Tamrat Samuel recently stepped down from his post as Deputy SRSG (Rule of Law) for the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), but before taking part in this peacekeeping mission he had an extensive career with the UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA), including as Director of the Asia and Pacific Division, playing an integral role in peace processes in East Timor and Nepal, where he was also a DSRSG in the UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN). While in the Asia Pacific Division at DPA he played an active part, on a number of occasions and over many years, in carrying out the Secretary-General’s “good offices.” In a recent interview with Jim Della-Giacoma he talked about this special brand of diplomacy.
JDG: The concept “good offices” is not defined in the UN Charter. As a practitioner of this special kind of diplomacy, what does the term mean to you?
TS: Good offices is a very broad term for any third party assistance given to conflicting parties to help find a solution to their problems. This can take many different forms. For example, it may include, but is not necessarily limited to, mediation. The role could involve advising parties to a conflict or governments, carrying messages between opposing sides, or facilitating contact between groups without necessarily directly injecting oneself into the process. Also, providing specialized expertise to discussions and generally being a catalyst. In essence, you have a range of choices within the broad concept of a good officer.
JDG: What does it mean when the Secretary-General is exercising his “good offices”?
TS: The use of the Secretary-General’s good offices carries the prestige and credibility of his office and person as well as the weight of international public opinion that he and the organization embody. This could take two forms. First, the good offices tasks he undertakes on the basis of a mandate he is given by the Security Council or the General Assembly. However, he also has an inherent independent role, and even responsibility, by virtue of being the Secretary-General, to lend his good offices to any country or member state. Hammarskjold’s innovative “Peking Formula” established this in the mid-1950s. I think it is very important to understand that distinction. Sometimes it is critical, because there is a misperception that the Secretary-General’s involvement in any kind of third party role entails involvement of the Security Council, which can frighten parties.
JDG: You played the good offices role in then East Timor (now Timor-Leste) and also in Nepal. How did it differ in each place?
TS: In Timor, I supported the good offices of then-Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, which he personally led. The responsibility was then delegated to his Senior Advisors – initially Alvaro de Soto, subsequently Ismat Kittani and briefly Yasushi Akashi – with DPA largely managing the process on a daily basis, specifically then Asia Pacific Director Francesc Vendrell and myself as the desk officer. It entailed more than just the bureaucratic process of preparing for various rounds of talks between Indonesia (the Occupying Power) and Portugal (the legal Administering Power) under the Secretary-General’s auspices. It meant immersing yourself into the issues, knowing the parties, talking to all sides, exploring possibilities. In the early 1990s, Timor was hardly on anybody’s radar (save for the attention the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre generated) and was written off by many as a “lost case”. Many argued at that time that the best possible solution for the Timorese would be to accept integration under the Suharto regime, hopefully with some degree of autonomy and improved human rights conditions. My role was to speak to Timorese on all sides and also engage Indonesia at different levels, as well as Portugal and other interested states that were following the situation either in the [UN Security] Council or outside the Council.
JDG: How did this begin?
TS: My first real exposure to Timor was when I traveled there in April 1993 with Amos Wako, the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for the follow up of the [12 November 1991] Santa Cruz massacre in Dili. He had visited in 1992, submitted a report, and the recommendations had been given to Indonesia and Portugal confidentially. I had been desk officer for Timor for about a year by then. I accompanied him (along with colleagues from the then Centre for Human Rights) for this follow-up and became involved in advancing the issue of accountability for the Santa Cruz massacre. The visit also came a few months after the capture of resistance leader Xanana Gusmão. There was concern about his security and safety, and my role was to make sure Wako got direct access to Xanana. Within weeks I returned to Timor to observe the conclusion of Xanana’s trial and sentencing in Dili.
JDG: Gusmão was a jailed rebel leader whom the Indonesians regarded as being a “terrorist”. Wasn’t this a highly unusual role for the UN?
