Back from Afghanistan, UN security chief highlights future challenges

Acting Head of the UN Department of Security and Safety Kevin Kennedy. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

5 August 2013 – The United Nations has greatly improved the security provided to staff serving in the field despite ongoing dangers and risks in dozens of countries, the acting UN security chief said on his return from Afghanistan, which next year will hold a presidential election and see national troops assume full security responsibilities from international military forces.

“I came back with the message with which we left some of the Afghan authorities, that the UN is there to stay,” the Acting Head of the Department of Security and Safety, Kevin Kennedy, told UN Radio following his trip, which also included a stop in Pakistan.

“When you see a donkey in many countries, the last thing you expect is that this donkey is going to explode,” Mr. Kennedy said, citing one of the unexpected dangers in Afghanistan, where bicycle improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are also used.

At the operational level, the greatest threat to the UN, however, is against staff in their residences and offices, he noted. The wider UN system was attacked in Kabul in May when the compound of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a UN partner organization, was targeted, resulting in the death of one international staff member and the wounding of several others.

“The measures that were taken to improve the security in the compound – safe rooms, early warning systems – reduced the loss of life that could have happened,” Mr. Kennedy said. The professionalism of a UN-trained Afghan force that responds to safety concerns from the UN and other international organizations, and a UN-hired private security company, also played a role.

In addition to taking physical measures to mitigate risks, the UN is making a more concerted effort to be accepted by local communities by having residents understand why the UN is in their country and what it is about.

“It’s difficult in environments like Afghanistan, where to preserve life, to look after your staff, you do have to live in buildings, in compounds, that are very, very secure. They’re not really welcoming necessarily to people walking in and out,” Mr. Kennedy noted, adding that the UN is trying to balance security needs for staff and security guards, with being open and available to the people of the country.

“Security is not reaching a certain level of preparedness and maintaining a status quo, it’s constantly questioning and innovating,” he added.

Mr. Kennedy’s trip to Afghanistan comes as the Government and its partners, including the UN Assistance Mission in the country (UNAMA), is preparing for the presidential election scheduled for April 2014, and the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) at the end of next year.

“Both will impact the UN staff in the country,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Traditionally, in the past, elections have always witnessed an upsurge in security incidents.”

During his visit last week to Kabul and the provinces of Gardez, Herat and Kandahar, Mr. Kennedy met with the Minister of Defence, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, the Minister of Interior, General Ghulam Mujtaba Patang, and the heads of the Afghan National Police and the Afghan police who look after UN compounds.

The Afghan officials have been “reasonably optimistic” that they can handle the challenges of the future and are clearly committed to enabling the UN to stay, Mr. Kennedy added.

The UN’s security philosophy has changed in the past five years to be more focused on how to “stay and deliver,” as opposed to the previous approach where the Organization would temporarily relocate staff, particularly international staff members, when a security situation deteriorated.

“It’s not this reckless ‘we’re going to do it regardless of what the security conditions are’, but it’s a very carefully analyzed threat, the risk to UN staff and operations, and also, how to mitigate those risks so the programme, whether humanitarian or political, can continue,” Mr. Kennedy explained.

He noted also the importance of a commitment to national UN staff working in support of their home countries who often, by virtue of their association with the world body, are targeted.

It is difficult, he added, for managers and team leaders to look after their staff when they have been relocated. “It’s hard to look after people when you’re not on the ground with them, not sharing what they’re sharing and not facing the same dangers and the same concerns.”


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