POLITICALLY SPEAKING: Barbara Crossette talks one-on-one with new Under-Secretary-General Ibrahim Gambari about the spectrum of "political" issues that come running the UN's Department of Political Affairs, and how, in this year of reform, he wants to redefine how those issues are managed. Reprinted with permission of the United Nations Association of the USA from the Fall 2005 issue of the Interdependent. Copyright 2005.

15 November 2005

A scholar, an ambassador and now an undersecretary- general, Ibrahim Gambari brings more than experience to the diplomatic table - he brings wisdom, realism and most important, solutions.

In the early years of the United Nations, only a couple of issues dominated international politics: the phasing out of European colonialism and the closing down of country after country under repressive communist regimes. Sixty years later, itís hard to know where to start or stop labeling issues "political." Not only governments but also intelligence agencies see epidemic disease, trafficking in drugs or people, extreme poverty and religious extremism -- among other phenomena -- as subjects with potential political effects.

When Ibrahim Gambari took over as the UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs this past July, he scanned the horizon and saw plenty to do. The major challenges, he said in an interview in his office in the Department of Political Affairs at UN headquarters, were laid out this year in Secretary-General Kofi Annanís report In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All. SG Annan wrote about freedom from fear, freedom from want and the freedom to live in dignity, protected by human rights and democratic government.

"It was very explicit, and thatís what I like about it," said Ambassador Gambari, a diplomat and scholar who was Nigeriaís permanent representative at the UN before joining the organization itself in 1999. "[It said] that you were not likely to have development without peace, and you would not have durable peace without sustainable development. And you will enjoy neither without democratization and human rights." He thinks the UN itself, as well as the member countries, has to take advantage of this year of reform to better address such complex challenges.

Mr. Gambari, only the second African to hold this important post -- James Jonah of Sierra Leone was the first -- said that it is obvious that his department has some primary responsibilities. Its officials, who travel the world to gather information on a wide range of regions and governments, regularly brief the Secretary-General and the Security Council, identifying political implosions and potential conflict areas, advising in peacekeeping and conflict resolution, and leading in rebuilding nations and organizing elections when the guns are silenced.

As if to underscore the horrific nature of some present civil conflicts, SG Annan has just added an adviser on the prevention of genocide to his numerous country-specific or issue-specific troubleshooters and administrators abroad, such as Ashraf Jehangir Qazi in Iraq, Carolyn McAskie in Burundi and Stephen Lewis, who surveys AIDS in Africa. The new envoy on the prevention of genocide is Juan Mendez, a former political prisoner in Argentina who later became a leading figure at Human Rights Watch and then head of the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York.

All the envoys working on political issues, from analyzing deteriorating situations or opening lines of communications to helping rebuild nations torn by conflict, are supervised by Mr. Gambariís department. Other envoys report to the department of peacekeeping operations or other UN offices.

Increasingly, the lines between what is strictly peacekeeping and what is political are blurring, and may be even less distinct, at least philosophically, if a new peace-building commission is established as has been proposed in the context of UN reform.

"The department of political affairs has to reposition itself to help the Secretary-General and the United Nations to address those aspects that are most relevant to our work: peace and security," said Mr. Gambari. "This is about conflict prevention, peacemaking and post-conflict peace-building."

In this new era, he added that the political department has to "redefine ourselves" in the organization, particularly in the cross-departmental political committee recently formed by the Secretary-General. "We hope we will be able to go to that political committee with a paper on how we see ourselves contributing to the reform of the Secretariat as part of the effort to strengthen us in supporting the member states and the international community to address major challenges."

Mr. Gambari said that his work doesnít stop with politics and conflict. He draws on his deep knowledge of Africa, where he founded the first Nigerian undergraduate program in international studies and the Savannah Center for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development in Abuja.

"When you talk about also development, we have a role there, because I donít see how development can be successful without the issues of governance: the rule of law, the politics of inclusion rather than the politics of exclusion," he said. "If you address the root causes of conflict and if you accept that conflict and wars retard development -- in no continent is this more true than in Africa, because one of the main reasons Africa is behind the rest of the world is precisely because it has the largest number of conflicts. People are not going to invest in countries of conflict, and without investment, both domestic and foreign, they are not going to have production. Theyíre not going to have employment, and itís a vicious circle."

Mr. Gambari, 60, was educated at the London School of Economics and has an M.A. and Ph.D. in political science and international relations from Columbia University. He has taught both in New York City and at two Nigerian universities in Zaria. He would like to see his department of political affairs become a rigorous research center.

"The role of the department of political affairs is to first be like a think tank for the entire system, with the aim of providing the best political analysis anywhere in the world, which every part of the system could buy into," he said. "That is an instrument we have to sharpen."

A policy planning unit was created in the department in 1998 under his predecessor, Sir Kieran Prendergast. Historically, some key nations have been opposed to having too much research and analysis centered in the UN, in both political and peacekeeping departments. Big countries like to bring their own analyses to bear on decision-making. But perhaps with problems mushrooming in such volume now, some nations will be more willing to listen.

Ambassador Gambari also wants to strengthen the departmentís capacity for mediation and its growth as a "service center" for member nations needing help with all aspects of political development. He plans to build more bridges to think tanks all over the world "and apply the best minds to issues."

"We must begin to prioritize," he said of his staff of 240 people, only 146 of them professional and the rest administrative. "Weíll never have all the resources we need. As the new leader of DPA, Iím starting the process of discussing with my colleagues, how do we make the best use of our resources? How do we encourage mobility, because unfortunately, there is this mindset that if I am working on Sudan, I will continue to work on Sudan for 20 years. We have to be able to move people; we have to shift people around. I know the difficulties. Itís easier said than done. But I think we have no alternatives."

There is always new terrain to explore. The department of political affairs, for example, will soon have to shift considerable attention to Nepal, where an autocratic king and a Maoist rebellion are bringing the country down.

Mr. Gambari has an eye on Latin America, too. "Wherever the Africans are going politically, the Latin Americans get there first," he said. "The Latins got their independence first, before Africa. They had military rule first. Africans followed. Then you had the return to democracy, and Latin America got there first again. Africans are now coming up.

"But now, something is happening [in Latin America] and we have to watch it closely -- the threats to democracy, the discontent with the so-called benefits of democracy, the democratic dividend. Constitutionally elected governments are thrown out of power by street demonstrations. We have to help Latin America move in the right direction."

In the Arab and wider Muslim world, he said, "The almost civil war youíre having now is about those who like to move in the direction of an open society and those who like to remain in the more extreme, conservative interpretation of Islam. But I think that democracy cannot be imposed from outside. The international community has to encourage civil society and the people to embrace democracy, not because the West wants it but because the people decide this is in their best interest to pursue." He is confident that more Arab thinkers will be speaking out about the development of Arab societies.

The 60th anniversary of the United Nations presents a tremendous opportunity to engage the world politically to greater effect, added Mr. Gambari, who said he thinks often of the message of the United Negro College Fund: A mind is a terrible thing to waste. "I think the 60th anniversary of the UN is a terrible opportunity to waste," he said.

-Ms. Crossette, former New York Times bureau chief at the UN, is the consulting editor for The InterDependent.