Interview with Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Representative for Iraq

Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq, Staffan de Mistura

2 February 2009 – Staffan de Mistura has been Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative for Iraq since September 2007, heading up the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). For the past six months, UNAMI has been intensively helping Iraqis prepare for the provincial elections that were held this past week, along with laying the groundwork for a resolution to disputed internal boundaries, supporting national development strategies and facilitating Iraq’s partnership with the international community and its neighbors. Mr. de Mistura also served as Deputy Special Representative for Iraq from January 2005 to April 2006, and, for his prior three decades with the UN, worked in a raft of conflict-ridden areas around the world.

UN News Centre: Can you tell us what first led you to work with the UN?

Staffan de Mistura: I started when I was 23. So we’re talking about a few years ago – I’ve been with the UN 36 years. My main field of involvement has always been in conflict environments. Bosnia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Rwanda, Iraq – four times. And Northern Iraq, Southern Iraq, Kosovo, Lebanon, more recently. Also Viet Nam, Cambodia…so that’s been my life. And the UN has been my life.

UN News Centre: As a student, were you already interested in working in conflict environments with the UN?

Staffan de Mistura: Well,The good news is that the Iraqis are competing electorally and politically. They are going from bullets to ballots. I appeared after my parents had gone through the Second World War – they were therefore shocked and dismayed by the results of that war. So the influence was very strong there. And the fact that I had dual nationalities, Swedish and Italian, helped me to see what the results of being neutral were, as well as being involved in a war and going through reconstruction.

But what really made a difference to me was a trip as a volunteer accompanying a World Food Programme (WFP) official in Cyprus in the late Sixties. I was just a young student, but on that occasion, as a young volunteer just carrying his backpack, I saw in front of my eyes, for the first time in my life, someone die. It was a young kid, killed by a sniper. It was on the Green Line, the line separating the two groups, the two entities. I could not understand why a young boy, a civilian, should be the victim of a conflict between two different ideas or two different political convictions. It produced in me a very strong level of calm outrage that then convinced me I would like to dedicate my life to make it difficult for war to take place and to affect civilians.

That was the main motivation for me to join the UN. And the second one was, like many in my generation, my level of admiration for Dag Hammarskjöld [Secretary-General from 1953 to 1961, who died in a plane crash on route to negotiations that aimed to quell civil strife in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo].

UN News Centre: Which of your earlier postings gave you the most valuable preparation for the challenges you now face in Iraq?

Staffan de Mistura: Well, every posting had its own influence. What certainly did have an impact on me was the period in Somalia during the worst time, 1991, the siege of Sarajevo, the siege of Dubrovnik, the first period in Kosovo, the airdrops of food aid in Sudan, the hunger in Ethiopia in 1984 – each of them had an impact on my professional and emotional life and at the same time it taught me how we could try to improve in order to make sure that we could get the best out of the UN wherever we were. It’s obviously not always easy because circumstances change from conflict to conflict and country to country.

UN News Centre: Can you tell us a bit about what Iraq was like when you were there as Humanitarian Coordinator briefly before the war?

Staffan de Mistura: First of all, there was a humanitarian crisis, whereas now it is much less evident. People are sometimes poor, but they’re not in a humanitarian crisis. Secondly, they were under dictatorship. That, combined with terror and fear plus humanitarian difficulties, linked also to the sanctions and to the many wars they were getting involved in, was very difficult for the Iraqis.

What I always noticed, at that time and even now, was that the Iraqi people have a unique resilience. They believe in their country; they are very, very creative intellectually. The engineers and doctors were the best in the Middle East. They’re able to rebuild their bridges.

The challenge this time was not to build bridges but to build bridges between them. That has been the biggest challenge this time – political dialogue, and overcoming the key factor, the trust, or lack of trust between the various communities. But I think finally now, we’re getting into at least a process where they have learned to discuss their differences. And – even if some of them don’t trust each other – to move forward, which is the basis of a unified future.

UN News Centre: Can you remember some of your feelings when you first came back after the 2003 war?

Staffan de Mistura: It was the feeling of people who don’t deserve to go from war to war and then another almost civil war, and people who had a huge level of dignity and pride in their 4,000 years of tradition and history and at the same time were not controlling their future. Saddam used to decide what they wanted. And after 2003 they had to rebuild their future, but divisions were very strong among them. So that type of feeling. A mixed feeling, but always a feeling of hope that they would overcome.

If you think about it, they are lucky in spite of all the tragedies. They are rich in oil and rich in water and rich in people. They have all the ingredients for a great future, provided that they choose the right road.

UN News Centre: How do you see the UN role evolving since then and into the future?

Staffan de Mistura: The UN role has changed a lot since my arrival, not because of me, but because of three factors. The first one was that Security Council resolution 1770 provided to the UN a very proactive opportunity of covering many fields. The second one was that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has definitely been supportive in facilitating a “can be done,” active approach. And the third one was that we were able to identify, instead of covering all areas, three or four areas, and focus on those, linking them to an “every crisis is an opportunity” concept. [The areas of focus include] the need to move forward on the issue of refugees. And the question about Kirkuk ¬– how to avoid and defuse this ticking bomb. Also, how to be effective in making a difference on the stepping stones for democracy, which are the elections.

UN News Centre: What were the activities of UNAMI staff, and you yourself, as the elections actually began?

Staffan de Mistura: We are heavily involved. More than 20 colleagues, UN experts, were assisting the Independent Electoral Commission in all the aspects – logistic, strategic, organization, coordination, for the preparation of this election. These elections are crucial in Iraq, for three reasons:

First, they are the elections that are taking place in January 2009, which means just one month after the Iraqis have re-obtained their own sovereignty [with the expiration of the UN authorization for the Multi-National Force, which was succeeded by an agreement signed between that Force and the Iraqi Government].

