Diplomacy under heat
By Jean-François Berger
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.
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.
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.
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.
you think that we have learned our lesson from the Somalia
Not sufficiently. The debate should be further fuelled,
so that the lessons of the Somalia experience can really be
Interview by Jean-François Berger
Jean-François Berger is the ICRC editor of the Red
Cross, Red Crescent magazine.
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