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Interview with UN Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced on 27 May the appointment of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as his Special Representative for Iraq for a period of four months.

Prior to his appointment as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in September 2002, Vieira de Mello served as the UN Transitional Administrator in East Timor. During the weekend of 12 and 13 July, he oversaw the establishment of Iraq's first post-Saddam central authority.

In an interview with IRIN he spoke of the unique situation of the UN in Iraq and outlined the many challenges ahead.

QUESTION: Iraq's Governing Council has finally met here in Baghdad. How significant a step do you believe this is for Iraq?

de Mello: Well you heard me say a while ago that there are defining moments in history, and in my opinion in the history of Iraq this is one of those moments. Why? You heard me say that this is a unique situation for the Special Representative of the Secretary-General to have been appointed to a country that is a founding member of the organisation, but that is currently without a government and occupied by two other founding members of the organisation that also happen to be Permanent Members of the Security Council. This is bizarre, hence the importance of achieving what resolution 1483 calls for - which is an Iraqi interim administration as a first step towards an internationally recognised and representative government of Iraq, that will assume fully the sovereignty of this country. Now it is not for me to decide whether the General Council is the Iraqi Interim Administration, but I certainly see this as the first embodiment of an Iraqi executive authority which will fill this power vacuum that was making our work here extremely difficult in the absence of an Iraqi counterpart

Q: You were closely involved with this. What exactly was your role in helping to put the new council together?

de Mello: Our role was to understand what the Iraqis expected from us. What they expected from us were two things. One, to help them convey a clear message to the coalition, particularly to Ambassadors Bremer and Sawers who were very receptive I must say - their aspiration that the council, whatever its name might be, would assume strong executive prerogative; and number two, that the United Nations would play a central role in the political and in the constitutional transition. And that is what we have tried to do with, I dare say, some success judging by today's [Sunday's] event.

Q: The UN Resolution 1483 says the interim body should be formed by the people of Iraq with the help of the authority and working with the Special Representative. I have heard critics saying there should have been more meetings of ordinary people - and complaints that Iraqi exiles have been allowed to dominate. Do you think ordinary Iraqis who remained here have been involved enough?

de Mello: I can answer for myself and I have met with a broad section of Iraqis belonging to, what may be premature to call, a civil society, but still - professional groups - lawyers, journalists, doctors, professors, artists in addition to political and spiritual figures, and I believe that this governing council has been established with as much regard to the Iraqi civil society as was possible in the circumstances. Number two: the reason why Ambassador Bremer changed the strategy midstream was precisely to help Iraqis form the Council that would be balanced in terms of internal and external representation. I hate the expression 'ethnic group' - but representation of different communities that form the Iraqi nation - religious and non-religious schools of thought and gender - even though admittedly three is too little, it is a beginning.

Q: The Americans are often perceived as unapproachable - do you see the UN's role as helping to bridge the divide between the coalition and the people? And do you feel Iraqis can really see the difference between the United Nations and the coalition.

de Mello: To the second question the answer is obviously yes - I think we must be honest to ourselves and recognise there exists in the minds of many Iraqis, mixed feelings about the record of the United Nations here and you can't expect them to make these fine distinctions between mandates given to the Secretary-General by the Security Council and the role of the Secretariat per se. They lump this all together as any public opinion would do - but they see clearly in the United Nations an independent and impartial player that is the only source of international legitimacy. Hence the importance they attach to Resolution 1483, even though some complain that that resolution legitimised the occupation of Iraq. Hence the fact they invited me to speak this afternoon after the proclaimed creation of the Governing Council, presumably because they felt that was the only international voice required on that occasion. Now as to our role - I would not describe it quite the way you did - what we have tried to do and will continue to do is to convey to the coalition and try to influence their thinking, based on what we gather as the aspirations of the Iraqi people. And I repeat, Ambassadors Bremer and Sawers have been quite open to that.

Q: Do you think you have more access to the Iraqi people being United Nations?

de Mello: I don't know if we have more access, but I believe they feel comfortable with us, they come here, they are in and out of this building. Sometimes we have to try to manage that because there are all kinds of visitors here, who are all welcome, needless to say, because this is their house, but who turn up unexpectedly without an appointment and want to see us and want to talk to us and express their frustrations, hopes etc. This is excellent, that is what we are here for. And we then try to convey the gist of what we gather from all those contacts foreseen and unforeseen to the coalition, and we do the same in the provinces. Some religious leaders, such as Grand Ayatollah Sistani and also Samahat Sayyid al-Hakkim in Najaf, received us without any difficulty, whereas they may not be the same with others. So it all boils down to what I said earlier. We are seen to be independent, we are seen to be here to support them and achieve full self-government, that is full sovereignty, as soon as is possible.

