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Department of Political Affairs

From Syria to the Sahel: UN political chief assesses challenges in Middle East and Africa

Remarks by Jeffrey Feltman, UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs

Media Roundtable hosted by the Better World Campaign

Washington, DC, 15 March 2013 

To the UN Foundation and the Better World Campaign, thank you for hosting this lunch as well as for your constant efforts and those of the United Nations Information Center to promote understanding in Washington and beyond about the work of the United Nations.

Eight months ago, I took up the job of United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs. This is a job with a global focus as well as a different set of tools and constraints than what I was accustomed to in my former career in the US State Department. We are a member state organization with a 193-member board of directors. Of course one of those 193 members, a very important one, is based here in Washington.

As head of the Department of Political Affairs, I am basically overseeing the work of the United Nations in peacemaking and preventive diplomacy, and parts of what we can do to support countries in transition. 

I think everybody is familiar with peacekeepers. There is a certain image to peacekeepers – the blue berets, the blue helmets, armistice and cease-fire arrangements in which the UN is playing a role in keeping the peace and stabilization.

But we have political missions and political tools, as well, and these are somewhat less well understood than the peacekeeping operations. These include the 15 political missions in Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East that fall under the Department of Political Affairs. We also have travelling envoys who are mediating in conflicts, as well as the UN’s electoral assistance.

USG Feltman and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moonSecretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in our first meeting after my swearing-in last July, emphasized the priority he places on mediation and preventive diplomacy. Prevention, in general, is one of his priorities, and that could mean the prevention of childhood diseases, but in the case of my department it means the prevention of conflict or at least the recurrence of conflict. The Secretary-General sees the potential for preventive diplomacy to spare us from costlier fixes to problems and to spare populations from enduring the costs of war. We are working hard to meet the Secretary-General’s expectations on prevention, but we are also dealing with complex and sometimes deeply entrenched conflicts where odds for resolution, I must admit, can be long. 

Let me turn now to specific areas beginning with the one I would describe as my comfort zone, which is the Middle East and North Africa, given the experience I brought from the State Department.

Middle East and North Africa

Two years after the Arab Spring, this process of upheaval and transformation moves forward unevenly across the region. An old order is definitely crumbling but the new one that is emerging may take years to crystallize.

There have been historic transitions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, but there are major fragilities still in all of these places. In Syria, we have a full blown tragedy that is rippling outward in the region. 

In countries that you could once have described as having strong authoritarian states with weak popular legitimacy, you now in some cases have stronger legitimacy but weaker states. And all of these states are struggling to deliver on expectations and to govern inclusively.

We see growing discontent in places over the pace and content of reforms alongside deterioration in security. Without jobs, without growth, there is always the risk of social unrest. 

Despite these difficulties, the old order was not a better one.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been outspoken throughout the past two years to encourage real reforms as opposed to grudging cosmetic changes. 

In Egypt and Tunisia, the UN’s message in the broadest sense has been to stay true to the ideals of the revolutions. We are encouraging dialogue, inclusiveness, non-violence. We are emphasizing the importance of respect for human rights, and women’s rights and participation in decision-making.

In Libya, we have a political mission on the ground to support the transition.   Perhaps the most tangible example I can give is the role we played in helping Libya to organize last year’s historic elections. There is still much to be done, but one should not forget the size of challenges like establishing security, control over borders and weapons proliferation, and building a democratic state after 40 years of dictatorship.

In Yemen, we are also seeing fragile progress. We supported the Gulf countries in brokering the 2011 transition agreement, which I believe is what likely prevented civil war. There are still deep stresses in Yemen, and all parties need to stick to the terms of that agreement. We hope they will focus now on getting the national dialogue off the ground and ensuring its success.

In Iraq, tensions are growing. The UN’s political mission is active in encouraging inclusive dialogue.

Syria’s conflict is now entering its third year and our worst fears are coming true. 

The toll of the conflict in Syria is horrifying: more than 70,000 dead, 1.1 million refugees and 4 million people inside Syria in need of aid; appalling atrocities by both sides, albeit far more atrocities committed by the government side. 

The risk in the region from spillover is real, and we are particularly concerned about Lebanon, which so far is showing remarkable resilience. 

On the humanitarian side, we are doing out utmost to deliver aid, in both government and opposition-held areas. This is not easy. In the end, however, humanitarian action does not really solve the problem. There must be a political process leading to a transition in Syria. If there is such a thing as military victory in Syria, in our view it would be far too costly. 

The UN and League of Arab States’ Joint Special Representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, is doing everything in his power to try to bring about a political process, based on the Geneva Communiqué of last year. But he needs leverage behind his efforts. The Security Council’s inability to come together represents what I would describe as a major failure of the international community.

We have seen positive indicators recently about dialogue, following the statement of opposition leader Moaz Al-Khatib and the reactions of the Syrian government. We want to see these openings explored to the maximum.

As we have said, the United Nations is prepared to host and facilitate a dialogue between a strong and representative delegation from the opposition and a credible and empowered delegation from the Syrian Government. 

The end goal in Syria must be a clean break from the past. There must be a transition to a democratic Syria in which the rights of all communities are protected. There is no reason why tens of thousand more Syrians have to die before that happens.  


