Iraqi reconstruction, the fight against ISIL and regional dynamics were among the items on Assistant Secretary-General Miroslav Jenča’s agenda during a visit that took him late last month to Baghdad and Mosul. Ahead of an international conference on Iraqi reconstruction scheduled for 12 to 14 February in Kuwait, we spoke to the Assistant Secretary-General about the trip and how the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), which DPA oversees, work in tandem to support that country.
You’ve just concluded a three-day visit to Iraq. What was the main objective of your trip and did you achieve it?
Miroslav Jenča: This visit to Iraq was very timely for several reasons. Iraq faces challenges, but also enormous opportunities.
First, politically, it was just decided that parliamentary elections will take place on 12 May. The ruling by Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court followed by the decision by Iraq’s Council of Representatives put an end to speculation about the postponement of the elections. The elections will be very important for the future of Iraq. The United Nations has been and will continue to provide electoral assistance.
Not long ago, in December 2017, the Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi declared victory over ISIL, and this victory put an end to a very dark chapter in the history of Iraq. It opened up new opportunities to build on the unity that was achieved in the fight against terrorism, against ISIL, to build a new, prosperous Iraq, where all people, including minorities can live in peace, harmony and dignity.
During my visit, I met not only with political leaders, but also with religious minority leaders, with representatives of Christians, Yazidis and Shabaks, as well as with women representatives. What we see is that conditions need to be created in Iraq for the fair representation of also religious minorities, of women in the future of Iraq, but several representatives of those minorities expressed concerns that their voices might not be heard.
I also met with the Independent High Electoral Commission, where we discussed the UN’s electoral support.
Several representatives, notably Sunni politicians and minority representatives asked for a broader international presence, monitoring and observing the electoral process, including leading up to the elections and also on the election day to ensure that the elections are fair, democratic and transparent. During my meetings with representatives of the international community, diplomatic corps, I appealed to our partners to ensure proper monitoring as requested by Iraqi officials.
A second objective for my visit was our support on reconciliation. Despite the fact that now political discourse is focused on the elections, priority still needs to be given to the reconciliation process. I think that for a peaceful, stable, prosperous Iraq, reconciliation is absolutely necessary. I’ve mentioned the fight against terrorism, against ISIL, there we saw unity of the Iraqi people, which is why it was possible to defeat ISIL. Building on that unity, there is a need to progress in the reconciliation process as well. The United Nations Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) led by Special Representative Ján Kubiš and the UN Country Team are working closely with our partners, with different groups and minorities in Iraq on ensuring an inclusive process of reconciliation.
Third, because it is the time when IDPs, internally displaced persons, and refugees are coming back home. But what do they find? I traveled to Mosul to see how the city looks like and I have to say that I was stunned to see the level of destruction of the city. I visited a former hospital that used to be one of the most modern in Iraq. It was where ISIL established its headquarters and this hospital is practically ruined. In Mosul, I met with UNMAS, the United Nations Mine Action Service, and was informed about their de-mining activities. They have managed to neutralize thousands of different improvised explosive devices (IEDs), other unexploded ordnance and they continue to help local people by ensuring that they can return safely. In Mosul, the UN Development Programme’s projects focus on helping people to start their lives once more. It is providing them with means for electricity, re-establishing connections, water supply – things that are absolutely necessary for daily life.
I have to say that I was encouraged by seeing people coming back home, by businesses being re-opened. It was really very emotional and impressive to see buildings with upper floors bombed, destroyed, where on the ground floors small businesses were working already. Mosul is a very famous city with its history of tolerance, diversity, culture and trade. The small shops were already buzzing with activity, people buying and selling stuff. I went there to show solidarity and also to assure the people of Mosul of the continued support by the United Nations.
An international conference on Iraqi reconstruction is being prepared to take place in Kuwait from 12 to 14 February, and I appealed to the international community, to partners, International Financial Institutions (IFIs), to participate actively, and to provide the necessary support to Iraq. I think this is not primarily about money, it is not a pledging conference, what is needed here is to provide support for the reconstruction, economic reforms to attract private investors, private banks, and those who can really help, including of course with resources, with funds, but at the same time more importantly to show confidence in the future of Iraq, in the future of the Iraqi people.
