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     Volume 9 Issue 5 | January 29, 2010|

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Facing Challenges in War-torn

Ameerah Haq


Rezaul Karim and M Abul Kalam Azad

Ameerah Haq, who was appointed Under-Secretary General of the United Nations (UN) in December 2009, is the highest-ranking Bangladeshi official at the UN. She is also the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Timor-Leste and Head of the United Nations Integrated Mission in East Timor (UNMIT).

For more than three decades, she has held a range of senior positions in UN. Her recent appointments include Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sudan and the United Nations Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan from 2007 to 2009, and Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan and as the United Nations Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan from 2004 to 2007.

Prior to her mission appointment, she served at UNDP as Deputy Assistant Administrator and Deputy Director of the Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery in New York. She was the United Nations Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Malaysia between 1994 and 1997 and in the same capacity in Laos from 1991 to 1994.

In an interview with The Daily Star, she tells the story of how she got the UN job and her experiences at the UN system. Rezaul Karim and M Abul Kalam Azad took the interview at The Daily Star office.

Tell us in briefly how you joined the UN.
It just happened by chance. Coming to the end of studies, different companies and organisations come to the universities to interview graduates. I saw the sign that the UN is going to interview. I signed up for interview as I was interested doing international development works. I was offered a job and my first assignment was in Jakarta. So I joined the UN in 1976. After two years, I was transferred to Afghanistan.

How was your experience in Afghanistan?
I was in Afghanistan at a time when Russians came in. It was the New Year's Eve and we were at a hotel on top of a hill. All of a sudden, we heard horrendous noise. We thought it was part of the New Year's celebration. Actually rockets were being fired, not fireworks. I could still remember the image vividly that looked like starfish. But we didn't know what it really was. We all were asked to stay inside the hotel. The next morning, we saw the tanks lined up and curious Afghan children were looking at the tanks and the Russian soldiers.

I left Afghanistan in the middle of 1980 for UN headquarters where I worked for the next 10 years. I was then appointed as Resident Representative and went to Laos. Up to that point, they had not had an Asian woman in UNDP as Resident Representative.

What was it like working for the UNDP in Afghanistan?
At that time UNDP had a new administrator who asked me to be the part of his transition team. I worked with him for about six months and found it very interesting. He was thinking that the countries in crisis were growing. We used to have debates on what UNDP can do in this regard. We discussed a lot about the humanitarian agencies that were doing very good job in post-conflict situation. They responded to the refugees returning or internally displaced going back homes. They provided the basic shelter and everything else. But what we felt that there was a gap in it. We also talked about assisting a fledgling nation or a nation that has been devastated by wars to start with basic foundation and what they required for early recovery. Sometimes countries are not in position even to meet the pay roll of their civil servants and is there something that a UN agency can do anything in this regard. I worked for six months on this kind of things and then I was appointed Deputy Director of the newly set up 'Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery.'

In Afghanistan one of the first things that we set up was introducing payment for civil servants in January 2002. We carried individual payment with UN planes and delivered those in every single province. For six months, the civil servants were paid on the first day of each month as because the treasury of Afghanistan was empty. Then we started youth employment programmes. There were so much rubble in Kabul and others major cities. Youths were engaged in collection of the rubble for $3 dollar per day. In addition, we brought photocopiers and telephones in planes…we delivered those in every ministries vital for the government to get established. I had been doing that staying at headquarters. But in 2004 I was asked to go to Afghanistan. At that time, I was Assistant-Secretary-General and became the deputy head of the mission. I did it for three years and then I was assigned to do the same in Sudan.

For the last 10 years the UN was involved in the rebuilding process. But now what will be your assignment in Eat Timor?
The main part of my assignment is to look at the security institution. Army is now under the control of the national authority, but not the police. Police are still being run by UN. Part of my role will be to gradually hand over police to the national authority. We will be doing that through a process of what we call certification. Before that, district-by-district we will be seeing whether there are sufficient trained people, logistic and equipment. Secondly, my role is to implement the Security Council mandate for East Timor, the mandate is to restore security to use the political good offices between the opposition and the government and to make sure that they use the fora of democracy.

The third is socio-economic development. Timor is an oil-producing nation and Australia is helping to extract and there was tension with Australia in terms of who got what part of the oil. A Norwegian model is being followed to set an oil fund as East Timor is not able to use its actual resources. It is a very good system. My predecessor in East Timor convinced the government to use this approach. The East Timor now uses the interest accumulation on the oil reserve fund for its public expenditure.

Let's come to Afghanistan, you were there when Soviets came and then you were there again in 2004. Tell us what you had seen in Afghanistan, what you or the UN had done over there.

I went at a time in 2004 when still there was sense of euphoria in that country. Because there was a notion that the Taliban were nowhere near. In the meantime, an interim government was there for two years till holding of election. We had the election end of 2004 where Hamid Karzai, who was heading the interim administration, won with a resounding mandate of 67 per cent votes. We helped run the election. The election day we moved one polling centre to another and I still remember people were quiet and waiting in a long line to cast their votes for the first time. It was something like a transforming moment for the country. There was euphoria and a lot of hope. The UN did not have troops. There were troops from NATO and then there was US special operations. We were in interactions with all to bring in all the different factions under the same platform and demobilize the solders. In many discussions, there were the ideas that Taliban forces are gone. But few things were happening there one of which was poppy cultivation. Under the Taliban time, poppy had been completed eradicated, at the supply line was cut. On the other hand, Taliban were slowly infiltrating in many areas. But none of us sat around the table and strategized about these things.

