Interview with Hervé Ladsous, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations

UN peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous. UN Photo/M. Garten

25 May 2012 – Just five weeks ago, the Security Council authorized the establishment of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), with up to 300 unarmed military observers deployed for up to 90 days in the Middle Eastern country.

The observers are tasked with monitoring the cessation of violence and supporting the full implementation of a six-point plan put forward by the Joint Special Envoy of the UN and the League of Arab States for the Syrian crisis, Kofi Annan, in an effort to bring an end to the violence there.

The crisis in Syria, which began in March 2011 as a protest movement similar to those across the Middle East and North Africa, has claimed over 9,000 lives, mostly civilians, and displaced tens of thousands.

The head of UN peacekeeping, Under-Secretary-General Hervé Ladsous, paid a lightning visit to Syria recently, before returning to UN Headquarters this week, where he spoke with the UN News Centre.

UN News Centre: Why did you go to Syria?

Hervé Ladsous: As the United Nations mission in Syria was nearing its full deployment, I thought it was timely for me to go to Syria to see how things were going, discuss with the management and the people who are now deployed on the ground, see how things were going, and also have some discussions with the Syrian authorities and with the Syrian opposition. And I did talk to all these people.

UN News Centre: What was your assessment?

Hervé Ladsous: The assessment is that it is a very difficult mission, possibly one of the most difficult we’ve ever... it is a very difficult mission, possibly one of the most difficult we’ve ever had… had because let’s face it: we are there to monitor a ceasefire which does not exist yet.

I think the very fact that we were able to deploy – and let me say, to deploy with utmost rapidity, I think we broke every record of the quickness of the deployment of our people – the very fact that they [UNSMIS observers] are deployed in a particular city or locality has, very quickly, an effect on the level of violence, which decreases to a certain point. It means that heavy weapons are not used or are withdrawn somewhat. But of course, the absolute ceasefire is not there yet by a long shot, and there are still unacceptable actions going on.

Members of the Syrian armed forces watch as UNSMIS observers go about their work. With up to 300 unarmed military observers, the mission is monitoring a cessation of armed violence and supporting the full implementation of a six-point peace plan to end the conflict. Photo: UNSMIS

And, of course, our people have to follow all that, but they do that at considerable risk because there are incidents on a very regular basis. There are also now in Syria a number of terrorist attacks to which unfortunately one day our people may fall victim – so all that needs to be followed very closely.

At the same time, our military observers and civilian colleagues – there is also very substantial civilian staff in the mission – have to work towards making mediation on a local basis. The overall goal is that, through their presence, our people will generate a certain degree of confidence which so far did not exist at all, thereby creating some change in the atmosphere which would allow space to open for the political process under the leadership of Special Envoy Kofi Annan to take shape and hopefully develop.

A convoy of UNSMIS observers travels along a Syrian highway. While no observer has been hurt in the violence, so far three of the mission’s vehicles have been damaged by bomb blasts. Photo: UNSMIS

I went, for instance, to visit the Governor [of Homs] on the government side but also with the opposition, which holds essentially the old city of Homs and controls it effectively, meaning that the government forces and security forces surround it, but do not penetrate. On the government side, on the opposition side, they all affirm that they support the six-point plan by Kofi Annan but when all that is said the actual discussions have yet to take concrete shape.

UN News Centre: What are UNSMIS observers doing in relation to mediation on the ground?

Hervé Ladsous: Homs is a very good example. You have a city that has in certain parts been massively destroyed. Baba Amr is a field of ruins. But you have the centre of the city which is held by the opposition which is partly desert, you don’t see anything, everything is closed. But you have dozens of tonnes of garbage which has not been picked up for the last two or three months. That’s a health hazard – this is typically the kind of issue on which our people can arrange for contacts and arrange for something to be agreed upon so that this immediate need is taken care of.

Accompanied by UNSMIS' Chief of Mission Support, Milan Trojanovic, Mr. Ladsous steps out of a convoy to see first-hand the work of UN observers, who are deployed throughout the country. Photo: UNSMIS

The same goes for restoring some of the basic public services, such as public health, education. It is by doing small things like that that you can help some return to normality and generate some hope and therefore possibly some confidence between the parties.

It is very complicated work. You have to go step by step. You have to be very prudent. But I think at the end of the day, if it can be achieved, it is certainly something that can be done in other places, and gradually some process can emerge from that.

UN News Centre: How do you respond to comments that 300 observers cannot possibly have that much of an impact in such a large area of operations?

Mr. Ladsous and UNSMIS’ Major-General Robert Mood, ahead of a press encounter. Both men have spoken about the broadly calming effect the presence of observers has had. Photo: UNSMIS

Hervé Ladsous: The very presence on the ground immediately generates some change: a reduction in the level of violence, perhaps greater hope and confidence on the part of the population. Admittedly, 300 people is very little in a country of 26 million people, but this is what the international community agreed upon – and let’s face it, there is no ‘Plan B,’ there is no other game for the time being, no one has come out with anything but the Annan six-point plan.

So, we are there to do our best to help generate a process, because the situation of violence which erupted now 15 months ago in Syria, which made thousands – 10,000, maybe 11,000 killed – countless thousands maimed, imprisoned with massive human rights violations. This situation clearly is intolerable and cannot be allowed to go on.

UN News Centre: What are the challenges that UNSMIS observers face on the ground?

Mr. Ladsous speaks about the role of UNSMIS observers in Syria, where violence has claimed over 9,000 lives, mostly civilians, and displaced tens of thousands. UN Webcast

Hervé Ladsous: The main challenge, the first one, is that of security. We have said and reminded all interlocutors in Syria that the safety and security of our people was their responsibility. But this being said, when you have that level of violence and insecurity with the presence of some terrorist groups on top it, I think that creates a very dangerous situation. We owe it to our people to take all the measures we can to defend them, to protect them. There will never be 100 per cent security, that would not be realistic, but we owe it to them, as I said, to do our best to protect them.

UN News Centre: How do the two tracks of political discussions of the Joint Special Envoy and the work of the UNSMIS observers come together?

A Syrian army checkpoint. UNSMIS observers have also been playing a mediation role on the ground, helping build the space for a political process to end the violence. Photo: UNSMIS

Hervé Ladsous: Our observers move around and they go to different places. Sometimes it’s to investigate an explosion or some shelling or some shooting, but sometimes it’s also just to look at the situation and meet with the people. That’s the way they can, little by little, constitute networks of people they know, people who will gradually gain confidence in them, gain a trust, and that’s when you can actually start building a process.

UN News Centre: You have been in this job eight months and have been given one of the biggest UN issues for peacekeeping. How do you feel about this?

Hervé Ladsous: It is a job which is about challenges. There are plenty of others around the planet. This one of course, Syria, is the most acute right now but we should not forget the still very current danger of war between ‘the Sudans,’ we should not forget the very difficult situation in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, well I could multiply the examples. I think that goes with the job and I try to be up for those challenges.

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