Interview with the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Alain Le Roy

Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Alain Le Roy

10 August 2011 – After more than three years as the head of the United Nations’ peacekeeping operations, Under-Secretary-General Alain Le Roy is leaving the United Nations to spend more time with his family.

Appointed to the post in June 2008, Mr. Le Roy’s tenure as the head of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations coincided with various major crises involving UN peacekeeping around the globe.

Before taking up the post in 2008, the former petroleum engineer had served in the French public service and the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs, where he served as Ambassador to Madagascar. He also served with the UN in the Balkans, including stints as the deputy to the UN Special Coordinator for Sarajevo and as a UN regional administrator in Kosovo.

On the eve of his departure today, Mr. Le Roy spoke with the UN News Centre about his time at the helm of UN peacekeeping operations.

UN News Centre: Prior to your appointment as the head of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), you had a wide-ranging career which included stints in the private sector, the French Foreign Ministry, and in the Balkans with the United Nations. What went through your mind when you were appointed to the post of the UN’s top peacekeeper?

Alain Le Roy: I had two experiences as a peacekeeper in the field. I started in ’95 in Sarajevo with UNPROFOR [United Nations Protection Force] and then in ’99 in Kosovo for more than a year, at the beginning of UNMIK [United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo]. Both experiences wereMy main fear was a repeat of the tragedy of the '90s, when we had genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Somalia. very difficult, but I enjoyed them very much because I enjoyed the spirit of the UN and I saw the progress of the UN between ’95 and ’99. It was really obvious. So when I was appointed to head peacekeeping – the “blue helmets” – I thought I could use my experience in the field to see how we can continue to progress to be more efficient, to be more able to answer all the demands from the various populations that UN peacekeeping is called to protect.

I was very pleased that in the first days after my appointment, I received so many emails from my former colleagues in Kosovo or Bosnia saying they were pleased to have a former peacekeeper to be appointed the head of UN peacekeeping. That was very nice – but I knew, of course, that there would be huge challenges being at the helm of 15 peacekeeping operations in operation at that time, with 120,000 peacekeepers in the field, having to make a difference and protect hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of civilians every day.

UN News Centre: What was it like adjusting to life at UN Headquarters after having been in the field?

Indian peacekeepers serving with MONUC secure a landing area in North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (September 2008)

Alain Le Roy: I was accustomed, a little bit, because when I was in the field I was coming to New York on a regular basis. And even in my capacity as a French diplomat, I interacted quite a lot with the UN, so UN Headquarters was not a stranger to me. But globally, as head of DPKO, I was very pleased because in DPKO there are so many people seeking to join, the selection is very strong. We have extremely good people in DPKO, working day and night. Of course there is a bureaucracy and everyone knows that. But the dedication and the competence of many, many people working at DPKO at UN Headquarters impressed me a lot.

UN News Centre: The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was the scene of one of the earliest major crises you dealt with over the past three years. What comes to mind when you look back on it?

Under-Secretary-General Alain Le Roy visits a camp for internally displaced persons in Goma, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, to assess the impact of ongoing unrest. (November 2008)

Alain Le Roy: That was my first. In October 2008, there was a huge crisis in the Congo. The key city of Goma, in North Kivu, was about to fall to the rebels, the CNDP [the armed militia Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple], and I immediately rushed there. I remember that in that same time period, the newly-appointed Force Commander [for the UN peacekeeping mission] had resigned, confronted by the huge challenges of the task. I remember instructing our peacekeepers to shoot if ever anyone would come to Goma putting at risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians – this was a very strong message and the crisis was, in the end, overcome.

The situation in the Congo is much better today than it was three years ago, thanks to the Congolese authorities and thanks to the great work done by MONUC (the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and now MONUSCO (the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo). But this was a big crisis.

Forces loyal to the former Ivorian president, Laurent Gbagbo, set fire to roadside shops in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, after shutting down anti-Gbagbo protests. (February 2011)

And I want to say this about the [DR] Congo: I hear many criticisms of peacekeeping, but I ask those critics to come and see our people at work there. We have 96 bases in the eastern [DR]Congo. In remote areas, where there is no communication, no infrastructure, where people can only move around by helicopter, or dug-out canoe most of the time or by walking – they are doing an amazing job. Every day they are protecting hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. They are not able to protect 100 per cent of them. Some people are still being killed, some women are still being raped, which is absolutely unacceptable. But still, we protect hundreds of thousands of them, if not millions.