TS: There was a formal mandate from the UN General Assembly via a 1982 resolution requesting the Secretary-General to “initiate consultations with all parties directly concerned” in order to find a lasting solution to the question of East Timor. So talks had been ongoing for over a decade. But up to that point the Timorese had been totally excluded from the discussions. The Portuguese had proposed, when talks resumed in 1992 after the Santa Cruz massacre, that the Timorese should be included. The Indonesians rejected this completely because, from their point of view, the Timorese had already decided to be part of their country. At our suggestion, the Secretary-General managed to get a concession from Indonesia that he would be free to consult with Timorese from the pro-integration and pro-independence camps. This was a way of bringing their views to the table, and it provided an opening for us to insist on speaking with all Timorese. Vendrell and I visited Indonesia and Timor twice in 1994 and each time we insisted on seeing Xanana in prison. Indonesia reluctantly allowed us, and this set a pattern. After that, meeting him became part of the routine. My approach was less formalistic. I maintained regular communication with the independence leaders in exile – Jose Ramos-Horta, Mari Alkatiri and others and cultivated a productive relationship with pro-integration figures like Lopes da Cruz, Abilio Araujo and others. Inside Timor, Bishops Belo and Nascimento were highly respected figures who spoke authoritatively for the Timorese. I maintained excellent relations with Portuguese and Indonesian diplomats and even some degree of contact with some Indonesian military and security figures. You had to get your hands dirty in the engagement process. This intensified significantly after 1998 following Suharto’s fall. The year before, the Secretary-General had appointed a Personal Representative for East Timor, Jamsheed Marker, with a view to accelerating the good offices. Marker began to visit more frequently and to meet Xanana and other leaders. The new opening enabled me to meet with hitherto inaccessible youth and community leaders in Timor, many of whom were part of the clandestine resistance and some are today taking over the leadership of the country, including current Prime Minister Rui Araujo. On the diplomatic front, we at DPA were deeply involved in exploring alternative ideas and proposals around autonomy, independence, transition, and in drafting the 5 May 1999 agreements on East Timor and the implementation of the historic referendum on 30 August 1999.
JDG: And how was Nepal different?
TS: This was an ongoing conflict since 1996, and UN engagement was initiated in 2003 despite the reluctance of the then government of Nepal and India. Ceasefires had been declared and talks started, but they broke down for the second time in 2003, and the Maoist negotiating team in Kathmandu had gone back underground. There was a serious deficit of trust and weak process management. I began talking to all sides and carried a few messages, particularly between the Maoists and the government. After I established contact with the Maoists, we were able to explore ideas for finding some common ground with the political parities and (for a while) with the king. The UN did not have a formal mediation role, which sometimes is an advantage because you can talk to all sides but are not directly responsible for ideas that may catch on or sink. We made good use of the “convening power” and credibility of the UN, its impartiality. The UN also offered various tools and means for implementing a peace agreement, should one be concluded – from monitoring and verification to electoral assistance and the deployment of full-fledged peace operation. At the same time, there was also concern in Nepal that the involvement of the UN could mean the “internationalization” of the conflict or the country being seen as a failed or failing state. As the process advanced it was gratifying to see that, despite the fact that there was no formal UN mediation role, many of the ideas that I explored with the parties over the years formed the basis of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2006 – the separation of forces, cantonment of the Maoist army, monitoring of the Nepal Army, UN supported election of a constituent assembly. The UN was then asked to help implement the CPA.
JDG: So, an agreement triggers a transition for the UN from “good offices” to a “special political mission”. Moving along the “spectrum of peace operations”, as the HIPPO report calls it, is the transition that simple?
TS: Yes, in fact, that is how it evolved. The issue is how to transition successfully from prevention and peacemaking to either peacekeeping or political mission deployment. But I think we have to see good offices as a holistic endeavor straddling all different phases of a dispute. You can have a good offices role in the prevention phase and/or the peacemaking phase and it will, in all likelihood, continue in the phase implementation and of peace operations. This is because, even if you have an agreement or “comprehensive” framework, details are often negotiated as you move forward.
JDG: And how did this work in Nepal?
TS: One of the key elements of the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was to negotiate arrangements for containment of the Maoist army and the restriction of the Nepal Army. The modalities for this and the monitoring of the weapons had to be worked out. Where were the weapons to be kept? What kind of UN monitoring would be put in place? All of these things had to be negotiated after the CPA was signed with UN facilitation led by Ian Martin, who became the SRSG. The implementation of a political agreement, in many ways, is more complex than negotiating it. There could be spoilers who are not satisfied with the agreement and who need to be brought on board by addressing their concerns. Agreements can unravel; you have to constantly prevent, address and resolve problems as you go. Thus, even after a peacekeeping operation or a political mission, peacebuilding is really prevention by another term. You are trying to avert a relapse into conflict.
JDG: I recall in November 1999 while I was serving in the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), you came back to Dili from New York some months after the referendum to help the mission set up the first quasi-legislative body, the National Consultative Council (NCC). It was almost as if you returned to play a good offices role between the UN and the Timorese?