Q: The Council will have the power to appoint ministers and approve the national budget and work with the Coalition on policies. But it is not clear if it can bring in new laws, for example, and Ambassador Bremmer retains the power of veto. Do you think the Council has been given enough power to do the job it needs to?

de Mello: Look, as compared to what we heard on arrival on 2 June what you saw today outlining the powers and prerogatives of the Governing Council, it's like night and day. Secondly, you also heard some of them this afternoon say that this is unfinished business. I'm speaking of definition of their authority. It will increase over time because I am convinced it is in the interest of the Coalition to share as much power as authority - more than share, delegate as much authority and power to exercise it to the council as is possible. And this is an evolutionary process - it's an incremental one. Whether the council will have legislative authority remains to be seen, I believe it will, because the only way of defining policies and of restoring law and order in a society is through legislation. Now even though they may not have legislative powers in a democratic sense, they are not elected, there may be a need to issue interim laws. You know in East Timor, we did not have this, apart from a Security Council resolution and we called them regulations, which at a later stage when a parliament, a legislature, is elected, will have to be either endorsed, confirmed, amended or appealed. My guess, although we haven't reached that stage yet, my guess is yes, you need laws to run the country.

Q: The Americans were talking about a two-year plan to set up the council, appoint an advisory council on the constitution, draw it up, have a referendum and then have elections. Given your experience what will the United Nations' part be in all this - and do you think it is a realistic timetable?

de Mello: I won't talk about a timetable, except to say a clear calendar is necessary and Ambassador Bremer and Ambassador Sawers have recognised that themselves, because the Iraqis need to feel that this transition is finite. How long that transition will last, I am not prepared to predict. What I know is that the United Nations is prepared, and I have said this to all Iraqis in the Governing Council as well as to other spiritual leaders and representatives of civil society that are not in Council, as I told the Coalition - the United Nations is prepared to help them implement and achieve whatever calendar and deadlines they will determine. And if the Governing Council decides to establish a constitutional commission that will then make proposals to it as to what constitutional and electoral timetable should be, we are available to help them implement such a timetable. And I've also announced that a mission from the Electoral Assistance Division of our headquarters in New York will be coming to Baghdad later this month and will be available to advise the Governing Council on different options to achieve the ultimate goal which will be democratic, free and fair elections, and obviously the timetable will depend on the options they will choose.

Q: Do you think the council will help improve the security situation - is the unrest linked with Iraqis feeling they are not ruling themselves?

de Mello: I think it is a factor, so the mere creation of this Governing Council should send the message of confidence to the Iraqi people that they are retaking the reins of their destiny into their own hands. And secondly, it is also clear in the outline of their prerogative that the question of security, of police, of the new Iraqi army are within their remit. So they will be expected to play an active role in securing security fully in Iraq.

Q: Are you satisfied with the speed of progress? You are half way into your term of office now.

de Mello: The United Nations is here for the long haul - I am here for four months because I have another full-time job in Geneva that needs some attention, but I will be replaced, there will be continuity here.

Q: You are going to report to the Security Council in less than two weeks - what will be the main thrust of your report? Are there particular areas you want to concentrate on?

de Mello: The thrust will be the establishment of the Governing Council. Number two, as I told you, that depending on the wishes and choices of Iraqis, particularly the Governing Council, the United Nations should be ready to help them all the way, in whatever way we can, to organise the electoral process and to support the elaboration of a new constitution of Iraq. Number three, that we should be available to assist all the new interim ministers, sector by sector, as the United Nations normally does through technical assistance, not least to bridge this huge gap that has been caused by the isolation and exclusion of Iraq. It is a knowledge gap. Help them update themselves with progress made, scientific, technological, managerial. Help them in making broad macro-economic financial and monetary decisions and help them restore, as it were, the civil administration capacity sector by sector. In addition to that, we can also clearly play a role in the actual physical reconstruction of the country's infrastructure. But this will obviously very much depend on the outcome of the donor conference in October which we are actively preparing. And I should not forget, last but not least, all those initiatives that we can take very soon in the area of the promotion of human rights and true culture of democracy. One of those initiatives will be in the media sector, but also in a number of other areas related to human rights, to accountability for past crimes and the creation of a new justice system in Iraq, as well as the promotion of entire range of rights of Iraqi women. So that's a huge agenda, but there is no lack of commitment and determination on our part to achieve that.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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