INTERVIEW: “I believe that the country is at a very difficult stage of its development… But at the same time, there is hope” – UN envoy for Iraq Ján Kubiš

7 August 2015

It has been six months since Ján Kubiš took up the post of the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). Over that period, the Slovakian national and his team have had to face considerable challenges – much like the country itself.

The Government is struggling to rally support from Iraq’s various political groups and ethnic communities – precisely when, according to the UN envoy, unity is what it needs most to stamp out the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as Daesh, which still occupies a third of the country.  

In addition, the terrorist group’s systematic human rights violations have led to an increase in the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs), whose humanitarian needs are growing every day, even as the attention of international donors is focused on numerous other crises around the world.

The country is a rare example of democracy in the region. The current Government emerged after democratic elections. You can see this in the work done by the Parliament and the political forces represented in it. You can see the vibrant civil society that is there.

Following a recent briefing to the UN Security Council, Mr. Kubiš shared with the UN News Centre his views on the latest developments concerning Iraq, including the need to ensure that some three million IDPs are able to eventually return to their homes, the importance of the international community’s continued support for the fight against ISIL and his faith in the country’s democratic institutions.

UN News Centre: You have been heading the UN mission in Iraq since February 2015. What is your assessment of the country’s current situation?

Ján Kubiš: Well, I believe that the country is at a very difficult stage of its development, in particular since the onslaught of Daesh. It’s a very complex situation, full of various influences, both within the country and in the region. But at the same time, there is hope, there is potential. And that is why I believe that the Iraqi people and Government as well as their supporters from the international community can still successfully stamp out Daesh and achieve a level of development that will contribute to the stability, security and prosperity of the country.

UN News Centre: What is UNAMI doing to help and what challenges does it face?

Ján Kubiš: We, as a mission, are facing many challenges; if anything, because the country itself is facing many challenges. We operate in various areas, including the humanitarian level mainly to support IDPs. The country now registers close to 3.1 million IDPs, and the UN is at the forefront, together with the Government, of the efforts to provide them with assistance. We are also starting to support those IDPs who are returning to their places of origin after these areas are liberated from Daesh. That is a massive task and, unfortunately, an underfunded one. So one part of my work as SRSG is to advocate in favour of, and try to raise financial support for, the Iraqi Government and the UN-led humanitarian efforts to help IDPs and other people in need.

Then, of course, another aspect of the mission has to do with the political “good offices” to raise support for the Government’s programmes, mainly because these programmes contain elements that are important for bolstering political dialogue and leading the country toward a historic national reconciliation. We try to achieve this by being in contact with different political representatives who, along with the country’s people, are supporting the Government, but also with various opposition groups based outside of the country, because we believe that only a comprehensive and holistic effort will eventually bring equality to the country’s various components and minorities.

Ján Kubiš, UN Special Representative for Iraq, discusses the latest developments in the country. Credit: United Nations

Another major area of concern is human rights, with a focus on women’s rights, minorities’ rights and children’s rights. This is an extremely important part of our work. Dedicated members of our team are indeed working and following up on specific human rights issues all over the country, and we also work with the Government and other institutions on this aspect.

We should not forget about long-term objectives for the UN and the country, including economic and social development. So we try to be engaged in these areas as well.

Another element of our work consists in regional outreach as a way to mobilize the neighbouring countries and gain their support for the Government of Iraq and the Iraqi people.

UN News Centre: What are Iraq’s strengths in dealing with its challenges?

Ján Kubiš: I believe that we should not only look at what the situation is in Iraq, but also at the environment. The country is a rare example of democracy in the region. The current Government emerged after democratic elections. You can see this in the work done by the Parliament and the political forces represented in it. You can see the vibrant civil society that is there. You can find different interesting concepts there that should help the country to stay united, to stay together and to work for the future. So this is one of Iraq’s advantages.

A second advantage is that Iraq is full of educated people who are ready to work for the future of the country. And I believe this is a major one. I would add as well that we benefit from the increasing support of the international community, perhaps because of the perception that we can do better in Iraq than in some other regions and areas of the Middle East.

So I believe that the country has advantages. Eventually, what will underpin all of this is also the country’s economic potential. Let’s not forget that while Iraq is short of funding, short of money, short of revenue because of low oil prices, the fight against ISIL and terrorism in general, and the humanitarian crisis, it is potentially a rather wealthy country. So potentially, again, this is an advantage that they can count on.