Last but not least, I also discussed relations between Baghdad and Erbil with the political leadership in Baghdad and expressed support and readiness to provide the UN’s good offices. I was encouraged by the news that Prime Minister Abadi, just before my arrival, held talks with the delegation of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, and they are addressing the issues that are high on the agenda regarding the future of living together in one state in line with the Iraqi constitution. Those talks were held directly between the parties. I think it is of course the best when the parties themselves can achieve understanding, agreements and implement them – it benefits all when there is ownership and commitment by those making and implementing the agreements.
As Assistant Secretary-General in DPA you oversee the Department’s work in the Middle East. How do you describe the way you interact with UNAMI and generally with the special political missions in the region?
We work very closely with the heads of our special political missions and their teams, and I would say that they are in the lead. Our role at headquarters is to support them in their work through letting them know about the relevant discussions and the work in New York, by ensuring that the Secretary-General is kept informed of key developments, that their analysis and recommendations reach him to help him take decisions and by providing cross regional analysis and the technical expertise notably from our Policy and Mediation and Electoral Assistance Divisions. I mentioned in the case of Iraq, electoral assistance and good offices in particular. Our regional divisions are directly in touch with the special political missions to support them, and to ensure that, for example briefings to the Security Council by Special Representatives go smoothly, and that we can actually achieve the objectives and implement the mandates that those special political missions have.
I consider special political missions our best assets because they are on the ground, they feel the temperature, they are in touch with the government, with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), with different political leaders, civil society. It’s our special political missions that carry out and are the embodiment of the UN’s good offices on the ground with the parties.
Special political missions based in countries, like UNAMI, one of the biggest special political missions, don’t work alone; there is a very important role for the UN Country Team. In this case the UN Country Team is led by Deputy SRSG Lise Grande and heads of many agencies, funds and programmes. A very important role of UNAMI is also to work together as one UN across the pillars (Peace and Security, Human Rights, Development) in the country. And I think that UNAMI is an example of a UN presence that manages to work together and deliver in very challenging circumstances.
Let me mention here also another type of special political mission: our regional political offices. The Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia, for example, is the regional office dealing with preventive action exclusively. Its location being very close to Afghanistan, to the Middle East, means that it can analyse and work to address negative developments relevant to the region, for example, activities of terrorists, many of whom are from Central Asia, or the post-Soviet space. It can also identify opportunities to address these challenges regionally and also increase regional cooperation in areas like infrastructure, trade, etc. So the work of this regional centre is very important if you also look at it from the point of view of close cooperation with UN presences in the region, such as UNAMA in Afghanistan. It just underlines the importance of regional cooperation.
When you travel in the different regions we work in, do you see common challenges the UN faces? What is needed to overcome these challenges?
Of course, there are common challenges. One such challenge, evidence of which I could so deeply feel during my visit in Iraq, is the fight against terrorism and violent extremism. We are working very closely with the newly established Office of Counter-Terrorism and Under-Secretary-General Voronkov, who’s leading the office. It is a global challenge that requires a global approach, so it is not surprising that practically all special political missions deal with it in one way or another.
More generally, we talk a lot about prevention and sometimes the value of the word “prevention” is diminished because what we need is to think concretely about the activities and actions we really need to take in order to make prevention work. To do more in preventive diplomacy, in preventing conflicts, and also ensure that Member States help us deliver. We need our greatest asset - our people both in the field and at Headquarters - to be well prepared, well equipped and well resourced. We need not only support in words, but also in deeds, notably in predictable funding for prevention. This must go hand in hand with accountability, we must prove that we can deliver, that we use Member States’ money well. If we look at the conflicts in the Middle East, in other regions, we should always ask ourselves: Are they preventable? Can we do more, try harder? But we cannot act alone. This is work that needs partnerships: with Member States, with regional organizations, with NGOs, civil society and here still, I think, there is a lot more that we can do. And from that perspective, that’s also where our presences on the ground need more support to achieve this goal.
Top photo: From left to right: UN Special Representative for Iraq Ján Kubiš, Assistant Secretary-General Miroslav Jenča, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Photo: Courtesy of the Office of the Prime Minister of Iraq