One of the critical elements was how quickly you can settle disputes, particularly of refugees who are coming back and then they see their land and properties captured. How quickly you can adjudicate on those kinds of things was crucial. Taliban were very good in this regard, they set up courts and were meeting out justice. On the other hand, the State took long time to set up institution, legal frameworks and training prosecutors. Meantime, in many villages and other areas the Taliban are setting up courts and people are going there and getting their issues resolved. People started thinking that someone else, not the state is doing for them and they were getting result. There was also propaganda for negating State authorities and that in a very subtle way to establish Taliban supremacy. They also established a very good base on borders of Pakistan. None of us put all these things together.

So, what were the steps you were taking?
We were working with the Karzai government. There were signs of corruption and few other actions that indicated things were not going well. There was an over-confidence that the Taliban had vanished while distance between the grass roots and the state was growing. The warlords had been sidelined and Karzai was somehow convinced not to have them in his cabinet. During that time, it was the combination of corruption and increased poppy production as well as inability of the state to legitimize itself as the provider of services. My personal opinion was not to sideline Taliban but to bring them to the table. I think the more inclusive you are perhaps it helps find to get moderate approach or discourse by having people in the table, and influencing them in that way where you can have a modern or a better position. People were thinking about Taliban's sidelining and were in belief that situation would have been better had some of them given portfolios.

Does that mean that the UN was really a second player in Afghanistan?
Yes it is. Our role was supportive. We were engaged in a demobilization programme. I remember in one meeting, the governor of Kandahar province said, “You the UN asked us to demobilize everybody and we did it. But now we have noone to defend us.”

In 2006 when you were leaving Afghanistan what was your feeling?
My feeling was that in the psyche of the Afghan people there was a huge downward spiral. People had lost hope and there was very little confidence. I think the very people whom they saw as liberators from Taliban had somehow turned out to be occupiers. There was a mentality that they were foreigners and running the country and the Afghans had no control of it. People were saying that still there was no light in Kabul. The electricity could not be provided in Kabul even in seven years.

Do you think one of the fundamental reasons is that by 2006 the people understood that all these are not for an independent Afghanistan? Do you think at the end of the day, Afghans are either puppets of the Taliban or the west?
Right now there is a tremendous kind of feeling among Afghans about which one is better--Taliban or the foreign troops. It was interesting to see how within the period of three years a state of euphoria turned to a total loss of confidence, loss of morale and that is the sad thing.

Tell us something about your Khartoum mission. What was actually the problem of Sudan?
Sudan has a very complex composition. It has Darfur, the western Sudan and then in the middle three areas called three protocol areas. Also there are the south Sudan, east Sudan and then north Sudan. The three protocol areas are oil rich. North and South have had the longest running civil war in African history for over 50 years. Different religious and ethnic groups live in Sudan, surrounded by nine nations. There are the Christians, Animists and the Africans. In North Sudan, there are the dark-skinned Arabs who are not the same as the Egyptian or the Gulf states. Sudan has somehow been regarded as an understated nation in the rest of the Arab region. In Darfur there are African Muslims while Nubians, live in the oil rich regions. It has north and south under the peace agreement which they signed in 2002, they agreed that Sudan would be of one government of national unity with two systems, and the south there would be the government of South Sudan and the government of Sudan. In South Sudan, there is a president, a vice-president and legislation. There is also legislation of the government of Sudan. President al-Bashir is the president of the government of national unity government while president of South Sudan is the first vice-president. When they agreed to the peace deal, Darfur also demanded a vice-president. They began agitation and blew up some planes of North Sudan at the airport. The conflict gripped Darfur when the Sudan Liberation Army and Justice and Equality Movement in Darfur took up arms, accusing the government of depriving Darfur. The government unleashed attacks on them using the army. They also used a strategy using the Janjaweed, comprising nomadic Arabic-speaking African tribes, against them.

As the Under-Secretary General what do you see as the major challenges in the UN?
Globally speaking the UN as a vehicle of solving problems is getting more difficult. With the polarisation of the world, I think the UN is seen as the western tool and not understanding. The perception is that in the political arena, the operation is getting more and more difficult. Particularly, the UN still provides its convening power around issues that affect us all like the Copenhagen climate change summit which are neutral. The kind of things the UN does outside the political arena are absolutely in valuable. The point to make that the UN can only bring the nations around the table in the end it is how the member nations go. That's the role of the UN.

What about UN reform?
Basically the UN has remained the same as it was. As much as people have tried with the reform to get Japan, India, Brazil and others, they are not making any headway. You can say many attempts toward reforms have not really resulted in structural changes. I think there are non-structural changes in the areas of environment, women issues and many other things.

I think the UN has moved forward and continue moving to get the popular voice into the decision. Whether there are major conferences on major issues, there is always an alternative civil society forum that is able to influence. The UN has been able to incorporate non-government voices much more structurally. I think the character I see also in terms of better engagement with the national authority for development and humanitarian side approach. I think I see much better diversity of the Secretariat, although in slow step.



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