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An interview with Martin Kobler, former German diplomat who most recently served as German Ambassador to Pakistan. Martin Kobler was Head of UN Support Mission in Libya (2015-2017), Special Representative for the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2013), UN Special Representative and Head of UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (2011-2013), and Deputy Special (Political) Representative for Afghanistan (2010-2011). He has also served as an Electoral Observer for UN missions in Haiti, Nicaragua and Cambodia. 

Earlier this year, the SAIS Europe Journal talked to Martin Kobler to discuss the United Nations’ role and challenges it currently faces, its use of force and effects on legitimacy, and the underlying factors of recent dissent in the DRC, the CAR, Mali, Iraq among others.

The following transcript was edited for brevity and clarity.



SAIS Europe Journal:

Starting with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we’ve seen protests occurring over the past months against both France’s presence in the region and the UN in general. Local populations have questioned the legitimacy of the UN’s stabilization mission MONUSCO (since 2010) and its ability to ensure security and stability in the Congo. You probably experienced similar situations working in the DRC in 2013. How might the UN ensure its legitimacy in such circumstances and how would you assess the present situation in the DRC?



Martin Kobler:

The core of the problem is that people tend to think that it’s the responsibility of the UN to solve their problems. The first thing, therefore, is expectation management: you have to tell them what the UN can and cannot do. The second is to communicate, communication is 90% of the whole work. The message must be: this is the Congo, those are Congolese problems, and these must be your solutions. We (UN) are here to assist but we cannot take over, we cannot replace your political elites to solve the country’s problems but we can moderate. We have a covening power, but it is your government that has to solve the problem. 

As for expectation management, what could we have done with, say, 20,000 troops during my time? Also keep in mind the Congo is a subcontinent; if you look at a map, with 20,000 people and only 3000 fighting, it is just not feasible to be everywhere. There were of course exceptions such as Cambodia (UNTAC), Namibia (UNTAG), and Kosovo, where the UN was running the countries and the elections. But usually countries arrange elections themselves and the UN ensures that nothing goes wrong. These are the basics to guarantee the UN’s legitimacy. 

Another way is to improve the performance of the UN. I do not want to say that everything is up to those countries, it’s also the procedures of the UN and the way we perform with regard to the protection of civilians. The civic unrest in Beni (DRC) was a protest against the UN; we partly do not perform well. Protection of civilians used to mean that when rebels attacked a village, in particular the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel group in the Beni area, the UN would open its base camp gates for people to seek refuge. 

Protection of civilians now means that when rebels attack a village we ask the villagers to stay in their houses whilst our limited personnel (100 people) goes out to chase the rebels. We had a relatively good experience changing the UN’s tactics towards the rebels in the DRC. But I must say that in principle, traditional troops are risk averse. They often have instructions from their own country not to have casualties. When I started in the Congo there were neither night patrols nor foot patrols. The Force Commander and myself changed this. He instructed them to go out at night, on foot, and to leave the armored cars and the safe APCs . I think this made a very good impression on the people. The Force Commander and myself went with the troops even on midnight foot patrols in the middle of rebel areas. If you show that you are taking risks, including the Force Commander and perhaps also the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG), then even if you don’t succeed you show that you do your best. If you manage to communicate the ‘do your best’ philosophy and do not hide behind barriers, this enhances the credibility of the UN.



SAIS Europe Journal:

Did you experience any dissent first-hand against UN personnel and, if so, what kind of dissent? We’ve also seen unrest in 2019 in the CAR and in Mali where UN missions are drastically losing legitimacy. Do you see any parallels from your time there?



Martin Kobler:

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ in the CAR, DRC, and elsewhere. One important form of action is disarming rebels and transforming rebel groups into a civil kind of structure, what we call DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration). One technique we tried in the DRC, and this is ongoing but not very successful, is the force intervention brigade: 3000 soldiers from Tanzania, South Africa, and Malawi. This was a trial and error during my time, it was never done before: a first in modern UN times. The UN got the mandate from the Security Council to use force actively. It was a highly disputed concept within the UN itself. The UN headquarters in New York told the new Force Commander and myself: ‘we give you the means for an intervention brigade but it should work by deterrence, better not to use it’. 

