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Diplomacy under heat

By Jean-François Berger

As former Algerian ambassador, Mohamed Sahnoun was deputy secretary general of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and of the Arab League. In 1992, he was the UN special representative in Somalia. He is currently the UN secretary- general’s special envoy for Africa. He is also a member of the ICRC’s group of international advisors.

As UN special envoy for Africa, what are your main priorities for this year?

The secretary-general has presented a report on the situation in Africa, which sets the priorities as the promotion of good governance and democracy in Africa, as well as the protection of human rights. This requires the mobilization of the international community to resolve the numerous ongoing conflicts. It’s very important to tackle this problem, because these conflicts constitute an obstacle to the democratization process. Our efforts must focus on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and Angola. Needless to say, the progress of democracy depends on economic and social development. In this respect, the trend of diminishing international aid must be reversed, despite the global economic crisis, which has wreaked particular havoc in Japan.



It is less well known, but you are also an international advisor to the ICRC. What do your tasks consist of?

I am a member of the group of international advisors that meets twice a year in Geneva, although this does not prevent me from also contributing in an individual and more constant way to the activities of this institution. During our meetings, we review the ICRC’s operational activities on the basis of an analysis put forward by its president, Cornelio Sommaruga. This gives us the opportunity to identify the key problems of the moment and to look for solutions in light of the views expressed around the table. In this way, we keep up to date on the evolution of a variety of humanitarian issues. If need be, we can then convey certain of the ICRC’s messages to its partners in the different fora and decision-making bodies. It is a useful function, to which I attach a great deal of importance.

In which areas do you think you can contribute most, within the framework of the Movement?

Our sphere of activity is very diverse. By this I mean that we can just as well attend to the ICRC’s relations with local populations affected by conflict as to its dealings with the United Nations institutions. Not forgetting a major challenge: the application of international humanitarian law, which really needs to be better known. We consider, among other things, new teaching techniques for the armed forces. We also look at the implications of the creation of the International Criminal Court and its future role in any area that may touch on the implementation of humanitarian law.


Are you involved in the preparations for the forthcoming International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent?

Absolutely. It is an item on our agenda. With my colleagues, the other international advisors, we aim above all to make proposals on the substance of the November 1999 conference, so that it remains relevant to today’s realities. Indeed, it is imperative that no problem is glossed over.

You are also one of the authors of Hard Choices, a collection of essays published under the auspices of the ICRC (see Resources p. 29). The book deals with the moral dilemmas posed by humanitarian intervention. What point of view do you put forward?

Considering the recent evolution of conflicts – I’m thinking specifically of the breakdown of numerous states and its disastrous effect on the social fabric – I have put the emphasis on those populations that are the recipients of humanitarian aid. Given that these populations have lived through major traumatic events, they are de facto more sensitive to what is going on. This is why it is so important to pay sufficient attention to their individual culture. Respect for local cultures, such as consulting the elders, and traditional and religious leaders, is an essential prerequisite for gaining the widest possible support from assisted populations. We must also take the role of women more into account, something which is all too often underutilized as a factor of peace.


You also touch on the military angle...

It is vital for a humanitarian operation to keep its distance from any military intervention, which is often driven by a hidden agenda, as was the case in Somalia. At a certain point, the military intervention in Somalia lost sight of its original goal, which was to protect the delivery of humanitarian aid, and became politically motivated, with the hunting down of faction leaders. From that point on, a section of the Somali population perceived the whole operation as being directed against its own interests. In the face of such risks, humanitarian action must be carried out in a neutral and impartial manner: these principles must be kept in mind, applied and never compromised.

Do you think that we have learned our lesson from the Somalia intervention?

Not sufficiently. The debate should be further fuelled, so that the lessons of the Somalia experience can really be fully integrated.


Interview by Jean-François Berger
Jean-François Berger is the ICRC editor of the Red Cross, Red Crescent magazine.

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