UN Secretary-General's special envoy: water shortages create breeding ground for terrorism

  The UN official answered a question about whether new military coups could occur on the African continent, spoke about how Russia is helpi...


The UN official answered a question about whether new military coups could occur on the African continent, spoke about how Russia is helping to fight terrorism in the region, and shared his views on the possible outcome of the current standoff between the West and Moscow.

- First of all, let’s start with the purposes of your visit to Moscow. What are you going to discuss here with your Russian colleagues, and who are you going to meet with here? How do you assess the role of Russia for the region in general?

- First let me clarify that I'm the Special Representative of the Secretary-General of United Nations for West Africa and the Sahel. This area is undergoing major challenges with a lot of suffering in the population. And our role as UNOWAS, which is the name of our office, is to try to promote peace and stability in the region. And to reach this objective, we need to upgrade the capacity of the region to fight terrorism, which is the principal challenge for the region.

And to fight terrorism, it's important to bring all the efforts to bear to help the most affected countries, and these are in the central Sahel, particularly Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. And Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council. So, for that reason, it is a country with special responsibilities. But, Russia is also a country that is cooperating with many countries in Africa, but particularly those in the Sahel. So, the purpose of our visit is to commend the efforts that Russia is making to combat terrorism in the region. That cooperation with the countries of the region is very much valued because it's producing results.

But, at the same time, we need to tackle two other issues. One is humanitarian assistance, which is necessary. Russia is providing that assistance, but the magnitude, the size of the problem is such that more effort is necessary to alleviate the suffering of that population. And the second aspect is to think about the long-term outlook, because terrorism breeds on poverty, so it's necessary to tackle development. So, what we are doing is to encourage Russia to help these countries on their path to development. So that's making the most of the natural advantages these countries have, particularly starting with agriculture, which will bring food security and also create jobs among the youth.

Because the youth are also another challenge for the region. The youth are now more than half of the population of each of these countries, people under 35 years old. And there are no jobs, either for educated or non-educated youths. But agriculture can be one of the solutions to that. So, this is the agenda we came to discuss with the Russian authorities.

I had a meeting with Deputy [Foreign] Minister [Sergey] Vershinin on that and we agreed that this is the way to work together. We also agreed that we have to continue to support these countries so that there is more dialogue among the countries of the region, but also with the regional sub-regional organization, which is ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States - TASS). That dialogue is necessary to bring more stability among the countries concerned, so then they can concentrate their joint efforts on fighting the terrorists, but also on development.

- Speaking about those countries you have mentioned, over the past year we have seen real turmoil in ECOWAS. This organization was on the brink of making a military intervention in Niger, and then three member states decided to withdraw from the union. Do you foresee any consequences for economic integration and the common fight against terrorism due to this disorder in ECOWAS?

- ​​Well, I think that we can look at this in the right perspective. The life of institutions, like the life of individuals, has ups and downs. So when there are difficult moments, what we have to do is to help these countries or the organization to overcome those difficulties and proceed with its own path. Secondly, if some of the things have to be reviewed, it should be a consensus of the member states of this organization, because, well, we came a long way with this organization up to this level. Now we have new challenges, we have new realities, maybe demographic or economic and political. Which adjustments needed to be made within our organization so that we continue to be successful in managing the tasks facing us. I think that's what is needed. That's why I was talking about the need for dialogue, which will help to have a clear identification of the problems, of the challenges, on the one hand, but also to agree on how to tackle this. Because poverty is affecting everyone. Terrorism is directly or indirectly affecting everybody. Because, let’s say, we have one country that is affected by terrorism, but this country that is affected by terrorism has links, economic and social links, with other countries that are also impacted somehow by this problem.

So, terrorism doesn't end at the border of a single country. Its impact, consequences and effects are very significant for the public at large. So, how can we work together within our own organization so that we can tackle this? And I think this is doable. This can be done. What is needed is a bit of a calm tone. And we sit down, all parties consent, and they work together to find viable solutions.

- Do you believe that ECOWAS is capable of tackling, of fighting terrorism and overcoming this problem?

