Ameerah Haq served as the Under-Secretary General (USG) for the Department of Field Support and was the highest-ranking Bangladeshi in the United Nations during those years. After four decades of heading humanitarian and development missions in Asia and Africa, she retired in 2015. In this conversation with Sarah Nafisa Shahid, exclusively conducted for Star Weekend, Haq shares reflections from her field experiences in post-conflict regions and speaks about the future of the UN's Peacekeeping department.
You worked as Humanitarian Coordinator and the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Sudan when the country was going through one of the worst humanitarian crises with a million people displaced from their homes. What programmes and initiatives did you introduce to tackle such a complex scenario and what changes do you see in Darfur today?
At that time, it was the largest humanitarian programme in the world. The challenge in Darfur was primarily our inability as UN humanitarian workers, to have proper access to the entire population. We had to use what we call our "good offices" to get access to mobility and logistics, including our flights into the region. There were political processes that were being facilitated between the government and rebel groups.
Unfortunately, there is very little that has taken place, in terms of solutions despite many negotiations. The population is still affected, people do not feel safe to return to their homes. In fact, a lot of these camps, which were temporary structures, have almost become peri-urban centres. I went back to Darfur seven or eight years later and I was surprised to see that areas where there were tents had become hard–walled accommodations and within these settings, they are getting food aid, education, and health services. Those humanitarian programmes continue but little has improved in the political negotiations.
In Timor-Leste, a new country born out of an independence struggle against Indonesian occupation, you served as the Head of United Nations Integrated Mission. During your tenure, domestic violence was the dominant civil crime in Timor. What programmes were implemented by the mission to tackle gendered violence?
In most post-conflict countries, it is quite common to see domestic violence, primarily targeted against women. A lot of these are part of the phenomenon of men who, having fought for the liberation of the country, do not have gainful employment and are not able to see immediate benefits of independence once the war had ceased. A lot of that frustration was taken out on women. (But I should also add that in Timor, women played an important role in the independence).
The mission in Timor had a very strong policing component which dealt with domestic violence. In fact, the UN had the executive responsibility of policing the country. We requested police contributions from the international community for the mission, with a special emphasis on providing female officers. Those officers created safe spaces in the country where women could go and report about the violence. Safe houses were created where the women could stay temporarily till the problem at home was resolved. We set up community policing so that female police could patrol and establish rapport in order to make the women feel comfortable. In many of the police stations, we had a child-friendly area (supported by UNICEF) at the back, which was painted in bright colours, so that women who came with children, which was a lot of them, did not have to wait in front of the station and could rest in a more welcoming space.
You served as Vice Chair of Ban Ki-Moon's High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO). Why was there a need to review United Nations peace operations?
In the early days of the UN, the role of peacekeeping was to monitor ceasefires. Over the last few decades, the UN is in places where there is no peace to keep. We are being sent into theatres where war is still being fought. Most of these are within countries, such as Darfur and Congo—some of them may have regional dimension to it, but mostly the conflicts are intra-state and not inter-state.
The panel was set up to decide the future of peace operations at the UN and whether the organisation is fit for the purpose. Do we have what it takes to be on these kinds of theatres? Because the UN, at the end, is what member states allow it to be. In the end, UN peacekeeping has to adapt to the changing nature of conflict.
UN's peacekeeping model has come under several criticisms, most recently in regard to sexual exploitation by troops. Does the report submitted by the panel, widely known as HIPPO, suggest steps to address issues of sexual exploitation by ground troops? What reforms should take place in order to hold individuals and institutions within UN's structures accountable?
So, in that report, we covered a gamut of issues that the UN has to deal with and one of the things we covered was the behaviour of peacekeepers, particularly in terms of sexual exploitation and abuse. We felt that the UN needs to be more transparent about what is happening. There are bad elements everywhere and if these egregious acts are perpetrated by UN troops, we should acknowledge that and provide more information of that. The ideal thing is of course preventative action, by way of training, but we also realise that we have to take certain punitive measures and be transparent about what we've done in those cases. There is an impression that UN personnel hide behind impunity and we wanted to make it clear that they are subject to the rule of law.
As a result of some of the recommendations [from HIPPO report], and other reviews, there have been a lot of changes now in the way UN deals with cases of sexual exploitation and abuse—more openness, more transparency, more naming and shaming within the Security Council, repatriation of the entire country contingents even though one or two personnel from that contingent may have been guilty of sexual abuse and exploitation.
Bangladesh is one of the largest providers of peacekeepers to the UN. Critics often point out that developing nations are providing troops to the UN while developed nations such as US and Japan get to do most of the decision-making—perhaps reflective of global inequalities of wealth and power. During your tenure as USG of Field Support, what steps have you taken to improve the balance of this skewed power structure?
The call for United Nations troops goes out to all countries. And they then put forward the troops that each country can provide. And Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, some of these countries are contributing to peacekeeping—not just battalions, but staff officers as well. And for many of these countries, it's a very important element of their foreign policy, in terms of how they will contribute to multilateralism.
Many other countries choose different ways to contribute. For example, Japan does not provide combat troops. But Japan contributes what they call "enablers". So, they might send an engineering unit or a medical unit because when you have peacekeepers in a country, you need to build roads, provide communications and other engineering and medical support.
Lately, since the theatres within which we operate have changed, it requires more intelligence and sophisticated technology. In Mali, for example, we are using drones to monitor rebel movements. Those sophisticated units don't require as many combat troops. And in Mali now, we have those units coming from Sweden and the Netherlands. As tactics change, the requirement of large numbers of troops themselves may decrease and the focus might shift to enhanced mobility, technology, and agility.
How do you see Bangladeshi peacekeepers adjusting to technological changes? Will it affect Bangladesh's contribution to missions in the future?
All armed forces have to keep up with technological changes. The method of deployment will evolve. It's a worldwide phenomenon—that manual components will reduce because of the ability of technology to do much more than people used to do. And they [Bangladeshi peacekeepers] are aware of that too. Every time troop-contributing countries get a briefing of what the UN requires, they are being told that we need more sophisticated equipment, better aviation units, and better intelligence and analysis units.
After a celebrated four decades at the UN, what does the future hold for Ameerah Haq?
I am spending a lot of time teaching and guest lecturing at universities. I'm also called a lot to give lectures at seminars and think tanks or foreign policy institutes, peace and security research institutes. I'm on the boards of organisations that are dealing with peace and security or mediation.
One of the things that I thought I would take up, in terms of my passion, was really to try and do something more on climate change. I haven't done that yet, just because the experience and knowledge I have in relation to peace and security seems to be in quite a demand. Wherever I can, I try to tell people to take climate change seriously, even within peace and security. The conflicts we will see in the future will be related to climate change.
Sarah Nafisa Shahid is a writer based in Canada. Her work has appeared in Hyperallergic and Wear Your Voice. She is a columnist of Star Weekend and tweets @I_Own_The_Sky