On Israeli-Palestine, throughout the past year we have been expressing serious concern that the window for a two-state solution was closing. Amid a region in flux, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot and will not stand still.

Think about November of last year when we saw the volatility with the latest upsurge in fighting regarding Gaza. There is real frustration with the lack of political progress, which I think was evidenced in the vote on Palestine in the UN General Assembly. Yet there is no substitute for negotiations to achieve the needed two-state solution.

Right now we see a new opportunity to try to push again seriously toward a final status agreement.

We strongly encourage US engagement. The United States undoubtedly has a critical role to play – the critical role to play, in fact -- and the visit of President Obama next week is a hopeful signal. A revitalized Quartet and key Arab states should be engaged.

Even with strong international support and a push from the United States and others, both the Israelis and the Palestinians need to engage constructively with any new initiatives and refrain from actions that erode trust. For Israel, this means a stop to settlement activity in contravention of international law. At the same time, the Palestinians need to understand that Israel’s legitimate security concerns must be addressed and there should be an end to the inflammatory rhetoric from Gaza.  

We at the United Nations and the Secretariat are prepared to support any credible initiative. A serious push for peace will require enormous political will from each side, as well as a meaningful framework, a timeframe, and a good package of confidence building measures. It is important that the ground is laid carefully.


I would like to say a few words on what for me is a new portfolio since my transition to the United Nations, and that is Africa.

We have a wide range of concerns in Africa. I was recently at the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, for discussions with governments and our regional partners on issues that ranged from Somalia to the Great Lakes, Guinea Bissau and Mali.  

I visited Kenya, ahead of the elections, which have to our relief have proceeded peacefully to this point.

The two issues highest on my agenda regarding Africa have been Mali and Somalia. 

UN political chief Jeffrey Feltman and EU High Representative Catherine Ashton at a meeting on Mali, February 2013 in BrusselsMali, until relatively recently, was considered a bulwark of democracy in West Africa. Obviously, as we can see in hindsight, there were deep problems below the surface, linked to broader fragilities across the Sahel band.  The United Nations fully shares the view that there needs to be a full restoration of Mali’s democracy and its territory, and we have strongly backed the military actions that have been taken, first by France, and then African countries, to reverse the push by armed groups in the north. 

Our own role in Mali has had to adjust to the rapidly changing circumstances on the ground.  We deployed quickly in late-January a political office to Bamako to make available advice and expertise on aspects such as mediation, reconciliation, elections and human rights. 

I think it is inevitable, based on my conversations with members of the Security Council, that the Council will authorize a UN peacekeeping operation for Mali. A UN assessment team led by our peacekeeping department is in Mali this week to look closely at the situation and make recommendation to the Security Council about what the Council might wish to authorize. It is obviously important to have a clear assessment of the terrain and the challenges a UN operation would face.

But while military stabilization is crucial, it will be equally important to keep concentrating on the political track because without political progress the security gains will not be sustainable.

We should not forget that there were political issues beneath the coup d’état and the collapse in the North and therefore a political process is needed to end the crisis and address the root causes of the conflict and instability in Mali: the longstanding situation of the Tuareg and other minorities, the democratic reform of the security forces and reconciliation. 

One of the challenges is making sure that security gains don’t take the pressure off the establishment in Mali to address these cleavages in society

There is a Roadmap, established by the Malians, for transition to full constitutional order, including the holding of elections. 

We welcome the establishment of the National Commission for Dialogue and Reconciliation. We believe opportunities should be explored to pursue negotiations with groups who do not have ties to terrorists.  We are looking with Mali’s government at what type of support we can give to a national reconciliation process.

Elections are essential to establish constitutional order and the legitimacy of the government, and there, too, the UN can provide support of the kind we have provided in Libya and elsewhere. It is important that each step is carried out in an inclusive way so that the process unites Malians rather than creating new resentments and new divides. 

Mr. Feltman arrives in SomaliaI will conclude on Somalia, which I had the opportunity to visit in January. Somalia still has a hard-to- shake reputation as a failed state, yet Somalia is experiencing some truly hopeful progress for the first time in many years.  I could see this in Mogadishu, which is undergoing a type of construction boom and even a renaissance of sorts. And I could really feel the enthusiasm of the leadership which came into place last year after concluding most representative political process in many years in Somalia.

The security improvements are substantial, thanks to the sacrifices of the African peacekeepers alongside Somalia forces, and thanks to their success in pushing the Shabaab out of Mogadishu and other areas. 

I would not want to underestimate the challenges still present in Somalia.  State institutions in many cases lack the capacity to deliver on even the most basic social services. Security remains fragile, and the Government has a lot of work to do in reaching out to all groups and all regions of Somalia. The government is seeking support particularly in security, judicial reform and public financial management as immediate priorities. 

Somali Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shiridon and USG Jeffrey Feltman during a press conference in Mogadishu, January 2013Human rights remain a critical issue needing attention.  I just had a conversation with the Prime Minister and the President of Somalia a few days ago that included a discussion on human rights.  But we believe Somalis do have before them the best opportunity in a generation to rebuild their country and offer a better future.  And we in the United Nations, and in the Department of Political Affairs, are preparing an entirely new political mission to be established in Mogadishu, under the authority of the Security Council, to help nurture these new directions, while ensuring that Somalis to play the key role.

Thank you.