UN News Centre: Sudan was another of the major challenges you dealt with. What comes to mind when you look back on the work of UN peacekeeping there?

Alain Le Roy: Sudan, as you know, has been on the top of the UN’s agenda, and that of the Secretary-General himself from the very beginning. And it’s still on top of his agenda. I think there are lots of achievements and also lots of challenges. The main achievement was, of course, the referendum on the self-determination of South Sudan, which was a key part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) for Sudan. This referendum, thanks to our mission there [the UN Mission in Sudan, also known by the acronym UNMIS], happened on time and peacefully. Its outcome was respected by both Juba and Khartoum. We played an important role to ensure the international community was united behind this referendum. That part, which was critical, has been achieved very well and I think our special representative, Mr. Haile Menkerios [the head of UNMIS] played an important part in ensuring the peaceful holding of this referendum.

UNOCI staff members seek refuge in the basement of the mission headquarters’ main building in Abidjan after it came under shelling by forces loyal to former Ivorian president, Laurent Gbagbo. (April 2011)

But today, as we speak, there are still difficulties, if not open conflict, in regions like South Kordofan, in Sudan, where fighting is still going and the humanitarian situation is worsening. And the Abyei situation, which is a flashpoint between the North and South, is still not solved. We have an interim solution with Ethiopian troops and that is very important and very good that they are coming to the area. But we don’t, so far, have any final, political solution for Abyei. There are many things still to achieve in Sudan.

UN News Centre: What comes to mind when you look back on UN peacekeeping in Haiti?

Alain Le Roy: The first thing that comes to my mind was the devastating earthquake, in January 2010. We were all trying to call them [colleagues] and there was no answer to the phone calls. The head of the mission [MINUSTAH], Hedi Annabi, was under the rubble. More than 100 of our colleagues died in that earthquake, together with probably 200,000 Haitians – a tragedy for everyone; for Haiti first, but for the UN also. This was perhaps the heaviest loss of lives in a single incident in the UN’s history.

But at the same time, I saw after the earthquake the UN at its best. You mentioned people from Headquarters… you can’t imagine how many of them were eager to volunteer to immediately go to Haiti, under the most difficult conditions, to assist, to help the population, to help the UN to get back on its feet. That was amazing. There was a level of dedication, a willingness to help… that was really the UN at its best. The best people came to assist at the most difficult time in Haiti. That’s also a very good memory for me.

Under-Secretary-General Alain Le Roy briefs the press for the last time at UN Headquarters. (August 2011)

UN News Centre: The crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, stemming from the disputed election results there, was the last major crisis you dealt with. How do you see the role of UN peacekeeping in events there?

Alain Le Roy: You mentioned crises – and we have had so many! And this one, had two different periods. One period between December and the beginning of April, when our mission [the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire] was under extreme pressure by one camp – the camp of former president [Laurent] Gbagbo, who wanted us to leave and created so many problems for our mission. Our mission was harassed every day. Despite that, we stood firm and the mission, of course, protected the Golf Hotel, protected as many civilians as possible and tried to enforce its freedom of movement as much as possible. And then, afterwards in the next period, there were the engagements by our helicopters and the French force Licorne, on the heavy weapons which were being used to target the civilian population.

This was done according to the resolution adopted by the Security Council unanimously – it was very important to have the full backing of the Council before undertaking this kind of operation – and since then, I must say I was very pleased to hear Ms. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Mr. [Luis] Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, both say that with this action, the UN, and of course with the support of Licorne, helped to avoid a tragedy like that in Rwanda. That was quite an achievement and under extremely difficult conditions.

Brazilian peacekeepers serving with MINUSTAH patrol Cité Soleil, a slum on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (February 2010)

UN News Centre: The past years have seen some robust actions carried out by UN peacekeepers, such as in Côte d’Ivoire and the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Are we seeing a change in UN peacekeeping towards much more robust postures or are these just one-off cases?