In the CAR, there is no intervention brigade, we want to increase the pressure to make rebel groups voluntarily abandon their weapons. However, very often, we become complicit with the rebel groups. There is no black and white in this area. You have to solve a problem: you want to disarm rebel groups and integrate them into state run military structures. For this, you might be tempted to make a deal in order to avoid violence. My theory is, it doesn’t work. We should never be complicit with the rebel groups, we have to draw a clear line. My favorite motto in this area is ‘yes the UN is neutral, but we are not impartial’. The UN is neutral in a sense: whoever wins elections doesn’t matter to us, we are interested in the election process. Yet we are not impartial. We represent the values of the UN: human rights, democracy, the fight against impunity etc. The respect for the dignity of every human being is an imperative. If you become complicit with rebel groups, you might compromise on the values of the UN.



SAIS Europe Journal:

The idea of complicity is particularly interesting when you look at Mali where people have demanded that UN personnel take on the role of fighting terrorism, complicated by the fact that many actors operate on the ground: UN mission MINUSMA, French army, EU Training Mission in Mali etc. How do you see these situations play out in terms of defense: is the lack of cooperation between the UN and other actors on the ground an issue?



Martin Kobler:

Anti-terror fighting is a difficult task of the UN. Of course, you could do it because of what we call the ‘Christmas tree mandate’: the mandates are very broad, they allow for vast activities. However, the 2015 High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO Report), the last on improving the efficiency of peacekeeping, says clearly that anti-terror fight is not a task the UN should take on. There are also risk averse states: Many troops in Mali rarely leave their camp to avoid casualties. The UN cannot do anti-terror fight with this kind of risk averse mentality.

Secondly, the UN needs to cooperate with other forces on the ground. We have seen it in Afghanistan where we had a civilian mandate to work together with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF): ISAF tried to do the military job and the UN did most of the civilian work. It’s important that the players sit around the table and combine a mix of anti-terror, protection of civilians, and in particular the civilian follow up. It’s very important not to limit the UN to the military but also to have a follow up centered on civilians. 

So, there is the military, and within the military what the UN can do, but the follow-up is also part of the game. Most discussions focus on how effective the military is, but what happens after they have proven effective? What happens between the liberation of a rebel-held area and the start of real development programs? This is often overlooked because UN agencies have determined planning cycles. It’s difficult to coordinate and harmonize with the military agenda of the UN.



SAIS Europe Journal:

There seems to be a strong risk diversity mentality in the Congo but also in Mali. Do you think a leadership issue would also help explain this or rather a structural problem associated with these peacekeeping missions?



Martin Kobler:

The UN faces a structural problem in that the SRSG or even the best leader can’t do everything. But never give up! Say you have between 25 and 30 agencies, funds and programs in the Congo. The coordination between these, as well as bringing the political, military, and development perspectives together is something which is almost impossible. As a leader you can say it’s a structural problem and therefore choose not to address it. This was never my approach; I am very interested in the UN legitimacy conundrum. The UN has to take care of the civilian follow up and include civilians, even roughly, in the military planning at an early stage. But the issue is that within the country teams, the political/military part and the development agencies want to be separate. Afghanistan is a typical example, where even the cars are painted differently: you have the UNAMA cars painted in black, and the development and humanitarian organisations painted in blue. This separation is a structural issue. But it is indeed also about leadership. It is up to the leadership to compensate for the structural deficits of the system. 



SAIS Europe Journal:

Iraq has also been an interesting case recently. We’d be interested to hear your opinion on the recent protests observed in the country, and whether you think they have had traction and impact on the current politics in Iraq.



Martin Kobler:

The civil unrest we’ve seen in Iraq is directed against the government. Iraq has a serious governance problem. This is the result of the failure of the Western coalition there, but also of the UN. We are too often complicit with governments. We’ve spoken about UN complicity with groups and non-state actors, but the UN can also be complicit with governments. In Afghanistan, millions of US dollars of development aid are ending up in Dubai in real estate projects. The government’s corruption, and corruption in general, is a huge problem. Despite international assistance, the government does not provide basic services for the people like wastewater management, electricity, clean water. This has driven recent unrest in Iraq. Going back to the UN, putting more stress on governance, anti corruption, and not being complicit with the government is one thing. The second is impunity. An inefficient or absent legal system frustrates the population and sooner or later people are going to rebel. The failure to be held accountable for corruption is one of the major issues in these countries, and the UN should work with governments to not tolerate this kind of behavior.



SAIS Europe Journal:

I would argue governance issues are very much linked to the perception of outside influence. Iranian influence in Iraq is clear. Where would you place the role of the UN Assistance mission in Iraq in addressing these concerns?



