In November, Oscar Fernández-Taranco took the helm at the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO), after four years as an Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs. With more than 30 years of experience in the United Nations System, Mr. Fernández-Taranco worked both at Headquarters and in the field, managing development, political, peacebuilding, human rights and humanitarian operations in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific and Europe. In this interview, he reflects on the developments within the UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA) during the course of his four-year tenure.
To what extent are the crises we are witnessing today different from those of the past? How has the Department anticipated and evolved in response to the changing demands?
In this past year alone, we have seen crises erupting with a pace and intensity that took us by surprise: Mali, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the list goes on. Our capacity to stop, think and reflect was tested greatly because of the immediacy and multiplicity of these crises, increasing the expectations on the Department, and on each and every staff member within it. In response to this, we have had to pull together our resources, to think across units and geographical silos, drawing upon regional and thematic expertise as required, not least in light of the regional spill-overs of the crises we face. Previously, we would recruit a Special Envoy, we would have a few months to prepare the ground, and hire the necessary support. But those days are now long gone. All the senior staff of the Department, including the USG [Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman], the ASGs and Directors have each had to take on significant mediation roles out of simply necessity, working as closely as possible with our regional counterparts to prepare, and deploy with the speed that the situation requires. It’s been one of the most challenging periods of my time at the Department by far.
What kind of support is the Department of Political Affairs able to offer Special Envoys and Advisors in this demanding context you have described?
Good question. The current context is re-defining what is means to be a Special Envoy, Advisor, and raising the bar in terms of how the Department is expected to support them. In West Africa alone, for example, where we have the intersecting crises of the Sahel, Ebola, extremism in Nigeria, and the drought, plus piracy issues. We have the same small set of people dealing with all of these crises at the same time.
What is the comparative advantage of regional offices and envoys? What role do you expect them to play in the years ahead?
Regional offices form part of an essential, evolving trend driven by the increasing regional dynamics that any one particular conflict can create. We only need to look at the conflicts in Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Iraq and Libya to fully appreciate the regional political, humanitarian and security spill-over impacts of these otherwise “national crises”. This requires a more coherent and predictable response, one we have seen can be offered consistently by our regional offices. Whoever came up with this idea several years ago was clearly a visionary.
Regional offices ensure that even where we don't have a Special Political Mission, that political concerns are addressed, and these "gaps" in our response are not left to fester and get out of control. They also help ensure that where there are multiple missions in a given region, that they are coordinating with one another, with backstopping support from headquarters, co-developing political and security responses with all the necessary actors – including humanitarian and development actors – to anticipate challenges before they become crises.
A key component of the Department’s crisis response system is the Standby Mediation Team of Experts. How has it evolved over the past few years? How do you see this mechanism evolving in the years to come?
The Standby Team is a professional team of mediators with in-depth, expert knowledge on very specific subject areas that we simply do not have in-house. We bring good offices and expertise in political dialogue, but they are able to bring a level of technical knowledge that is irreplaceable. Whether it’s knowledge on ceasefires, power-sharing,
constitutions, the impact of illicit incomes from natural resources exploitation, the Standby team is able to add a level of substance which is essential in the context of the political crises and transitions we are working on. And, of course, they are able to deploy at the same speed that is increasingly being required of us. But it’s evident to me and others within the Department that there are simply not enough of them: we cannot be in a situation where we have waiting periods between the time requests are received and when the team member is available, as these crises evolve with unprecedented speed and destructive impacts. Addressing crises in non-mission setting has put a huge, additional strain on the department in terms of personnel and financial resources, making the need for extra-budgetary funding, or a resolution to the on-going Fourth Committee [Special Political and Decolonization Committee] discussions an absolute imperative.
You had used the term “backstopping” which can be described as support at the UN Headquarters for the work of UN staff in the field through regional desks. Why is this important for Special Political Missions, the Department, and for the UN system?
Backstopping is a dual or “two way” activity; it effectively allows Headquarters to communicate with the field, and vice versa. On the one hand, it is a way of translating what missions are doing in the field on an almost hourly basis into something which can be digested by the Security Council, often at short notice and with an intense regularity. On the other hand, backstopping is the ability to respond to requests from field, a central mechanism which allows field staff access to the resources of Headquarters and to be able to effectively respond to both Member States and contextual demands more efficiently.
Both of these activities include a wide range of support activities, such as assistance with Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) briefings, facilitating the integrated strategic framework which brings together peacekeeping and development actors, and, providing inputs on specific thematic issues, such as counter-terrorism, constitutional reform, etc. It is these inputs, after all, which allow Member States to have to have debates based on substance, which then give rise to mandates which allow us to do our work. It's a constant cycle, and within that cycle – whether it’s on gender, land dispute mechanisms, or rule of law, or any other area where a substantive position needs to be taken by the Secretary-General – it is the expectation that DPA, along with DPKO [Department of Peacekeeping Operations] and DFS [Department of Field Support], will provide significant inputs and/or take the lead.