Alain Le Roy: I think we’re seeing a trend for more robust peacekeeping, but there is a limit to that – UN peacekeeping will never go to peace enforcement. That would not be peacekeeping, that is very clear. No country contributing to peacekeeping will accept a peacekeeping operation of “Blue Helmets” involved in peace enforcement. But robust peacekeeping: yes. We have done that in eastern DRC for many years, we did that in Haiti’s Cité Soleil a few years ago, we did that in Sudan sometimes and we did it in Côte d’Ivoire. But for that, it’s very important for us to have the full backing of the Security Council – and more and more, the Security Council gives us that backing. The next issue, of course, is getting the right capabilities…

UN News Centre: In November 2008, in one of your first interviews, you spoke about the difficulty in obtaining the troops and resources for peacekeeping from the UN’s Member States. Since then, have you noticed any change in the willingness and ability of Member States to provide those troops and resources?

In the aftermath of the powerful earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince, Haitians walk through one of the city's devastated streets. (January 2010)

Alain Le Roy: We always have enough offers for infantry troops in peacekeeping, and we have countries who are long-standing partners – Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Rwanda, Nepal, Egypt and many others – who contribute significantly to peacekeeping. That continues and it’s very clear that it’s a long-standing partnership from their side. At the same time, it’s important that the burden of participating in peacekeeping is shared with many others, including with the most developed countries, those who have the most developed military capacities. If we want to be more robust, or just to have the military helicopters that are so badly needed, we need to have more of the most developed countries back in peacekeeping. We’re working on that and I’m very hopeful that with the drawdown in Afghanistan some of these countries will come again in significant numbers to peacekeeping.

UN News Centre: How have you managed to balance the idealism and expectations of peacekeeping versus the reality of often under-resourced UN peacekeeping?

Alain Le Roy: That’s one of the difficulties for anyone dealing with peacekeeping and especially for the head of peacekeeping. Managing expectations… it’s very easy sometimes to write in a resolution that “the mission shall protect civilians under imminent threat” but it means we have to protect millions of people in places where there’s no infrastructure, sometimes with no military helicopters to move around with.

A sprawl of tents cropped up at a camp for internally displaced persons in El Fasher, North Darfur, as tens of thousands have sought protection there following fresh clashes between the Government of Sudan and rebel forces. (March 2011)

So it’s very complicated. We try to explain to the Council to be realistic in its expectations. We try to get the adequate resources. We are progressing, but we are not there yet. And it’s why sometimes we are criticized, because we are given tasks that we are unable to perform – that no one else would be able or willing to perform. We are in countries where no one else wants to go. We are in the most difficult places and sometimes without adequate equipment. Everyone knows that we don’t have a standby force and we don’t very often have all the right capacities. But, I must say, the countries which participate in and contribute troops and police to peacekeeping are fully dedicated and doing a great job.

UN News Centre: Looking back at the past three years, what has been the most challenging part of your job as the head of UN peacekeeping?

Under-Secretary-General Alain Le Roy addresses the Security Council on Sudan. (May 2011)

Alain Le Roy: It’s both managing crises and ensuring that the whole peacekeeping tool is up and running. My main fear was a repeat of the tragedy of the '90s, when we had genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia [Srebrenica], and Somalia also in '94-'95, where there were clear failures in our peacekeeping operations.

To keep the peacekeeping tool up and running means, first, avoiding this kind of tragedy; and then, reforming the peacekeeping tool. This falls within our New Horizon reform agenda which we prepared just when I arrived, and, I must say, I received support from almost all Member States on various policy issues to ensure we are adapted to the new challenges we are facing. So, it’s trying to avoid being overwhelmed by the daily crises – every day we have a crisis when we are in 15 countries in difficulty – and at the same time, managing the machinery of 120,000 people on the ground and ensuring they’re adapted to the challenges and expectations from the populations they are there to protect, and the expectations from the Security Council.

UN News Centre: Looking back at the past three years, what has been the most enjoyable part of your job as the head of UN peacekeeping?