TS: East Timor is an example of mostly how not to do transitions. But it was good that Sergio Vieria de Mello recognizedthat he needed someone who knew the Timorese, their divisions, the dynamics and the pitfalls, to come help him in the initial stage of his role as Administrator. It didn’t occur to him immediately. After departing New York, when he was in Portugal meeting exiled Timorese, it became obvious how deeply the UN had been involved through DPA. Before he got to Indonesia, he realized he needed the assistance of someone from DPA. I was specifically asked to come out. I joined him en route to Timor and we arrived together. To his credit, he was very open to listening to people. I briefed him quite thoroughly before our first meeting with Xanana, which helped him to understand the man and how to approach him. Setting up the NCC was a subsequent challenge, largely because the whole territory had been destroyed by the departing pro-Indonesian militias supported by Indonesian security personnel. People were concerned with their survival and their families’ survival: they didn’t have a roof over their heads. And we were asking them to come to meetings and talk about taxes, which was the last thing on their mind. In the end we managed to form a reasonably credible NCC despite the chaos and the absence of many credible leaders.
JDG: Why was such a role necessary?
TS: For continuity. Despite instructions from the 38th floor that both DPA and DPKO needed to work together to make sure that we utilized all the knowledge and assets we had, I don’t think we did it sufficiently well. For example, even within some parts of DPA, there was a misperception that by working closely with the CNRT (National Congress for Timorese Resistance), the UN could end up aiding the creation of a one-party state. But the CNRT was an umbrella organization, not a single party, and there was no one else to work with in Timor in 1999. The CNRT had the network on the ground. It was the CNRT that was helping people deal with the aftermath of the violence of August and September 1999. We in DPA had the knowledge, but we could have exploited it much more. UNTAET was treated as a new undertaking in a new country rather than as a continuation of the UN’s long involvement. In many ways, East Timor was a “UN child”. The UN still has much work to do in this area.
JDG: In both Nepal and Timor, large Member States had distinct interests. What pressures did you come under while conducting the “good offices” role? How important is it for the Secretary-General to provide you with the protection or space to have sensitive discussions with controversial figures?
TS: This was a key aspect of our work . Member States are often reluctant to fully embrace the role of the Secretary-General’s good offices because of their own political sensitivities. Member States’ attitudes can vary from support and engaged interest in the issues and role of the UN, to being skeptical, suspicious or downright hostile. In the case of Timor, there were a number of countries that consistently followed events with interest even when things were moving very slowly in the 90s. Besides Indonesia and Portugal, there was always communication with the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Japan as well as a number of European countries. Austria provided the venue for all five rounds of Intra-East Timorese Dialogue that we facilitated between 1994 and 1998. The Lusophone countries in Africa provided support to the resistance movement in exile. Most Asian countries didn’t want to touch the subject of East Timor, seeing the conflict as an internal affair of Indonesia. After the signing of the 5 May Agreements in 1999, a small group of countries formed what came to be known as the Core Group: Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the UK, and the U.S. The Core Group provided vital political support to the SG’s good offices. Materially, they contributed tens of millions of dollars to the trust fund that was set up to help stand up the UN Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) in 1999 and made in-kind contributions that allowed for the mission’s rapid establishment. The Field Logistics and Administrative Division [FLAD] had said, “We can’t set up a mission in three months.” The general political support the Secretary-General enjoyed from member states in regard to East Timor, especially after 1998 made it possible for us in DPA to operate with a considerable degree of authority
JDG: Nepal is a landlocked country wedged between the two giants of China and India. What geo-politics were at play there?
TS: India had great reservations about UN involvement in Nepal, particularly at the beginning. There was a lot of push back. There was pressure on the Nepalese to say no to the UN, and much of our work really consisted of convincing India that UN involvement was not a threat to their interests. We understood the special relationship between the two countries, and the open border they shared. There was also a historical relationship between the Naxalites in India and the Maoists in Nepal. Not surprisingly, India didn’t want to see the Maoists succeed in Nepal. We understood all of these things. We did not want to undermine India’s interests, but clearly there was a need for a third party to help build confidence and offer ideas on how to resolve this conflict that had claimed close to 15,000 lives. All my visits to Nepal included a stop in Delhi to brief the Indians on what we were doing, and foster open communication. Once the CPA was signed, India wanted UNMIN to start working immediately. It provided us with significant logistical support to expedite the mission’s deployment. But India remained wary of a “political” role for the mission. Indeed, the major weakness in UNMIN’s mandate was the conspicuous absence in the resolution establishing it of the reference to UNMIN’s good offices role that had been proposed by the Secretary-General’s in his report to the Security Council.
JDG: How important is it to talk to all parties, even those committed to using violence?
