Press conference by Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs
Briefing reporters at Headquarters today, the United Nations political chief cited movement on the Government’s road map to heal divisions in Mali, and the recent tentative offer by the Syrian opposition to open negotiations with the Assad Government as signs of positive developments in two of the world’s major crisis flashpoints.
Just back from a two-week trip to Africa and Belgium with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, while not underestimating the challenges ahead in both situations, drew those signs of hopeful change from his round of meetings with officials in Eastern and Northern Africa, as well as in Brussels.
Focusing most of his comments on the situation in Mali, he said that the international community was coalescing around a comprehensive strategy to deal with the crisis, and the Secretary-General had stressed the need to take actions that drew on the comparative advantages of the United Nations. While discussions on replacing the African-led International Support Mission in Mali — known as AFISMA — were ongoing, the United Nations was making plans based on the new reality that was emerging in Northern Mali; “ensuring the right tools are on hand to make the right types of interventions at the right time”. The United Nations multidisciplinary office in Bamako was working towards that end, he added.
Yet, today’s headlines revealed that there was a long way to go to heal political divisions inside the country and build professional military and security forces that could maintain security, he said, referring to this morning’s reports of deadly fighting between rebel factions in and around Bamako. It was important for the United Nations to remain sensitive to the views of the Malian people and leaders, he said, underscoring that, in all his talks, interlocutors had stressed the need for broad scale involvement of all political factions and groups.
Therefore, the United Nations would need to strike the right balance so the country was not overburdened with its presence. More broadly, rhetoric about military and political interventions proceeding simultaneously would have to be backed with action. Indeed, stabilizing Mali was going to take more than military intervention; there was a need for strong political initiatives, since political differences were at the heart of the crisis. “As long as these political problems exist, the State will remain weak, especially to those wishing to undermine political progress,” he said.
In the short term, the French-backed military intervention had sidelined many of those seeking to interfere in the political transition. At the same time, that intervention had perhaps inadvertently led the Malian authorities to believe that they did not need to reach out to the various political factions or opposition groups. “That is not the case. We needed to move forward on the political track,” he said, adding that, thankfully, the Malian President had announced a road map that would lead to elections, set for the end of July. The United Nations was prepared to help.
It was important that the election timeline be kept, but also important that the polls were seen as “good elections”. “I encourage all of us to remain focused on the political developments, even as we focus on the security issues,” he said, urging attention to such vital matters as the launching of an inclusive national dialogue, consensual political transition road map, and credible elections.
Reflecting on his first trip to Mogadishu, he expressed great optimism about the “profound” and positive changes under way there. The transition, he believed, had yielded significant results, and in his talks with Government officials, they had pledged to press ahead on all remaining issues. “Changing a failed State into a functioning one will take a long and determined effort. But for the first time, I feel like the Somalis have a lot going in their favour,” he said, adding that the Somali people had “a real chance” to build a rights-respecting society.
At the same time, he did not want to understate the challenges: indeed the recent headlines showed how much work still needed to be done, including bolstering the promotion and protection of human rights for all, and ultimately, a major restructuring of the United Nations presence — inside and outside Somalia.
On his visit to Kenya, he said that he had focused on next month’s elections and had stressed the United Nations readiness to assist, as well as the fact that there should be no violence. All Kenyans should participate, but they should do so peacefully, he said, reiterating that any form of violence would be unacceptable. He said that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was carrying out education-related initiatives and the Organization, while not monitoring the elections, was working with monitors.
As for Syria, he said the Organization was continuing to work on a number of fronts to address the crisis. But, at some point, “the guns will fall silent” and the Organization would need to consider how it could play a positive role “on that day”, whatever the political situation. He said that the most promising thing that the United Nations had heard recently was the tentative offer of the opposition leaders to sit down with the Assad Government. So, perhaps the long-locked door was starting to be unlocked. “I don’t know whether we will be able to seize this opportunity,” he said, but he added that Joint Special representative Lakhdar Brahimi was closely following the situation.
Still, he said that with very little credible polling in the country, no one had any real idea of how popular or influential any figure was. But it did seem that the opposition leadership was “putting a hand out”, and given the horrors that the Syrian people had experienced for the past two years, he believed that any opportunity for dialogue was better that the status quo.
On Madagascar, he said that any political changes should be carried out through consensus. The United Nations had called for elections to take place according to the stated timeline. Given the fact that there was a plan in place, the Organization would support that plan unless the people of the country decided otherwise.
Responding to questions on Mali, he said that the ultimate goal was for the Malian security forces to be professional and accountable to the people, and in charge of the country’s security. “We need to put in the types of programmes and assistance that can help [them] achieve that goal as quickly as possible.” Obviously, that would take time, so the discussions now revolved around what tools were appropriate, including at what point a United Nations peacekeeping force could be deployed. That decision was ultimately up to the Security Council.
Mr. Feltman said that it was obvious that the situation had changed dramatically since the Council last adopted a resolution on the matter, so the feeling might be that the time for such deployment would be sooner rather than later. But, every effort should be made to ensure that there was no gap when the French and Chadian forces withdrew. His sense was that everyone agreed that the re-occupation of Mali’s north, or any other reversal, should not be permitted to occur, when the French force left the country. The French accelerated the military track, but the recent steps taken by Malian authorities pointed in the direction of similar political movements.
He said that the multidisciplinary office in Bamako was working to ensure that United Nations staff was on the ground to engage the Malian people and authorities “now” on the political track. The United Nations was already in a position to have closed door conversations with many Malian officials, as well as representatives from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). As the Council moved towards a decision on peacekeepers, he was certain the Secretary-General would step up with efforts to bolster the broader United Nations political presence.
As for the broader security situation, he said that Mali’s neighbourhood was quite aware of the risk of spillover affects of the military effort. “Their eyes are open,” he said, but the countries of the region were also aware of the dangers of terrorist groups “digging in deeper” inside Mali.
Responding to other questions on Mali, he said that the political picture was “very complicated, with layers and layers of grievances to sift through”, which was why senior United Nations officials believed the Organization had a crucial role to play in providing its good offices, and in supporting national dialogue towards elections that covered the vast majority of the Malian people.
“This has to be a Malian process; the UN is not going to come in and impose a process,” he continued, noting that the Malian President had launched a road map that had been approved by Parliament. That road map had set out, among other things, a strategy for a national dialogue. Complementary to that was the willingness of the Malian authorities to re-launch the ECOWAS mediation process, as a way to address grievances in the north, in Bamako and throughout the country and region. He added that preparing for and carrying out credible elections would be a “big, complicated task”, but it would be absolutely essential if Mali was to become — and remain — stable.
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