- Yes, because there are two initiatives here. One of the complaints of these countries of the Sahel was that they were not receiving assistance from ECOWAS to fight terrorism. But it's important to put this in the right perspective. In July of last year, at a summit of the ECOWAS [countries] in Bissau (capital of Guinea-Bissau - TASS), a decision was made to revive the ECOWAS Standby Force [ESF]. This military force will be deployed to assist these countries in fighting terrorism. It was in the beginning of July. By the end of July, there was the coup in Niger, which changed everything. But now the decision to revive [the ESF] has been resumed by ECOWAS. ECOWAS is now working on the practical aspects of reviving the Standby Force. So, they will come as practical support for these countries. The modalities are going to be discussed between ECOWAS and each one of the countries affected. Another important decision was made last year in December by the UN Security Council through Resolution 2917 to provide support to African Union-led efforts to fight terrorism. So, this means that through the African Union, support in fighting terrorism is going to be channeled through them to regional organizations and ultimately to each of the countries in need. So, that means that the convergence of these two sources of support, plus the bilateral arrangements each one of the countries have, will boost the capacity of the region to fight against terrorism.

- There have been coup after coup in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. But, what are the real reasons behind these regime changes by force of arms in Africa? Why is this happening? And do you anticipate any new uprising that couple topple yet another regime in the region in the near future?

- Well, it's not a single reason. There is a group of reasons. One of the reasons is poverty. There is widespread dissatisfaction in the population with the lack of economic and social progress. Very few countries can provide basic services to the entire population of the territory, like clean potable water, basic healthcare and education. With election after election, the situation is not changing. So, this creates not only dissatisfaction, but it also creates animosities between the populations and their governments.

And, that perception that the governments are not doing enough to solve the problems of the citizens. The citizens feel abandoned by the governments and that they are leading them into poverty. So, poverty is one of the root causes of this. And, poverty is also associated with the malfunctioning of institutions, the state institutions that were supposed to provide these goods and services. But, it's not happening.

And the third element is climate change also, which is shrinking some natural resources, in particular water. And water is key for that. And, therefore, shrinking water resources, and the lack of capacity by the government to provide in that area, also exacerbates conflict in communities. Conflict between communities, between those that have water and those communities that do not have water, so they go to other communities to obtain water. It creates conflict.

And, in order to protect their interests, communities are armed now because it's very easy to get weapons. But also you have herders that come with their animals. So, one part of the year they are in one place, another part of the year they go to another place in search of pasture as well as water. So, where water is scarce, there you also have conflict between farmers and herders. All of this together breeds the conditions for terrorism.

The solution, therefore, is to fight poverty. All of the conditions needed to fight poverty should come together, combined in each one of these countries, to improve the living conditions of the populations. Then terrorism will not have fertile ground to recruit people on that basis.

- By the way, those three countries are discussing the idea of creating a confederation. Is this possible and would it have any positive effect?

- ​​​​​Well, I will leave that to them because countries can combine their efforts in the way they think is fit for their purposes. They can combine their efforts to fight terrorism and stop that. They can have more economic cooperation and they can have other political arrangements among them. So we leave that to them, to the countries concerned, their people, their governments to take what [they believe] is a better way to address the challenges they have.

- And, the Russian government also adheres to the principle that African problems require African solutions. So, this means that non-regional countries should not interfere in the affairs of the region. And do you believe that the other countries of the world, especially in the West, are interested in upholding this principle, this policy, as well?

- ​​​​​​I think the world is in a sort of transition. The old colonial model is not functioning anymore. It is being denounced as being one of the root causes of poverty in Africa. This is the perception of the younger generation of Africans because they have more access to information. They understand better the economic relations between their countries and the countries of the North. And they see these as unfair relations, which are necessary to correct. But for us, the best way to do so is through dialogue. It's necessary to recognize that these economic relations are unfair. So, instead of addressing the problems of poverty, they are making this poverty more serious. Which in turn also leads to migration, illegal migration into the countries of Europe. There is a relationship. And the way to stop it is not by police or by other means. No, you're not going to stop it that way. The best way to address it successfully is through development. With development, people will stay at home. They will work at home. They will educate themselves at home. They can go to other countries as tourists, but people prefer to be at home with their families. Migration is just the last resort that you take. Because you don't know what is going to happen. You could perish on the ocean. So you know the risk is very high. So, the solution for all this is once again development.

- And, some people believe that West Africa and the Sahel have become not only a safe haven for terrorism, but also a battlefield for the great powers. Do you share this point of view, and will it be possible to change this situation at some point?

- ​​​​​​Well, as I said, we are in a changing world. So we have to recognize that Africans, African countries, they feel that they need to bring in other partners for their development. But, for me, you can bring in new partners, it's your choice to bring them in, but it's important also that you preserve all the [existing] partnerships and to change with them where it's necessary to change. The idea that you have a new friend but you [must] chase away the old one, maybe it's not such a good one in the long run. What is important is, okay, we have a lot of things in common that happened in the past, but also there are areas which need our attention because we need to change. Then you sit down in an open and frank dialogue. Sometimes it is not an easy dialogue, but it's a dialogue that is necessary until you reach common ground.