TS: It is critical. In 1992 the Secretary-General got an important concession from the Indonesians allowing him to speak to Timorese of all sides, including Xanana. Prior to this, even meeting people from the external wing of the East Timorese resistance was done almost surreptitiously. They had difficulty getting access into the UN building. To the UN’s credit, we pushed back against Indonesian objections to such meetings. Even at the senior level, we said, “You can’t expect us to be of any help if we can’t speak to everyone involved. You may treat them as terrorists but they are integral. If you want peace, you are going to have to bring those people on board. If you don’t talk to them, we have to talk to them.” In Nepal, we managed to gain acceptance and trust because we consulted as widely as possible and avoided what could sometimes become tempting “quick fix” solutions. These would have unraveled easily because of the exclusion or objection of one of the three antagonistic sides at the time (the political parties, the Palace and the Maoists). We invested considerable time and energy in trying to persuade King Gyanendra to look for compromises. I personally spent over two hours with him in early 2005 after delivering a letter from Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He staged his coup shortly after that with the help of the army. In May, at a one-on-one meeting in Jakarta, the Secretary-General tried to persuade him to change course, and to do so urgently – to no avail. It became clear that there would be a showdown. Indeed, the showdown came in 2006 and led to the King’s removal from power and the subsequent abolition of the monarchy, a centuries-old institution.
JDG: It is hard thing to imagine these days the UN having a mandate to talk to “terrorists”?
TS: Violent extremism has taken unprecedented forms with the emergence of forces that use inhuman methods of terror and destruction. These are not forces interested in or amenable to dialogue and political solutions. However, not every group that uses violence to advance its political cause falls in that category. It is very important for any third party trying to help resolve a conflict to be prepared to engage and work with insurgents of different varieties. It is often surprising to discover how ready they may be for dialogue and compromise. It may be that they don’t want to show any weakening of their resolve or simply that they are unsure as to how to go about opening channels. State security forces are often equally or more responsible for atrocities. The UN has to deal with all sorts of unsavory characters, while sticking to its principles in its engagement, and above all, in the content of agreements it brokers, particularly on accountability for grave violations. There are clear guidelines for UN mediators in this regard. It is not an easy task because if you are too much of a purist about these things you will be completely hamstrung. On the other hand, you cannot, for expediency, become a party to a bad agreement that leads to amnesty for grave crimes. When I was communicating with the Maoists of Nepal, some external actors asked me, “How can the UN talk to an outlawed group?”. Speaking to them didn’t mean we were endorsing what they were doing or condoning their actions. In fact, raising the UN’s concerns about these issues is one of the key messages one has to deliver when engaging with insurgencies, as indeed with state actors about the unlawful behavior of their security forces. The UN has to uphold its impartiality and its independence of action regarding who it engages.
JDG: Looking back at your career in peacemaking, what were the skills and experiences that were most useful and where did you acquire them?
TS: I was fortunate to have been given an important dossier like East Timor as a junior officer. Having Francesc Vendrell as director at the DPA Asia Pacific Division from 1992 made a big difference. He encouraged initiative and a degree of risk-taking. The Under Secretary-General and Assistant Secretary-General became receptive and once your work is recognized you get support and you are listened to. Patience is something you cannot have enough of when you are dealing with an issue that remains stuck year after year – until one day the possibilities suddenly open. I see today quite a few talented and dedicated political officers in the UN. The problem in the UN is that there isn’t really a career development structure for staff. There isn’t a system whereby talented staff are recognized and given direction and a path in their development. This deprives the Organization the optimal use of its capacities. This needs to change.
JDG: What could be done to make DPA more field focused and people centered?
TS: The organization as a whole has to be really serious about investing in prevention and peacemaking. Everyone says prevention is better than cure. The Security Council and General Assembly have, time and again, said that the Secretary-General needs to be given adequate resources for this, but nothing has been done to improve the situation significantly. DPA is hugely dependent on extra-budgetary funding to do its core function, which shouldn’t be the case. This needs to be addressed and a group of member states need to champion prevention as their issue and push for change.
Second, the Secretariat itself has to show greater commitment to this. It has to engage member states in a sustained manner and ask that they follow their commitment to prevention with action, both in terms of political support/action and resource allocation.
Third, DPA needs to be more operational than it is today. It has already moved away considerably from a desk-oriented approach to prevention and peacemaking. It needs to continue to move in that direction. People have to go out and take risks. To come to your point, you cannot do this work from your desk and by telephone from New York. DPA’s big challenge is that it is a headquarters-based department trying to deal with problems around the world without being there. The next best thing to having a presence everywhere (which is neither possible nor desirable) is having regional offices. The three existing regional offices have proved their value. The Peace and Development Advisors attached to UNDP have been a huge asset. The liaison arrangements we left in Nepal after the closure of the mission, which is a little bit of an informal arrangement, has been a huge asset not only in terms of monitoring and reporting and analysis, but in keeping the communication channels open.
Tamrat Samuel is a non-resident fellow at the Center on International Cooperation.
Jim Della-Giacoma is the Deputy Director of the Center on International Cooperation. | Twitter: @jimdella