UN News Centre: What impact does Daesh have on UN efforts in Iraq?

Ján Kubiš: A major one, if you consider that the priority of the international community is to fight this abhorrent manifestation of international terrorism and that the anti-Daesh coalition is actively supporting the Government of Iraq and other components who are joining the fight against Daesh. All of this has triggered a wave of IDPs, which heavily influences the situation in the country and the work of the United Nations. Daesh equals abhorrent violations of human rights and minorities’ rights… ethnic, religious, etc… and this is a major area for us to work on. It threatens the unity of the country and the future stability of the country, the region and even the world.

UN News Centre: What is the international community doing about Daesh, and have there been any signs of fatigue with the Iraq issue?

Ján Kubiš: I would say yes and no. There definitely hasn’t been a sign of fatigue with regards to the fight against this manifestation of international terrorism that is increasingly a global threat. In fact, I believe that we will increasingly see determined and effective actions led by regional and international players against Daesh.

Meanwhile, there are many other world crises, in and outside of the region. There are situations that require a strong engagement from the international community. There are humanitarian catastrophes, not only in Iraq, but also in many other parts of the region and the world. And this means that donors sometimes tend to focus on the emerging crises and, in a way, pay less attention to the older crises that are already there. That’s sometimes called donor fatigue; sometimes it’s simply called prioritization, but it does affect the situation.

That’s why one of our major tasks is to work with the international community and tell them: “Stay on course! Provide support to Iraq!” This is a case that is not only humanitarian – which means it needs compassion.

That’s why one of our major tasks is to work with the international community and tell them: “Stay on course! Provide support to Iraq!” For example, European countries are now struggling in the face of the migrants who are trying to come to the continent. They are talking about addressing this phenomenon at its roots. What would be more efficient than to prevent waves of migration from Iraq and support IDPs that are still willing to stay in the country and go back to their homes? Even if this means giving hundreds of millions of dollars to the country this year and the next.

UN News Centre: Prior to Iraq, you were the UN’s top official in Afghanistan. Are there any similarities between your experience there and what you are doing now in Iraq? And how does your experience in Kabul inform your experiences in Baghdad?

Ján Kubiš: There are many similarities, but I would say that they are more superficial than anything else. I believe that every situation is different and very specific. I try not to just automatically apply the experience learned from a previous situation to a new one, but it is also true that parts of the methodology and approach are applicable. So I’m trying to utilize my experiences from previous conflict situations and put them to good use when dealing with the situation here in Iraq and in the region.

UN News Centre: What adjustments did you have to make, if any, after coming to Iraq?

Ján Kubiš: First of all, as always – family life. But this is normal; this is a non-family mission. Second of all, I’m trying to learn quickly – as quickly as possible – the local realities. I’ve been following the situation in Iraq and the Middle East for the past two, three decades, so I was not completely unprepared for the realities on the ground and had prepared myself before going to Iraq. But it is still a learning curve for me.

UN News Centre: On a more personal note – Tajikistan, Afghanistan and now Iraq – what is it that draws you to work in such difficult and challenging places?

Ján Kubiš: People! Because people, unfortunately, are the ones who pay for the missteps and mistakes, misperceptions and misdeeds of politicians. And they pay for it, unfortunately sometimes, with their own lives and well-being. This is one of the main reasons that always compelled me to help people by getting involved in different conflict situations. Of course, it is much better to do conflict prevention, and during a major part of my life I was busy doing conflict prevention. But if the conflict is already there, then fair enough, let’s at least have some conflict mitigation and then conflict resolution. It is something that is a part of my life. So it is indeed about people.  

UN News Centre: You lived in a fortified compound in Kabul and do the same in Baghdad. Can you tell us what that is like and what one does to take one’s mind off the daily grind of working in such conditions?

Ján Kubiš: For me, it makes almost no difference because I am working long hours so I don’t feel any pressure. It’s more for my colleagues. They – and I as well – need from time to time to maintain some distance between the workplace and the personal sphere. This is very difficult to do in a compound like the one in Bagdad. It creates problems, tensions. So yes, it’s a difficult environment. My recipe is to work, but you cannot do it endlessly. So there must be some other activities and, eventually, the ability for us to visit and be with our families, have a change of environment for several days in a row and then come back to this artificial environment in which we live and work.

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