Martin Kobler:

Iranian influence in Iraq can’t be disputed, but if there is no basis for popular dissatisfaction it will not work in the long run. In Libya, for example, you can "buy" civic unrest, so to say, but you cannot do so in Iraq. Yes there is Iranian influence in Iraq, but Iran relies on Iraq’s popular dissatisfaction with its own Shia government. The civic unrest we’ve seen is a popular reaction to the Iraqi government which is not in a position to cater for the most basic needs of the population. 

I remember in Kosovo in 1998 the electricity plant did not work. Ten years later the power plant in Kosovo still did not work, I hope it works today! These kinds of things have angered local populations, rightly so.



SAIS Europe Journal:

What is your take on this? Do you place any blame on UN missions that run these kinds of projects?



Martin Kobler:

It depends on the mandate. Let’s take the example of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), where the UN had executive power. As head of the mission you must cater to the needs of the people. Security is of course the first priority because you need to guarantee security to allow people for example to go out and do their work without fear of being shot at. The UN together with the host governments have to address the questions of a peace economy. People have to earn their living! There is usually a general clause in the mandate to get the economy up and running. Promoting private companies is probably not  explicitly mentioned, but it is so important to promote framework conditions for private companies.



SAIS Europe Journal:

One of the reasons why the missions are not necessarily proactive is that UN actions on the ground do not have backup from UN headquarters in New York. The UN does not have the capabilities to be more proactive, and failure could result in the termination of a mission.



Martin Kobler:

The Heads of Mission are responsible to the UN Security Council. The UN Secretary General and the Secretariat support the mission. The SRSG justifies what is done on the ground to the UN Security Council once every three months. The SRSG goes to the UN Security Council in New York to have an internal discussion on what has been done and what should be done. If you tell the Security Council you want to get a power plant up and running within three years in Kosovo, for example, nobody would object. So it is possible to get the backing. It´s up to the Head of Mission. I put a lot of emphasis on economy, education and humanitarian action so people can live a decent life in peace. If the people need an electricity plant for this, so organize it! If there are no funds, look for funding. I have never experienced reasonable projects not being funded. There is so much money for military purposes which destroy infrastructure during conflict; there must also be money to rebuild a destroyed country.



SAIS Europe Journal:

What you mentioned about UN personnel staying in their bases and having no or very little contact with local populations on the ground, do you see that as the fundamental problem? Do you think dissent or civic unrest could be avoided if UN personnel were more in touch with these populations, showing that they are engaging with them to protect them. Where do you factor this lack of contact in episodes of dissent we’re seeing today around the world?



Martin Kobler:

This is one of the main problems in high risk environments. If you send a member of UN personnel to a tribal meeting in Libya, for example, you need to finance their security. In Iraq, personnel stays in the green zone designing projects; there is often a real detachment from the people. Many colleagues are not exposed to direct contact with local populations. What I tried in Libya, and left to my successor, was to send political messages via tweets. I started in the Congo, where I used Twitter to spread political messages to become at least virtually closer to the people. My successor in Libya arranged 70 conferences all over the country with people from all across the country. This was direct democracy, a little bit like local Loya jirgas (legal assembly) in Afghanistan. This brings UN personnel into contact with tribal leaders, albeit mostly men. It gives the people the opportunity to talk. We need to know what they think and what they want, we should not focus on the views of the governments only. I took many colleagues from my mission with me just to listen. But you are right: in high risk environments it’s much more complicated. 

There is no short term solution for it. That’s why security is the most important task at the beginning in countries where UN missions are deployed. In Afghanistan, for example, UNICEF had polio vaccination campaigns. Vaccinating children in Taliban controlled areas proved difficult, but colleagues managed to organize vaccinations even under the most difficult circumstances and being very close to the population. Building schools and wells, delivering humanitarian aid are other examples where the UN cooperates very closely and directly with the people.



SAIS Europe Journal:

It seems like local contact may occur more effectively on a more micro level rather than it being institutionalized in a way that wouldn't necessarily have much of an effect.



Martin Kobler:

Indeed, let me emphasize one more thing: we have spoken at length about the problems of the UN in achieving their aims. We must not forget that there were also very successful missions: UNTAG in Namibia, the missions in Cambodia, some West African missions or in Timor-Leste. If people, governments, the international community and the UN work hand in hand and there is a political will and consensus to find solutions, a Peace Process will definitely work. If there is no consensus between the stakeholders – which is definitely not the mistake of the UN – it is much harder to make progress. The last mission I had the honor of serving – UNSMIL in Libya - is a typical example of such a lack of consensus.



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