think about it because it’s not a question that you immediately answer with “Yeah, let’s go to Iraq!” But then I thought about it and I noticed the very important role of the UN, particularly also given the anticipated withdrawal of US forces, which is of course opening up a new chapter in the history of Iraq. And I thought this is also a historic opportunity for the UN to be with the Iraqi people and show, on the basis of the UN mandate, that we can contribute – and that was what actually brought me to the conclusion that this was the place and the time to be.

UN News Centre: That was then – what about now, after almost two years on the ground in Iraq?

Ad Melkert: No, I must say that my hope that UNAMI and myself could play a role, by and large, has been confirmed in practice. Let me just mention to you a few moments that stand out in my personal experience. One moment was when there was a total political stalemate in the preparation of the election law. At that time I took the initiative to bring the representatives of the different blocs together and in a couple of days we managed to actually break through that deadlock and it resulted in the adoption, almost by consensus, in parliament of that law so the elections could take place.

Secondly, after the elections there was considerable tension as some parties claimed that the count had not been correct and had been flawed. We did not think so. We were actually quite happy with what we had seen. Of course, there had been some incidents, but not to an extent that it would influence the outcome and we declared the elections credible and called on those that had a problem – including the party headed by the prime minister – to use official procedures, the constitutional procedure, to ask for a partial recount and that’s what they did. That was an extremely important moment because, as you’ve seen in other places, people are not necessarily going to use constitutional procedures, and sometimes even resort to violence – and that was a big, big step forward for Iraq.

And then, more generally: looking at human rights and asking the government to pay attention, working with Iraq and Kuwait to resolve their outstanding issues still going back to the Gulf War for which we’re quite close to a solution, and hopefully in the future also contributing to reducing tensions in the disputed areas in the north, in Kirkuk and other places. There are so many points where UNAMI can play a facilitating, assisting role that’s probably quite crucial still in this stage of Iraq’s development. That is quite a rewarding thing to do for one’s self.

UN News Centre: You speak Dutch, English, German, French and Spanish. Have you been able to add Arabic to that list?

Ad Melkert: I must frankly say that I made an effort in the beginning, in any case to be able to start to read a bit of Arabic as you really feel like you’re walking blind if you don’t read the script – so I embarked on a very ambitious trek. But I soon had to give it up because so many things are on my plate there. You know, the strange thing of working in a place where you don’t have many other things to do, where your family and friends are not present, is that contrary to what you initially think – “Now I finally have time to read this book or take this language course” – you’re working and working and working and it never stops.

UN News Centre: The US defence secretary was recently reported as saying that US troops could, if required by Iraq, stay in the country beyond the agreed withdrawal date of 31 December, 2011 – what does this mean for Iraq and the work of the UN there?

Ad Melkert briefs the UN Security Council. (8 April 2011)

Ad Melkert: This is purely a matter for the United States and the Iraqi government. The American forces are in Iraq on the basis of a bilateral agreement between the two countries and it’s entirely up to them to see what they want to do after the expiration of that by the end of the year. We don’t play a role in advising on such bilateral matters and responsibilities.

UN News Centre: It seems that media interest in Iraq has subsided given events in the region and elsewhere. How does that impact on your work? Has something similar been noted in the attention paid to Iraq by relevant member states?

Ad Melkert: It’s a bit of a mixed bag, I think. On the one hand, one tends to think that not being on the front pages anymore might be a good sign because it’s not always that great when you’re on the front pages as a country – it suggests many troubles. On the other hand, there is still a high number of [violent] incidents per day and there are still huge challenges ahead for the country.

What we, as the UN, have to try to promote is that the international community remains engaged with Iraq. We know in the UN, generally, that after a conflict seems to be resolved there’s a tendency for the international community to turn its back on the country and go to another crisis, so to speak. We also know that many mistakes are made then because the essence of creating stability is really investing in the longer-term peace-building and rehabilitation activities. Iraq is kind of a unique case because it has a lot of resources – from oil production, lots of money in the longer-run in particular to pay its own reconstruction.

But it very much needs, as they say themselves, the international support, advice and best practices from elsewhere and that’s where we want to stay engaged. In this sense publicity can sometimes help to keep attention going and that’s why I come every now and then to the Security Council and say “Hey, don’t forget Iraq!”



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