The United Nations is an organization of States, but its history is also one of expanding cooperation with organizations or sectors directly affected by its work. Among these important stakeholders is civil society. This cooperation is particularly important in places where conflict has frayed or weakened governance. Guinea-Bissau is one such place. In peacebuilding and peacemaking, we often hear of the interactions of government officials with the UN. In the portraits below, Bissau-Guinean community and non-governmental representatives make their voices heard about their experience working with the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS).
UNIOGBIS has long worked closely with civil society actors in the West African country. Currently in a transition phase, the special political mission is scheduled to wind down at the end of 2020. The UN Country Team in Guinea-Bissau, the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will continue to support the country’s efforts to build a sustainable peace. Before UNIOGBIS’ regional offices closed down at the end of 2019, representatives of civil society organizations in São Domingos, northwestern Guinea-Bissau, discussed their cooperation with the UN mission over the years and what its legacy could be.
Binta Cassamá, Organization of Women Peacebuilders
“We did a lot of work in partnership with UNIOGBIS with an emphasis on raising women’s awareness of their rights”, Binta Cassamá, a member of the Organization of Women Peacebuilders in the northern town of São Domingos told Politically Speaking. “It is clear that women are discriminated against in Guinea-Bissau, but UNIOGBIS has always known how to help us minimize this discrimination through training and training for women, especially in aspects related to the promotion of peace and female leadership, which in fact served as tools in resolution of various conflicts in our community,” Cassamá added.
Augustinho Braima Djaura, human rights defender
Augustinho Braima Djaura, a member of a group of human rights defenders in the town, also highlighted the work with UNIOGBIS. “In the past, São Domingos was a total disaster,” he said. “Violation of human rights, abuse of power, forced marriage, abuse of women and children, domestic violence in villages and abuse on the part of police officers who detained people for no reason whatsoever, and released when they chose or whoever paid money. But with the arrival of the UNIOGBIS regional office, the situation began to gradually return to normal, and nowadays, the police that violated human rights are the ones that respect them the most. Obviously, there are still abuses and violations, but at a very low level. Nowadays women feel the courage to complain about violations on the part of their husbands, all of this is thanks to the activities that UNIOGBIS has been doing. As a civil society, we have received various training. Whenever we moved to conflict resolution, we made sure that a field officer from UNIOGBIS accompanied us in order to assist in the mediation process,” Mr. Braima Djaura said.
Walter Alberto Jandi, Guinean League of Human Rights
Walter Alberto Jandi is an activist with the Guinean League of Human Rights and a focal point of the Center for Access to Justice in São Domingos. “We always have a good relationship with the UN, particularly those in the human rights department, who have always facilitated our work, providing us with information and resources,” Mr. Jandi told Politically Speaking. “We have had the opportunity to participate in various training sessions on human rights, organized by UNIOGBIS in different locations. That has allowed us to sit at the same table as members of the national defense forces, who used to view us with bad eyes, especially when we tried to denounce their bad practices. Sitting down like that, we ended up understanding that we must work hand in hand, so that together we can have a country with authorities that respect the fundamental rights of its citizens. Sitting at the same table as the police and military, finding solutions to problems, was previously unthinkable, but thanks to UNIOGBIS, I can now go to the police station or barracks without experiencing any suspicion between us.”
Nicolau Correia, Kasumai community radio
At Kasumai community radio in São Domingos, we met with technical director Nicolau Correia. “Since I started working here, there has been a healthy and positive partnership between our radio station and UNIOGBIS,” Mr. Correia said. “We have received a lot of support, including a motorbike, that has helped us travel around to collect information. After the opening of a regional UNIOGBIS office here in São Domingos, we now have access to more credible information, and have also been able to broadcast programs recorded by the UN, as part of their contract with RENARC, the National Network of Community Radio and Television in Guinea-Bissau.” He also expressed concern about the withdrawal of UNIOGBIS from Guinea-Bissau. “Regarding the withdrawal of the Mission from the country, I think it might be premature. Someone may disagree with me, since the Mission has been in Guinea-Bissau for more than 20 years, but I am trying to relate it to the country’s current socio-political situation. In my view, it would be good to extend the mandate until the country calms down, because it is no secret that Guinea-Bissau is not stable.”
Title picture: Street scene at the bus station in São Domingos, Guinea-Bissau. UN Photo/Eivind Oskarson