Under-Secretary-General Alain Le Roy pins a Peacekeeping Service Medal to an officer during a medal parade held in observance of the International Day of UN Peacekeepers. (May 2011)

Alain Le Roy: Dealing with people working in peacekeeping, both at UN Headquarters and in the field. Each time I got to the field, I was amazed by the level of dedication, interest and willingness of our people in Afghanistan, in Sudan, in Liberia – everywhere. The people who join the UN in these difficult circumstances clearly have something in common. We all share the same values, the values of the UN Charter. We all enjoy contributing to peace and security in the world, bringing our own contribution. That’s valid for any peacekeeper, in the field or at Headquarters. I enjoyed working with people with the same values, same level of dedication. We are not perfect, we do have failures, but I think the value and the idealism of peacekeepers remains.

UN News Centre: How do you see peacekeeping developing over the next five years?

Under-Secretary-General Alain Le Roy speaks with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during a trip to Côte d’Ivoire. (May 2011)

Alain Le Roy: It’s not easy to say because it’ll depend on the trends, the conflicts, the places where they’re going to be. A year ago, we thought that we were in a period of consolidation, that maybe it was a time of drawing down. But at the same time, I see that the demand for peacekeeping continues. We are not reducing the number of peacekeepers in the field. We will have some reduction in the coming years, but maybe there will be other situations requiring UN peacekeeping. We don’t know what’s happening in the Middle East and I’m sure that will have some impact on our peacekeeping operations in some ways. And I see that defence budgets of many countries, due to the financial crisis, are being reduced. So all that will probably mean that the demand on the UN and on UN peacekeeping will continue to be there, if not to grow. I also think that ensuring that peacekeeping has the right capabilities, both military and civilian, that are required to address the increasingly complex situations and tasks that peacekeeping is facing – that will be one of the challenges in the years to come.

UN News Centre: What do you think your legacy to UN peacekeeping will be?

Alain Le Roy: In simple words: I think that peacekeeping operations over these last three years have contributed significantly to peace and security in the world. They have protected hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people, in many countries – in Liberia, in Timor Leste, in Sudan, in Côte d’Ivoire, in Lebanon… we have avoided so many incidents in so many places.

Under-Secretary-General Alain Le Roy visits displaced persons in Duekoue, west of Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. (May 2011)

So I must say, yes clearly, peacekeeping during these last years has, as before, clearly helped to achieve the mandate given to us by the Security Council to protect civilians. We have not been able to protect all of them, that is, of course, still a problem and very much on my conscience and the conscience of every peacekeeper. But at the same time, we can be proud of having done so much in so many different countries where, as I say, no one else other than the UN would like to go, or would be able.

UN News Centre: The Secretary-General recently said the following about you: “He has shown vision, bravery and exceptional dedication. He embodies the very best of UN peacekeeping and UN values – he is a true UN man... He was a hands-on crisis manager, wherever and whenever the United Nations needed him.” What are your thoughts on that?

Alain Le Roy: The compliments are exaggerated! But I thank Mr. Ban Ki-moon, first for having appointed me to this exceptional job. Being the head of peacekeeping is a true honour, a true privilege, in which you can contribute to making a difference in so many places in the world. So I thank him very much for that. But the compliments are valid for the whole peacekeeping family. This family is criticized from time to time – it’s very easy to criticize a peacekeeper in the field – but doing their job on a daily basis is not that easy.

Under-Secretary-General Alain Le Roy speaks with school children during a visit to Cité Soleil, a slum on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (January 2009)

UN News Centre: In a few months’ time, when you’re sitting back and reflecting on your time as the head of UN peacekeeping, what do you think will stand out in your mind as the most memorable experiences?

Alain Le Roy: What I will miss the most is interacting with people who are interested not in money, but [motivated] by idealism, by contributing to peace and helping others in need. Interacting with these people was a great source of inspiration to me. But of course I will continue to follow very much what’s going on in the news. I said that to the Secretary-General, and he told me he wants to remain available for the UN at any time and of course I will remain available for the UN at any time.

Some people say “once a peacekeeper, always a peacekeeper”… when you have worked for the UN, when you have been so deeply involved here at Headquarters and in the field, you remain always part of the UN and I will remain part of the UN for sure. I also think that, thanks to this job, I have seen a big part of the reality of the world and seen so many difficult situations for the local populations we are there to protect. What I have seen will always be on my mind.

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