But you have to do that as a sovereign state, enjoying your rights to interact with other countries within the spirit also of the UN Charter. That's what you need.

- Some countries in the region rely on Russia's help in  measures for fighting terrorism. I mean, this includes  military supplies, sending military instructors in order to train local armies, and sharing best practices and expertise. And what role, in your opinion, does Russia play in the region’s security?

- Overall it is positive, but how Russia relates to each one of the countries is a matter of the [respective] bilateral relationship. So, as the UN we don't interfere in that. But, we recognize the capacity of a country to build partnerships where they think fit for fighting terrorism. And what we want to see are two things. First, that terrorism becomes less and less of a danger for the region. And, secondly, that the fight against terrorism is conducted with respect for the rights of the citizens, so the human rights aspects of fighting terrorism are also paramount. Because we want to see a region that is peaceful, that is stable, so that development can take place.

- How do you assess Russia’s supplies of free wheat to Mali, Burkina Faso and other African countries as a means of resolving the food security crisis in the region? Is it enough? As you probably know, the European Union has blocked Russian ships with fertilizers, grain and so on. Are you seeing any detrimental effects from these measures?

- Well, as I said, humanitarian assistance is one of the most important interventions that is needed in West Africa, particularly in the Sahel. And so we appreciate very much the humanitarian assistance Russia is providing to the region, but it's not enough. The magnitude of the problem is such that more and more humanitarian assistance is necessary. It saves lives. It saves lives. But, at the same time, we have to look at the long term through efforts for development also. So, we have to look at these two sides, as well as at the same time increase humanitarian assistance, but also [boost] certain efforts for long-term development.

- But, what are the problems? Is it the conflict between Russia and the West, or maybe there are some different reasons that are preventing full-fledged support for Africa?

- Well, I think this is a sort of temporary problem, but with time and patience and dialogue people will come to understand that there is enough space for everybody: for Russia, for Western countries, for Asia, for everyone. And Africans, as far as I understand their mood, they are not leaning toward exclusive relationships. They sought this diversification of relationships because they see this as an option to try efforts at development that didn't happen in the past. After independence, after 60 years of independence, this development is not coming. So, they are trying to find new ways, new avenues, explore new avenues towards economic development. That's what they are looking for.

- Do you personally support the call to reform the UN and enlarge the number of permanent Security Council members? So, the Russian government is insisting that we need to include countries from the Global South on it.

- Yes, this is the Secretary-General's effort, on two aspects. One is the need to reform the UN security system and they present all the arguments that this arrangement was adopted in 1945 and after all these years the situation in the world has changed demographically, economically, politically, with the new membership. So the reasons that led to the current arrangement have been overcome by events, by the times. So it's natural to adjust. And to have Africa [represented on the Security Council], it's a must. It's a necessity. So that Africa, as a permanent member of the Security Council, like others, can have a voice in that. So, that’s what we’re talking about.

There is also a look at the financial aspects, and the necessity of reforming the international financial institutions, in particular the Bretton Woods institutions, to tackle the issues of making available financial means for development, financial development in Africa on the one hand, but also to tackle the issue of debt as well, which is another factor that is suffocating Africa’s development.

And, in September, there will be the Summit of the Future. So we hope that this summit will adopt decisions that will lead to a better world, a more equitable world, which will create also a more peaceful way because debates will be different. But I think it's not as important to adopt resolutions than it is to also create  instruments for implementing the decisions to be adopted during the summit. I have this hope that we can all combine our efforts, now North, South, East, West, combine our efforts to build a better world for all.

- And the very last question. What's your personal attitude towards the BRICS enlargement? It has doubled the number of member countries, which is significant. There are 10 now and it seems many more to come, and some countries in the region might seek to join this group. We wonder whether it is having any positive impact.

- Well, about the BRICS, I know the general aspects, but I think a lot of work is still in progress to establish the rules and procedures and refine maybe the objectives in that regard. What is my hope is that BRICS can be an additional source for the financing of development for Africa, in particular for West Africa and the Sahel. And, if this is the case, I think the developments taking place are welcome indeed.

- Thank you very much.

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Local Glob: UN Secretary-General's special envoy: water shortages create breeding ground for terrorism
UN Secretary-General's special envoy: water shortages create breeding ground for terrorism
Local Glob
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