Second, in these elections they are for the first time able to vote on an open basis, i.e. identify the people they feel should be elected in the provincial councils. And Sunnis this time will be voting, whereas in the past they did not vote in a large number.

Last, these are about real power, in the sense that they are going to nominate the people who are on the ground, in the various district councils, and will be deciding on electricity, water, budget, jobs.

So, all in all, an important test. And we have now been working with the Iraqis preparing this for the last six months.

UN News Centre: How has the UN role in the elections evolved since the last one, and how has it evolved in the past few months?

Staffan de Mistura: Well, it’s changed because this is the first election that the Iraqis are doing by themselves with the UN, and not in different circumstances. The Electoral Commission members have been selected by the Iraqis themselves and we are assisting them and holding their hand, but it is their hand that goes forward.

Until six months ago, we had no idea whether the elections would actually take place. We had to be, therefore, supportive of formulas that could be identified for an electoral law. And then the electoral law needed to go through without having any additional complications, such as the one in Kirkuk. We had to separate, together with the Iraqis, the elections in Kirkuk from the national elections. Then there was the moment when the issue about minorities also became a major problem and a solution had to be found for that too.

What I am saying is, it hasn’t been easy, but it’s been steady and the Iraqis have always found at the end of the day a good solution. We’ve been assisting them, but it’s their success.

UN News Centre: How have your concerns about the elections changed in the past few months. Has there been less or more violence? Has it been different from what you’d thought it would be?

Staffan de Mistura: Well, the violence has been certainly diminishing, and so far we have been having three cases of attacks and killing of candidates, out of 14,467 candidates. It’s been sad and been awful, but it’s not been devastating like it has been in the past. In other words, the Iraqis have shown they can manage and control their situation, even in a tense environment like an electoral one.

Second, we are talking about now 14 million people being given the chance to vote. The organization, the logistics, the polling stations – 42,000 of them – have all been set up without any major problems. [There was] one case this week when one polling station was burned. We’re talking about 42,000 polling stations.

So the situation has definitely improved. It doesn’t mean that we are not going to have violence, during or after the elections. But I feel the people want to go and vote and that the Iraqi army and security is more and more assertive in the country in terms of controlling the security environment.

UN News Centre: So there has not been a build-up of violence, there have only been isolated incidents?

SRSG Staffan de MISTURA with the Iraqi Security Force guarding a polling facility.

Staffan de Mistura: That’s correct. There have been incidents and those who are trying to do them are looking for spectacular opportunities, but not massive ones – or they’re unable to do so, so far.

UN News Centre: What efforts are being made to get internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees involved in the election?

Staffan de Mistura: In these elections the refugees are not voting. They don’t vote in provincial elections, according to the national rules. As for the IDPs, there have been various arrangements to accommodate the possibility for them to vote wherever they are, and their votes would then be cast and valid in the places where they used to be. A good number of them were able to register in order to take advantage of this opportunity.

UN News Centre: How do you see this election process as pushing forward the reconciliation process and other important challenges that have to be overcome in Iraq?

Staffan de Mistura: Well, the good news is that the Iraqis are competing electorally. They are competing politically. They are competing with posters, with campaigns, with slogans, with a door-to-door campaign. They are going from bullets to ballots. And in that sense, it does help dialogue, because whatever the results, there will have to be compromises, alliances and so on. And that’s exactly what politics is.

UN News Centre: How is the drawdown of US troops going to affect the UN role?

Staffan de Mistura: Well, it depends on the Iraqis. They are going to now tell us what they need and where they need our assistance. They are a sovereign country and we will adjust, bearing in mind they are a rich country with a lot of resources and therefore probably the type of assistance they will ask for is more qualitative than quantitative, capacity-building, for instance.

UN News Centre: What do you think is a realistic best-case scenario for Iraq in the next five years?

Staffan de Mistura: I would not speculate. I could only tell you my hope – that Iraq will be finally what it always deserved to be: a much respected country in the region, a peaceful country, and will finally enjoy and share its wealth.

UN News Centre: What kind of physical progress has been made through the Madrid Conference and other international reconstruction assistance?

Staffan de Mistura: Well, a lot of projects have taken place and a lot were not able to take place due to the security problem, and therefore sometimes we made one step forward and two backwards. But at the moment, I can see that the challenge for the Government, and therefore for its reconstruction of the country, is basic services. That’s what the Iraqis ask for. Once the security improves, every human being – and the Iraqis are not different – will start asking for their basic services: water, sanitation, employment.

Now, the elections in this sense are very important, because they are aware, also, that this time they can make those whom they elect accountable to the people. Therefore, I suspect that there will be, and there is – as you can see already – a lot of interest in this election.

Following Saturday’s poll, SRSG de Mistura issued the following statement:

While we are still waiting for the official announcement of the provisional results by the Independent High Electoral Commission in Iraq (IHEC), the United Nations is satisfied that the elections were conducted smoothly both procedurally and in terms of security and mark another important step in Iraq’s recovery. 84,000 Iraqi observers and 420,000 party agents along with around 400 international observers were deployed in 6,471 polling centers (41,495 polling stations) to ensure transparency of the electoral process.

The United Nations was present in all fourteen governorates and I myself visited polling centers in Anbar, Najaf and Baghdad. I was very pleased to see Iraqis from all communities exercising their right to vote, particularly Iraq women who turned out in large numbers.

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